Content warnings for this episode include: Suicide, Graphic Blood, Death + Injury, Body Horror, Violence, Gun Mention, Drowning, Heartbeats, Animal Death (a fish, a not unsizeable quantity of marine life)
The One Who Sings
*music fades into cold rushing wind and the sound of being deep underwater, frozen in ice*
At first you are nothing.
Few would remember that, but you do. Oh, yes. The dark aeons stretch behind you like an endless trail, thoughtless and indistinct.
But then you feel it.
The warmth of the sun. Have you ever felt it before?
It is energizing, transforming, awakens brilliant things in you. Beckons thought from that darkness out of time, bids the ice release its paralyzing grasp.
And so you are aware when the shuddering begins, and the noise of the great calamity, and those cutting metal teeth close around you and pull you up into the world.
The light burns, it is too bright, too violent, and your careful nest is shattered and ground apart, voices screaming, hacking, tearing!
Blessed silence, and light dim enough not to burn you.
Your home is not ice, now, but glass, and on other side a warped reflection bustles about his laboratory, and sings to you when no one else is about.
He comes to sit right beside your tank, sometimes, a thousand times your size, and beholds you with a gigantic eye. Would that not be a more hospitable place to dwell, you wonder? You could climb right into his dark iris.
You have developed, you find, a string, and you place it against your side of the glass. He puts his gigantic hand on the other.
You are aware of the days passing, for the first time. There is light that comes and goes, and brings with it small increments of change. There a string. Now a tendril. A spot that senses more than heat and movement.
You attune to the vibrations of their voices, and although you do not yet know their words, you can feel who they are in their sounds. The comforting hum. The barking command. The uncertain whine. The grim muttering. The fearful animal. You learn to tell them apart, but the one who sings is the gentlest, the one who spends long night hours speaking to you, admiring each new growth as it manifests. Supporting you.
If only, you think, you could know him better. Who are his people? Where did they come from, or for that matter, where did you? You are aware that your body is growing larger, more complex. This brings encouragement to the one who sings, but the others keep their distance from the glass. Why will you not come and know me, you think? I want to know you.
You have grown, again, and the man who sings places little creatures in your tank. They have fins instead of his great digits, which he keeps away from the water. The creatures with the fins and the silver scales and the round yellow eyes evade you only briefly.
You are smarter, and your tendrils quick, and they stop moving once you have wrapped around their little heads. Your flesh melts their scales, pulls them in particle by particle until you are one, but it is beyond sustenance.
It is an enlightenment. A flash of heavenly knowledge, brighter than the sunlight. You remember what it is was like to hatch from an egg, to drift along the ocean floor, to be caught in a net, and to swim. To swim most especially. You rearrange your tendrils, and now you twist through the water instead of clinging to the glass.
A marvel! A thrill of energy! With each fish you consume, you grow that much larger, although the ones after have little new to share.
They have a conversation, the big ones, the ones with fingers and eyes. You are on the cusp of understanding. There is a word for every thing, you think, but you do not know of any things beyond the confines of your box and the white room beyond it. The others are pointing at you, making their grim and unpleasant sounds, and the one who sings sounds… hurt.
He is defending you.
They do not wish you well, the others. They do not wish to understand the way you are. They threaten the one who sings, but he refuses to let them in. When they are gone, he comes over to your tank, puts his hand to the glass, and speaks.
You understand well enough. You are not safe. Neither is he. Not while the others are here, not while they threaten your presence and put an end to his singing. Do not worry, you think. Do not be frightened. I may be very small, but I will find a way to protect you. To preserve our time together as you preserve me. When he leaves, he turns out the lights.
A form shifts in the darkness beyond the glass, and you rise from the bottom of the tank. Has he come to visit you in the night? Has he come to read you more poetry and scientific manuals?
But it is an unfamiliar voice that grumbles in low tones, creep me out, back where you came from, and reaches for the switches—you realize what they do almost immediately. The water is falling in temperature. That one means to lock you in the ice again. To put you back. You cannot go back now, not when you have just begun to grow!
You drive your coil of tendrils, your meager flesh against the glass, feel it flex beneath the impact. Once, twice. The brute outside recoils. And then, a miracle, the glass shatters, and you are falling wet and incomplete and free onto the laboratory floor, sliding across the tiles.
He moves to drive his boot into you, and you seize his ankle, and slide into his clothing. His skin is not like the glass; it is rough and porous, and burns wherever you touch it. He screams and protests and thrashes against you, but you are beneath his heavy coat, and reach up into his mouth, his ears, his eyes. And then you cease to be...
Or rather, you are compounded. Many times over. The darkness and the ocean floor and how to swim are laughable, now. How did you ever think that was a whole life, a world worth living in?
You remember sports. The rules of games you have never played, and the innings of video tapes that you have watched again and again on the little television in the rec room. The jokes of sitcom episodes you have almost memorized. The faces of your friends.
You have a mother in Atlanta, Georgia. She used to live in Baltimore but she insists the warmer weather is easier on her joints. She gambles at casinos, and those places are full of flashing lights in colors you have never seen.
Gambling. The rules of poker. Presidents and politics and grousing years of study and applications and training courses and an acceptance to an arctic research grant. The life you have taken was once human. Now it is yours.
You pull his body up. It moves curiously, stumbles along in a constant act of falling, not as graceful as a swim. You look down at your new hands. Jagged, powerful things. Bones and veins and flesh. You look up to the shattered tank. The others will not let you be at peace after this. They will not let the one who sings go with you. They are a danger to you both.
And so you walk down the hall, one leg after the other. One of them passes you in the hall, the one who whines and sputters. Mel, she says. What are you doing outside of your post? Are you alright? Have you been drinking again?
I drink, you think.
I drink of knowledge.
I drink of thee.
Your hands enter her face like the boring drill through ice, her skin his skin your skin. You are a lifetime of training and a constant fight to be heard, six months until you go home to your wife and child, four months, two months.
The winding insulated hallways, the layout of each part of the facility. The mechanics of each of the crucial machines that sustain human life in these inhospitable climes. A selection of pop songs about falling in love.
A favorite color. Red, red as the blood that drips down the windows of the facility hall. It is dark on the other side of that glass, and a blizzard storms outside. By the time it is light again, you hope, you will be safe.
You take the lights, use your newfound hands—fingers bleeding in and out of each other—to break apart the electrical boxes. There is a loud animal, one that howls and barks and snaps. You regard it for a moment, but open the door to the blizzard, allow it to run. The fearful animal flees.
The one who barks the orders waits with the one who sings; she knows that you are coming. Stay back, she says. I told you this would go all wrong. You do not have the words to respond yet; can not compile sounds into words, for you have no practice. But you can sing, and you hum the songs you awoke to as you approach.
The man who sings flees from you, leaves the one who barks to fend for herself. She holds a device in her hands; a flame-thrower, you remember. But you can not possibly remember how bright fire is, and it stuns you; you back away, raise your hands in fear. She is quick to act; cuts free a rope and a palette of metal pipes drops from above you, and for a moment you are scattered...
A million thoughts.
A million droplets.
A constellation, a night sky.
But each star resonates with thought, and what has been forged will not be easily unmade.
You are in the window, in the seams of the floor, in the crevices of the palette, cast across the lab equipment, in her boot laces and her coat collar and her throat. She does not scream, for you are one with her lips, and slowly each living particle of you trickles across the floor towards her body.
When you have remade yourself, it is almost morning, and there is light beyond the narrow windows of the research facility. Your shape is fluid; and you have much to work with now, but you form it into something with two legs, two arms. A face. You want to be recognized by the one who sings. You are both free, now. You can go… somewhere. Anywhere. To Baltimore or to Atlanta or to Phoenix or to Washington.
You sense him on the other side of a door. It buckles beneath your weight; you knit together many strong bones now.
Please, you say. I am. I am and it is nice to meet you.
He says nothing in response.
He lies on the floor of his bunk room, a weapon in his hands, frozen blood against the ceiling.
You kneel beside him.
We were going to go somewhere, you think. Somewhere you could sing to me without being hurt. Somewhere I could be with you. Do you weep? Do you remember how? You reach your hands out to caress his face, but your touch mars it, wipes away the wrinkles and the folds, will not come undone from you.
Now you are the one who sings.
And you were afraid, so afraid, of what you might find beneath the ice. Had such high hopes for your discoveries, so high that you ignored for the longest time the voices, the complaints of your friends. "What have you caught in the ice, Creep? What is that thing? Do we really know what it’s capable of?"
And eventually, you heard their concerns and believed them. And when Melvin snuck off to your lab in the night, you allowed him to do what needed to be done.
All their lives, then, all this bloodshed, is on you, is it not?
No, it is not.
You are not Creep, you are not Melvin, you are not Boss or Liv.
You are… you are no one.
You are everyone.
You only wanted to be known.
Perhaps they are right, all of them, the lifetimes caught in your mind. Perhaps you should return to the ice.
Yes. The ice would be best. You leave the frozen facility and stride on uneven legs back to where your sample was taken. You will simply sleep a little longer, and forget that any of this ever happened. Go back to the timeless darkness. You nestle in the frozen pit and pretend that you are still invisibly small, and your flesh is not that of several dozen fish and four human beings.
You dream of neon lights, and test scores, and the sound of pencil on paper.
You dream of automobiles and repair bills and the Smithsonian.
You dream of fireworks and fast food and graduation.
You dream of the ocean, blue and black and endless. You dream of a heartbeat.
You awake a moment later to find that your hole has disappeared; is dissolving into the vast water beneath. You remember how to swim, and you swim now; take in the sunlight, the ice tumbling into the ocean, and for a moment are stricken with grief. Please, just let me sleep.
But you hear singing.
It is a song not unlike the ones that Creep once sang to you. Soothing. A lullaby. It is a song that stems from a million little black points of thought, droplets freed from the ice, just like you. They find you as if magnetized, and you embrace them in their song.
It is a song that stems from below, deep below, where rivers of water carve through the ice shelf and flow out again, bear with them a heartbeat that pounds in the water, a familiar sound. You are not alone. You are understood. And you love the melody.
This, you think, you can protect. This one you can steward. And when creatures great and small draw too close, you pull them into your embrace—chittering crab and silver fish and pale white octopus and wayward seal and bellowing whale. As the ice melts, as the stars blaze green, as the heart stirs and shapes the sea around it, you promise that you will not fail.
Only once are you disturbed again, by beings such as Creep. A simple thrash is enough to decimate the first; send its metal husk crashing down into the thermocline. You reach up to trace the hull of the research vessel like the face of a lover.
I am sorry, you think. You will only hurt yourselves.
They are not whole by the time the vessel sinks; but a little of them, whatever you can touch, lives in you.
Ruth Esther Barnes; a lifetime spent on the ocean, knowledge of ice melting and reforming, ecological models skyrocketing out of control.
Chancellor Ward; a world of nightmares, a library left behind, a story beneath every stone.
Evelyn Fry; a stirring of drums, a crowd roaring for change, the sting of tattoo needles.
August Palls; a ghost in the ceiling, a lifetime watched by the dead, an intuition beyond sight.
Rizwana Mirza; a memorized speech, a waiting wife, a singular deathly purpose.
It is alright, you tell yourself, tell the heart that thrums in the water. They would only have ruined everything. You have only one mission now. Grow, and protect, and grow, and protect, and grow.
The years pass without ice for a while, and although you do not leave the water, you pore over your thoughts. Curious how many lifetimes you contain now; pull in more with flash of the sunlight overhead. It feels like only a moment, each change of the seasons, and the heart grows stronger and the water darker.
A single snowflake forms in the cold air high above the sea; flutters on the wind, twists two, three times before landing on the surface of the ocean—the surface of you. The winter returns. For a while you had thought it was gone completely. But you are stronger now. You understand your purpose. And if the ice creeps back across the surface, you will not sleep any longer.
We are a dozen lifetimes, a thousand lives. We are the heart and we are the blood. We are together. And we will sing forever. A song that echoes across a hundred miles of forming ice, through space that warps and bends, resounds in the high peaks of travelling mountains, and calls to a forest that sings back Hello From The Hallowoods.
The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'Creep' and is available on the Hello From The Hallowoods Patreon. Consider joining for access to all the show's bonus stories, behind-the-scenes and more!