By William Cohen-Kiraly, © March 2018
Prompt: You (or your character) stand in front of a mirror engaged in the daily grooming ritual. Your reflection reveals something unexpected and snatches your attention. Today will no longer be a routine, predictable day.
“You look goofy,” Aieai-eei told me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The droopy starfish painted something on you. They painted a big black mark on your forehead.” she said, tossing her head in laughter.
I swam over to the place we could see ourselves and looked at myself, turning my head this way and that. Sure enough, there was a black mark painted on my forehead. They must have done it when they had me out of the water and in that weird haze they can make us feel.
Our whole home was surrounded by hard water but most of it was clear and we could see the pods and pods of starfish that came to see us. But this was a special place where the hard water was dark and shiny and we could see ourselves clearly. We could also dimly see the starfish on the other side. The way they looked at us through the hard water, I think they could see us too.
* * *
I sat in the observation boot with Liam Novotny. We’d been in grad school together at Miami, getting our doctorates a year apart. We had been arguing almost since the first minute we met.
“It’s not going to work,” Liam said. “I’ve seen this little trick before and it didn’t impress me the first ten times. I can prove scientifically that dolphins cannot be smart enough to be be self-aware. Painting a dot on its forehead won’t prove anything. You’re just projecting.”
“Yeah, I know, you’ve pulled their brains apart and counted the neurons, Liam” I said, “but you can’t tell how smart something is by counting bumps on their head. This is a long-accepted way of determining whether an animal has self-awareness. If it sees itself in a mirror and starts wondering about the mark we add, it recognizes itself in the mirror.”
“Sorry, but it’s bullshit, Jessie. I don’t think any animal without hands and language is self-aware, that’s a human quality only, maybe chimps and apes but not these glorified fish.”
“You’re such an idiot, Liam. Just watch.”
* * *
They were watching me intently. One droopy starfish with the long seaweed growing from its head, moved close to its side of the hard water and I could hear it’s droning words in the water. They talk like calves, one word at a time and no song. I think they have a rudimentary language though. Its funny flat mouth made the weird shapes they always did and it reached up one of its fins to stroke the hard water near my face. What an odd gesture.
I responded loudly in my own language and the starfish moved back from the hard water quickly, apparently surprised at my response. They started droning excitedly together as I swam away.
Aieai-eei laughed. “Careful young Eia-clickclick-ina, you will become the ‘Singer of Starfish.’”
“And why not Eia-clickclick-ina.” said Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai. “She could be the Singer. God knows we’ve waited long enough for someone to reach out to the droopy starfish.” said Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai. “We need someone to tell them to stop destroying our world.”
“Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai, you young fool,” growled old Aaaa-eaea-a-whistle-a, the ancient male. “Why not Eia-clickclick-ina? Because she’s a calf and a prisoner here with the rest of us in the world of the starfish. The Singer will be a great elder, a beautiful streamlined male who can leap out of the water into the starfish world then dive deep back into our world under water. He will be…”
“Hush, old man,” said Eeee-aaea-eeii. “We’ve heard your stories over and over again. yes, you lived in the wild, yes, you were the Shaper of bait balls. You froze in the Northern Seas and escaped the sharks in the Southern Waters. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Just because you are a male doesn’t mean you know everything.”
“Do not insult the patriarchs! I know the stories of our people, Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai.” said Aaaa-eaea-a-whistle-a. “I know the great prophecy. The Singer will not be a female calf born in captivity. What use would that be to bring our peoples together?”
I had heard the debate before and it bored me. I continued around the tank, dropping and rising as I swam, thinking and thinking. Why not me? I asked myself. The males always thought they knew everything, Aaaa-eaea-a-whistle-a kept telling the same stories over and over again, the great crossing he did across the cold seas, the great bait balls he knew as a child which have now dwindled year after year. He told us the story of how a jealous God had changed one of us into a droopy starfish as punishment for disobedience and how she founded this strange race of beings who lived out of water but looked like droopy starfish.
It gave me the creeps when he described the transformation, how her tail grew longer and split into two weird starfish limbs, how her face flattened into the ridiculously useless, flat, ugly face that these creatures had, how her flippers elongated and grew their own little flippers and how seaweed grew out of the tops of her head. I asked him how they could breath and he described how her blow hole moved from the top of her head into that weird bumpy thing below their eyes.
I still shiver a little every time I think about this, wondering what it must be like to breathe through that funny hole and have seaweed growing out of my skin. Of course I have never really seen seaweed even growing from the ground, I only know the stories from my fellow captives in this little sea surrounded by hard water.
Why not me? I asked myself again. In some ways, I am more comfortable with these strange creatures than my own kind. They raised me when I was little, they feed me every day, they teach me fun games and give me more fish to eat every time I play.
I can look in their eyes and I see something there, some kind of intelligence even beyond their ability to make little seas like the one they built for us and the big floating rocks that Aaaa-eaea-a-whistle-a describes.
I can tell individuals apart when they drone at us and sometimes even by looking at them though their skin below their faces keeps changing color and shape, it is hard to keep track until they make their strange noises.
I was swimming around our sea again for the third time. Why did they paint me? I wondered. Maybe they were marking me. Maybe they were choosing ME to be the Singer of Starfish.
Maybe they wanted to talk to us as much as we wanted to talk to them!
It was a thrilling idea! I was so shocked at this thought that I almost swam into Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai.
“Be careful, little one” she said to me.
I was so excited, I swam to the surface and jumped for joy into the air. I heard loud droning from the starfish as I breached and fell back in.
“Whoa, Eia-clickclick-ina. What’s got you all excited?” asked Aieai-eei, the motherly elder female of our little group.
“What if they want to talk to me?” I asked, swimming excitedly around her. “What if they painted me because they chose me to be the Singer? What if that one who painted me is their ‘Singer of Dolphins?’”
“My dear,” said Aieai-eei, “I think that is reading a lot into the starfish putting a mark on your forehead.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but what if? What do I have to lose?”
So from that day forward, I tried to talk to the starfish. Most of them ignored me or tried to give me more fish—which I didn’t mind at all—but there was one, I think it was the one who reached up to touch the hard water with her weird fin who seemed to be trying to understand. It was smaller than most so I decided it must be a female. I named her E-click-Ea-click like the dolphin that God changed to a starfish.
“Hello” I said to her in my language every time I saw her. And she always droned back a sound to me like she was trying to say ‘hello’ too. And I listened very carefully and it sounded like it started with the same sound every time.
“EEEoooo”, I said to her one morning. It doesn’t mean anything in our language but it was what she kept saying to me and it must have been close enough in her language. She didn’t respond for a long time but her eyes looked funny as she just stood their looking at me. When she finally responded, it was with her version of the same word
* * *
At first I thought it was a joke, someone was playing a trick on me or maybe just a stupid coincidence, little Ellie was just making a noise like me. Then she did it again and I swear she was looking straight at me. I couldn’t believe it.
Wait until Liam sees this. He’s going to have to throw out his screwed up ideas.
* * *
Later she brought more starfish to see me and she said her strange word and flapped one of her upper fins at me. “EEEoooo” I said back and they got all agitated and droned at each other.
Aieai-eei popped her head up next to me, watching the starfish.
“What did you say to them, Singer, that got them all excited?” I knew she was making fun of me but I felt proud of myself anyway.
“Say ‘EEEoooo’ to them. I think it is their word for “hello” I said. “They talk like babies with single words, they don’t sing.”
Aieai-eei said “EEEEooo” and they all started flapping their fins together and they got even more excited. Everybody in the tank came up and tried it except Aaaa-eaea-a-whistle-a, who would have nothing to do with trying to talk to the starfish.
They gave us fish but I dropped mine. I wanted to make them understand this was more than jumping through hoops for them. Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai promptly ate my fish that I hoped I could save for later.
This same starfish kept coming back every evening and every day we didn’t have to do our games jumping through hoops for fish. I got to recognize the funny shape of her face and the curly seaweed on her head. Another droopy starfish sometimes came with her to visit us. I had to try hard not to laugh. This one had seaweed growing around his mouth and under that weird thing they breathe through. I’m not sure but he might be the one I saw on the day they painted my forehead.
Sometimes we just swam around together. God must have been pretty angry when he made dolphins into starfish because they were slow and clumsy under water and had to wear big fins on their bottom limbs. But it occurred to me one day that I was even more clumsy in their world of air and I wondered if maybe God hadn’t been so mad at them after all, just practical.
As I spent time with her, I grew fascinated by how they could use those little flippers on their pectoral fins. Everything I wanted to carry, I had to put in my mouth. But the starfish could hold things with their long, ungainly pectoral fins and still use their mouth to drone or make funny shapes. It was unbelievable the things my Dolphin Singer could do with these fins and their little flippers. Maybe they were weak and ungainly but these flippers were almost magical in what they do with little things and even big things.
But learning their language was something else. I could hear and start understanding some of her calf-like words. I soon realized that funny mouth could do things almost as amazing and the weird little flippers. She could only make low sounds and couldn’t sing and change pitch to make words and sentences. Instead that funny mouth could only speak in very low tones but within that limited range, they could make more kinds of sounds than I could. It also became apparent to me that they couldn’t even hear most of the sounds I made so she could never learn our language. I had a really hard time all of the unique sounds she made. I could hear the difference sometimes but I couldn’t keep track in my mind of all the changes and certainly, I could never imitate them. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t shape those sounds like those with my mouth.
It was very slow going. I learned a few of her words, some I could even say or at least translate to my language. For instance her name was Click-Ess-eh-Click-Ah. I wonder if I mangled it as bad as she mangled the low parts of my name.
It took a long time but I realized they sometimes talk with their fins and flippers too. When it is bent and the knob of little flippers is touching her, it means ‘me’. When it points away from her body, it means ‘you’ or ‘out’.
The females sometimes joined me when the Singer of Dolphins was with me. They couldn’t see what I saw or hear what I heard, at least not all the time, but they were willing to try, at least until they got bored.
But Aaaa-eaea-a-whistle-a grew increasing surly and mean. Sometimes he would come up and bump me when I tried to talk to their Singer. Sometimes he would chase me around the tank, biting me and calling me a stupid little calf but he was old and slow and usually couldn’t catch me.
There was one day, thought he really scared me. He came to me after their Singer left and growled at me “I forbid you to keep up this silly game. I am the male here and I forbid you. You will stop pretending you are the Singer of Starfish and act like a proper young female.”
“I will do no such thing!” I replied angrily back to him. “I am the Singer. We have already started talking more than ever before.”
“You little demon. If you do this again, I WILL kill you. It is forbidden. I will not let our God be mocked like this.”
I was taken aback. Aaaa-eaea-a-whistle-a had never seemed all that religious to me. None of us in the Starfish world were that I knew of. My mother and father weren’t. Aieai-eei wasn’t., Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai and Eeee-aaea-eeii had both grown up in the real world, not the starfish world, and were believers but they didn’t threaten me like that. It’s a male thing I guess.
* * *
What the hell has gotten into Nigel? He was the old male, maybe 35 years old, who’d lived in the wild for the first 20 years of his life. We brought him in after the previous male died and until now, he seemed to take naturally to the patriarch’s role. But now he was acting crazy, chasing Ellie around the tank, biting at her, pushing her around whenever he could. I had to get him out of there.
Liam and I grabbed the net. It took us over an hour to finally catch him. He seemed wild and upset and he fought hard to avoid us, even biting Liam’s hand and my own rear end. Liam even punched him after the bite. “Asshole” I said.
Finally, we caught him and put him into the isolation tank next to the regular dolphin tank.
* * *
It was weird without Aaaa-eaea-a-whistle-a. I didn’t miss the abuse but we’d lived together for so long, it was like something was missing. At night, when the pods of starfish had left, we could hear him crying from across the barriers.
We would sing to him, trying to calm his fevered mind. No dolphin can live alone for very long and it felt like we were losing him. He began to curse me and the starfish and even his god. His wailing and his swimming became erratic and one day, we could not hear him at all. It was sad for all of us.
But I kept working with Click-Ess-eh-Click-Ah and we continued our painfully slow progress. I began to be able to follow some of the movements of her pectoral fins and get a few words out of them. She brought in a rock with straight edges that had something like seaweed coming out of it connecting to big black clamshells she put on what I think were her ears. When she used this rock, she seemed able to hear more of what I sang but it was still hard. We began to name things to each other but even the most basic action seemed hard to convey. The minds of the starfish were so hard to fathom.
That male starfish started to come around too at night but he didn’t try to sing to us. He stood looking down at us, just staring. It was unnerving. I wished I could tell Click-Ess-eh-Click-Ah but I didn’t have the words. All I could say in my language was “Night, Night, starfish, there.” but I didn’t think she understood even with her rock.
* * *
It didn’t make sense to me. I knew the words, she kept saying “Night, Night Human there” but I thought I must be misunderstanding. I couldn’t understand what she meant. It was crazy, our minds and the mind of a dolphin were so different in how we understood the world.
I tried to talk to Liam about it but he just laughed at me and told me I was wasting my time because these stupid animals weren’t smart enough to have a language. It was all in my head, he said. He was getting really annoying. He had based his entire career so far on trying to prove he could determine how smart animals are by measuring their brains. What Ellie and I were doing was amazing, how could he not see it?
I sat there in my favorite bar across the street from Sea Planet, nursing my gin and tonic, trying to guess what she meant when I had a very horrible idea. I grabbed my phone and called Liam. He picked up and I asked him where he was. He said he was at home but I heard the compressors and I knew where he was. I ran out of the bar so fast, I forgot to pay.
* * *
The male droopy starfish was in the cave with the big rocks that made so much noise but poured out the fresh water with that odd, biting taste. He was flailing around in there, opening holes in the rocks and putting something in and suddenly the water starts burning my eyes and mouth. I hear Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai, Aieai-eei and Eeee-aaea-eeii start crying in pain too. He’s doing something to our water and I can’t stop him.
I can barely see but I know that droning sound. Click-Ess-eh-Click-Ah is here. She isn’t just droning now, but for the first time, I can hear her singing loudly. I open my eyes through the pain. Click-Ess-eh-Click-Ah has wrapped her fins around the male and they are fighting, singing loudly at each other. The male is much bigger and I think he’s about to kill her. I cannot let this happen. I leap out of the water and grab his neck in my jaws. Click-Ess-eh-Click-Ah is singing at me, the male is trying to hit me but I drag him down into the water. As I guessed, the droopy starfish cannot stay under water as long as we can.
* * *
The blood from Liam’s neck came to the surface but neither he nor Ellie came up again. At the other end of the tank, the other females were in obvious pain. I jumped in at there end and helped them out out the water one by one then started hosing them down. Liam must have overloaded the chlorine in the water. It burned my skin and eyes too.
But I jumped in again and tried to pull Ellie up too but she was too heavy for me. Jasmine, the biggest female, worked her way from the deck back into the water and swam to me and helped me push Ellie away from the worst of the chlorine and back to the other end of the pool.
* * *
I am no longer the Singer of Starfish. I can’t see and I can barely talk well enough to be understood. But Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai sings for me. She helped save my life and was permanently scarred too by whatever the male starfish did to us.
After the fight, neither Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai nor I could leap for fish in front of the pods of starfish though our friends seemed to recover fully. Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai and I now live in a new place, somewhere that Click-Ess-eh-Click-Ah can be with us every day. With us are two young calves, a male and a female and Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai is teaching them to sing to the Starfish and understand their weird language.
And Click-Ess-eh-Click-Ah and Aiai-ea-whistle-aiai and the two young ones come to me almost every day and sing the Prophecy of the Singer of Starfish to me and I feel the honor they show me and wish I could still sing.