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Flotsam


He had been to the water’s edge before, of course. It was, after all, only over the low hill behind his house. Descending on the ocean side into dunes, the hill was high enough to block the ocean from his view, but the sound of the waves came over it and down against his windows, especially in the nighttime stillness. In tonight’s warmth the windows had been left open, and the waves’ sounds had mingled with the sound of his breathing and heartbeat as he lay in bed listening. He had always liked to think that there was a message in their combination, one meant just for him, and that if he could only listen long enough he would find the key to the code.

He had been doing just that, listening, practicing his nightly cryptanalysis, when he fist heard it. That was why he sat now on a rock that stretched out into the water. He had tried to ignore the sound, but it insisted on becoming part of the pattern of night noises, a fourth part that seemed that seemed to take the raw edges of the other three and fit them together. He had finally rolled from bed, pulled on the shorts he had dropped next to it when he had lain down, and gone outside.

The screen door had pulled shut by its spring with a squeak and a loud slam that for a moment drowned out the new sound. He had stopped and searched for it again, found it, and started the short walk over the hill. The noise his feet made in the sand had added one more rhythm, but the fourth one simply took it in and added it to the others.

Now he was here, on the rock, listening. It had been some time since he had heard it, and his legs were starting to ached from being held still. He wasn’t sure just when it had disappeared; when he tried to pay attention to it he couldn’t find it. He had been doing this each night for almost a week now, and he was beginning to fell like a fool.

His foot slipped into the water and he awakened with a start. He had been dozing, and now the sun was hauling itself over the ocean’s edge. As he watched the sun, he noticed that its reflection made a road across the water that reached to his rock, as if the road was meant just for him to walk on. But he knew that everyone who was at the water’s edge would see the same thing, a road meant just for them. Not that there was anyone else there this early in the morning.

He made his way back to his house and dressed for work. The sound had never come during the day, perhaps chased away by other noises, or by the presence of the people who made them.

It was a long and tiring day at work, made more so by his lack of sleep from the night before. Still, when night came again he couldn’t sleep; he found himself lying awake waiting for the sound. He considered giving in, and waiting for it on the beach, but obsessions like this had never been part of his life, and he wasn’t going to let this one take him over without some effort.

He was saved the trouble of much effort; the sound came early. It was clearer this time, but still hard to grasp. The attempt to define it reminded him of looking at the Pleiades – look straight at them and they were a fuzzy spot. To see them more clearly, look at them out of the corner of your eye. He listened out of the corner of his ear. Even the words sounded ridiculous, and actually attempting it more ridiculous still.

But when he tried it, something came through, something that started to take shape. When he tried to focus on it, it would slip away again, but if he let it rest softly in his mind it would grow in strength. He pulled back the sheet and went to the door, but paused before opening it. It was as if making such a conscious move as getting up had chased the sound out of his mind. He started to open the door, but the cool breeze that came through it didn’t carry any mysterious sounds, so he closed it softly and went back to bed, where he lay for some time, finally drifting into a sleep knit together with unidentified noises. When he woke up they were still in his head, but he knew that none of them were the one he had been searching for.

An image from his dreams stayed with him, though. It was a termite mound, like one he had seen in a show about Africa. An animal had broken it open and the termites were pouring out. The strange thing was, the termites weren’t upset. They were glad.

He resigned himself to the obsession. Calling in sick to work, he spent most of the day napping. Then, shortly before sunset, he went to the beach.

He paused at the top of the hill for a moment, looking about the beach for the best place to sit. The low sun sent his shadow before him like a pointer. The direction it indicated was as good as any, so he walked down the hill and followed it.

There were several large rocks on the edge of the ocean. He picked one that seemed likely to stay above the tide no matter how high the water got. He put the blanket he had brought on the rock and sat down on it.

Perched on his rock, he quickly developed cramps in his legs. Throughout the night he shifted positions, thankful that the rock was large enough to give him a chance, wishing each time that he had thought to bring a seat with a back rest. Each time he moved, however, he worried that the slight scrape of his legs against the rock might cover up the more elusive sound he was here for. A moment of sitting especially still at the end of each move helped him feel better.

The last quarter moon had just risen when he heard it again. At first it came from the sea, almost straight ahead of him. Then it seemed to break apart into smaller, separate sources that filled the water around him. It still came from ahead, but now it also came from the shallow water on either side of his rock. Remembering the Pleiades, he didn’t look straight at the shadows, but kept his eyes straight ahead and tried to use his peripheral vision.

Slowly something became visible, although it moved in such a way that he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. The shallows were filled with small points of light that reminded him of the eyes of animals caught in headlights at night. They weren’t all in pairs, however, or in any other pattern he could recognize; instead they seemed to form a network within which they kept moving, while still keeping the distances between them.

He did not know how long he sat, but he began to grow exhausted with the strain of sitting still and looking without trying. He did not know how much longer this could continue. The eyes squirmed and shimmered, looking at him from the water. Perhaps he could have sat like that for a while more, but the engine noise from a boat far out to sea startled him. Apparently he was not the only one startled, because the lights moved suddenly and then disappeared.

The mysterious noise came back (when had it stopped?), but it immediately started to grow fainter until he could no longer hear it. When the only sounds left were the waves and the rapidly engine noise, he realized that he now knew what the unknown noise had been. It was singing.

On the way back to his house and all the next day at work he tried to recapture the tune in his head. The effort ruined his concentration for his work, but his co-workers attributed it to his not being completely recovered from whatever had kept him out the day before. They were right about that, of course.

After running the sound through his head all day, he began to doubt whether it had been singing after all. The problem was the words, or rather the lack of them; the sounds refused to resolve themselves into words. Perhaps it was humming, or more likely not in English. He was certain it wasn’t a language he had ever heard. For a short while he toyed with the tonal languages; perhaps Chinese, or Thai. But if this was a tonal language it had more tones than any language should have. Nonsense sounds, then – but there was a pattern to them that made him dismiss that thought. Besides, from the beginning he had had the feeling of there being meaning to the pattern

The other thought that occupied his mind was that the eyes had not been looking quite at him, but at something else in the same place as him. He worried that the message of the song wasn’t for him after all.

Before he left work his supervisor recommended another day of rest. He agreed willingly, glad to have the time guaranteed him.

That night he sat on the rock again, wrapped in his blanket, but dismissed this quite quickly, not wishing to take the risk. It had been to this rock that the singing eyes had come.

For a long time the only sounds were occasional traffic noises from the other side of the hill behind him, the few that were able to make themselves heard over the waves and sea breeze. Once there was a horn that must have been a boat; it seemed to come from off shore anyway. It startled him, but that was good because he had been on the verge of sleep. He rearranged his stiffening legs and rededicated himself to listening.

It was late when he heard it. How late he could not know, but the moon hadn’t risen. It started far away and then, with each wave, it drew closer. It came straight towards him, riding the waves in. Did it sense him waiting there in the dark, or was it depending on him to be where he had been? He resisted the temptation to stand and instead sat as still as he could.

As the sound drew closer he could see once again the eyes in the water that went with it. There were too many to count, some alone, some in pairs, some in larger groupings. He thought at first that he could resolve all of them into a pattern, but as soon as he decided on a pattern it shifted away, the eyes in pairs joining larger groups, or setting out on their own, the single eyes liking up with others, and then the groups breaking up again. The sound came from all the lights at once. The eyes continued to come in, more with each wave, until they were all around him in the water, stretching as far out to sea as was visible in the faint starlight.

The singing went on. There were definitely sounds in it that seemed like words, but they had no pattern that he could detect. Some of them were repeated many times before shifting to others, and some he heard only once.

Most striking about the song was the tones. These singers were apparently not limited to the notes available to human throats. It wasn’t so much the range, although that was impressive; the notes went as high and as low as he could hear, and from the apparent silences when his stomach rumbled or his head hurt he guessed they went further. What was special was the subdivision. The spaces between the notes were divided endlessly. It was as if the octave had been split not into eight notes but into an infinite number. The notes piled on top of each other in harmonies containing too many notes to grasp before the song went on to another chord equally complex.

At last, finally giving into temptation, he stood up, letting the blanket fall to the rock. The blanket’s edge fell into the water, and he froze, expecting the eyes to disappear. They withdrew a bit, and the song wavered, but then the song rose up as strong as before and the eyes crowded in again. Gathering his courage, fearing he would ruin everything, he spoke. “What do you want from me?”

His voice shocked him, so used was he to the ocean sounds and the singing. The eyes did not seem to be upset, however. They stayed floating in the water. For a moment, though, they were silent. Then the singing grew again. This time he knew the words. “Whatatat wha what whawha dooooodooooodoooooddooooododo youyouyoudoyoudoyoudoyou wawa wawawa wawant qant want fromfom frofrofrom memememememememememe meee?”

They were sung with the same range of tones that the singing had always had. This time he knew their meaning, however, and it was not the meaning of the English words. The meaning he had been looking for had never been in what he had thought were words. It was carried by the tones themselves. The patterns they made were the meaning.

As this realization settled on him, he felt a response to it starting to arise from inside him. As the singing continued, a fugue of “What do you want from me?”, filling his ears and mind, he heard an answering song from within. It did not come from his mind, however. It was the song of his cells. Each of them sang, floating in his body fluids, in answer to the singers in the sea. They sang apart, they sang together, each of them eyes in the sea he carried inside him.

The chorus sung by the floaters in his internal ocean rose in volume and was answered by the floaters in the sea before him. Then, one by one, his cells loosed the bonds between them, and poured into the ocean, each finally singing with its own voice, each finally taking part in the great chorus. Fanning out, the cells that had once formed a body joined with the ocean’s eyes, their voices taking up the song of the ocean. Together, singing, all the eyes, the new and the old, rode the waves out to sea, leaving behind a blanket on a rock on an empty beach.