Chat-your-own-Adventure #17: Cowrie Whispers

Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story.  The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways.  Stop by if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.

Conch                                                   Cowrie                                                          Clam

You want that one?” the vendor asked with a scowl on his unevenly-shaved lips. He stared at the old man with the wispy hair and the halo of freckles. His aged customer held the cowrie shell up to his ear and held a finger out with his other hand, telling the vendor to be quiet for a moment.

They both stood there. It wasn’t possible for the shell to communicate with the old man. It was empty. All the squishy squirming things had already been pried out and sold as food. Some people came for the shells, but they usually smashed them to make grinding powders or jewelry for children. Only the old man perused them like diamonds, examining the shine on each and listening closely to its particular sort of hollow sound.

Once he was satisfied he gave the vendor a single coin and walked away. It was strange. He only ever bought one at a time, yet he came nearly every day. He walked across the beach and into the rocks, where the water occasionally splashed in obnoxiously random directions. Nobody else bothered to go there because of it. The water struck him three times as he made his way through the worn boulders, ignoring it each time, even if the salt hit his open eyes.

What made him blink was the sight of the girl near the end of the outcropping. She was barefoot, skin even darker than his own, and poking at a blue-clawed crab just trying to scuttle out of one of the pools. He thought about sneaking around behind her, ankle-high water muffling his gait, but the didn’t stand a chance. His wrist popped once and her head jerked to the side, in his direction.

What a young face she has, he thought. The thought stung a little, like biting into a piece of toast accidentally buttered with jellyfish stings. She couldn’t have been more than eleven, but he couldn’t find the low number to act as the other side of the estimate. No matter. Children were children. They either got bored or got in the way. He kept walking.

Mr. Tinsi!” she called after him. His rotten luck. The crab got the benefits of her boredom. The little girl hopped across the rocks, finding her way to his side. Her soft little feet on the weathered stone was like fish fillets wrapped in banana leaves smacking against wads of dough. Great. He was getting hungry too. He had to hurry up with the shell before the last of its sound was gone.

Go on child, I’ve no sweets for you,” he said with a raspy voice, making the mistake of waving her away with the hand holding the purple and silver cowrie. He pulled it close to his chest, because he could see her grabbing at it with her eyes.

What is that Mr. Tinsi? A shell? Is it for your collection?”

I don’t have a collection.”

I’ve seen you with shells before… what are they for if not a collection?”

Fishing                                       Remembering                                             Exploring

It’s for fishing,” he answered somewhat honestly. The girl stared at him skeptically, but he didn’t care. They were out of the rocks and into the fine white sand on the other side. His shack was near. He’d moved it four times in his life as the sea had encroached upon his homeland, and he didn’t think he had it in him to pull the old wood free once more. This time he would simply sleep in the salt.

Do you use it as bait? No fish eat stone,” she told him. She was excellent at educating the other children as well; eventually they had gotten tired of it and told her to go lecture the crabs.

Oh, you think you know so much little…”

Nophen. You don’t remember me?”

Should I?”

My mother says you held me as a baby. You held everybody and whispered blessings.”

Right. I was confused, because there’s no way you could remember that. Your eyes were as shallow as rain skin.” They reached the hut. It didn’t have a door on it any longer, so he simply walked inside and sat down on the sand. He drew a circle in it with the cowrie, and then a fish inside that. He put the shell to his ear.

Can I come in?” Nophen asked, standing at the threshold. At least she had manners. Of course, that was one of the things he had blessed her with. He didn’t remember the set exactly. There were so many children and so many whispers, they all just flowed together after a while. “I want to see how you fish with a cowrie… nowhere near the water.”

Mr. Tinsi gestured to the other side of the sandy circle; the little girl walked in, sat down, and crossed her legs. She loved lessons, as long as they were simple enough for her to pass on. She watched as the old man closed his eyes and placed the hollow of the shell against his ear. He listened for a few moments. Then he handed it to her and she mimicked him.

It was a familiar sound, like waves lapping at the shore. She tried to discern something special, but could not. That wasn’t fair. She knew younger hearing was always better. Mr. Tinsi didn’t even have sleeves, so he couldn’t be hiding anything up them. She looked at him, trying to communicate that she didn’t understand without having to say it.

You hear it?” he asked. She nodded. “It is water.” She started to object, but he threw a gnarled finger over his lips. “You hear it and it sounds like water. So, there is water in there because there is always power in whispers. All you need to do now is see it.” He held the hollow of the shell up to his eyes, pretending to be amazed by its interior. Nophen nearly ruined the circle leaning forward.

Tinsi smiled and handed it over. She put it over her eyes and stared into its darkness. At first she saw nothing, but then she heard Tinsi whispering in her ear, sounding just like the water. Then she heard the shell in her other ear. Then she saw it. Light reflecting off water, despite the black sky inside the cowrie.

She pulled the shell down. It was gone from her hand. They were in a small boat, made from the wood of the shack. The sky was black. Tinsi was on the other side, fiddling with a dozen fishing lines and a basket full of wriggling colorful bait.

Lecture                                Demonstration                                Hands-on Training

Tinsi waved her over. She took two steps, expecting the boat to wobble, but it was quite steady in the dark water. She was a little frightened. Though the surface had bright spots at the crests of its tiny waves, otherwise it was pure blackness. She felt like they floated on the surface of god’s pupil, and that if god opened her eye they would drown in light immediately.

She sat down in front of him while he grabbed her tiny hands and wrapped them around one of the lines. He told her to hold it steady while he baited the other hooks. She kept her hands still but watched the little bugs go by as he skewered each of them on hooks of carved bone or shell. She didn’t recognize the little creatures. They had big hairs and soft squishy bodies, almost like they were meant to be much smaller.

Will she figure it out on her own? Is she even listening anymore? She has likely gotten caught by the eyes again. Everything is dark and strange; she’ll never see what is familiar here. Not without help.

What are we fishing for?” she asked.

Fish,” he answered simply, before elaborating. “We are the craftiest fishers in all the land, because we’ve snuck into these waters through the whispers. The fish don’t think humans ever come here. They come here to relax.”

Why does nobody come here? Is it the darkness?”

Perhaps,” Tinsi said with a shrug. “It’s also hard to learn, because you have to listen very closely. People listen to shells and hear the ocean, but they don’t hear the ocean’s story. If someone was yelling at you, trying to get your attention, would you simply look at them without hearing the words and say ‘my, you make a lot of noise’?”

Nophen had ten more questions curled in her mind like the chambers of a nautilus, but there was a tug on the line she held, and she gasped. She squirmed, trying to get up on her knees, but Tinsi held her steady. He patted her head and told her to stay still, but keep a firm grip. Tire it out. Let it swim in circles.

What is the ocean’s… story?” the girl managed to ask through gritted teeth as she tried to keep the line steady. It burned in her hands some.

This time, it’s a story of bounty. That’s what I’m always listening for. These are the whispers of open water, warm water, water that is likely more than a year old. The whispers lived in the shell, and we brought them out. So now we fish for meat from the past, from the open sea, and they never see it coming.” Tinsi chucked. He knew just when the burning of the line would become too much for her, right when it started to leave a mark. He grabbed it as well and they pulled in unison, wrapping it around a stick as they drew their catch in.

Dolphin fish                              Giant Sunfish                                King of Herrings

Nophen wanted to lean forward and see her catch, but that might send her into the black water, so she had to keep pulling. Inch by inch they took in the line, with Mr. Tinsi growling whenever his fingers trembled and he lost a loop.

She didn’t have to look. The fish gave them a clue in the form of a bright light rising all around the sides of the boat, and through its many slats. Tinsi growled more, but he didn’t let go. Nophen was there to learn, so she copied him, growl and all.

Eventually the fish emerged, with barely a splash. It jumped into the air and then stayed there, because the only difference between the sky and water inside the whispers was the thin skin of light between them. It swam about over the boat, looking for a way to free itself. Nophen knew this creature, at least she knew its more mundane form. It was a sunfish: squat gray body with silly lips, polished eyes, and tall swishing fins along the top and bottom.

There were giants of them in the normal sea, but this one was as long as five Nophens. It spun in the air, able to get a good look at its captors when it was flat on its side. She couldn’t see the expression in its eyes, because its hide was bright white, too brilliant to stare at. It dove back into the water and slowly dragged the boat forward.

What is it?” she asked, trying not to sound nervous. If her voice quivered anymore it would sound like she’d just gotten ten splinters under her toenails.

You know what it is,” Tinsi growled back as they held on.

It’s a sunfish? They’re not supposed to fly! Or… actually be like the sun!”

Where do you think they got the name? The sunfish knows how to hear whispers as well, but it hears the sun. That’s why, in here, it has all that light!” The boat sped up; a fountain of light spray appeared on each side of the bow.

What do we do when we catch it?” Nophen hissed. Her hands were sweating, or was it beading blood in her palms?

We eat it!” Nophen nearly dropped the line. She thought it was going to be all learning. Surely she could learn from something as bright as that. Was it her turn to teach Mr. Tinsi something? Compassion? Would he starve without the creature on the other end? She found her grip loosening. The only things you learned from eating were simple facts of poison and taste. She didn’t know the word for it yet, but she yearned for nuance.

She let go of the line, but Tinsi didn’t notice. She looked at her palms, expecting to see red lines, but there was nothing. It was like they’d done nothing at all so far. Was it the fact that this was all whispers? If so, big actions meant very little. She was free to experiment.

Whisper                                            Sever Line                                                  Dive in

Nophen ducked under the line. She didn’t even take a moment to look over the side, for she already knew what was there: the darkness of whispers, the empty spaces, with only a rolling membrane of light. She dove in. Tinsi didn’t release the line. These were whispers; they wouldn’t hurt her the way shouts would. If whispers were going to hurt you they would take much longer, like a vine creeping around your neck and tightening. She could make it until he’d wrangled the bright beast.

Nophen went deeper. She didn’t need to hold her breath. She didn’t feel any pressure. There was a current, but it was extremely gentle, more like a breeze that couldn’t even pick up a hair. These were all whispers, the words of the sea and ten thousand living things, so why wasn’t she hearing anything else?

The bright spot raced back and forth overhead, like a sun that couldn’t decide its angle. She was so deep she could barely see the bottom of the boat now. That was it. Tinsi knew how to use the whispers, but just to get what he needed. He took blessings to give the children. He took fish to eat, but surely there was more. There was no room in his salty old bones for ambition. The salt had blown through him, grown crystals in his joints, left no room to grow. He was just like the weathered rocks, withstanding the forces only to eventually be worn away.

Nophen was the crab, trapped in a tiny pool just a distance away from the boundless knowledge of the sea. She wanted that from the whispers, so she had to listen. She stopped swimming and hung there, weightless, in the water, going neither up or down.

She listened. She let the watery whispers into her head, holding her breath even though she could breathe down there. To breathe was to talk over the world. It was rude. She understood that now. It was okay to talk over adults; they were just children with slightly better impulse control. They weren’t the world. They weren’t the wisdom of paths that had run for countless generations, no matter how much they claimed they were.

It didn’t come in words, but she understood the emotions. The sea didn’t mind that they had snuck into its old whispers. It put them in the shells for a reason. Nobody came to its center. They were too scared; all the boats were too flimsy. So, the sea had come to them, but only Mr. Tinsi, on the whole of the continent, ever listened to any of it. Everybody else just called the sound muttering. They just called it water.

Nophen emptied her mind. It could act like one of the shells. She could store just as much as a cowrie. The sea obliged. She lost sight of the struggle overhead. She learned how deep it was at the center and how quickly she would die there. She learned what water was, beyond simply liquid. It had three tiny pieces, with two being identical. The sea didn’t know much about those pieces, but it let Nophen have everything it had. It kept no secrets.

She learned the names of all the fish, all the crawling and scooting things, and all the things that were mostly water themselves. She learned about all the wars fought by boat near the shores, but she didn’t need those. Those whispers could vanish for all she cared. Once her mind was full she returned to the surface and found Mr. Tinsi had caught his sunfish. It gasped and struggled, tied to the side of the boat. He told her it was time to go home.

Dinner                                               Lecture                                                       Cowrie

All they had to do was use their regular voices, a touch louder than conversation. That ripped right through the whispers and put them back in the shack, with the circle in the sand between them. Nophen looked down and saw a puny sunfish, gray and dead, sitting over the sandy representation.

That’s what we fought the whole time?” she asked, flabberghasted.

It was mostly whispers,” Mr. Tinsi said. “I think there’s enough here for the two of us though.” He held it up and wiggled it in her face.

No, thank you Mr. Tinsi. I am not hungry. In fact, I am full. Can I take this with me?” She picked up the cowrie.

Sure,” he said with a shrug. He was already digging into the fish’s belly with a rusty knife and spilling its innards in the circle. A stream of fluid moved around its circumference. “I’ll get a new shell tomorrow, go to a nice new spot in the whispers.”

She said her thanks, as he popped the head off his catch, and left. She made her way back to the rocks. The water didn’t assail them for the moment, just long enough for her to cross without getting splashed. The sea was being kind because she had listened.

Nophen would always listen, and she would always use that shell. She dipped it in the surf, to drain the old whispers and get new ones. They would have conversations in the night, both snuggled up to her pillow. Nophen and the sea. She would write books that nobody else would believe, until they found the lands on the other side she always warned them about.  

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