The Colors of Her Music

Imogen Rhia Herrad

Her earliest thought was music. Not the memory of music, of hearing the sound of an instrument, or a voice singing. She thought in sounds and in colours. Her mind sang to itself, notes like light falling through a prism or a waterfall.

There was a waterfall near the place where she hatched. It was the first thing she saw when she unfolded her limbs, free at last from the tight confines of the shell. She lay on the warm, grassy ground, her breath coming in short, exhausted stabs. Her eyes opened slowly, one after the other (she had three altogether, but she did not yet know that this made her unusual), and her mind began to sing for the first time, in delight. It sang like the hum and sparkle of water in sunlight. Like the boom of a mountain. Like the chimes of a rainbow in the sky.

She had no words. She thought in sounds and in colours.

Strange people in a village took her in, two-eyed creatures without wings. They made odd noises, which after a while she understood to be their language. They did not sing. They could not hear her voice and thought her mute, but for the time being they were enough, and they were kind to her.

She lived with a woman she called her mother, and children whom she called her sisters and brothers. She heard stories the villagers told occasionally, of strange beings they found in the jungle, one or two in a lifetime: wordless, three-eyed child creatures that would go everywhere, looking, listening, absorbing everything with their never-ending curiosity. Nobody knew where they came from. They had always been there, like trees and streams and rain. They hatched out of egg-like shells that might have fallen from the trees or straight from the sky.

She knew that one day she would leave the village in the jungle and search for others like her; beings who could hear and delight in her music, whose eyes could, like hers, listen as well as see. For the time being, she lived on all she saw and heard: the singing of her mind, the joy of sunlight in the trees, the smell of wood smoke, the drumming of feet on the ground, the ringing of raindrops on her outstretched arms and upturned face.

She sang. For days she could feed on a song growing in her mind, on notes and echoes of colours weaving themselves into a fabric, like leaves unfolding on a tree. She would sing into the roaring of the wind, the strumming of the rain, the humming of sunlight.

But before she could leave, the Catchers arrived: white as bone, black as blood. She knew the stories but had not believed them. Everybody had heard about the Catchers trooping through the jungle in search of prey. Tales were handed down from mother to daughter, but nobody knew where the Catchers came from, or where they took their captives. No one knew how to avoid them, because nobody could tell when they would arrive; they were a part of life like the floods and the droughts and the diseases that would invade their lives regularly but unannounced, bringing destruction.

She was among the unlucky ones that they captured. She was among the lucky ones who survived the trek through jungle and desert. She received the greatest shock of her life when she realised that the Catchers could hear her singing.

They spoke her language. And when they took off their hoods and she could see them clearly, she saw that they had three eyes. Like hers.

Their voices were harsh; clanging and shrilling like great metal wings. She understood everything they said.

They herded the villagers into big wooden cages, slaughtering some, keeping others for their entertainment. They slept during the day and every night, feasted in their smoke-filled palace. They made her sing.

They made her sing every night in the swirling smoke, while she could hear the wailing and the screaming from the cages. You're one of us, the eyes and the clanging voices had said the first time they saw her. You don't belong to them. Sing us a song about the glory of life and victory. We know how you love to sing. You're one of us.

She sang for them for many years.

Every night in the smoke-filled palace, she sang. She grew to hate the sound of her voice. Her need of music. She wished she could shut her eyes, shut out the sights and the sounds around her. She wished she could hate her people. But she could not.

She began to fear the captive villagers for the things her people did to them.

Her singing became famous. People came from afar to hear it, and for everyone who came, she sang.

She sang about the glories of victory and life in the flickering light of the fires, while wind howled high up in the rafters and tore at the roof; while the villagers huddled in their cages, rattling the bars, murmuring curses at the Catchers. Her people.

She forgot that she had once hated them. She belonged to them. Had she not always, in those far-away days in the village, meant to go and look for those that were like her, three-eyed, mighty-voiced; her people who would be able to hear her songs? They had found her.

She forgot that she had once lived somewhere else. There had always been this; the sharp, shimmering smoke in the light of the fires, white as bone; the dancing shadows in the rafters, black as blood. The deep humming of the night, the murmurs of shifting grains of sand, the deep-throated laughter of the flames: there had always been music, from the very beginning. Her earliest memory was music.

She sang the years away.

But her voice was not to be trusted.

One night, when the big gates of the palace were opened, in breathed a gust of wind, bringing with it the spinning light of the stars, the bronze rustling of sun-warmed dust.

Her voice rose up like a storm, weaving in and out of the screaming of the wind.

Its breath flattened the fires, threw great fistfuls of dust into eyes and mouths. Gales ripped the roof off the palace, scattered furious eddies of smoke. The storm lifted her up and bore her away, then dropped her in the middle of the desert.

She did not know where she was.

The sunlight hurt her eyes when she tried to open them. She had lived in darkness for so long. She lay on the sand, her breath coming in short, exhausted stabs; eyes shut tight against the roar and clamour of the light.

She walked only at night. For many days she fed on the life the storm had breathed into her. When its breath left her, she lifted her face to the stars and began to sing. Then she remembered all the songs she had sung beneath the moving shadows in the thin-tongued light, amidst wailing and screaming. With every step that took her away from the palace of the Catchers, the echoes of what had been became louder.

She held her breath in her hands, and walked on.

All colour left her. Everything she saw became white as bone, black as blood. She would not sing.

When she came to the edge of a village, she hid for days; fearing to see people with three eyes, like the Catchers, like herself; afraid to find that they had two eyes, like the Catchers' victims.

Finally one evening she left her hiding place and walked out in the softly murmuring orange light of the sunset. Saw, and was seen by, the villagers: people like her adopted mother, two-eyes without music. They did not turn her away, as she had thought, or feared, or hoped. So she stayed.

But she would not sing.

She signalled with her hands; invented short, brusque movements with her fingers. She began to think in words, because the sounds and the colours had betrayed her. She grew to hate the memory of her voice.

When the people showed signs of liking her, she moved on. They did not know her.

She moved on; doing penance for her people; for herself.

When she saw the shimmering green and blue of the sea for the first time, she remembered the earliest sight she had seen. And turned her eyes away, remembering bone white smoke, leaping shadows.

But she stayed.

Her voice was not to be trusted. It wanted to sing; it did not care about the echoing memories. It wanted to sing. But how could she, now that she knew what it had done; what she had done, singing the villagers to their deaths. She turned her back on the sea, and thought only in words.

But when she sometimes stood by the water's edge in the middle of the night, drawn there in spite of everything, in spite of herself; she dreamed of the songs she could have woven, gold and gossamer and the glint of light on the breathing ocean. And turned away and went back, in despair because she still wanted music.

The people brought her gifts; pebbles, shells, pieces of wood, feathers. A fish was left at her door. During the day, it lay in a corner of the room, grey like a bundle of shadow. But when night fell, its skin began to glint and hum with light, distracting her from her work. She spoke to it, regretting its death; and at the sound of her voice the dead fish stirred.

She spoke again, and again it moved, scattering pealing scales that echoed through her head. For the rest of the night she remained silent; thinking of the whirling smoke, the charred shadows. And, occasionally, of blue and green water, moving restlessly.

When darkness fell the next evening, the carcass began its humming glow again. Its beauty touched her. She wanted it to be alive. Whenever she spoke to it, it moved.

She could feel its longing for the ocean.

She told it stories, in spite of everything, and brought it back to life. She did not want to know that it was not her words but the sound of her voice that gave its life back. She wanted to sing. She dreamed of music, of words like lightning, and her head swam like a fish in the sea.

When she broke her silence, when her voice rose into the wind and the rain, the sea surged up as if to answer her call. She choked, mute with terror at what she was about to do.

Had she not sung enough?

A wave licked her foot, foam as white as petals. Grains of sand whirred in the blue hands of the water. She wanted to sing. She wanted to howl and roar into the wind, she wanted to whistle like a cyclone. She wanted to weave together the roaring black storm clouds and the blue crashing of the waves, the green rustling of the leaves, the singing of birds in the sudden stillness, sweet as honey.

She sang in all the colours of the rainbow.

Imogen Rhia Herrad

Imogen Rhia Herrad is a freelance writer and journalist based in London and Berlin. Born in 1967 in Germany, she has also lived in Wales and Argentina. She writes programmes in German on travel, history and politics for various German radio stations, as well as fiction and non-fiction in English. As her favorite writers she lists Jeanette Winterson, Sara Paretsky, Alifa Rifaat, Ursula K. LeGuin, Toni Morrison, Hilary Mantel, Marķa Elena Walsh, and Angelica Gorodischer. Her work has been published in Germany, the UK and Canada. Imogen has written a book of short stories, "Lives of the Saints" (to be published in the UK in 2007), and a mystery novel set in London and Wales for which she is now seeking a publisher. Imogen is currently working on a book in English about her travels in Patagonia.