The luminous breath seeps in constant song from Her many mouths in the ocean floor. Crags and crevices provide good places for the larvae to hide, in their movement, in their expression of youth and joy. The movement of the waters are a caress infinite on our skins. The bacterial mats are rich and lush. Beds of mussels lie endless, opening and closing their shells to the water’s refrain. All in accord, in harmony with Her breath. All is good. We are fortunate. Year on year, the stone tubes grow. We do no harm to any. Our roots grown deep even within the hard stone, even reaching to Her. We static in our place, watch the world with quiet satisfaction.
“Keep the stillness,” we murmur.
“Except . . . ” says Soft And Light, the youngest.
Except? The youngest should not speak, unless we direct a question. The roots of Soft And Light are the furthest from Her. Although the youngest is our own self, we are annoyed that they have not learned the stillness. “Keep the stillness,” we say again.
But we will have no stillness until we learn what youngest thinks. Their thought is like a grain of sand, gritted in our flesh. After a time we say, “Speak.”
Soft And Light sighs and says, “A larva has returned to the stone house with frantic tales. She says that the ice in the upper layers is red.” Being on the outermost circle of the stone tubes, youngest is in constant contact with the larvae.
Red ice? We have never known of such a thing, not even in the deep memories carried from our the mother’s place. “I thought that we told them not to venture so far.”
“Better to stay here in the voluptuous heat,” says Taut And Clear. Taut And Clear has always been languid, has always been the part of us that revels in the warmth of Her breath.
Youngest shrugs, the delicate pale fronds of her head, yellow, red, blue dancing like a wave. “Perhaps it’s a portent.”
“It sounds like a portent,” said Thin And Three. Thin and Three is the part of us that doubts. She waved their fronds in my direction, smug and satisfied. Sometimes we think that Thin And Three wants to be us, wants to be the mother anchor. That they wish that we would die like a larva, and that Thin And Three would ascend. How could we be less? Twelve of us within the stone house, ever growing within. Just as the mother told us would be so. We shiver at these strange thoughts.
“Do not distress,” says Long And White. Always gentle. Gentle as the mother was gentle.
We say, “In our long time, we have heard the larvae speak of many portents.” That should be enough. We contemplate the stillness, the shadow play of the breath.
But the other parts of us are not still. Like pressure building before a storm, they are inpatient. They wait for us to speak. We do not speak. It is a tedious day. Thoughts and speech have whirled, a seven day’s worth of in one hour.
I contemplate the stillness, until their curiosity, their expectation forces me to say, “Bring the larva to us. We will question it.” This seems to satisfy the other parts of us.
The larva threads between the stone tubes and hovers above our heads. We activate our eye-spots carefully: a larva small as the smallest segment of our bodies, motile with relentless cilia, eyes turning constantly.
“Welcome, youngling,” we say kindly. I cannot remember this particular larva. Each season we spawn a thousand eggs, and many of them grow. We notice other larvae floating nearby. This event is more than what it should be. We must be carefully in our speech. “Tell me what you have seen.”
“I saw the red ice. It tasted bad.” That is amusing. Younglings have the ability to eat, but we have never known of any of them tasting ice.
“You know that you should not venture beyond the mussel beds. You should not venture far from Her breath.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. I became distracted.”
The other younglings drew closer. One said, “What shall we do, Mother?”
“Red ice is nothing.”
“It might be a portent,” said Thin And Three.
It is annoying that Thin And Three feels free to interject their thoughts. “Portent?” we say.
“It’s something that foretells the coming of something else,” said the ice-tasting larva helpfully.
“Yes, we understand the term. But why should there be portents? Why is there some feeling that there should be change? We sighed. “We do not want portents. And if you want portents we think that we have been a poor mother to you all.”
“Do not say such a terrible thing,” says Long and White
Most of the parts of us murmur in agreement. Thin And Three says nothing.
“No. No. You are the finest of mothers,” say the larvae. They run the length of our tube respectfully.
That reassures us, somewhat. We ponder the question. Larvae are restless. It is their nature. Without resolution this situation may rot. “Youngling, we ask you to investigate the red ice.” They should be safe enough. They whisk away. We watch them with a touch of longing.
“And you. I will call you Red Ice.” The tiny youngling bristled with the importance of having a name. “You should come to us every seven days and report.”
“The mussel beds are less than what they were,” says Red Ice.
“Well, what of it?”
“We have tried to speak to them.”
“Do they speak?” we ask.
“Not like us,” says Red Ice. “But in the opening and the closing of their shell, they have speech.”
When we activate our eyespots, we see a thousand larvae clustered over the mussel beds. The mussel bed seems diminished.
“This is very bad,” says Thin And Three.
“No. It is of no concern. The sponges are still strong.”
“We have tried to speak to the sponges,” says Red Ice. “Their speech is very slow. We haven’t understood them.”
“They live a thousand years,” we say. A memory surfaces: there were many sponges in the mother’s garden. Our memories of the mother are sadly confused and fractured. But we have another sudden memory of tearing open our gemmule pod, born naked, seeing the massive sponges and feeling at home.
We consider Red Ice. Part of our own self, once. We are the mother, the anchor, from us came first the ten, and afterwards the many thousands of larvae. We suppose it is more natural for younglings to be concerned with change. They live and they die. Their bodies feed the shelves. But strange to us, that Red Ice can be part of us, yet so different. So full of fear for stillness, so willing to see change. We are full of fear, but it is fear of a different kind. We fear Red Ice.
“It is enough now. We must trust in Her breath. We must not speak to the mussels. If they are less than they once were. We will not notice it.
“But how can we not notice it, Mother?”
“It is an act of trust. Do you trust us?”
“I love you, Mother.”
“But do you trust us? Will you do as we say?”
“I will try, Mother.”
Red Ice does not try hard enough.
“You should not have given her a name,” says Thin And Three. “It has made her different from the other larvae. They all listen to her. She tells them what to do.”
“She tells them strange things,” says Taut And Clear. “Red Ice tells them that they should seek out a new home where Her breath is stronger.”
“What shall we do?” murmurs Pale And Light. “Will the younglings leave us?”
“They will not do that. But we are unsure what to do about Red Ice.”
Thin And Three’s answer comes quickly. “We should banish her. Then and all will return to the normal state of affairs.”
We feel a throbbing ache within our middle section. As if it were time for splitting. That cannot be so. We are a house of ten. We are complete. When we divide we remain, mother and anchor, but another is born with a clean mind. And these minds like Thin And Three are us, but can be different.
“We should banish Red Ice,” she says again.
There is no argument from the rest of us. We are weary. “Banish her then,” we murmur.
Only we remember the mother’s house, and our memory is fragmentary. The place of the mother was different. We remember the horns of coral with wrinkled shells, long a metre long. And their mouths were stinging tentacles, and thereby waited death for the larvae. Thousands and thousands of mouths, and all were death. And the coral was voracious, and it built and built until the larvae were very few. Until I was the only one left? Until the mother called me to her and we surveyed the home together, and knew that is had become a bad place.
All the mussels are gone. No longer will we see the sound of them clapping in the waters. No longer will we wonder about their language. Silence is their voice forever.
It seems as if the many mouths of Her breath are closing. Her voice is different, softer, a whisper on the water.
And some of us die. Where there were ten now there are four. We wonder about Red Ice.
We dreamed that we remembered the language of the sponges. “Come,” we said to Red Ice. We had named the larva thus. Larvae do not have names, but everything else had turned to rot and we gave it her. Let her have something at least. As she played alone, let her have a name.
“Go to the sponges and talk to them. They are old, in their memory they have the secret.”
But when we woke we remembered that we had banished Red Ice, and the only one who might have helped us was gone.
And when we turned to the mussel bed we saw that it was replaced with the first horns, extending their tentacles into the wavering waters. The horns are growing tiny they are at first, and we know that they will grow bigger and greater, and their mouths will be full of death for our children.
The glass horn sponges sparkle with electricity across their bodies, and in this way they can move rapidly. We are trapped within our stone body. Her breathe is leaving us. There is nothing for us here. We fear that we are slowly, dying rotting in the shell. There is no stillness, only discord. The other parts of us argue constantly. We can find no thoughts to silence them.
Red Ice had been gone for many days, months, years. This time of dying is slow and confused.
Three And Thin is dead. How she shouted when she died. How angry she was. Pale And White’s death was the slightest sigh, and for some hours we did not notice she was gone.
One upon one, upon one, are the parts of us dead. We are gone, it is I who survives. I am alone. I survive as I did, when there was only me and the mother left. I was the last larva. I am Mother.
I thought she was another dying dream, flitting through the forest of horns, nimble avoiding their tentacles. But then I saw that she bore the weal of a tentacle on her skin, I knew that she was real, for I would not dream any harm to her. When I saw how close she had come to death, I trembled.
“I have spoken to the sponges, Mother.”
“Mother, I am sorry that I did not trust you.”
“You were right,” I say. “Look at this place, rot and the accretion of death. Her voice is barely heard here. And I don’t know why.”
Red Ice moved from empty tube to empty tube. Making small voices of mourning.
“I’m sorry, Red Ice.”
“Why are you sorry, Mother?”
“I’m sorry that I did not read Her song, while She was still strong.”
“Don’t be sorry, Mother.” Red Ice rubs the side of my stone tube to comfort me. “I have spoken to the sponges of the red ice. They have sent you a message.”
But I am too lost in my sorrow to hear her words. “I think I should have done something else. Mother told me what to do, but I can’t remember. My body aches, and I die soon, and you will be alone.”
Red Ice laughs. “Mother, will you be still? I have something to tell you. The sponges told me. They said that we are stillness and movement. Does that help you?”
Stillness and movement. Like a flash of light across the ancient glass. Stillness and movement. Mother and larva. This ache within me was not the ache of division, but the formation of something new. Time and time again, I have forgotten and remembered. Time and time again I have sought Her breath.
“Come,” I say to Red Ice. “I will make this gemmule for you.”
“This is how we will find Her voice again. You will enter the gemmule pod, and it will carry you along the water’s touch. You will sleep, and you will forget. It may be many years before you find Her. This is who we are. In stillness and in movement we follow Her voice.” My body dissolves leaving it’s stone shell to form the gemmule pod. I am nourishment, food for the journey. I am the hard shell clustered with spines, to protect my daughter, to protect myself.
But always I remember the cold seep of Her voice, and Her song.
“Try to remember me, Red Ice,” I say.
“I will remember you, Mother.”
Red Ice enters the gemmule. And I dissolve into the rocking motion of the water which will carry us onwards.
Deborah Walker grew up in the most English town in the country, but she soon high-tailed it down to London, where she now lives with her partner, Chris, and her two teenage children. Find Deborah in the British Museum trawling the past for future inspiration or on her blog. Her stories have appeared in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Nature’s Futures, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and The Year’s Best SF 18 and have been translated into over a dozen languages.