Day 3. Language is a slog. So little in common! What actually worked? Singing. And pointing. I tried tapping out numbers, feeling like the famous counting horse on stage. I pulled the gurney to the opening, so I could point out trees, sky and rocks. Yeah, so what?
She responded best to rousing melodies. I sang and played Gibb–everything I could think of. Quickly worked through my own published repertoire, then pieces I’d been working on. But what did she like best? Nursery rhymes and Christmas carols! Rousing tunes with a wide vocal range. She didn’t much respond to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Silent Night,” but she jiggled and thrummed to “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Joy to the World.” And she responded strongly to “Star Spangled Banner!” with elaborate display of tentacles waving and vibrating and thrumming. I thought she’d stand up and salute! I wish I could have done it in full Jimi Hendrix mode.
She tried to sing back to me. It did not start out auspiciously. She squeaked and gasped and wheezed. I was afraid she was overdoing it.
Breadbox wanted something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. It was like my damn fool cat meowing! I’d go all around my house, trying everything I could think of it might want. Out. In. Out again. Offer it food, water. Then ignore it.
But I couldn’t just ignore this poor beastie! I pushed the gurney around as far as the tether would allow. I picked up all kinds of stuff from the floor, held it out to her. I opened up the little compartments, pulled stuff out or pointed in.
It looked like this particular tentacle shake meant, “That’s not it.” Like a baby whose first word is “no.” God, maybe she wants her porta potty! How long can she hold it in? I finally asked this question the only way I could think of. I pulled down my jeans and peed in the dirt just outside the opening, where she could watch. Then I pointed. Was this it? It reminded me of trying to housebreak Buddy when he was a pup.
Breadbox was fascinated by this display but showed no inclination that this was it. What would she do to communicate this, anyway? Maybe cross her tentacles and hop up and down? Yet I wondered how my poor visitor was handling this particular need.
I started hauling things out from deeper in the vessel, but nothing I pulled up was what she was looking for. She pantomimed to me that she wanted to be disconnected from the life support. Despite my misgivings, I finally did this. I lowered the gurney as low as it could go , so she could crawl off. Immediately, we could see that this did not go well. She was quite weak. She whimpered and I helped her clamber back up and reconnect to her life support.
I went back and rummaged in the section where the dead crew members had been. This was difficult because it was dark, and I had to crawl back there, holding on to my flashlight with one hand, walking around at a crouch and looking for things that might be the right thing. Several trips of bringing things back out for which she signaled, “Nope, that’s not it.”
When I finally found it, I knew immediately! It was a cylinder. Over a foot long. Maybe two inches in diameter. Gray metallic look, with the same patterns the amulet I had found initially. Very heavy. It didn’t look like a weapon, though.
When I hauled that back up through the narrow tunnel, Breadbox showed visible excitement. This was obviously what she’d been looking for. She spoke to it and it trilled back to her. So, still functional! I handed it to her and she caressed it, held it in several tentacles like it was her baby.
She crooned to the cylinder, accompanied by waving her tentacles in this pattern that mimicked—or was part of—her singing.
The cylinder made noises in response—tones and chords and clicks and chattering sounds. Wow, so these two talked to each other?
It seemed like her body WAS a musical instrument. High-pitched trills and hoots and thrums reverberated inside her box. She had so many voices. Some melodies she sounded like a theramin, others a bagpipe or squeezebox.
She was like a whole orchestra. She could sing multiple tones at once, plus vibrations from her tentacles, humming and thrumming like a bass drone. Hints of bagpipe and sitar and didgeridoo. It was wonderful music! But not language—not to me anyway.
It gradually dawned on me that she was trying to tell me something. She would sing this snatch of song. Then she’d hold up the cylinder gizmo and it would make a series of noises—tones, clicks, grunts, raspberries. As soon as it finished, she’d start in again with her singing, then let the cylinder “speak” to me.
So it was a dang language translator! She’d heard me (and my buddies ) speak and she’d heard me sing. So maybe she thought, aha, I’ll sing to this being. But I understood nothing. The sounds emitting from the cylinder sounded like language to me, like it was trying to translate her singing, but it sure wasn’t translating to English.
She kept trying. More and louder vibrating, sounding like she was getting excited or frustrated. I was afraid she’d blow a gasket. She was twisting her entire body and looking around with her big googly eyes on two eyestalks.
And there I sat, dumb and mute. I guess those two mean the same thing. I meant dumb like stooopid. No comprendo! No se nada!
She certainly didn’t hide her emotions, and it seemed I could read them better than her language. It was like working around an animal; after awhile you begin to get a sense of what it is feeling. This alien was feeling frustrated!
Not a verbal onslaught; it was more like being beat over the head with beautiful music. But gradually, she seemed to be losing steam. After a pause she twitched and emitted this rattle and gurgle, then fell silent. Except for one bell-like tone—close to G above middle C—that emerged from a completely different orifice on the “throat” of her “parking meter” head. Then silence. She shut down, kind of sinking onto the gurney. The cylinder quacked perfunctorily and also fell silent.
What now? I felt completely inadequate, like the ignorant savage unable to comprehend the message of the advanced visitors from across the sea. What had she been trying to communicate so urgently?
Maybe “The secret of life and enlightenment and flying across the universe is yours for the asking!”
Or perhaps “The evil monsters are racing across space to invade. Alert your defenders!”
Or “I’ve got this terrible itch and I just can’t scratch it!”
I was dumb as a stump.
She let go of the cylinder. It rolled along the gurney. I grabbed it to keep it from falling. She paid no heed. Eye stalks drawn down.
I looked at it more closely. Where was its speaker—its microphone? I couldn’t tell. Sheesh was it ever heavy! Like a piece of granite—or lead.
I held it on my lap and talked to it. “Hi, my name is Selena, aka Berthe, and I sing songs for a living. What is your name?” Silence. Then it spoke. It seemed to repeat what I had said, but vowels only, no consonants. It was like trying to carry on a conversation with an accordion.
Then it tried again, inserting some pops and hisses and rasps. Next a rising chiming tone, then silence.
Hmm. Needs work on consonants. I recited the alphabet, enunciating very carefully. “Ai, bee, cee, dee, ee, eff . . .” and so on. Then I went through it again, adding words. A, apple. B, boy. C, ceiling. D, dog . . .” all the way to “X, x-ray.” Then I thought, “X, xylophone,” and then a small aha! A tone! I did my best to duplicate the gizmo’s rising tone. Did that mean “over to you”?
Yes! It started copying my alphabet recitation. Several times. I tried to correct its pronunciation. It had trouble distinguishing b and p, and f and s. But clearly it seemed that it and I were on the same task.
Numbers. Let’s try numbers again. I picked up an empty beer bottle and a spoon from my growing midden and clinked a couple of times. Let’s be systematic. BINK. “One.” BINK. BINK. “Two.” BINK. BINK. BINK. “Three.” Hmm. “Th” is a sound not in the alphabet. BINK. BINK. BINK. BINK. “Four.” And so on. Then I did my up trill. “Over to you, gizmo.”
It mimicked my beer bottle clink precisely, and gave a good first try on my words: “Wom. Tu. Free. For. Five. Fiks.”
Needs more work on sibilants. I said, “These…three …things …writhe …with… the …weather.” What an image! Sounds like a good line for a song.
The gizmo did its best to repeat that tongue twister, then went through the number sequence again.
The cylinder’s counting drew our ignored visitor back to life. She chimed in, literally. “Bing… Bong, bong… Boong, boong, boong. …Bing, bong, boong, bwang!” All this emanated from the new chime orifice, not the singing hole. What should I call these openings? The talking mouth and singing mouth? She then spoke four short words from her talking mouth, and the cylinder followed with, “Wun. Tu. Fre. For.” Wow, that sounded a lot like translation of actual words.
She immediately let forth a torrent of song, using both mouths, chiming, hooting, bonging, and singing bits of the melody of “Joy to the World.”
I sang right back, “Joy to the world, the words will come!” This was just like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind! I was jubilant.
What have we learned here so far? She has two mouths, one for words and single sounds on her throat, and another mouth farther down on her diaphragm—plus all her tentacles and other body parts—for singing and emoting. She eats through a tube stuck in a hole in her side. And I have no idea how she takes a crap.
Our experts tell us we share 99% of our genetic makeup with apes, 95% with pussy cats and dogs, and maybe half with pond scum. Here was a being with whom I presumably shared 0% of genes–and who looked so totally different—yet we shared music and numbers and a desire to talk more to each other.
I went back to my house for a quick lunch break and to see if the rest of the world needed me for anything. It didn’t. I had a momentary panic that I had not a single email inquiry about my songstress services. From fame to notoriety to being ignored. It happens so fast! But this quickly shifted to relief and gratitude. I nuked some leftover lasagna from last night (or was it two nights ago?) and wrapped it in a huge lettuce leaf from my garden.
Then back down to alien central to continue with our language lessons.
Again, we started with the numbers. I would say, “One,” hold up one finger, and draw a 1 on my pad, and try to generalize. One rock. One shoe. One hand. One tentacle. I actually held up one of her tentacles. It was warmer than I expected. Then I did the same thing all over again with two.
Could the cylinder see me, as well as hear me? I saw nothing that looked like a camera, but then what did I know?
I repeated the words. Finally the translating gizmo repeated them back to me, gradually improving its pronunciation. Then, it beepled over to Breadbox, who listened, and voila! She said a word and held up one tentacle! She said another word and held up two. The gizmo said back to me, “One. Two.”
Wow! Wow! This was amazing! We’ve mastered “One, two!” That’s a beginning. Let’s keep going. Maybe, “Buckle my shoe! Three, four! Shut the door! Five, six! No alien tricks!” Just kidding.
Numbers were easy for us to teach each other. We did a lot of counting. Like Sesame Street programs. And then pointing and naming, first concrete things like ”eye,” “feeding tube” and “tree,” then graduating to more subtle things like sky, blue, day, night, dark, sun, stars.
That night I moved her gurney out to the opening of the vessel, so she could look up through the branches of the oak tree and see the stars. She was moved to sing a long quavery melody, waving her upper tentacles in rhythmic patterns. It amazed me how expressive these waving patterns were. They seemed to correspond to the things she was expressing. Kind of like the hands of a hula dancer, I would say.
Verbs were tougher, but we both acted out actions, then described them. Once we got an understanding of what we were doing with each other, it went much faster. We were teaching each other our languages, of course, but we were also working out an unspoken meta-language about what we were doing here together. We had no way to say, “I am eager to learn from you,” or “I’m going to demonstrate an action then name it for you,” or “I’ll give you my word for it, then you give me yours.” But we learned these from each other as surely as we learned “one, two, three.”
Her cylinder was the intermediary. It listened, repeated back, improved its pronunciation, remembered, reminded. It was an infinitely patient teacher. Of course it knew her language, so its task was matching up the vocabulary I was teaching it with concepts and words it and she already knew. It would translate her beeps and peeps and trills into my words when it could. It rendered her vocalizations in a voice that was closer to mine, if that makes sense.
Imagine trying to understand your pet crow, which has all kinds of vocalizations. They talk constantly, and loudly (especially just outside my bedroom window at dawn’s first light). Your gizmo renders “crow speak” into English. But it also renders the crows’ not-yet-translatable chatter into “squawk, rack rack,” etc. until words can be assigned to it.
The gizmo was doing the same thing with Breadbox’s utterances.
During all this time, I was smart enough to keep a written and dictated journal of everything we did and taught each other, including some video taken with my phone. If you’re interested in how two such dissimilar beings can gradually teach each other their languages and more, I’ll share it with you. I might even do a whole book about that. Jeez, I could probably get a PhD in “alien linguistics!” Like I need a PhD.
So I won’t go into all the detail here. But since I was spending all day every day with her, it went pretty fast. We could soon say simple things to each other without the cylinder gizmo translating.
My neighbors and co-conspirators made regular appearances, and joined in the vocabulary building exercises with their own contributions. They’d bring along the most outrageous items, and take delight in naming them. Meg brought her two ugly little dogs, whom I call Snappy and Yappy. Breadbox was so excited to see these. At first I wasn’t sure whether she was terrified or delighted, but it turned out to be the latter. So after that, a whole menagerie was shepherded here: cat, horse, mule, bird, goldfish in a bowl. Doc dragged a nanny goat up here and milked it in front of Breadbox, then sipped the milk. Who among us gets an education like this?
Doc was the most steadfast. He took her recovery on as a personal mission. I’d never seen this side of him before. I must say, Clay got a bit jealous. He kinda views me as his special friend. But he had to work all day, including some weekends.
Doc was doing something right, because Breadbox was gaining strength. She could do okay for awhile without her life support tube. She’d climb off the gurney and scurry around on a bunch of her tentacles that became “footlike.” Kind of like a long-legged centipede carrying a piece of luggage on top. She ventured outside, and into the back section of the vessel, where her crew members had been found. She stayed back there a long time by herself, and I could hear her crooning softly.
Besides her centipede feet, she had tentacles left over for gesticulating and pointing and picking things up. She picked up and examined everything within reach. She kept the cylinder gizmo with her all the time, cradled against her with one tentacle spiraled around it. She carried it like a little girl carries her favorite doll.
She was most expressive with her eye stalks and “mouth.” I say mouth, but she didn’t use it for eating or for breathing, but only for talking and singing, as far as I could tell. Don’t ask me to explain how she could use it to talk, but not for breathing.
A month passed. In my neglected house, dirty dishes and laundry and mail and dust all piled up. My inbox had several thousand new emails, and there must have been at least a handful of them that I cared about. The world paid us no heed. Nobody ever came poking around looking for downed aircraft, let alone flying saucers. No alien invasion, for which Breadbox and crew had been the advance scouts. Nor any rescue attempt by angry extra-terrestrials. I hadn’t caught the intergalactic hungy-fungy from her, nor she from me. Life just kept on. Doc fussed around his “patient” doing I don’t know what. I was nursemaid and tutor.
She and I were soon able to carry on simple conversations with the gizmo as translator. I wished I could feed it a dictionary; things would have gone faster. So, what are the first things girls talk about? Why, boyfriends and sex, of course. And fashions.
Were Clay and Doc my mates, and did we have offspring? What was our status? Was I in charge? Or did they force me to stay here and care for her? Why did I wear clothing? Was my hair part of my clothing, or part of me? What was that stuff I dabbed on my face? What did I look like without my clothing? (Yeah, I’d heard that one before.) After a moment of bashfulness, I showed her. She was most fascinated by my various tufts of fur.
“How do your kind procreate?” she asked out of the blue. This was not the birds and bees talk I had imagined giving. Of course we had to show each other how our body parts worked. She wasn’t all that surprised by my equipment, since she’d studied comparative anatomy of the various civilized beings of the confederation of worlds her people belonged to. But I was astounded by hers.
Her kind have four sexes or phases of life, kind of like juvenile, female, male, and mother-in-law. She was transitioning from juvie to girl. She and her crew members had been in this adolescent state of rebelliousness and wildness that happened just before they had to take a mate and raise young for a period in their lives.
After their young were raised, they became male, and in turn took a mate. Or became a warrior or professional or shaman.
The males that survived this phase turned into old grandmas–old matriarchs. Fuss budgets. And the oldest and most conservative of these became the elders who made the rules everyone else had to follow. Hearing her describe them, they sounded for all the world like the cardinals in the Vatican.
Her metallic “breadbox” midriff, she was finally able to explain, was not part of her body, nor was it clothing. It was permanent—I guess more like a plate in your skull. It had to do with injuries or damage she and her people had done to themselves. But it wasn’t till later that I fully understood this.
It was harder for her to explain her prior life and relationships to me, since we had nothing at hand to point to. But wait, we did actually! I dragged out the pads and markers we’d brought down here for me to write on; they’d gotten stuck in the corner behind Doc’s stash. I dragged them out and demonstrated how to use them. Breadbox caught on instantly. She spiraled one thin tentacle delicately around the pen, and made some experimental marks. Soon she was demonstrating quite a skill for sketching.
That evening she disconnected herself from her life support and we went out to the edge of the oak’s overhang where we could get a clear look at the riot of stars overhead. She vibrated her tentacles in excitement. She pointed at stars and sang different melodies for different stars. My guess is that our constellations looked nothing like the stars in her home sky, but she sang a whole repertoire of star songs. I did my best to capture her singing on my recorder.
When we went back into her vessel, she was still excited. She retrieved the drawing pad and began sketching different beings. She was a skilled cartoonist! One of them clearly looked like her. She would then point at one of her sketches, and sing a bit of melody—one of the melodies she’d sung earlier. I presume she was describing to me the different kinds of beings that lived on different worlds. Then she circled two tentacles around the drawing of all of them and said a word that her gizmo translated as “together stars people.”
“Together stars people.” I really liked that.
Then her translating cylinder surprised me by giving me a whole travelogue, using its limited English, on these various beings, and what their worlds were like. It did this without any input from Breadbox, so it must have all this canned info within it. Like a talking encyclopedia. Oh I wanted one!
“What else can your cylinder do?” I asked. “And what do you call it?”
She spoke its name, but the cylinder had trouble finding a suitable term in English. The best it could come up with was “multiple function device.” I’d been calling it the gizmo, but that lacked a certain elegance.
“I don’t know everything it can do,” she confessed. “It helps us navigate the vessel, and watches the systems, like my feeding appliance. But many other things also. My comrade, alas no longer with us, was the expert with the device.”
She would hold it at tentacle-length, pointing it at some instrument on the vessel, and make a request. Like a wizard with a wand, I thought. A wand is something you wave in mysterious ways to make magic happen. Well, she didn’t really wave it, but magic certainly happened. So it’s a wand. A fat, sausagey wand, but a wand nevertheless. When I explained what a wand was used for, they agreed that was a good term for it, and “the wand” repeated its new name.
I quickly dubbed it “Wanda.” Wanda the magic wand.
“Can your wand help you contact your people, so they could come and retrieve you?” I asked.
Her tentacles twitched with strong anxiety, which I had noted before with questions she couldn’t answer.
“Do not wish to contact them,” she said.
“Why not?” I was incredulous. How else would I be able to discharge my responsibility to her? “Does the wand, or the vessel, send a signal telling where you are?”
“We disabled that function. We were going to forbidden places. No communication until successful.” Here she paused and twitched in the most astounding, clashing patterns. Finally, I was hearing some very interesting stories!
“If I fail, it is better that they never know.”
“But surely you want to return home. And now you are recovering your health. Your vessel is destroyed, but they could come rescue you.” Even as I said that I had second thoughts about alerting an alien race of unknown temperament to come to Earth to rescue their surviving prodigal daughter and the remains of her friends. They may presume that the crash was caused by hostile acts on our part. And how could I be certain that did not happen?
But she twittered negation. “They cannot come, because they do not have the instructions to get here even if I could tell them where I am.”
“But your vessel knew how to get here. Surely it could tell them.”
“The instructions were contained in a small metal crystal that was lost in the crash.”
I immediately thought of the small amulet on a chain that had been the harbinger of her arrival when it whizzed overhead and knocked the limb off my tree. I described it to her. “Yes, that may be the crystal.”
But she had no interest in sending such a signal to her home world, I could tell. Her tentacles signaled frustration and indecision and fear.
“Well, then, we’ll have to get your vessel repaired, and you recovered, so that you can return on your own. Would that be a success, and not a failure?”
“If we can repair my vessel, then it should be returned to its rightful home,” she said, with her tentacles drooping.
She was silent for a long time, but her tentacles were working furiously.
“I have never been happier than relaxing here beneath the sun and stars sharing stories with you. You are my true friend.”
She hummed and trilled a little ditty I hadn’t heard before. “This is a song for your world.”
Keep Reading. Chapter 5 “Breadbox Tells Her Story”