Jawziya F. Zaman
The Black Sea meant nothing to us. Hidden in the damp crevices of the hull, we were indifferent to the lash and curl of waves that battered the galleys until men lay delirious in pools of congealed vomit, too tired to care. And when that great wooden rot finally juddered to a halt in the port of Messina, the black beasts whose blood was our home darted onto the docks and spread. They bit and scrabbled and shredded in the dark. We inhabited the shrill murmur of animal frequencies, and our particular blindness confined us to shades of black and grey.
It was winter when our hosts spread through your towns, and we began noticing you for the first time. You burned wood in your homes and took your children to festivals in the marketplace where we grew accustomed to the sharp and sweet new smells of what you called Christmas. You were quick and busy in daylight, leaving the comfort of your homes and tending to your commerce and crafts. But when the sky darkened, your bodies huddled together in alehouses, seeking shelter from the sting of the cold. We liked this. At night, you displayed a wonderful intimacy in your brawls and laughter, but all too soon, you would break apart again and shutter yourselves in your houses until first light. The taverns would empty out, and the din of your voices was replaced with a cavernous quiet we found disorienting and unnecessary. This disturbed us so we drew closer to each other, taking comfort in the twisting red hum of our togetherness.
The days shortened and the nights grew longer. You visited your chapels more frequently, and it was there that we sensed the beginnings of an ancient kinship with you. It had nothing to do with you on your knees and your hands clasped at your chest—these were strange rituals that were of no interest to us. But you stood, then, and you sang. You sang and we felt our entire being still to the sound of your voices, the first issuing the sacred call, the second answering high and clear, and the third returning to the original subject. The rope of your interweaving harmonies took us to heights we could scarcely conceive. We heard echoes of our existence in your voices, unbroken cycles of replication and adaptation—each successive version containing a kernel of what came before, stretching back to infinity.
We had never previously formed a bond with any species, regardless of whether we inhabited or observed them. But you were different. In the deep hollows of your cathedrals, we learned the unity of cobalt and lime and copper. Felt the sweet pull of color on glass as our eyes followed the geometry of your devotion. Planks of light refracting through woman, baby, crown, halo—splintering across the floor in brilliant flecks of turquoise, purple, yellow, and red. It was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen.
Of course we grew contemptuous of our original hosts. Primitive beasts, we sneered, as they darted from sewer to trash heap and scrabbled about for their next meal. You bred a fierce restlessness in us and we wanted more. Our discontent curdled and festered in their blood, but they paid us no attention. We muttered against their skins, grew indignant at our internment. We were not made for this furious chittering, this gnashing of teeth. So we took our leave of them and chose you as our new home.
We were elated at what we found. Some of us liked your lungs best, others the hot, sharp coursing of your blood, and we nestled together, replicating and humming with pleasure in your flesh. We wished to communicate our presence, to express our kinship, so we sent you messages in color about who we were. We found where you were softest and stained your skin amethyst purple and the palest yellow. We brought to life ancient designs on your skin, the mysterious grace of circles and rings, to show you how we lived in a timeless cycle of rebirth and reiteration.
We labored diligently to perfect our art all over your bodies, and your skin swelled under our efforts, blossomed a circular crimson. We teemed through you, delighted at the gift of sharing ourselves so deeply with another species. Perhaps it was our newfound content that made us inattentive to the changes in you, but by the time we were roused to it, it was already too late. Your flesh garroted and roiled before turning the color of obsidian. You began dying indiscriminately, and it was a revelation. Since time meant nothing to us, the concept of eradication was only a crude thought experiment with which we occasionally toyed. We had never considered it seriously, or witnessed its ill effects as we did now.
It seemed a great fear had infected you, emptied your churches, and quenched your songs. You thought fire could protect you, so you welcomed it into your homes, on each street corner, and we choked unhappily on carbon and ash. You placed your faith in bales of straw and charred rosemary and amber. You boarded up your houses, fled your neighbors, and abandoned your families. Your healers either hid from their duties or performed meaningless violence on your bodies. We felt the blood rush from you where they slashed you with knives, and we winced with the burn of flesh singed closed. Your colors grew dull and the music withered to silence. We clung to muscle and cilia, suddenly afraid of what would happen next.
When you left your own children to die on the side of the road, we finally understood the depths of your treachery. Quarantine. The vulgarity of it was intolerable. From the beginning, we had cleaved and fissioned and multiplied. Our magnitude was immeasurable, but we were never more than infinite parts of the same whole. There was no word for “I” in our language, no need for it. Being… separate was unthinkable to us. It was obscene. Some among you possessed strength enough to resist this outbreak of barbarism sweeping across your cities, but they were too few in number to struggle against the current. We could abide the shame of you no longer.
Release us, we hissed but you were unhearing of our misery. Only when your hearts stopped were we momentarily free, but there were more, always more of you. You with your secretions and exhalations, passing us on from one meat cage to the next and the next. We fought you for years and then fatigue overtook us and we could fight no more. Finally, in the detritus of your world, your seething pestilence seemed to subside. We wept, scarcely able to believe that our misery was at an end. Relief tremored down our ranks and we laid down our arms and allowed sleep to claim us completely—even though we were forced to consider, for the first time, the possibility of our own extinction.
We did not know how long it had been when we finally regained consciousness in the shadows of your world, in places you would never think to find us. So we watched you again, this time warily. You were different. You’d rewritten the history of your treachery. We bristled at the false names you gave us while we slept—“plague,” “Black Death”—and at the hubris of blaming us for your destruction. Conveniently, there was no place in the new vocabulary for your own cowardice and cruelty. You called our art symptoms and devised complex new warfare in the form of pills and injections to eliminate us completely. We wondered about our original hosts, poor beasts, whom we dismissed so cruelly because we thought ourselves better, deserving of more. In this way, we knew regret for the first time. We should never have left them in the first place.
But it is not in our nature to linger on past mistakes. Our purpose is evolution, and just as you changed, so have we. We are becoming conscious of a beautiful stealth, that familiar murmur at the edge of our awareness. Your clergy, before you made them obsolete, would call it a miracle. All around us, brothers and sisters are born in a dizzying rush of adaptation and mutation. They swell quicker than thought and flourish in nooks and crannies, air, and skin. The beauty of our particular iteration is being written on the scrolls of our successors’ memories, and we recede into the background, content in the knowledge that they will learn from our mistakes and endure in our place.
Jawziya F. Zaman is a lawyer. She currently lives and works in Karachi, Pakistan.