I bring my six-year-old Gennie to the listening caves by the sea for her first training. I tell her to be brave, as the elders bind her eyes against all light for thirty days. She cries that night, the next. Elder Pippa permits me to hold her the third day until she quiets. I whisper to her: “You must wait in the darkness until the voices begin to speak inside. You will grow to be a good listener for our clan.”
I leave her again, wait with the others, try not to hear her cries.
As thirty days pass, my child’s outer hearing dims. The voices of our ancestors surge in, water running up sand. I remember how I trembled as a child, myself, in the caves. How my body fought the bindings, how I emerged startled by the new world. When Gennie speaks the secret words that link us all, Pippa removes my daughter’s bandages. We welcome her home with three curries and the darkest of breads.
* * *
Only a few children have ever left the caves during their training. They escape at night. We find them, sometimes, on the shore, bandages ripped from their eyes, or wandering like lost ones. Some we never find. We mourn them all as if they are our dead, because we know they will not survive in the world as it is now, not without the voices.
Here is the real dilemma: Even when our children hear, they become lost to us. Less than a hundred of us remain by the sea now. Houses stand open to the wind, empty, because our voices don’t tell us the most important thing: how to keep our children.
* * *
Elder Pippa performs a ritual. She asks the ancestors to bring us a sign. And walking by the sea the next night, I find the boy. Tide is at its fullest, no moon. I shine no lights because I am listening for the great bodies dragging through sand, our sea turtles finding safety above tideline to dig their nests. White jelly eggs, buried in darkness, will be guided by ancient memories. The hatchlings always find their way back to the sea.
I am asleep by these unborn eggs, sun-warmed sand under my cheek, when something wakes me. The stars shed faint light but I can see the boy, curled by the breakers. White cloth, like torn-off bandages, pool by his hands. Thin streaks of blood line his cheek.
I scramble to my feet, run to the village to get help. The child is gone when Pippa and I return.
* * *
Years pass. My daughter grows into young womanhood, restless, questioning. Her ability to hear the inner voices is dimming now, and I know she too will leave us soon. One more house will be empty, wind from the sea scouring its walls.
Then one afternoon she brings home a young man, a stranger she found wandering on the beach like an amnesiac. I see on his face the white lines of long-healed scratches.
I see Pippa also studying these carefully, like they are the sign we’ve been seeking.
In his palm is a broken turtle egg. “I counted,” he reassures us. “I saw all the hatchlings swimming in the sea.” He smiles so sweetly I suck in my breath.
“You’ve been swimming too.” Pippa’s ancient face is still full of sorrows, but welcome is in her eyes. “Let me dry those clothes.”
Later, we have a meal together. As we wash the iron pots, the wooden bowl, I hear Gennie and the boy laughing together outside. Then the boy begins to sing. It’s an old song we sing the children in their cave time, to soothe them before they hear their own voices.
Pippa sang it to me, when I was a child. The sound led me deeper into myself, into listening.
I’m lost in remembering when I hear her. Gennie’s voice is rising, too. Harmony soars through our old rooms like fresh wind from the sea. The song ends, Gennie laughs, and they grow still. I am watching from the terrace, and on his face is the struggle of a certain listening. A struggle we are all born to. I imagine him focused on the wind, the hiss and surge of waves on shore, the clatter of drying grasses hanging by a house’s sand-pink walls. Then hearing the voices that always murmur beneath the tide.
“It will rain by morning,” the young man says at last.
Startled, I look up at the sky, blue and cloudless. We have needed gentle rain for these years, as we have needed our lost children. I hear Pippa exhaling slowly, gratefully.
“This is what I hear too,” she says.
Mary Carroll Moore’s short fiction and poetry has been published and/or won awards with Fictive Dream, Quay, Pitkin Review, Glimmer Train Press, Santa Fe Writers, and other publications. Her queer YA novel, Qualities of Light, was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her second novel, A Woman’s Guide to Search & Rescue, will be released in 2023. One of her short stories, “Breathing Room,” won an honorable mention in the 2005 McKnight Awards for Creative Prose and was a top-ten finalist in the 2001 Loft Mentor Series Awards judged by Amy Bloom. Another, “Blindness,” was a finalist in the 2021 Tobias Wolff flash fiction awards with The Bellingham Review.