The Color of Silence
By Alex Huffman and L.A.Parker
©Alex Huffman ©L.A.Parker
Mandy should have never left Home Base that morning. Walking right by the guards, chip in hand, pretending she was following orders to see her Father, one of the several people that had banned her from leaving. She was breaking the rules. And she knew better, especially after her Father allowed her the second wish on her birthday list.
“When you turn twelve, you can dye your hair cherry red like you wanted,” he’d said. “But you can’t go Outside.”
Grey and dull as it might be, venturing Outside was what Mandy had wanted most. Being bound to the five-mile radius of the Base gave her chills, and made her want to pull her hair out and scream. After living like that her entire life, Home Base was beginning to feel like an inescapable seizure of blinding colors, noise, and people. Everything in abundance all at once, with people talking shouting, everything in neon colors with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
She needed quiet.
Mandy wanted to hear, for the first time ever, the sound of silence. She wanted to watch the herds of frost bison lumber through the sheets of snow, their webbed claws gripping the permafrost for stabilization. So when her Father forgot his microchip and set off with his research team, Mandy had leapt at the opportunity.
She’d left the Home Base in a neon orange thermo suit, snow boots, and a balaclava. In her backpack she carried her Father’s microchip and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
At first, Outside was wonderful. It was a wonderland of ice: white, cold, and gleaming. Even the distant sun, which offered little refuge from the bitter winds, could not drown out the peaceful absence of color.
Mandy thought this might be why Home Base was so bright. Like a geode, the station’s plain, sleek outer shell sheltered the sparkling interior. Whether it was a neon thermo-suit or streaks of lime green hair dye, everyone -even the orderly scientists- wore something vivid. But Mandy was beginning to see that too much color could be just as dull as no color at all. She marveled at the refreshing shades of pale blue, grey, and white for hours, kicking through piles of snow without a sound. It was like magic, until she saw it.
A snow goblin stood several feet away from her, and she froze. It looked at her with bulbous, cold blue eyes.
But of course it wasn’t a goblin. It was one of those strange humanoids that populated the small planet in sparse throngs. Their short, broad statures and large, pointed ears is what had led the scientists to call them goblins.
The thing wore a thick, furry parka embellished with animal fangs. From what Mandy had learned in school, this snow goblin was male. His short, downy fur was pearl white with a childish peach fuzz to it. He couldn’t be more than ten years old, and he was stuck in a hole in the ice, trying desperately to get out.
“Hey,” Mandy called. “Are you hurt?”
The little humanoid boy pinned his ears. The patch of long, scruffy fur extending from his head, all the way down the back of his neck rose upward.
A violent sound escaped his lips, a warning, with his pupils dilating angrily in the midst of his pale blue sclera.
Mandy took a step back, wondering what she should do. He looked like he really needed help, but wondered if he would hurt her if she went near him. She cleared her throat wondering what she should say next.
“Do you need help?” she asked.
Mandy felt silly for talking, knowing the goblins didn’t speak. The only sounds they could make were ones of distress or anger. Instead, they used a sequence of finger and hand gestures, sign language her father called it, to communicate with each other.
The researchers at Home Base had programmed a computer to decipher the signs, but the precise grammar patterns were still unclear. ‘If only they could talk,’ one purple-haired researcher said last year, then no one would need to learn the basic signs at all.
Mandy had learned basic signs when she was young, like Stay Away, so that if she grew up to be a patrol or a scientist, they could communicate on a primitive level with the snow goblins.
There was one rule between the snow goblins and humans: the scientists could explore, as long as they did not interfere or interact with the tribe.
As long as they reinforced that basic law- “Stay Away”- the human explorers would not be killed.
Mandy turned to leave but heard the boy whimper. She paused, feeling the snow crunch slightly, under her boots as she dug her heels into the ground in a half turn. The boy looked frightened as he pulled helplessly at the ground, too weak to pull himself up.
Mandy took a step closer to him.
Under his bulky parka, the little snow goblin had a pudgy layer of baby fat keeping him warm, though not enough to keep him alive through a night in the freezing winds.
He squirmed and whimpered again.
Mandy took another step closer to him. Then another. She stopped, wondering if he would bite. He started to cry.
Frowning, Mandy walked over to him and plopped down in the snow, in front of the little boy. Twisting one of her bright red braids, she contemplated her choices. If Mandy didn’t do something, he would die… but she didn’t want to breach the Rule, either.
‘They are not so different from us,’ her father once said.
Mandy did what she thought her father would do. Motioning to herself, she signed the word Help, and pointed to the little boy. He whimpered again. Since he couldn’t twist around, Mandy squatted behind him, placing her hands beneath his armpits. Pushing up with her legs, she tried to lift him out of the ice.
The ice beneath her feet gave way, and both she and the little boy plummeted beneath the surface. Freezing air rushed past her and Mandy screamed.
She landed with a thud on her backside, the impact knocking the wind out of her as she stared with wide eyes at the hole in the ice above.
She didn’t hurt like she thought she would. She pressed her hand against the ground. It felt spongy.
Rolling over, Mandy noticed the grayish hue to the molded ground and wondered what the substance was. She looked around to see if the little boy was alright and was surprised to find him far away in a corner. He was trembling and bared his small baby teeth, ready to defend himself if she attacked. Up close, away from the sunlight, he looked even more babyish.
Mandy sighed and looked up at the ceiling. It was still midday. If they worked together, they could find a way out of here. Worst case scenario was waiting for the patrols to start looking for her tracks with heat seeking scanners and find her tomorrow.
Unless the hole was frozen over by then.
Her thermo suit would prevent her from getting frostbite when night fell… but she couldn’t say the same for the snow goblin. It was colder underneath the icy surface.
Mandy slung her backpack into her lap and took out the two PB&J sandwiches she’d brought with her. Slowly she got up and made her way over to the boy, holding one of the sandwiches out to him.
He turned his stubby nose up and made noise that resembled a huff. She edged closer to him, holding the sandwich closer to his face. He turned his back to her. She pulled at one of her red braids and stepped a little ways away from him.
Keeping her eyes on his rigid back, she sat down. Mandy took a bite of her own sandwich, after chewing for several moments, she saw him eyeing it with a mixture of curiosity and disdain.
Mandy stifled a giggle at his rueful attitude and she wondered how she must look to him. Loud, disruptive and bright.
“What’s your name?” she called.
He was silent.
She tried again. “Don’t you have a sign or something for that?” He looked at her with wide eyes tilting his head a little ways to the left.
“Alright, since you won’t-or can’t- tell me your real name,” Mandy joked, “I’m calling you Silence.” Her voice echoed in the dark cave eerily.
Silence flinched, haughtily fixing his ice blue eyes on Mandy. His downy fur peaked up slightly as he continued to look at her without blinking.
She lifted the other sandwich to him again, this time signing Eat and Gift, hoping he would understand that she was giving him the food.
Silence twitched his ears, before sniffing the air tentatively. To ease his suspicion, Mandy took another bit out of her own PB&J and tossed the sandwich to him. It landed next to his foot, and Silence picked it up carefully.
After several long moments, he bit it, tilting his head with surprise. He stuck out his peanut butter plastered tongue, and tried to lick the roof of his mouth. Mandy giggled remembering how she had slathered the paste onto the bread slices that morning. He seemed to like the taste of it, and swallowed the sandwich in three large bites. He sniffed the air again and looked back at Mandy with his unblinking eyes.
Silence inched closer to Mandy, signing something along the lines of Grateful… or was it Ugly? She tried to remember if she had learned that sign before. He signed another word that Mandy didn’t know, pointing to her animatedly and swirling his hands above his head, and motioned towards the hole in the ceiling, glancing back at her expectantly.
“Right,” Mandy whispered, “do you think there’s a way to get out?”
Silence’s face went blank in confusion. Unable to understand her, he repeated the strange sign, swirling sign again and stood quickly. He wasn’t much taller than Mandy.
“I have to think, I don’t know what you’re trying to say or do…” Mandy tapped her temple, trying to make him understand and stood as well. He parroted the tapping gesture, ears twitching curiously.
Mandy looked up sharply, an idea suddenly striking her. Silence must have been separated from his tribe while hunting, judging from his attire. If that was the case, then they were probably searching for him!
Mandy gestured at her thermo suit’s sleeve, making a sawing motion. Mandy hoped that Silence understood. If she gave him some of her thermo suit he would be able to keep his hands warm.
Silence nodded quickly, signing the unknown gesture again. Rummaging through his parka, he pulled out a rough, little white knife made of bone and cut some fabric from Mandy’s sleeve. He yanked the leather cord that laced along the edges of his parka and tied it to the orange fabric, using the knife he cut several long strips from the parka, letting bits of white fur fall airily to the floor. When he was finished he tied the knife to the orange fabric.
“A flag,” Mandy realized with a laugh. Silence tapped his temple. Mandy did the same, signing Good. She didn’t know the sign for ‘Idea,’ but she figured Silence was smart enough to understand what she was trying to say. A flag was much better than her idea and the orange clothe would surely attract someone’s attention. Silence held the makeshift item to her.
Mandy whirled the cord like a lasso aiming for the hole in the ceiling, and flung it as hard as she could upward. The flag fell short of the ceiling by several feet. She whirled it again, and jumped when the bone-made knife clattered noisily against the iced roof. Silence signed several movements but Mandy was unable to figure out what he was trying to say. He held his hand out expectantly.
“Do you want to try?” she asked, hoping that was what he meant.
Silence took the flag and began to swing it slowly in a circle. He held the end of the rope and continued to circle the flag faster and faster. Mandy took a step away from him, fearing the edge of the flying knife. He let the flag fly out of his hands and sail up though the hole. He waited a moment and pulled it back down.
“What did you do that for?” Mandy asked incredulous. Silence looked at her and tilted his head, before repeating the process once, twice, and a third time.
“Oh,” said Mandy, finally understanding. A moving flag would attract more attention than a stationary one. Silence threw the handmade flag up through the hole several more times, and Mandy watched as the orange fabric and knife flew high through the hole. Each time he threw, Silence looked at Mandy, angling his body so she could see how he threw.
“Are you teaching me?” she asked. Silence made the unknown gesture again, swirling his hands above his head. He handed her the flag, placing her hands at different areas of the rope. He helped her swing and she tried to copy him as best as she could. She closed her eyes and threw the flag up, waiting for the clattering to start. She heard nothing.
Mandy looked up in surprise to see the rope hanging from the hole!
“I did it!” she cried.
Mandy pulled the item down and tried again and again, and Silence watched unblinking at her excitement. He made a strange noise from his throat that sounded like a laugh.
After that they took turns throwing the orange flag up through the space over and over again, hoping that the brightly colored, moving object would capture someone’s attention.
The sky gradually darkened as night fell and Silence and Mandy’s flag tossing turns grew shorter and shorter, taking longer breaks in between. It was getting colder and Mandy’s arms were sore and stiff. She started to worry again about staying the night underneath the frozen surface. She glanced back up at the hole and noticed that it looked smaller. As the light vanished from the hole, Mandy saw Silence begin to shake.
Huddling together, she tried to keep Silence as warm as possible, wrapping his exposed four-fingered hands in her balaclava.
With no light, Silence and Mandy sat shivering. After another few moments she heard something.
Mandy and Silence looked up suddenly and heard unintelligible shouts coming from above. A thick rope was lowered into the ceiling’s hole, dropped to the floor with a slight thump. After sniffing it, Silence grabbed onto the rope, tugging the end twice. The rope pulled back up, taking Silence with it. Mandy stood terrified, wondering who was on the other side. Was it her father or the goblins?
Slowly, Silence was pulled and through the hole. After several long moments, the rope was dropped through again. Mandy grabbed onto the cord tightly and tugged. Mandy felt her feet lift off of the spongy ground and tightened her grip even more. She swung slightly as she rose up and through the hole. Strong hands grabbed Mandy’s arms, pulling her to safety. It was then that she remembered the Rule, and how she had broken it…and then she noticed the warm, gloved hands did not look human.
To her horror, she came face to face with a full grown female snow goblin. Just as she tried to take a step away, Silence gave a little yelp, ducking into the female’s arms.
“Is that your Mom?” Mandy asked. Silence made another hand gesture.
Whoever she was, she was flanked by what looked like half of the tribe, all armed menacingly with fishing spears.
Terrified, Mandy swallowed hard. Silence’s mother, with her dappled grey coat of sleek fur, eyed her coldly through glacier-blue eyes. Her gaze darted back to her son, who began to hastily sign again. Mandy hoped it was an explanation. She didn’t want to think of what the other members slowly, began to sign back. Anxiously, she waited her eyes glued to Silence as she watched him sign faster and faster to his mother.
Suddenly, she saw it again: the strange sign that Silence had done earlier. Silence’s mother sighed, softening her cautious glare. She lowered her spear, and the rest of the tribe followed suit.
Silence glanced up at the sky with bright, unblinking eyes. Scampering past his mother’s protective grasp, he tugged on Mandy’s sleeve, pointing upward in excitement.
Mandy sucked in a sharp breath. Ethereal waves of green and violet light swam across the dark sky like shimmering ghosts- a Borealis.
Silence’s fuzzy ears pricked up happily as he pointed at the lights and then at Mandy, repeating the same strange sign over and over. But she was still confused.
“What about the Borealis?” Mandy asked, watching Silence point at the sky and then at her. She looked down at herself, wondering what was wrong.
Pinning his ears, Silence uttered a squeaky growl of frustration. Shooting Mandy a meaningful look, he pinched the orange sleeve of her thermo suit, letting it snap back sharply when he let go.
“Ouch! Silence, what was that for?!” Mandy shouted in protest, causing the entire tribe to flinch warily, lifting their spears. But Silence didn’t budge. He just continued to stare at her, waiting for Mandy to piece his message together. He looked exasperated.
Realization suddenly washed over her as Mandy fought a grin, afraid it might look like a snarl to the tribe. Instead, she repeated Silence’s gesture. ‘Borealis’, she signed, and then pointed to herself.
Silence pricked his ears again, making joyful little noises that were somewhere between a purr and a whistle. Mandy laughed. Silence had named her Borealis, because of her bright red hair and neon thermo suit! It must have been the closest word they had for ‘Color.’
Eventually, the tribe started to move back out on their way. Silence reluctantly scampered after them, signing ‘Farewell’ to Mandy. She copied him, and watched the tribe fade into the misty white before she started off for home.
As she walked back to Home Base, Mandy prepared herself for the lecture she’d have to sit through when her Father found out about her little nature walk. She didn’t care. She hoped one day to see Silence again and that thought made her smile. Even if she was grounded for a year, it was still worth it. Because if she hadn’t ventured Outside, she wouldn’t have discovered the Color of Silence.