This story is paired with Chapter XXII of Bulfinch’s Mythology. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
I never thought a sound could make you sick. I mean, come on, I’m just the data girl—in my defense, it’s only been a few months since I discovered that the ocean even made strange sounds.
Kawika first told me about Unidentified Oceanic Noises over dinner at some kitschy seaside grill in Kona. I’d just finished day one as a data entry assistant at the Keahou Oceanic Acoustics Lab, a research ship full of nerds permanently docked off the west coast of Hawai`i’s Big Island. Instead of focusing on my spreadsheets all afternoon, I found myself staring across the room at the guy who was watching lines flower into hydrophone graphs on a computer screen while tapping his fingers to the Sun Ra tunes pulsing through his headphones. When 4:30 rolled around and he invited me out instead of confronting me about my blatant creepiness, I was eager to take advantage of his offer.
“So let me get this straight: you’re basically looking for nothing every day?” I asked as we worked through a second order of tempura.
“Here at the lab, pretty much. Those big-time NOAA hydrophone arrays, on the other hand, find stuff like crazy,” Kawika explained, glancing at the dashboard hula dolls flanked by bottles of mai tai syrup over at the bar.
Julia, he continued, was the name used for one unidentified sound that NOAA picked up in 1999. A sound called Julia—such a personable, seductive name. No cold string of numbers and letters there. Whoever came up with that had the right idea.
On a stationary research vessel where half of the staff catalogues oceanic noises while the rest sit by the sea pen speaking to dolphins for the cetacean language acquisition project, the eccentricity bar is set pretty high: but I think Kawika is still the strangest of the bunch. Weirdest of all is his habit of always blocking his ears with headphones while he works.
“How can you find a UON if you’re listening to post-jazz?” I asked him when we were friendly enough to start really annoying each other. He just shrugged.
“I’ll see it, yeah?” he said, pointing to the screen.
“But it’s a sound,” I retorted. “Don’t you need to hear it?”
His music—today, a bagpipe-rock band—screeched louder than the dolphins at feeding time.
“Trust me, if you really find a UON, you don’t want to hear it,” Kawika said, turning back toward the computer. “It can really freak you out,” was all he added when I pressed further.
I should have listened to him. Instead, I offered to fill in when Kawika suddenly had to make an emergency trip to Honolulu to take care of his dad. When I showed up that morning, Kawika had left me a scratched Shostakovich CD, an entire box of prog rock albums from the 70s, and a letter full of detailed instructions.
“So, yeah—watch the screen, take some notes, whatever. Just make sure you keep the music on.
I tried to follow his rules, but it’s hard to listen to Yes when you can’t stop thinking about what the things the hydrophone picked up might sound like. Were they bass-drum booms overlaid with soaring pitches straight from an Atlantean monastery? Or might the unexplored Pacific whisper a song as softly eerie as the bioluminescent creatures that enacted unseen rituals of light and death alone in the dark? I was obsessed, so tantalized that I had to do backbends in my chair every few minutes to distract myself from giving in.
Still, I couldn’t hold out forever. When I finally saw what looked like a small mountain range of noise mapped on the screen, I couldn’t resist. I listened.
And now, two weeks after I heard the sound, these dreams have me too far gone to even talk to Kawika about it. The worst came tonight—the fifteenth in a series of visions that started when that atonal melody bled from the sea into my brain.
In the dream, I’m at the bottom of the ocean, immobile in the midnight zone. Suspended in the water, I start thinking about specimen jars with slack-jawed morays and big-eyed gulper eels caught mid-choke forever.
Then she shows up.
I feel like the center of a ripple. Seven dots of light line each side of her glowing torso. Curling tentacles frame her face. I can see through her skin to veins and ligaments beneath rows of gills.
And teeth. I imagine a fetal hammerhead frozen in formalin.
As the sound seeps down into the dark water, though, I find myself more transfixed than terrified. I want a riptide to swell our bodies together. I want her to glow through me.
When I wake up, I’m too tired to go back to sleep. I get out of bed, slide open the screen doors, and take the shortcut to the beach. I cut through some of the resorts, where tourists bicker as they rub aloe on each other’s burned backs instead of enjoying a romantic evening on the lanai. At one hotel, a man with an ukulele croons while two hula dancers sway around him, tapping their ipo gourds on the ground in front of aloha-shirted onlookers. I can’t hear a thing.
I finally slip off near the catamaran launch site at the Royal Waikoloan and walk past the sandbar. The water creeps between my thighs. The noise from my dreams swims around me more than the sea does, stroking my skin and dripping down the side of my neck. I dive, and maybe it’s just the moon rising over Maui in the distance, but just in front of me, barely out of reach, I think I see a brief flash of bioluminescence—a light singing to me to follow while the sound pushes me under.
Keely Sarr is a Massachusetts-based writer and arts educator originally from Volcano, Hawai’i. Keely studied creative writing at Cornell University, where she received the Dorothy Sugarman Poetry Prize and the George Harmon Coxe Award for Fiction. Keely’s work has appeared in Spellbound, inkscrawl, and Leodegraunce.