Words… not Voice - a short story

You might find this fiction unexciting.

It’s a simple story with less magic than in a grandma’s tale. Its characters are ordinary village folk... not superheroes. It’s set in a time a century ago... not in some interesting dystopian future. Now that you’ve been fairly warned, and if you are still here, here goes…

“This is awesome, Arit! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we too had these magic pebbles? I would be able to speak with you even at night!” Lexa was brimming with excitement. 

Lexa and Arit were born only a few days apart. As children, they always played together, studied together and helped each other. They were both sixteen now, and very much in love. They had never spoken those three words that traditionally start the bond of a lifetime. But their love was never a hostage to these words. Their wedding was a foregone event, just pending a few years.

Now Lexa was an excitable girl and would easily get carried away. She could chatter non-stop when she was excited. While their love was a source of non-stop fervour, Lexa’s present state of excitement was for another reason. Lexa and Arit had just found out from some travellers that a monk, residing in a cave just outside their small village, was distributing magic pebbles for free. And, these magic pebbles could relay messages to anyone anywhere!

“Hmmm,” Arit responded quietly to Lexa’s excitement. Arit was a complete opposite to Lexa. He was always more composed about things. And quieter as well. While anyone in the village could be called quieter-than-Lexa, he was quiet in the absolute sense too. Nearly always, he contributed the fewest words to any conversation he was a part of.

Even with their contrasting supply of words, they both communicated well. Arit had developed a sieve that allowed him to filter the meaning in Lexa’s seemingly mindless chatter. He could even interpret the speed of her chatter and the pitch of her voice to imply specific emotion and state of mind. 

Arit’s limited contribution of words did not imply he didn’t have a vocabulary. His shoulders communicated his failures and successes. His eyebrows could communicate curiosity. His eyes communicated love. And Lexa perfectly understood them all.

“Let’s go looking for the monk tomorrow,” Arit declared. Anything to make Lexa happy.

Early the next day, Arit brought a couple of mules for them. They set out riding together looking for the monk. They located him that afternoon resting outside the cave he had taken shelter in. They greeted the monk as he opened his eyes.

The monk was a slender old man. And nothing about the features of his face was remarkable. It was almost as if they would not recognize him if they came face-to-face in a few days.

“I know what you are here for,” he said. “Come on in.”

This was easy, they both thought. But there was something about the monk that irked Lexa. Lexa was so good at reading Arit that she immediately noticed that there was no expression on the monk’s already colourless face. There was nothing that the monk’s eyes were communicating. Even his voice was a dull hum... an utter monotone. She had seen a motor car once and the hum of that motorcar had more notes than his voice. He had asked them to come inside the cave but Lexa could not tell if they were welcome.

“I know you have come for the magic pebbles,” the Monk said. “And you can have them. Only, you need to first understand what they are and then you need to fulfil a small condition.”

“We agree,” Lexa said quickly. She was not even thinking about how it would work or what the monk’s condition was. Little did she realise that some day, the whole of humanity will follow her in agreeing mindlessly to terms. Today we all go about downloading apps without a moment’s attention to the operating instructions or the T&C’s.

To put it in a nursery rhyme: 

As long as it’s free

We click “I Agree”!

The monk put his hand inside a sack and fished out a couple of small pebbles. The pebbles were as small and round as cherries. Only their color was a beautiful green. The monk handed them each a pebble as Lexa looked at Arit beaming all her thirty-fours - her teeth and eyes.

“These pebbles have magic in them that allows them to talk to each other, no matter how far apart they are. The other pebble repeats what you tell your own pebble. So you can relate your messages to anyone else with a pebble of their own. Just speak the name followed by your message. The person you name will get your message. It’s that simple!”

“Does this mean we can talk to anyone, anytime and anywhere?” Lexa was getting excited.

“Yes, the ones with their own magic pebbles,” the Monk replied.

This was awesome! This was exactly what Lexa had wanted. “There is a problem, though,” the Monk continued. “Even after a lifetime of work, I have not perfected the magic. The pebbles are able to communicate only the words, not the voice.”

Arit frowned in confusion. “Words, not voice? Whatever… words are enough” Lexa thought.

“Now let me tell you my condition,” said the Monk. “The only price I ask is that you take enough of these magic pebbles for each and every person in your village. These work only if everyone in your village has a pebble of their own.”

This was simple enough. They both counted and got a bagful for all the villagers, bade the monk goodbye and started on their way back.

While riding back, as Lexa’s mule took a bit of a lead over Arit’s, she decided to test her pebble. She nearly sang to her pebble, “Arit, can you hear me?” Her own song made her laugh.

Arit was still in the earshot and could hear Lexa directly. But before he could shout back, the pebble in his palm repeated Lexa’s words. He stared at his pebble in amazement. It worked.

But his pebble sounded strange. Whatever Lexa had said, got repeated word-for-word in a blank monotone. The pebble’s voice - if you could call it that - had no character. Arit could not characterise the voice as male or female. In monotony, it matched the monk’s own. While his pebble had passed on Lexa’s message, it had not passed anything other than her words. Not Lexa’s laughter, not her pause, not the pitch of her sweet voice, not the change of her tone. Just plain words. Arit now understood what the monk had meant when he said, “words, not voice”. As he responded to Lexa through his pebble, she too understood what the monk had meant.

They returned to their village that evening and chatted all night with their pebbles. Actually, Lexa chatted and Arit listened quietly. In fact, Lexa didn’t even realise when Arit dozed off. Magic pebbles did not pass on the Arit’s zzzzzzzzz’s. She herself dozed off soon after.

The next day, they laid out the magic pebbles for distribution at the village plaza. The word of the magic pebbles spread quickly, and the villagers clamoured for them. They were all ecstatic with this new magic in their palms. This magic would make everyone’s life easier now.

Arit and Lexa’s village was home to a close-knit community. The villagers loved spending all of daylight out in the open, and with each other. On any given day in the village, the boundaries between family and neighbourhood were rather blurred.

But within a year of getting the magic pebbles, the entire village started to wear a deserted look. Why would one pop into a neighbour’s home when one could connect using one’s magic pebble? While their use started as convenience, the magic pebbles were starting to open up new unforeseen possibilities for the villagers. The villagers found it convenient to connect with the nearby town for business and were now getting better rates for their agri produce. The pebbles were changing all their lives.

Arit and Lexa too started to use the magic pebbles more and more often. At first, they used them only at night. They would message each other from their own homes. It was great! But within a year, as more of their communication now took place over the magic pebbles, their meetings became fewer. While Arit still wanted to meet, Lexa felt they were better off using the pebbles. There was another reason why she was insisting they use pebbles instead of meeting.

Lexa was using magic pebbles to make new friends outside the village… even those whom she had never met. Lexa’s love of chatting became an asset over the magic pebble and her circle of “pebble” friends grew. This meant she had less time for physical meetings.

Of the many new friends she had made, Matt was her favourite. Matt was a very cool guy from the nearby town. Of course, Lexa had never met Matt face-to-face. But he was very good with words and very sharp of wit. He was the exact opposite of Arit with the magic pebble.

During their pebble conversations, Arit was mostly quiet and hardly had any words. He loved to listen to Lexa but now Lexa could not see his interest through the pebble. But with Matt, it was completely different. It was always more exciting as Matt would tell Lexa of the world out there - a world Lexa didn’t even know existed. He charmed her with the descriptions of bazaars and monuments around the town. 

Once Matt had told her of an impending solar eclipse and it had turned out to be right! It was amazing. Another time he had warned her about going out because there were going to be solar flares! Lexa had warned the entire village and they all stayed inside for three days in fear… but it had turned out to be a false alarm. It got her some angry messages but life went on. Time spent chatting with Matt was still good.

While Lexa was finding fulfillment in her new friendships, Arit was discovering that communicating over magic pebbles was a different ball game he didn’t enjoy. Earlier, if Arit was curious, he only needed to narrow his eyes and Lexa would interpret them perfectly. But now he needed to say "I am curious". If Lexa found Arit's joke funny, she would have to speak "laughing" for Arit's benefit. The entire onus of communication was now on the speaker and the listener needed to do very little. Since it now needed a lot of words - of which Arit had few, he was feeling a bit lost… especially with Lexa.

A couple of years passed and Arit and Lexa had finished their studies and were looking for career opportunities. Marriage was a subject that had started to come up in their conversations with their respective families and friends. While Arit was clear on the matter, Lexa was having doubts.

Things reached a head one summer night, when Lexa got very upset with Arit. Lexa had been telling Arit about all the town-things she had been learning about. Now Arit had been listening to Lexa's tales with interest. He’d been listening to every word because he was keen to learn how much Lexa had been speaking to her new friends. But true to his nature, he was not responding with an intermittent "wow" or "awesome" or some silly exclamation. Lexa felt Arit was not interested in her stories like before. She had already been feeling the spark between them dimming. 

“Arit, I’ll probably tell you something more interesting tomorrow,” Lexa was sarcastic in anger. But the monotone of the magic pebble did not fully replay her disappointment or the tears in her eyes. Arit was not sure about the emotion behind these words. Lexa was not sure about Arit anymore.

All the interesting chit-chat with Matt had made Lexa paint an exciting and attractive picture of him in her mind. He had started to appear as a better prospect than Arit. She decided to set up a meeting with him. Matt was only too glad at the idea and told Lexa he would be happy to come down to the village and they could meet over lunch. They set up a date at the village restaurant.

For the date, Lexa was right on time. But Matt was early. "Hi there," Lexa greeted Matt as she was ushered to his table.

"Hi Lexa," Matt said as he stood up. This was the first time Lexa was meeting him. His face was rather plain, the kind of face that one does not remember if she saw him a few days from today. This was not the first time she had thought this about somebody... she had felt exactly the same for the monk a few years ago. Matt looked nothing like she had imagined.

Just like with the monk, there was something similar about Matt that irked Lexa from the moment he opened his mouth to say hi. She searched for emotion on Matt’s colourless face but could find none. While he had smart things to say, his voice resembled that of the magic pebbles in its monotonous quality.

He had no tone in his voice and no emotion. His conversation had no pauses and he never stressed any syllables, including when he said “I like you” to Lexa. He did not gesticulate as he spoke. He never even moved a muscle in the face other than the lips.

And then it dawned on her. Matt was the same as the monk. Too much of magic pebbles had turned Matt's voice into a monotone and had turned his colour into a monochrome. He had lost all body language.

Hell… he had lost everything that the magic pebbles did not communicate across. The monk had told them he had not perfected his magic… that the pebbles would pass on just words, but not voice. Thanks to the magic pebbles, Matt had words but had lost his voice, his meaning.

Her mind cluttered with these thoughts, she kept uncharacteristically quiet. "I see you have hardly touched your lunch. Aren’t you hungry?” Matt asked.

“No,” Lexa responded. Matt continued to talk.

As he finished his lunch, Matt too started to feel a bit disappointed in her. Unlike the Lexa he knew over the magic pebbles, the live Lexa was disappointing.

While she was a disappointment to Matt, he was pure torture to her. His monotones were killing her. It was like being with an information brochure.

As they stood up to leave, Matt tried to be polite. “Would you like to meet again?" he monotoned.

"No, Matt," Lexa responded in the same breath. Lexa was sure. Matt too was relieved. They said their goodbyes.

As she left for home, she passed a shop front and glanced at her own reflection. A sudden feeling of horror stabbed Lexa. Hadn’t she been using the magic pebble with everyone for the last few years? Had the magic pebbles turned her too into this monotone-monochrome machine? The terror of this thought made her miss a breath. There was only one way to find out. Lexa started running.

She was breathless by the time she knocked on Arit's door. Arit opened, his eyes widened at seeing Lexa. As their meetings had reduced in frequency, Arit had started to feel the distance between them increasing. Today he was seeing her after months of despair. But here she was. His surprise turned into relief.

But Lexa’s relief was astronomical. The familiar reassurance in Arit's sad eyes returned the colour to her cheeks. She hugged Arit tight... very tight.

As she hugged Arit, she noticed Arit’s pebble lying alone in a corner. She could hear it speaking about a job interview that Arit had probably applied for. She understood that there was no getting away from them. But these pebbles had not been a credit to starting a new relationship or even nurturing an old one. She would never again place her true relationships at the mercy of these pebbles… they were just pebbles.

Thank God she was back to both - Arit and her senses.

Happy end to the unexciting fictional story.

Now to an unexciting true story.

This too is a simple one like the one you just read. Even worse, there’s no magic this time. Its characters are the same ordinary Arit and Lexa... no superheroes again. It’s set in a village in the present times... again not in some interesting dystopian future.

This story starts with Arit and Lexa in love, just as the previous one did. Everything's nearly the same... only there is no monk or magic pebbles... there is only WhatsApp.



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