Part two of chapter nine: https://www.youngwriterssociety.com/work.php?id=15...
The Fallen King
Liam is learning to listen to the Old Tongue, an ancient language of extreme power... by listening to a waterfall. His Grandpa is trying to help, but it is not going well so far.
“Why won’t you talk to me!” Liam growled under his breath. It had been eight hours, and nothing had changed. He hadn’t heard anything near what Grandpa had said to the flower.
He opened his eyes and glared at the waterfall. He shut them tight and tried to squeeze the words out of the tumbling, roaring, and burbling.
Only a couple minutes later and Grandpa was already back to retrieve him.
Liam burst up in a quick furry of anger. “Nothing. It’s refusing to talk to me!” Liam took a stone and threw it at the water. It tumbled and disappeared into the white foam. He stared at it with malice. It just flowed, unaffected by his rage. “Say something!” He said, lifting his arm to throw another stone, but Grandpa caught his forearm with the cane.
“Do you think yelling at it is going to help?” He asked pointedly.
Liam dropped the stone and looked down, embarrassed. “No.”
“Good, I thought you were smarter than that.” Grandpa sighed and sat down, gesturing for Liam to sit next to him. Liam obliged.
“You should be listening, not commanding. There will come a point when strength of personality and command become important, but that is not yet. You are not speaking to it. First, it must speak to you. You can only open yourself up for its voice. You cannot drag it in,” Grandpa said. “Take a deep breath, Liam. It is talking to you. It is saying things. You’re just not listening.” Liam opened his mouth to protest, but Grandpa held up a hand. “Take a deep breath, Liam. Anger won’t help - at yourself, me, or the waterfall. You may think you’re listening to it, but you’re not. You’re not listening to it. You’re trying to listen past it. Trying to find something that’s not there. Stop. Take what it gives you. If all that it gives you is that burbling and roaring, take that. Notice the individual drop traveling down the waterfall, notice each sound it makes, notice the whole, notice the patterns of sounds that may shift from moment to moment. Clear your mind of your own expectations or demands. Let the water speak into it.”
Liam took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
“I still don’t hear anything,” He said, frustrated, “Maybe I’m just not made for this.”
“No, and no. You’re hearing something, just not what you want to hear. Stop telling your mind what it’s looking for. Just take it. You hear the water. Listen to the water. Just listen to it, notice it, pay attention to it. Do not demand anything of it. Do not drown out the sounds with your imaginations, assumptions, or expectations. Actually, pay attention. It will give you what it has.”
Liam tried again, readjusting his position. "I just keep getting distracted. It's hard not to notice myself instead of the waterfall."
"Yes, paying attention is hard, harder than most people give it credit for. Show me a conversation, and I'll show you two people talking at each other, each only trying to think of what they should say next. Show me someone reading, and I'll show you someone letting each word send them into a cascade of thoughts. Focusing is difficult. Paying attention is difficult, especially when the thing you're paying attention to is not yourself. You'll get better at it, but don't let yourself get distracted by how bad or good you are at it. Just listen."
Liam nodded, still frustrated, but the deep breaths had helped.
The next day was better. He didn’t hear what he wanted, but he didn’t get as angry either. He was getting better at making the normal sound of the waterfall what he wanted.
It wasn’t boring either. When he listened to the sound of the water long enough, he realized it wasn’t all the same, the sounds much more complex than he thought. It was not purely chaotic, but nor was it predictable and repetitive. When he took the time to notice it, he realized there was a lot more to notice than he first thought.
Some light rain sprinkled down at midday, which changed the pitch of the sound, and added the drops on the trees to the sounds of the forest. He didn’t mind the rain, though. It was a nice sound.
Liam had to admit even if it didn’t work yet, Grandpa’s method was much less frustrating.
Over the next couple of days, the scene that had played out on the flower Grandpa had spoken took place at its natural rate. Tiny blades of green pushed their way up through the mud and leaves, becoming grass or the beginnings of larger plants. Green buds appeared on some trees above, along with the little white flower buds on others.
The days were starting to get warm enough that he could take off his cloak near midday and feel the air on his arms.
He wasn’t nearly as frustrated at it all as before. Being able to listen, even if he didn’t hear a voice, was nice. The sounds were changing. There were more birds now, the flowers made a sound as they rustled, the tree branches creaked less, and there seemed to be a bit more water in the falls.
And then suddenly, he heard it. A little past noon on the fifth day, when the sun was shining through the branches with their little sparkles of green buds, he heard a voice.
As he heard it, he frantically pawed at it for more. Liam trying to pull the sound in. But it slipped away like water between his fingers.
“Schwarzbär,” He muttered, and then blushed. Maria would not have approved. He looked around, despite himself. Naming the bear in King’s Speech - a common swear - is said to summon the animal. But of course, it wasn’t true. Sailors did it all the time.
They were at sea when they did it.
He shook the thought off and thought back on the muttering. It had gotten away from him. He’d been too frantic to get it. He had demanded it to come in and thereby not made room for it. He should have just let it fill him. He chastised himself and spent the rest of the day trying just that but was too excited and distracted by how close he’d gotten to do well.
The next day he heard it again. He almost rushed back. Almost. He restrained himself and opened his mind up instead.
He listened, not pulled. Clearing himself of anything but attention to it, making space for whatever would come in.
Suddenly, like a breaking dam, countless other sounds rushed in to fill the empty space. The musical chattering of the birds, the rough stone against his bottom, and the sweet, lively smell of the flowers. He tried to pinpoint the voice, but it had been lost in the flood of the others.
He eased back to normal. Disappointed. How was he supposed to find the voice if everything else was going to be so loud? It was like he was trying to catch only one snowflake in a bucket during a blizzard. He’d never realized how much there was to be noticed. How at every moment, there was something pressing in on him, asking to be listened to. He didn’t have to pull the sounds out, merely give them room.
But how could he give just one voice room?
The others were all so loud, almost seeming frantic to be heard, but the voice felt coy. It was an easily spooked deer.
One week after starting, he was truly beginning to enjoy listening. Yes, the voice was still playing hide and seek, popping out for a moment before hiding back behind everything else again. It was a mutter in a thunderstorm, too quiet to hear, like trying to hear one singer in a choir.
But it was quite a warm day, the warmest it had been all year, so he didn't mind sitting out too much. It was still winter, the breeze cold enough to make his bear arms prickle and shiver, but the sun felt warm on his back, and the plants all seemed to be stretching to catch some of that warmth.
He was beginning to understand why Arwen always liked sitting out on the cliffs. To his young eyes, she had been doing nothing, but now he realized she'd been listening. Listening wasn't easy, but it was rewarding.
Maybe that is why Arwen had been so wonderful to talk to. She had been listening. Like nobody else, when you spoke, she was there to hear you, nothing more or nothing less. Even her words were acts of listening. Searching for the things you hadn’t said yet.
Through that listening, she had earned the right of his full focus. So when she told her stories, he listened to her words. His mind would spin and swirl in them, not merely noticing the words but truly being carried along on the stories peaks and valleys, like a boat at sea -
There it was again, the voice. Cutting through him and entering his core of actual being, not a surface-level sense, but something deep and real.
He focused on it. He opened himself to it, but it was too quiet. It slipped away, gone again.
Liam opened his eyes and looked at the waterfall. The voice was so close. He almost felt like it was still there, just hiding out of reach.
The water was cascading down the rocks, sending mist to make the air sparkle. With the hills on either side and the trees above, it was like the waterfall had a little world of its own.
In this world, the sun streamed through branches that glistened with the tiny emeralds of coming buds. The ground was littered with little blue flowers and other brave blades of plants, the first pioneers of that spring. Butterflies lazily fluttered from flower to flower. Birds swooped among the branches, singing and chattering to each other as they flew in and out of the light that sparkled off the water. They were diving at the fluttering butterflies before catching the wind up into the trees.
Maybe that was it. Maybe the reason he couldn’t hear the waterfall’s voice was because he wasn’t lost in it. He wasn’t floating in it as he had in Arwen’s stories. When Grandpa had spoken the true tongue, he had heard it, seen it, smelt it, tasted it, and felt it.
Maybe he needed to feel the waterfall.
Liam stood up, still looking up at the water, but now a determination had entered him. He felt the same burning energy in his chest when he looked out at the sea and wanted to see that flashing light.
Liam took off his shoes and pulled off his shirt, throwing both aside. He walked out of the circle of stones, feeling the rock and moss beneath his feet. Stepping off the rocks and into the shallow edge of the river, Liam shivered. He had always known the rivers here flowed from the snow-capped mountains, but now he felt it. The rock underwater was smooth from algae, and his feet slid against it as he walked deeper. Liam winced as the water touched his groin. It really was cold.
Now he was close enough to the waterfall that he had to bend his head backward to see its top. He was beneath it, like a subject at the feet of his king. It sounded different this close, deeper. He could feel its roaring vibrating in the stone beneath his feet and the water around him. He could smell from the mist that condensed on his face and made him blink.
Liam smiled, not close enough, though.
In one leap, he dove forward, submerging himself entirely in the water. The cold was like a sucker punch and almost made him gasp reflexively. But he controlled himself, not giving in to his body's panic, and kicked forward, using what he had learned in the sea.
With every kick, swimming got more difficult, the water’s immense weight pushing back on him. It took longer than he expected. He hadn’t really taken into account that for every two kicks he went forward, he’d go back one.
His lungs began to burn from holding his breath, but he wasn’t about to break to the surface. He’d just be sent back to where he started if he did that.
There were moments when he wondered if he was moving at all. He almost turned back for air, but the intense thundering was getting louder. He was moving, if slowly. He knew he shouldn’t turn back.
Or maybe he should, but he knew he wouldn’t.
The thundering was now terribly loud, and it felt like he was wrestling the river itself. Battling it to let him pass. It was stronger than him, but he was faster.
He summoned that burning fire of determination and pushed it into his limbs. With one last great kick, he was through. The weight that had been pushing him back was gone. He had passed under the waterfall.
Reaching forward, Liam felt a rock beneath his hand and grabbed onto it. He kicked, pulled, and broke through the surface, awkwardly clinging to the rock.
It felt like the water had become a near-solid as it pushed down on his back, roaring and splashing around him. He realized the weight pushing at him was not gone but all around him. Luckily, he had pulled himself behind the full brunt of the falls, so it was manageable. Gasping in breaths of air that was almost half mist, he managed to pull himself into a sitting position. The water crashed over him as he spluttered and turned, getting his back against the stone wall.
The weight hurt but also felt cleansing and strengthening, like all the satisfaction and pain of a day’s labor tumbled into moments. The cold played over his entire body, the pure sensory power of it keeping him feeling fresh, despite the difficulty.
Shakily, he grabbed the stone wall behind him and tried to stand. He let the water tumble around him, holding onto the stones for support. It felt like his body had multiplied in weight, but as he poured all of his strength into the attempt, he felt himself begin to rise.
He was standing, truly standing. He let out a gasping laugh that filled his mouth with splashing water. No longer cowering beneath it, he was standing!
The water was in everything: his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears.
He opened his mind up like Grandpa had taught him, taking a deep breath. Suddenly, it was there. The roaring of the water filled his ears, the smell of it in his nose, and the taste of it his mouth. From the bottoms of his feet to the top of his head, he felt it crashing around him.
In it all was the voice. He had no idea how he hadn’t heard it before. It was not hidden in the sounds of the water. It was the water. Its words were spoken in everything from the sounds of the dripping drops to the vibrations of the roaring river. It was in the smell of the mist, in the taste of the cold, in the touch of its movements.
The voice was quiet, like the whispering of a child or the babbling brook, but also loud, like the roar of a god or the crashing of water against stone. It was angry, shaking the very earth, and gentle, slipping over the stone.
It was intensely magnificent. Like when Grandpa had spoken, the voice was more than just one thing. It communicated to more than just one sense, to more than even just the senses. It was reality itself, and existed on every level of experience.It was intensely magnificent. Like when Grandpa had spoken, the voice was more than just one thing. It communicated to more than just one sense, to more than even just the senses. It was reality itself, and existed on every level of experience.
It was speaking to the stone beneath his feet. Well, speaking is too weak - too polite - a word. It was battling and debating as it crashed and cracked.
But at the same time, it was harmonizing and reflecting with the stone. Both were made more powerful and beautiful by the struggle.
Liam could faintly hear that the stone spoke back as well. In a different voice, lower and slower. As the water crashed against them, they pushed back as well.
His strength nearly completely spent, Liam sprang forward, crashing back into the water. Nearly drowning in excitement (and water,) he stumbled and swam away from the waterfall, an easier task than swimming towards it. He reached the far shore and pulled himself onto the stones.
Gasped and spluttering, he crawled ashore, dragging himself into the middle of the circle of stones.
He was so exhausted he could barely lift himself out of the water. He felt like he had been tumbled through a grinding wheel. But at the same time, He felt awakened, and his mind was clear. It was like he had been sick, with his ears clogged up and mind slow, and now, he was healed. His skin felt like it was glowing. The air outside the water was warm compared to the river.
He turned himself onto his back and stared up at the sky, trying to catch his breath. The stone was warm from the sunlight and felt nice against his bareback.
Liam could still hear it, even then. Now that he’d been able to pick it out, he wondered if he ever wouldn’t hear it again. He had always heard it, of course. He had just never realized it. It had always been there, in the crashing and burbling, the muttering and yelling, the debating and harmonizing, but now, he could recognize it.
Around its edges, he could notice other things as well, the trees as they drank from its water, the distant mountains as they groaned from its passing, even the birds as they swooped in its mist. It was all connected. They were all a part of the great symphony, the great conversation.
They, too, spoke, he couldn’t hear them nearly as well, but now he knew they did. He might not be able to understand the words of the waterfall, but he felt them. A man can understand the emotion of an opera sung in a language he didn’t speak.
He knew in time, he might be able to make out those words and eventually speak them.
Liam smiled as he stared up at the sky. Maybe this apprenticeship would be fun.
1. Does it feel like Liam earned the ability to listen?
2. What do you think of the Old Tongue?
3. What does this chapter make you think about Liam?