“Do you know any songs, Fisher?”
There seemed to be more weeds than water holding up the boat. Each time the oar came out, it had a new wrapping of shimmering green hair. Fisher gave it a shake and the weeds slipped off, slithering and spinning down into the murk. They waited until the boat had stopped before dipping the oar again, thinking of the aging hydraulics in their elbow joints. As a service machine, they had the instinct to conserve whatever they could wherever possible.
And it was a necessary instinct. Much of their body was already a replacement of a replacement, and unless joints or pistons started floating up with the weeds, they wouldn’t be easy to replace again. But Fisher’s instinct for conservation was an inherited trait as well. When Doctor would splay out his hands over the things Fisher had brought back in their fishing net, he would sometimes murmur: “I do like to see that old things are put to good use.”
“No songs? Is that not the sort of thing you’d keep in your memory? Well, I suppose you have to consider the practical things.”
The only landmark on the wide water was a protruding bulk of stone that cut up sharply through the horizon. Otherwise, from the water’s surface, one spot seemed the same as any — but Fisher knew that before the water there was a square, and in the centre a sundial. Doctor had shown them a photograph of a crowd standing where Fisher was now unfolding their net. Even now, the water flashed with streaks of the same sunlight that had reached down to tell the time of day. The difference, Fisher knew, was that it was now fish, not people, that gathered beneath to worship it.
Fisher dropped the net overboard and, glad of the chance to expose their solar receptors, laid back under the copper sun. They used to spend this time recording whatever they could about the weather, the tides, the fleeting wildlife, but as Doctor’s interest in those things dwindled, Fisher began to stick to collecting fish and weeds. And since Doctor had relented to Fisher’s insistence on bringing him food, Fisher too had relented to Doctor’s request to bring back whatever else came up in the net. Sometimes, Doctor would agree to eat while he scavenged hungrily through it.
“If not music, then I wonder if you’ve heard of an instrument—quite recent, in fact, only two-hundred years old—called a theremin? It was an instrument designed to be played without needing to be touched. Now, what do you think about that?”
“…Well, yes, it is an efficient design. But I wonder, does that make your body the instrument, and the theremin just a way of giving it sound? Hm. Either way—the sound is like nothing you could imagine.”
Usually it was only mist or swooping birds that came between Fisher and their view of the blue sky and the black water. Today, another boat bobbed out from behind the stone mound, and swayed like a pebble until it came to a stop. Fisher, already sitting up to ready the winch, watched it, wondering which of the islands it had come from—though they were all more or less the same, so Doctor said. He usually said it after Fisher told him they had seen a boat, and that more and more boats were coming from the islands. They have buildings on dry land, Fisher would say. They’re all the same, more or less—and none of them have libraries, Doctor would grunt. Fisher would no longer respond that they couldn’t know unless they visited.
Now, an arm the length of an eyelash stretched up from the distant boat, and an echo of a human voice came with it. Fisher waited for the sound to dissolve before lifting one of their own arms as high as the warped aluminium casing on their head. They didn’t expend energy calling out in return. After a moment, the other boat passed under the squat shadow of the tower that still rose out of the stone ruin, and went out of sight. Fisher, having counted ten minutes, started turning the handle on the winch with creaking elbows.
“What was I—oh, yes, the song. And old, old song, but I’ve never forgotten it. ‘There were two sisters…’ Well, in short, one sister is jealous of the other, and she drowns her in a river. When the murdered sister floats ashore her body is found by a musician, who takes her bones and makes them into a harp.”
There were no books, no photographs in the net—Doctor’s most prized finds—but Fisher, rinsing a curved piece of stone in the water, decided that today’s haul of plastic and glass and roof slate was as good as any. There was enough fish for a few days, and enough detritus left to keep Doctor satisfied. Just as well; if tomorrow were cloudy, as Fisher expected, it would be too much of a risk to leave the library. As long as there was enough to last them that long, Fisher would be content to let Doctor do what he wanted with the rest of the catch.
They shook the piece of stone dry, and were just about to put it back in the net when they paused. With the dirt washed off, the stone was unmistakably white; it seemed to glow next to the dull steel of their hand. Fisher hesitated. They inspected the lightly mottled, porous surface, and traced the gentle curve with their finger. They imagined that, if they held it up to their head, it might fit over their internal components better than the repurposed aluminium. But rather than doing that—and rather than dropping it back into the water as they had strongly considered—Fisher left it with the other things they knew Doctor would be anxious to bring back to life.
“The musician takes the harp to the sisters’ father—but before he can play it, it starts to sing on its own. It sings about the jealous sister, and the river, and how the woman herself was drowned. Even after death, her bones tell the whole tale.”
It was simple enough getting back into the library. Fisher merely rowed the little boat through the open window that gaped like a fish’s mouth at the level of the water, before mooring the boat on the banister of a half-submerged staircase. As they climbed past the sign reading “Second Floor: Arts and Media”, the contrast between below and above was immediately stark; for while the water had seeped both colour and contents out of the first floor, the second floor was saturated with sheer stuff. Bookshelves intersected the space, pushed to wherever they were useful. Pages ripped from books, pictures cut out of posters, and extracts from musical scores fluttered about on the walls. Newspaper cuttings and broad regional maps peered through occasionally from behind in flashes of yellowed paper and torn corners and faded words: “Preparation”…“World”…“Rising”.
On an old study desk there were heaps of plastic and glass and stone, all sorted and categorised and earmarked for some transformation that hadn’t yet occurred. On another desk there were rows of tools and metal wires lying on sheets of neatly marked paper and, in the middle, an old radio transmitter on top of a disassembled record player. Fisher lingered for a moment, noticing something else that had been added since that morning: a large hardback book titled Cinema and Sound.
“Fisher? Is that you?”
By way of an answer, Fisher weaved around a wall of shelves and came out into a space that was bare and bald of decoration and cramped together with everything needed to make a place liveable. After the previous room, such useful things seemed like an afterthought. And despite the sun, heating units stood in ranks around the high-backed chair, which, at present, Doctor was leaning forwards in, hands poised on the armrest as if about to rise. Seeing Fisher, he paused, and smiling crookedly he pushed grey hair out of his eyes.
“Oh—a full net!”
Doctor cleared his throat, and got to his feet as Fisher took the fish to the cooler. They left the net itself at Doctor’s feet.
“Efficient as ever, Fisher,” Doctor remarked, crouching over the latest catch. “Efficient as ever,” he repeated more softly, interrupted by a short cough. When Fisher came and replaced the blanket that had fallen off his shoulders, he gave an absent-minded nod. “More for the stores, then? No sense letting it go to waste.”
Fisher, after seeing to the fish, went to check their generator’s solar battery. With relief, they saw there was enough energy stored to last a couple of cloudy days. When Fisher turned back to report this to Doctor, however, they saw him holding something close to his eyes. There was a flash of white between his fingers.
“…Skull,” he breathed.
Before Fisher could move, Doctor had stumbled to his feet. When Fisher caught up to him past another barricade of shelves he was standing over another table, blocked off from the rest of the room. On the table were a tibia and a femur; part of a pelvis; a scattered assortment of ribs and vertebrae; and a single clavicle. Each bone was carefully arranged to haunt the spaces where they might once have fitted into a body.
As Fisher watched, Doctor placed the piece of skull a foot above the clavicle and surveyed his collection with heavy eyes.
“Fisher,” he murmured. His fingertips held the edge of the table. “The power we have stored—”
“Forty-one kilowatts,” Fisher recited in a monotone. The pitch modulator in their voice was not a priority for repairs. “Enough for approximately two—”
“We don’t need all that in storage, do we?”
“There may be little sunlight—”
“Fisher,” Doctor cut in, shivering as he stared down the length of the table. “I know it hasn’t worked—but this piece could make all the difference. The skull is so resonant; did you know that, underwater, humans hear through the bones in their head instead of their ears? And—Fisher, look what someone has done to this poor soul. The pelvic fracture, this break in the skull—this person died in a furious, terrible way. I might be able to recover something of the truth.”
He was interrupted by coughs erupting deep in his throat, and this time, he didn’t shake Fisher off when they came with a blanket. All the same he went on, his voice withered to a whisper, all urgent fricatives and restless quavers.
“Fisher—listen. Remember the theremin? The instrument played without needing to be touched. You remember? Its inventor also built listening devices: bugs. They were almost impossible to detect, activated at a distance—without needing to be touched. One was even disguised inside a gift to an ambassador and stayed hidden in plain sight for years. Well, that bug inspired a film—a film about a man who plants bugs, who discovers that he himself has been bugged. He tears apart his whole house to find it—but the one, harmless thing he doesn’t touch is an instrument; a saxophone, I think. But—the bug is in the instrument. Do you see?”
Doctor moved slowly out from under Fisher’s hand and glanced out between the shelves towards his blueprints.
“It might not be ready. But, for this person’s sake…to rebalance an injustice. If I can put it all together again, I might just save another thing from being lost.”
Turning back to the bones, he put a hand on a shelf to steady himself. Even this was taking a toll.
“Remember the song I told you about? Remember…the harp? Both a record and an instrument. Our bones remember. And they…”
His slurred voice failed. When Doctor opened his mouth again, he was singing under his breath. “He made a harp of her breastbone…and it began to play alone.”
They had draped blankets over the shelves, and a small lantern now provided their only light. The bones, seeming almost transparent in the haze, were connected by wires that fed like nerves into the modified record player in Fisher’s hands.
“Okay, Fisher—at my word, turn on the amplifier. If it all works, these wires—” He gestured to the skeleton’s improvised nervous system. “—Should act much like the needle that reads a record. The radio signal should illuminate—activate—the sound information itself. No need to even touch the bones.”
Doctor set his radio transmitter on the table before stepping back, out of the lantern light. Fisher resisted the urge to move towards him as he coughed, and swallowed, before he spoke.
In a single smooth rotation Fisher turned the dial, and out of the damp silence rose a sound. It was harsh, metallic, pierced by a high-voiced note like a diving bird. As the sound grew louder it grew rougher, crunching and spiralling. Whether it was music or something else, the sound was like nothing Fisher could have imagined. From the stiff way Doctor held himself in the shadow, Fisher knew he was enraptured.
As the sound swelled to its highest point and the bones between them began to rattle on the table, Doctor twitched, mumbling something Fisher couldn’t make out. His fingers grappled excitedly with themselves. Then there was a sudden dry crack from the amplifier, and Doctor jolted. He threw out a hand to catch himself on the table, but the nudge knocked the bones, which skittered over the wood. Doctor gasped, and in his haste to put them right he staggered forwards and sent a shower of bones to the floor.
Doctor’s cry caught in his throat, and like that he was bent double coughing. Fisher didn’t hesitate before slamming the record player on the table and pulling out the wires, shutting off the transmitter, then tearing down the blanket ceiling in order to wrap Doctor up as sunlight bled over them both.
“Wait—a few more seconds—”
There was only a weak resistance as Fisher guided Doctor back towards the only other soft things in the library, and when Doctor found himself sitting again in his chair, he didn’t have the strength to object.
“Fisher,” he managed after accepting the water they gave him. He cleared his throat rather than taking a sip. “You must have heard the crack—the split going through the skull. There’s no doubt—no, I’m not thirsty. The final blow—a terrible, destructive thing. That poor…”
He was sagging in his seat. Eventually, he gave into Fisher’s insistence and drank some water.
“Poor soul,” he finished at last. His eyes were falling closed, but when Fisher’s hand touched his shoulder, he smiled.
“My Efficiency Assistant—wasn’t that what I came up with? I still prefer Fisher.” He laughed. “If only I’d known you would really end up fishing back when you were helping me fish around for tools in the workshop.” He blinked, and his smile wavered. “You’re coming apart a bit, aren’t you? I’ll have to see to you soon.”
Fisher didn’t reply. They made to pull away towards the still-draining generator, but Doctor caught them by the wrist. Fisher saw the joints in his fingers were almost as sharp as the exposed metal in their own.
“I feel like we’ve started to put something right, don’t you? And once even more of them is found…we can put the pieces together once and for all.”
After two days of rain, the weeds came up thicker than ever on Fisher’s oar. By the time they came to their usual spot, they had given up shaking them off.
Once the net had dropped, Fisher waited under the sorely missed sun and gazed ahead at the crumbling stone mound—a cathedral, Doctor said. As they were hoisting the net up, the other boat drifted out from behind the ruin. Like the last time, an arm waved in greeting, and a voice echoed off the water. Fisher didn’t respond, distracted by the lack of fish in the net and thinking whether to drop it again and wait a little longer. After the death of the solar battery overnight, Fisher felt the need to be near Doctor as much as possible while he was recovering from the cold; but the prospect of running out of food didn’t sit well.
Glancing once more at the other boat, Fisher wondered again about the islands. Changing Doctor’s mind seemed unlikely. His preoccupation with “putting the pieces together” went further than one skeleton and its ghostly song. Fisher had some idea that the scraps of paper layering the sunken library’s walls (and his patchwork of theories about haunted harps and theremins) spoke to a greater longing for something that was gone. All the food and dry land in the world wouldn’t matter to Doctor without it.
In the end, they decided to pick up the oar.
It was only when Fisher was turning the boat that they began to wonder what the other boat was coming here from the islands for. What any of the boats came here for. It wasn’t food; they hadn’t seen anyone fishing, and the islands presumably had no shortage. Fisher couldn’t think what else there was to make it worthwhile. But then, maybe it wasn’t out of necessity that they spent the fuel to make the journey. Perhaps, Fisher thought, it was the cathedral itself or someone buried there that the boat was coming to visit.
From the pictures Doctor had shown Fisher, the sloping graveyard had reached almost up to the edge of the town. There must be thousands of graves trapped under the water. And when they had seen those pictures, Fisher had hoped that Doctor might make the connection with the bones that sometimes appeared in their net; but even looking at the rows of headstones, Doctor never questioned that the bones came from one person alone. Fisher didn’t think it would do any good to suggest otherwise. They supposed that what Doctor was trying to do wasn’t so different from stopping by a grave that was lost under water and weeds. The inconvenience of the water mattered about as much as earth and stone ever had to someone revisiting the dead.
Though Fisher didn’t change course, they took one last look at the other boat, and decided to send a sound across the water before it went out of sight. They thought, from the way the person raised their arm again, that they must have caught the word “Hello” before the wind swallowed it up.