AT FIRST, THE black clouds gathered as if in contemplation. Like a herd of dark thoughts, they quickly gave way to action. The storm, when it followed, was unlike any that had ever been seen before. The clouds lapped around the skies like tortured waves. Thunder followed, rolling uneasily behind the grey curtained sky; the day turned to night, and was only illuminated with brief, jagged strikes of lightning.
The storm rode the world, from end to end.
The next day, everything seemed settled, back to normal. People chalked it up to environmental change, global warming. Freak conditions that were an increasingly familiar presence. Still, they darted odd little looks to the sky, as if sensing something had changed, even if they weren’t sure what.
Running through the muddy courtyard, Kenny ran into the abattoir and slammed the heavy metal doors behind him. ‘I heard it was a month’s rain in an hour,’ he muttered, though none of his workmates ever listened to him. Scowling, he picked up his bolt gun and walked over to the nearest cow. They were all isolated in their pens and couldn’t see what was happening around them. Kenny tried not to think about whether or not they understood what was about to occur.
‘Sorry mate,’ he said, raising the gun to the cow’s skull.
It was the softest voice. Kenny hesitated. He looked around, but no one was even looking his way. He shrugged and raised the gun again. The cow was staring up at him, its big black eyes locked on his. ‘Please,’ said a voice again, ‘why am I in here? I don’t like the smell. Where’s my mother?’
Kenny dropped the bolt gun and staggered back.
His mind simultaneously overwhelmed yet blank, he stumbled back out into the yard. He walked without thinking and bumped into Pete.
‘Hi Pete,’ he said, numbly, automatically.
Pete was staring into space. ‘I just heard two birds talking to each other.’
Kenny stared at him for a long moment. Then asked, ‘What did they say?’
THE FIRST REPORTS started to come in later that morning: the animals were speaking. It started quietly, with the odd overheard exchange. A rousing dawn chorus. Then, though tentative at first, the phenomenon quickly escalated. All around the world, animals of every kind were suddenly realising they could communicate and were doing so with increasing confidence.
First they engaged with each other, then they turned to the humans.
And they had a lot to say.
The fish thought they were being overfished. The birds were tired of the scraps on the ground and the weird metal noises in the sky. The dogs professed their love, the cats demanded more. At first they were curious, inquisitive, but then the animals started to ask some uncomfortable questions.
The farm animals wanted to know why they were being eaten, and nobody knew how to respond. It was difficult to explain properly, you see. Complicated. Then the birds wanted to know why their trees were disappearing. Moles wanted to know who they were harming with their important tunnels. Badgers wanted to know why they were being culled and demanded reparations.
Some animals wondered how they had become endangered, and why?
Unprepared, humanity blinked.
THERE WAS A strange sound carried on the morning wind. Plaintive, pained, both familiar and yet not. Omar left his work to follow it because it could not be ignored. He walked until he had left the people behind, but not the mark they left.
When Omar found the elephant it was weeping. ‘Hello?’ he asked, timidly, for he had heard the news, ‘Why do you cry?’
The elephant composed itself, blowing its trunk loudly. ‘My herd is scattered. My young sister is gone. Little is left of my mother. Men came, I am told, and attacked us for no reason. We did no harm. We do no harm.’
Omar’ s head dropped. How to explain? ‘They are called poachers.’
‘What do they want?’
Now it was Omar who wanted to cry. ‘Your tusks,’ he hesitated. ‘Your skins.’
The elephant was silent, then. Its trunk swayed slightly, its ears flapped as if agitated. ‘But why?’
Omar sat down on a rock and tried to explain the horrendous practice. Some pieces were used in medicines, others were turned into trinkets. They were rare. Valuable.
The huge elephant listened in silence. Its confusion made it seem oddly frail. ‘So...they won’t be coming back?’
Omar shook his head, saddened.
The elephant considered for a while. ‘I would like to talk to these...poachers.’
Omar felt uncomfortable. He imagined the elephant’s fury would be terrifying. ‘What would you say to them?’
Slowly, ponderously, the elephant turned away. ‘I would like to walk with them, and talk about our dead, and all that they have meant. They will understand. They are not beasts.’
Omar released the breath he had been holding since the strange conversation had begun. He hoped they would listen. Surely they would. ‘I will walk with you,’ he said, ‘and I will help you speak to them, and help them to listen.’
Stranger things had happened, after all.
BY EVENING, THE animals’ questions were maturing, expanding. They were peeling back the layers as they found them.
Exchanging experiences, they were piecing together the world.
Their queries became daunting. What are zoos for? Why is the ice melting? Where are the mice you took away to help you? We miss them so.
The spiders were especially aggrieved. At first they wanted to know why so many humans killed them on sight, but they were shouted down by the flies, wanting answers of their own.
Terse exchanges, one of many along the food chain.
WHEN ROGER ORDERED the lobster, he wasn’t prepared for the chorus of condemnation. He looked around, startled, but all of the other customers were just staring into their laps, embarrassed. Nobody had ordered anything, he noticed.
A waiter was passing, so he stopped him. ‘Excuse me, did you hear all that noise? I want to make a complaint.’
Wincing, the waiter nodded over towards the lobster tank, then hurried on. Roger glanced at it, frowning. Inside, a group of lobsters were huddled together, their pincers twitching almost rhythmically.
Roger stared at the plumpest one. He licked his top lip. Was it his imagination, or were the lobsters all staring at him?
‘Haven’t you heard the news?’ A woman hissed across at him from another table. ‘The animals have changed. All of them. They’re off the menu!’
Off the menu? Roger was appalled. He had been a critic for The Gourmet’s Gourmet for twenty years. What did she mean, off?
‘No, that won’t do,’ he muttered. He waved the waiter over and pointed at the lobster tank. ‘Yes, I’d like to order the lobster. That one on the right.’
The waiter looked pale. ‘They won’t like that, sir.’
Roger bristled. Good lord. What had got into everyone? Standing up abruptly, Roger stormed over to the lobster tank and pointed. ‘This one, if you would be so good.’
Peculiar sounds bubbled up and the tank frothed. Roger stepped back. There were voices, but they were muted, submerged. Angry. He bent down and peered at the lobsters. It almost seemed like they were looking back at him. The frenzied bubbles escaping from them could, to a fanciful man, appear to be words. Roger was aware of the waiter standing behind him.
‘It began this morning,’ he said. ‘They realised we could hear them. At first they just commented on everyone, they seemed amused, but then they seemed to realise what happened here... Now they want to be released, they want us to stop.’
Roger strained to understand the wet, watery words. He tried to pretend he couldn’t comprehend them, but they were talking. And they understood why their tank was here. ‘Nonsense,’ Roger said, trying to avoid the implications. ‘Rubbish! I expect better from an experienced professional like yourself.’
The waiter looked tired, but then he straightened. ‘You cannot ignore them sir, though that may be your inclination at first.’
The frothing words in the tank intensified. Roger felt as if all of the lobsters were regarding him intently, which was absurd of course.
Roger watched as the waiter tried to placate them. ‘Please,’ he began, ‘people will change, but some will be slow – they will not immediately understand.’
Despite himself, Roger tried to pick out words emerging from the water. His eyes widened. What he thought he heard terrified him. ‘What did they say?’
The waiter stepped away. ‘They are...unsettled.’
Roger strained. The lobsters were repeating the same thing over and over again, like a mantra. ‘Boil him alive! Then bring him to us! We’re sure he’ll be tastier for it. Tastier, yes!’
Once you heard it, it became impossible to ignore. The other customers were leaving. Some of them were crying. The waiter brushed past Roger on his way to the kitchen. ‘I can’t listen anymore. Terrible, isn’t it? We can finally talk, but can’t bear to hear.’
Roger didn’t know what to say. ‘Are you saying I can’t get any lobster?’
The waiter stared at him, then shook his head and left Roger and the lobsters to stare at each other across a gulf of baleful silence.
ACROSS THE DAY the interactions multiplied, diverging into equally hostile and forgiving moments. The animals’ questions, however, only multiplied, and none of the answers satisfied. The animals complained about pollution, asked what was happening to the rainforests, the oceans. People became uncomfortable, they realised the world was talking back, it was taking them to task, and they didn’t know how to respond. The inhabitants of the world, for the first time, talked among themselves, and their conversations were strange, provocative.
Bethany, in Oregon, talked to her twelve-year-old labrador, who thanked her for nursing it through an illness as a pup. In Puerto Rico, after years lost, Miguel’s pet cat found his way home by getting directions. In Paris, Jean’s pet rat gently scolded him for the quality of the cheese he fed it. While in London, a Staffordshire terrier explained to the young girl he pulled along during his walks why he so liked to revisit the same stretch of street. It was the scent from a nearby bakery, which reminded him of the alley where he last saw his mother.
Meanwhile, a man hunting a lion on a holiday safari was compelled to put down his gun and flee when it turned and called out loudly to him, ‘Come closer, coward!’
The animals’ thoughts and observations baffled and excited in equal measure, yet their world view enabled people to consider the planet afresh. The world had become bigger. Smaller.
IN MOSCOW, TIMUR was about to lower a mouse into his snake’s cage when it started to plead with him. ‘Oh! Stop! Wait!’
But the snake interrupted, ‘Pleassse, I’m ssso hungry.’
Timur held the mouse and tried to understand where the words were coming from. They sounded small, slithery, weak, yet they were growing in cadence, in strength. Neither had the right larynx, the organ needed for speech. He was a biology student, he knew this. Had they changed? Been changed?
‘I can speak,’ said the mouse, sharing his fascination, ‘but how do I know what to say?’
Timur explained about the storm, and the snake hissed. ‘Weather? How would that affect usss?’
‘A trigger, perhaps,’ Timur mused, ‘sparking something that was already there?’
‘How extraordinary.’ The mouse sounded thrilled. ‘Just imagine! All the things we can share, all the things we can say! But why now?’
‘Because we need each other,’ Timur wondered aloud, ‘and we’ve been ignoring each other too long.’
They were all quiet then, pondering. Each hoped little conversations like this were blossoming around the world.
‘MORE NEWS IS coming in now regarding today’s event. People are being told to stay away from any animals. Avoid your pets. Do not engage, do not listen. Show caution, and keep your distance. Furthermore, any speculation about the nature of last night’s storm is dangerous. A special broadcast will be made later today. The prime minister is preparing an announcement...’
The newscasters cried caution, and the talking heads on the TV screens looked uneasy, but by the end of the day people were siding with their pets and blocking the politicians out. These were conversations, not confrontations.
They were talking about the day after, not the night before. And it was clear. This day was a new day.
AT MIDNIGHT, A minister’s cat came into his parliamentary office and calmly sat on his newspaper. ‘What’s fracking?’ it asked.
But the cat got in before the excuses. ‘You can’t do it.’
‘What? Why not?’ the politician blustered.
‘It’s our world too, you know. People have to take a wider considera-tion now.’
The politician listened and nodded while the cat talked. When it left, he reached for the phone and angrily went through the numbers. Something had to be done–
He stopped. He was used to silencing people, used to putting out smear stories, used to undermining his rivals, piling up the lies.
But how did you silence the world itself?
TRUDGING THROUGH THE mud, Kenny opened up the last stall, releasing the final cow. ‘Off you go,’ he said. ‘There’s a big field round the back.’
‘Do I take a left or a right?’
‘Thanks.’ The cow trotted amiably away, and Kenny watched it go. The sun was dipping fast, giving the horizon a warm glow. He wondered if the animals would go back to normal tomorrow, or if they were changed forever. What a crazy world that would be.
He walked over to the fence that surrounded the field and sat on it as he heard the cows muttering in the distance. Some of them laughed at a joke, and Kenny smiled at the sound.
Would it be so crazy? Kenny pondered this, then wondered if the animals started to mess up the world, would the trees start talking? And what then?
Beneath him, muffled by the mud, he heard two worms gossiping. In the distance two bats were giving each other directions.
Uncertain, but certainly hopeful, Kenny slid off the fence and walked home.