For Bogi Takács
In the Fourth Year of the Hydra, the Mother of All Squid built a library.
This, according to the whales, was foolishness. The Mother of All Squid sent fifteen of her bodies to the whales, asking them for stories from their journeys, or perhaps a bit of ambergris or a songbook.
"Foolishness," said the whales. "Libraries are things of the upper worlds. Their books are made from weeds which would wither in the deep. And they must be read in the blinding light of the sun."
"Do you think," said the Mother of All Squid, "that I cannot build a thing in my own way?"
She had heard the whales speak about libraries before, after all, and she saw no reason a creature of her stature should not have such a beautiful thing.
"Foolishness," said the whales again, and they swam back to the upper worlds, eating two of her bodies on the way without even saying thank you.
The Mother of All Squid built her library out of crushed clamshells and stone from the deepest vents. She allocated six thousand bodies to the task, three thousand picking up seamlessly when the other three thousand needed rest.
There was no rest for her mind. While she assembled the walls, she took one hundred more bodies as emissaries to the flame-eels, who had only one body apiece and who were covered in ever-shifting lights. Of the species who spoke with light, flame-eels were the brightest and most beautiful—at least everyone thought so apart from the whales, who said the best lights belonged to the upper worlds.
The Mother of All Squid requested a tribute. Because she was beneficent, and because she had shared her wisdom with the eels and made treaties to keep the whales away, several eels volunteered, all young and at their brightest.
The flame-eels staged a festival to mark the occasion. The volunteers paraded through a canyon, decked in trains of bone and sand. The rest of the flame-eels sang songs of praise. All their lights flickered in unison, wishing the volunteers all the dragonfish they could swallow in the afterworld.
Then the Mother of All Squid took them, hooked the barbs of her tentacles under their skin, and flayed them.
Each volunteer took pains to say something important as they died. One told half the tale of an ancient war, while another sang a lullaby, and a third shone with the passion of courtship. The Mother of All Squid was precise, and took care to keep them alive until the last of the skin was removed. The resulting skins were beautiful and clear, each message perfectly preserved.
Finally the Mother of All Squid stretched the skins against the library's smooth stone, holding them in place with discarded barbs. Flame-eels came for miles to see it. They wept with delight, rainbows shivering from their teeth to the tips of their tails. And the Mother of All Squid—who, admittedly, had a bit of a vain streak—was pleased.
"Foolishness," said the whales. "This is not a library."
The Mother of All Squid pointed out that she now had twenty eelskins, containing everything from family sagas to treatises on cell biology. In the Mother of all Squid's opinion she was doing very well.
In the whales' opinion, the Mother of All Squid was only useful as a snack.
She endured their hunger and then, with a remaining body, called to them from a safe distance. "Well, do you have any libraries?"
"We need none," said the whales, "for we have the finest songs in the ocean, instead."
"Goodness," said the Mother of All Squid. "That does sound very nice."
"It is far better than eel-lights."
"It sounds extremely nice," said the Mother of All Squid. "If only my library had a song like that! That would be real knowledge, the likes of which I have not seen, since I am so small and live so far down in the dark."
The Mother of All Squid had been around a long time, after all, and she knew the pride of whales. She spoke winningly to them until one small whale said,
"Perhaps I can stay here and help. I have lived my time and fathered sufficient children. I am known for my songs, and content to be remembered through them."
The other whales protested, but he had made up his mind, and one by one they swam away.
"Sing to me," the Mother of All Squid urged. So the whale sang until she memorized every note.
"Thank you," she said. "That was so beautiful. It is just what I need." Then she hooked her barbs into the skin behind his unresisting nose.
"This," she said kindly, "might hurt a little."
The Mother of All Squid spent a long time arranging corals beneath the whale's skin, allowing water to whistle through them. For months she tuned every note, deepened the timbre, and amplified the highest peals.
"This will be foolishness," said the whales when they returned. "It will be nothing." But the Mother of All Squid lifted a curtain, and a mournful, beautiful song poured out. The flame-eels cavorted, but the whales were silent a long time.
"That is him," they said at last. "You have made him immortal."
And they swam away.
If you ask the whales now, they will say this:
Yes, the Mother of All Squid has a library. The lights of a thousand flame-eels dance on the walls. She did well.
They do not mention music. But every few years, a whale swims down to that place and does not return, and his song is heard across the sea forever.