Unbound Story Two: The Dead Language

Dead language
Category: Reading


My Great Great Great Grandfather's Diary from Celia Richards


The Dead Language

By Kirstin Innes


The old man staggered forward and leaned against the kiosk. Shirren could smell him even through the protective glass; could smell the whole room behind him. Most of these people hadn’t had access to running water for a week. He repeated the string of  syllables again and again, his voice rising in panic.


Dana’s neon scrap of mouth stretched out around the words.


‘I. Don’t. Know. What. You’re. Saying. Innit.’


The sneer was set on her face, creased in with years of practise.


He flicked his head around wildly, appealing to the people behind him in the queue, who studied the ceiling, and then to Shirren, one booth over.


‘Please,’ he said again. ‘They’ve taken my home. I’ve lost my wife. Help me.’


Shirren could understand him, as probably most of the people in the queue could. But he was speaking old tongue, the dead language, declared a relic before she was born, and kept up only behind closed family doors if at all.


It had been like this all month. Natural Resources were clearing the last few communities from the islands and coastal outposts. Couldn’t even call them villages anymore – just a cluster of stubborn, fish-stinking shacks. Shirren’s gran had grown up in one of them, and they’d taken her back there once. Some holiday.


It was the rocks they’d built those shacks on, though – threaded with glittering silver or natural stripes. Polished up, they built the most beautiful cities in the world, which was lovely, but it meant Shirren and Dana’s department clogged with these stumbling, unwashed old people, barely literate, although most of them had at least a few words in common language. This one was surely faking, to make a point.


He’d fixed on her now, begun moving towards her. Dana folded meaty arms under her bosom (‘sailorspawn’, her gran would have called a big woman like that) and stared at them both.


Shirren’s brother used to talk about pride, back in his teens, before anything revolutionary had been pressed out of him by duty and wage-earning.


‘It’s the language of our family. Our people. We should be proud.’


Our people. That was an old idea, something from the past. Shirren wasn’t proud of these people, she wasn’t proud of old tongue, and she certainly didn’t want that thrawn bitch Dana clocking that she could speak it. A light on the screen beside her flashed, and she broke the man’s rheumy gaze, reached for her headset.


‘Castle Resources, Client Reassignment and Processing. How may I help?’




He was thumping on the glass in front of Dana now, but Shirren tuned him out. To her right the manager, another smooth-faced rich boy up from the south to do his two-year tour, was calling security.


That night though, as the screen filled with the president, lit flatteringly outside his gleaming official residence, she found herself in the cupboard, groping for the book. That aged, musty smell, the spores of dust and salt (‘It’s paper, child,’ her gran had said. ‘It’s what paper smells like.’). It didn’t feel like things from now; the cracked and worn exterior, each fragile leaf silk-thin. She could crumble the whole thing to nothing if she wanted to.


Inside there was text, skinny, unordered and written by her great, great grandfather in old tongue, so she couldn’t make out much of it. She knew he’d been a dangerous man. A freedom fighter, her brother had once said, and their dad had cuffed him round the head for it. An idiot, their dad said.


Her gran said nothing, but she’d placed the book in Shirren’s hands the week before she died. Shirren’s, not her brother’s. The last words, she’d explained, read ‘I love my country.’


Country. That was another old idea, from the past. 




The Next Prompt: Inspiring Songs - we need you to inspire and move the pen of our next writer. What songs do you find inspiring or moving? Give us your answers on facebook and twitter (#thewritesong #unbound) and join us next week to see where our next writer, R.A. Martens will take the story.


For more information on 'It Will Be All Write On The Night' at Unbound, Edinburgh International Book Festival and to read the story so far, go to previous blog post.