As the holiday time is getting closer, I’m re-posting this piece, which I wrote a few years back.

“The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang is a story about the Earthly creatures we fail to hear. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking at times, but overall ends on a positive note with the parrot telling us, humans, “You be good. I love you.”

The parrot basically forgives the humans for driving her species to extinction. “Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.”

Would carp say it if granted the power of speech on a Christmas Eve? …

Here is my version of the story…

(Be sure to check out the note below “After Reading “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang. )

The Silent Cry

Christmas has its share of outlandish legends and traditions, such as gravity-defying reindeer, Santa Claus sneaking through chimneys to deliver presents to those who were good, or the belief that at midnight on Christmas Eve, animals gain the power of speech.

That last legend — common in Eastern and Central Europe where I come from — refers to farm animals and household pets alike and stems from the belief that Jesus’s birth occurred at exactly midnight on Christmas Day, leading to various supernatural occurrences. (Many speculate that the myth has pagan roots, tracing its origins to the festival Saturnalia in ancient Rome; or that it may have morphed from the belief that the ox and donkey in the Nativity stable bowed down when Jesus was born.)

Whatever it’s origin the belief is that this is the one night of the year when the animals gain the magical ability to speak. In some versions of the story, the animals speak to each other to plot revenge against neglectful owners.

The legend may reflect the longing of the humans to communicate with the nonhuman life.

Humans have been longing for communication with nonhuman life since the beginning of time. 

But, to date, no aliens have been found on the nearby planets or even in the most remote corners of our galaxy that we can only explore by use of advanced devices, such as the Hubble telescope. Despite frequent claims of UFO encounters, none have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, so no aliens visited our Earth to the best of our knowledge.

The earthly nonhuman life is all we have to practice our communication skills in the meantime.

But back to Christmas traditions; one of them involves live carp, taking a swim in a bathtub.

“What kind of Christmas tradition is that?” you may inquire. You probably never heard of such a thing. It’s a tradition that’s not as ubiquitous as in the past when millions of bathtubs across Central and Eastern Europe were inhabited by a humble carp. You may wonder why and how a bottom-dweller ended up swimming in circles in chlorinated waters in concrete apartment buildings, where their owners bathed just hours before. It surely can’t be this species’ natural habitat.

The reason is rather prosaic: live fish maintains freshness better, which is essential if the home doesn’t have proper refrigeration. The fish was brought in a plastic bag and popped into the tub, where he swam in circles before being killed and eaten on the night of Christmas Eve.

Carp is not from space. Carp is as local and humble as they get.

But carp is perhaps also as otherworldly as they get.

Is carp trying to communicate with us? It’s hard to tell.

Humans, for sure, aren’t trying to communicate with carp. Or even pay him any attention.

I wonder what carp would tell us if he had a voice on that night; animal to animal, heart to heart, a nonhuman to a human.

Would he ask us for mercy, beg to return him to his home waters?

Or would he be joining us in singing Christmas carols?

As the ‘Silent Night’ carol tunes out, the prayers and wishes for peace and love come from everywhere. But carp in the tub conjures no pity, no love, no compassion.

Swimming in a tub or bucket, desperately gasping for air, glancing at us with his alien, fishy eyes—carp is extraterrestrial, un-cuddly, and un-cute.    

“Silent Night” by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber is one of the most ubiquitous Christmas carols, translated into at least 140 human languages. It has not been translated into any nonhuman languages to date.

“Silent Night” was believed to have magical powers, calming and bringing peace to the human soul. On more than one occasion in both World Wars, fighting at Christmas was brought to a temporary close by troops singing their native versions of “Silent Night” to one another across the front line.

Alas, it brings no peace for nonhuman species.

It doesn’t stop the killing in the kitchens and slaughterhouses.

So, carp faces silent death to the tune of the “Silent Night.”

Death comes slowly. First, by almost-suffocation in half-empty tanks and buckets, gasping for a breath, and later, uttering a silent cry when the bloody ritual takes place, a bloody sacrifice in the name of the traditional recipes and the cult of the “freshest possible ingredients.”

So, what carp would tell us if he could talk, or if we could understand his language?

‘Carp’ and ‘talk’ seem like an oxymoron because, of course, fish can’t talk in human language.

There’s this Polish saying, ‘Dzieci i ryby glosu nie maja,’ which means “children and fish have no voice.” Children (just like fish) should be seen and not heard.

And, of course, no one can talk when underwater.

That doesn’t mean that sea animals don’t communicate with each other; it’s just that it’s a voice-less communication, one that we cannot hear or comprehend.

Is fish even an animal? Some question that. On multiple occasions, well-meaning humans offered me fish (or even chicken) when I told them I was vegan. “Surely you can eat that!” they’d say. Did they sleep through the biology class about the difference in plant and animal kingdom?

But fish—just as all other animals—stay silent, even on Christmas Eve.

And maybe it’s for the best.

Truth can hurt. Silence can carry heavier reproach than an angry cry sometimes.

The things a carp would tell us might hurt our feelings and destroy our self-image as a kind and compassionate species, which we frequently are.

Just not toward carp.

And not toward most other nonhuman animal species, dozens of which disappear each day from the face of our planet in the ongoing Sixth extinction event, also called the Anthropocene extinction, because it’s happening mainly as a result of human activity.

Like so many others, carp don’t have the good fortune of experiencing our benevolence.

The campaigns against buying live carp have been spreading around Poland for some time, spurred by animal rights groups that bought television and print ads to change consumers’ minds. Protesting the grim ritual, demonstrators, some with their faces painted like carp, have been holding protests outside grocery shops chanting, “Free the carp!”

Willing to follow their heart and show compassion on a holy night, many visit the stores and buy carp that’s already dead. ‘Don’t buy live carp’, says the slogan. ‘Don’t play the executioner.’ So that’s what they’re doing.

The campaign was picked up by celebrity chefs, tired of having to use the same humble ingredient year after year, with some chefs asking the shoppers to switch from carp to a salmon.  

But is that fair toward the salmon? Salmon might want a say in that.

And what about other species?

Italians celebrate the Feast of Seven Dishes, with octopus on their plate. Octopuses can solve puzzles, use tools, and communicate with color. They also squirt ink, open jars, and occasionally pull a prank or two. Their remarkable intelligence and cunning ways surprises even the biologists who study them and their equally weird cousins—the squids and cuttlefish.

Carp can’t do any of that.

According to a group of scientists, the lovable octopus, nature’s aquatic contortionists, might actually be not of this world. Researchers who mapped out the genetic code of octopuses found it to be so strange that it could actually be an extraterrestrial.

Fish and other sea creatures rarely find themselves on the receiving end of our compassion. They are far more likely to find themselves on the end of the fishing line, their body thorn by the sharp hook, pulled from their element, into the atmosphere that’s deadly. 

They don’t scream in pain, don’t shout in anger, don’t plea or beg for mercy.

Fish and octopuses tell us nothing. Even on the night of Christmas Eve.

Octopuses may be aliens living on Earth.

What if octopuses and other nonhuman animals are the only aliens we’ll ever encounter?

What’s if it’s our only chance of communicating with foreign life?

Maybe it’s for the best. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so eager to find an extraterrestrial life.

What if they treated us as we treat carp and octopus?

Or decide that we’re the most cruel and unethical tribe of the entire universe and sentence us to life in misery or capital punishment?

But is it too late for us? Perhaps we can still change things.

What if we make an effort to really ‘be good’?

What if start treating all animals like we would like to be treated by more advanced life forms?

And by doing that, we may still have hope for ‘I love you.’

Even if they all stay silent on Christmas Eve.

After Reading “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang

Reading “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang stopped me in my tracks. It was around Christmas when I came across it, while researching flash fiction (I’ve never heard of such literary form before and I wanted to try it as an exercise in creative writing).

The Great Silence is a story about the Earthly creatures we fail to hear.

The piece is beautiful and heartbreaking at times, but overall ends on a positive note with the parrot telling us, humans, “You be good. I love you.”

The parrot forgives the humans for driving her species to extinction. “Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.”

Would carp say it if granted the power of speech on a Christmas Eve?

Or an octopus?

What about a dairy cow, whose child was taken from her for the sake of milk?

Or a pig on her way to the slaughterhouse?

A fox skinned alive?

Baby chick suffocated just because he was a boy?

Would they forgive us? Say they don’t blame us? And do we even care?

The Silent Night played in the background, and that’s when “The Silent Cry” emerged.

It felt like an out-pour of some collective awareness that’s bigger and more encompassing than any one human brain.  

It was like a transmission from the Universe, which hears everything, remembers everything, every breath and every cry.

A voice-less communication without words that through me has found its way to be translated into human language. A communication from non-humans to all humans.

On a Christmas night.

PS. Check out my book, A Taste of Love: Eat, Love, Vegan (Recipes for Love and Life)

Read “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang here: