Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Weialalaleia

IDENTIFICATION AND BEHAVIOUR

The Weialalaleia (Hirudo Threnophaga) is difficult to observe, and is more recognisable by the sound that accompanies its presence than by its shape. It floats on the air like a jellyfish in water, and, like a jellyfish, is translucent, although there is some debate within cryptohirudological circles about whether the Weialalaleia lacks pigment, controls its pigmentation in order to blend seamlessly with its background, or bends light away from itself through processes that have yet to be competently analysed.

At any rate, it is invisible.

One knows that one is in the presence of a Weialalaleia by the effects attendant on its feeding—a process which is best understood in comparison to three more mundane creatures: the leech, the jellyfish, and the mosquito. It eats like a leech, though its food is grief, not blood; it processes nutrients like a jellyfish, though it possesses no mouth; and it leaves a mark similar in cause, but opposite in effect, to the mosquito, for where the mosquito’s legacy is an unpleasant itch, the Weialalaleia’s is a heady euphoria.

The Weialalaleia’s membranous body has evolved to absorb nourishment in an unusual way. In order to feed, the Weialalaleia must find one who is suffering, and enter her body through the mouth; once there, tiny hooks (sometimes classed as claws) latch onto the glottal folds of the throat, allowing the Weialalaleia to stretch itself across the vocal passage. It then secretes a substance which, much like a medicinal leech’s anti-coagulant, loosens grief from its host’s emotional wells to facilitate its feeding. After stirring the humours in this way, the Weialalaleia braces itself for the sobbing torrents that will soon be pushed upwards through its absorptive body. The host’s voice carries grief as water carries plankton, and the sound of a human voice vibrating through the body of Hirudo Threnophaga is the sound for which it is commonly named: weialalaleia.

APPEARANCES IN LITERATURE

Most primary sources describing the Weialalaleia come from Western Asia, and consequently its representation in European literature has often been distorted; ululation being associated with war cries in the eyes of the uneducated, incidental mentions of the Weialalaleia in medieval Christian texts usually depict it as a demon which inhabits the bodies of vicious Saracens to give them courage in battle; other times, as in this anonymous eleventh-century extract cited by Adémar de Chabannes, the Weialalaleia is not perceived as anything more than a dangerous eccentricity of its host:

We had not travelled far together when my companion grew very still. Turning to me, he asked whether I had recently wept; I frowned and said no, for what man sheds tears like a woman? I saw him grit his white teeth, then open wide his mouth, and close his eyes, and his body shook and convulsed, and as he did he screamed WEIA LA LA LEIA to the sky. Fearing for my life, I fled, and knew thereafter never to trust—nor to question the manhood of—a Saracen.

One can find more recent expression of this confusion regarding the Weialalaleia in an examination of Northern Welsh alternative rock music of the 1980s, where Weia la la leia is the chant aggressively sounded by The Alarm during the hardship of economic recession. It is likely, however, that The Alarm’s chant was borrowed from a misreading of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is most certainly aware of the Weialalaleia and its history, containing as it does a scholar’s elegant rendering of the process of grief-eating:

The brisk swell
Rippled both shores
Southwest wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towers
Weialala leia

The “brisk swell” in question is clearly the body of the Weialalaleia rippling itself outwards to hook “both shores” of the vocal cords; the southwest wind, proceeding from south to north, is the grieving voice; the memory of pealing bells and white towers is the source of the river nymph’s grief, which, pushed vocally through the leech’s body, produces the eponymous sound as a result.

The Weialalaleia has also sometimes been confused with the Book Bear documented by Catherynne M. Valente, PhD., in this volume, as it has been known to feed on the intangible expressions of the human psyche in addition to the written texts it devours, but the Weialalaleia does not eat memories—if anything, it is often useful in allowing events to be recalled with a clarity separate from the emotions they provoked.

MEDICINAL USES

The science of cryptohirudology—vulgarly, the study of leeches one is not certain exist—advanced in leaps and bounds after the discovery and translation of the Hama Codex, which, in addition to shedding tremendous light on the so-called “dark years” of the city of Hama under Hamdanid rule, described in clear detail a ritual involving the elusive Weialalaleia which had long been lost, partially recovered, and substantially corrupted. A passage purportedly written by the ostentatiously named Alissar Al-Zabba is translated as follows:

The ritual was performed every new moon night, on the shores of the Orontes River. Throughout the month, those judged by physicians to be deepest in suffering were sent to the leech-handlers. By the light of the stars, one could see them lined along the shore, while a master leech-handler walked slowly among the sufferers, extending towards them a fistful of draw-strung netting heaving with the weight of nothing at all, and paying close attention to its thrashing and swaying. Where the netting bucked hardest, the leech-handler judged pain to be greatest; and, with great care, the sufferer’s mouth was opened, the draw-string loosened, and the Weialalaleia released into her throat. Within seconds, the sufferer would be doubled over in agony, weeping and ululating without ever moving her tongue, as the Weialalaleia did its work; and when, sated, it unhooked its claws from her glottis and floated outwards and upwards into the dark, she would be left sprawled on the earth in an ecstasy of relief, drawing deep breaths of sweet night air.

Al-Zabba also relates how the Weialalaleia’s euphoric properties came to be coveted as a recreational drug, with sometimes unwelcome effects:

It has been my misfortune to observe the ritual poorly executed on one or two occasions. Where the leech-handler is imperfect—as sometimes happens among the nomads, who starve their leeches while they travel from village to village plying the easing of grief as a trade, instead of as the holy rite we keep in Hamath—many things are likely to be mistimed. The leech will squirm hard towards its first whiff of food, and in its hunger will plunge too swiftly, too deeply into the throat, where, unable to find purchase, its claws merely scrape the oesophageal walls of its victim, causing her to choke on the thorny lump of Weialalaleia in agonized silence. In other instances, the leech-handler is not deft enough to release the beast into the throat at the right moment, and the sobs gush out from the sufferer before the Weialalaleia has entered her mouth, pushing it away in a violent wave of anguish upon which it cannot feed.

For these reasons did Abdallah ibn Hamdan, may his name and wisdom be exalted, forbid the buying and selling of Weialalaleias, and issue a decree passing the strict licensing of all leech-handlers into law.

It did not end there, however; the Hamdanid dynasty was fraught with skirmishes between Northern and Southern principalities, and though we lose Al-Zabba’s clear recounting, it is clear from the Codex that Byzantine forces saw the practice of grief-eating as grotesque, and banned it wholesale. It is to be supposed that while leech-handlers lost their art, or found it significantly damaged by the need for secrecy, the Weialalaleia nevertheless prospered, perfectly capable of gorging themselves on grief without ritualised human assistance.

RECENT RESURGENCE

In From Dust to Damascus, Leila Karam writes,

When I was a child, weeping over the fall of a sparrow or the loss of a cat, my grandmother would gather me up into her arms and tell me stories to soothe me. She spoke of a village in the western mountains of Syria, by a great river that flowed south to north, where, most evenings, women of all ages gathered to sing.

Some were seated; some were standing; all had work to occupy their hands as well as their throats. Washers, winders, warpers, all raised their voices to the wind and sang songs sweet as mulberry wine and bitter as the sea.

While they sang, they wove fine silk nets. While they wove, they sobbed over their work, soaked the nets in the salt of their tears. They rubbed their pain into the silk, weighed their windings with laments, all to an important purpose. For once the grief-heavy nets were complete, they would hang them up between the branches of their tallest mulberry trees, and wait to see if their nets were bait enough to lure a swarm of hungry Weialalaleia into captivity.

The Weialalaleia, my grandmother would say, feed on grief. And in this village, the elders knew how to domesticate and raise them for use in their healing rituals. For if anyone were sad, ah! She had only to open her mouth while a grandmother held the wriggling creature over it—here my grandmother would usually produce a sweet—and carefully, carefully lower it into the girl’s throat; there it would find her pain and eat it up, and in joy at feeling the pain gone, the girl would exclaim weialalaleia! And she would feel happy, and join her friends, and play games again.

She always ended the stories by shouting weialalaleia, and I would laugh and join her, and indeed, would feel much the better for it.

As any cryptohirudologist worth her salt will recognize, this account indicates that the ritual described by Al-Zabba had already been corrupted by 1913, when Karam’s grandmother would have been a young girl hearing a story that was as much an echo of its origin as the sadness saturating the women’s nets. The broad lines of the ritual are of course the same, but it is in the details that we find the means to unearthing the roots of corruption which have led to the region’s present abuses of the creature, such that experts in the field are attempting to determine whether the Weialalaleia is in danger of extinction.

The accounts are similar in the following respects: the recognition of grief; the care required in handling the leech; the exclamation of Weialalaleia, and the resultant feeling of happiness. The key difference between Karam’s account and Al-Zabba’s is that Karam does not describe the Weialalaleia’s departure. In her repetition of her grandmother’s recollection, it is the sufferer who exclaims weialalaleia after being relieved, when in reality the relief follows the exclamation. Even more dangerously, Karam’s story weds the idea of the Weialalaleia’s entrance into the body with the eating of a sweet, suggesting that the leech needs to be consumed before its healing effect can be felt.

This is why, now, when youths overburdened with the despair of generations of disenfranchisement discover a swarm of Weialalaleia tangled in the silk-wrapped tops of mulberry trees, they know enough to capture them; they know enough, and have tears enough, to trap them in clumsily woven nets; they know enough to open their mouths. But instead of allowing the Weialalaleia to enter, to hook, to ease, and then to leave, they swallow the creatures whole, or puncture them with their teeth, dripping a lymph-clear liquid from their weeping mouths as they work the creatures into their stomachs, thinking them an antidote to their pain. They fill their bellies with all the grief the Weialalaleia has absorbed, and think the bloating is a healing, think the difficulty breathing is a sign that they have done it right. They think themselves suffering less than they were.

And who, after all, can say they do not? Who can say that there is no relief to be had in the sharing of another’s grief, in the filling of oneself with another’s pain? Perhaps their angers and their fears and their betrayals mingle in their stomachs, mix so thoroughly with their own that they become indistinguishable from each other—make them feel, ultimately, less alone in a world where so much is taken from them.

Certainly, by all accounts, after the eaters of leeches have had their fill, after they have stumbled to their knees, clutching their sides, throats scorched by the juices of the shredded membranes leaking grief, the sound of their voices raised raw and ragged to the sky is remarkably similar to weialalaleia.

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Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar

Amal El-Mohtar’s essays have appeared in Chicks Unravel Time, Queers Dig Time Lords, Science Fiction Film & Television, Apex, Stone Telling, The Outpost, Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Tor.com. She reviews books for NPR, edits and publishes the poetry in Goblin Fruit, is a Nebula-nominated author and founding member of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, and has been known to deadlift other genre professionals. Find her on Twitter @tithenai.