by Dale Stromberg



A friendly country with friendly folk—
to feel welcome here, never learn the language.

Bellatrix Sakakino’s parents raised her as the subject of a peculiar experiment. Let me tell you how it worked.

From birth to age five, they kept her strictly isolated from human society, only allowing contact they could mediate. At all times, her parents and any visitors wore specially designed helmets. Each looked like a motorcycle helmet with the visor down, with small external speakers mounted by each cheek and a microphone installed within. The helmets were linked by radio so that wearers could communicate.

The purpose of these helmets was, via an onboard modulator, to convert the wearer’s speech to a digital squeal, essentially the noise of an old dial-up modem. What came out of the external speakers was this squealing. This was all Bellatrix was permitted to hear by way of speech for the duration of the experiment.

Bellatrix grew up immersed exclusively in communication of this form. Language as modem shrieks.

The astonishing result was that she did indeed learn to discern meaning from the electronic squeals. When bid to clean up her toys or change into her pajamas, she obeyed. She laughed at silly jokes, grew teary when scolded. Of course, her vocal cords were not capable of producing such noises, try as she might; she could understand her parents but never answer them in kind.

(They had built a demodulator into the helmet as well, so that, if Bellatrix were to learn modem speech, it might be transformed into human speech within the earpieces. But this functionality never saw use.)

Shortly after Bellatrix turned five years old, her parents split up, citing irreconcilable differences. Neither was in a position to tend her during this period, so the experiment was halted, and she was sent to live with her maternal grandmother. It was at Grandma Setsu’s that she finally learned human speech.

All this was decades ago. Bellatrix is now grown. And she is just like you and me, as, over the years, she lost the ability to understand modem noise.

But her deepest and most cherished memories are of bedtime stories and lullabies communicated in a tender, loving electronic screech. Princesses who skreed, ambling through enchanted forests that hissed and skrawed. Stars twinkling like diamonds in the sky, skracking and buzzing Bellatrix to innocent rest. Expressions of parental love, all in a language she has lost.

She’d give anything to get it back.

Dale Stromberg grew up not far from Sacramento before moving to Tokyo, where he had a brief music career. Now he lives near Kuala Lumpur and makes his living as an editor and translator. His work has been published here and there.
%d bloggers like this: