Akhulume

Edited by L. D. Lewis

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

April 2020

Listen to this story, narrated by Victor Ramos:

The first time they ask you your name, you say it quickly.

You say it naturally, with the throaty Kosobé accent your Mama raised you to master, to covet like a second tongue between your lips.

And what happens?

Their leader writhes on the ground in what can only be described as convulsions.

The rest of them?

Mist in the air. Disgusting globs of membrane and cartilage as their shells crack open and bleed forth their bodies into the thin, sterilized air and metallic walls of the ship.

Before you can do anything — blink, gasp, even scream — the thrust propels you back, crumpling you into the chute, out of their main corridors. The explosion is quick, though the pain is slow to come. That night, you lay in a stupor, tears running slowly down your cheeks.

The President does not come for you. But your mother would have been proud.


The second time they ask you your name, you hesitate, tongue pausing between that obnoxiously loud space between your front teeth.

Mama had always hated that gap. She said it made you boyish, too uncouth to marry. Papa said it made your voice sing and strengthened the clicks between your language like the drums beating heavy on wooden skins back home. It was beautiful, that gap of yours. Especially the way it allowed you to taste the words of your language. The way it allowed you to speak your name so powerfully. So clearly.

So you tremble only slightly when you repeat yourself, ebbing only the harshness of your Kosobé accent when it came to the last three syllables.

Again, it happens.

The leader writhes, letting out a keel that tears through your ears and makes your own head scream in pain.

The others die, like grand explosions of fireworks, as their bodies collapse and entrails drift across the clear glass. This time, when you are pushed back, you hold on a split second, brown fingers gripping bronze as nails scrape down, down, across the ugly metallic walls.

You land with a gasp, eyes surprisingly dry but lips wet, as if you are on the verge of retching.

As you lay there, you grip the one thing you’d managed to catch on your way down: a bone.

It’s fragile, cracked, and humming with a staccato thrum that numbs your mind.

You sleep well.


The third time they ask you your name, you let the silence linger to penetrate each space of the chamber. You think of your Mama, who told you it was always rude to let a question go unanswered. You think of Papa, who would have slapped you for such insolence in the presence of men — if these beings were men.

Silence does not exist in your language; what space exists between words is filled with laughter and croons, heavy breathing and teasing sighs. You wonder how it must be back at home, where your family is seated outside their hut, watching the skies.

You wonder whether The President has had this conversation with his captors. Whether their heads exploded and their tongues bled. Whether he’ll ever come for you.

You whisper your name with a shaky voice, dulling the sharpest syllables and sliding over the Kosobé accent that your Mama had taught you to be so proud of.

They do not die this time.

The leader grimaces — only a slight twitch of its head — before you are sent plummeting back through the chute, down, down, down to your demise.


The fourth time they ask you your name, you get angry. You stick your lip out and flip every crude gesture you know at them.

“What’s yours?” you scream. “What’s yours?”

Your voice is hoarse and guttural in a way you’d never heard it before. As the aliens quiver, you feel memories seeping into you from all directions: the sharp pain of the light from when it first hit your body, tearing every part of you that ever was; the small cry — more of a shocked little oh?, really — as you were ripped away from your home and sent hurtling through the skies and stars.

This bronze, this metal behemoth, is all you know.

All you would ever know.

You think of Mama and the gentle hiss of your language on her tongue.

You haven’t spoken it in so long now. Will The President ever come to take you back?

That first night, his voice bled through your thoughts, promising of rescue and escape from this hellish prison. He explained softly that he’d been taken, too, and that he’d find you here, in this dirty corner of the cosmos, and free you both to go back to Earth and home.

Now, as the creatures writhe, you hear his voice in their screams, and you wonder briefly if The President ever existed at all. Or whether he was a part of your nightmare, your pain made flesh in this horrible part of nowhere.

The expulsion is quick this time, almost violent in nature. It rips away your clothes, leaving you as naked as the day you entered this world. It burns your skin, making it red and bruised, as if you’d been ripped by a thousand razors.

You sleep not a moment that night, only muttering your name over and over again. You hope it will be enough to destroy the ship.

To set you free.

It’s only when the chute opens again that you realize that what you’ve been whispering all night hasn’t been your language at all.

It’s theirs.


The fifth time they ask you your name, you study them. You look down for a long while, contemplating. Reflecting.

They’re beautiful, these captors of yours. They have piercing eyes and full lips and other things that seem so familiar on your body, but so disturbingly wrong on theirs. Yet, they’re beautiful, and you feel a warmth in your bosom as they draw you near, waiting expectantly.

But then you blink and they’re back to being shapeless, formless, hideous things, and you press your lips together because oh, how you hate that they’ve gotten you like this.

This time, you say your name much too quick and much too fast, and it destroys them in quick succession. The leader lives — as it always does — but it lunges forward and propels you back through the chute with such force, such anger, that you briefly wonder whether this entire prison is in fact its own body, digesting you through its many appendages until you finally lose your mind.

You sleep soundly that night and dream of nothing but your home songs and your mama’s lullabies.


By the sixth time, you’ve learned their game.

You’ve understood, slowly and through some twisted magic, that your voice has been lost. You no longer remember what syllables to stress, nor the throaty Kosobé accent your mother raised you to love so much.

You speak your name. Slowly, tearfully, and in a voice that’s no longer yours.

The aliens smile — or at least, attempt some imitation of it — and you feel, for the first time, peace.

You feel a silence that permeates everything, draping over every part of you that exists.

The aliens don’t expel you out this time. You remain with them, silent and sallow-eyed, in their chambers.

The leader draws close to you, runs its tendrils over your skin, and speaks.

“You remember,” it breathes. “You finally remember.”

And for a brief moment, the entire ship changes, and you look into the eyes of your President. You see him strapped in front of you in his own prison, dressed in a strange metallic suit and weeping blood. You see his eyes widen, his lips parting in joy as he calls your name over and over.

You see visions of your Mama and Papa, looking up at the behemoth that holds you and The President from their home on the motherland. You see their arms stretched wide to the heavens as they call you home, sing praises of your return.

You remember indeed.

But then you blink and all is shapeless again. All is nothing but these formless beasts and the staccato thrum of your heart beating in your chest.

And you are left in this silence and dread. Left in this new language that tastes of nothing, feels of nothing.

And you smile.

But no matter how hard you try, this fog does not leave you.

Silence was always considered such a sin in your language. Your mama would have cried to see you now.

© 2020 Larissa Irankunda

About the author

Larissa Irankunda

Larissa Irankunda is a Burundian American writer, actress, and film buff based in Atlanta, GA. She’s an alumnus of the 2018 THREAD at Yale program, and works as the editor In chief for Quirktastic: a friendship app and media company for “geeks, gamers, and nerds.” When she’s not writing, Larissa enjoys collecting vinyls, attending comic conventions, and fangirling over Jeff Goldblum. Larissa’s work — both fiction and nonfiction — focuses heavily on Afrofuturism, fringe culture, feminism, and the ever-changing nuances of the Black experience.