This happened a long, long time ago.
On a small island - which has since perished - they had an odd custom.
They mourned their dead with song: with elegies.
The songs would play without ceasing from the last moments before death, through the funeral, to the burial.
Elegies would be sung for many purposes: to ease the grief of the family, to recall the legacy of the deceased, to appease the soul of the one who died under stressful cicumstances, to celebrate one person's having lived to a ripe, old age, or to evoke anger at another's pointless death.
There were no fixed melodies or lyrics. Apparently the songs were sung without lyrics at all.
"No documents have survived, so all we can do is assemble oral histories," sighs the achaeologist as she views the island from the deck of the ship.
The people of that island country had no writing system, which means they had no way to leave behind signs or evidence of their lives.
"I wish we could at least interview a few survivors. but there weren't any. Every single person was killed."
The research team's archaeologist is a young woman in her twenties. Her country is the one that destroyed the island. It happened while her ancestors, seven generations back, were still young people.
"I hate to bad mouth my own country," she says with a shrug, "but they really didn't have to go that far."
"That far" is no exaggeration.
Her country prided itself on it's overwhelming military force. For it to gain mastery over the tiny island would have been as simple as twisting an infant's arm.
But her country believed in oppressing its neighbours with force. The leaders were thinking more of those neighbours then of the lands itself when it launched its all-out attack.
It was scorched from end to end.
Every human being on the island - from newborn babies to elders on the verge of death - was killed without mercy.
"It's odd, though," says the young woman with a grim smile, "there are hardly any records left from that time, even in our country."
"I suppose what they did was so terrible, they didn't want their descendants to know about it."
Her remark prompts some older scholars on board to clear their throats, at the sound of which she snaps her mouth shut.
"Sorry," she whispers, "you're not much older than I am, you porbably don't want to hear about all this old stuff anyway..."
"I do, though."
"What interest can a sailor like you have in these boring academic matters?"
Kaim only shakes his head in silence.
Suddenly things become very busy on deck. The boat is approaching the island and has entered a stretch of intricate channels where the skills of the crew will be tested.
The boatswain calls Kaim.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the woman says, "I shouldn't be monopolising your time. You've got work to do..."
Even as she apologizes, the talkative young archaeologist asks Kaim.
"Do you mind if I ask you one last question?"
"Please, ask away," he replies, stopping in his tracks.
She looks around to make sure no one is listening and whispers, "I'm sure this is your first time taking a research team over...."
"And your first time going to the island?"
"So you probably don't know about some of the bad stories they tell about this place - that some scholars who go there fall under a curse. Like, they get sick while doing their research on the island, or they become mentally unstable after they get home. I've heard some even killed themselves."
"You mean a long time ago, right?"
"Right. This is the first research trip in fifty years. Up to them, every time they sent out a team, one or two of the members would suffer the curse. This is why they put a stop to them all these years. So I'm a little scared myself..."
She sends a mock shudder through her body. "I just thought I'd ask if you could teach me some magic spell for getting back safely..."
Kaim looks straight at her - not merely taking in her appearance but searching for the person deep inside.
"You'll be fine," he says.
"You think so?"
"I'm pretty sure you'll be okay"
She looks at him questioningly.
"If you hear singing, though," he adds "hum along with it"
"What do you mean?" she asks, her expression increasingly uneasy, but Kaim says nothing more.
"Get over here now, Mister!" the boatswain shouts at Kaim, who heads for his station.
He did tell the woman one white lie, though.
This is not his first time coming to the island.
He has been here many times before.
Hes first trip happened a long, long time ago.
As the archaeologist said, that islands elegies had no fixed melody or lyrics. They were all sung extemporaneously and never repeated.
A hundred deaths required a hundred elegies.
Nor did mourners agree in advance on the nature of their elegy before they started singing. At frist, each would sing his or her own song expressing his or her own feelings about the deceased. Eventually, the jumble of songs would come together into a single melody without any one singer taking the lead.
In the culture of this island that had no writing, there was, of course, no musical notation. There were no instruments for accompaniment either. Each mourner, in grieving for the loved one, would give voice to hopes for a peaceful journey, and a song would emerge.
Kaim's travels first brought him here when the island was at peace, which is to say, centuries ago.
He happened to arrive just after the death of a village elder. For three days and nights, an elegy was sung around the clock. The island people's song, which shook the darkness and reverberated all across the clear, blue daytime sky, left its mark with a certain ennobling comfort in the breast of Kaim, a man for whom fate had decreed that no one would ever sing an elegy.
To think that such an island had been burned to the ground!
The people fled in all directions at once, and were murdered one at a time.
It was an absolute bloodbath.
Kaim knows about the atrocities that accompanied the butchery - things that were not handed down to the generation of the young archaeologist.
Had it wished to, the woman's country could have taken control of the island in a single night, but instead it used its military power to chase down each of the islands inhabitants over a period of several days as if carefully filling in the blank spaces in a coloring book.
The island became enveloped in elegies.
At first, while the living still outnumbered the dead, voices in elegiac song all but shook the island with their volume.
As the days went by, however, and the dead came to outnumber the living, the sobbing voices in song grew ever fainter.
When the battle reaches its final phase, the few remaining islanders, who had been cornered in the islands northern tip, fled into a large cave.
They resigned themselves to death.
All that was left for them to do was pray that they might be allowed to die with some degree of peace.
But even this small measure of hope they were unable to wring from their attackers.
The army of the archaeologist's country wert for maximum brutality. The entered the cave with every weapon at their command, and they dragged out and killed one islander per day.
Today is was an old man.
The next day it was a young man.
The day after that they tortured to death a young mother with an infant at her breast, and the following day the infant they force from her arms was put to death.
The elegies resounded without interruption.
The singing voices that escaped from the cave invaded the ears of the soldiers who were carrying on the masacre. Those soldiers with kind hears collapsed one after another, or they went mad and left the front line.
Song was the final weapon of the islanders, who had no other means to fight.
They went on singing as they struggled against starvation, thirst, and their own fears.
The commanding officer of the anti-insurgency force ordered his men to fill in the mouth of the cave. If they buried the people alive, he thought, the singing would no longer be audible.
Nevertheless, thir singing continued.
It went on, day after day.
Rainy days, clear days, daytime, nighttime it continued, but no longer without breaks, which gradually increased in length.
The singing went beyond being an elegy for a single person and became a song suffused with the sorrow of all the living things on the island.
About the time the season ended, the last thing thread of singing died out.
The army left the island.
Not a single record of these military operations was left.
Never again did anyone come to live on the island.
The first research team in fifty years is plagued by difficulties.
One scholar after another collapses.
Almost every day, someone is sent out to the vessel anchored offshore, sick.
All of the scholars moan with pain, blocking their ears.
The situation is exactly what it was before the island was sealed from research.
Kaim knows exactly what is happening.
The ocean breeze sweeping across the island sounds like a song.
The brances swaying in the forrest sound like a song.
The birds in the trees sound like a song.
The babbling of a brook sounds like a song.
The treading of boots on piled-up fallen leaves sounds like a song.
The crashing and receding of waves on the shore sounds like a song.
The elegy for the island that people sang with every last bit of life they could dredge up from inside themselves, now is being sung by the island itself.
"Please stop, I beg you, please stop..."
The scholars cry out in their delirium, covering their ears.
"I dont know what we did. It was our ancestors, not us."
The scholars who maon this hear anger and sorrow in the constanty recunding elegy.
What they say is true: it is not their fault.
But they have been given no knowledge of what happened on this island so long ago.
Sometimes, not knowing can be a profound sin.
They should prick up their ears and listen all the more.
That is what Kaim has always done.
The elegy being sung by the island is not merely hurling hatred and anger at them.
The island is not trying to torture members of the younger generation like them who are without sin.
Rather than blocking their ears, they should listen.
If they do so, the message will reach them.
For the island is telling them.
"You must know the truth. You must know what actually happened on this island so long ago."
The investigation ends much earlier than originally planned.
Most of the research team have returned to the ship, their health broken, and some of the more seriosly ill members have been sent home. It is no longer possible to continue the work.
The young archaeologist who spoke to Kaim on the way in is one of the few who have persevered to the end.
"Thanks to you," she says to Kaim.
As soon as she climbed from the launch into the ship she saw Kaim standing on deck and hurried over to him.
She looks haggard, but her fatigue is clearly less phyical than mental.
Still, her eyes harbor a strong-willed gleam.
"Did you hear the singing?" he asks.
"I did," she says with a nod, looking back at the receding island.
"It was so sad!"
Just as he had thought: she was able to open herself to the sadness.
"Did you sing along with it?"
"Yes, I did that, too - partly because of what you said to me, but I also found myself humming the same tune quite naturally."
Kaim nods and smiles at her.
This is the first time he has encountered anyone with the heart to hear the island's elergy.
"This time when i get home," she says, "I want to do some more serious research on the war. It's something I have to do, I almost feel I don't have any choice in the matter."
"I'm glad to hear that," he says.
"I might turn up some facts that my country finds inconvenient, but I feel its absolutely necessary to learn the truth - to know what actually happened."
The ship emerges into the open sea.
A single white bird flies out from the island is if seeing the ship off on its journey.
Tracing a great arc against the blue sky, it releases one high, ringing cry.
No longer an elegy, this is a song of joy and forgiveness signaling the dawn of a new age.