by James Leth
It was not the cry of the seagulls that woke her. They had been calling for several hours, since well before dawn. Their voices were soothing to the whale. She had listened to them many times on her voyages up and down the coasts of the Pacific. In a way, they reminded her of the welcoming calls of her own kind. She had spent many hours listening to them, trying in vain to find some semblance of language in their song. But the cry of birds was far too simple to contain the depth of expression that she was used to. Whalesong was rich in metaphor and history — a tapestry of images and feelings that evoked a shared memory among her kind.
It wasn’t the sun on her back that woke her. She had been on the beach all night, and by now she was very close to death. The wind had already dried her skin; the sun was finishing the job. She couldn’t feel it, anyway. Her mind was numbed from the pain of her loss and from the unimaginable isolation that had befallen her. All of her life had been spent in contact with her own kind, for the sea was never silent, and whalesong spanned the globe. She had been part of the greatest communication network that ever existed on this planet, intimately connected to the common experience of a worldwide community. Now she was in an alien world, and the silence of the whales was unbearable.
It wasn’t the incoming tide that woke her. The seawater lapping at her flanks was like a caress, but she was too weak to feel relief. It only brought more misery, since she knew there was a danger that the tide would take her back to the sea, and her agony would have to be repeated.
It was the jabbering of the Interlopers that woke her. She knew of them, of course. The whales discussed them endlessly, for their actions made no sense. They were primitive and vicious, and constantly fouled the waters, but in some ways they appeared clever. They seemed to be able to communicate with one another, but their speech was as empty as it was raucous. They propelled themselves in grotesque vessels that shrieked in monotonous “PING”s from the surface and under it. It must be that they communicate above the sea where we can’t hear them, the whales had concluded. But whatever they said to one another did not seem worth hearing, for their actions betrayed their savagery, and the whales left them alone.
Her name was LorqWeeooqWeeqWeeqHaruch, for she was only 40 years old. She had expected to have a much longer name before she died, but her time had come earlier than most. Even so, her name would be well known among the whales, for her Lifesong was now told throughout the seas. It brought her no comfort.
She groaned in agony as the Interlopers poked and pulled at her. There were several of them, frantically running around her, all making noises at once. This couldn’t be their speech, she realized, for none of them stood silent to listen. It was more like the jabbering of monkeys, and as she watched them, she saw that the resemblance was very strong. Perhaps the Most Elder was right after all; he had said they were a kind of ape. She did not believe it, but of course she didn’t challenge him. She was only LorqWeeooqWeeqWeeqHaruch, and he was the great and ancient one whose name took half a day to sing.
With sudden horror, she realized that they meant to drag her back into the sea. The tales of Interloper cruelty had not been exaggerated! They wanted to see her go through the beaching all over again! Would they keep dragging her back and making her do it again until she could swim no more? That meant she would be torn apart by sharks or orcas, and her blood would despoil the oceans of her people.
She strained to move out of their grasp, and they scrambled away for a minute. They made a few more attempts to move her, while she struggled to swat at them with her tail and flippers, and eventually they gave up. Soon, she felt a great wave of relief as they began pouring buckets of seawater over her whole body. For a moment, she lost herself in the sensation of being back in the sea, and her consciousness faded. She was swimming with MayootSping, her beloved son. He had parted from her body only a few months before, and he was healthy and beautiful. The waters were cold and clear and sweet. They swam among the giant icebergs and sang their joy throughout the arctic sea. Her son nuzzled up to her and nursed at her left side for a while. She could smell the plankton bloom beyond the icebergs, and she was hungry from the long voyage north. She let him nurse awhile, then shook him free and swam on ahead to feed herself.
But the plankton was elusive, for her senses had deceived her. The icebergs had created eddying currents that misled her, and she had to wind her away around them to find the food she needed. Irritated after rounding the wrong iceberg, she swam faster around the next, focusing all her attention now on the plankton she could smell but not quite taste. And as her frustration grew, so did her speed, and she quite lost track of the fact that MayootSping was now far behind, lost among the icebergs.
She woke from her reverie with a sense of great dread. She couldn’t bear to remember more right now. The dryness of her skin and the heat of the sun had become agonizing, and the weight of her body on the sand made it difficult to breathe. Something new was happening among the Interlopers. They had constructed some sort of barrier that kept most of them away from her. She was glad for the change, but it puzzled her. The barrier was nothing but a flimsy yellow ribbon, yet it seemed to hold them back. A few of them stood along the perimeter, tending it, and the others seemed afraid to cross. Perhaps the barrier held some mystic significance to these primitives, and the ones dressed in blue were there to incant the magic.
A few small groups still stood on her side of the barrier. Some of them balanced heavy objects on their shoulders that they pointed at her, while others stood in front of them making sounds into small objects that they held in their hands. Despite her desperate situation, she became interested, for this looked like actual language. The ones making the sounds held the attention of the others outside the barrier, who stood quietly watching. Those speaking came close to her at times, but made no attempt to communicate with her. Indeed, they treated her more as an object of interest than as an intelligent creature, which surprised her very much. After a while they moved to the barrier and pointed their devices at the onlookers. They allowed some of them the opportunity to speak into the objects they held in their hands.
LorqWeeooqWeeqWeeqHaruch began to have trouble focusing on all this activity, and her consciousness faded again. She was back among the arctic seas, feeding on the plankton it had taken her so long to find. As her hunger abated, she suddenly became aware of the orcas. The eddying currents that had hidden the plankton from her had also kept her from smelling them before. She smelled and heard them now, and the horror of the situation leapt into her mind. MayootSping was nowhere near her. For a moment she couldn’t remember where he was. Then she heard his cries of panic, and she pinpointed his location. She heard the attack cries of the orcas. There were at least six or seven, hunting in a pack. She couldn’t navigate around the icebergs fast enough, so she dove deep. The ice went down a hundred feet, but she cleared it in her urgency, and rushed to his side.
The stench of blood assailed her before she neared the surface. She screamed a warning to the orcas, but she was far too late to save her son. They were ripping off pieces of his flesh as she came crashing into them. They scattered, leaving a trail of his blood behind them. Her son was dead.
She howled in anguish. Gently, she nudged his tattered body with her flipper, pulling him to her side. She tried to get him to nurse, not willing to admit that it was too late. She sang her sorrow into the great depths of the oceans for hours, and her lament was answered across the miles by whales of all families, and passed from sea to sea. She sang her grief for days. Others came to comfort her, but the reproach in their song was evident. They knew that she had failed him. It was discussed at great length throughout the ocean. She mourned among the icebergs until the days began to disappear. She began moving back to the southern seas, where she heard more of the debate about her failure to protect her son. Even the Most Elder became interested in her case. Eventually, he passed a judgment, and no one dared to challenge it.
With a start, her sense of the present returned. It was a sudden sensation of buoyancy that brought her back, coupled with the cool rush of water around her flanks. She had been so long on her belly, that to float again felt like falling at first. Startled, she flailed her flippers and her tail, and was astonished to feel them strike water. With the weight of her body lifting off her lungs, she was able to take the first full breath she’d had for the entire day, and this increased her buoyancy. She felt the sand slide forward under her, and she screamed in agony. Her body was streamlined for forward motion through water, but now she was sliding backward along sand, and it ripped at her tender underbelly.
With despair and outrage, she saw the trench that the Interlopers had dug behind her, as her body finally cleared the sand and was carried on the high tide. The Interlopers, now several hundred along the beach, made a great war cry and shook their limbs in defiance. She had no idea why she was their enemy, nor why they would torture her so cruelly. Why not a clean kill, so at least they could eat her flesh? The evil of their actions defied her reason.
She swam away from the beach now, as quickly as she could, considering her pain and weakness. Bleeding from underneath, weakened from her ordeal, the orcas might come for her, large as she was. She had to move farther along the coast and find another spot to beach before the tide turned. She searched for a clear beach where the Interlopers wouldn’t find her.
Her cries had been heard by others of her people. Back in the sea, now, she could hear them calling to her. “LorqWeeooqWeeqWeeqHaruch, cast out from the sea, why have you returned? You shame the memory of MayootSping, young son of woe, killed among the Great Ice while you fed.” The question went on for half an hour, for whalesong was slow and required great consideration.
It was difficult to answer the questions, for she was desperately trying to find another beaching spot, and she was growing weaker by the moment. Her song was strained and erratic, for her voice box had dried from the beaching. “The Interlopers have cast me out from the land, and deemed me unworthy to die among them. They thirst for my blood to wash upon their beach, that the sharks and orcas may tear me apart for their pleasure. I seek the land again where they cannot cast me out.” It was rude in its brevity, but the whales could tell how badly injured she was, and so overlooked it.
She finally found an appropriate spot to beach herself again. Farther south where the sun was hotter and her death would be quicker, LorqWeeooqWeeqWeeqHaruch mustered the last of her strength to fling herself upon the sand just as the tide began to retreat. The water along this beach was not so poisoned as it was farther north, so perhaps the Interlopers were not near. She passed her final hours of consciousness without disturbance from them. She lingered a few hours more, and then she died.
Channel 4 Local News At Ten
“Residents of San Diego came out in force today to rescue a humpback whale that apparently beached herself during the night. Discovered shortly after dawn, the whale was finally freed this afternoon, after a rescue operation that ultimately required the help of two fire departments, a local construction company, and the San Diego police force. Their efforts were guided by marine biologists from the San Diego Zoo. Robin Martinez was on the spot with this report.”
“This is ‘Sandy’, a 50-foot humpback whale. Sometime during the night, Sandy appears to have deliberately beached herself. Doctor Raymond Ortega, Marine Biologist at the San Diego Zoo, was called in to examine her. Doctor Ortega, can you explain how Sandy came to be on this beach?”
“No, I can’t. Similar incidents have occurred numerous times, and often in cases like this the whales appeared to have been injured prior to the beaching. In this case, the whale seemed to be in good health before she beached. It’s possible that something went wrong with the whale’s internal navigation senses, and she become stranded on the beach by accident. But this whale is so large that it’s difficult to see how she could have become stuck here unless she deliberately forced her way onto the beach.”
“Tell us, Doctor, how do you go about moving a thirty ton whale back into the sea?”
“Well, it’s a very difficult operation. First of all, we have to keep her hydrated as much as possible, while a trench is dug behind her. In order to keep the sand from caving in around it, we’ve had to shore up the trench with lumber that was brought over by a local building contractor. It looks like we may be able to clear a deep enough trench so that the high tide will lift the whale back to the sea.”
“Doctor, thank you, I’ll let you return to your efforts. Good luck. We all hope Sandy makes it. From the beach just south of San Diego, this is Robin Martinez for Channel Four.”
“We’re happy to report now that the rescue operation was successful. Sandy was freed earlier this afternoon, and when last sighted she was heading south down the coast. She probably needed a little vacation in the tropics after her narrow escape.”
“Makes you feel good, doesn’t it?”
“That’s our news for tonight. For Channel Four News, and for Sandy the Whale, have a good night.”
© James Leth, 2013