a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The whales walked up and out of the water like it was nothing.
“It’s okay,” my mother crooned. “They always do this.” She’d had many lives and seen many things. At least, that’s what she was always telling me.
“Always in this lifetime or another one?” I said, watching huge, gray arcs rise up and out of the water, one after the other, after the other.
“You’re cute,” she said, ruffling my curly brown hair. “Now, go put on your suit.”
In the basement, there was a wooden rack with three hooks on it – strong, sturdy ones made of iron and rusted, a little. On each one hung a suit, glossy and black with a hood, wet suits in descending order – Papa, Mama, and me. Masks and snorkels hung there, too, each leg ending in a pair of rubber flippers propped against the wall. The wooden trunk next to them, the one with the heavy lid, was full of oxygen tanks, food bars, and other supplies. I’d gotten in trouble before reaching the bottom. “Leave the trunk alone, it’s for grown-ups,” Mom said, even though one of those suits was exactly my size. There was always one exactly my size, going from baby to toddler to five years old to eight, which is what I was now. The suits changed just like the height chart on the inside of my closet, the one written in purple crayon.
We grew up loving whales like they were our own. Everyone who lived on the island worked with them. Some sailed charters; some served The Breach Burger to those who’d seen a whale and the Whale of a Time drink bowl to those who hadn’t. Everyone knew that seeing a whale was good luck.
“Good luck for our pocketbooks,” Gus said one time. He ran the most popular charter and the tiny whale museum with Mom. “The more people who see ‘em, the more trips we book!”
“It’s more than that,” Mom said, wrinkling her forehead. She did that a lot.
“I know,” Gus said, elbowing me in the side. “You don’t spend as much time with whales as I do and not see them for the majestic creatures they are.”
That’s why we were happy when the Tourists came, but even happier when they left. This was our place, us and the whales. It had been that way since forever, Mom said. For many lives. I didn’t ask her how you could live many lives in one place, but I wanted to.
Mom had a massage business because in another life she’d been a warrior and broken many bones. So, in this life, she said she had to heal them. “But you don’t touch bones,” I said once after hearing her tell the story for the millionth time.
“But I heal muscle, which sits on top of and around bones, which is almost the same thing,” she said. “It’s all in the way you look at it, Michael.”
For someone so strict about everything else like vegan taco Tuesdays and wet suits in descending order, she was pretty easy-going about the facts. They got bigger every time she told a story. Whales of stories. Whales, everywhere.
Mom stood by me and stared at the sea. We were in front of our house just like everyone else, watching, mesmerized. A fleet of whales rose up and out of the ocean, eyes bulging, mouths closed. Serene. Massive. Advancing. According to prophecy, which was what Mom called it, the whales had been coming out of the sea and into the houses every two hundred years since the beginning of time.
“If you weren’t here, how do you know that?” I asked once, curious. I was always curious. “Did you read it somewhere?”
She smiled and smoothed my hair.
“That’s a good question,” she said. “But I didn’t read it, it was given to me. I was born knowing it.”
I wasn’t sure what I was born knowing, other than the fact that before I was here, there were two suits on hooks instead of three. She’d been preparing for this forever. Gus came and stood beside us, holding a paddle. His grey beard blew in the wind.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “The Great Switch. People are going to want some answers, Laura. Around here, you’re kind of the expert on this.”
“I know, Gus, I know,” she said, looking around. Other people were outside their houses, too, some staring at Mom, some watching the whales. “We have to experience this moment, that’s all I can say. It may not happen again for another two hundred years.”
“Whales are slow, I guess,” I said, not realizing I’d said it out loud. She looked at me.
“Michael,” she said, gently. “It’s time to get your father.”
I ran back to my house, skipping steps. Unlike Mom, Dad wasn’t plugged into some universal thing. He probably had on his headphones and had no idea what was happening even though the ground started shaking like an earthquake – only it was a whale-quake.
“Dad!” I yelled down the stairs as I ran past wet suits hanging on the wall, wet suits that would soon be hanging on us. “Dad, it’s happening!”
He was hunched over his computer, black headphones over his ears, making electronic music using whale sounds captured by microphones that he dropped into the sea. I walked up behind him and pulled his headphones off one ear.
“Dad,” I whispered. “It’s happening.”
He hopped up from his chair and his headphones fell, swinging.
“It?” he said, his blue eyes wild, his blue t-shirt wrinkled. I hadn’t seen him sleep in days and he wasn’t usually like that. In the last week, Mom hadn’t slept much, either. I’d get up for water and at least one of them was on the couch with a cup of tea. Mom was usually reading or meditating, which looked like sleeping, and Dad was pacing.
“Grab the suits, Mikey,” he said, packing his computer, headphones, and papers into a large, waterproof pack. “We have to change.”
Everything was changing, I thought as I gathered the suits. He opened the bench and loaded supplies into backpacks, one for each of us, and then we changed out of our clothes and into our wet suits. In ten minutes, we were out of the house and headed toward Mom.
“But what about my stuff?” I said. “We’re just leaving it there?”
“I brought Watson,” he said, referring to my small stuffed whale. “He’ll keep you company. The rest of it will be there when you get back.”
When we reached Mom, she was walking back and forth, making tracks in the sand. The whales had made it halfway up the beach.
“There you are,” she said, grabbing a pack from Dad and a wet suit from me. “I have to change.”
Once she had her suit on, she helped me with my zipper. “Tighter,” she said, pulling up hard on the back of my suit. “It has to be tighter.” She was insistent that not a drop of water get in, always telling me I had to be sealed up, bright and tight as a plastic bag. Dad came over and yanked on my zipper, too.
“I’m good!” I said, annoyed. “Check hers.”
“We’re all good,” he said, yanking up Mom’s zipper. “Relatively speaking.”
We stood side by side, holding hands, hoods up. Just like every other family along the shore. As the whales made their way into town, we followed each other out to sea, hopping on rafts, one per family, like doodlebugs piling onto a log. Black suits, antennae raised, wondering what would happen to us.
“Can you pass me the water?” Mom said, looking at me. Her lashes were damp with sea spray and she had black arcs under her eyes like a raccoon. I gave her the water pouch, the kind you’d normally take hiking. She’d been filling them and refiling them for months, now.
“Thanks,” she said, bringing the straw to her mouth. She sucked on it gently, letting only a few drops splash on her tongue before passing it back. “We have to be conservative,” she said, even though I knew she was still thirsty. I took a tiny sip before putting it back in the waterproof zippered bag anyway, the one filled with Clif bars and peanut butter packets, dried apples and mangos, silver packs of dehydrated lentil stew, and vegetarian lasagna. I called it astronaut food, which would have been cool, except weren’t on the moon. We were just looking at it from our raft, bobbing in the middle of the ocean.
Earlier, when it started, I stopped and stared at the whales.
“How do they move like that?” I said. Whales had fins, not legs. Flippers, not roller skates.
“They’ve adapted,” Mom said. “Over time, they’ve been preparing.”
“They grew legs?” I said, trying to see, but the whales were too far away.
“More like muscles,” she said. “Like snakes. Snakes move forward but they don’t have legs, either.”
Evolution was confusing, especially since it looked more like the whales were on a conveyer belt moving from sea to land like an assembly line. When I turned back and looked at the rafts, I felt worried. The sea could hold us, but there was no way our houses could hold them. I didn’t understand how all of this was going to work.
“Are they just staying the night?” I asked as we loaded things into a yellow raft with our name on it. “Like a sleepover?”
I was eight, so I had lots of sleepovers. Well, a lot for a kid with a homemade haircut and a Mom who believed stuff other people didn’t. A lot of sleepovers meant like five of them.
“The whales will stay as long as they need,” Mom said, speaking calmly as chaos broke out around us.
It was like the town was on fire, people screaming and running out of front doors, some in pajamas, some in wet suits. One woman clutched a photo album to her chest. She should have put it in a Ziplock bag like we did. She also should have done monthly drills. We’d been practicing for years.
“But I want to watch cartoons,” I said, climbing into the raft. “I want to play video games.”
“You will,” Mom said, helping me climb in next to Dad and getting in after me. “After they’ve had had their turn.”
I imagined whale butts making dents in my green bean bag chair, getting ocean ooze all over my controller. Big whale fins opening the refrigerator and eating all the chocolate-chip ice cream, my favorite. I could practically see whale eyes blinking at themselves in the bathroom mirror, borrowing Mom’s sparkly blue eye shadow. There would be huge whale maws everywhere, drooling all over everything.
“But how long will their turn take?” I said, kicking the side of the raft. Mom whipped around, but her hair didn’t follow. It was tucked inside her hood.
“Where are your manners, Michael?” she said as if we were talking about thank-you notes. “Don’t be rude. They just got here.”
I remember reading in the museum that originally, whales were land mammals who made their way back to sea. At some point, they lost their legs, so their systems adapted to living in the water, instead. It made me wonder: was this prophecy about reversing that? And why did it have to be a trade? Couldn’t they just hang out in the park or stay in our guest room while I stayed in mine, playing on my iPad? Why did I have to leave? And if this was evolution, were they growing their legs back while somewhere, deep inside of me, there was a pair of fins just waiting to come out? Was I developing a secret layer of blubber so that eventually, I wouldn’t even need a wet suit?
On the third day, Dad took off his headphones and spoke.
“I, for one, hope they leave soon.” It was the first thing he’d said since we got out here. “At least now we know they have a dark side.”
Whale underbellies are white, I wanted to say, but I knew what he meant. Maybe it started as prophecy, but it had been seventy-two hours and those whales showed no signs of leaving. They’d gotten comfortable, busy adapting inside our houses while we were busy not adapting out here. Some of the rafts we’d started with, like the Lawsons and the Smiths, weren’t even visible, anymore.
“You know that’s not true,” Mom said. “They’re doing what was written. We have to be respectful. There’s a reason for all of it.”
Yeah, I thought. They wanted to play my Xbox. Eat my organic cheese puffs.
“Don’t worry,” Mom said as I watched a big wave coming in behind her. “Whales are excellent communicators! They coordinate with each other and speak over thousands of miles of ocean.”
“I wish they’d communicate better right now,” Dad said holding tightly to the side of the raft and then holding tightly to me as we went up and down, down and up, forever.
“I know it’s hard,” Mom said, adjusting her orange life vest over her wet suit. “But think of it like a reflection. If you can see yourself in the other, then you can see the other and respect them. Maybe that way, we can stop destroying the ocean, which is their home, since they’re in our homes not destroying them.”
I pictured a whale reaching for the remote and crashing the table while another one tried to turn on the ceiling fan and took out the entire ceiling. I saw bedframes broken under mattresses; boxes of rice cereal and vegan fruit roll-ups crashed to the floor. The entire house smashed to bits.
“Oh, they’re destroying things,” I said. “Whales are huge! I bet they’re ruining everything.”
“Maybe we deserve it,” Dad said, quietly. “We can rebuild our house. But after what we’ve done, we may not be able to repair theirs.”
He looked at the sea, which was all around us. I hadn’t been alive long enough to mess up the ocean, but I knew he wasn’t just talking about me.
“If we can’t fix their home, why would they want to come back to it?” I said.
“That’s not what the prophecy is about,” Mom said, pounding her fist on the side of the raft. It bounced. After three days, we were all a little testy. “It’s supposed to be a trade for three days, maximum. That’s what we planned for, what we prepared for.”
“Well, maybe you could swim back and tell them that,” I said. “They’ll listen to you. Aren’t you like a whale ambassador or something?”
“I pay attention to them and advocate for them, yes,” she said. “But will they listen to me? No. Whale medicine is about remembering, letting go, and then forgiving. Maybe we should just focus on that.”
I glared at her. I’d always believed what she told me and was kind of excited for this day to happen. But now that it was here, and we were running out of supplies, I wasn’t in the mood to forgive and forget. Not even a little.
“When they march back out to sea, we’ll know it’s time to go back in,” Mom said, ruffling the hood of my wetsuit where my curly brown hair used to be. “We just have to wait.”
The ocean roared, but it sounded more like whales, laughing.
At dusk on day four, I dreamt about my room.
I’d only eaten a few almonds, so maybe it was a hallucination, but it was wonderful. The room had walls, was warm, and didn’t bounce up and down like my current home. It was also close to the kitchen, which was full of snacks, and had a bed in it with fluffy pillows, a comforter, and my whale stuffed animals, which I didn’t want anymore.
It also had whale wallpaper.
I’m not sure if it was there before I was born or arrived afterward, but that wallpaper was my favorite thing about my room. Little whales, breaching and spouting all around me while I slept. Maybe that’s why I assumed they meant no harm. We were together, the whales and me. At least, that’s what I used to think before I was on a raft floating further and further out to sea, seeing the yellow glare from our television. Wondering when I’d be able to come back in.
Kari Luna is the author of The Theory of Everything (Penguin/Philomel, 2013), winner of the Oregon Book Award for Young Adult Literature and an Indies Next New Voices pick. Kari is a creative director/writer at her studio, For the Curious Ones, works with authors at Launch with Love, and her bands are all famous in Europe, of course. The recipient of a recent Regional Arts and Culture Council grant, Kari is currently finishing a middle grade novel about animals and the climate emergency and an essay collection about canine cancer, Bowie, and the beauty of iron-on transfers. You can find her work at Entropy Magazine, The Weeklings, and online @wordette. Kari lives in Portland, Oregon with her canine sidekick, Petey Sellers.