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Whale Woman Watches

by Vicki Saunders

3316 words
Listen to this story read by Cat Rambo

The waters had gone stale; the salmon runs dwindled. When we got hungry we remembered what we had tried to forget: that whales were conjoined with humans. That we might speak.

Neclel scowled at the black mounds surfacing in Dogfish Bay. They exhaled, chuffing. A fishy stink drifted on the breeze. “J pod,” asserted a whey-faced Suburbanite, his Interpreter dangling from his ear. As he sauntered off, Neclel draped her skinny self over a rock wall and watched whales bob like birthday balloons. Maggie would have squealed with joy. Neclel’s stomach knotted.

On shore, nothing moved but the lap of little waves, not the alders nor the firs nor the kayaks along the strand. Then an eruption of water: a whale breached, up-spiraled slick-sheathed, folded inward in smacking, meaty origami. Down-spiraled a naked woman streaming black hair, landed thud on the stone wall before Neclel. Caught her eyes, sang out “Have your baby the Muckleshoot way,” jumped up, unfurled to whale boom crackle, and plunged back into the bay.

Neclel’s breath came fast and shallow, and her vision went spotty as the world spun. She slid down the wall, scraping her palms. The pain brought her upright. Except for puddling sea water and one long black hair clinging to the wall, there was no sign of the whale woman. The pod had departed, and nothing moved except the lapping water.

Neclel plucked the hair — coarse as horse’s and blacker than her own — and knotted it around her wrist.

A sob escaped her. Last night, Maggie had plunked a whale-shaped cake in front of Neclel. By her reckoning, it was Neclel’s nineteenth birthday.

Their 12' x 60' trailer was crammed with what seemed like every whale what-not in the world: wax, plastic, porcelain, plush; candles, music boxes, puppets, and figurines — all gleaned from donation stations. There was barely space enough for Neclel and Maggie.

Maggie was pale as a dumpling, squat and baggy. Her eyes went silver when sidelit, and her hair was sparse, silken, transparent white.

Neclel was brown-skinned, black-haired, with a curve to her like an orca’s dorsal fin. The opposite of Maggie, though she called Maggie ‘mother.’

Neclel stared at the cake while Maggie grinned, showing snaggle teeth, a few missing. The cake was white, with a blue outline. “Your people,” said Maggie. Neclel gritted her teeth and tried to smile as Maggie swung into the old story. “So foggy, that day the whales pushed you ashore, so foggy I couldn’t even see my feet.”

“That was because your stomach was in the way,” said Neclel.

“Shush. I was thinner than you back then. Thin, thin pickings back then, before donation stations, back when the Suburbanites hoped us Illegit would fade away—”

“You mean, die off,” said Neclel.

“Shush. Listen.”

“I’ve heard it.”

Maggie insisted on clinging to this pathetic lie. Neclel didn’t blame Maggie for telling it when she was little — the penalty for unsanctioned reproduction being a branded face and tied tubes — but Neclel was not little anymore. As Neclel reckoned it, she must be close to Maggie’s age, when Maggie “picked her up off the beach.”

“Time you listened then,” said Maggie. “The bay still as a pond. No one about, so I took my chances and pried mussels off pilings, even though the place was posted no harvesting. When everything is no, you have to make your own yesses.

“I heard the whales whistling. Companionable somehow, but too close. A trick of the fog, I thought, but when I turned, there they were near stranding themselves, pushing something pink, like a half-chewed salmon, up the shore. If it was meat, I wanted it. I would have taken a whale if I could’ve.

“They sank back into the water, all but one; that one crumpled like a collapsing tent, shrank down to a post, stood up and walked like a woman. Bent down and picked up that pink thing crying and squirming on the sand.

“Handed me you. Walked back into the water and the fog. What could I do but take you home?”

“You could tell the truth.”

Neclel picked up a whale plate, staring at the happy whale family glazed into it, floating serene in a sunny sea. Right.

She tossed it out the window, and its shatter was a relief to her. Maggie scrambled up, bad knees, bad back and overweight and all.

Neclel grabbed a music box and cocked her arm. “If they’re my family, why aren’t they here celebrating?” she said as she tossed. This one jangled as it fell.

“Neclel, no!”

Neclel dodged, ripping posters from walls, figurines from shelves, tossing them all. She saved a whale candle for last. Lit it. Shielded the flame with her hand and walked out the door. Maggie moaned.

Outside, Neclel piled the what-nots up on the gravel strip between the trailer and the road, set them alight, then tossed the candle atop the pile. Paper flared, porcelain blackened and cracked, wax and plastic ran and stank and spread like white-hot lava.

She retreated to the steps, eyes glittering. As the flames died, she poked at the mess with a metal bar, shaping it. When the plastic congealed, she ducked inside for string and glue.

The inside of the trailer looked bereft without the whales, mildew-stained and dented, lit by the lurid orange of a street light. Maggie lay facedown on the sofa. Neclel tiptoed past.

All night, Neclel labored with righteous zeal.

• • •

At sunrise, Maggie crept up behind her, making her jump.

“That’s just what she looked like, that whale woman, when she changed.” said Maggie. “You know!”

Neclel stepped back to take in what she had made. It bulged like flesh stabbed by its own bones, swelled like a bud, or a fetus... A Suburbanite pulled his car off the road and leaned out the window. “For sale?” he asked.

Neclel nodded. Wrung out, she wanted nothing more than to be rid of it. And maybe the cash would make it up to Maggie, who had scraped so hard for their livings … So what if Maggie had dressed-up the truth? Maybe the truth was just too cheap, mildew stained, and dented.

And now she’d seen her construction’s like unfolding over Dogfish Bay. How could she have known? She studied her long, nobby-jointed primate hands, the veins that snaked through the flesh. That whale woman had changed — could Neclel unfold too, and slip away into the sea? But that wasn’t what the whale woman had said.

What could she have meant? Officially, only Surburbanites had babies. She knew that ‘Muckleshoot’ was one of the tribes, and the closest tribal thing was the casino...The whale woman’s words pushed her there and pushed her in.

She detested the dazzle, the perfume-clotted sweat and smoke, the rapt gamblers, the way the mirrors made the gambling machines look like they went on forever. She peered at tribal carvings on the walls above the slots — salmon merging with ravens, ravens embedded in salmon, salmon spinning in circles. No whales, maybe because they ate salmon.

A Keno runner asked “Got your numbers?”

“What numbers?” said Neclel.

“You need a card? Here’s a card. Pick your game. Pick your numbers. For three credits, a chance at 50,000.”

“Are there Muckleshoot midwives?” said Neclel.

“You want medicine, you go to a kiosk. You want to gamble, you come here.”

Someone touched her shoulder, and she turned.

“Neclel! Just the one. Help me celebrate, I’m winning!”

Quinn. He shook back his long, straight black hair. His eyes gleamed.

“But odds apply to me,” she said. More than applied. The odds swamped her.

Quinn laughed, “Then come up the mountain with me and watch rocks burn. Tonight’s the Perseids — a meteor shower, shooting stars.”

Neclel bit her lip. She couldn’t tell Quinn about the whale woman. He’d think she was psycho. But lying with Quinn on a blanket and watching shooting stars? She nodded.

• • •

Quinn’s cobbled-together car smelt like burning trash and made noises like a bubbling pot as they wound past the shanty towns, up hairpin turns, through cedars to bare rock. Neclel said, “Quinn, you know anything about Muckleshoot?”

“Name of camas fields; also of tribes called after the fields: Stkamish, Yilalkoamish, Skopamish, Smulkamish, Tkwakwamish, Duwamish...” Quinn sounded like he had an Interpreter, even though Interpreters were the prerogative of the Suburbanites.

“Someone asked me how they have babies,” she said.

“Meaning what? How they get permission? Genetic diversity clause.”

Quinn turned off the headlights: the car had no roof. Above, rocks blazed and streaked and fell to nothing. “It’s beautiful, innit?” said Quinn. “The Suburbanites don’t own everything.” He parked and spread blankets. They lay down and watched rocks burn.

• • •

When she and Quinn turned toward each other, Neclel was never sure who led and who followed. She closed her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” said Quinn.

“Nothing,” said Neclel. She touched the black hair wrapped around her wrist, and let out the breath she’d been holding.

They took turns opening, closing, trapping, and escaping each other, while meteors streaked overhead. Human flesh was plenty enough, right then.

On the way down the mountain, the wind carried the smell of the shanties: bodies, sewage, mud, cooking, and woodsmoke. Quinn dropped her at the trailer. Neclel waved. When she slung herself onto the couch she noticed that Maggie had covered the dents and stains with a new whale poster. Maggie followed Neclel’s eyes, and shrugged, “From the donation station. Free.”

• • •

In the morning, when she was out gathering, Neclel spied the whale woman wading on the beach near the market stalls, flicking fish into her mouth with her feet. No one else seemed to notice her.

Neclel stalked her. When she stumbled over a root, the whale woman’s blue eyes caught her. She flicked a fish at Neclel. Neclel caught it and stuffed it into a pocket. Food was food. The woman sang “Don’t get burnt,” and spun away into the water.

Neclel raced after her. She moved along the edge of a crowd, and before she knew it, uniformed Medics corraled her. The tight line led to a kiosk; a place of probing, inoculating, and routine disinfections, to guard the Suburbanites from disease.

Most people queued up to get it over with. Some were grateful for the care, rough as it was. A few, like Neclel, milled near the barriers. Helmeted Medics eyed them, fingering microwave guns. The man next to her rushed a barrier. They zapped him. He shrank back, grimacing. If he’d moved quick enough, he’d be unmarked. If not, he’d suffer burns and blisters. Applied too long, the rays cooked flesh, sometimes inside out.

Neclel panicked. She didn’t know what that whale woman had meant about a baby. She didn’t know anything about a baby. But if the kiosk detected one, it’d remove it, and they’d brand her. She fingered the fish in her pocket, threw it into a Medic’s face, vaulted over a barrier, and ran. She heard Medics lumbering behind, turned her head to look, and fell over a kayak.

She shoved it into the water, flung herself in. Wind pushed her out.

On the shore, a Medic crouched, aiming a microwave gun. Neclel’s skin burned. At the same time, something smacked the bottom of the kayak. The craft tipped and she slipped out. Her whole body contracted in the cold as she sank, bubbles in her ears. As she struggled back toward air, something gripped her foot and pulled her down.

Clicks shook through her body, and she felt a great outfolding.

She clawed upward. By the time her hands struck the surface, they were flippers.

Medics ran along the shore, shouting. Microwaves boiled the water’s surface. Neclel gasped and sank, barely registering that her breath came from the top of her head. Whales squeaked and stroked her sides. Their clicking filled her skull. She closed her eyes, but still saw moving shadows, and a thicket of long, legless, curved spines.

• • •

It was a strong prison, this new body. She couldn’t see much or far through water. But the pod’s echolocation formed a group vision, and through their clicks she could see eels in the rocks, polyps in the corals, backbones in the fish. See if a whale had just eaten, was hungry, was pregnant or aroused. The whales had no secrets.

When she tried clicking herself, she couldn’t make sense of it. There was some trick to focusing that she couldn’t master. And although she heard the whales’ squeals clearly, they meant nothing. Her own squeals scared her.

Around her, the pod hunted and herded fish. They moved fast and close together, even in turbid water, even in the dark, and she couldn’t follow without tangling the hunt. So she hung back. She ate any fish that came her way, cold, raw, mangled. She needed her strength if she was going to get back to cooked food, two legs, dry land, air language.

Neclel pushed herself vertical and stuck her head out of the water as much as she could. Such a relief to see things in the old way.

In a narrow channel, she spied a familiar shape and squealed. The figure turned and shaded his eyes. The whale pod chivvied her along, but she was certain it was Quinn. Looking for her? Recognizing her? What were the odds? He was a lucky man. Was she lucky for him?

• • •

The pod touched constantly, never moving out of earshot and echolocation of each other. Mothers, children, children’s children. No fathers, only uncles, brothers, sons. No mates. No mating. They must go to other pods for that.

Then the only way to join the pod was to be born to it, and the only way to leave was to die. Whatever Maggie said, these weren’t her people: she couldn’t speak to them, she couldn’t hunt, she couldn’t keep up. She tagged along, drifted, and slept, floating, body rising with every breath. Even sleep was foreign: dream and waking mixed. She could only breathe if some part of her willed it. In dreams between breaths, she was human again.

Without the pod she would have starved and been entirely lost, so she struggled to follow. But every day was more exhausting than the one before. She couldn’t get enough food or enough sleep.

• • •

She was a relative, but she was helpless: half-blind, slow, afraid. And she couldn’t speak. But we still believed there was a way.

• • •

When the song rose, Neclel was dreaming of trailers filled with plastic whales. At first she thought it was some kind of echo, until the whales surrounded her, stroking her, singing back. Through their clicks, she glimpsed the baby. Hers and Quinn’s. Had to be. Even if it was the wrong shape.

If she beached herself, would they, she and the child, fold back to their true forms? She had to get back home.

• • •

The rancid calf-killer appeared out of nowhere. A pod-sister shook her flukes and pushed the shark to the surface, rolled over, using her tail to chop down hard, then turned and grasped the killer in her jaws. She flipped the beast and the pod moved in.

Neclel spyhopped.



She drove herself onto the beach. The waves lifted her and her body skidded onto cobbles.

So heavy, she couldn’t breathe...

Quinn shouted “Neclel.” A vast tucking and constriction, and she sprawled, human. Her heart raced. She panted and belched. Quinn pulled her up. Her ribs and her belly stuck out. She’d forgotten how to move her feet. Quinn half-carried her to his car.

She shook with belches as he settled her. She tried to speak, but choked instead.

“Shhh,” said Quinn, covering her with a blanket.

• • •

Later, as he drove, he said, “My gran tells stories about people putting on whale skins and traveling to whale villages beneath the water … and then I saw a whale that had your eyes. Mossy green, brown streaks. I never saw a whale like that before. I thought I’d try to find that whale.”

“Your gran?” said Neclel, in a creaky voice.

“Yeah. Muckleshoot,” said Quinn. I’m Filipino-Muckleshoot-Norwegian, or something like that, hard to keep it straight … and you, part whale?”

“No,” creaked Neclel, and fell asleep.

• • •

She woke up in the trailer to Maggie’s singing.

Maggie brought tea.

Later, after they’d talked and cried, she said “The Suburbanite wants more constructions like the one you made out of our whales. He has a gallery, he says. He says he can sell them.”

Maggie’s words jolted Neclel. She could see just how the next one should be shaped, and now all she wanted to do was shape it. She wouldn’t need what-nots, just the thermonasty plastic Quinn kept in his workshop.

Quinn piled plastic at the edge of the road. Maggie brought food. Neclel ate and sang as she worked. As she sang, the baby shifted. Changed, it couldn’t sing back. Did it miss singing? But surely it enjoyed having enough food…

She recorded and embedded the songs in the constructions. The constructions were the pod, with the voice of the pod, as they saw themselves, inside and out. Now that she was free of them, they were all she could think of.

The Suburbanite bought all she made.

• • •

Quinn flapped his hand in front of her face. “Neclel? You there?”

She shook her head, smiled at him, went on singing and building.

Maggie looked at her slant and said: “You’re looking better, more yourself. But we need to talk. When’s the baby due?”

“I don’t know.” said Neclel.

“Is it Quinn’s?”

“Yes,” said Neclel ferociously.

“Why aren’t you talking to Quinn?”

“I don’t feel like talking.” In fact, words seemed awkward to her. But every morning she woke up with another shape in her head, and another song.

• • •

One night Quinn stepped between her and her work and said “I’m cutting off your plastic.”

She reached past him to tweak the work. He grabbed her by the shoulders, turned her around, and stared into her eyes. His eyes, she knew, were warm and brown. But in the light of the street lamp they looked black as a midnight sea.

“We need to talk,” Quinn said. “You’re not right. All you do is sleep and eat and build. And the constructions make the Suburbanites crazy. They gather in mobs and sing together, then tear down seawalls, dikes, dams … there’ve been floods.”

“This is just plastic,” said Neclel. “The songs don’t even have words. The Suburbanites were always crazy.”

“So stop,” said Quinn. “If you’re not doing anything. And we’ll see.”

But she couldn’t. When the plastic ran out she went to the donation stations and built on, melting dolls and candles. As she worked, she was dimly aware of Quinn and Maggie arguing.

“If you stopped bringing her food, she’d have to quit,” said Quinn.

“Think of the baby,” said Maggie. “Besides, she’s doing the whales’ work.”

“And why should she do their work?” said Quinn. “Someday, someone’s going to drown. Could be us. This trailer’s on low ground. You heard what happened on the Nisqually Delta? And I need her. The baby needs her.”

“Let her be,” said Maggie. “This is what she was born for.”

• • •

Her own contractions stopped Neclel.

Maggie found her squatting beside her work, panting and moaning, and helped her inside the trailer. She called Quinn, and Quinn called his grandmother.

Quinn’s grandmother eased her with a bitter decoction of snowberry root, roasted and pounded. The contractions ran together like water, and the baby rode the waves into the world.

Neclel lay on the couch, at ease. She felt no urge to build. No songs came. She cast her eyes on her small pink son, and wondered what message he contained.

Vicki Saunders lives on an island in the Salish Sea near a superfund site, down the road from a casino. You can find her work at Ideomancer, and upcoming in Stupefying Stories. In 2009, she got off her rock and attended Clarion West, and nothing's been the same since.

Issue 24

December 2013

3LBE 324

Front & Back cover art
by Rew X