When the Waves are Whales

The day before I left to go to sea, I went to visit Alana. She was an aunt or cousin of some distance, but when I was a boy my city was at war and my parents had sent me to stay with her, through the mountains to where the slopes dipped into the sea.

I knocked on the door, though I should have known better. She was not the type to be sitting quietly inside, knitting or reading like my mother, especially on a sunny day like this when the wind rocked the water into gentle waves. Finding no answer at the door, I looked to the garden, where she had once taught me the healing properties of various herbs, where we had once sung the old shaman songs together to encourage the plants to grow.

The garden overflowed with bright blooms, but Alana wasn’t there. I found her sitting on a rock by the shore. She didn’t turn when I sat beside her. Her face looked blissful, her eyes softly focused on the ocean waves.

“I had a dream you’d come,” she said.

“You didn’t get my letter?”

“Mmm,” she said. “Maybe that was it.” Her eyes crinkled. “No, it was a dream. We were watching the whales together, just like now.”

I followed her gaze to the water. The wind pulled the waves up into white tips. I watched for the spout of a whale’s breath, for the emergence of a dark flapping tail.

A few minutes passed before I said, “I don’t see any whales.”

“They’re everywhere,” she said. “Hundreds of them. Look!”

She pointed to a large whitecap, then clasped her hands in delight. It wasn’t her eyesight. She had been old as long as I’d known her, and she’d never had to squint to identify faces or read signs. It was the way she saw.

I tried to see the waves like she did, wanting to believe that her way was right, that there were hundreds of whales cavorting right there in the bay. Maybe they were whales of a different dimension, the songs of their bodies vibrating on a different scale than the songs of our world, and she could see them because she had one foot in that world too, like the shamans who had long disappeared. I tried, but the whales always turned back into waves for me. Just white caps created by the wind.

I kissed her head, the gray strands of her hair soft under my lips. She wrapped both her hands around one of mine. We sat there for another hour, me watching the waves, she watching the whales, until the sun flashed green as it disappeared into the sea.

My sea voyage was nothing grand or heroic. Fishers had complained of a recent surge in the sea-squirrel population. They ate too much and reproduced too fast, and chewed apart coral reefs so they could burrow in the rubble. The fishers’ nets were full of them instead of the fish they could sell in markets. So our task was to hunt these pests, which we did by a number of different methods. We launched spears after them when we saw solitary squirrels leaping along beside the ship. We dropped nets and captured hundreds at a time when we found a dray of them, tossing back the odd fish or octopus also caught in the net.

The sea-squirrels had thick rodent-like bodies and yellow fur like the mountain-squirrels, but had gill slits behind their ears and thick fins with claws at the end that could slice your hand if you picked one up live. I’d seen some as big as a puppy, though most we caught were much smaller.

They were coarse and tough, but the ship’s cook fried and spiced them in a way that made them tolerable. It was during one of these feasts, the stars bright above us and a thick candle drawing our shadows long on the wooden deck as we lifted bites to our mouths, that my crewmates started telling stories.

Their stories were not of their own pomp and bravery, because our generation had grown up with the war, and we didn’t tend to display pride about our petty achievements. They were stories about their mothers, their uncles, their teachers, and were told less to brag or entertain than to show the others who they were, what they valued.

I listened to several before someone suggested it was my turn. I chewed my fried sea-squirrel and stared into the candle flame, thinking. My father had been injured in the war and had spent most of my life clouding his sorrows with sedating smoke, saved from destruction only by my mother’s quiet devotion. There were stories there, but not ones that my sea-brothers wanted to hear. And then I smiled, and told them about Alana.

Once, she had grown the largest flower anyone had ever seen. I came back from my rowing lesson to find her in the garden crooning over an orange blossom that had expanded overnight to the size of a dinner plate. She held her finger to her mouth when I walked up so that I wouldn’t interrupt her song. I crouched in the dirt beside her, poking the ground with a stick. It was normal for her to sing the old shaman songs in the garden, but she usually serenaded the whole plot while she watered and pruned.

I looked up from the ground, bored with the designs I’d scratched into the soil, and watched the blossom grow before my eyes. She sang, and new petals unfolded from a seemingly infinite center. I watched, entranced. Eventually her voice cracked and she stopped, nodded.

“That’s enough for today,” she said, and took me inside for dinner.

Over my shoulder, I could see the blossom still growing.

The next day it had doubled, and again the day after that, until its radius was nearly the length of the rowboat I practiced with daily. Each day she sang to it, starting when I left for rowing lessons, and continuing until after I returned. The vegetables we picked during that time were small and bitter, but the flower just kept growing.

Around that time an artist announced a contest to become the subject matter for his new mural, which would adorn the marketplace wall. It was an ill-defined contest, and I heard the parents of my rowing friends complain that it was a scam, this artist just looking to be coddled and fed.

But Alana was determined to win.

“I’ve always wanted someone to paint a portrait of me,” she told me one day while we were washing dishes together.

“Really?” I asked. I wondered if she would be happy with the way he painted her. She was not beautiful, not like the girls who practiced dancing with palm leaves on the shore while we practiced our rowing on the sea. But she did have vibrancy, a glow that affected her every movement, and I wondered if the artist would be able to capture that, rather than simply painting a squat gray woman.

“Oh yes,” she answered. “When I was young I knew an artist who used to draw sketches of me. He always promised one day he’d paint me.”

Suds slid down her arms. The water splashed.

“What happened to him?”

“Mmm,” she said, stared out the window and then shook her head. She never said anything more.

She invited the artist over to see the flower. I stayed in the house and watched them through the window. The artist was a tall man with long fingers, whose head protruded in front of his neck rather than sitting on top of it. Alana talked, her hands flying to illustrate her ideas. The artist nodded. She tried out several poses in front of the flower. I laughed at how silly she looked and imitated the poses in the bedroom mirror, laughing at myself too.

The artist stayed for lunch. He was a serious man. He asked questions about my rowing lessons and told me grotesque details about the war on the other side of the mountains, which I tried to forget as soon as I’d heard.

“Do you think you’ll win the contest?” I asked Alana once he was gone.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I’m quite sure of it.”

She made the mistake of expressing this confidence to a number of people we saw at the marketplace that afternoon, and when we woke the next day, the flower was gone. A hole occupied the center of the garden where someone had dug it out by the roots.

Alana paced the edge of the garden, wringing her hands. I assumed she would be most upset about losing her chance to be painted, but what she kept repeating was, “The flower can’t keep growing if I can’t sing to it!”

Together we launched a thorough investigation, scanning the garden pathways for unusual footprints, going door to door asking if anyone had seen who took it.

“It’s a giant flower,” I said to Alana after the fifth household that told us they knew nothing. “There aren’t many places it could be hidden.”

“It will die if I can’t sing to it,” Alana said, despair saturating her voice.

In the marketplace I spotted the artist. Alana called to him but he didn’t turn so we ran to catch up. She caught him by the sleeve, wheezing. He looked at the two of us as if we were thieves demanding his wallet. Alana put her hand to her chest, still wheezing from the run, so I started our standard questioning about the flower. Alana interrupted me.

“You, sir,” she said, still breathless, but looking up into the artist’s face now, “have mud on your shoes.”

We tracked down the stolen flower in a shed behind the marketplace, then the artist admitted he planned to paint the mural of the flower–without Alana–and sell the flower to the highest bidder.

The flower was so big by that point that it took ten of us to hold it up and carry it back to Alana’s garden, where she placed it into the hole, packing dirt as close around its roots as she could. She sang to the flower and it grew even larger until it filled the whole back yard.

My crewmates smiled, nodding up at the sky, and in the candlelight I could see a touch of that same bliss I had seen on Alana’s face while she watched the wave-whales.

“That’s not what happened,” one of the men said.

I squinted through the candle flame, and realized this was one of the boys I had taken rowing lessons with as a child. I didn’t want to admit I hadn’t recognized him before.

“What do you remember, then?” I said.

He shrugged and retreated into the shadows and all eyes turned back to me. So I told them the truth.

We carried the flower back–it took five of us in this version–and planted it. For several days, Alana sat out there singing to it. But the brown tinge that had already affected the outer petals by the time we found it just kept spreading. Every day the orange soured to brown a bit more, no matter how much and how lovely Alana sang.

One night she was still out there when I went to bed, and I woke up to find her crying next to the dry tendrils of what had once been the biggest blossom anyone had ever seen. I sat there and cried with her, and then helped her inside and tucked her into bed, as she had done for me so many times. Instead of going to my normal rowing lesson, I dragged my canoe up the hill and loaded the dead flower into it. I took it down to the shore and dumped the brown petals in, watched the flower get torn apart by the waves.

“Better?” I said to the man who had questioned my story.

He nodded, a smirk on his face. The others began to wander back to their bunks, leaving other stories untold for the night.

I slept poorly even on the easiest nights, jerked awake by every creak of the mast, every snort of my bunkmates. One morning a few nights after I’d told Alana’s story, I was on deck in the soft pre-dawn light, lowering the nets. My hands burned from the rope and my eyes throbbed from lack of sleep. The water heaved and peaked like mountains rapidly building and eroding. Water sprayed against the ship and it sounded to me like the spout of a whale, that thought coming from the back of my groggy mind.

When the nets were fully lowered, I looked down to see them trailing in the water. Somewhere below the nets a shadow grew darker and then a patch of oily gray skin surfaced just beside the edge of the net. It disappeared, dove, and reappeared a bit further from the ship with a glimpse of a wide flat tail. I leaned on the rail and watched as a second one breeched with a spray that sounded like the water against the hull, and I was left unsure what I had been hearing a few moments before.

After a while we were called back to shore, our task of checking the sea-squirrel population accomplished, at least for now. I found myself back on land sunburned, wobbly-legged and nursing a poorly defined sense of dissatisfaction. I considered going back through the mountains to see my parents, to see if fortunes had changed, but I decided not to, for now. It was hard enough just to walk on dry land, and I couldn’t imagine going back to that land-locked city, mountains on one side, desert on the other. As a boy when my parents had come to claim me from Alana’s and take me back to the war-ravaged city, I had been so excited to go home. But when I got there, it wasn’t home anymore. I missed the sea, and the garden. I missed the girls with their palm leaf dances, and the boys I rowed with. I missed Alana.

I waited a few days after returning to shore before going to see her. When my legs felt more solid, I climbed the short hill to her house and, even though I knew better, knocked on the door. But this time when she didn’t answer, I didn’t find her in the garden, or at the beach. I went in the back door, calling her name. The house felt warm and sweet. It smelled like her, but she wasn’t there. I went to a neighbor to ask if they’d seen her. They pointed me up the hill.

A trail forked at the edge of the forest, and I spied a footprint on the one leading up into the mountains. Narrow and tapered, like her favorite shoes.

It didn’t take long to catch up with her.

“Alana!” I called, but she didn’t turn. She held her skirts in both hands and stepped solidly, quickly up the rocky trail. I hurried behind her, calling her name again.

“I had a dream you’d come,” she said, without turning to me.

“Alana, what are you doing up here?”

“Oh, you won’t turn me back,” she said.

Her cheeks were flushed bright red, but her breath sounded strong and steady. No wheezing from this exertion, not yet. My own pulse was raised, my throat dry.

“But where are you going?”

“Just come along,” she said.

So I did. We climbed together until I felt my heart would explode. Until my head felt dizzy and light. This was a different path than the one that led through the mountains to the city. This one led up a tall conical peak, one that stood above all the others. The air grew colder. Fog swirled around our feet.

“Will you tell me where we’re going?”

“There was this man in town,” she said, “From somewhere to the south, where there’s still a living shaman. He was talking about what keeps our feet on the ground. He says if you go high enough, it has less power. He says if you go all the way to the stars, you could float in the air like a fish floats in the sea.”

“Oh, Alana,” I said. “That’s why we’re all the way up here?”

She didn’t stop climbing, though it was steeper now, a slower ascent. I didn’t know much about how the world worked, but I knew that if I dropped something, it fell to the ground, and it didn’t matter how high or low I was. It was always the same. The shamans were long gone, and I doubted even they could have changed that basic truth.

She got far enough ahead that I lost her in the mist for a moment, and when I caught up, she was climbing a loose rope ladder that hung along the side of a sharp peak. I paused, looking up to where the mountain vanished into more fog. I waited until she had almost disappeared again, then I gripped the rope rungs and started to climb.

Her movements twisted the ladder, challenging my own climb, and I had no doubt that if we fell, we would both be drawn right back down to the closest solid surface, given an unforgiving reprimand forever doubting the ground’s pull. My rowing teacher had told me never to turn my back on the sea, and I felt here as if I had turned my back on the ground, so that it might sneak up on me like a big wave. I looked down, but the ground was obscured by fog.

Then the ladder lost some of its tension, and I could tell her weight was no longer pressing on it.

“Alana!” I yelled, my voice cracking from exhaustion. I looked wildly around, but didn’t see her body tumbling past me. I climbed faster, and the summit came into view.

She balanced on the tip of the mountain, teetering and laughing like my friends and I when we had tried to balance on the poles at the dock. I stayed below, hands gripping so tightly that the rope burned my palms. She wobbled, then seemed to find stability. I held my breath. She looked up into the sky, swirls of blue breaking through the fog. With grace she lifted her arms, letting the skirts fall around her ankles. Then her feet lifted off the mountaintop and she floated, the fog flowing around her like water.

Sarena Ulibarri earned an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder and attended the Clarion Fantasy and Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, A Capella Zoo, Kasma SF and elsewhere. Find more at sarenaulibarri.com

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