Story and illustrations by Jocelyn Paine
In my youthful self, I imagined the sea was a basket of treasures. All things that came from it were delights to my eyes or thrilled my mouth or woke my skin. When my sister and I set out foraging, I always suggested the sea’s edge, while she liked best the woods and mountains. I tried to be patient, but her need for dabbled shadows and high views ignored my need to flow and ebb, to breathe with the waves, to throw on changeling colors with a caprice of mood. I loved my sister, yet if I listened deeply to the chambers of my heart, I loved the sea more.
Until I met Whale.
Then I loved him best.
My story never would have happened if I had been born a man, for then I would have met Whale as danger or as prey. I would have painted his sleek black and white flesh with red blood, cut his skin into muktuk and felt its energy in my body, thanked the gift of whale’s life as I chewed on dried strips of his flesh in meat-poor winters. Please forgive me. I did not know what I had done.
On the day I met Whale I gave up muktuk, though he laughed at my delicacy, seawater streaming from his sharp teeth. Then he tossed me high and caught me on his fluke and we played together.
But you do not know the beginning.
On that day I had prevailed, and my sister and I searched the wet sea edge for bubbles of clams’ nests. The day was fine, I was happy, we had a basket almost full. Sand scoured my feet and I gave my face to the rough wind, which smelled of seaweed wrack and storm rain far offshore. My sister cried out.
“What is that?!”
A moving spot became a bird and another became a wake behind and we forgot to run away, we were so ensorcelled. I do believe that we were magicked that day, though Whale swore he had not spelled me, that my love for him was my own doing. I know the power of totems, and I know my whale is surely that.
The bird spot became Eagle. He aimed true for my sister, child of his mountains. The wake-maker that was Whale surged up the shore to the tips of my toes. Sister fell back, thrust down by Eagle hitting her chest. I was struck still by the power of Whale.
He turned his head to look to Eagle.
“Coward! Thief! Give me back my fish!”
Oh, his voice! I heard the thump of waves and tossed shells clicking and the whistles of sea birds. A spray from him blew over me and I cared not that I was drenched in his words.
I stepped into his space. I heard my sister gasp.
“Whale, what is this? You, so big, so beautiful, why are you disturbed to miss one fish in all the sea? Surely there is enough and more to share?”
My heart beat fast in the pulse of my throat.
Whale turned his head and turned again to see me out of both eyes. He blew more spume from his blowhole and I was careful not to flinch away, though it was cold and smelled of fish guts and stagnant water.
“Humph! Harrumpt! Well, what is this?”
I felt very small in front of his glossy mass.
“I did not consider that, little one,” he said. “Indeed, there are more fish. It is just this one…” And I knew I would seize my chance.
“I have always wondered…I have watched those like you…what is it like? Riding the waves? Diving down so long and far?” I stepped even closer. His eye rolled down to see me. “It must be glorious, in the deep! It is a journey I’ve dreamed, but never…I mean…”
The inner lid of his eye flicked across like a wink. “Do I take it that you are asking me to carry you?”
“Yes! I mean no! I would not presume…”
“…because, if you are, I would be delighted.”
He extended a flipper toward me. His skin was warmer than my flesh, and slippery, and my foot on it bounced as if on quaking land. I knew I was not graceful as befit a young woman, but my need was great, and I clambered up his slope as if ascending a mountainside of sliding schist. I swung a leg around his dorsal fin, held on tight, and looked down from my great height to my beloved sister.
“Do not tell our parents,” I said, “or, maybe if I don’t come back, tell them then.”
“Will you come back?” she asked.
“I do not know. No, I lie. I will not return. Kiss our brothers.”
“They will be angry.”
“Yes. I love you.”
I looked out at the sea and saw it as if for the first time, giving up its secrets, sweeping colors raining from each wave, sun-caught gold in each trough.
Still clasping her Eagle close, my sister said, “As I’ve loved you,” her voice and eyes ragged with tears.
“Hold tight!” Whale called. He bent and bucked and with one fluid motion gained the water and turned toward the wide horizon.
I did not look back.
So began my life with Whale, a beginning filled with pain and joy as every adventure must hold. If we are blind to life’s possibilities, we miss its wonder. I had looked too long to the outside of myself. Now my inside roiled, water over stones.
“Do you trust me, human one?” Whale sang. Here on the sea his voice was in chorus with wind, waves, our journey’s slaps and booms.
When I opened my mouth to answer a wave filled it with salt water and my words sputtered, much less musically than Whale’s song.
“Do not fight the water. It will feed your lungs as if you were on land. Hold tight!”
Again, I clasped his dorsal and sealed my breast to his hot flesh. I couldn’t help myself—I took a big gasp of breath.
And Whale dived.