Phos­pho­res­cence

Room Magazine - - CONTENTS - JANE EA­TON HAMIL­TON

Sim­ple plea­sure: div­ing in­side a night tank while bub­bles as­cend and whales from the Saint Lawrence ma­te­ri­al­ize and va­por­ize, pin eyes black in white lumpy heads. I sink ev­ery night af­ter the aquar­ium goes dark, feel­ing arc­tic cold press­ing hard against my neo­prene, finning, div­ing, murk­ing through the al­gae-slicked wa­ters, sea-weed­ing against glass. I ap­pre­ci­ate I can’t hear traf­fic. Sound of bub­bles, sound of breath, loud crackly sound of oxy­gen, weight of the tank. I draw my squeegee against the glass where mag­nets were used be­fore the whales yanked them down, be­yond which a thou­sand peo­ple in a year stand and think their thoughts, watch­ing th­ese crea­tures. Some of them don’t be­lieve in whales in cap­tiv­ity; oth­ers think of noth­ing but en­chant­ment.

The tank is the size of a cup, rel­a­tive to the ocean; in it, or­cas used to hang like sad tea bags, murk­ing the wa­ter with their urine and fe­ces, but even­tu­ally those whales were sold off and died; now it is pop­u­lated by the white shad­ows of the ghost whales, the neg­a­tives of or­cas. I run my hands down their long, fin­less backs, run­nels like fork tines from their heads to their flukes; one of them, Mitchika, en­joys be­ing tick­led on her belly; Caramia, the preg­nant one, likes to hover above me in my bub­bles while I float on my back and curve my arms around her to stroke her melon to beak. It is ex­cit­ing to me to think of what is hap­pen­ing in­side her, the divi­sion of cells, the in­evitabil­ity of a whale.

I yearn to re­lease the whales in the ice wa­ters near Tadous­sac—who would not?—but the ocean doesn’t flow in tubes across Canada; there’s no safe pas­sage. All the unan­swered ques­tions about re­leased whales any­how: where do they go, with whom do they as­so­ciate, what are their fail­ures, their suc­cesses, their mor­bidi­ties and mor­tal­i­ties? Some of this sci­en­tists can mon­i­tor, but most of it they can’t.

When I was small, my fa­ther had to in­sist that I was not a whale. Here is a hump­back, he said, a right whale, a sperm whale, and a killer whale; here is you. One of th­ese things is not like the oth­ers.

I could be their calf, though, I said. An orca baby.

You can’t be a whale, he said. Me on my tummy in the bath­tub wav­ing my arms

from the el­bows down as I tried to push a blow­hole through my head or my arched back, sur­fac­ing in fail­ure.

You can’t breathe un­der­wa­ter, my fa­ther told me again and again. You are a hu­man girl. You’ve al­ready had your day as a baby, float­ing in your mother’s em­bry­onic wa­ters.

I tried to imag­ine the days when I was the size of a peanut slosh­ing in the swim­ming pool of my mother. I imag­ined a div­ing board, a slide.

I begged my fa­ther to take me to the whales. When we saw or­cas breach­ing in the dis­tance, I yearned to can­non­ball over the edge of the zo­diac and break my hu­man bonds.

I go nowhere near the bel­uga tanks, the labs in the base­ment; I skirt all the fishy tanks. The oc­to­puses, the par­rot fish, the sea tur­tles, the elec­tric eels.

“There’s only one pro­tes­tor to­day,” I say to Dr. Rachel Behr as she pours cof­fee, adds milk from a pint-sized con­tainer. The bel­u­gas don’t have as many ad­vo­cates as the or­cas.

Dr. Rachel says rue­fully: “Break­fast.” Some­body’s orange rolls across the mid­dle of the ta­ble. She pulls a kiwi out of her bag. There is some­thing oceanic about ki­wis, which look like crest­ing green waves. She slices it like a soft-boiled egg, eats it with a spoon.

The two of us stare out the win­dow. I want to in­vite the pro­tes­tor in where it’s warm and dry, but this kind of friend­li­ness is for­bid­den, lest he poi­son our fish or smash a tank. Rare crea­tures could die. But this man doesn’t look for­mi­da­ble. His plac­ard tears from be­ing wet, right through No ma­rine mam­mals in cap­tiv­ity! He mas­sages his arms, look­ing not an­gry, but re­signed.

Dr. Rachel has done only good things for the whales. She has an ocean for a brain: sea tur­tles and man­a­tees swim­ming, bull kelp wav­ing, man­grove roots and co­ral. She’s a small woman en­tirely with­out an­gles, del­i­cate and lu­mi­nous, with swim­merets of red hair, a hu­man ax­olotl with a trans­par­ent ex­oskele­ton. She would be slip­pery in my arms like a soaped baby, like an ot­ter, thrill on her face, alight. She would be quick­sil­ver half-glances and mirth. Dr. Rachel is the rea­son half of the aquar­ium an­i­mals are even alive. Her good vet­eri­nary skills. She’s the whale whis­perer.

Dr. Rachel and I press shoul­ders, but we pre­tend we don’t re­al­ize.

My part­ner, Desi, is a land crea­ture, a nerved cara­pace filled with earth, weighted and prac­ti­cal. At the cabin, I hand her a bag of washed baby spinach. It is as close to cook­ing as I come. A good cook, Desi has made lasagna, which hangs in cheesy sta­lac­tites from my palate; I have trouble swal­low­ing.

When we touch, Desi is strong tufts of crab­grass, spread­ing, spread­ing.

How can I tell her that I can’t swim on land?

Bee­tles the size of quar­ters have hatched; while Desi sleeps, one flies into my ear. I up­end a cup over it on the bed­side ta­ble.

The wa­ter in the cabin runs only cold, which in Jan­uary is melted ice—very much the tem­per­a­ture of the bel­uga tanks at the aquar­ium. One burner of the hot­plate is ka­put; to do dishes, we have to heat pot af­ter pot of wa­ter. Some­times it is just eas­ier to take them to the city with us and bring them back the next time. Desi’s dreams, I sus­pect, are all about plumb­ing: build­ing a bath­room to re­place the out­house, hot run­ning wa­ter, a func­tional kitchen.

Desi and I can­not shine each other. How do you shine a tree trunk? Our sur­faces have tar­nished and dulled. She is bark, pit­ted and rough.

Where is the axe to our trunk? Where is the splin­ter, the crack, the great trunk fall­ing?

There is the thing I have to do be­fore I hold my mask and fall back­wards into the tank: the prick, the in­sulin shot into my stom­ach fat or the quick-swal­lowed candy, the im­pos­si­ble wait for my glu­cose lev­els to even out, the tug and sausage-ing of my wet­suit.

I breast­stroke to mimic Caramia’s propul­sion. I slip up along her belly, which is huge now, wrap my arms tight around her and roll while she wheels click­ing and chirp­ing, rev­el­ling in my bub­bles. When she sounds, it trav­els through me in vi­bra­tions; I would give ev­ery­thing to speak whale. I want to see into her brain the way I think I see into Desi’s. In th­ese mo­ments, if I screw shut my eyes and let her lan­guage fill me, I can imag­ine we’re not in a dirty aquar­ium in the atria of the ur­ban heart, but in an al­ter­nate uni­verse of cur­rents, where whale mu­sic reigns. Where cap­tiv­ity has no cur­rency.

That night, in bed at the cot­tage, Desi says she has a con­fes­sion.

It’s like be­ing shocked by an elec­tric eel—that wa­ver­ing un­cer­tainty, that crisp ex­cla­ma­tion.

Desi is so grounded, so real, so sub­stan­tive. She is not like me, whose sug­ars soar and crash, whose moods are oceanic and full of kelp.

“Are you hav­ing an af­fair? Are you sick?”

“No,” she says, paus­ing. “Not re­ally. Not ac­tu­ally.”

“What?” When I touch her face, I smell loam. “Dar­ling, tell me,” I say. No mat­ter what hap­pens with Dr. Rachel, I need to tell Desi I’m not happy. But the words are thick on my tongue, weighted like fish lures.

When she says noth­ing, I roll to my back to wait. When I check back, Desi is sound asleep with her mouth open.

Caramia has been in labour five hours, dart­ing around the tank, her pin eyes wide, her fear and pain ob­vi­ous. She bat­ters her beak and melon against rocks on each turn around the pool. She’s been preg­nant nearly six­teen months with Atikak’s baby, but now it’s time, now, in the midst of this con­ta­gion of phos­pho­res­cent di­noflag­el­lates, phy­to­plank­ton that glows when the wa­ter is ag­i­tated. She is not a white whale tonight, but blue as magic. She’s been iso­lated from the other whales, which Dr. Rachel ad­vo­cates, but I doubt our ideas about this—what hu­man mother labours alone? What whale? The di­rec­tor is wor­ried for Caramia’s safety. The di­rec­tor says he wants us in the tank re­as­sur­ing her, but cau­tions he can’t guar­an­tee our safety; he has pa­pers drawn up for us to sign, and while this is in progress, I mea­sure my in­sulin, stab my­self, run my hands across the sur­face of the wa­ter. A whale in labour is a whale in labour—a pow­er­ful force. Caramia is small for a bel­uga, but she is still eleven feet long, three thou­sand pounds, and in this state, highly un­pre­dictable.

Around us, video cam­eras whir un­til the lights are shut off, and it’s only Caramia swim­ming through blue stars.

Dr. Rachel slips into the tank, barely a smudge in the wa­ter com­pared to Caramia, she’s so small, but in a mat­ter of mo­ments she too is slick with bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cence and be­gins to glow. I slide in. She and I fin off as one crea­ture wrapped in a flag of light, cir­cling the tank while the dis­traught whale rushes past us click­ing. Fi­nally, Caramia edges be­tween us, slow­ing her pro­gres­sion to match ours. Her melon is gouged but we do noth­ing to stop it; we just keep pace with her through con­trac­tions, and with our re­as­sur­ance, she stops bat­ter­ing her head. Dr. Rachel rubs Caramia’s belly when it tight­ens, so I do it too, un­til Caramia is float­ing in

the bub­bles she loves, and we are mid­wif­ing. Some­times when Caramia slows in a con­trac­tion, we are more ver­ti­cal than hor­i­zon­tal, and Dr. Rachel and I meet each other’s eyes be­hind our masks, ac­knowl­edg­ing the beauty of this night, this event. No­body can hear what two hearts beat. What four hearts beat.

When Caramia pushes her calf ’s flukes out, the di­rec­tor or­ders us from the pool. We lean in from above and stroke Caramia while she floats and rolls; she of­fers her con­tract­ing belly to us. The baby ap­pears in the man­ner of a hu­man baby—push­ing out, slip­ping back. Con­trac­tion is birth; the absence of con­trac­tion is slip­page. Fi­nally, Caramia shoots away from us and the calf ex­plodes from her in a gush of blood.

“I’m em­bar­rassed to have to tell you this. I’m preg­nant,” Desi says, later af­ter I tell her about my glo­ri­ous day, leav­ing Dr. Rachel com­pletely out. One of the bee­tles that hatched last time we were at the cot­tage lands in Desi’s hair, be­comes trapped. I would shriek, but Desi just un­tan­gles it gen­tly so that it isn’t harmed and holds it on her palm wait­ing for its next move.

“You’re what?” I say. The bee­tle is frozen, too scared, I pre­sume, to move.

“I’m preg­nant,” she says. Even Desi’s breath smells like corn­fields and husks. “That’s what I wanted to tell you the other night.”

“Preg­nant? How on earth did you get preg­nant?” The bee­tle waves its an­ten­nae. Re­li­able Desi? I sud­denly think about my fa­ther, then about the phos­pho­res­cence in the aquar­ium tank that would prob­a­bly still glow on my skin if I were im­mersed. Is it pos­si­ble that things on land can be lu­mi­nous, too? Has Desi been glow­ing? If I pressed against her, could we tum­ble to­gether through heav­ens brought to earth? “I bought sperm,” Desi says. She looks at me, and down.

With­out me hav­ing a say? I don’t know how to an­swer, what it means, whether it means she plans to leave me, to do this solo, and what I think and feel about that, so to gain time I as­sem­ble my kit, prick my fin­ger, watch the bead of blood, send it run­ning up the tester; my glu­cose is low and I need to suck a sugar lozenge to reg­u­late my pan­creas. Desi goes on: “I said I was sin­gle. But I know we said we weren’t go­ing to have a baby right now. I know that.”

“Desi,” I say. I take her hands. It’s like hold­ing earth, some­thing solid, heavy. It’s like be­ing en­veloped in grit. I sit in the dust of Desi’s love. I sit in our dust and breathe.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.