When the girls were young, they told me about those moments they said they would never forget. They had so many: the trials of lost love and vows for better times, tender-hearted sentiments of understanding and forgiveness, days that changed their lives forever and ever, Amen. Their teary cheeks and reddening eyes faced the distance between sadness and joy, and I wondered if I should say, “No, you will forget it all with a swiftness that is shocking.”
Who were the lovers of not too many years ago? There were dimples, a pair of glasses, long, slender fingers, and I wonder what we talked about. Because surely we talked. Surely we had something to say to each other.
The memories that slip-slide into vision in the early hours of morning are the ones I expected to drift away—pudgy round legs and white shoes on hardwood floors, laces wrapped with shining, tinkling bells, the heavy footfall of a baby learning to walk, the rattle of those bells the primary point of attention, or, the feel of warm pink pajamas against arms, legs, and feet, sitting in a car, tucked between bodies of parents or a younger sister, I can’t say exactly only that there was warmth pressed against, nuzzling in the front seat, an ice cream cone in hand, vanilla, did it drip down chin and sleeves, or, the first trip to a beach and holding hands with sister and parent, the waves splashing up to hair and eyes, to sister’s hair and eyes, tasting salt water and giggling, and I was four years old. All seconds in time and the feel of something against skin, or the sounds of a wave and the bells that rang each time I tried to get away. What and who was it that I expected to stay?
“I will never forget that day,” the girls repeated over and over again. “They are the people I will always remember,” they told me.
Did I love my parents in the times I remember nothing at all?
I suspect I thought nothing at all until just a few months ago when I know I started thinking of oceans and whales.
“What does this mean?” I may have asked. “Does this mean anything, anything at all, to you?”
I remember standing on the planks of a whaleship, and we harpooned them all.
The little deaths came from your hands you said. Always—again and again.
And suddenly I understood the flurry of the whale, and it was not as you said, not at all. They were dying with blood and vomit, and I could never touch you again. Together, we tore off our hands. We wrapped them in rope, made nooses around our wrists, launched our weapons into the bellies of the whales. Palm to palm, hands severed and missiled over hearts larger than our own, fingers tied to touch wet black bodies after we let them go and sent feeling into flight. The death that came from our hands was not the ecstatic fling into mystery.
We gave up our hands so now there is nothing to hold. There is nothing. There is no hold. There is nothing and no whole.
The sperm whale has always been a mythical beast. It is so enormous that no one takes one on as a pet, no circus or carnival show will hire for its presence. It lives far from land in waters far from me, and I will most likely live my entire life without ever coming near a single such animal. The sperm whale is fantasy. It is imagination, dream, and the collective memory. It is kraken, or unicorn, dragon, phoenix, griffin, the three-headed dog, Cerberus. If it chooses, it could eat me alive, ingest in a magical gesture of appetite, then purge my bones and send me back from whence I came. To Nineveh you go.
Finally, I remember something of lyric and verse. On my back, you drew invisible vines with your finger. They grew taller, and you traced leaves with nails and told me stories I had never heard before. I could almost say that from behind me, I heard you speak as if your voice had come from behind clouds and rain and walls of thunder, but perhaps I wasn’t listening carefully enough. Instead, I simply thought that none of us could drown.
I never said what needed to be said. I should have listened to Jonah. But I didn’t because some bitch took my tongue. But I didn’t because I gave it up for some idea of love and feet that only knew how to walk on land. To drown would be inevitable.
I never knew what the Princess said.
The ocean is both father and mother—Poseidon and the Venus half-shell. In the bathtub, I would wind the toy whale and let it go to swim around me. It was blue, I think. The turning crank was white, I think. It is an image I can almost grasp. Of course, the mechanical toy may have simply sunk instead, clanked its head on porcelain, rocked in an epileptic fit until the crank stopped turning and its insides were quiet.
How much water must I wade through? When will I come clean? My wet skin wrinkles, and I am growing old. I listen for parents but cannot hear—only the winding clatter of plastic chitter-chatters over the last thirty-some years.
On the ship’s deck, our vein blood flooded into whale blood like tributaries flowing southward into the River Styx, and if the ocean god himself were to take a sip, he too would lose his voice—nine years speechless, nothing to say, no tongue for the ears; nine years no one listens, no ears for the tongue, muted with all six canine eyes watching in the dark. “Come in, come in,” the dog mouths softly, and the crew hacks and peels, pulls at what lies beneath the surface of the skin.
As I had no hands, I was little help in the filleting of the massive lung-fish, but I hardly forgot the spear that opened those lungs for the tides of waves. You went below deck only to emerge later with two iron hooks fastened to your wrists, and I could not decide if you had just become more or less dangerous. I wanted your fingers wrapped around mine, but I suppose even then I would have let you pierce metal into skin, hoping there were barbs, hoping one of us could hold on again.
What is it that marks our evolution from the mud? Speech? Art? Or is it simply the thumb? Mine, I folded it into fin and counted the notes in underwater vibrations. I thought I would jump overboard, just to dig toes into silt and sand. I thought I heard sisters calling and murmuring, humming along to some half-formed song playing in my head.
In Australia and New Zealand, the calling of the whales is the calling of the ancestors, but I’m not from that part of the world. My ancestors were not whales. My ancestors were also not Quakers, so they probably weren’t whalers either. I’m told that they were from many different parts of Europe, but there is little to be said for them. I do not know their lives, but I hear there is such a thing as muscle memory and I wonder if my arms and legs remember something that I cannot put into words. My mother said I learned to walk when I was nine months old. I almost remember learning how to swim.
When the ship caught fire and shone with oil blaze, the only thing to do was to wrap rope to stake and burn like another Joan of Arc. There is nothing to admit.
The Princess ran to throw girdle and calm the fishy dragons that circled the boat, but you were there with hooks and lances to slay them all. I saw you spear the dead whales, again and again. Among embers, the bits of finger and bone that still clung to ropes and bodies dropped to the water and the soot was in the air. I could already hear the bells begin to ring, and the three masts lit up with twisted and knotted sails burning like satin sheets, damp with the sweat of some holy lover and fiery ghost.
Martyrdom is another romance genre, but when the dove flew over our heads, I shot a flaming arrow through its breast to see if it could begin brand new. But there was no time because there is something monstrous in your system of divinity, as you always knew, and the eagle talons cut through the smaller bird and carried it away. And maybe that eagle came back for you—I can never be sure. You were gone, and I burnt with legs around the center mast, and ash floated on water and crested the waves. When the ship went down, I clung tightly to the wooden pole until the sea slowly put out the fire.
Of course, little of my life is remembered with any bit of accuracy. I can’t prove anything.
According to parents, I was born on May 24, 1975. I weighed six pounds, twelve ounces. I was twenty-one inches long. My mother said my birth was easier than one sister’s, almost as easy as the other’s. Labor lasted two to three hours. Perhaps my greatest achievement and most adventurous moment, and I remember none of it.
Yet, what I do know is that when I was born my whole body, including feet, legs, and arms, was red and wet and glistening, as if I had just swum down the longest river coming from the deepest ocean, as if I had always had lungs for the water, as if I could never drown because I had always known how to swim and I had just simply forgotten during this one dry moment on land.