I discovered I'd been nursing a misconception. I thought whales, like
other animals, are born in spring.
But contrary to nature, most whales are born in winter. Is this why
so many whales are endangered, because their babies are born in harsh
I can see it: A beluga, like a friendly ghost, in frigid Russian or
Siberian waters. This mother, small for her age, and young to be so
pregnant, is about to birth her baby. The baby, greyer than the
mother, and just smaller than my great-aunt Hester would have been as
an adult, comes out with a face as sad as the moon on her back. But
her eyes are clean in a way that no land creature's can be. The baby
doesn't scream, because her mother is there. But there are things she
The two swim on, farther from the deadly shore, but the baby will not
live to see better times.
There is a whale called the right whale. Because it was the right one
for whalers to capture and kill, years ago. The wrong kind of whale
to be, and I hate myself for the joke.
Hester's drowning, sixty years before my birth, is my first memory,
though I'm not sure when it came to me.
From my grandmother, I inherited a glass whale. It came from a tea
company, the kind that put little glass animals in the tins.
Tins or boxes? I think it must have been Earl Grey.
Killer whales kill. When I was younger, I thought they were called
killer for their smashing looks.
I'm not sure if they kill each other, but a pack of killer whales,
worse than wolves or dingoes, closes in on a family. The seals will
soon be victims, and they know it, but. They swim hard, and a baby is
the first to go.
My grandmother, I can't always remember her. But I'm sure I remember
when she was six and watched her sister drown. My grandmother, she
held a spring daisy in her hand and called out, Mama, Mama, Mama.
The blue whale is the largest creature that has ever existed, and yet
it feeds exclusively on krill, tiny krill. They taste like shredded
coconut, the kind my mother says her mother baked with during
holidays. My grandmother? I want to ask.
The sperm whale has teeth, and is named after a milky substance in her
head. People thought it was sperm when they fist saw it. The sperm
whale is the largest toothed animal in the world. I learn this
sitting under my window, ghost puffs of dead flowers floating by
outside. No wishes today, but the puffs are full, like my memory of
my grandmother's body.
I was three and small; she was old and massive. The sunlight on her
white dress, and her nipple a shadow behind the fabric.
Are you still looking for Hester, I asked her. The only time I've
been slapped. She said, You don't know Hester.
Humpback and fin whales are also baleen; without teeth they eat their
tiny krill. Nothing larger than a daisy can pass through their mouths.
How do they nurse? The milk, strained through the baby's mouths to
their tongues, tastes like coconut.
The tea whale was actually ceramic, now that I think about it, but the
difference between ceramic and glass is the difference between the
families of orcas in the Pacific.
The sperm whale has suffered more injustice than the others, being so
named. Why should a whale, so smart and so dignified, have sperm in
her head? I feel sick.
My grandmother, when I knew her: huge, with moles like barnacles
jutting from her flopping neck. She was formidable even in sunlight,
fingering through the dirt in her garden overlooking a canyon far from
the sea. Wearing a thin linen dress, just like the one she wore the
day her sister drowned.
The smallest whale is the dwarf sperm. I can see her lying in wait at
the bottom of the sea, partly covered in black sand. The kind of sand
that sucks at her flipper, trying to bring her deeper, deeper, ever
deeper. She moves her flipper, and the little valley at the bottom of
the sea fills in as if it never was. She's royalty, and this whale
can feel raindrops like peas falling on the surface of the water, a
mile up. She doesn't move, because like me and like Hester, she's
small and waiting.
Whales are conscious breathers, living underwater but breathing air.
Only one side of their brain sleeps at a time. If they fell all the
way asleep, they'd forget to breathe, and drown in shallow night
water, moonlight on their backs, but no air in their lungs. This
reminds me of myself, because I too am afraid to sleep. Sometimes
when I sleep, I see all the murdered whales of the world, and I feel
myself swallowing hard in my sleep, coconut on my breath. I worry I
won't wake up, and I'll have to spend all eternity with murdered
whales -- right and killer, humpback and blue, sperm and beluga.
I'd have to climb inside their bodies, like a whaler. I'd be forced
to slice through blubber and haul out bones, slap at their skins with
a stick. And at end of the day, I'd return to a brooding cottage,
mine, threatening to tumble into the sea. And in that cottage,
Hester, my grandmother's drowned sister, would look out the window at
the shadowy sea.
My mother wouldn't be in the cottage. My mother hates Hester, and
she'd remain on the sea, hunting and murdering.
Whales give live birth, and they breathe the same air I do and Hester
did. Mammal air, mammal babies.
Whales are not fish, and I hate to hear people talk of them like they
are. My mother gave me a goldfish and said, I got a grey one. It's
like a mini whale. She meant it kindly. But how freeing it must be
for those whales who grow strong enough to leave their mothers behind,
in cold seas to birth new babies.
Humpbacks feed only in summer, because they're too busy birthing in
warmer waters during winter. Most whales are smart enough to travel to
the tropics for birthing.
Every place has its dangers and I live at the lowest point in the valley.
I remember being a pregnant teenager, hungry.
Trying hard to follow the rules her grandmother taught her, floating
on the moonlit surface, she wakes and concentrates on sinking to the
low bottom, turning off her right hemisphere and letting the left take
over. Her eyes remain open, and she longs for the day she herself was
born, into the sea as the rain fell. She knew that day that the sea
was not as big as she had feared, napping in the womb.
Hester only made it to three; my grandmother was six. I asked my
mother once if my grandmother knew anyone besides us when she died.
She told me, Your grandmother looked all her life for Hester.
But Hester was at the bottom of the sea, and my mother does not like
people who hide. When I was a child, she put bricks under my bed, so
I could not pretend it was the sea and I was swimming with Hester.
The Bryde's whale's name is pronounced brooda, not brides or brutus.
She is the humpback's tropical cousin, but I don't know what they
share. I think Hester would have been a Bryde's, and I am one. We
are nobody's bride.
My mother flushed my fish down the toilet because I didn't name it.
Six years old, and my grandmother watched her baby sister drown. She
wasn't even a strong or steady walker yet, but Hester decided she'd
swim. The ocean was her backyard, and she must have felt entitled,
because with her short dress billowing in the breeze, she teetered
toward the water. My grandmother, holding that spring daisy, watched
and sang wordlessly in the wind. She didn't tell Hester not to go in
the water, because she never imagined Hester'd go that far. And when
Hester did, my grandmother went on singing, because Hester seemed to
be swimming. My grandmother thought her sister was born in the water,
and knew her way in it. But a wave came and took Hester, and it
wasn't enough that my grandmother screamed out for her mother.
The ceramic whale is a right whale. I think so by the pictures. The
whale that murderers used to seek, to turn into corsets and lamps; the
kind in the cottage where my grandmother grew up.
My grandmother drank tea all her life, and she said, This whale is for you.
I made popcorn in my mother's kitchen on the afternoon of the morning
they took my baby. My mother came in.
She said, What are you doing?
Making popcorn, I said and gulped milk from my glass.
Why are you here? What happened at school?
I didn't go today.
I drank more milk. I wanted my belly not to feel empty.
The pain was less than I'd expected, but I had never been hollow
Why the hell not? she asked.
Why are you home? I asked. She should have been at work
in a taupe building beside a canyon.
You can't just decide not to go to school, she said.
I told her, The dwarf sperm whale is mostly a solitary
creature, and when she's scared, she can expel a dark reddish
substance from her body to scare away predators. I don't know where
she expels it from.
Dammit, she said, smacking her hand down on the counter.
But she left the kitchen.
Hester's dress would have come off, torn by waves and wind, within a
week. Or maybe that would only take a day, and within a week her
body would have taken on some sea, and been swollen and puffy, like
the spermaceti inside the dwarf sperm's head.
That was the day my grandmother gave me the tea whale, but
when I told her it was the most wonderful thing anyone had given me,
she said, It's a trinket.
I never told anyone where I went that morning.
I see it all the time.
Perhaps Hester really was swimming, and went off to meet a giant blue
and her daughter. The mother would have recognized Hester as a baby,
and tried kindness. She would have nursed her, and maybe Hester
migrated with the whales. Perhaps my grandmother should have looked
not at the bottom of the sea, but in the blue whales' winter waters.
Perhaps even now, Hester is there, an aging matriarch sleeping with
only half her self.
But no. Because the killer whale, orca, is the natural enemy of the
blue whale. Killers live in packs and hunt together. Some even eat
other whales. Hester, early on, would have had a run-in with them, as
they hunted her new blue mother and sister. The murder of this second
family would have taught her finally that she was meant to be alone.
She would've vaguely recollected my grandmother, but.
Later, if she met a family of humpbacks, she would have smiled without
slowing her swim. I didn't see my baby after they took her, but I
remember that day was seventy-six years, exactly seventy-six, after
Whales live in matrilineal families, when they can stand to have families.
I have no grandfather, because my grandmother didn't marry him. And I
have no father, because my mother didn't marry him. This is because we
all watched Hester drown.
I asked my grandmother about Hester only once.
Whales have a highly developed communication system; they can talk and
laugh and call to one another. And they can say when they're sad or
when they're angry, but I'm sure they don't tell each other lies. I
say this to my mother, and she says that I'm a grown woman and should
stop making up stories about Hester. She says Hester was my
grandmother's problem, not mine. She says I didn't know either of
But my mother doesn't know.
When the old matriarchs die, their bodies sink into the deepest sea,
down where the creatures don't have eyes. Their massive bodies feed
the eyeless, nearly brainless, creatures for months. Without the
whales, these creatures could not exist. Perhaps they somehow knew,
and gave up their eyes for this.
A Bryde's whale has just reached the bottom. Both hemispheres of her
mind sink with her, and when her body thuds silently to the black sand
at the bottom, they break like glass or ceramic thrown down a canyon.
Each hemisphere is a million or a billion pieces, and they scatter at
the bottom of the sea like the eyeless creatures when only the Bryde's
bones are left.
Hester's eyes, picked out by fish soon after she drowned, still
reflect the sea. My grandmother too suffered misconceptions, but she
died on the edge of a canyon far from the sea.