The Tea Whale
Jaclyn Watterson

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 winter conditions?
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 doesn't know.
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 before.
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 Hester's drowning.

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 them.
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.