Whales by Annie Raab

To say that Joey was passionate about whales would be a flawed statement. Having no prior interest in the creatures and possessing only those facts learned in short, trivial ocean units in science class, it seems strange that one morning he would suddenly have complete access to their ethereal songs drifting through the warm waters of the open ocean. When Joey woke that September morning and heard the whales calling out in his head, booming through the macrocosmic Atlantic sea, he couldn’t speak. This is normal. The channels that opened to the whales put on hold his own verbal pursuits, as if the human mind were unable to behold such different languages at once. The whales faded in, building up operatically while Joey lay perplexed in his bed. He spread out his arms and welcomed the sounds as distractions from his daily life, his parents, and his education. Cases such as this most frequently occur in children and it is believed that no species in particular is more recurrent than another. The typical course of an open auditory channel with an animal or group of animals varies from case to case, the only real consistency is the resultant, individual human silence. Joey could not have known he would become connected to the whales, or on the very same day another pathway opened between a young girl in India and family of silverfish. That story did not end well.

For Joey, life was still relatively normal. He was often satisfied to have completed another day as a young boy while listening to the stunning, drawn out conversations of the whales sounding out through his head. In silence, ge continued to eat with his parents, oblivious to their worried glances at one another. He smiled at the bus driver on his way to school, where he could be left largely unbothered—his silence unnoticed in the loud, overcrowded classroom. It was different than having a persistent ringing in ones ears. Whales come from further off, and yet Joey felt them extremely close. Unlike a ring, or a buzz, these were large bells or distant horns. They may as well be coming from the body itself. If Joey had access to the oft-dismissed medical reports on his condition, he would have related to the description of their connection being like an underground network of tunnels, an acoustic labyrinth where sound would not be still.

After first searching for the source of the sound with no success, Joey began trying to understand what the whales were saying. He spent time distinguishing the old from the young, the males from the females, the lonely from the vibrant. Whales are slow. They are cold to the touch. Their giant heart beats only several times a minute and the passages within those muscles are large enough to swim through. Unlike the volatile three-hearted octopus, whales are very sincere. Sometimes their honesty is awkward and unproductive, which leads many to believe they are stupid. It takes a single whale a very long time to say something—hours even—because whales are in no rush. They still have plenty to talk about. Weather conditions, water quality, parenting techniques, and regular digestion seem to be favorites, although for one entire day Joey listened to the desperate pleading from a young male to mate with a certain female—an enlightening lesson on the cruelties of wild maturity.

His silence persisted. His parents waited anxiously for their son to speak and tried not to pressure him. They tried to be progressive and agreed that this was part of his developing personality. If he wanted to remain silent, then damn their need to hear his bright young voice before he was ready. Still, they would sneak into his room at night to investigate the cause of his quietude. His mother always checked his breathing first, then checked for drugs. Half empty cans of aerosol or suspicious pharmaceuticals would alternately horrify yet relieve her, but there was nothing. His father checked the bookshelf first, never sure if he was looking for backwards propaganda or sensible Buddhist literature, and checked his sons breathing last. Both parents found nothing, not even a word written down on paper nor an article misplaced from his boyish routine could clue them into his silence. They called the school, questioning a series of teachers who all said he was turning in his homework completed on time, and never disturbed the class. One science teacher confessed that Joey had eyes a particular girl, but appeared too shy to confront her.

Joey became a powerful satellite. He uncovered the most intimate moments in the life of a whale. His mind became more attuned to the differences in whale noises. There were songs of travel, songs of contentment, songs of feeding. There were long pauses between stanzas of heavy loneliness. There were spirited songs of well-executed intercourse, which happened often. He listened to the thick calls of their strange humor and discussions about—he guessed—what whales find to be mundane. One day, he heard the first whale whisper. It was barely a hum resounding through the waters of his mind, rich with wisdom and ancient wit. It tickled his calm, like a tired insect landing on exposed skin. He was relieved when a group of whales came through stronger, full of life and virility.

Joey found himself in the library often. He sought information on the causes, depth, and duration of his inability to speak while the whales continued to sing through his head. He wondered if whales were truly able to interrupt a life so far from their own. If there were answers, he did not find them in any of the books on ocean creatures. There was no hidden secret behind the colorful pictures of skin, muscle and bone that explained their ability to reach across a continent with their haunting music and strike him directly in the soul. He dove into their habits. He fought through the sounds piping constantly through his mind and concentrated on the literature. Their constant babble about daily life was frustrating when it prevented Joey from living his own. He felt entitled, in his human ways, to reject the simple fears of a whale. So what if they were cold, underfed, or tired? That was ocean life and he could not be asked to dwell over their problems. In a desperate attempt to silence the whales, he empathized with the enemy, the dark killers of the ocean that put an end to more vulnerable among the gentle creatures. Anything he could grasp he held onto. Any hope of ever living a normal life again lay in the dissolution of those thick, slow moving voices with their problems gestating somewhere in the long ocean. He questioned his own failures, his seedling desires for the future, and his fears that the whales would be there through it all. His sympathy for the predator became a wish he tried to project, but as far as he knew during his time with the whales, the line of communication was exclusively one way.


In the dark early hours one morning in the winter, while sleep and wakefulness were locked in their familiar battle, Joey’s line with the whales punctured his senses with more ferocity than ever before. Those loving, fragile voices of mother and calf drifting towards the Southern waters that had helped put him to sleep cut out abruptly. Now he heard the old mother panic, still as slow and drawn out as her other emotions. He heard the rushing pack of assailants approach her and the calf. A group of smaller, more aggressive whales screeched and flashed their teeth menacingly. The calf drew closer to his mother and she tried to position herself as a solid wall against the pack of hungry beasts. They came from all sides. They beat their tails hard and were soon upon them, twisting and shouting and wedging their way between mother and calf so as to cut him free for their kill. The mother’s belligerent roar seemed to deter the pack, but they held fast to their formation. The calf was torn away from his mother and the pack of killers shouted in celebration. They crowded the powerless calf, now and too far from his mother who used to lift him above the surface of the water for a precious breath of air. Horrified, Joey listened helplessly as the calf’s calls became more distant as the hungry pack pushed it further down to sea, causing it to softly drown. When the tumult ceased, the mother moved soundlessly through the water, away from the icy northern lands. For the first time, Joey heard the delicate sounds of a whale weeping.

His parents were worried. When they saw their son for breakfast he had the sunken pale look of some illness. They checked his forehead and tonsils, made him some tea and sent him back to bed without asking questions. Joey lay in his bed and cried with the mother whale as she continued her journey alone. He tossed about, hoping for another signal to arise from another part of the vast landscape of the sea. Several calls faded in and out, but flowed away quickly, and he was stuck with the grieving mother. His father came into his room and sat on the bed as Joey shook and wiped his eyes on the sheets. He put his hand on Joey’s back and talked to him until he stopped crying and drifted back to sleep. For a while then, he sat with his hand on the soft nape of Joey’s neck, marveling at the skillful accuracy for which this young boy was put together. Joey dropped out of reality as he surged deeper into sleep. His mind spread open to reveal the tunnel that connected him to the whales. He entered their world for the first time.

This is when he began to speak. Joey swam through the warm waters of the tropic

looking for the whales. The ocean was silent. Twisting awkwardly, kicking his legs and flapping his arms, Joey searched the ocean for those voices that had become familiar neighbors to his own thoughts. He felt he would not find the mother, who, for all he knew, had given up her journey and sunk to the deep abyss at will. The blue light that wove through the rich waters consoled his remorse. There were other whales, he remembered, who remained, despite the tragedy of another, full of life and energy. If the mother was still alive, Joey would like to say something to her, and he hoped powerfully to know her by the connection they shared. He remained there until the distant waters darkened. A massive shadow, swimming out of legend, or prehistory, glided easily toward him. The waters churned but he floated undisturbed, unable to escape the path of the oncoming giant. Then, he felt her connection. It electrified his being as all other whales fell away from his thoughts. She drifted past, powered by the slow pulse of her mighty tail, the distance between each tolling heartbeat, and the grief which bore her forward. Joey uttered a mouthful of watery words that she seemed not to notice as she continued silently southward. The only one to hear those words, as her tail waved goodbye and disappeared to Joey forever, was his own father leaning his head towards his sleeping son, overcome with relief.

Published in the September 2015 Issue. 

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