Day eleven. The orca carries her dead infant, slick and still, on her back. I squint from Vancouver’s shoreline to catch a glimpse. The baby’s weight must give her solace—like when he lay inside her in an ocean of one. In tandem, they crested waves or breached the divide between water and sky while, in the dark, he listened, curled within safety and warmth, waiting to be born.
She is grieving, they say. I stare at the blue-grey ocean, an open casket for all to see. They say she’s skinnier now; foraging impossible with a 300-pound babe balanced on her back.
Day fifteen. Something jagged and raw is jammed between my breastbone and throat; my lungs no longer expand fully. I hunker in the girls’ bathroom—the one farthest from Lisa and Maddy who stare at me with hooded eyes, backs arched against their lockers as I pass by—and check the lining of my underwear again. I pray to faceless names carved into the wall of the metal cubicle: Mark loves Tracy, Shanna loves Rob, tracing the sharp edges of the hearts scored with a ballpoint pen or maybe a nail file. I cut a thin heart into the bile-green paint with the compass from my geometry set. I leave the inside blank.
I count back and forth, days stapled to my heart. I double-check calendars. Check the tampons in my drawer. I forget how to count and start again. I lay each smooth tube, petal-pink or opal-white, on my bed like divining rods.
I ask Jennifer to come with me to the clinic. I skirt my mother and father, feign stomach cramps and food poisoning. Hold myself together with bobby pins and drives to the ocean, searching for the whale with her calf draped across her back.
Somewhere, I read ancient sailors witnessed the orcas feasting on smaller whales and nicknamed the orcas killers. But she isn’t. She glides across the water, parting surface tension with her massive body, moving in silent mourning. I think about her at night, slicing through the deep, black waters, the dark mass on top of her somehow holding on.
Jennifer has band practice and can’t come with me. I google which buses to take, write the numbers on my palm. At night, I lie in bed, hands pressed to the swell of each breath. The whale’s whistle drifts through my sleep. I hear her clicks and sighs. A pulsing sound.
The calf fell off last night. Or maybe by day seventeen the orca had enough and pushed the decaying carcass into the water where it sank so deep no one will ever find it. Did she feel lighter at that moment, her sleek skin sighing in the cool air? Maybe she gorged, feasting on sea turtles and squid, forgetting about the small body nestled along the algae, kelp, and moss on the ocean floor. I wonder if she’ll forget him, or, like a phantom limb, feel his weight forever.
Winner in the fiction competition of A SmokeLong Summer