Leaning against a tarnished railing aboard a ferry, Katherine watched ocean waves curl into themselves. Close to her chest, she held a pewter urn containing her mother’s cremated remains. She breathed deeply, the taste of brine caking her tongue like damp ash. The midday sun reflected in droplets that quavered on the balusters, then trickled down like little rivulets, only to reappear from the periodic spray of waves breaking against the prow. Other ferry goers chattered around her, though Katherine was only vaguely aware of them. Her thoughts were on the last conversation she had with her mother. All this time out on the ocean, chasing fish —
“Mommy, do you think we’ll see a whale today?” asked a little girl in polka-dots and a wide-brimmed straw hat, her voice somehow cutting through the din.
“I hope so,” her mother replied, dressed in flowy linen pants and wearing lipstick the color of strawberries.
The oversized straw hat reminded Katherine of a cowboy hat she tried to wear when she was young. It was oversized too, and quickly made her forehead sweat. It would shift down over her eyes as she galloped around the house, pretending to be a rancher, or cowboy, or sheriff chasing after an outlaw who was always a beautiful woman who smiled deviously, smoke curling from between her teeth, bullet holes perforating her own rawhide cowboy hat, an image that caused Katherine to grow warm and jittery and, inevitably, trip or bump into a wall, a table, her mother’s legs.
“Take that thing off,” her mother had said.
“But I’m a cowboy!”
“Cowgirl. And cowgirls don’t need to wear boys’ hats like this. Take it off, I’ll buy you a prettier one.”
“But I like this one. It was daddy’s.”
With a serene smile, her mother gently lifted the hat away from her head, and Katherine will never forget the noiseless way she turned, almost perfectly on an axis, as though a steel wire ran through her core connecting her floor-to-ceiling, or the white of her knuckles she crumpled the hat into the kitchen garbage can.
The little girl in the polka-dots bumped into Katherine’s leg accidentally; her straw hat fell atop Katherine’s feet.
“Oh my gosh, I am so sorry!” her mother exclaimed.
“It’s okay,” Katherine replied.
“Melissa,” the woman said, turning to her daughter, “say you’re sorry. We can’t go around bumping into people, especially not on a boat.”
“I’m sorry for bumping into you on a boat,” Melissa said, looking down so her tangled mass of curls covered her face.
Katherine knelt down and retrieved the hat, handed it over to Melissa. “You know, I used to have a hat kind of like this. It was a little too big for me, so I’d run into stuff all the time. The trick is you’ve got to angle it up, like this.” She placed it on Melissa’s head slantways, the front brim almost perpendicular to the sky. “Plus, if you keep the brim away from your eyes, you can catch sight of a whale better. Around here, you’re looking for a gray whale. They leave big splashes that you can see from miles away, so watch the horizon. Or sometimes they’re sneaky, and do this thing called spy hopping, where they’ll just peek their heads out enough to see where they are. Watch for that too.”
Melissa’s mouth gaped. “How do you know so much about whales?”
“I’m a cetologist — a whale scientist.”
“That’s so cool! Mommy, did you hear that?”
“I did,” she replied, her voice lilting as her gaze lingered on the urn Katherine cradled.
“Well, it was nice meeting you Melissa. Keep your eyes open, there’s bound to be some whales out today.”
Melissa said thanks and returned to her mother’s side, who mouthed thank you, then parted her strawberry lips as though to give condolences, but decided better, and instead smiled with crinkled eyes that said sorry for your loss as she turned and meandered further along the railing, pulling her daughter close to her side.
Echelon. That’s the supportive position a mother whale takes with her calf while swimming, to reduce the water drag. This means, of course, the mother must take on excess water drag. Katherine looked down at the urn, sunlight glinting off its smooth edges. Her mother had loved whales — cetaceans, as Katherine now thought of them. Her mother’s favorite was the gray whale, in fact. She had known little to nothing about gray whales, however; the preference was purely sentimental. She’d tell Katherine she went whale-watching with her father on the happiest day of her life, pausing for effect before delivering her coup de grace: that it was the day she found out she was pregnant. She said this often enough that Katherine could recite the second half of the phrase, rhythm, inflection and all, and would do so with rolled eyes, much to her mother’s chagrin. As a cetologist, Katherine knew that the average gray whale was approximately forty-five meters in length. She knew they weighed between thirty and forty tons, and that they were bottom feeders, turning laterally to skim the ocean floor, sifting stirred up sediment through their baleen, keeping the food and sieving out the rest. She knew their lives revolved around two things: one half of a year was spent gorging themselves, hopefully storing enough fat to make the long migration south, where during the second half of the year they would mate and rear their young. Once the calf was grown enough, it was time to make the treacherous journey back north. Had her mother known all this, she may have loved them more — or disliked them. Similarity breeds either camaraderie or resentment, there isn’t really any in between. Katherine’s mother had devoted her life to supporting her daughter, never remarrying, always working, and always, always keeping her in echelon. It’s part of what made their last conversation so difficult to stomach.
“Mommy, look!” Melissa cried.
Katherine saw it too — something gray and sleek, gliding just beneath the waves, not far from the bow. Her heart leapt; she leaned over the edge, taking care to redouble her grip on the urn. Was it a porpoise? No, too large. A whale? The size was right, but this was unlike any whale she’d ever studied. Whales lumbered. This, this shot through the water like a torpedo. After a moment, it disappeared abruptly into the depths, like a dumbbell dropped into the ocean.
Katherine shook her head in disbelief, peered closer to be sure nothing was there.
“Mommy, where’d the whale go?”
“I don’t know, maybe it’ll come back up! Let’s keep watching.”
“But where did it…”
Katherine had no idea what they had just seen, but she knew it was no whale. Her breath quickened as the slap of the waves against the prow and the conversation between Melissa and her mother became muted. Dark and ominous, the deep whisked past with a cool urgency.
Then, an explosion of water nearby, too loud to be a whale’s breach. Heads turned. Melissa’s hat fell to the deck. Out of the ocean, a matte gray object slid silently toward the sky, impossibly fast. It had already reached the clouds by the time droplets from its breach began falling into the bay, their pattering deafening compared to the absolute silence of the flying object. The craft stopped half-in half-out of cloud cover’s edge, immediate and precise, yet with an ease that indicated it carried no inertia. It hovered, then began slowly rotating. It was oblong, with small teal lights pulsing in a steady line down its center, as though it were breathing.
Everyone aboard the ferry was silent. The sky itself seemed to lurch with the waves. Then, a mass of cumulus above the craft began to warp, as though God was pressing his thumb through tissue paper. But instead of a great whorled print, what pressed through was the long, rectangular nose of another craft, twice as large as the first. The smaller oblong craft attached to the bottom of it. Blue electricity arced along their fuselages, then the two craft, reunited, alighted soundlessly into the generous clouds. Melissa began to cry. People looked at one another, back at the sky, down at the ocean. Murmurs began rolling across the deck like pebbles preceding an avalanche.
A searing white light flashed across the bay, so quickly that Katherine had no time to shield her eyes. For a brief moment, there was intense pain, then utter silence. Everywhere, a pure infinite white. No ocean, no sky, no way to orient. Katherine couldn’t tell if she was floating, standing, or lying down. She did know that she was alone. She hugged herself close and began to shake, panic welling up rapidly.
“Hello,” came a voice, gentle and sonorous, surrounding her yet also within her.
A silhouetted figure appeared in the distance, like an inky black pupil in the infinite white. It seemed humanoid; but, when it raised its arm there was the outline of a chitinous claw where there should’ve been fleshy fingers and a meaty palm. The silhouette’s arm, upheld, moved gingerly left, then right, then left.
“What — what the hell is going on?” Katherine stammered.
“You may be at ease,” assured the being, and against her will Katherine’s feelings immediately released into a deep sense of spacious warmth. She knew this feeling — the feeling of curling up next to her mother when she was very young, a plush blanket covering them both, her mother braiding her hair as they watched The Beauty and the Beast for the fifteenth time. Safe. Space, warmth, safety, they seemed boundless then, as they did now.
“What are you doing to me…why can’t I be scared right now?”
“Do you wish to feel fear?” asked the being, cocking its head inquisitively.
“I — I feel like I should.”
The being paused for a moment, as though to consider its next words carefully. “How do you know what you should do?”
The question sparked another memory; Katherine’s last conversation with her mother before she passed:
“All this time out on the ocean, chasing whales —”
“Cetaceans. You’re so beautiful, I can’t for the life of me understand why you never spend any time dating.”
“I can’t understand why that’s so important to you. I’m happy, Mom. Isn’t that enough?”
“Look, Katherine — all I’m saying is you should think about your future. I know you love your work. I love your work too. Cetaceans — whales — are my favorite animal. You remember we used to look at that whale book I picked up from the bookstore when you were young? And we each picked our favorite whale? And my favorite whale was —”
“The gray whale, because you went whale-watching on the happiest day of your life, which was the day you found out you were pregnant with me, which I’ve heard so, so many times. I get it.”
“Then you get that at some point, you should settle down. Find a husband, raise a family! It’s important for a woman…you can’t imagine what a wonderful thing it is!”
“Oh, because it worked out so well for you. Dad left. How the hell do you know what I should do?” Katherine said, shaking with indignance.
Katherine’s mother recoiled as though she’d been slapped. “How do I know? Fine, maybe I don’t. But tell me Katherine, how do you know what you should do? What are your priorities?”
“Mom…” Katherine had hesitated, her shaking spilling over into tears. “I don’t want a family. I don’t want kids. I don’t want a husband, I don’t…like men.” She was whispering by the end of her confession, but her gaze stayed on her mother’s face.
It was expressionless. Void. It hardly moved when her mother instinctively grasped the studded crucifix around her neck.
“I said I don’t like men.”
On the kitchen wall behind where they sat, an old clock ticked. Katherine’s mother stood, her chair scraping across the tile.
“I need a minute,” she said, picking up her car keys from the counter. “I’ll be back sweetheart, I just need to process this. I —” she hesitated, her habitual ‘I love you’ on the tip of her tongue. “I’ll be back in a bit,” is what she settled for instead.
She never made it back. She had been driving for hours. It was a foggy night, and she lived in rural Washington. She rounded a bend when a doe slipped out from the heavy woods lining the road with her fawn by her side. They froze in the headlights; Katherine’s mother veered to miss them, running herself into a ditch, rolling the car and crushing its canopy into her skull. In her lap, dripping with blood, was a men’s cowboy hat she’d picked up at a truck stop during her drive.
Katherine never knew what had caused her mother to drive off the road before — she was standing on the side of the road, watching this memory play out. It was real: the mist sifting through yellow shafts of light cast by the overturned car, deer bleating somewhere in the woods behind her, the doe and calf looking curiously at the carnage in the ditch below. But there was something else, a presence behind her, just out of sight. The humanoid creature with the claw. She tried to turn, but couldn’t. She was frozen, forced to watch the scene of her mother’s death.
“Why are you showing me this?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“You needed to see it.”
Katherine buckled to her knees, her body shaking uncontrollably. “What the fuck is going on? This can’t be real, can’t be…” The ground beneath her began to swirl, contort, roll like endless waves. She sank into the earth, and again was aware of being deeply, truly alone. Surrounding her this time was infinite darkness. She held herself, shuddering, and words spilled out of her mouth:
“It was my fault. If I hadn’t told her, she wouldn’t have left, this wouldn’t have happened. It was my fault!” She cried there, alone, for what felt like an eternity. In the space between tears, she began to recollect, recompare: deep down, she’d always wondered if her mother had done it on purpose. Or if God was punishing her, had killed her mother as punishment.
But in the end, it was just chance. One echelon encountering another; the shared motherly instinct ensuring the child always survives.
In the distance, something glimmered. It was the being again, this time presenting as the only light in that endless darkness. It began to move closer. Again, everything in Katherine’s mind screamed that she should be terrified, but all she could feel was space, warmth, and something else now — something like love.
“What are you?” she asked.
“For every one of you, there is one of us,” the being meted out, moving still closer. “We have a duty to each of you. We are you, and you are us. And for a long, long time, we have remained silent, and watched. It was kindest to do so.”
Kindest — yes, that was the spacious warmth Katherine kept feeling. It was overwhelming kindness, crushing tenderness, one in which someone could reside, forgetting themselves forever.
The being was within arm’s length now. Katherine stood, and stared into its face. The silhouette was still that of a humanoid crustacean, but as she stared into what should have been its face, she began to see her own, as though looking into a mirror.
The being inched closer.
“Think of it this way. In the same way you must navigate and clean your living space, we must navigate and cleanse our spiritual space. Time is just another room for us to clean, in the end.”
The being pressed into Katherine, enveloped her, subsumed her, and everything became light and warmth.
Katherine blinked. She was lying in the fetal position on the deck of the ferry, cradling her urn. The sun was setting, washing the cloudy horizon in vast shades of violet, rose, pink, and gray. She stared at the rolling ocean, azure streaked with threads of gold. Around her, all the tourists were curled into the fetal position, some shuddering, some crying, most resting peacefully, and all unconscious. Next to Katherine lay Melissa, held in echelon by her mother.
Katherine stood, and returned to the tarnished railing. On the horizon, a fount of spray appeared as she uncapped and tipped the urn, watching her mother’s ashes soften, then disappear into the waves.