Phosphorescence

By 
Jane Eaton Hamilton

Simple pleasure: diving inside a night tank while bubbles ascend and whales from the Saint Lawrence materialize and vaporize, pin eyes black in white lumpy heads. I sink every night after the aquarium goes dark, feeling arctic cold pressing hard against my neoprene, finning, diving, murking through the algae-slicked waters, sea-weeding against glass. I appreciate I can’t hear traffic. Sound of bubbles, sound of breath, loud crackly sound of oxygen, weight of the tank. I draw my squeegee against the glass where magnets were used before the whales yanked them down, beyond which a thousand people in a year stand and think their thoughts, watching these creatures. Some of them don’t believe in whales in captivity; others think of nothing but enchantment. 

The tank is the size of a cup, relative to the ocean; in it, orcas used to hang like sad tea bags, murking the water with their urine and feces, but eventually those whales were sold off and died; now it is populated by the white shadows of the ghost whales, the negatives of orcas. I run my hands down their long, finless backs, runnels like fork tines from their heads to their flukes; one of them, Mitchika, enjoys being tickled on her belly; Caramia, the pregnant one, likes to hover above me in my bubbles while I float on my back and curve my arms around her to stroke her melon to beak. It is exciting to me to think of what is happening inside her, the division of cells, the inevitability of a whale.

I yearn to release the whales in the ice waters near Tadoussac—who would not?—but the ocean doesn’t flow in tubes across Canada; there’s no safe passage. All the unanswered questions about released whales anyhow: where do they go, with whom do they associate, what are their failures, their successes, their morbidities and mortalities? Some of this scientists can monitor, but most of it they can’t.

~

When I was small, my father had to insist that I was not a whale. Here is a humpback, he said, a right whale, a sperm whale, and a killer whale; here is you. One of these things is not like the others.

I could be their calf, though, I said. An orca baby.

You can’t be a whale, he said. Me on my tummy in the bathtub waving my arms from the elbows down as I tried to push a blowhole through my head or my arched back, surfacing in failure. 

You can’t breathe underwater, my father told me again and again. You are a human girl. You’ve already had your day as a baby, floating in your mother’s embryonic waters. 

I tried to imagine the days when I was the size of a peanut sloshing in the swimming pool of my mother. I imagined a diving board, a slide.

I begged my father to take me to the whales. When we saw orcas breaching in the distance, I yearned to cannonball over the edge of the zodiac and break my human bonds. 

~

I go nowhere near the beluga tanks, the labs in the basement; I skirt all the fishy tanks. The octopuses, the parrot fish, the sea turtles, the electric eels. 

“There’s only one protestor today,” I say to Dr. Rachel Behr as she pours coffee, adds milk from a pint-sized container. The belugas don’t have as many advocates as the orcas. 

Dr. Rachel says ruefully: “Breakfast.” Somebody’s orange rolls across the middle of the table. She pulls a kiwi out of her bag. There is something oceanic about kiwis, which look like cresting green waves. She slices it like a soft-boiled egg, eats it with a spoon. 

The two of us stare out the window. I want to invite the protestor in where it’s warm and dry, but this kind of friendliness is forbidden, lest he poison our fish or smash a tank. Rare creatures could die. But this man doesn’t look formidable. His placard tears from being wet, right through No marine mammals in captivity! He massages his arms, looking not angry, but resigned.  

Dr. Rachel has done only good things for the whales. She has an ocean for a brain: sea turtles and manatees swimming, bull kelp waving, mangrove roots and coral. She’s a small woman entirely without angles, delicate and luminous, with swimmerets of red hair, a human axolotl with a transparent exoskeleton. She would be slippery in my arms like a soaped baby, like an otter, thrill on her face, alight. She would be quicksilver half-glances and mirth. Dr. Rachel is the reason half of the aquarium animals are even alive. Her good veterinary skills. She’s the whale whisperer.

Dr. Rachel and I press shoulders, but we pretend we don’t realize. 

~

My partner, Desi, is a land creature, a nerved carapace filled with earth, weighted and practical. At the cabin, I hand her a bag of washed baby spinach. It is as close to cooking as I come. A good cook, Desi has made lasagna, which hangs in cheesy stalactites from my palate; I have trouble swallowing. 

When we touch, Desi is strong tufts of crabgrass, spreading, spreading.

How can I tell her that I can’t swim on land?

Beetles the size of quarters have hatched; while Desi sleeps, one flies into my ear. I upend a cup over it on the bedside table. 

The water in the cabin runs only cold, which in January is melted ice—very much the temperature of the beluga tanks at the aquarium. One burner of the hotplate is kaput; to do dishes, we have to heat pot after pot of water. Sometimes it is just easier to take them to the city with us and bring them back the next time. Desi’s dreams, I suspect, are all about plumbing: building a bathroom to replace the outhouse, hot running water, a functional kitchen. 

Desi and I cannot shine each other. How do you shine a tree trunk? Our surfaces have tarnished and dulled. She is bark, pitted and rough.

Where is the axe to our trunk? Where is the splinter, the crack, the great trunk falling? 

~

There is the thing I have to do before I hold my mask and fall backwards into the tank: the prick, the insulin shot into my stomach fat or the quick-swallowed candy, the impossible wait for my glucose levels to even out, the tug and sausage-ing of my wetsuit.

I breaststroke to mimic Caramia’s propulsion. I slip up along her belly, which is huge now, wrap my arms tight around her and roll while she wheels clicking and chirping, revelling in my bubbles. When she sounds, it travels through me in vibrations; I would give everything to speak whale. I want to see into her brain the way I think I see into Desi’s. In these moments, if I screw shut my eyes and let her language fill me, I can imagine we’re not in a dirty aquarium in the atria of the urban heart, but in an alternate universe of currents, where whale music reigns. Where captivity has no currency. 

~

That night, in bed at the cottage, Desi says she has a confession. 

It’s like being shocked by an electric eel—that wavering uncertainty, that crisp exclamation. 

Desi is so grounded, so real, so substantive. She is not like me, whose sugars soar and crash, whose moods are oceanic and full of kelp. 

“Are you having an affair? Are you sick?”

“No,” she says, pausing. “Not really. Not actually.”

“What?” When I touch her face, I smell loam. “Darling, tell me,” I say. No matter what happens with Dr. Rachel, I need to tell Desi I’m not happy. But the words are thick on my tongue, weighted like fish lures. 

When she says nothing, I roll to my back to wait. When I check back, Desi is sound asleep with her mouth open.

~

Caramia has been in labour five hours, darting around the tank, her pin eyes wide, her fear and pain obvious. She batters her beak and melon against rocks on each turn around the pool. She’s been pregnant nearly sixteen months with Atikak’s baby, but now it’s time, now, in the midst of this contagion of phosphorescent dinoflagellates, phytoplankton that glows when the water is agitated. She is not a white whale tonight, but blue as magic. She’s been isolated from the other whales, which Dr. Rachel advocates, but I doubt our ideas about this—what human mother labours alone? What whale? The director is worried for Caramia’s safety. The director says he wants us in the tank reassuring her, but cautions he can’t guarantee our safety; he has papers drawn up for us to sign, and while this is in progress, I measure my insulin, stab myself, run my hands across the surface of the water. A whale in labour is a whale in labour—a powerful force. Caramia is small for a beluga, but she is still eleven feet long, three thousand pounds, and in this state, highly unpredictable. 

Around us, video cameras whir until the lights are shut off, and it’s only Caramia swimming through blue stars.

Dr. Rachel slips into the tank, barely a smudge in the water compared to Caramia, she’s so small, but in a matter of moments she too is slick with bioluminescence and begins to glow. I slide in. She and I fin off as one creature wrapped in a flag of light, circling the tank while the distraught whale rushes past us clicking. Finally, Caramia edges between us, slowing her progression to match ours. Her melon is gouged but we do nothing to stop it; we just keep pace with her through contractions, and with our reassurance, she stops battering her head. Dr. Rachel rubs Caramia’s belly when it tightens, so I do it too, until Caramia is floating in the bubbles she loves, and we are midwifing. Sometimes when Caramia slows in a contraction, we are more vertical than horizontal, and Dr. Rachel and I meet each other’s eyes behind our masks, acknowledging the beauty of this night, this event. Nobody can hear what two hearts beat. What four hearts beat.

When Caramia pushes her calf’s flukes out, the director orders us from the pool. We lean in from above and stroke Caramia while she floats and rolls; she offers her contracting belly to us. The baby appears in the manner of a human baby—pushing out, slipping back. Contraction is birth; the absence of contraction is slippage. Finally, Caramia shoots away from us and the calf explodes from her in a gush of blood. 

~

“I’m embarrassed to have to tell you this. I’m pregnant,” Desi says, later after I tell her about my glorious day, leaving Dr. Rachel completely out. One of the beetles that hatched last time we were at the cottage lands in Desi’s hair, becomes trapped. I would shriek, but Desi just untangles it gently so that it isn’t harmed and holds it on her palm waiting for its next move.

“You’re what?” I say. The beetle is frozen, too scared, I presume, to move.

“I’m pregnant,” she says. Even Desi’s breath smells like cornfields and husks. “That’s what I wanted to tell you the other night.”

“Pregnant? How on earth did you get pregnant?” The beetle waves its antennae. Reliable Desi? I suddenly think about my father, then about the phosphorescence in the aquarium tank that would probably still glow on my skin if I were immersed. Is it possible that things on land can be luminous, too? Has Desi been glowing? If I pressed against her, could we tumble together through heavens brought to earth?

“I bought sperm,” Desi says. She looks at me, and down. 

Without me having a say? I don’t know how to answer, what it means, whether it means she plans to leave me, to do this solo, and what I think and feel about that, so to gain time I assemble my kit, prick my finger, watch the bead of blood, send it running up the tester; my glucose is low and I need to suck a sugar lozenge to regulate my pancreas. Desi goes on: “I said I was single. But I know we said we weren’t going to have a baby right now. I know that.”

“Desi,” I say. I take her hands. It’s like holding earth, something solid, heavy. It’s like being enveloped in grit. I sit in the dust of Desi’s love. I sit in our dust and breathe.

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of nine books and is the two-time winner of the CBC Literary Award. Their work has been published in the New York Times and The Sun and has been noted in Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. They live near Vancouver. janeeatonhamilton.org.

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