“But who would ever try to write a story about a whale!”
M. Wylie Blanchet, The Curve of Time
We’re living at a time when claims are being made for a moral authority that lies beyond the human.
Richard Powers, The Overstory
Each day was a replica of the one before. And the one before that, as far back as he could remember. His routine only changed when they wanted him to perform silly tricks, before they gave him food.
A split-tail got into his pool (he hated that). She blew a whistle twice, pushed a ball with her nose, and threw the ball to another on the hard land. It was obvious what they wanted him to do.
He immediately swam over, came up under the ball, carried it across the pool and tossed it to a split-tail by the edge. They clearly approved.
Someone blew the whistle twice.
He ignored it. He had shown them that he understood but would not perform for them. It was clear this made them unhappy. When they were unhappy, they would skip a feeding. Although he was hungry, he took pleasure in their frustration.
Afterward, one of the split-tails, usually a female, would wait until others weren’t around and then pour a bucket of food into his pool.
He’d lost his freedom so long ago he had no memory of it. He was very young when he was brought here. He had a vague image of swimming close to his mother, in the open ocean. But then the split-tails caught him and brought him to this place, a small oval, smooth, featureless, broken only by a window. A constant swim around the oval, over and over, day and night. Alone.
He did come to like one particular female split-tail. She always vocalized softly to him (did the others think he couldn’t hear?). Everything about her actions indicated she cared. To reward her, he allowed her—and only her—to ride on his back as a trick. She did this with a four-finned, furry animal that he also liked. Maybe it, too, was a captive. He certainly had no reason to treat that animal badly.
His favorite female did something else special. Late at night, she would come alone, take off the outer skin they always wore, and slip into his pool. She waited for him to swim to her and then she would slide up onto his back and he would carry her around the pool until he sensed she was shaking from the cold. Then he would swim to the pool’s edge and she would get off, after giving his back fin a hug. He enjoyed her company.
This went on for many moon cycles. Then she came one night with a male. They both removed their outer skins and swam with him. But something was wrong about that, and he never saw her again.
Each day was the same as the one before.
Then his life turned around. Another being was lowered into the pool. Her body shape triggered a memory of what his family members looked like. He approached the new being slowly, scanned it with his sonar, and knew it was a female. A very frightened female. She made sorrowful sounds, terrified sounds. Although he couldn’t understand what she was saying, he sensed she wanted him to leave her alone.
He backed away, not wanting to cause her more distress. He concluded that she was another captive. He would do whatever was necessary to make her less frightened and miserable. Having a companion stirred something deep inside, a positive feeling he could barely remember.
At first, she wouldn’t let him near and never approached him. But slowly, over many weeks, she grew less afraid. To make her comfortable, he always circled the pool ahead of her. Then one day she sped up until she was alongside him, and they swam together. Together!
It was clear that she hated the food they were given. To him, food was food, tasty or not. She felt otherwise and the split-tails would poke her with a sharp stick that made her sleepy and then force food down her throat. She often vomited it back. Eventually, she ate what they gave her, but without enthusiasm.
When they were alone, he showed her the tricks they expected him to perform, mimicking the whistle sound they used for each. She caught on immediately and surprised the split-tails when she performed a trick without being taught. He decided it might make things easier for her if he caused less trouble by also doing the tricks. Anything to win her confidence.
He didn’t talk much, having had no one to talk to. He had gotten out of the habit. But he wanted to communicate with her. He decided to learn her language. To show his willingness, he repeated what she said, knowing his pronunciation was terrible. But she seemed to appreciate his effort and taught him constantly. And they had nothing but time. If only she would talk slower.
“I am Nan. What’s your name?” she said.
“I am Nan. What’s your name?” he repeated.
“No, silly. I am Nan. That’s my name.”
He hesitated, puzzled. He hated to disappoint her. But he caught the meaning from her emphasis. It occurred to him that he had no idea what he called himself.
“I do not have a name,” he finally said, choosing his words carefully. “The split-tails call me Mahguy, when they want me to do tricks.”
Nan also hesitated. Finally, she said, “Well, we don’t want them to rule every part of our lives. So, I guess I’ll have to give you a name. Let’s see. I had an uncle named Sam when I was free. He was big and wise and always treated me well. You’re big and treat me well. I’m not sure how wise you are, but you remind me of him. So, we’ll call you Sam. Your name is Sam.”
“Sam?” he said, pronouncing it slowly and carefully.
“Yes, Sam. You are Sam.”
“Okay, my name is Sam,” he said. Anything to make her happy.
“Good. Then another thing. In my family, we don’t call them split-tails. We call them logriders, because we always see them riding on logs.”
Sam wasn’t sure what a log was. It didn’t matter.
“Logriders, not split-tails,” Sam repeated. “Logriders.”
“Which brings up something else,” she said. “What do you remember from before they captured you?”
“Not much, really,” Sam answered. “I do remember them hurting my mother, her lying still while I cried out to her, before they caught me in a mesh. I’ve always assumed they killed her.”
“Wow. I’m really sorry. I guess that makes you an orphan.”
“I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but you’re right. It was the beginning of my hating the split…er, logriders.”
Nan performed one trick that Sam never even attempted. In fact, it frightened him. She would jump out of the pool onto the smooth land, to excited shouts of the logriders. Then they would push her back into the pool. Just the thought of beaching himself made him shudder, imagining his weight pushing down, crushing him, without the water to hold him up. He asked her why she did this.
“I imagine I’m escaping,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I know it’s a fantasy, but, for a brief moment, I’m away from here.”
Her response hurt his feelings, knowing that she would rather be somewhere else than with him. But she had known freedom, while he had been a captive essentially all his life.
Sam did everything he could to make Nan more content. He had never been so happy. But it was clear that she did not feel the same way. She constantly told him about her family members and what life was like in the open ocean.
Nan had a rudimentary ability to project a sound image, taking the sonar echo from an object and rebroadcasting it, an ability she said she had been learning from her Uncle Sam. At first, the objects were simple, the floats, their food, objects in their pool. Even when crudely copied, Sam was able to identify them. As her skill improved, she taught him how to project sound images. He caught on, again slowly. But, over time, they would challenge each other, improving their skills. She especially liked to show Sam her family members, introducing him to each one.
Their lives together continued. Then one day he felt her swimming closer to him, actually rubbing against him, running a side fin along his body. He was surprised at her intimacy and at how his body was reacting. Nan didn’t seem at all surprised. In fact, she encouraged him. It didn’t require much explanation. This became part of their daily routine and a new source of happiness for Sam.
Then, after a few moon cycles, she stopped encouraging him and, in fact, rebuffed his attempts. He was hurt, confused. He finally asked why.
“You don’t know?” she scolded.
“I have no idea,” he answered.
“Well then, look at me,” she said, encouraging him to give her a deep scan.
He saw. . .a small body inside her.
“Is. . .is that what I think it is?” he said to her.
“Yes,” she said, with obvious pride. “We did this.”
And they waited. Sam gave Nan scanning updates on their child’s development. Nan’s appetite grew. The logriders must have sensed what was happening. They fed her more and demanded less.
Finally, their baby was born. It was a difficult birth. Nan cried out for her aunts, for their assistance. Sam felt helpless, ignorant, frightened. Their baby, a female, was weak at first. Both mother and baby had difficulty nursing. But things improved, and Sam felt a new pride in being a father. The three swam together, although Nan now paid little attention to him. It didn’t matter. She was happy, consumed with joy. They named the baby Rosie, after Nan’s younger sister.
And then the unimaginable happened. The logriders lifted their child from the pool. Rosie cried out for her mother; Nan called to her child.
Then Rosie was gone.
Nan stayed by the side of the pool for hours, days, calling for her baby. She refused to eat. Nothing Sam could do or say lessened her grief. She screamed at him to leave her alone. Her condition worsened. Early one morning, Sam found her lying motionless on the bottom of their pool.
He was back to being alone.
Time passed. Sam returned to being uncooperative.
Then, one day, a new female appeared, younger than Nan had been. Sam swam over and spoke to her. The new female cried out, her words unintelligible.
It took Sam perhaps thirty seconds to understand. The logriders had brought him a new mate. They wanted him to produce babies. He became filled with hatred and anger.
The anger rose inside him. It boiled into a blinding, seething rage. He would be no part of this. Unthinking, he raced across the pool and smashed into. . .not the poolside, but the new female. Yes! He rammed her again, and again, and again. He bit and thrashed and didn’t stop until he knew he had killed her.
Not long after, Sam felt the sting of the sleeping stick. When he awoke, he was in an entirely different place.
They had taken everything from him: his mate, their child. All that was left were his memories. And his hatred.