Monday, November 23, 2009

Sporting With Leviathan III

In the darkest hour of the night—a deep twilight—I was yanked from sleep by a clanking noise. Bear! my foggy brain screamed silently, a bear in the food cache! But before I could sit up I realized that the sounds I'd heard and didn't quite match what my brain was telling me. I tried to quiet my breathing and my heart, to clear the sleep from my mind. I could hear something, but it was coming from a different direction than the food cache.... I snapped wide awake. Something was breathing....

A whale! There was a humpback whale just on the other side of the rocks that stood between the sea and my tent. It sloshed and lolled, perhaps scratching its back or belly as whales do along such a coast. I listened, immobile in my cocoon, gazing up at the white and blue tent ceiling glowing faintly with starlight. The whale was very close, only a few yards from me, and in a flash I somehow knew it knew I was there, suspended, waiting.

At that moment a focused stream of energy began to pour into me. To say it was like an electric current is far too violent a metaphor, but even in my state of shock there was no questioning its reality. Whatever the process was, it was instantly apparent that these metaphorical particles had coherence and meaning, grammar and syntax. I pinched the skin on the back of my left hand with my fingernails to make sure I wasn't dreaming (the marks remained for days). I had no idea what this communication meant, I only knew it was coming in, and that a small part of my mind was torn by anguish because I didn't know how to respond, anguish that this tremendous annunciation would have to go unanswered because....

This anxious static crackling around the periphery and confusing the signal died away, absorbed into the vast stillness created by the whale's unknowable message pouring into me. I began to hope, hope against hope that there was something primal in me that would know how to respond. And there was. As I lay under the tent dome bathed in starshine, wide open, the whale's whispering paused, and it was an equal shock to feel a similar flow pour out of me from an unfathomable core as it had been to feel the whale's signals coming in. I could only try to stay out of the way of what was going on. I cannot tell you what this was or how it happened. I struggled to suspend my disbelief even while the exchange was talking place.

For perhaps half an hour the conversation continued between the whale and the unknown part of my being that poured itself out in response, between the leviathan whose ancestors had once lived on land only to return to the sea, and the human whose ancestors had come from the sea and could never go back. What the whale sought in this exchange I cannot know. Part of me stood aside, helpless, in the absolute silence, watching the answering stream flowing out of me during this antic call and response. Part of me hoped that whatever was being communicated included joyous welcome, delight, gratitude, awe.

But longing and loss also yearned across the abyss, not only the littoral between the campsite where I lay and the salt water that cradled the resting whale, but also that between one species and another. And grief, grief too great to bear for the burden of human destructiveness, the slaughter of its race by mine. Yet simply by the fact that it had happened at all there was also in that conversation the searing, burning mercy of forgiveness.

Why had this great creature sought to arc millennia and unimaginable difference? a détente, however brief, between the cetacean and the human? The encounter unmasked and flensed me with something like glory, exposed my heart and my guts, my dishonesty and absurdity, my weakness and my disbelief. And suddenly it was over: the whale was there one moment, communicating, and in the next moment a void. The waves returned to their rhythmic slapslap, the spruce boughs whispered the secrets they tell in the night to errant breezes. I fell exhausted back into sleep, a sleep soaked with unnamable tears.

* * *

Far too soon, the intense light of morning pushed through the tent walls to drag me back to consciousness. The brief dark had given way to a ferocious dawn. I was supposed to meet my friends before the merciless life-giving sun emerged from behind the eastern ridge. I struggled out of my sleeping bag and fumbled into my clothes.

I unzipped the tent and poked my head out the door, not quite sure if I would find the same world I had left the evening before. It looked the same; the air was fresh and charged with light. Reassured, I crawled out, zipped the flap closed again, and set off through the trees along the rocky shore, along the edge of the world. The water was on my right. On my left the forest had not quite given up the night: clammy tendrils of mist caught here and there on the branches, dripping down the grey-green moss beards. A raven accompanied me, flying just over my head, landing every few yards on a different bough, each time setting off a shower of needles. An nearby eagle screamed its territory. A salmon leaped clear of the water and smacked down; an otter slipped between rocks, a flow of brown. The rocks gave way to gravel and sand, and the forest to a graceful sunlit cove.

My friends were already waiting, silent, motionless, facing the sea. They were human...or were they? What is human? Were they really there or had they been turned to stone? They were people I knew—but did I know them at all? What are friends? Were they tangible? Were they real? What is real? What visitors had they received during the night? Had they seen visions and dreamed dreams? Had the world expanded as infinitely for them as it had for me?

In the watery mirror dawn's transparent colors grew resplendent, and as the sun flared above the mountain's outflung arm a whale breached, its huge body curving above splintered liquid refractions, shedding cascades of light. It seemed to hang there, suspended, for an endless moment before it crashed down, sending fountains of crystal spray along the breeze that touched our faces and our hearts.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! How amazing...

12:52 am, November 24, 2009  
Blogger MikeF said...

Oh, thank you, Maggie!

10:16 pm, November 24, 2009  
Blogger Ian said...

Dear Maggie
Thank you so much for your account, so faithful; an esprit as open as yours may always turn to such kaitiaki (as we say in New Zealand).
Kia kaha - march on!
Bhagavannath

8:17 pm, December 31, 2009  
Anonymous Bhagavannath said...

Thank you for your account.
As we say in New Zealand, your kaitiaki was with you. Kia kaha - march on!
Bhagavannath

8:23 pm, December 31, 2009  

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