This microchap is dedicated to my grandfather, the Orchid Grower, and the Sperm Whale, Beast of the Underwaters. A small thing for spirits who loom large.
On Becoming a Whale
First you must take your ear-bones,
consider the sound of the seashell
rolled up with echoes of future song.
Cut out your elbow.
Detach your pelvis from your spine
and let them float in the space of your body.
This is your reentrance
fee to the original amniotic fluids.
There was once a whale that said
I will not go back to land,
I will not go back.
A Man, a Cleaver
When I was a child, my grandfather took me to see a dead whale. He held my hand as we walked
towards the hill of blue water body. He peeled back the skin from the head and told me how to
create sails so that I could float along primordial trails of current. The muscles shone against sea
wind. In the shadow of the whale the sand was cool, but the smell was death of a thousand fish. He
showed me how to use a whale cleaver, how to hold it with both hands and breath in and breath out
as I hacked. He told me that he loved whales, and that my grandmother was made of anger because
she was not a whale. He pulled out the ear bones and let me hold them. He said the Otoliths are like
seashells, and if I held them to my own small human ears, I could hear the ocean. I held them to my
face, but we were already standing by the ocean, and all I could hear were seashells. That night I
built a fire of driftwood while he polished the skull with the crumble of urchin. When it was my time
to sleep, he wrapped me in wool and laid me in the toothed jaw and told me the future of folklore.
Great armies of ships blasted apart migrations while whale mothers cried as their babies fell
downward, which is really upward, because the ocean floor is the spirit world for whales. But
Grandpa, I wondered, how did this whale get here? And he shook his head as he thought of the
hateful heart of my grandmother. Unable to answer, he could only feed me whale meat, my stomach
growing heavy with the end of a lineage.
Seventeen Sadnesses that Swim
1. I hold a special grief reserved for the cutting off of an evolution, the implausible breach of
a whale through time discontinued mid trajectory, in my small space of intellect my head
2. I languish: they will not rejoin us on land to phantom through our forests, to lull in traffic
on the 116, to feel the intangible pressure of a deep economy, leashed
3. Because I am cowardly, I step backwards at the thought of contact, I assume they will
want to kill me, see through me to my brutal humanity, my ill sick trick of eye, me trying
to fool a whale on the nature of my nature
4. I mourn a ghost of a ghost, never having found their bodies washed up on sand, I have no
story of stench or blubbered mass, no lore of waves lapping at my legs while I circle the
uncircleable, never have I marveled at a dead whale
5. Like I have marveled at your assumptions when I tell you that male whales will pair up to
mate with a singular female, I marvel that every time you so easily forget her thrill, you let
it sink to the bottom of your ocean while I think of being held up, weightless, floating in
song, my waters warmed
6. Harpoons, obviously
7. My breasts ache against glossy photos of whale mothers carrying dead babies on their
noses, moving them up towards a breath which will not come
8. I am not a whale
9. A ship, shattering skull
10. A ship, shattering ears
11. A ship, shattering migration
12. I am a ship
13. The time my grandmother screamed at me, grabbing my wrists, and I know this isn’t
about whales, but they are so big and grand I thought I could slip in this one personal
sadness, perhaps you would not notice, so taken with the mating habits of cetaceans
14. I look star-ward, I see beasts in my knees and all my sadnesses I walk across the land as I
drag nets behind me
15. Beautiful things make me cry, so please know that I am weeping when I tell you that
some whales sink while sleeping, their bodies slowly drifting down, their tail hitting
ground, rising again to breathe, sleeping down once more
16. A whale can stay awake for three months but when I birthed a human child, so in awe was
I, that I held her for three days, unable to close my eyes, we whaled in our bed, drifting,
touching down, rising again
17. Continuing to cry, I explain, Sperm Whales sleep vertically, a watery Stonehenge of dream,
their eyes fluttering ~ I sob, I wretch ~ I ask the fabric of my pillow, what do whales
dream of? And there is no answer that my human brain can conceive
Slow Wave Sleep
They say you never die
in your dreams but every night
the car careens off the bridge, taking a great pause
in the sky to allow the visual to rush adrenal. I gather my lungs
to throat, descend deathful. I am a sinking
Skylark. Windows rolled against water, great bubbles
in the blowhole of moon roof. My wheels turn
fin. As I sleep, my right brain turns off,
my left eye opens. I see the sea floor. An undulating cemetery
of cars, each rusted body blooming with nutrients
of my days. I bring bitter root and child’s shoes,
an old radio and the blackest of land
flowers, too loose ribs and a busted pelvis to the abyssal plain,
gathering in the trenches of time and memory. My car is sideways
as squid swims past. Ink brings a darker dark.
Dear North Atlantic Right Whale,
I am writing to let you know that my grandfather has passed.
As you recall, my grandfather was a whaler. He also cultivated orchids, which you probably could
not have known. He carefully hung them from the walls of his greenhouse, alongside masks from
Mexico. In the center of the greenhouse was a hot tub built of wooden slats that heaved up steam
and the smell of my grandmother’s skin. She would hold me in the water while I stretched out my
body as if I could swim. The masks and flowers had tongues that would flick out at me, and I would
flick mine back. Cattleya, sweet.
We spoke of you often. My grandfather wanted to come home, leave the life of sailor, work with soil
and roots and things that opened and closed in relation to the sun. The relentlessness of the horizon
dug lines across his face, the moon mocked him nautical. My grandmother refused, pointed to the
mortgage, flood insurance, college funds. Think of every lantern, she would say. You will bring
darkness to this family.
Years later, he sat up in bed with his heart too full of blood and slid off the side of the mattress and
then he was dead. My father was called, who was a fly fisherman, he’s never killed a whale. Radios
and harpoons were pulled from the garage. I drove up from Los Angeles. We wrapped him in
shrouds of fishing net, laid his body in the stern of his boat, soaked it in oil of fish. Laid the masks
around his feet, one under each of his hands, one on his face, tongue out. We lit it on fire because
we do not have our own death culture. I also dragged his body to the top of the mountain and I told
the vultures, today is the day. Of course, they didn’t need to be told. They only needed to descend.
I know this must be complicated, if not problematic, news to receive. Although I cannot lay claim to
your grief, I hope this telling may bring a brief respite from what surely is a drowning sense of dread.
If you see him floating past, please forgive us. He knew not what he killed, only what he loved.
Bowhead Whale (12,000-39,000)
North Atlantic right whale (300-350), North Pacific right whale (400-2000), Southern right whale
(7,500), Blue whale (10,000-25,000), Bryde’s Whale (100,000), Common minke whale (200,000),
Eden’s whale (unknown), Rice’s Whale (30-100), Fin Whale (100,000), Omura’s Whale (unknown),
Sei whale (57,000), Antarctica minke whale (515,0000), Humpback whale (80,000), Pygmy right
whale (unknown), Gray whale (26,000), Chilean dolphin (unknown), Commerson’s dolphin (3,400),
Heaviside’s dolphin (unknown), Hector’s dolphin (12,000-18,500), Arabian common dolphin
(unknown), Long-beaked common dolphin (unknown), Short-beaked common dolphin (unknown),
Pygmy killer whale (unknown), Long-finned pilot whale (unknown), Short-finned pilot whale
(unknown), Risso’s dolphin (unknown), Fraser’s dolphin (unknown), Atlantic white-sided dolphin (200,000-300,000), Dusky dolphin (unknown), Hourglass dolphin (140,000), Pacific white-sided
dolphin (1,000,000), Peale’s dolphin (unknown), White-beaked dolphin (100,000), Northern right
whale dolphin (unknown), Southern right whale dolphin (unknown), Australian snubfin dolphin
(10,000), Irrawaddy dolphin (unknown), Orca (100,000), Melon-headed whale (unknown), False
killer whale (unknown), Atlantic Humpback dolphin (15,000), Australian humpback dolphin
(10,000), Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (unknown), Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (unknown),
Guiana dolphin (unknown), Tucuxi (unknown), Atlantic spotted dolphin (100,000), Clymene
dolphin (unknown), Pantropical spotted dolphin (3,000,000), Spinner dolphin (unknown), Stiped
dolphin (2,000,000), Rough-toothed dolphin (150,000), Burrunan dolphin (unknown), Common
Bottlenose dolphin (600,000), Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (unknown), Beluga (100,000), Narwal
(25,000), Dwarf sperm whale (unknown), Pygmy sperm whale (unknown), Indo-Pacific finless
porpoise (unknown), Narrow-ridged finless porpoise (1,000), Burmeister’s porpoise (unknown),
Harbour porpoise (700,000), Spectacled porpoise (unknown), Vaquita (12), Dall’s porpoise
(1,100,000), Sperm whale (200,000), Arnoux’s beaked whale (unknown), Baird’s beaked whale
(unknown), Beradius minimus (unknown), Shepard’s beaked whale (unknown), Cuvier’s beaked
whale (100,000), Northern bottlenose whale (10,000), Southern bottlenose whale (500,000), Tropical
bottlenose whale (unknown), Andrew’s beaked whale (unknown), Blainville’s beaked whale
(unknown), Deraiyagala’s beaked whale (unknown), Gervias’s beaked whale (unknown), Ginkgo-
toothed beaked whale (unknown), Gray’s beaked whale (unknown), Hector’s beaked whale
(unknown), Hubb’s beaked whale (unknown), Perrin’s beaked whale (unknown), Pygmy beaked
whale (unknown), Sowerby’s beaked whale (unknown), Spade-toothed whale (unknown), Stejneger’s
beaked whale (unknown), Strap-toothed whale (unknown), True’s beaked whale, Amazon river
dolphin (unknown), Araguaian river dolphin (unknown), Baiji (0-3), South Asian river dolphin
(1,100), La Plata dolphin (4,000-4,500)
Whales have flexible rib cages that bend without breaking, drawn by design for diving deep without
collapsing under pressure. Your rib cage: impossibly rigid with lungs that bleed in deep waters.
Not even that deep in the sea, you and me. If a whale were measuring, we’d be done in the shallows.
But the heart of the whale, that car of a heart that beats once every ten seconds. Large enough for us
to find refuge in while we drown. Can you hear it? The impossible whooshing of the greatest pause
of blood on earth in our ears, you curled up in the right aorta, me in the left ventricle, feeling the
surge, counting to ten until our ribs crack, a wall of membrane between us.
My Grandmother Was an Orca
My grandfather met her in the almond orchards of Turlock. He brought her melons and peach trees
and two hogs. Her shiny black and white skin, like rubber, the manifestation of wet. She shook the
tree between her teeth. A toothed whale eating stoned fruit and hogs. This is how a family is born.
Orcas are matrilineal, and my grandmother and mother ruled the neighborhood. Orcinus, kingdom
of the dead, where hunting is culture. Our clan’s teeth are rubbed raw on shark skin, we have a
propensity for art, leisure, oysters. Mother to daughter to mother to daughter. They fed me seal pups
and the top side of class war, rolled me onto the banks of glaciers as the narwals swam past. Their
twisted husks cut great holes in the ice, sea lions slipping in. My aunties let them finish their work
and then circled, eyeing a babe. The pink stained ice. There is no kinship past pod.
When the whalers came they went for the Rights, the Sperms, the Humpbacks. We persisted, from
the Salish Sea to Cayucos. But when the Trainers came, in their slick wet suits and promises of
highbrow, the mothers took notice. Frozen ice boxes of seal meats were hauled out in tugboats,
buckets of salmon, capicola and mortadella. They took mechanics and turned them into insurance
salesmen. Degreased the boys and promised them audience. Applause. Our mothers moved the boys
into the nets. This is how glass becomes home.
Having lost culture, we put on tricks. We write books, marry architects, study the life of bees. Our
bloodless mouths, a hoop. At night, we drift aimlessly, the quiet of the park and the smooth
fiberglass of liquid captivity a lullaby. My grandmother eats alone while children watch. Unable to
adapt, my aunties took the Trainers between their jaws. It wasn’t a harpoon that killed them in the
end. Chinook and sockeye are not the same fish, any behemoth can tell you that. We starve languid.
This is how culture kills family, one grandmother at a time.
Small Toys of Children
When I was a child I had Sei Whales for fingers.
Drew the eyes on the soft spot not yet turned callus by pencil.
I would look at my bones swim in the space between my dresser and legs.
My hand traversed galaxy of star and seaweed.
Quiet child breath, the whooshing of marine sigh.
I wrapped a blanket of barnacles around small shoulders, infused body with breadth, and dove.
My fingers scraped the ocean floor, anchoring me to a world without bruise.
The History of Spindle Cells
(Inspired by a lecture by James Nestor)
Let me start by saying that I am sperm whale. Understanding this part of my nature
will set up this device which is a topographical map of hearts
dismissed by divers more fragile than you because as a sperm whale, I can vibrate
a human body to death with clicks and echoes gathered
in my jaw. I spin belly up to see you floating towards me
and yes, I know I can kill you, but so desperate is my need
to tell you that I love you, I let the waters rock
us, current, until you extend hand, and I try gentle not to render you deaf,
split your body where you cannot breathe, and let you swim
in the presence of my natural form.
Poetry, cover and art design, and voice acting
Kelly Gray (she/her/hers) resides on Coast Miwok land amongst the tallest and quietest trees in the world, exactly nine miles and seven fence posts away from the ocean. Kelly’s writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and has been selected by Passages North, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, The Normal School, Lunch Ticket, and The Inflectionist Review, amongst other publications. Kelly is mother to one perfect cat, two spoiled yet emotionally bereft dogs, and a beautiful human child who is the recipient of her lifelong love letter, a work still in progress. She is fortunate enough to create a home with her beloved, painter Gage Opdenbrouw, where they center life around the shadow of flowers. Her book of poetry, ‘Instructions for an Animal Body’ is available through Moon Tide Press.
You can give Kelly Gray a piece of the moon and stars by tipping here.
Sound design and editing
Meredith Johnson (she/her/hers) is an audio storyteller based in Sonoma County, California. She makes an award-winning science podcast called Origin Stories, a show about how we became human. She studied at Transom and the Duke Center for Documentary Studies.
You can give Meredith Johnson a piece of the moon and stars by tipping here.
Gage Opdenbrouw (he/him/his) is an award-winning painter, teacher, and woodworker, who until recent times, traveled frequently both to paint and to teach. Currently he teaches online courses at Washington Studio School, in Washington DC, and Winslow Art Center, near Seattle. He plays bass and guitar very poorly and with great enthusiasm, but is an excellent cook and letter writer. At the recent request of his sweetheart Kelly Gray, he begrudgingly became a gravelly voice actor for this very collection of poetry.
You can give Gage Opdenbrouw a piece of the moon and stars by tipping here.