The sky was bright blue, the day the whales came.
The tide had gone out the night before, far out, the water barely clinging to the sand. Two whales that had come in looking for fish or something at high tide had been betrayed by low. Now they lay on the beach, way too far in.
We’d come out in the car with a cooler full of beer to watch them. I didn’t really want to go, but Clyde had been talking about how we needed to do more things on our trip. I just wanted to watch movies and read books. Clyde is the active one in our friendship. I’m the quiet one. I am always the quiet one. Truth is in silence.
We got out and got onto the beach and saw the grey slope of their backs first, heaving and desperate in the cold air, strange misplaced mountains. There were rocks to climb over to get close, the cooler bouncing against Clyde’s leg. “Some of these rocks are loose,” he said, several feet ahead. “Watch out.”
Some of them bounced off my head, little pebbles dislodged by Clyde’s feet; I bowed my head and closed my eyes to protect myself going up, feeling my way over the scramble with my hands and feet. At the top, Clyde helped me up and I opened my eyes and couldn’t help it when I gasped at the first thing I saw. We were maybe twenty feet away from the biggest animals I’ve ever seen.
I had only ever seen whales up close in nature documentaries before. I understood, of course, on some level their size; I had never comprehended before, never truly understood. This whale was so much bigger than I was. This whale could swallow me up. I didn’t even know what type it was, what subspecies. It was looking right at me, its big eyes flickering back and forth. There were other humans there, men and women in orange rubber overalls, holding buckets and hoses. They sprayed the behemoths with water, keeping them hydrated.
“This is the kinda thing you see once in a lifetime,” Clyde said, one foot on the rocks, one foot sinking into the sand. The closest whale’s big grey eye rolled to look at him. It was labouring, struggling. “This is weird, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You can see everything clearer when it’s happening on something so big.”
We sat down in the sand with our backs to the rocky outcrop and watched. The people in orange looked so small crawling up and down the whale’s back. The two massive grey-blue beasts lay side by side, and groaned. “At least they have each other,” Clyde said. His shoulders were so close to mine I could feel him breathing.
He took out two beers and I used the bottle opener on my keys to open them up, the caps skittering over the sand. Clyde kicked off his shoes and the cold beach moved up through his toes when he put his bare feet on the sand. When I sipped my beer it tasted like piss, like ash. The whales sobbed. Some of the people in orange got down off them. One of them stood with his hand on his hips. He looked so small next to the whales. There was another next to him; he threw his sponge to the ground and swore so loudly we could hear from where we sat, curses floating over the wind.
“They’ve run out of water,” Clyde said.
“There’s a bunch just over there,” I pointed to the sea.
“I think they’re dehydrating,” Clyde said.
The hose the people in orange had was barfing up a slim stream of water. It choked and hesitated as it fell on the backs of the whales, bouncing off and hitting orange overalls. There was a chain of them, sending buckets up from the sea. The girl on the end was knee deep in the ocean, bending to fill an empty bucket and sending it back, bending to fill an empty bucket and sending it back. Sweat glistened on her features, dropping from her hair, indistinguishable from the seawater she was trying to get up to the whales. They were too far away; the sea was too far away.
It didn’t last too long, or maybe it lasted hours, I don’t know. We found ourselves locked into their agony, watching the whales struggle and sob and stare out at us, at each other. I couldn’t breathe, watching them, like their combined weight sat on my chest, crushing my heart, my lungs.
We knew when it happened. One went first with one final sob, its eyes blinking and finally closing. It stopped moving, back no longer rising and falling. The other whale knew its loss; I saw its big grey eye roll to look at its comrade; a deep noise, the sound of mourning, ripped out of it. Its one final song, a cry of futility, a cry of raw, desperate loneliness.
The whale’s dying song resonated in the hollow of my chest, echoing around my heart; I closed my eyes and felt tears slip out beneath my eyelids. Before I knew it I was bent over double, sobbing at the low, desperate last song. Clyde put his hand on my back, on my sloping shoulders and when I looked up he was watching them too, his beer untouched, salt water tracks on his cheeks. There had been something needful, human, about them, a cry for help we couldn’t answer.
The song stopped eventually, petering out, voice breaking, and there was no more spirit left within the flesh. We looked out over the sea, and I missed my home suddenly. I couldn’t look at their empty eyes. Clyde stood up and walked away, his beer bottle stuck deep in the sand. He rolled up his jeans and walked out into the sea until it reached up to his knees, then his thighs. He lay down in the water and I saw him float in the soft grey sea, the same colour as the whale’s eye.
For a long time after there was nothing but the unnatural silence of nature after an awful disaster, a vacuum of sound. The sky was so blue and so empty and so beautiful.