Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Another Orphan

Cold, black; black and cold, all around.

Black lightens to midnight blue, the weight on me, around me, drops steadily, and as the other hunger in me drives me up, up, towards the other world, each stroke drives me faster and faster. Once, when I was much younger, I would have driven myself on as fast as I could, and emerged into the other world, thrusting myself free of the water in a leap that seemed to take me halfway to the blue sea far above, but that was then. I am old now, and weary, and I have taught myself the need to conserve my energies.

The water around me is pale green now, a dapple of light and shadow, and above me I can sense the end of the water and the beginning of the other world. I slow the tempo of my strokes, and hunch myself, orienting so that I come out in the other world with as little of a splash as possible, and sate my other hunger in a hissing blast of exhaled air. I swim along, breathing, filling my tissues with the sweet essence of this other world that is so alien to me.

Swimming, I feel my stomach full, and that is good. A full stomach on a single dive is a rarity, something to be happy about, and satisfied. Of course the meal did not come easy; my face still stings and burns and I know I must be cut about my head and jaw. I feel some sympathy for the creature I have eaten, large and savage though it was; it can’t be a pleasant experience to be bitten to pieces and eaten alive.

Around me, the ocean is empty. Once there might have been more of my tribe in the distance, but not around me, since I am of no pod. Once there might have been the fountains of steamy air from others related to me, the twin spouts of the slow-swimming right whales and the joyous splashing of the humped ones with the long flippers; but today I am alone.

I push myself to the top of the water again, and draw in another deep breath. Something glitters far in the distance, on the surface of the water, far away. It catches my attention at once. I am not fond of distant glittering things. Distant glittering things are all too often followed by the taste of blood in the water. I know all about that, more than I want to know.

I raise my head a little to glance again at the thing, which is no longer glittering but certainly much closer and like a white bird on the water, swimming in the sunlight. It’s time for me to go.

I push my head into the water and throw my tail up, and go right down like one of the stones that sometimes fall from the other world. The surface light fades, dappled light and shadow darken to green to midnight blue to black, and the water, the cold, cold water, tightens around me, presses on my skin like a living thing, and I still keep going. There is no light around me now, nothing but profound, total darkness, and I begin to click, the stream of noise telling me there’s nothing before me but deep, deep water.

I have always enjoyed diving deep, so deep that the weight of the water around me feels as though it will crush me to nothing in an instant, so deep indeed that the water is almost devoid of my slashing, tearing, many-limbed prey. Today I keep on going, deeper perhaps than I have ever gone before, because I have a fear that the things in the white swimming birdlike thing from the other world have seen me, and I do not want to meet them. If I go deep enough, they will probably go past by the time I have to breathe again.

The clicks bounce back at me. Something large, soft, many-limbed and desperate, squirms and writhes, transfixed in the beam of sound. It is prey, and I consider turning off the clicks and turning on the sonic hammerblows that will smash at it, crush its body, stun it, knock it semi-conscious, so that I can swoop in for the kill. But I have already eaten well today, so I simply sideslip slightly and pass it by. I can feel its touch on one flank, can feel its thrill of terror, and obscurely I feel a moment of sympathy for it. And then it is gone.

I have never been so far down as this before, and I know that I must very soon begin to level off. The clicks come bouncing back to me again, but vague and diffuse, from the Underworld beneath the water, the Underworld I have sensed many times but never seen. I am gliding above it, my clicks telling me of a flattish, undulating surface, void of any feature, crushed by the weight of the water, cold and uninviting.

I am just about to press down with my flippers and arc up through the dark when I hear the stream of bounced clicks change and harden. There is something ahead of me in the Underworld, something angular and hard, something that does not belong.

It’s more than curiosity that makes me swim over for a look. It’s something that thrills through me, something I have rarely felt, a mix of rage and terror that I can’t, so far from the Other World far above, begin to explain. Many times I have felt it there, on the edge of the Other World, but never down here.

I begin to understand once I’m close enough for the echoes to tell me about the thing. It’s smashed and broken, a wreck of what it used to be, but I know it for what it was. It is no part of this Underworld. It is far more alien to it than I am. The old rage boils up within me, so that for a moment I want to hurl myself upon it, because, in this crumbling, shattered ruin, I see a brother to the white-winged bird that swims on the water and makes the sea taste of blood.

Then the air-hunger, the other hunger, kicks in, too hard to be ignored, and I finally abandon the Underworld and the ruined thing and begin swimming upwards through the endless dark.

I remember the first time that I saw the white-winged bird. I had been but a calf then, swimming by my mother’s side, part of the pod, but more a part of my mother. I had still not been completely weaned even though I had begun eating for myself by then, and I swam always by my mother, so close that her flipper brushed my flanks and every now and then her head nuzzled mine.

The white bird had come out of the west, painted reddish by the rays of the Light Above in the early day. The pod had noticed and tried to scatter, but by then the white bird had begun laying its smaller eggs, that crawled quickly through the water with the strange small Other Creatures in them, the pirate dwarfs that hurled sticks that hurt and cut and finally killed.

Slowed down by me, unwilling to leave my side, my mother had been struck almost at once. I had felt her shiver as the stick struck, and then another. I had tried to come to her, to help her, but she had thrust me away hard from her, rolling in her death agony as blood spumed from her blowhole instead of moist breath and spray. I would still have gone to her then, to her side, but the pirate dwarfs had thrown their sticks at me too, though they did not hit me. Squealing in fear, I had swum away.

After that the pod was no longer my home. I know now why others of my kind reject me, and accept it. But then I did not know, and I was filled with anger and despair, anger at the  pirate dwarfs in their shells for killing my mother, anger at my mother for thrusting me away (at the time I did not understand that she was trying to protect me) and dying, and anger at the pod for rejecting me. Over the seasons, the anger, slowly, passed – at the least, most of the time.

And then it was that one day the pirate dwarfs struck me for the first time, and I felt the fire-pain of the stick in my side, and tasted my own blood in the water. Then it was that the anger came rushing back, turned my brain to red lust as blinding and deadly as the dwarfs, and I hurled myself at them, smashed and scattered them, and sent them reeling back to their white bird and swimming away across the sea. And yet they came back, and they came back again.

Long ago I have come to the belief that the pirate dwarfs are out to kill me, to destroy me specifically. My hide is as marked and scarred by their sticks and their ropes as it is by the slashes and scratches of my prey. I know the pain of their strikes, and have fought back, and won every battle with them that I have fought. But I’m getting old, and I can’t win forever, and now I would rather dive deep than fight.

I still do not really know why I cannot be left to a life of my own. Alone, yes, but if nobody hurts me, if nobody wants to destroy me, I will do nothing to harm them, the Great Whale knows. All I want is peace, the peace they will not give me.

I swim upwards through the lightening water to the surface, seeing the sparkle of the Light Above on it, feeling the warmth of the water about me, feeling again the skeleton of the dwarf that had clung to me and hacked against my flank after the last battle, had lain until the ropes securing it to me had rotten and it had dropped away. I feel the spot in my head that still aches sometimes, the spot with which I had struck, and struck again, mad with a frenzy of pain and anger, until the dwarf’s white bird had gone down into the water and the sea was calm again.

The sea is calm now; the bird has gone. It is empty too, empty of the others of my kind, of the pods that once splashed and hunted and played together. Not that it would have made any difference, because they would not have anything to do with me, for my jaw is twisted where theirs are straight, and where they are grey, I am an alien, evil white.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

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