Today Facebook showed me a “memory” which I had completely forgotten. On this day in 2015, I learned that the only flash-fiction piece I’ve ever written, “Orca,” was a semifinalist in the New Millennium Short Fiction Contest. I had written it on a whim, thinking about the story of Tilikum, the famed Orca from SeaWorld who, in 2010, had snapped and killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau) and the 2013 documentary Blackfish which raised awareness about the abuse of these magnificent creatures. The whales’ plight has clear parallels to human oppression past and present. But I liked the story and wanted to share. I named my f-bomb dropping fictional Orca “Jonah.”
A Story from 2015
I swear I never planned it. I just had this idea that maybe I could make this day less of a suckfest than the ones before.
He’s on the edge of the platform, waving at the masses like they do, one slick, black flipper sticking out just enough. So I go for it. I grab his foot along with the rest of him in my teeth—one smooth pass, a rush of energy and the thrill of giving in to impulse. My heart beats in rhythm to the filtration pump, all twelve thousand pounds of me humming with possibility. And for one moment, this stale, lukewarm tank—chemically treated water, manmade current, synthetic seaweed—is enough. But here’s the wall, too soon like always. I flip and evade just before impact.
I can’t break out of here, but I can give the crowd a taste of my will. Look at me, assholes! High on my own will. It’s what keeps me from going nuts like poor old Thomas, who swims in circles all day, chasing imaginary seals.
Thomas is not his real name. He’s Naylu to the Humans, who like our names tribal-sounding and exotic—Naylu, Le’molo, Wailele. At sea no one needs names. You’ve got instinct to tell you who you are, who you love, who to watch out for. Humans name us so they can tell us apart and more completely own us. We weigh what we weigh; they weigh what they weigh, yet we belong to them. Humans made this tank, brought in our mothers and fathers, forced them to breed amid the dank and scum. And if you think those of us born inside don’t have sea-instinct, that we don’t miss what we’ve never known, you’re wrong.
But names, yeah. I came up with the idea to take our own names—their kind of names, just for the irony. We stole the names of trainers who left and haven’t come back. There’s Thomas, the oldest, the only one born at sea—the psycho on permanent seal patrol. Then there’s Ed, Kathy, Mike, Liz and me, Jonah. Last is Allison, beautiful Allison.
The water caresses my skin as I move, prize on display. I’m calm and happy just this once, like I’ve never been before—not even that time with Allison, because we were forced together in that cramped shithole of a medical pool. Yeah, we both wanted it, but the Humans wanted it too and it was their wanting it—not ours—that made it happen. This moment is mine. As long as I have this guy by the flipper, I’m free.
My tankmates, Ed and Mike, cheer me on, Dude! Go! Wishing they’d thought of it first. Crazy Thomas goes swirling round and round, slapping with his tail, signaling his glee. But Allison trembles from the shadows, guessing how it’s all going to go down. She intuits things. All the cows do, but Allison does it best.
Like what happened to the calf. Allison knew, before she saw the transport ropes, that they were going to take her baby. She went up on the platform, rocking and slamming her tail in protest. I never saw a cow act like that. After the calf was gone, Allison kept on going. She kept swimming, leaping, doing tricks for mackerel just like the rest of us. But her eyes were hollowed out and frightening. They’d lost their light.
Vengeance. Malice. Psychosis. These words will come up one day when the experts and activists try to explain my actions. But I’m not doing this for Allison. I’m not doing it because I’m tired of being penned in, or because of the calf, or the indignity of being named after a fucking seashell. I’m doing this because I can.
Liz signals to me that I should cut the crap and let the guy go, and Kathy sounds, Jonah, you’re going to get busted! Buzz kills. Eat my dorsal fin. Allison stays deep down, watching. I think maybe she’ll join me. I’ll toss him to her, see if I can bring back the shine to her eyes.
But first I take him up to the surface for a spell to show the crowd I don’t mean any harm. I keep his foot in my teeth, but we hang out. I let him breathe. Humans don’t have blowholes like we do; they breathe some other way that takes longer. So I give him time to get plenty of air in him, then take him back under.
The calf was beautiful, I remember. It was the first time I ever watched one come out into the world. Allison was cool with me watching. If it had been Thomas or even Ed, she’d have been scared they’d eat her baby or some wacko shit, but not me. I’m the one she could trust.
I was moved outside the tank as soon as she delivered, but she could hear me signaling that I was there and that everything was okay. The calf was small and perfect, just like Allison, but everyone said her little saddle patches looked like mine. Her eyes were bright and clear and so round. She stayed right up close to Allison, like a tiny shadow. Caught on right away how to swim and make it up to the surface. I just stared, blown away by this miracle that took place right in our own piss pot of a tank, so far from the real sea.
I let the guy up one more time—not for so long, though. I’m getting antsy. I dive back down and find Allison. She’s still in the darkest corner of the main tank. I shake my head back and forth, showing off what I have, but feeling desperate. I need her to play my game. Hey, Allison, take a turn. I let him go for a second, nose him in her direction. Come on, live a little. But she turns away. And now the guy is making for the surface like a bullet. Which pisses me off. This time it’s not so playful when I take him; I’m out of patience. I chomp on his body. Probably with more force than I should, but I’m past giving a shit. I swim with him back to Allison. Her eyes stay vacant. She signals: What can you possibly want from me?
So I leave her alone, the guy’s limp body still in my teeth.
That day, the day Allison’s calf was born, I remember thinking, I’m going to take that little girl out of here. Someday, somehow. Me and her and Allison, we’re getting out. Which I know was a crazy thought, because where the hell is out? Old Thomas says when he was first captured, he lived in a sea-pen. There was the ocean, he says, and right next to it was his pen, just a thin net separating him from the wide open. So the water he lived in was real, one hundred percent, pure, blue seawater. One day some guys in a boat cut the net and a couple of the other whales escaped. Not Thomas; he was nuts even then, had agoraphobia or something. Anyway our tanks aren’t like that; they’re closed-off concrete and thick, high-tech acrylic, miles from the sea. Still, the calf made me want to find it.
When it’s over, it’s over fast. I barely know what’s happened. I’m taken out. Out of the shows, out of the main tank, kept in solitary. Specialists come and test me, over and over again, for months and months, trying to figure out just what went wrong. A couple of times I think I hear whale song. Allison, crying for the calf that got taken away before she was weaned, crying for me. That would be something, right? But I’m wrong. It’s just my own signals, bouncing off the concrete.
Trainers still come by now and then to check on me and say “hey.” So what I do is wait.