The Watchers of the Whale

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“So what do you think it means?”

The mayor gazed up at the sky and released a long sigh.   “I can’t draw any conclusions based on what I know so far.”

“Oh, come on, you have to have some thoughts.”

Mayor Joyance glanced over at his newest friend.  She quirked her brows.

“Of course I have thoughts,” he said.  “Just no conclusions.”

“Really?” she turned and pointed her entire hand up into the sky.  “There’s a whale, just…floating in the middle of the sky.  That doesn’t impress you?”

“I never said I wasn’t impressed.”

“I mean that doesn’t move you to—I don’t know—ponder about the big stuff in life?”

The mayor crossed his arms.  “Big stuff?”

She shook her head, then turned back to look at him.  Her brows were slightly creased now, and her gaze fixed on him.  “If the official explanation isn’t real, do you think there’s a logical explanation for this?”

“I think there’s an explanation,” Mayor Joyance said.  “Whether or not it’s logical remains to be seen.”

***

Jordan Joyance, mayor of a modest harbor town in which for the first time in his term something truly extraordinary had happened and was still happening, braced himself to address the people gathered in the town square.

They were not just the usual attendants, the people of his town and a varied but small assortment of visitors.  Today the square was packed with onlookers awaiting the answers to hundreds of questions which all boiled down to three basic questions: how, why, and what happens next?

As he surveyed the crowd, it seemed that half of them were outsiders.  Sight-seers, scientists, federal investigators, representatives from animal welfare organizations, video crews and other documentarians, military personnel, nature enthusiasts, and the only group that truly troubled him, collectors of rarities.

They were all there to observe a phenomenon that people didn’t know how to respond to.

He glanced to his right, to find Talia standing there in a dark suit, her hands folded behind her back.  She raised her brows and tilted her head forward, as if to say, “You’re ready.  Proceed.”

In the short time that they had been working together in the mayor’s office, the woman who was once his rival for that same office had become his greatest ally, oftentimes by being his greatest challenger.  And ever since the phenomenon occurred that drew the entire world’s eye to their town, Talia had set aside any lingering signs of rivalry in exchange for unity.  It was their town.  And while they would respect and defer to the expertise of others, they needed to remain in charge.  At least…as long as the situation did not take any dire turns.

A drone—an authorized one—hovered over the crowd on its way to the beach.

Mayor Joyance began his address by welcoming everyone and then telling them all what they already knew, before telling them what they came to hear.

***

She just appeared in the sky one day.  And no one saw how she got up there.  The first person to see her was a half-asleep fisherman sailing through morning fog.  He stretched his neck up for a yawn and found himself passing right under her.  He woke himself up and blinked about a hundred times, rubbing his eyes, shaking his head, pacing his boat, circling the impossible sight, wondering if he should call the harbormaster or a doctor.

It was a right whale.

Most of the townsfolk had never seen one.  They were rare.  They’d once been hunted almost to extinction and were now a protected species.

It was only a matter of hours before Joyance knew and before a perimeter was formed, a perimeter of boats and ships on the water, and various agencies of force protection on the land, including the sheriff and his deputies in rotating shifts.

Right whales were filter feeders.  This one was floating in the air and not moving much, but she was moving.  She was alive.  The first order of business after establishing a perimeter to keep order was to figure out how to keep the whale fed and hydrated.  The first and so far only solution was painstaking and labor-intensive.  Helicopters carrying ocean water hovered over the whale, while caretakers were lowered down in front of her with powered hoses to blast water through her mouth.

The pilots reported having to steady their helicopters against some strange forces.  But every one of them had a difficult time explaining what they meant.  The closest they could come was to say that it felt as if their craft was dizzy or disoriented, even though they themselves and their passengers felt fine.  Their observations would be added to the growing collection of data and information surrounding the phenomenon.

Within forty-eight hours, the town had become a circus.  Every inn, hotel, and motel was booked.  Some townsfolk were renting out their living room couches for extravagant prices.  Some were protesting the arrival of all the various visitors and requesting to have the “authorized personnel only” perimeter expanded to include the entire town.

Mayor Joyance, who had wanted to increase the ranks of visitors to the town when he first took office, found himself silently siding with those protesters.  In one morning he’d attended two meetings where town officials and law enforcement discussed how to keep the peace and keep the influx of visitors from overwhelming town resources (which included the goodwill of the residents).

The mayor provided all this background, and then he spoke of what was being done to ensure the whale’s comfort and well-being while an investigation was ongoing and plans were being made to help her…get down.

***

Every hour of every day, there were throngs gathered outside of the perimeter, watching the whale, exchanging theories and beliefs.

“Some think it’s a sign that we’re all going to die,” Talia said on the fourth morning at the first briefing of the day.   “Others that it’s a sign we’re all going to be saved.”

Still others thought that it might indicate a fundamental change in the laws of physics, which would lead to wilder implications about universal constants—such as whether or not there was anything permanently constant in the universe.  Mayor Joyance had heard his young aide discussing that with the scientist in charge of the team investigating the phenomenon.

The mayor stared out of the window of his office at the sky and an empty patch of ocean.  If his window could see only a few miles to the south, he would have been gazing at the whale.  He would have liked to join in the speculation.  It would have meant that he had the time and leisure.  But he had more practical matters to tend to.

People were constantly trying to get past the perimeter to get a closer look.  Three privately owned drones were spotted and downed.  The ground perimeter may have been tight, but the airspace for miles around the town had been declared a no-fly zone for unauthorized craft.

Many were disruptive, but ultimately harmless, like the people who just wanted to take pictures with the whale.  But there were researchers and investigators without the proper clearance who pushed to get closer to obtain their own readings and measurements.  Two deputies caught a couple who claimed to have a “mystic balm” that they said would help the whale descend, if they could sail underneath her and burn the balm so its vapors would reach her.

“Poor thing,” Mayor Joyance said as his aide stepped beside him and handed him a folder.  “She can’t be comfortable up there.  And everyone ogling all the time.”

He turned and faced the people gathered around the table.

“The resources required to keep her alive as she floats helplessly in the air, and to keep people from trying anything foolish are already straining us beyond what we can manage, and we still have no idea how much longer we’ll have to keep at it,” he said.

“The world is watching,” Talia said.  “If it’s watching, and it wants to keep watching, then it should do something, chip in a little.”

“We could set something up, but we’ll have to manage our expectations,” one of the federal liaisons said.  “We’ve already shut down dozens of fraudulent efforts to collect ‘donations’ to support the whale.  Some of those jokers have gotten away with the money too.  People are rightfully wary and suspicious.  And all of the reputable organizations collecting for us have some red tapes issues that might mean it will be a while before that money gets to where it’s needed.”

“I also think no one is buying our logical explanation of what happened,” Mayor Joyance said.  “Maybe I just didn’t succeed in selling it.”

The authorities had settled on the official explanation of the phenomenon being an illusion, some magician’s stunt that went too far.  And the magician responsible had either abdicated responsibility after losing control of the situation, or was still waiting to reveal himself at some dramatic moment.  But all investigations along that avenue had resulted in no evidence of a magic trick.  They still don’t know what was going on.

The mayor turned to the leader of the working group that had been assigned to devise and present plans for getting the whale safely back into the ocean.  At the last meeting, she had presented a simple plan, one that many in the public would call a no-brainer, being that it had been suggested from the first few hours of the whale’s discovery.

“How close are you?” he asked her.

“The equipment and personnel are ready to go.  But we want to complete at least two more rounds of ‘rehearsal’ to test for any gaps in safety,” she said.  She glanced around the table, then looked at the mayor, and nodded.  “Tomorrow at thirteen hundred.”

***

It was the fifth morning since the right whale had appeared in the sky above the ocean near his town, and Mayor Joyance had just boarded one of the ships that would be involved with the rescue attempt.

The plan was simple.  They would throw a series of weighted ropes over the whale.  The ends of the ropes would be attached to ships arrayed on either side of her.  When those ships moved apart, the ropes would tighten and gently press the whale down.

All that morning the mayor watched as the teams positioned the ropes, which had some kind of padding along the length that would lay over the whale, to protect her from getting cut or burned when the ropes started moving.

He glanced at all the people on the shore behind the perimeter.  There must have been thousands.  Sunlight glinted off all the lenses that were pointed to the sky, hoping to capture the heroic effort, and the whale’s triumphant return to her native domain.

When the ships began to move, the mayor held his breath and gazed up at the sky.  Water was dripping off the whale from her most recent feeding.  Her tail drifted gently up, then down.

Then he heard the sound of metal straining and clinking, the creaking of the ropes going taut.  Two helicopters hovered above them, watching and monitoring.

Mayor Joyance watched.  He narrowed his eyes and watched for the slightest sign of downward movement.

But that sign did not come.

When he heard the metallic snapping that signaled the limit of the rope’s straining, and the order for all ships to stop and reverse to restore the ropes’ slack, the mayor sighed and said a silent “sorry” to the whale.  And he did not look down until someone told him it was time for him to return to shore.

***

“At least no one—and no whale—was hurt,” Talia said that evening as she and the mayor tried to enjoy a drink in his office.  His aide walked in and handed him an end-of-day report.

“What are you still doing here?” he scolded.  He had ordered her to go home hours ago.

The aide left.  He and Talia watched security escort the exhausted young woman to her car.  And the mayor, to honor her efforts, reviewed the report.

“One of the ropes came close to snapping,” he said, flipping past the first page.  “It could have smashed through one of the helicopters, rebounded back to the ship.”

“Good thing old Doc Cally insisted on those extra safety checks.”

“But now we’re back to square one.”

“On the bright side, maybe all the data gathered during the rescue effort will help our scientist buddies figure out how she really got up there.”

“Their last theory was obviously wrong.”

Talia pointed a finger up.  “Maybe not.  Maybe she did somehow become infused with some lighter-than-air substance.  So of course we expected that pulling her down would work, the way you could pull down a balloon filled with helium.  But…what if as soon as you started pulling down that balloon, some other force, unrelated to the helium that’s making it float, works against you, resists, and pulls in the opposite direction to keep that balloon right where it is?”

Mayor Joyance frowned as he flipped through the report.  “Where are you getting that?”

“I can’t remember.  I’ve had a lot of random discussions with random people.”

“Well, did you hear any random ideas about how to counteract that force?”

“Not so much.”

“Did anyone suggest there might be a will behind that force?”

“You mean like some mischievous godling pulling on our strings just to amuse himself?”

Mayor Joyance sighed and set the report down.  He pressed his fingers to his eyes, then wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.  “Are we absolutely sure it’s not an illusion by some magician?”

***

“Something’s happening…”

The mayor switched on the lamp beside his bed and sat up.  He cleared his throat.  His alarm started to sound.  He turned it off.  “What’s going on?”

Since the failed effort to pull the whale down, two more days had passed with no change, and no progress.  This was the eighth morning since the whale appeared above the waters of his town, and Mayor Joyance had just received word that something had changed.

By the time he arrived at the shore, the sun was just rising over the buildings and shortening the shadows cast on the shore and the waters beyond.

The whale was still floating in the air, and there was something floating below her.  It looked like a length of rope.

The mayor was met by a gaggle of people who rushed at him as soon as he arrived and briefed him on the change.  That length of rope that someone had attached to the whale’s underside in the past hour was a measuring tape.  During that past hour as the night watch watched, they noticed something that they thought was in their imagination at first.

The whale was sinking.

“It’s slow enough that if you’re looking right at her, you can’t really tell,” someone explained.  “It’s slow and steady so far.  We’re trying to measure whether she’s emitting anything, radiation or gases, or…anything.”

“Do you have any indication that she might stop?” the mayor asked.  “Or that she might start falling faster?”

“No, sir.  We’re just doing what we’ve been doing, watching.”

And that’s what they all kept on doing.  As the usual onlookers gathered and noted what was happening, word spread.  By mid-morning, the gathered crowd exuded a new tension, the tension of held breaths and crossed fingers.  The whale had sunk a third of her original height by then.

Mayor Joyance took a boat out to one of the ships that was closest to the whale, monitoring her progress.

She sank and she sank through the air, until she was just above the water.  And that was when the mayor held his breath and gripped the rails so tightly that his hands cramped.

The whale touched the water and he could hear the gasps and the odd shouts from those on shore.  There were sailors gathered to either side of him.  All of them watched her sink into the water, her tail still slowly drifting up and down.  When half of her body was underwater, the mayor found himself nodding his head and silently saying, “Keep going!”

When she was fully submerged, there was a brief moment of silence, as if everyone was waiting for the whole thing to reverse itself, for the whale to bob back up to the surface and float right back up into the air.  But she didn’t.

And all at once, the gathered crowd began to cheer, and the mayor released a sigh of relief (and a small measure of wistfulness).

He heard the messages over the radio, assigning the few ships who would escort the whale further out to sea.  The mayor would not be on one of those ships.  He glanced over to the shore, wondering if he would be able to glimpse Talia and the rest of his team standing out there.

He did not see them, but what he did see made his eyes widen and his stomach lurch.

The gathered crowd pressed against the guards who were maintaining the perimeter.  They pressed and pressed, and in one spot, they broke through, then another.  And another.

Dozens of people started running toward the shore.

Mayor Joyance glanced between the rush of people and the whale just visible under the water, still not moving, not swimming.

He turned again to the shore and held out his hand.  He yelled for the people to stop.  Some had already hit the water and were swimming.  Sailors on the ships were being ordered to dive in and form a human chain to stop the swimmers from reaching the whale.

Someone handed the mayor a bullhorn.

“Stop!” the mayor cried.  “Stop!  She’s almost safe!  Let her go!”

He was leaning over the railing, as far as he could, farther than he should.

Mayor Joyance started tipping over the railing.  He dropped the bullhorn and tried to grip the railing to catch himself, but he was too late.  He felt himself go overboard.

He caught his breath.  He could swim, but he’d never swum in the ocean.

He stopped falling suddenly.  Something had caught him.

And it wasn’t the water.

It was a familiar feeling.  The feeling of jumping up into the air, but high, as if he’d bounced off a trampoline.  But even higher.  He’d been tumbling headfirst, but now he was right side up and rising in the air, and he was facing the shore.  He was high enough to see the swimmers streaming into the water, and the jagged chain of sailors still forming in an effort to form a block between the swimmers and whale.

“Stop!” the mayor cried again.  And though he no longer had his bullhorn, his voice, from so far above, seemed to carry over the waters and all the way to shore.

He was floating now.  He didn’t know how.  It was a strange feeling.  He wasn’t being lifted up by currents of air or held by some invisible hand.  He was just suspended there somehow.

And he noticed that the swimmers had spotted him and had stopped swimming.

He repeated his plea.  “Let her go!  Away from us!  Let her be!”

He held both hands out.  The swimmers bobbed in the water for moment.

Mayor Joyance could already tell that he was sinking back down toward the water when the swimmers began to turn back to the shore.

***

The whale was tagged with a tracker, but it must have been damaged when she submerged, because it wasn’t producing a signal.  People tried to search for her in the coming days and weeks, even though she had been escorted far out to sea, but there was no sign of her.  Mayor Joyance had a feeling that they’d never see her seen again.

But they would always remember her.  And they were still trying to figure out the “how,” and the “why,” and the “what happened next.”

And Talia was still trying get her friend to reveal what he made of the whole situation, especially his own brief experience of floating.  But the mayor still drew no conclusions.

“I get what you’re trying to say, Jordan,” she said over lunch one day.  “It all just…happened.”

“Yes.”

“And we haven’t yet made sense of it.”

“Yes!”

“And we might never make sense of it.”

“Exactly.”

“But we need to make sense of it.”

Mayor Joyance glanced out of the restaurant’s window toward the harbor.  “Maybe we just need to learn from it.”

“Learn what?”

He shrugged.  “Different lessons for different souls.  For me, the lesson is that we don’t have everything figured out the way we think we do.  But we don’t have to be afraid of not knowing.”

Talia grinned.  “Aha, your thought on the matter at last.  And it’s a good one.  You should definitely put that in your next speech.”

She wanted him to remain in the public eye, so much so that she had stopped mentioning running against him at the next election.  She worried that if he were to retire into obscurity, someone would grab him and try to poke, prod, and maybe even dissect him to figure out how he had hovered.  The column of space in which the whale had once floated was still protected by a perimeter past which only authorized individuals could go to study the water and the air.  Talia sometimes feared that the whale had already suffered a fate worse than being stuck in the middle of the sky, and that that was the reason her tracker had gone silent.

But Mayor Joyance didn’t think the right whale had been snatched up by unscrupulous researchers.  He believed that he had succeeded in convincing everyone who was there the day she descended to let her go by reaching their better natures.  And perhaps by demonstrating to those who were not there that day that whatever happened was linked to the town and not the whale, as evidenced by the mayor’s own episode with hovering.

Mayor Joyance believed the whale was out there somewhere, glad to leave flying to the birds, glad to be back in her element.  Glad to be home.

 

Copyright © 2019  Nila L. Patel

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