Improvisations on an Ocean Call

WRITTEN BY
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

ILLUSTRATED BY
Ayelet Raziel

Liwan is a rock star. As far as her followers are concerned, that’s what she is. As the cyclic year draws to a close and the annual gathering of deep sea mammals approaches, the adverts are everywhere.

Liwan, daughter of Umwi, performing at the annual gathering together with Ha’wi, son of Bag’wi.

The advert is one in a number of fan produced displays with psychedelic colors expanding and retracting around the image of a playful dolphin and a laughing whale.

I sometimes wonder how much the general public understands of the music and the dance, let alone its context and what it reveals about relationships between diverse cetacean pods and our shared histories.

Here’s Valari, lead crooner among the Orca.

I know I’m partly to blame for introducing them as close to their proper names as the human tongue can pronounce it. For every person who sees deep sea mammals as individuals with certain rights, there is a larger group of people who sees them as objects for adulation. When guilt strikes me, I tell myself that if not for marketing and for our cyclic broadcasts on whale and dolphin well-being, interspecies communications, and deep sea musical gatherings, we wouldn’t have gotten this far in the fight for cetacean rights.

This year, I’ll be taking a selected number of participants in the Noctilus Pod to the very edge of the midnight zone where participants get to see and hear and experience just what happens once the cetaceans get their groove on.

Taking inspiration from the Mediterranean Jellyfish, the pod was designed specifically for concert attendees who want more than the spectator experience. We’ve fitted the vehicle with twelve individual cocoons made from a plant-based gelatinous material which simulates the womb. It is at once a protection as well as the closest we can get to simulating human vulnerability in the water.

It’s taken a full year to complete tests on the Noctilus, but I’m certain it will do just what it was designed for.

Our audience will be right in the water, experiencing what it’s like to swim with deep sea mammals in almost the same way as freedivers do.

I stretch out my hand—there it is, the first clue that something about me is different from other humans. It’s taken time for me to come to terms with all that I am, but I think I’m ready now. I think I can return to the ocean. I can go back and face Liwan and my pod once again.

Five days before the concert, Gyges Base, 18°39’41.0″ N 121°35’27.0″ E

Anticipation is in the air and I know I’m emitting excitement because everyone I touch becomes jumpy or ecstatic. To calm myself down, I’ve retreated to my mother’s cabin to sort through her files and browse through her video archives.

In this file, I’m four years old. My mother is in the background.

“Ayessa,” she says. “Come back on time, okay?”

She taps a finger to her wrist as if to underline what she’s saying.

Thing is, she must have known by then that I didn’t experience time in the same way she did. By the time I was four, there was more than enough evidence that my grandmother’s choice to undergo gene editing had come to fruition in me.

I don’t know just how much they discussed it, but at age four, I didn’t know or care about ethical questions or dilemmas. I lived on a station surrounded by adults who were all engaged in studying the sea and those who lived in it. Sometimes, I was the object of their study, but being studied was part of my life and it only made sense they’d study me when Mother Umwi and our pod were also subjects of scrutiny.

“Ys,” Mother Umwi’s call sounds across the water.

On screen, a whale breaches, turning a somersault before splashing back into the water.

I swing my legs over the edge. You can’t see from this angle, but when I wave at the camera, you can clearly see where the mutation has had its effect.

“Bye Mom,” I say.

A bubble slides off the webbing between my fingers as I blow her a kiss and vanish into the deep.

#

I lean back in my chair and blow into the air.

My mother and I lived on this base for sixteen years. By 2030, the prototype for moveable island groups had been created in the form of connected plates placed on top of a super-platform that could move with the ebb and flow of the ocean tides.

It took a couple more years before the prototype became an inhabited reality. Built for research purposes, our island group was occupied by scientists, engineers, visionaries and one mutant being (me). It was also owned and financed by an umbrella organization backed by different conglomerates all with a driving need to explore and understand the deep sea.

My mother’s brief was to study patterns of cetacean communication. Whales, dolphins, porpoises—that was her thing. She would sit for hours making recordings, taking notes, analyzing signals and frequency combinations, sending out her own broadcasts. I don’t remember the first time we went freediving but my earliest memory of the pod is of them circling around my mother and I.

I still remember the tentative sounds they sent our way. Warmth shivered up my spine and travelled all throughout my body. Mother Umwi’s voice calling to me with tones that felt welcome and familiar.

I don’t know how long I stayed under with the pod. I didn’t even notice my mother rising to the surface then returning back down to be with me.

“They see you as one of them,” my mother said afterwards. “It’s a gift, Ayessa.”

“Ys,” I remember telling her.

“What?”

“Ys,” I repeated. “It’s what Mother Umwi called me.”

I guess she wasn’t really surprised. It made sense that I could understand them just as they seemed to understand me.

I wonder what she would have done if my grandmother’s choices had manifested fully in her, rather than in me.

Was grandma’s impulsive choice a blessing or a curse?  Did she ever regret it? I never got to ask her, because by the time I was old enough to think of asking her the right questions, my grandmother had gone from us.

The thing is, humans have always been analyzing cetacean behavior. We like to put our own interpretations on what happens when they gather together, or what it means when they invite us into their circles. Notating their songs and singing back at them—it doesn’t mean we’ve broken the code. It doesn’t mean we’re talking to them or hearing them as they want to be heard.

#

Cottus Base, 31°34’42.7″ S 171°28’28.6″ E, Three days to the annual concert

I’m looking through my concert notes and finetuning what I’ve written. Some of it is general knowledge. For instance, humpbacks and sperm whale will cross paths with orca, baleen whales and bottlenose dolphins between late autumn and early winter and these meetings often turn into full concerts including cavorting and dance.

While I provide a live translation from time to time, certain patterns are predictable. Information exchanges, deaths and births, possible dangers, pod sagas and adventures, the creation of new bonds and the affirmation of old ones, are all part of the yearly ritual. There are clear moments of musical exchange when cetaceans share certain thoughts marking memorable moments. Themes are picked up, riffed upon, collected and taken into each pod’s repertoire depending on whether the shared ideas appeal or not.

Our first livestreams focused on the meetings of the pods, but this year, we’re streaming a feed from the Bathypelagic at the same time as our whales and dolphins get into it. We discovered that the sonar greetings and the ensuing activity sometimes serve as a trigger for curious occupants of the deep. Plankton, marine fungi and fluorescent jellyfish erupt into a dance of lights that resembles how humans used to send fireworks up into the sky. With a little help from the Jellyfish pods, we hope to sustain the light show until the end of the entire concert.

We’ll intersperse the light show with the dances and songs of the various pods and this time with the use of the interface, we’ll broadcast a theme we’ve agreed on and hopefully we’ll get to hear their reply.

I scratch the skin on my forearm nervously. I’ve been on dry land for far too long and I’m not even sure this is the right way to go about it. I tell myself that I just need to do this. That all it takes is this one step.

“You should try,” my mother said last time we talked. “You should try to reconnect with them.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “I’m no longer Ys. I’m no longer as I used to be.”

“They’ll be happy to see you back,” she said.

The sound in my mother’s voice echoed Liwan’s. I remember coming to on the surface of the water, my face lifted to the sky, feeling as if a great hand were crushing the life out of me, and Liwan crooning forgiveness in my ear along with a powerful thrup command to wake up and live.

I shut down the memory and focus on the task at hand.

#

Summer 2046, Gyges Base

“Do you know what whales like to listen to?”

I’d been reading through old papers from early attempts at cetacean communication and listening to music clips researchers used back in the day.

“What do whales like to listen to?” My mother says.

I know she’s on auto-pilot and not really hearing me. I’m used to mom in work mode, but on this particular day, my sixteen-year-old self can’t take it that she isn’t giving me her full attention.

“Mom,” I say.

“Quiet,” she replies. “I’m almost there.”

Her words trigger something in me and I make a sound similar to what Mother Umwi does when she’s reprimanding one of us for not paying attention to her.

That snaps her out of whatever trance she’s put herself into.

“Ayessa!”

“You weren’t listening properly,” I say.

“I’m trying to notate a particular strand,” she says. “Now I’ve lost it.”

“Whales like The Doors,” I blurt out.

“What? What are you talking about? “

“The Doors,” I shriek. “And The Rolling Stones and Sting.”

“Ayessa!”

I shriek at her.

There’s a river of fire in my body and I can’t quench it.

“Stop speaking whale at me,” my mother says. “You come back here, young lady.”

“I’m not a young lady,” I shriek. “I’m not even properly human.”

My body feels like it’s going to burst into flames. Only the water will quiet me. Only the sea will quench me.

“Ayessa.”

I pretend not to hear her. All I can hear is the call of the deep. I’m caught in a fever of impatience and I don’t stop to think that at this time of day, my pod may not be near to hear me when I call.

#

Whales dive deep.

There’s been enough research done to establish parallels between cetacean physiology and our own.

Growing up with the shadow of the pod mother alongside me, surrounded by a circle of aunties, siblings, cousins, nephews, there was always someone to nudge me back to the surface if I came close to what the pod considered dangerous depth for me.

Driven by an impulse I couldn’t name, I sounded as I fell. For the first time, I felt the crushing weight of water. I felt cold seeping through my veins and saw darkness rushing to enfold me. My heartbeat slowed, my body chilled.

I have no clear recollection of what followed.

My mother said I must have become more sensitive to certain mechanical stimuli and that could have triggered something akin to a panic attack.

I’d read about cetacean response to certain frequencies and how human presence in the natural habitat of sea mammals may have the most negative affect. But I refused to dwell on it because the reading matter made me sad. Whales stranding in groups, dying on shore, suffocated to death by the weight of their own selves.

Apparently, my reaction was to dive down to where I thought I could find silence. I sounded my despair before the darkness and the cold overtook me.

My rescue was captured on the Gyges Base livestream and the clip went viral.

There I am, descending like a missile towards the point where darkness drowns out the light. I can pinpoint the moment when I black out because that’s when Mother Umwi’s shadow rises up from beneath me, it’s then when she turns and catapults me upward, up and away from the shadows that wait below.

She takes me on her back and floats me to the surface where Liwan catches me as Mother Umwi sinks below the waves.

There are logical reasons for why she didn’t make it. She was our matriarch, but she had already lived a full eight decades. The panic reflex that prompted her to dive swiftly after me and resurface just as quickly gave her the equivalent of what we call the bends.

It was her time.

The stream shows the pod forming a circle around me, singing at me, their flippers keeping me on the surface until the rescue boat shows up.

The whales saved me. Liwan and the pod gained a fan following.

#

I was in a coma for six months.

My mother told me I would sometimes open my eyes and sound, then fall back into darkness and sleep.

“Your body needed it,” she said.

I think I heard Liwan singing while I lay in that deep sleep. I think I heard the pod mourning the loss of Mother Umwi. I dreamt of her body falling. Of fungi rising up all around her to give her wings. Trapped in darkness, I mourned too.

#

When I woke up, the doctors told me there was no reason why I couldn’t go down into the deep again. I wanted to believe them but each time I tried, I found myself sinking. Unable to swim, unable to float, unable to make even a single sound.

#

It’s taken time to develop the Noctilus Pod, taken time to develop the interface.

It helped that the team had the perfect test subject in me. Outside of the cocoon, I couldn’t swim or even float, but wrapped in the cocoon’s protection, I could go down and still feel the warmth of the ocean’s embrace.

My mom said that all I was doing was procrastinating. She shook her head at what she called ‘my crazy’.

“Do you think your pod cares about stardom or popularity,” she said. “But hey, you do what you think you have to do until you finally get what it is Mother Umwi wanted you to get.”

#

In my dreams, I see Mother Umwi. I hear her call and I feel her presence all around me.

‘It’s a cycle,’ Mother Umwi says. ‘We go down into the deep. We choose. We love. We give back what has been given to us. More importantly, Ys, we just be.’

I know I can never put into words what she meant. My cetacean genes allowed me to spend time with the pod and being there, growing up with them, taking in who they were and what they had to relay changed me.

The ache in my heart breaks open and I wake up sobbing into the darkness, feeling my aloneness

Goddam. I miss my pod. I miss Mother Umwi. I miss my podsister, Liwan.

Liwan is a Rockstar.

I laugh at the image I created for her. Goddam. I only wanted to tell a story. I only wanted the world to understand that we couldn’t just go on living the way we always did. Whether we acknowledge it or not, they who roam the depths of the sea are bound and connected to us. The only thing that separates us is one simple step in the chain of evolution.

#

Morning dawns and the conditions are perfect. There’s no way of predicting when or where they will come or even when the concert will begin, but I know in my bones it will happen today.

We have time to prepare the participants and to establish them in their cocoons. Overcoming fear is the first step in the experience. Once past that moment, the interface clicks in. The transfer allows participants to link to the cetacean fleet. Feel them as they feel us, know them as they want to be known.

I look out over the expanse of water and think of pods of whale and dolphin and orca breaching and singing. Exchanging knowledge and strengthening bonds and all the while, they’re taking time too to chill out and celebrate being. We could learn so much from that.

“Ayessa,” I turn at the sound of her voice.

Of course, she would be here. My mother wouldn’t miss this moment. Not for anything in the world.

When she pulls me close, I realize that time has also had its effect on her.

Beyond where my eyes can see, Liwan breaches. Even on land, I can feel her call reaching me.

“Ys,” my mother says. “Just be.”

#

Winter, Gyges Base, 2039

“Where do whales go when they die?”

I’m nine years old when I ask the question. One of the elder matriarchs hadn’t returned with the pod and Liwan had told me they’d sung the whale fall song for our auntie.

“It depends,” my mother says. “Whales go back into the ocean the way humans go back to the earth. Their bodies serve as a rich resource. Not only do they feed other ocean dwellers, but down in the deep a new environment springs up from what’s left of a whale and that in turn can bring about the birth of new organisms.”

“So, if I die,” I say. “Will my body also feed the ocean?”

“Ayessa.”

I can see that my question has upset her. I don’t need my extra senses to know she’s holding back tears.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“No,” she replies. “It’s a perfectly legitimate question. I just don’t like to think of you ever dying.”

#

I wonder now if my mother knew then that she would one day have to surrender me completely to the sea.

“I’ll come back to you,” I say

“Yes. I’m sure you will.”

She smiles at me and it’s as if we’re back in that moment when I’m four years old.

#

Concert Day, Cottus Base

Standing on the edge of the platform, I watch as the Noctilus Pod descends and goes beyond my sight. I know exactly what each participant will be feeling. A mild sense of panic, then confidence, then exhilaration as the water closes around them and they feel the ocean’s hug.

I told the team of my decision and after some discussion, they accepted my proposal. My mom would take my place in one of the cocoons and they can livestream my return to the pod.

Stepping off the platform is simple. My entire body opens up, and all that I am remembers what it is to really be free. The deep is warm and bright and filled with welcome lights and just beyond, I hear them sounding.

“Ys.”

My name echoes through the water like laughter and she’s right there beside me. I turn and cling to Liwan as she rises from the depths and brings me up with her into the light.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipina writer living in The Netherlands. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop and was the recipient of the Octavia Butler Scholarship Award for 2009. In 2018, she was a recipient of the Milford Bursary for writers of color. Her work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications including Weird Tales Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, Lightspeed, Interzone, The Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology, and the Ruins and Resolve Anthology. She is working on her first novel.