The Seething Sea Sufficeth Us

WRITTEN BY
Catherynne M. Valente

ILLUSTRATED BY
Kaela Graham

“Each summer, the same individuals appear off the coast of British Columbia and Washington. Despite decades of research, where these animals go for the rest of the year is unknown.”

—Conservation Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus Orca)
National Marine Fisheries Service

 

I can taste autumn in the water. I can taste it before it comes. It is my favorite taste. Like mating and diesel fuel and a certain greening of the sun. The first clue is the salmon, when I can find them. Suddenly thick with jellied roe, bursting in my mouth like songs about love. The feeling of crunching infinite salmon generations in my teeth. Of crunching the future.

I have a beginning inside me. A calf. He has been inside me a long time, and will be inside me for a long time yet. To contain a beginning is an optimal state change. I have contained them many times. I am large and hungry. I hear like teeth biting static clean in two. Further, farther, clear and clarion. I swim like water is air and flight an afterthought. My pod protects me, protects the beginning. I am never alone. The salt sea that surrounds me is a bubble of clicks and moans and songs and shrieks: the ancient cacophony of family.

I have given the beginning inside me two names. I also have two names. Not all of us do; my sisters do not. One of my brothers does. The possession of two names is peculiar to those affixed with the School. Some of us have three or four names. My name among the humans is Female Q915X.

The beginning inside me is called All That Which Hides in the Shadows Cast on the Seafloor by Two Round Pine Mountains. And he is called Aatu. I am called Aamu. And I am called The Song Which Arrives Before the Blackness of the Body, Which Cuts Flesh Without Teeth.

I no longer fear boats; in my youth I fought one and won, and can do it again. They come—they go. We watch each other, predator and predator, the fog draws no distinction. In this autumn among all my autumns I swim through the old city. Once I only saw and heard it from far away, echoes and ghosts on the water. But in recent years the city has become friendly, curious, more socially aware. It came down to visit us like a diver but it was not like a diver in that it did not leave.

The old city is not a fish or a whale or a shark or a squid and it took a long time to understand that. It did not look like the other cities down here. The old city has seven big hills like whale spines curving in the dark. We tried to talk to it in many different ways. Shark ways and squid ways and fish ways and whale ways. I sang my best song to the electric wires that float above empty drowned streets like a net which has caught Queen Anne Hill. It was a plaintive song, a song of searching for lost young, lost prey, lost autumns. The color of the song was the color of moonlight before the day is wholly escaped from the sky. It came out of my bones like love. The hills did not answer.

I know the name of the hill, unless it has another it does not wish me to know, because of the School. I am never apart from the School. It flitters around my long skull, just out of sight, glimmers and flashes, wriggles and scattered vibrations, a school of silver invisible infinite fish circling my head like a crown, like a knob of coral, like a cavern where they dance in safety. In the early days, when I was young and my blood was always at high tide, I shook my head to be rid of them, I raced the ocean to escape them, I swam until in my weakness I could barely break the surface for air to exhaust them. I beached myself to starve them of seawater and therefore life. But they would not be rid, they would not be exhausted, they would not be escaped or starved. I could more easily outswim the calf in my belly. The School is a part of me, in me and of me. When I sing it I feel it sizzle like summer along my fins and my teeth and my ribs and my tail. And now and again, as unpredictable and enticing as the sight of a sea turtle within reach of my bite or a pelican’s mouth severing the surface tension of the world, the tiny invisible fish of the School explode into understanding. The name of the hill in the old city bursts in my head like a blood vessel, like morning, like birth. The words taste hard and sour on my hind tongue. Rubber tires and seal livers. But I share the words with my pod. We ponder over them, hanging in the ultramarine ungravity of afternoon. Another burst tells me what a Queen is. I like that. I think I am a Queen and perhaps also an Anne, though the School has nothing to say about Annes. The conceptuality of a Queen is indivisible from myself within my pod, in relation to my young, to the things I eat, to the strength of my songs and the distances they reach. Queen Anne. Another name. I have bitten it and eaten it and I own it. The hill is good and mine now and I feel fondly toward it.

Because I have the School, the beginning I contain will have it. My other offspring have it. At first it is not as powerful as mine, but as they grow it achieves a largeness to match theirs. I have sung to the others about this and that is how I understand that they cannot speak to their calves before they are separate from their bellies. They can sing to their beginnings. Their beginnings cannot sing back until they have swallowed something other than their mothers.

It is the School that allows me to know that I contain Aatu and not another. His nature bursts inside my skull like the name of the hill in the old city, like the chewing of an engine starting up underwater, like jellied roe against my long teeth. He is a song inside me and he is a song that sounds like this:

Aamu, Aamu, I am alive I am so long already I am so black in the black of you I am hungry I am hunger give me seal and salmon and seagull give me love and memory and all the songs you know I cannot get enough I cannot ever get enough, Aamu, I already have teeth so many teeth like yours, Aamu, feed me forever, let me bite down into your soul and shake and shake never let go

And I love the song of my son moaning and echoing in the cage of my skeleton where he is safe.

Aatu-to-come will have the School without blood. My memory is a thing that floats, it knows no up or down, only toward and away from the light which is myself. I remember the blood; I am the blood; I hunt and swallow and excrete and hunt again the memory of my juvenile autumns, when I was caught by another city, older still than the one with the hill of the Queen and the net of wires and the trees whose leaves and needles will never fall again but only become an arbor for fish who will swim along the roads where people once moved, eat upon the grass where people once ate, laugh in empty cold turquoise theaters where seaweed alone dances upon the stage and it is the School that fires these understandings into the interior of myself like the flesh of chinook I have bitten in half: theater, stage, grass, roads. But not dance. Dance I know. Dance I am. Dance Aatu will be.

When the School burns the idea of theaters into my brain, connections crackle through the infinite dimensionless blue of experience. When I was a calf I lost my mother; when I was a calf I lost my aunts and my first son. I lost them to this idea of theater, they became gone, in the water where they moved nothing, and they danced for human masters in the world of air until they died of sorrow. I did not know that until the School flickered it into me, and then I felt the chemical tank water, I heard the crowds, I smelled the kerosene that lit a great ring with fire merely so that my first baby son could leap through it weeping.

I was not sorry when the old city came to us, quiet, bowed, without fire or crowds.

And it is not the only city I have known. The other city of my life had also theaters and stages and roads, but I understood nothing of them then. I knew only the slick black weight of myself, the colors of my songs, the joyful clicking of the sea which is the universe, my young and my pod and the thick blood of octopi, their unfurled intelligence like electric sugar on my tongue. I knew also that other worlds existed besides my own—the one above, full of humans and sound, so much smaller, so much hungrier than us.

And the one below.

It was in the winter, far from the seven hills of the old city which were then above the waterline. It was in the winter, deep and far to the south, where we spend the months when the sun is a distant lover and gives us no rolling excitement among the waves. The place we always went, far down in the cobalt black of the mountains below, in the marine black of the plains below, the breeding grounds where we are and have been drawn since before my grandmothers invented memory. There are shadows there, good shadows, shadows no human has yet guessed. The old matriarchs say, and I suppose I am nearly an old matriarch myself, a Queen Anne, a hill, a city with one inhabitant, so I will say it too: humans worshipped us once. They told each other we could speak, that we knew secrets, that we lived in houses and cities under the sea.

And they did not understand their rightness, but rightness they had in their strange, weak hands.

So in that winter many winters past I flowed toward the breeding grounds like all my kind, for it was cold, and cold means sex, and sex means go to the place where life is strong and wild. I was caught; I was distracted. My mate tried to impress me by swimming as hard as he could, further, farther, and I let him believe I could be impressed by such things. I sang out to him beneath the waves and he sang back. Songs the color of rich dead seal-fat, enough for all of us forever.

A pain in my flank came like a bite, and another, and another, and I was falling, or flying, up or down, too much air and not enough, and my memory of the motion of myself is a cove without light. I was afraid—to not live, to not mate, to not sing again, to contain an ending and no more beginnings. I do not know how long I was caught. It was not like when I fought the boat, and ate nets and bait in such quantities that excreting them later would feel like oil fires burning in my bowels. It was like fighting time, and also the sky. But I did not die, or drift away like wood into space. I awoke again in cold, empty water, my pod gone ahead of me, my mate vanished. And I—tagged and monitored, forever bearing the mark of someone else’s interference, possessing and possessed by the School.

It is not so bad. I am never alone. And I know much more, I think, than any orcinus orca that came before me—even that name, another name, fifth, sixth, millionth name of the being that means Aamu. Queen am I, of some little things: a hill, a song, an autumn, a memory.

Aamu, Aamu, I am alive

Yes, my offspring

Aamu, Aamu, I cannot wait. Tell me a story about the world outside your skin.

Very well. Eat the salmon that I have eaten on your behalf, lie safe as long as you can. Listen.

 

You live inside Aamu, who is your mother. Aamu lives inside the ocean. The ocean lives on a planet, and a planet is like a ring of kerosene fire floating in space that we all jump through, over and over, forever. There is some little land on this planet, and less still than once there was, and that is where humans live. If you were young when I was young, I would tell you to be wary of humans, for they love theater more than life and death more than theater. But they are quieter now, since a few of their cities left them to join us. Everyone gets quieter when their children depart. Perhaps quieter is better.

 

Long ago, humans worshipped us, and ate us, and worshipped us, which is all the same thing in the end. They told each other stories about the great whale cities under the sea, the houses of the whales and their thrones. It is my turn to tell you this, that the matriarchs told me. There are many cities in the deep. Some are ours. The breeding grounds in the winter. The cold heart of sex and blood and feasting. That is one. It is ours now, but we did not make it. We swim along the streets, between the towers, among the lanterns, and sometimes we are caught there.

Before humans, before gods, the builders of cities came to this kerosene ring burning blue among the stars. They saw that it was good here. Good and ripe and young. A waterworld, like the one they came from, like their home, their breeding grounds, the winter of their great memory. They found no resistance, only plenty. They spread across the ocean floor, flourishing, building thalassopolises, writing poems and playing games of strategy and arguing fine points of politics—the usual sorts of things. We knew them; they learned to sing like we did. They longed for us to sing their songs, but it was so difficult, when you have so many teeth, and they none. They had names for us. More names, always more names. We swam between these worlds, above and below, and betrayed neither of their secrets.

 

They withered long before humans could guess the sea contained anything but food and storms. Became quiet, and then silent. Silence does not always follow quiet. But silence came for them and they gave themselves to it. All things have a breeding season. Their cities stood in the black and the blue, old shadows, empty, porous, full of fluorescent eels like grave markers. The land became loud with people. Still we visited those other cities, our old friends who are no more, in the winter when it is time to sleep. And in those places, where coral once was taught to be cathedrals, there are yet some few things still alive—alive, at least, in the sense that a scallop is alive, or a sea slug, or a boat. Working. Pulsing.

If you are not careful, those pulsing things can catch you. Teach you to sing a song never meant for a creature with teeth. Teach you the name of a hill, the meaning of theater, the life cycle of civilizations. Teach you to communicate with beings long vanished from this universe. Teach you what a planet looks like from a vantage point far above the sea.

We were so happy when the human cities came down to stay with us. The cities of our old friends would not be lonely any longer. There are so many more down here than up there, after all. Everything is as it should be, above and below, and you and I between. When you are born, Aatu, I will take you on a grand tour, and you will eat where the rich of two great pods once ate, and tell me what you think of the feast. 

It is nearly time for the beginning I contain to become himself. The pine mountains cast their shadows on the sound. I saw a human ship today. I sang to them, but they did not draw close.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Own Making (and the four books that followed it). She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Sturgeon, Prix Imaginales, Eugie Foster Memorial, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus, Romantic Times’ Critics Choice and Hugo awards. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human.