by JY Yang
The whale beached at dawn, rolling in with the tide, its black bulk on the sand outlined by pink the colour of salmon bellies, pink the colour of blood on foam. Ada was the first to reach it, feet bare against the cake-batter sand, the remnants of waves lapping at her soles. Her father had set out before the red-tinted sunrise, and Ada had been up before him to spoon congee into his bowl. Then she had been free to watch the sea, free to witness what it left behind as the waves receded.
The whale had stalled belly-up, serrated jaw curving towards the lightening sky. Air wheezed from its blowhole. Ada crouched next to its dark, unblinking eye. The organ was the size of her fist, barely a grain of dirt against that massive body.
“I have a message for you to carry back to the sea,” she said to the whale. “Tell the lords of the oceans that ten years is long enough for my father’s nets to come back empty. Tell them that his remorse has paid ten times over for his indiscretions. And if you see maidens with shells woven into their hair like the stars are woven in the sky, tell them that there is a longhouse upon the beach whose rooms are cold and silent without their singing.”
The whale smelled of brine and marketplace offal, and radiated a heat that felt both desperate and uncomfortable. Her task done, Ada planted her feet, and began to push the whale back into the ocean. She put her shoulder and back against its massive head and shoved as hard as she could.
It was her against the sea-soaked sand and the two-ton weight of the whale. But she had arms strengthened by mortar and pestle, and legs fortified by the long daily walk to the market. She pushed as though her life depended upon it, as though the world consisted of nothing but Ada, whale, and ocean. She pushed until her limbs shook with exhaustion, pushed until her muscles were on fire.
When she was sure that all the strength was gone from her body, Ada took a step back. After all her effort, she was certain that the whale was at least a handsbreadth closer to the shoreline. Now the rest was up to the ocean.
* * *
Ada lived in a longhouse among the palms lining the beach, its walls wood and its roof thatched with attap leaves. Once—many years ago, when she had been a child—the sea lay a mile from the house, her father came home with baskets filled with fish to rival a royal garden, and the eaves of the longhouse were filled with the singing of her mother and aunts. The tides had been gentle creatures then, rising and falling like the chest of a sleeping baby.
But things had changed. Now the tides hungered with the ferocity of gaunt-sided hogs, and hallways and fishermen’s baskets alike went wanting. To survive, Ada wove rattan baskets which she sold to tourists at the marketplace, those well-heeled creatures that came and left, taking pieces of her with them.
Ada sat in the hall in the front end of the longhouse, so she could watch over the whale while her fingers kept busy with weaving. Her brother Peng came out of his room with a shirt on, and went onto the porch. “Where are you going?” she asked.
He didn’t reply. He never replied these days. Peng put on his helmet, ducking behind the mask of plastic and mirrored metal, and was gone in a cloud of motorcycle exhaust. The roar of its engine echoed long after the dust it had kicked up had settled.
* * *
The tides came again when Ada was at the market. They did not take the whale with them. It lay heavy and forlorn and still when Ada returned home, a child abandoned by those it thought it belonged to, left to die alone. Sorrow filled Ada, and disappointment. She left it where it lay on the sand, its wheezing nearly at an end. There was nothing more she could do for it, nor it for her.
* * *
The Hyenas came in the night. Her father had clogged the doorway of their house with heavy furniture in preparatory fear, so Ada watched them from her room, sequestered in the rear end of the longhouse. From a slit afforded by her batik curtain Ada witnessed the storming of the beach by the pinpricks of a hundred electric torches, springing forth from the unlit territory of the forest. Figures leapt upon the whale’s carcass in a frenzy, so thickly wrapped in fabric from head to toe it was impossible to tell if they were woman or man, young or old. Cloth masks painted bright in hyena stripes obscured their features, obliterating their individuality, imposing tribal affiliation in its place. Each time a whale died on the shores they came, a horde of indistinguishable human shapes swinging their arms up and down as they hacked the carcass to pieces. Their chant made it up the beach, made it up to the longhouse, made it up to Ada’s ears:
Heydi, in the tidy-hole,
Tamarind, cape-a-door, in-the-way
Nonsense words, meaning nothing, maybe except to them. A way of keeping time, of coordinating the tchak-tchak-tchak drop of their blades. The Hyenas took everything: hide and blubber and guts and bone. Ada watched them, shivers running up and down her skin like human fingers. In an hour the Hyenas had worked their way through the corpse. As quickly as they had assembled the pack dispersed into the night with their spoils, leaving behind only a smear of blood on the sand, nearly invisible in the clouded moonlight. It would be gone by morning, claimed by the returning tides. It would be as though the whale had never been.
* * *
When Ada slept she dreamed of the open ocean, and of thousand-mile migrations. The sun was warm on her back and the water cool around her fins. She dreamed of song that carried through brine, tunneling through the sonic walls of shipping traffic.
Ada opened her mouth to sing, but the noise that came out was all wrong. It was too high, the frequencies in the wrong band. She had never learned whalesong. Nobody had taught her.
The cadence of her song seemed familiar. It took several seconds before Ada realised what she was singing:
Heydi, in the tidy-hole,
Tamarind, cape-a-door, in-the-way
She woke shivering. When she went to the curtain to look out at the ocean all she could see were phantom torch lights everywhere, wavering and dancing through the night like fireflies.
* * *
Her father woke as usual to go to the sea. His little sampan and its green-encrusted nets waited for him upon the darkened shores. Ada served him the same congee for his morning meal, grey and pallid and meatless.
Once—in another lifetime, in the days before the waves beat upon people’s doors and the rains washed children out of their homes—her father had been a young and strong man, sun-browned and smiling. The story went that one morning he set out in his boat and returned three days later not with his nets full of fish, but with a beautiful young woman next to him, shells woven into her night-sky hair. And it had been a happy marriage, full of light and song. Her sisters joined her, and there were children, plump and well-fed.
But there are no chains that can hold back the tides, and what was taken from the sea, must return to the sea. When the waves came to claim his wife Ada’s father was helpless to stop them. And so he was left to a cold gray house, emptied of song, yawning with space too onerous for one man and his two young children.
Ada was not sure who told her this story, or how. It seemed like she had always known it, but she must have heard it from someone, at some point. People are not born with stories woven into their bones.
But whoever it was told it to Ada, it was certainly not her father. He barely spoke these days, a gaunt shadow of a person that haunted the leaden hallways of the longhouse, soundless and sightless except for the gaze that was fixed unwavering on the horizon of the sea. She imagined that was the way he spent his days on the water, scanning the opaque surface endlessly for a sign, any sign, that would return his love to him.
* * *
This time, she tried to stop her brother Peng as he prepared to leave the house, his helmet tucked under his arm. “You could help with the weaving,” she said. There had been a time where they had woven baskets together, he with his strong and sure fingers and his fearless smile; a time where they had chased each other around the courtyard like chickens, kicking up dust; a time where he would accompany her to the market and buy them both ice balls for a few cents, the coloured syrup dripping off their elbows in the heat.
Peng’s lip curled. “What’s the point? Make my fingers bleed just to earn a few dollars from tourists? I have better things to do than that.”
“Things that put food on our table?”
Peng did not reply. He walked out of the doorway, whistling, as if Ada had never spoken.
It wasn’t until his motorcycle roar had faded that Ada realised she recognised the cadence of his tuneless whistling. Heydi, the tidy-hole, tamarind, cape-a-door, in-the-way…
* * *
Peng came home late that night, just as Ada was setting out their meagre dinner. A package slapped down on the worn wood of the table: plain waxed paper, blotched with oilstains. When Ada pulled its brown petals apart a familiar, sickening sweet smell wafted up– the odour of flesh rich with marine fat. She recoiled from the slab of fresh whale meat, drained of blood. “Where did you get this?” But even as the words left her tongue, the answer was already clear in her mind.
“My friends have means,” Peng said.
“Your friends,” Ada cried. “The Hyenas are thieves, they’re barbarians! They take what is not theirs and peddle it to others like they own it.”
“Not theirs? The beachings are a gift from the ocean, Ada. You want to waste it? You want to see the whales rot on the beach and get eaten by vultures?”
“The only vultures are those people! They have the strength to push a whale back into the sea. But they don’t. Instead they stand around and wait for it to die so they can chop it up for money!”
“What’s wrong with that? It’s better than you, begging at the market for scraps from strangers. How much do they pay you for those baskets you take all day to make? When was the last time we had fresh meat on the table?”
Ada folded her arms. “What did you pay the Hyenas for this?”
Peng’s face darkened. “If you’re not going to eat it, fine. That just means more for me.”
Their father said nothing to their argument. He was gazing out at the window, at the darkening waves on the horizon.
* * *
The next day, after Peng had left the house, Ada went to his room. Tucked among yellowing newspapers and the flattened cardboard of old milk cartons was a brightly painted mask, holes cut for the eyes and nostrils. The inside of the cloth was white and virgin, still unstained by sweat or blood. Ada’s fingers trembled as she held it.
* * *
Another whale beached with the afternoon tide, when Ada was away at the market. By the time she came running towards its inert bulk in the evening, the hot air already held the smell she feared, carrying it up to the sky like an offering. The stench of decay grew overpowering as she fell to her knees beside the colossal creature. Her fingers pressed into its yielding, rubbery flesh, and her throat closed up like mimosa leaves. “Forgive us,” she gasped, “Forgive us for our failures.”
The sun beat upon her shoulders and she couldn’t breathe. “Tell my mother to come home. Tell her to teach me her songs. Let me take your place so I can tell her myself.” She leaned forward, smearing her forehead with the salt and dirt of the dead whale’s skin. “Let me take your place.”
* * *
That night she watched, fingers curled tight into the curtain and knees curled tight into her chest, as the Hyenas came with their machetes swinging and their chants high on the air. Heydi, in the tidy-hole. Ada looked at the bodies swarming the beach and tried to see if she recognised Peng in the movements of any one of them. But in the cloak of the dark, in the anonymity of the frenzy, it was impossible to tell. She could only close her eyes and pretend.