The forty-two-foot humpback whale washed up on shore last Wednesday. Robbie Bauer says it’s a sign. Molly Newbury claims that it will be perfect for our ritual. Growing up in rural Georgia, I’ve never seen a whale up close before, dead or alive.
At dark, the three of us walk down the beach toward the whale. I walk fast to keep warm, but the cold seems to freeze my muscles and joints.
“Keep up, Southern Belle,” Robbie says.
I shine my flashlight on the ground and keep my head out of the wind. I use my light to follow Molly and Robbie’s foot tracks. The crystalized sand cracks under the weight of my purple boots. We must be close to the whale because I can smell it. Oddly it’s an odor similar to the frozen tilapia my grandma used to buy and thaw on the kitchen table. Robbie must notice it, too.
He inhales loudly and says, “Yum.”
“I can’t smell anything,” Molly says. “I can barely feel my nose.”
The blowing wind dries out my eyes. I squint to see a giant gray mass in front of us. Half of the carcass rests on the shore and the other half rests in the surf. My flashlight scans the whale a couple times, like radar. The monster completely blocks the view of the shoreline beyond. Standing near it, there is a sound of a hundred vibrating phones.
“I thought flies hibernated in the winter,” Molly whispers.
I don’t answer because I know very little about hibernation or winter.
“Molly,” Robbie says, “you notice the dumbest shit.”
The police have erected a perimeter of yellow caution tape connected by wooden stakes. The three of us stand behind the tape, looking at the whale. I stand level with the whale’s eye. If I were to roll into a ball, the eye and I would be the same size. The eye is a round, black gelatinous orb; the gel coating reminds me of the slime on cooked okra. I feel a strange urge to poke it. I shine my flashlight into its pupil, but all I see is black. Robbie finds a rock and throws it at the whale’s side; it makes a thud sound.
“Frozen solid,” Robbie says.
A thin coat of snow has collected on the whale’s back. I’ve seen pictures of whales in the ocean before and they are easily identifiable. But here, this whale, lifeless on the shore, has lost its shape. It is reduced to a giant blob. If it wasn’t for the tail, the eye and the news report, I don’t think I’d recognize it as a whale at all.
“It’s huge,” Molly says.
“Bet it’s a got a huge dick,” Robbie says.
“It’s a girl,” I say.
“How do you know, Whale Whisperer?”
“The news said so.”
Molly is shining her flashlight on one of the whale’s fins; she is wearing one red glove and one yellow one. Molly is here because she believes in this sort of spiritual shit. Molly’s parents are both fifth-generation Wampanoag, and Molly is their only child. Both of her parents are lawyers, and they live in a normal house with a black Lab named Lucy and own two Volvos. Despite how wealthy they are, Molly prefers to wear jean overalls from the Salvation Army, not shave her legs and smoke organic cigarettes. Molly Newbury was born and raised out here; she is what you call a “Vineyarder.”
“We had to pick the coldest night to do this?” I ask.
“Kate, soon the warmth will come,” Molly says. She always says things like that; ominous statements that could be from a fortune cookie or a Yogi Tea tag.
“This thing is a beast,” Robbie says.
As I look at the whale I imagine being that size.
“Have you ever seen one alive?” I ask.
He crosses under the caution tape and pokes at the whale with a stick he found on the beach. Robbie Bauer is also a Vineyarder and you can tell the moment he opens his mouth. No “R” sounds at the end of his words, which is unfortunate considering his full name is Robert Alexander Bauer. Robbie lives with his father, the head chef at Alchemy, one of the five-star restaurants on the island. Often, Robbie skips school to help with prep work if the restaurant is hosting a wedding or a food critic is in town.
I am the only one who is not a Vineyarder. My family is originally from a town an hour outside of Atlanta. I am the only girl living on island who is from the South. There is a boy in the eleventh grade from Maryland; Vineyarders also consider him to be a Southerner. Moving here, I had anticipated the bitter cold, but no amount of the Weather Channel prepared me for how quickly the autumn turns to ice. Winter comes to Martha’s Vineyard all at once. There is no transition. The wind cloaks empty beaches and coils between shops that are asleep until the summer months. I was prepared for the cold—I was not prepared for the emptiness that came with the cold. When the cold arrives, other things leave. The tourists leave. The “Open” signs on shop windows leave. The plants and animals leave. Even the sun leaves.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” Molly says, unloading her purse. She pulls out a bottle of bourbon, a bag of ice, and a knife. She turns to me.
“Salt?” she asks.
I was in charge of getting the salt. I pull the cylinder of Morton’s Kosher Sea Salt out of my backpack and hand it to her.
“This whale is perfect for this sort of thing,” Robbie says.
Robbie doesn’t have any Wampanoag blood, but he says things with such piercing authority that people believe him. He’s agreeing to do this ritual because Conner was his best friend. Robbie told me that the Wampanoags believe the only way to cleanse yourself from a sin is to drink the blood of a whale and to do the same act to yourself; typical “eye-for-an-eye” mumbo-jumbo. According to the Wampanoags, if you hit someone you need to drink whale’s blood and then let someone hit you back. Just two days after Conner died, the first whale in ten years washed up on shore. Both Molly and Robbie agreed it was a sign.
I take a sip of the bourbon and tighten my jacket around my shoulders. I am here because Robbie and Molly are my only Vineyard friends and because Conner is the first person I’ve known to die, not like an old person, like a person-person. A person before his time. Conner was my friend too, even though he died only months after we met. Despite not knowing him very well, I can’t forget the last image I saw of him wading into the dark Atlantic fully clothed, with an orange inner tube around his waist. His arms out stretched, dragging his fingers through the water as he walked, leaving two paths of ripples behind him.
“Don’t you feel so connected to Earth right now?” Molly says.
I don’t. “Yes,” I say.
“My balls feel connected to my stomach right now,” Robbie says. He tilts the bottle of bourbon up over his head and into his mouth. He swallows and then coughs.
I don’t believe in ceremonies or rituals and the native Wampanoag Indians have never fascinated me. I guess I need to be a Vineyarder to understand. The only thing that fascinates me is the whale. On her throat there are deep ridges and grooves. There are bumps along her nose the size of baseballs. I’ve heard that humpback whales can live fifty years. I imagine how old this whale is.
“How are they going to get her off the beach?”
“Chainsaw,” Robbie says.
Something about the way Robbie pronounces the word chainsaw sounds like the way Conner used to talk. The night Conner died the four of us gathered at this same beach with similar bottles of alcohol; anything we could pinch from our parents’ liquor cabinets. I have no idea how, but Conner scored a whole case of whiskey that night. We all clapped when he walked onto the beach with it. Conner didn’t even like whiskey.
“This will be therapeutic,” Molly says. “We will all feel purified.”
“Purified with a permanent scar,” I say.
“Like a tattoo,” Molly says.
The plan is simple. We’ll all freeze, just like Conner did. Not die or go in the ocean, but rather freeze a tiny piece of our skin using salt and an ice cube. We had all played this game many times; sprinkle a little salt, place a piece of ice on top and see who can withstand the pain the longest, before the freezing burns your skin. Then we’ll drink a little bit of the whale’s blood, wrap ourselves in blankets, and fondly remember our friend. This would be our ceremony. According to Molly, and Robbie approving with the occasional head nod, this will bring back the “eye-for-an-eye” balance. For some reason, this makes sense to me. More than anything, I like that it will be something that only the three of us will share.
Robbie continues to poke at the whale with the stick. He makes a joke about the Wampanoag spirits as the wind blows off Katama Bay. Molly tells him not to joke about shit like that. I look at Robbie and smile to let him know that I appreciate the joke. As the temperature drops, the smell becomes less strong. I look at the whale’s remains, then look at Robbie. His face is pale and his expression is hardened. He already looks frozen.
“You fuckers ready?” Robbie asks.
I take another sip of the bourbon and hand it to Molly. She shakes her head. I think about taking one more swig but Robbie pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket and starts to speak:
“We are all here to honor Conner Wilson, who was taken too soon. We are here to share a little of his pain and to show our love. In the way of the Wampanoags we will freeze, drink whale blood and wash clean of this sin.”
Robbie motions to me for the salt. I give it to him.
“Hold out your hand,” he says.
“Okay, fine. Molly give me yours.”
“Don’t mess up,” she says.
He pours a tiny salt mountain on the back of Molly’s hand. Then I extend my hand and he tilts the cylinder of salt over it. Lastly, he frosts his own outstretched arm. In a circle, our three arms converge in the middle.
“Ice,” Robbie says. While still balancing the salt mound, Molly uses her other hand to open the bag of ice. The temperature has dropped enough that the pieces of ice have started to freeze together in clumps. She punches the bag a few times to break them up. She hands everyone a cube to hold. Robbie explains that we need to keep the ice on for at least five minutes. We don’t know how long it took Conner to freeze, so Robbie makes up a time that feels reasonable. Molly sets her watch.
I hold the ice cluster above my mountain of salt.
“On the count of three,” Robbie says.
We all count together, “One. Two. Three.”
I carefully place the ice on top of the salt. It slides off the mound a little. I push it back. At first I don’t feel anything. I just concentrate on balancing the ice. But soon, I feel my skin start to harden and tighten, the way it does just before it splits. Instinctively, I want to pull away. There is a gradual piercing chill. Though I cannot see it, I know that the top of my hand is starting to burn, crack and separate. Nothing burns quite like the cold, not even fire. The others must start to feel it too, because Robbie cuts the silence.
“For Conner,” Robbie says, and I picture the first time I met Conner. He called me a wash-a-shore. He was born in Connecticut and moved to the island at age three, so he wasn’t a true Vineyarder, but he was more of a Vineyarder than me and he reminded me every day.
“For Conner,” Molly says. I remember how silent classes were the day after his death and how none of us knew who to blame.
“For Conner,” I say.
In this moment, I feel like the whale is watching us and will come to life. I am waiting for her tail to flip up and thud into the water, creating a splash that will soak us all. Halfway through the five minutes, we all start to laugh. We laugh because the pain has gotten severe and we are afraid to see the damage underneath.
“This fucking hurts,” Robbie says.
“This is a dumb idea,” I say, but nobody removes the ice.
“I don’t think the Wampanoags ever did this,” Molly adds.
“They were too busy trying not to die,” I say.
“Didn’t do them any good,” Robbie says.
We talk and laugh some more because we are afraid and nobody is willing to admit it.
“Can you believe the Wampanoags lived here without any heat?” Molly asks.
“They must have drunk a lot,” I say.
“A lot of whale blood.”
Molly changes the subject: “You know the Wampanoag were the first to smoke organic cigarettes. They also invented the first sailboat and anchors.”
Robbie laughs, “Yeah, they also bred the first whale by mating a dolphin with a giant squid.”
“Assholes,” I say.
“Do you think if we stab the whale, blood will just pour out?”
“It’s probably frozen.”
Robbie smiles and says, “Bloody ice cubes.”
Molly’s watch hits five minutes, we brush the salt and ice off our hands and briskly run down to the shoreline. We drop our hands under the frigid water to sooth the burn. We all clutch them close to our body, trying to freeze the pain but not wanting to seem weak. Molly pulls out the bourbon and we all take a swig. We compare scars.
“Yours looks awful,” I say pointing at Robbie’s hand, but it could just be his light Irish skin.
“My parents are going to kill me,” Molly adds.
“You’re hardly burned,” Robbie says when he looks down at Molly’s hand.
“Really?” she says. “Look at it.”
I shine my flashlight over Molly’s hand, “It’s pretty bad.”
“Not as bad as Conner’s face when they found him,” Robbie responds. He glares at Molly, takes another pull from the handle of bourbon, swallows and wipes his mouth with his sleeve.
The morning after Conner died, the Edgartown Coast Guard found him floating in Wasque Bay. He was frozen clinging to an orange inner tube; he still had his shoes on. They pronounced him dead on sight.
The back of my hand starts to bubble and the skin is raw. It needs to be cleaned and bandaged. The cold wind tunnels through the sand dunes. I shiver.
“Let’s just throw Conner’s stuff in the ocean and go home,” I say.
“You in a rush?” Robbie asks. “We have to drink the whale blood too.”
“We didn’t bring cups.”
“Stop being a Princess, we don’t need cups.”
It is getting late. Across the bay, house lights start to go out one by one. I imagine the people in the homes warm, resting by a fireplace. I told my parents that I was going to the movies tonight knowing they wouldn’t call and interrupt. The wind howls as it sweeps over the whale, almost giving it life. Right now, a heated movie theater with a bag of hot popcorn on my lap sounds pretty good. Above me, the stars in the sky look like snowflakes.
“Let’s do shots,” Robbie says.
“I don’t need a shot, I already feel drunk,” I say.
“Lightweight,” Robbie takes another slurp, smiling.
“I’ll do one,” Molly says.
Robbie laughs, “Alcoholic.”
Molly flips him off. They each hold a bottle in their unburned hands. They clink the bottles together and say, “For Conner” before taking them to their lips. Molly takes one sip, wipes her mouth and puts the bottle down, but Robbie is still gulping. When he finally brings the bottle away from his mouth, he shakes his head and shouts, “Go Sox.”
We all laugh. The throwing of the items is not a traditional Wampanoag custom but we all agree it is a nice touch. Robbie has Conner’s lucky white Bic lighter; Molly has Conner’s favorite New England Patriots keychain. I don’t own anything of Conner’s, so I brought a random note Conner and I passed in Geometry class. We didn’t pass notes often; this particular note was from the day before Christmas break. Conner started the note by asking me if I planned on going home for Christmas. He used the word “home” instead of “Georgia,” but I knew what he meant. Even though my family had sold our house in Georgia and bought a new home on Martha’s Vineyard, everyone still referred to Georgia as our real home. The note is on an old, folded up piece of lined paper. The sections are written in green and blue ink, his handwriting in blue, mine in green. Nothing important is written, just making fun of Mr. Murdock’s tights pants. “Khaki spandex” Conner wrote. Conner often picked on people who were different.
Most of Robbie’s words are lost and muffled by the sound of the waves and the wind, but the last part I hear.
“Conner, man,” Robbie says, beginning to slur. “Conner, man. Is frozen.”
The wind needles my face with crystal spears of sand swept from the beach. All I can think about is my warm bed at home. Robbie takes the white lighter and throws it into the same water that killed Conner. Molly and I follow suit. Watching the items hit the water, sway and then slowly start to sink makes everything feel eerie. The lined paper sinks immediately, the keychain and the lighter float for a while. Even though the moon and the stars provide plenty of light, we use our flashlights to follow the items in the surf. We all stand and watch, passing the bourbon bottle down the line, then back up again at a glacial pace. The bottle is getting lighter and lighter.
“I feel centered and at peace,” Molly says.
“That’s just the bourbon,” Robbie replies.
I don’t look at Molly but I can hear her tilt bottle into her mouth and swallow.
“Conner is dead,” Robbie says. “I should have stopped him.”
“He was drunk,” Molly adds.
“Why was he in the water?” I ask.
“I don’t remember,” Molly says.
“I remember joking about going in,” Robbie says, “but I was only joking.”
I don’t remember why Conner ended up in the water that night. I remember Conner, I remember the orange inner tube, but I don’t know why we had it on the beach or who brought it. I remember Conner wearing a green Red Sox cap. I remember we tried to start a fire but failed. I remember the burn of the shots of whiskey. I remember Molly running naked down the beach, her skin bright red from being exposed to the cold and Conner’s face bright red when he saw her. I remember moments, flashes, and bursts of laughter but never words. Words got lost in the cold.
“Why?” Robbie says looking out into the distance. “Why did this happen?”
Molly shrugs and shakes her head. “He didn’t realize he’d freeze.”
The wind is making that nipping noise as it blows off the surf. In the distance, there is the bleak groan of a foghorn. Robbie is holding his knife. He is facing the whale. I can only see his back. With one hand he starts to poke at the whale with the blade. The whale is frozen so Robbie’s knife makes a tapping noise with each stab, as if he were chiseling into an ice sculpture.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Whale blood,” he says.
He starts chiseling into the flesh faster, but nothing is happening.
“That’s not going to work.”
“You want to try?”
Robbie hands me the knife. I hold it, tilting it back and forth, letting the blade pick up the light of the moon. I trace my finger along the blade to feel how sharp it is. To me it feels pretty dull. At first, I adopt Robbie’s chiseling technique and try to start a tiny hole in the whale’s stomach. I am getting nowhere. I wonder if the whale can feel it.
“Put your back into it,” Robbie says.
I stab into the whale. Only an inch of the blade goes in. From the light of the moon, I can make out the crisp outlines of Robbie’s jaw. He is laughing.
“That all you got, Southern girl?”
With both hands, I raise the blade above my head and lunge at the whale. This time the knife goes deep into the flesh, all the way to the handle.
“Fucking awesome,” Robbie says.
“Jesus, Kate,” Molly says.
“No. Keep going.”
With both hands I wiggle the blade out and stab the whale again. It feels good. I start hacking away until the chips of ice that come out are not clear but red. Molly shines her flashlight on the whale ice chips; they look like the shavings of a cherry snow cone. I keep going, deeper into the whale’s stomach. Soon, the ice chips become liquid. Blood starts to leak out of the hole. The whale is slowly draining.
Molly stands next to me and runs her finger in the blood, then licks it. She does it slowly, like licking frosting off a cake. She touches her red finger to my mouth. I press my lips together as if she were rubbing Chapstick on them. It tastes metallic and fishy. The smell of thawing tilapia is back. Robbie walks to the whale and puts his whole face in the hole. When he comes out his chin is covered. In the dark, the blood is more blue than red, Robbie’s hands are now covered with the blue color. Both Robbie and Molly are silent, swallowing more.
Blood continues to pour out of the whale and into the ocean.
“Drink more,” Robbie says nodding toward the whale.
I lean in and let my tongue touch the river that is trickling out. Molly is making a weird humming noise. Robbie has the knife in his hand. I feel like he might stab me or the whale might swallow us. In this moment, I feel ridiculous and hope that no one is watching us. I think about going home, but something about the metallic taste on my tongue makes me stay.
I finger at the blood and swirl it around until I’ve got enough. My finger touches Molly’s forehead and draws a line across it like war paint. The three of us start to draw lines under our eyes and down the bridges of our noses.
Robbie takes off his hat. He claps his hands together and blows into them to stay warm. Then he collects a pool of blood in his hands and runs the liquid through his hair. Molly is silent but she starts to take off her jacket. Slowly she removes her gloves, her scarf, her shirt and her pants. Soon, she is standing in the shadow of the whale wearing only her underwear and bra. She starts to cover all her pale skin with blood. It looks like she is lathering soap in the shower.
Robbie looks at her and nods.
Robbie starts to untie his shoes. The wind manages to find all my exposed fingers, flesh, and ears. Everything starts to slow down. I unzip my coat. I unbutton my pants and wiggle out of them. The color of my legs matches the color of the sand. I unbutton, unzip, and unclasp until there is nothing left. Naked, I walk to the whale and begin to coat myself in blood.
Now, it is completely dark outside, the light of the moon is hidden behind a patch of clouds. The wind blows another gust off the shore.
Blood continues to bubble out of the whale. We stand in the pool that has formed below the hole in the whale’s flesh. Together we coat our skin. I feel Robbie’s hands smear liquid across my shoulder blades. There is an exposed spot on Molly’s thigh, I paint it red.
“Come on, Kate,” Robbie says and extends a hand for me.
I take it.
We leave everything at the beach with the whale, the sea salt, the remaining bag of ice, the flashlights, the knife, and the two empty bottles of bourbon. The three of us hold hands and walk to the shore. The first wave bites my exposed toes. We are connected by hands, when Molly and Robbie move, I move.
Tiny waves slap against the sides of my ankles. I don’t even remember taking that first step. The distance between us and the whale grows with every second. On the open water there is no shelter from the wind. The coat of blood on my skin has seemed to dry. It has become hard and cracked, the way wet mud dries on your skin. When the dried blood touches the Atlantic water it returns to its original form. The red liquid slides off.
Robbie has become an ice sculpture in the surf. He is gazing at the Atlantic in front of us.
“It doesn’t even feel cold,” he says.
Without a word, Robbie lets go of my hand and submerges himself in the water, making small waves as he goes in. He gasps and spits. Another splash and Molly is in, too.
“Come on, Kate,” Robbie says.
I don’t answer. I’m not underwater yet, but I feel like am. The sounds in the world have dulled. My breathing has stopped or at least slowed down. I don’t see Robbie and Molly anymore nor do I hear them. I think about the whale. How beautiful she must have been alive, swimming in the ocean. I wonder what killed her. My body slowly sinks under the surface.
Underwater, I feel large. I am no longer my small human size. My eyes are massive and gelatinous. My arms are long and flat and I let them rise and fall in the water. Relaxed, I glide through the ocean. My legs fuse together into one massive tail. With a slight tilt of my hips my body cuts through the water, forward, out into the Atlantic. My powerful figure pushes though the sea with ease, as I drift out into the dark.