Dad was with me when I saw a whale go by on the back of a truck. It was black, and three people stood around it, scooping seawater from somewhere in the truck bed and throwing it onto the whale by the bucketful.
“A whale just drove by,” I said to Dad. We were sitting at a small table outside The Sweetest Thing, a bakery in Simon’s Town that I loved. We were meant to be sharing carrot cake for my fifteenth birthday, but Dad had the shakes because he hadn’t had a drink in two days, so he sat with his black coffee, trying not to spill as he sipped.
“What’s that?” he asked, turning to look too late.
“Yes,” said a man with a mustache like a broom who was sitting at the table next to ours, “fifty whales beached out near Kommetjie, a real tragedy.”
“Are they going to save them?” I asked.
“There are rescue workers and volunteers down there,” the man said, taking out his phone and searching for the latest news update.
Dad kept looking from the man to me as though he was sure he’d known us once. I felt bad for him. Two days ago, I’d come home from school and, for the fourth day in a row, found Dad passed out on the couch, the curtains drawn, empty sherry bottles tipped over on the floor, one of them leaking a purple bloom onto the carpet. It frustrated me that he drank, but it frustrated me more that he was on the couch in the morning when I left for school and still there when I returned eight hours later; I needed help cleaning the house, maintaining some sort of order in our lives. I’d confronted him and, without any resistance, Dad had hung his head and promised to quit the boozing. But now it was painful to see how his body rebelled against that promise.
“This has happened before,” Dad said, “ten or twenty years ago. Those ones all died.”
“We have to go help,” I said, standing so quickly my chair crashed over. The thought of fifty whales dying less than twenty kilometers away while Dad and I sat here eating cake was horrifying.
“I’m sorry,” Dad said, lowering his voice and leaning towards me. “Jenny, I can’t drive like this.”
It frustrated me that he drank, but it frustrated me more that he was on the couch in the morning when I left for school and still there when I returned eight hours later; I needed help cleaning the house, maintaining some sort of order in our lives.
And he held out his hands in front of him so that I could see how badly they were shaking.
I saw the man with the mustache look away, not wanting us to know he’d witnessed our tiny family tragedy.
That night, I sat in front of the TV and watched as E-News showed coverage of whales being shot in the head on Kommetjie beach. A man called Mike walked from whale to whale, pistol in hand. I couldn’t believe they were shooting the whales; I’ve always thought of them as the elephants of the sea—surprisingly graceful for their size and more intelligent than I could ever hope to be. Something about the smallness of the pistol next to their large, gently flailing bodies angered me.
“Dad,” I screamed, running from the lounge looking for him. “They’re dead, all of them.” I found him lying in the dark in his bedroom. I flicked on the light and watched as he clutched at his eyes to keep the light from hurting. “They killed all the whales,” I said, and then I picked up the wicker wastepaper basket and threw it at him. Wadded tissues, dental floss, and a Cadbury’s wrapper rained down on him.
“Jenny, what the fuck!” Dad said, sitting up in bed.
“We could’ve helped,” I said, and picked up a photo frame that contained a picture of me and Dad five years ago, both of us somehow looking happy. I threw it at Dad, but it hit the soft duvet and bounced off, landing intact on the carpet. “It’s your stupid fault,” I said.
“What is it you want?” Dad shouted, leaping from bed and running out the bedroom.
I followed him to the kitchen and watched as he dragged a chair over to the counter, stood on it and began rooting through the high cupboards above the stove. He pulled out a full bottle of Old Brown Sherry and waved it at me. “Do you know how badly I want to drink this? More than anything. But not more than I want to make you happy, I just don’t know how.”
“Just be normal,” I said. “If you were like other people’s dads, we could’ve helped.”
The way Dad sighed reminded me of a deflating air mattress, as though with each exhale he too lost his purpose. He put the sherry back in the cupboard. “I’m trying, Jenny-Bear, but you should know, there’s nothing we could’ve done for those whales.”
I glared at him, wondering why people ever bothered trying to be good or helpful if it all went to shit anyway.
“Thanks for the worst birthday ever,” I said, and left Dad standing on the chair in the kitchen.
* * *
In our peninsula, there is a theory about why whales beach themselves again and again on that Southern Suburbs stretch of white sand. Thousands of years ago, the peninsula wasn’t a peninsula, but an island, and the towns called Sun Valley and Fish Hoek would’ve been ocean floor. Whales could’ve circled from Atlantic Ocean to Indian, swimming over what is now mall and old-age homes and fish and chip shops. But, at some point, sea levels fell and the island transformed into a peninsula, and so all that remains of that ocean channel is a memory passed down through families of whales, and when they beach themselves it isn’t because they’re sick and dying, but because they’re searching for that channel with a memory of how things used to be.
* * *
In English class the next day at school, instead of discussing Hamlet, everyone was talking about the dead whales and I began to cry.
“Jenny, what’s wrong?” Ms. Le Roux asked, walking down the row of desks toward me. The other thirty-three students stopped talking and watched. I’d never cried in front of anyone who wasn’t family before; I was so ashamed and confused by my tears that I cried even harder.
Ms. Le Roux put her hand on my back and made small circular motions all the while saying, “Shhhshhhshhh.”
“Emma, bring the tissues from my desk,” Ms. Le Roux said.
I could feel everyone in the classroom leaning in, watching my face, wondering what was going on. I blew my nose and it sounded like an elephant trumpeting.
When they beach themselves it isn’t because they’re sick and dying, but because they’re searching for that channel with a memory of how things used to be.
“Is it the whales?” Ms. Le Roux asked, trying to be helpful.
I nodded, not knowing if this was true.
“Were you there?” she asked, her voice changing as though she’d made a startling connection.
Not knowing why, I nodded again. “Yes,” I said tremulously.
“Did you see them get shot?” someone from class asked excitedly.
Again, I nodded. A ripple of awe ran through the class. At school, I was quiet and had no friends, so no one knew anything about me. I’d always worried that if I let people get close to me, they would want to come to my house, or their parents would want to meet mine, and then everyone would know that my dad was a drunk.
“Poor thing,” Ms. Le Roux said. “That must’ve been very traumatic for you, and here we all were just talking about it.”
“Can I go to the bathroom, please,” I asked, wanting to escape the scrutiny of my classmates.
“Of course,” Ms. Le Roux said, and ushered me to the door. “You know what,” she said once we were in the quiet of the linoleum and brick corridor, “I’m going to tell Mr. Vermeulen about this and recommend that you get an award at assembly.”
I stared at her, horrified. “I don’t want one.”
“Go get cleaned up and I’ll take care of the rest.”
“This weekend a great tragedy took place at Kommetjie beach—I’m sure some of you heard about it. Fifty-five false killer whales beached themselves and though the rescue efforts were valiant, with volunteers working for hours to try and get them back in the water, unfortunately the whales had to be euthanized,” Mr. Vermeulen, the school principal, said from behind his lectern at the end-of-day assembly.
He’d been standing up there for a while making announcements, but I had no idea what they were because all I could think about was whether Ms. Le Roux had or had not told him to give me an award, and if so, would it be today or another day. Word had spread that I’d been with the whales and now I had newfound popularity. Students kept coming up to me and asking me questions.
What did they feel like? Smooth, I’d said, but not as smooth as a wet bathtub.
What color were their eyes? Black, but in the right light, I saw blue.
Were they scared? Duh, you would be too.
One boy even asked me if, when the whales died, they crapped themselves. I told him he was an idiot, and didn’t answer. But, if I’d known the answer, I might’ve told him—that was how much I loved the attention.
It had started out that I was terrified Mr. Vermeulen would call me up during assembly, but now, I thought that if he didn’t it would be worse.
“One of our very own was at the beach yesterday to help in the whale-saving efforts,” Mr. Vermuelen said, “And the school would like to give her an award for her spirit and dedication to saving the environment. Would Jenny Bluell please come up here?”
Everyone was clapping and I felt sure that I wouldn’t be able to step around the chairs or find the stage because my vision was blurred and my ears were popping. Someone whistled and I wondered if this was what it felt like to be a celebrity. The only other time people had clapped for me had been at a dance recital when I was six and they’d been clapping for all the other girls on stage too, and, afterwards, the clapping hadn’t mattered because I’d found out that Dad had missed the show.
“We’re proud to have you at Simon’s Town High, Ms. Bluell,” Mr. Vermuelen said, handing over a piece of paper and shaking my hand. “We hope you continue to dedicate yourself to work within the community.”
I couldn’t say a word because all my energy was focused on how I could possibly get this feeling again, the feeling of being liked, cheered on, perhaps even admired. For once, I felt like less of a loser and more like everyone else.
* * *
When a whale faces danger or becomes stranded, it sends distress signals. Help me, is what its saying. Come find me, save me. Any whales that hear this plea will swim to the source of the call.
Dad never checked my bag for homework or school notices I’d forgotten to give him, but the guilt of having lied to the entire school made me cautious.
Some people believe that this is why mass beachings occur—the whales cannot ignore a cry for help, and so they end up stranded too.
* * *
Before walking through the front door at home, I stopped and unzipped my backpack and buried the award between the pages of my math textbook. It had a large gold emblem on it like a many-pointed star, and shone brightly as though it wanted to be seen. Dad never checked my bag for homework or school notices I’d forgotten to give him, but the guilt of having lied to the entire school made me cautious.
“Dad, I’m home,” I yelled, as I walked into the kitchen to make myself a sandwich. He’d been asleep when I left for school this morning, and he didn’t reply now. “Dad,” I shouted louder.
With a cheese sandwich in hand and one on a plate for Dad, I knocked on his bedroom door and then pushed it open. The bedclothes were rumpled and I saw the telltale signs of sherry drinking—Dad’s white mug smeared with stains as though an artist had been at it with purple brushstrokes. I didn’t know what to think. This wasn’t the first time Dad had quit drinking and, after a while, the inevitability of his failure became so mingled with the hope that he would succeed the two were impossible to tell apart.
I went to his bathroom and knocked, the old wooden door rattling on its hinges. “Dad?” I asked, easing the door open because I was afraid Dad would be in there taking a crap. Instead he was on the floor in a puddle of water, not moving. I stood with one foot in the bedroom, one in the bathroom for what felt like hours. Thoughts swirled like some massive school of fish had found its way into my head and was desperately searching for a way out.
Is he dead, is it because I lied, is this how karma works, no, surely not this fast, why is there water everywhere, did he pee his pants, is that broken glass, it’s brown fucking glass from his goddamn sherry bottles, if I’m a good daughter I’ll make sure he’s buried in a coffin lined with sherry, I’ve imagined him dead before, he looks surprised the way his mouth is open, God, he’s dead, isn’t he, just because I’ve thought about finding him dead doesn’t mean I wanted it to happen, does it, he’s breathing.
“Dad,” I said, dropping the plate with the cheese sandwich onto the tiles, not hearing it shatter. I knelt beside him and my grey school stockings and skirt soaked up the liquid on the floor. I didn’t even care if it was pee. Dad didn’t open his eyes and I tried to remember what I’d learnt in the emergency response course we’d absurdly been taught in fifth grade. The only thing I remembered was one of the boys feeling up my chest during the CPR portion of the class. I balled my hand into a fist and punched Dad in the chest. “Wake up,” I shouted.
Dad groaned and moved his hand to his chest in a protective gesture, but didn’t open his eyes.
“Move your feet,” I ordered, terrified he’d be paralyzed.
His feet waved slowly on the tile floor. The relief I felt was as if someone had pushed me from a four-story building and at the last minute I’d been safely caught in a fireman’s blanket. For the second time that day, I began to cry.
“What the fuck are you doing on the floor?”
“I slipped,” Dad said. He put his hand on my arm and through my school jersey I could feel the heat from his fingers.
“I’m going to call an ambulance.”
Dad shook his head and winced. “We can’t afford it.”
But what if you die, I wanted to say, but instead asked, “What can I do?”
In increments, Dad and I moved from lying down to sitting, and then sitting to standing, and then from bathroom to bedroom. The sun was setting in glaring orange behind the mountain by the time Dad was in bed. I brought him cups of tea made sweet with condensed milk and cut up a cheese sandwich into centimeter squares, all of them skewered with toothpicks as though we were at a fancy tea party, not sitting in Dad’s bedroom trying to keep him awake and alive.
“It was water on the floor,” Dad had said during one of the breaks as we moved towards the bedroom. “I wanted a bath, and then I thought I would have one last drink and then pour the rest down the sink. The bottle was mostly done by the time I remembered the bath.” He touched the back of his head gingerly. “Serves me right,” he’d said, and then hadn’t looked at me for a while.
That night, we sat together in Dad’s bed, head to toe, and made a game of staying awake because Dad had heard that was what you did with a concussion. We both have ticklish feet, so Dad held onto my left foot and I held his too, and each time one of us began to drift off, we were tickled awake.
I was so scared for Dad that I forgot about the dead whales and the award hidden in my backpack and the way I’d felt, as if I were a phoenix rising above it all.
* * *
Just as there are viruses that make us ill, there are viruses for whales too.
Perhaps it was that I’d cried in front of everyone, or maybe it had something to do with Dad, or my hormones, or any number of things that had built up over the years.
Some of these viruses, scientists think, get into the whales’ brains and attack their sonar so that when the whales ping for open water, their sonar lies to them and they end up somewhere they didn’t intend, like stranded on a beach.
* * *
“My brother was at Kommetjie beach, and he says he didn’t see you there,” Aimee, a bird-faced girl from my grade said during break.
I was sitting on a small grassy hill with four other people who were treating me like I had a special aura because of my proximity to the whales during death. This was the first time I’d had someone to sit with at break in almost two years.
“And my sister says she didn’t see you either,” said Lizette, a heifer of a girl who would’ve thrown herself off a mountain if Aimee asked her to.
My stomach turned into an icebox.
“How do they know what Jenny looks like?” asked Emma, my staunchest supporter ever since she’d fetched Ms. Le Roux’s tissues for me when I’d cried during English class yesterday.
“The grade eight class photo—my brother says no one that looked vaguely like you was there, and he can prove it because he took loads of photos. I looked through them and you weren’t in any of them,” Aimee said.
“Why would Jenny lie?” Emma asked. “It’s not like seeing whales get shot is a happy event.”
“Yeah,” I said weakly, “why would I lie?”
I still had no idea why I had lied. Perhaps it was that I’d cried in front of everyone, or maybe it had something to do with Dad, or my hormones, or any number of things that had built up over the years.
“Because you’re an attention seeker,” Aimee said. “Because you wanted people to think you’re cool.”
I stared up at Aimee’s crossed arms; they seemed stunted and weak, like they’d break if I applied the slightest pressure. I wondered how she knew exactly how I felt. I wondered what her home situation was like.
“I was there,” I said, “at one end of the beach. I watched one of the whales get loaded onto a truck so they could drive it to Simon’s Town harbor.”
“I’m telling Mr. Vermuelen,” Aimee said.
“Me too,” Lizette said.
I wanted to stick my tongue out at them, or give them the finger. Instead I said, “Why does it matter so much to you, are you jealous?”
“We are not!” Lizette said, as if the idea were hilarious.
Aimee glared at me but her face turned pink, and, in the moment before total panic at having my lie uncovered in front of the whole school set in, I felt sorry for her because I realized that maybe the two of us weren’t so different.
* * *
“Will Jenny Bluell please come to the Principal’s office,” a voice said through the intercom.
It was two periods after Aimee had confronted me. I hadn’t expected her to work so fast. As I walked from the classroom, I caught Emma’s eye and she mimed hanging herself. If I hadn’t felt like I was about to puke, I would’ve laughed. I liked Emma; she was the first person in years I thought I could give the word “friend” to, even though I knew the friendship was based on lies. The thought that after this she would never speak to me again was surprisingly painful.
Outside Mr. Vermuelen’s office, I paused and for some reason smoothed my hair back, as though a neater appearance would help. I knocked.
“Kom binne,” Mr. Vermuelen said in Afrikaans.
There was no one with him in the office and this made me feel slightly better. I was sure that when he revoked my award I’d cry, and the fewer witnesses to that the better.
“Jenny, how are you, have a seat,” he said, smiling as though this were just a social visit. He was in his sixties, but his hair was still thick and blonde. He was a surfer and had a permanently sunbaked look. “Were your parents proud of you, for the award?”
“It’s just my dad.”
Mr. Vermuelen nodded as though this were fascinating conversation.
It had been a year since Dad had cleaned the kitchen—the last time had been when he’d realized he’d forgotten my fourteenth birthday, and to make it up to me he’d tried to bake a cake, which had come out lopsided, and then to make up for that he’d cleaned the kitchen.
“Before I gave you the award, I should’ve spoken to you about it, and then perhaps this all could’ve been prevented.” He leant forward in his desk. “Jenny, I have to ask you this—were you part of the effort to save the whales? And, you should know, whatever you say, the consequences won’t be great, we’ll ask you to return that piece of paper and then say nothing more.”
I thought about the star on the award, it was such a smooth gold. I’d never been given an award before, and the thought of giving this one back, even though it wasn’t deserved, didn’t seem fair. My name was written in fancy cursive!
“I was there,” I said, and with some previously unplumbed depths of impudence, looked Mr. Vermeulen in the eye. “I helped for hours.”
“Okay,” Mr. Vermuelen nodded, “all right.” He leant back in his chair and smiled. “How are you enjoying school?”
“It’s nice,” I said, “thank you.”
“I think to really put a nail in this, I’ll give your parents a call, and then if anyone has any doubts, well, tough takkies.”
For the last while, it felt like any time I got the slightest relief or ease, it was immediately smashed as though I didn’t deserve anything good. I thought about Dad sitting at home with his concussion. I wondered if he’d had a drink today and if it would be better if he had or if he hadn’t when he took Mr. Vermeulen’s phone call. I wasn’t sure Dad would even remember the beached whales.
“You can go now, Jenny,” Mr. Vermuelen said.
“Thank you,” I said, sounding uncertain.
* * *
Some people believe that whales are family-oriented and that a pod of whales, though not all related by blood, is family. These people believe that whales have such strong links to one another that even if just a few are sick and beach themselves to die, the entire pod will come up onto the beach in solidarity.
* * *
Dad was sitting in the lounge with an ice pack on his head when I got home.
“How was school?” he asked.
I couldn’t tell if this was meant politely or if Mr. Vermuelen had called and it was innuendo. “Fine,” I said. “How’s your head?”
“I’ll live.” Dad held out the ice pack. “Refresh this for me, please.”
When I walked into the kitchen, I saw that it had been cleaned. For once, there were no crumbs on the counter or dishes in the sink, and I was sure, were I to take my shoes off and walk barefoot across the floor, I wouldn’t feel bits of old food or clumps of dirt stick to my feet. It had been a year since Dad had cleaned the kitchen—the last time had been when he’d realized he’d forgotten my fourteenth birthday, and to make it up to me he’d tried to bake a cake, which had come out lopsided, and then to make up for that he’d cleaned the kitchen. I wondered if this was his way of apologizing for the concussion, or maybe the fall had knocked something loose in his brain and he’d had one of those personality shifts I sometimes saw on medical dramas.
Dad was grinning when I came back with the ice pack.
“What do you want for dinner?” I asked, annoyed by his “cat got the cream” look, but still grateful for the clean kitchen.
“Fish and chips.”
“Are you sure we can afford it?”
“No, but what the heck, let’s live a little. Besides,” Dad said, “we’ve got something to celebrate.”
Immediately, it was like an alarm had been tripped and warning, warning was flashing in my head. “We do?” I asked, sure that he was going to make some joke about the phone call from school.
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Dad said. “And I have a beautiful daughter who is alive too—what’s not to celebrate?”
“All right,” I said, bemused. “I’ll walk down and get the food.”
Dad had set the dining room table with two yellow placemats, white napkins, knives and forks, and a vase holding a spray of purple bougainvillea, which ran rampant in our garden.
They say the calves are the first to go, forced into the shallows and then ashore by currents and heaving waves.
There was also an unopened bottle of sherry and two glasses.
“A bit fancy for fish and chips, isn’t it?” I asked.
Dad took the newspaper-wrapped parcels from me and hurried into the kitchen, returning with the oily food glistening on plates.
“Sit,” he said. He unscrewed the sherry and poured for both of us. When I was younger, Dad would often pour little nips of sherry for me so that we could drink together, but it had been years since then.
“A toast,” Dad said, raising his glass.
I raised mine too, wondering what next.
“To Jenny, a wonderful young woman who is kind not only to her old man but to all creatures, great and small.”
I stared at Dad thinking, surely not.
“Whose efforts won her an award—which I would like to see, by the way,” Dad said.
“Dad,” I said. I wanted to explain, to apologize.
He held up his hand to silence me. “When the school called wanting to hear all the details, I told them that as soon as you’d heard about the whales, you’d made me drive you, and then you’d helped for hours.”
My ears were ringing and for a moment I was sure I was hallucinating; I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours.
“I even told them about how you’d helped get one of the whales onto a truck even though you were exhausted and freezing. I told them how proud I was of you because you were always ready to help those who need it,” Dad said, and the way the light caught, it looked like he might cry. “That you’re a kind, patient girl, even when sometimes you shouldn’t be.”
“Dad,” I said again, though now I didn’t know what I wanted to say.
“Don’t let your food get cold,” he said, and took a long drink from his sherry glass.
* * *
Before the peninsula was named The Cape of Good Hope, it was The Cape of Storms and these storms come in winter bringing high seas, sheets of rain, and a wind known as The Black Southeaster. It is this weather, people believe, that beaches whales along our shores. They say the calves are the first to go, forced into the shallows and then ashore by currents and heaving waves. Unable to abandon their young, the parents choose to swim alongside them, away from open water, knowingly toward danger. And then the rest of the pod follows and all of them lie side-by-side on the white sand like sunbathers until they dehydrate, or drown, or their bodies give out under their own weight.
Holly Beth Pratt lives in Gainesville, Florida, where she is currently earning her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Florida. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, she misses home a lot, so she is at work on a collection of linked stories all about the Southern Peninsula.