I think a lot about the defeatism that’s part and parcel of the climate crisis. I think about how this defeatism sometimes masks itself as all those calls to adapt, tolerate, withstand. I think about our children, how much we mask our dread for their sakes while shunting all our expectations and hopefulness onto them. I think about a submerged Jersey Shore but dream of whales surviving in spite of us.
Oh, hello, whale! my daughter calls out to the sky. I look up at a thunderhead just blocking the sun. Low riding with bucket dumps, a blot on a beach day. I hurry her into the boardwalk arcade with its musty sea critter carpeting and tumbling bells like pocket change. We buy Italian ices and play Jurassic Park pinball and wait for the thunder cracks.
Alice knocks the pinball machine with her tiny hipbones, buoyant, eager for the storm. I only feel the heaviness of low pressure. I wonder why she talked to the sky like she did, since she’s never been one to see shapes in clouds. Since she’s more earthbound, a digger. Always excavating for the worst, brushing the dirt from the quieted voices she hears, the scrolled headlines lifted intact. The TV, my phone, my ex.
Rare right whale spotted in Shrewsbury River, tangled in ghost nets. Humpback near Barnegat Light struck dead by freighter. Breeding cows starve due to diminished herring stocks from warming Atlantic.
It’s hard to talk around the worst while she’s in earshot, to use sighs, tsks, hmms. When she probes, I can only shrug or deflect because I don’t have answers and can’t pretend that I do. To cure her of her scowling jags, I help her find books about whales at the library. She loves measuring our land-creature smallnesses against their immensities, reciting breathless factoids as if awe on its own is enough to solve all problems. Whale song that can drift 10,000 miles, sperms boasting the largest brains ever on earth, blues big enough to swallow two brachiosauruses, three wooly mammoths, four tyrannosauruses. Big enough to be clouds.
My own awe comes out forced next to hers, my sincerity a shell. She wants more from me, I know, so that I’ll be right alongside her. But I can’t get there, as much as I try. I throw compliments heavenward as a way to mask my copping out. She’s made of better stuff than I am. Her generation will save us all. If I were her age, my marine-life icon would probably be SpongeBob. I make Alice into something other. A creature not from me. Because how else could such a fluke, such a wonder, share my DNA?
From inside the arcade, we hear odd sounds. The gasps and cries of boardwalkers, yet no pelt of raindrops, no thunder. Alice takes my hand and leads me out into the dimmed daylight, our steps floaty. It’s clear the storm is no storm at all but an exchange of water for air, molecule by molecule, droplet by droplet. We look up to see a cetacean sky. Humpbacks and rights and sperms and blues. Belugas and narwhals in rows like scales in mackerel clouds. And above the whales, the old sky, now the stratosphere. Spouts from blowholes that dart like comet tails. True clouds slight as brushstrokes. A shrunken, liquid sun. All so distant from here at the bottom of a sea that is slowly giving birth to itself.
Out of reflex, I lick my Italian ice; it dissolves to salt on my tongue. Alice levitates from the boards, laughing, waving her hands fin-like up at the whales. She’s not scared, not at all. Her awe is immense. So immense it seems to suck what oxygen is left around me. My lungs strain. I ask her what’ll happen to us, tiny bubbles trapping my voice. She gives a hurried answer in words interspersed with whistles and clicks. Something about how since whales were once land walkers, the same logic could mean we humans will have new, larger lungs to stay underwater without drowning. I want to tell her this is impossible. That evolution doesn’t work that way, so fast.
But I can’t say this because the world has turned more water than air, and bubbles can’t hold my words anymore or contain my ignorance. So this must be what dying out is, I think, remembering a video I saw once. The history of Earth in three minutes, charted eastward from Los Angeles to New York City. Humanity emerging at the tail end, in New Jersey, from under the Hudson, peaking in Midtown Manhattan. And then the afterward, the assumed next notch on the timeline. Our drowning in the East River at three minutes and some odd seconds as a new epoch rises.
I look around at all the shore people so confused and puffed and large-eyed, lost in schools of herring and squid, in drifting gyres of arcade prizes and Whac-A-Mole mallets. From far away, a mournful sound reaches my rupturing eardrums. It’s Alice, singing right next to me. She gazes with one marble eye, her fusing feet swishing like a tail, building force. I know she’s pleading with me to evolve with her, but all I can do is shrug and make shreds of the Italian ice paper cup, release them like ghost guppies. I feel whittled as driftwood, the dead end of a branch.
Before I can touch the baby barnacles on her skin, Alice launches herself up, up toward the surface. I make a hollow effort to follow in her slipstream, to catch up, but only get so far with my feeble kicks, with the crush of fathoms above me. Her song trails behind her, faint. I blink and blink to see her better, tears becoming ocean. My daughter, about to breach for air. And a whale cow brushing close, taking her for her own, as if it’s the natural order of things. As if she were always hers, never mine.
Eileen Frankel Tomarchio works as a librarian in a small NJ town. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Passages North, The Forge, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y, trampset, Flash Frog, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from NYU Film. Find her on Twitter @eileentomarchio.
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