GEORGE MICHELSEN FOY
She came on the Plymouth and Brockton bus, stepping onto Main Street and looking around as if unsure whether anyone would be there to meet her.
They came as the tide turned, a pod of pilot whales, finned straight into Chipman’s Cove as if they had a map to death.
He diced Portuguese sausage and cabbage and made her stew. In his room two flights up the creaky Victorian house they held each other against the damp. You’re going back. You can’t stay here. I can’t take it there, each of them said at one point or another. In between was a silence to which both listened carefully, trying to understand what was not said: how deep lay the various strata of weakness, power, love.
Into one such silence the phone rang.
Putting the receiver down he said, There’s been a stranding.
He dressed in clothes he’d bought at the thrift store: a pair of Randy Travis jogging shorts. A Navy Seals T-shirt, dyed bright orange, that read, The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday.
In the cove lay twenty-seven blackfish, sleek arcs of anthracite on clamflat. He waded in, cutting his bare feet on quahog shells. She watched from shore. He’d been a fisherman once; a hundred years ago he would have helped slice up these creatures for fat, meat, the oil of their livers. Now he spent five hours basting them with seawater so they would not dehydrate.
No one was sure why whales went aground. Some believed a virus scrambled the echolocation function by which they navigated. Others blamed noise from naval sonar, from explosions set off on the seabed by scientists to map petroleum beneath. Sonar and geologists’ shots fouled a million square miles of ocean with noise.
So did the thrashing propellers of cargo ships, in shipping lanes such as those, a few miles away, that ran between Boston and New York.
It was not loud in Chipman’s Cove, although TV vans showed up to film the whales, the people helping. And tourists called out, each to each, then left in Hondas for the beach.
The eyes of the whales were dark, unfathomable. In the dream state brought on by physical labor he tried to imagine what they were thinking, feeling, and could not.
When the tide was near high the whales started thrashing and he and the marine- mammal rescue people helped shove them into deeper water, where slowly, groggily, they began to swim.
Bright colors, it transpired, drew cameras. That evening he was on the TV news, pouring water on blackfish. The local daily as well as USA Today showcased his orange form. Men he used to fish with left insults on his answering machine: Tree hugger. Whale lover. They were joking, mostly.
Two days later she climbed back aboard the New York bus. They waved at each other as the bus drew away, unsure of what had been resolved between them, or not.
As for the whales, only five of them were found dead over the next fortnight, which was a good result, experts said, for strandings of this kind.