A THOUSAND FINS • by Elizabeth Kuelbs

Ooola’s calf echoed her song as they dove in the sunshot blue, his voice pure where hers still cracked from disuse.

Before Ooomi, Ooola had stopped singing.

There had seemed little point, when the tusked ones in the North ice sea allowed so many breaks in the music, and the metal thrums ate songs and drove singers to die on beaches where scuttlers crawl.

There had seemed little point, when she was alone and her ears hurt from noise.

But now there was Ooomi, and today the thrums were low and krill billowed sweet in the cool current.

Ooola opened her jaws and rose, showing him how to fill his throat with sea and shrimp and they ate and swam and made their music. Ooomi would grow into a clear and far singer, Ooola thought. Perhaps his voice would even reach the tusked ones and thaw their lazy hearing!

It seemed the ice had frozen them deaf. Or they’d forgotten how to conduct, for they no longer swelled or tuned the melodies. Food songs, love songs, fear songs; all rang short and died unanswered.

It was very confusing.

Ooola did not like confusing. For eighty years, she’d been as sure as currents. The way was to be and sing and answer.

There was nothing, however, confusing about Ooomi. He looped around her, playful, and raced airward, his perfect flukes streaming bubbles.

Airward, toward a shadow.

As she called to him, soundpain ripped through her skull.

She spun, deafened, blinded. Lost! Oh, lost! Where was Ooomi?

Then the soundteeth released her ears. Her eyes.

There, he was there, at the surface, beside the belly of a false fish!

A net dropped.

Ooola launched toward her calf.

The mesh caught and pulled him screaming and thrashing up, up out of the blue, into the air. She charged and breached to smash the false fish and take him back.

But the thing roared its metal fins. Down she cracked into the sea.

Oh, too late!

Oh, too slow!

She leapt again and charged but the ship shrieked away, its wake agony. Pain bit her mind as she chased the false thing, her heart crashing like all waves at once.

Then the terrible shrieking weakened.

She was losing the ship!

She, biggest, fastest, strongest, could not catch the tiny scuttlers who took her Ooomi!

On she swam as the blue blackened. She followed sharp echoes through kelp forests and souring currents until she drew close to where the false fish schooled.

In the noise and hurry, Ooola did not sense the traps.

One snagged round her back, another her right fin, another her tail, until she was tangled like a foolish newborn. She! Roped, weighted, sinking!

She could not hear her Ooomi.

Her Ooomi was not in the blue.

Ooola, biggest, fastest, strongest, cried her lungs empty.

Then she rose, all jerky one-finned flicks.

Her awkward ripples enticed a pod of biters. Hungry ones, far from their cold herring grounds.

Ooola never had patience for biters.

A young one bumped her with its stubby black-white snout. “A huge! A huge!” he whistled. “Can we eat it?”

Her heart crashing like all waves at once, she rolled and screamed with every cell of her massive, bound body.

***

In the North ice sea, the conductors jutted their spiraled tusks into fog and clacked them one against another in futile percussion. It was all they could do. Deaf, mute, they had forgotten their purpose. The noise had crept up on them, nibbling their senses until their attention slipped away like seal pups off a floe.

Now, they could not taste the air.

They could not tune the music.

They could not hear Ooola scream.

The biters heard.

Many biters.

***

Ooola, exhausted, drove forward through the nippy, circling pod, toward the school of false fish.

When she heard the false things sloshing and thrumming, she paused. Her belly scraped the seabed. She fought up to breathe, spouting small and quiet to evade the scuttlers’ notice, tilting her head to eye the air. She could not see the ships with her water eyes, only hear them, and seals barking on buoys.

Which ship held her Ooomi?

Did he still breathe? Did the air crush him?

What could she do, she, huge, tangled, blue-bound?

Toss biters, if nothing else!

A few firm sweeps of her tail and they ceased their nudging and nipping and swam off. Good riddance! Ooola thought.

Then they returned in a rushing many-toothed wave.

She thrashed to escape. The puny things would not take her, not now!

But they passed her and together swamped a buoy, washing seals barking into the water.

The sea bloodied.

And Ooola knew what to do.

She, biggest, strongest, so long silent, began to sing. She sang for Ooomi and she sang for the singers and her voice cut through the terrible metal thrums, ringing West, South, North.

***

In the ice sea, a whisper tickled barnacled flukes, insistent, unstopping.

A grandfather sank to listen, then jabbed the conductors awake.

***

They came with the sun.

A giant noisy bird juddered the air above Ooola.

Scuttlers circled her in false fish.

Ooola let them study her, let them squeak their squeaks, let them dive and snip her free of their traps.

And then the water livened and foamed with the currents of a thousand fins.

They came like the tide, like music.

Biters.

Humpbacks. Beaked ones.

Biggest.

They came like all waves crashing at once.

With one great song, the blue swelled and crested and swamped the false fish. Scuttlers and nets and boxes tumbled into the sea.

Then the water calmed.

For a moment, the thrums sputtered, the music quieted, and all was fins and ears and awful piercing hope.

Ooola rose and fell with the sea. “Ooomi!” she braved. “Ooomi!”

And there, so faint, sang his pure voice through the blue.


Elizabeth Kuelbs holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes and teaches in Southern California, where she wishes she could learn to speak whale. You can find her work in The Timberline Review, Cricket, The Hawaii Women’s Journal, Vestal Review, Plum Tree Tavern, and elsewhere.


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