Luna

Table of Contents

 

Luna

By David Samuel Hudson

I usually talk to her at some length, but she’s very quiet today. I know she hears me—I can see her eyes on one of the screens, glancing in the direction of my sound, and then she turns around and raises her tail flukes at me. She’s giving me the cold shoulder. And it hurts, because though the Krueger headset allows me to translate her echolocation clicks, I cannot know how she feels, why she’s snubbing me this way. 

I’m at Lime Kiln Point on San Juan Island in Washington. Luna is a female orca that I have conversations with. She’s never more than a mile from shore. I can switch between the cameras attached to billets under the sea, so I always have a view of her unless she strays too far. The observatory where I work has a state-of-the-art sonar, which detects her echolocation clicks and pulsed calls. The Krueger headset translates these sounds into comprehensible English. The frequencies of the whistles usually define the content, but the Krueger caters for gestures like pec slapping too. It’s sophisticated. It has allowed me to have a wonderful rapport with Luna. 

She’s playful, argumentative, highly opinionated. And loves the sound of petrol boats. 

I take off the headset. Analeigh hands me a mug of coffee. 

“Thanks,” I say. I gesture to the screen. Luna is turning aside and swimming away. “She’s playing hard to get this morning.”

Analeigh leans towards the screen and pushes her glasses up her nose. She’s the orca expert, I’m just the diplomat. 

“Her caudal peduncle is swollen,” she says. “And it’s June, so she may be pregnant. In pain.”

I doubt that. We haven’t had a male sighting in months. Years before, Lime Kiln was a vantage point for orca sightings—several of them porpoising and rising out of the water, their skin cream white and liquorice black. Over the years, their numbers have dwindled to a handful. They’re starving and the rake marks on their bodies reveal that they’re no longer the apex predators they once were. They’re weak and unable to protect their young. But Analeigh is an expert, so I don’t argue.

“Speaking of pregnant,” I say, pointing at Analeigh’s baby bump. “How’s junior?”

Analeigh puts her hands on her tummy, smiling down at the bump. “Kicking fiercely.” She sits down on the chair next to mine and sighs. Ever since she revealed that she was three months in, pregnancy is all she talks about. She puts punnets of strawberries on her tummy and repeats the word strawberry for baby to learn. She brings her animal figurines to work, places them on her bump and names them, one by one. 

“Do you want to feel?” she asks. 

Crystal and I have never discussed kids and I think neither of us wants to. But I nod my head and Analeigh pulls my hand over her bump. 

“This is Lee,” Analeigh says. “He’s my friend. This is my friend Lee.”

I feel a kick and pull my hand away. “Whoa.” 

“Baby says hello,” Analeigh says.

Sometimes when I get home, I start missing Luna immediately. The conversations we have border on magical. We linger on the beautiful sounds we make, an aesthetic discourse—we don’t talk about the weather or stumble on small talk; we talk mostly about abstractions, feelings, things as universal as mathematics. If Luna weren’t a sea creature, I would undoubtedly break the rules and take my work home. Crystal wouldn’t mind, I’m sure. She likes discussing the orca. 

We live in a two-storey cement planked house across from a horse breeding farm. The French doors in our living room lead out to a terrace with a view of the lake. I used to sit there on the banks and watch the trout and blackstripe topminnow. There’s nothing there now apart from water as dry and grey as chalk. 

I open the fridge as I unbutton my shirt. I see the Yieldmilk and make a face at it. I feel Crystal’s hand brush against my shoulder and see her pull out the carton. She unscrews the cap and takes a sip.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she says, wiping her mouth. “I get an intake of calcium, you don’t.”

“I’d rather pop pills and vitamins than drink that shit,” I say. I always thought it tasted like vomit. 

Crystal sits at the table and looks up at the ceiling. “Well,” she says, “since the bees started dying, paddy fields dried up like a sinkhole and everything else started going to shit, Yieldmilk came through.”

“Pumped with enzymes and fake lard.”

She shrugs. 

It’s hot. I take off my shirt and sling it on the back of the chair. 

“I hope Luna’s faring better.”

“Not much,” I say. “She’s quiet. She’s worrying me.” I think better of it but I still say it. “Analeigh thinks she’s pregnant.”

Crystal bursts into a laugh. She puts her hand over her mouth to hide the high-riding canines. She still doesn’t believe me when I say that I like them. I smile widely at her and try to wring her hand away from her mouth. She lets me do so but closes her mouth and pushes out her lower lip. I lean forward and am about to kiss her when I smell the Yieldmilk on her breath. 

“No,” I say and pull away, pointing at the carton. “You’re looking scrumptious, but no.”

For some reason I want to talk about Analeigh and tell Crystal that I felt a baby’s foot push against my hand earlier this morning. I’m about to bring it up when Crystal pulls something out from under the kitchen table. It’s a colourful leaflet. I scan the words. “Preservation of the Permafrost: engineers wanted.” 

My heart momentarily freezes. I feel a silvery pain in my chest. I don’t want to leave San Juan, not yet. “Do you know how much mercury is running along with the melt, the amount of carbon?” I say. “It’s a lost cause.”

I can imagine them, all the volunteers in Alaska wearing hazmat suits and looking down at the trunks of ice like fossilised bones under a red sky, gallons of mercury—a red hell—beneath their feet. 

Crystal looks surprised. “And Luna isn’t?”

“That’s different.” I feel impatient and look down at Crystal’s leaflet as if it’s a provoking face. “I have conversations with Luna.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Crystal says, putting her hand flat on the leaflet. I know what this means. It means that we’ll have to wait until Luna is no longer in my life, whereupon I’ll be able to leave San Juan Island without regrets and go to Alaska with Crystal in false hope. Crystal knows it too, I know she does, that the world is past the point of relying on our hope.

When we go upstairs and Crystal starts removing her sundress and asks me to help her with the tie knot at the back, I kiss her neck. The tie knot comes undone, she turns and kisses me back. The taste of Yieldmilk is still on her breath but we fall on the bed and remove the rest of our clothes. Crystal is beautiful, God is she beautiful. She parts her fringe down the middle but I pull it back. The way it grazes her lashes over her big brown eyes makes me feel like the luckiest man alive. But then she looks down at me and there’s a look on her face. 

She doesn’t have to say it but I can see it as we make love—the hyperawareness of the possible consequence of our conduct. “I won’t, don’t worry,” I say to her, my hand on her head. For this reason, our lovemaking is a tightrope act.

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In the morning I wake up at five-thirty and drive to the observatory. It’s a little over half an hour from home. I drive along the stake fencing of the state park. The sun is rising and army trucks are overtaking me, zipping by. The soldiers in black uniform on the truck beds look at me and nod their heads. Their eyes sometimes veer to the pink flamingo dangling on my rearview mirror. It was a gift from mum, back when I saved an ambitious Andean flamingo that had relocated all the way to Texas—broken leg, wings thick with blood and mud. I took her to the Wetlands Centre. She was the last to breed in a safe environment. 

“Flamingo man,” I say to myself as I ease onto the parking area. I give the pink flamingo a twirl and get out of the car. My heel slides out of my flip-flops as I squeeze out. The tarmac is warm already. I rub the macadam granules off my heel and spot Sergeant Spoon on the deck of the observatory, his elbows leaning on the handrail of the spiral staircase. He gives me a brusque wave.

“Morning,” I say. 

Spoon wears the military uniform but he’s little more than a messenger. He comes to the observatory once a week to bring us news and relative statistics that are important to us. He’s always chipper, and strikes me as someone who’s casually and blissfully ignorant. He has a long, rectangular face and golden eyes. One of his hands has the colour and texture of plaster but the fingers move in a natural manner. Analeigh and I believe that it’s some kind of advanced prosthetic. We never asked. 

“Back at you, Andes,” Spoon says. He calls me that after he heard of the flamingo rescue. 

I climb the stairs and walk in, Spoon following. I see Analeigh is in already, arranging the animal figurines on her desk. She turns around and smiles. Spoon raises his hand at her. 

“What have you got today?” I ask him. 

Spoon holds out a clipboard and is staring at Analeigh’s baby bump. “Water’s a pH unit lower,” he says. “Divers found Quasimodo pteropods, broods are losing their shape in a couple of months.”

I look down at the pages and flip through them. This is happening more quickly than we thought. Small organisms are dissolving in the water. Luna can taste the difference too—she’s mentioned this before.

“Thanks,” I say. I look up at Spoon, who is still staring at Analeigh’s belly.

“Is there a pea in the pod there?” he whispers. 

I nod and take the clipboard from him. His weird hand twitches and falls away. 

“What the fuck for?” he says.

I shrug. Spoon nods, gives the observatory a cursory glance and turns to leave. “That’s that then,” he says. “Have a good week.”

Spoon leaves and I move to the sonar, look at the screen. Luna is there, looking directly at one of the cameras. I put on the Krueger headset, desperate to hear her voice.

“Good morning, Luna.” I hold my breath and cross my fingers. I want her to reply. I wait and watch her somersault away to the next billet. “You were quiet yesterday,” I say. I watch my voice manifest in green waves on the sonar. I know she hears me. I see a close-up of her saddle patch as she comes into view on the next screen. I notice a new mark on her white skin. It’s a thick and long line of scab, blotches of light red around it. I see her open her mouth, her teeth perfect white rows.

Protect. I have to protect

Luna looks around as her sound bounces off the seabed and comes through. I sigh with relief. I notice it now, a clear puffiness of the caudal peduncle.

“You’re with child?” I ask.

Luna veers in a different direction. I try to find her on a different screen, watch her through a different camera. She’s caught by one closer to shore, turns, and is again out of the shot. She’s restless today.

Yes

The sonar registers the echolocation. I see her head come into view on one of the screens. I think she looks sad, defeated. I can barely see her black eye on her dark skin but her melon seems heavier than usual, her rostrum pointing towards the seabed, sinking lower. I remove the Krueger headset for a second and look over my shoulder at Analeigh. “You were right. She’s pregnant.”

Analeigh pushes her lion collectible to the edge of her desk and looks up. “Thought so.”

I put the headset back on and look at Luna. “Are you afraid?” I ask her.

Yes.

She’s being curt, her usual wit temporarily impaired. I want to make her feel better but I don’t know how. You can put your arm around a human being, you can divert a person to a distraction, you can tell them it’s going to be OK. But Luna is alone in the ocean, surrounded by a handful of predators, in water that is too acidic for the source of her nourishment to survive for long. There’s nothing I can convince her to do so she would feel safer or better. We’re running out of fish to feed her with, and squid has sunk deeper, too deep for her to reach. I don’t want to fool myself either—bringing Luna closer to shore was initially an experiment to observe how she could naturally survive—but I hadn’t assumed that I would want to interfere with the procedure, ruin the inevitable result, and save her. It isn’t about observation anymore. I wish it could be about doing something, but there’s nothing I can do. 

“Luna,” I say. Her name makes a rippling sound in the water. It sounds like the trill of a harp. 

Are you carrying human offspring?

I stifle a chuckle. “No.” 

Luna drifts slowly into the next screen. She pushes her head against a cluster of kelp. Kelp is a rare sighting these days—she finds solace in the things that were once so familiar. The translucent green leaves of the kelp flutter along with the current and Luna sinks right through the cluster, the leaves creeping around her skin. She nuzzles the algae on the ocean floor. It’s as if she’s asking the green a question, attempting to find some answer there. 

I think I feel a quick shake of the ground beneath my feet and look over my shoulder at Analeigh, who looks unfazed. She’s looking through the notes Spoon brought us and underlining something.

I turn back to the screen. Luna is coming out from between the strings of kelp.

Not safe. Mate sought colder water, provisions. Will mate be back? Will I call for mate?

I look at her and put my hand on the screen. We are two different species of being speaking in two different languages but we understand each other. I’m on land and she’s in the water. I think this is incredible. It’s only when we’re at the breaking point of things that we reveal our potential for godly accomplishments. Luna makes as if she sees my hand and comes closer to the screen. 

“I think you should go, Luna,” I say. “Leave, go deeper.”

I hear Analeigh push back her chair. I turn around.

“What are you doing?” she asks. She approaches the sonar and puts her hand on my arm. “They dance, you know, before they mate. They play.”

I shrug.

“Recreation,” Analeigh says. “Their psyche, their environment, everything supported what they were doing. She’s safe here.”

I look back at the screen and see the scab again. I’d like to think she’s safer if she’s close to me, if we can still talk. We had asked for heavy-duty mesh netting a while back to protect Luna from predators farther from shore but this would have prevented her from reaching out to fetch her daily bread. I see now that the lack of netting was part of the experiment. Luna has always had an expiry date. We just wanted to see for how long she would survive. 

I take off the Krueger headset. “You need to give me access to the freezer. She needs to eat,” I say.

Analeigh shakes her head and is about to speak.

The door bursts open. The sunlight hurts my eyes and I squint and see Sergeant Spoon in the doorway. His forehead is glistening. He’s leaning on the jamb and catching his breath. “Andes, rockfall,” he says. “Come on, out of here!”

Outside, through the glare of the sunlight, I see the moving dust in the distance. The whole cliff might come undone and collapse over our heads. I turn around when I’m at the foot of the stairs, forgetting for a minute that Luna’s in the water, that she is safe from this. But just from this. 

We get into Spoon’s jeep, Analeigh holding her belly, my hand around her shoulder. We sit on the backseat and Spoon is looking at us in the rearview mirror, wiping his brow with his plaster hand. I think of Luna, leaving her without a goodbye. I feel sick and powerless. 

“This park is understaffed to hell,” Spoon says. “No rangers, no docents, where is everybody?”

I look through the windscreen and see the corniche in the distance. The cloud of dust is still unbroken over the cliff. The cliff face looks like crumpled foil, the rocks dry and flaking. There are two cars on the road, teal and lemon dots overwhelmed by the brown fall and the trailing dust. I only realise when I see Spoon furrowing his eyebrows at me in the rearview mirror that my hand is on Analeigh’s tummy. She too is looking at me, mouth open. I pull away and apologise. 

“Why do we need rangers, Sergeant?” Analeigh asks. 

Spoon pulls over slowly and looks at Analeigh over his shoulder. He takes his hand out of the window and points at the falling rocks in the distance. He pulls his hand back, places it on his plaster hand and pulls it out of his sleeve. We were right. It’s a prosthetic. 

“If it weren’t for a ranger, I would’ve lost more than this here hand,” he says. “There’s not a lot you can do against a pair of grizzlies.” He squeezes the plaster hand back in its sleeve, gives it a twist, and places it on the steering wheel. 

Analeigh and I look at each other and I can detect a repressed smile on her face. I don’t react. I look out the window towards the sea. I feel a heavy weight on my chest and all I want to do is leap out of the car and tell Luna to leave, leave and never look back. I long for the day when I would walk up to the sonar and be unable to spot her on any of the screens. 

The last time I felt this way was when I had to leave for San Juan, leaving Crystal behind me in Fort Worth. She was to join me in three weeks but I started missing her the moment I waved at her from the departures escalator. And all throughout the flight I had a sickening, delirious presentiment that I would not see her again, that her pretty face and vast intelligence would no longer be sources of comfort and happiness, that she would abandon me as I had abandoned her. 

As I am with Crystal, I am in love with Luna.

Analeigh and I return to the observatory before dark. The sun is just a sliver of red colour on the horizon. Analeigh packs up her things and stands at the door. 

“We’ll talk about what you said tomorrow,” she says. 

I know what this means, this continuous reference to another day—delaying the exchange until my argument is no longer applicable. This reasoning is what brought us to the breaking point in the first place. I was guilty of this too in the past. Hell, I think I did it yesterday, telling Crystal that preserving the permafrost is a lost cause. 

I nod my head at Analeigh and she smiles. She squeezes her lips as she does so. I know this smile—it foreshadows her obstinate viewpoint. She turns around slowly and leaves. 

I am alone with Luna, the sonar still beeping green. Luna is making sound. I search for her on the screens and I see her, very still, sinking ever so slowly towards the seabed.

I put on the Krueger headset. “Luna,” I say. “Sorry for leaving you.”

I am afraid of the darkness.

The littoral zone is sparse of anything that could nourish Luna. It’s a grave risk but there are still some untouched ecosystems in the deeper regions of the sea. 

The sun is now at its last spluttering flame, a red burst over the surface of the water, and I see the colour on Luna’s back. She raises her head up to it. The beam from the lighthouse appears from the west and a yellow light pierces through the water surface and reaches Luna, a heavenly trail of yellow. On the screen, I can see some red sea urchins nested in clefts below the water, a ghostly green anemone pulsing and moving with the current. 

“I don’t want to leave you,” I say. 

Luna opens her mouth, wider than ever before, and I hear the sound she makes before I hear the translation. It’s a French horn sound, made thundery by the thick water. 

I am dying

I know this is not what she means, that life is not currently leaving her. I know she means this in a future sense—she will die soon—or maybe I’m deceiving myself and fail to see how she is currently starving, too warm, hurt.

I put my hand on the screen. I want to tell her that I love her but she wouldn’t know what that means. She wouldn’t understand it. I would in effect be saying it for me, to attempt to make up for my inability to save her. It wouldn’t help her either, it would just confuse her.

“You need to leave, Luna. It’s no longer safe here. Go north.”

Luna moves her head up and down and shakes her tail from side to side. 

Sun down. You leave also. Go home

She is quiet after this. She moves away from the camera and goes to the farthest billet, waits there, turns back. She is unsure, she is afraid. 

I turn off the lights. I say goodbye.

I remember the days when Luna and her friends used to jump out of the water surface, the glistening water like diamonds on their skin. I remember picking her out from her mates because she had the tendency to swim belly-up, approach the shore that way, and I always believed she smiled—a naive and blithe smile that wrinkled the sides of her mouth. I remember the first time I touched her when we swam amongst the orcas. I was holding my breath under the water and my hand made contact with the skin around her blowhole and I exhaled. She flinched at the bubbles that came out of me and she watched me as if waiting for me to do it again. We called her Luna because she was the only one that stayed close to shore at night.

They all disappeared, one by one, but she remained. As constant as the stars or the light of the moon. It’s only now that she refuses to swim belly-up, that her smile has receded. Luna—or at least the reason why we gave her that name—is no more. Their merry nature dies before they do.

Crystal is already asleep when I return home. I sit next to her on the sofa and run my hand along her hair. She couldn’t sleep during her first week in San Juan. She listened to solfeggio frequencies on her phone, took hot baths before bed—she even heated that revolting Yieldmilk and drank a warm glass a few times. Nothing worked. Then I made her listen to the recordings of Luna’s squeaks of delight, her whistles, her lunar pulsed calls, the spacey echolocations. 

Luna became Crystal’s lullaby. She had put the headphones in her ears and slept like a baby. I was happy that Luna was the reason I felt at home in San Juan and then also the reason why Crystal felt comfortable enough to sleep. I had told Luna about this, how her language was taking Crystal to her dreams. Luna had slapped her pectoral fins against the water surface and unleashed a nasal puff of water through her blowhole. She was happy.

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In the morning, the screens are blue. There is no movement. Looking laterally through the sea feels like looking at the night sky—a whole lot of nothingness, but you know there’s life in the distance. It wasn’t always this way. We used to spy plenty of life on our screens: bluefin, sargassum, jacks, trevally. Now it’s just a deep blue empty, a thick fluid of floating debris and bone. All we can hear on the hydrophones is the metal doom of oil tankers.

And when I say that there’s life in the distance, I’m actually hoping, not knowing. I’m hoping that Luna has made it to civilisation. My heart’s in my throat. She isn’t on my screen anymore. She could be dead. 

I see a reflection of Analeigh on one of the screens. I see her place a giraffe on her tummy and smile. I’m holding the Krueger headset and I’m shaking. I’m bending the headset, it’s about to break. I turn around. I don’t know what I am—jealous maybe, furious.

Hurt? 

“What’s the point?” I gesture to her army of animal figurines on her desk. “I don’t understand.” I’m shouting at her and she’s going pale and holding up her giraffe, covering her face. “You’re giving your child the names of things no longer in existence.” I slam my fist against the desktop and the hippo, the bear, and a couple of others fall on their side. 

Analeigh looks at them in horror. I watch her as she rearranges them. I wait at her desk for an answer. She’s still pale and I’m worried for the child in her. I’m about to apologise. 

“I want my child to love the world as it used to be. To have the privilege that we had when we were kids.” She looks up at me and holds my gaze. I can feel my lips trembling. “I’m sure you would do the same,” she says.

I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’m looking at Analeigh and despising her, and I’m not sure why. I take a deep breath and run out of the observatory. I go down the spiral staircase. The sun is hot on my neck. I look out towards the sea, still crashing against the rocks, feeling the fizz of the spray on my face. I run out towards it, skip over the karst, smelling the salt and the lime on the breeze. The water reaches my feet and I’m not surprised that it’s warm. I keep pushing towards the waves. I want the waves to pull me away, take me to a place of certainty, where Luna might be. 

I dive under the water. I see the same view as on the screens, a dreadful confirmation. Luna is not here, nor will she ever be again. I swim out farther, noticing the cameras that we had installed on the billets. I surface for breath and look at the horizon. 

I make a decision in the water. It’s the same sentiment that made me tell Luna to leave. Crystal came to San Juan for me. I will go to Alaska for her.

Next Story: Tuolumne River Days, by Rebecca Lawton

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