Whale's Pilgrimage

Vivi Dai June 25, 2021
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It was pitch dark when the breeder woke up. He raised his hand in a trance and turned on his cell phone on the bedside table. It showed ten minutes to midnight. Barefoot, as the whale had indicated, he went to the window and pulled up the shades. The rain had stopped. The concrete roads glistened as if covered by crumbs of ice. Under the bright full moon, soft green leaves could be seen poking out on the branches of acacia trees.
Surely it is fate. The breeder nodded, feeling a lot more relieved.
Midnight sharp. The breeder pursed his lips and recited a string of sharp odd spells to the moon.
As soon as he finished, he found that the wind had turned into tidal waves. Houses sank into sapphire blue water, iridescent shells and starfish slowly climbed up electrical poles, and glittering jellyfish instantly rose to the surface among tree branches. Waves beat against windows. Although the windows were tightly closed, water flooded in from nowhere, furniture floated like Legos, clothes and small items drifted all over the room. The breeder held his breath instinctively but soon realized that it was completely unnecessary. He breathed freely as if his lungs had become gills. He felt like a kid again and cheerfully swam in the water like a silverfish.
At that moment, from the distant horizon came the sound of an explosion, as if a volcano had erupted under the sea, raising a powerful wave. The breeder realized it had come from the aquarium. Then a large mass of blue-ink-colored creatures swam closer and closer. When they passed his window, he recognized that they were sharks, seals, rays, and octopuses.
He knew them all well enough to call each one by name. After all, it was his job to take care of these animals. But he was surprised to find a friend he hadn’t seen for a while. It was the stuffed bottlenose dolphin that had been displayed in the aquarium library. The dolphin had been so popular when it was alive that it had to perform for six hours straight every day. One evening, it sank to the bottom of the pool and never surfaced again.
An autopsy later revealed a big tumor in the bottlenose dolphin’s stomach, but the breeder knew that it did not die of illness. That evening, it took one last look at the world, then refused to breathe, and quietly ended its life.
The breeder bursted into tears and waves at the bottlenose dolphin, “Hi – it’s been a long time. How are you?”
“Couldn’t be better,” the bottlenose dolphin turned his head, showing his familiar cute smile. “I’m glad to finally go back to the ocean.”
The breeder’s hands froze in the air. That was also what the whale wanted, he thought. The pilgrimage was just an excuse. The whale wouldn’t come back.
Like most animals in the aquarium, the whale was an orphan. After his parents had been hunted down, he was rescued and sent to the aquarium. It was not long after the death of the bottlenose dolphin. Because of the fierce criticism of animal abuse at the aquarium, the baby whale escaped being trained to perform. However, he must have been yearning for the sea every moment of every day in that small tank surrounded by constant noise, sharp sounds of people banging on the glass, and the blinding light of camera flashes.
“Humans have locked themselves up in cities, in cubicles, in lives defined by others,” the breeder once read in a book. “Why is it not enough for humans to lock themselves up, but to lock up the animals too? Just for that little bit of selfish curiosity?”
The breeder thought it was true that the tourists came out of curiosity, but it was worse how the staff at this aquarium treated the animals like cash cows.
Therefore, when the whale told him he wanted to go on a pilgrimage to the ocean, he didn’t even need to think twice before saying yes. What he had to do was simple: at midnight on the first Thursday of April, he would recite a spell the whale had taught him to the moon. The aquarium closed up at night and this was why the whale himself was not able to do it. The animals inside could never see the moon.
“What if there is no moon that night?”
“In that case, we’ll have to wait for another year.”
After making the promise to the whale, the breeder had hesitated, secretly hoping that it would be a rainy day. Yes, if the whale was gone, he would be lonely again.
As a migrant worker in this huge city, the breeder had always been alone. He had had a girlfriend before, but she broke up with him after a short while because he smelt like fish.
However, the breeder didn’t know what else he could do besides taking care of the animals. And he liked to give the whale a good bath and watch him swimming elegantly in the clear blue water. I’m kind of giving them a good life, he thought.
If the whale left, he would be completely alone, the breeder thought despondently. But the whale was oblivious to his sorrow. He had been talking about the “perfect trip” every day since the breeder had made him the promise.
“This is the perfect trip I’ve been planning for years, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” the whale waved his tail excitedly as the breeder was cleaning his snow-white fins with a brush.
The whale had just turned three years old, so it was hard to imagine it had been “planning for years”. But the breeder had a kind heart, not willing to embarrass others, so he simply replied, “Really? That’s amazing.”
“For the last 50 million years, beluga whales have been making a pilgrimage to the North Pole every April,” the whale had a dreamy look in his eyes. “April is summertime in the Arctic, not like the winter which can freeze your eyes. The sky is so blue and so low that it looks like it’s going to be sucked into the ocean.”
The breeder was confused by the whale’s words. As a whale that had lived in the aquarium since it was a baby, how could it know so much? The breeder could only think that it was a memory sealed in the whale’s blood.
“I’m going to head north first, all the way to Russia, where the warm Ob River and the flowering tundra lie. Then, swim down the tranquil Don River and reach the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren, where seventy beautiful bridges connect fourteen islands and a peninsula. Then, go all the way through the coniferous forest of the Scandinavian mountains. That great forest, which has existed in the Arctic Circle for tens of millions of years, is said to be so green it stings your eyes! I want to stay there for a while because it is already very, very close to the destination of the pilgrimage and I will need to rest to catch my breath. When I’m ready, I’ll leap into the Arctic Ocean and join thousands of beluga whales, crossing endless pristine glaciers and uncharted turbulent canyons, until I reach the coarse turquoise shallows, and begin my sacred ritual.”
“What will you do?” the breeder was drawn to the whale’s narrative.
“I will rub my body over the bottom of the shallows, again and again, stirring up the waves and gravel, which will take away the dirt and scars and allow my snow-white body to be reborn in the cold water.”
The breeder frowned, “Wait, you go all that way just to take a bath?”
“It’s a pilgrimage,” the whale corrected gravely.
“Isn’t removing dirt and all that a bath?” the breeder raised his voice, his face turning red with agitation. “Isn’t it the same work I’ve been doing all this time?”
“There is nothing that can be compared to this. It’s like, uh…” the whale twisted his massive body a bit and looked up at the ceiling, trying to find the words. “It’s like the difference between flirting and love. ”
The breeder was dumbfounded. He was not a good debater, so he pretended to cough and turned around to sort his cleaning tools.
A large group of colorful tropical fish swam past the window, like cherry blossom petals raised by the wind. The breeder stopped thinking about the past and said “goodbye” to them one by one.
Finally, the whale came.
To the breeder’s surprise, a strange girl was sitting on the whale’s back – no, she didn’t look so strange. The girl’s long hair was flowing, and her eyes were bright and moist, like two early morning dews.
“Have I met you……?”
The girl smiled shyly and lowered her head as if she were drawing something in a notebook.
Oh, it was her!
The breeder remembered that she was the girl who had often came to the aquarium to sketch the animals. She always lowered her head, so the breeder only had an impression of the long hair.
“I told you this would be a perfect trip!” the whale said wryly. “How can you call it perfect without love?”
The breeder and the girl’s faces turned red.
“Do I…do I go too?” the breeder stammered. “I did not know……”
Before he realized it, he had opened the window and swam toward the whale in the pure silver moonlight.

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