In her last life, your mother was a whale. She makes no secret of it, so you grow up carrying this knowledge like you carry the birthmark on your left shoulder.
She raises you on grilled octopus, chilled calamari, fish with all their little bones left in. “Whale food,” she calls it, though in her whale life she only ever ate krill. She teaches you to drown it all in butter and lemon and suck the juices from your fingers with loud smacking sounds that startle dinner guests. “No whale ever dreamt of that!”
To know her better, you read every book about the ocean you can find – the classics and the boys’ adventure tales, pirate histories and shark facts and Scuba for Dummies. “All of them phooey,” she declares, though she likes how Moby Dick begins, before the Pequod ever leaves port: Ishmael and Queequeg snug beneath the covers of their shared bed, heads pressed together in the quietest hours of night.
Your mother has only ever wanted peace.
As a whale she had one son who lingered longer than her other calves. He would demand her milk by ramming his head into her ribs hard enough to bruise. “That was my third calf,” she tells you. “Little asshole. He’s why I raise you to be gentle. Too many boys who take with force, on the land and in the sea.”
You’re thirty-two and married before she ever talks about the bulls, those pesky brutes who trailed her for weeks at a time singing songs to woo her. She enjoyed making them race for her favor then would send them packing once they’d gotten what they came for. Your own father, when he was alive, had no talent for music; maybe that’s why she loved him.
“And the suicides!” she whispers like a prayer. She describes them on the cliffs of Russian seaside towns: mostly women, of course, lonely broken wives unknotting kerchiefs from around their heads, faces dead already, bodies gone limp before they ever took the plunge. “Sometimes, after, they became like me.”
“Then they were happy?” you ask, and when she nods, you know it’s a lie.
You wonder who your mother was before she was a whale.
One summer evening, your wife helps her hang sea sponges and conch shells from the trellis out back, their careful fingers double-knotting loops of fishing line. When they’ve finished, the patio is transformed into an aquatic discotheque. You take up your wife’s right hand in your own and sweep your other arm around her waist.
“If we were whales,” you tell her, “I’d be better than my mother’s bulls. I’d make myself indispensable.”
Your wife answers, as you twirl her in the fading light: “If I was a whale, I’d do just fine without you.”
Were you anything before you were a man? As children you and Celia, your neighbor, played at being cats. You would sharpen your nails into claws and crawl through Celia’s house, making the world new to yourselves through the shift in perspective, then curl around each other and sleep at the foot of her grandmother’s bed. Was that some forgotten life calling you both back? You try hypnosis, regression therapy, automatic writing – any key that might unlock a door, but there is no door, or none you can find. You contemplate what it means to be nothing more than what you are, to have never been otherwise, when once your mother’s tongue outweighed an elephant.
It’s hard to imagine her former vastness. You cannot picture any version of your mother large enough to swallow you whole and ferry you from one continent to another. But she did it in this body, didn’t she, held you in her belly until it was safe to disembark? She is so small now and shrinking all the time. When she embraces you, her head rests in the bowl of your clavicle. Her bones retreat beneath folds of sagging skin. You would pad her out with blubber, if you could, to keep her warm.
When she has finally receded from this life, where will she turn up? Will she remember you, when she is fox or flower or centipede, as another hungry calf? What story of you will she pass along to the next brood? It’s not for you to know. You will go to your own end wondering. Wishing, too. You will close your eyes and pray that when they open, they’ll be peering out from some new skull. Only then will you start to get a handle on the scope of her.
Sutton Strother is a writer and teacher living in New York. Their work has been featured in several publications including, most recently, HAD and X-R-A-Y Lit. Read more of their writing at suttonstrother.wordpress.com and find them tweeting @suttonstrother