Churchill River Estuary, Manitoba 2012.
The promise was one of guaranteed encounters, but the outboard’s erratic putter raised concerns. There had been other signs. Gray patches adorned the Zodiac. The glories the captain recounted were of an older vintage, better left for the faded brochure pictures when he could still squeeze into a dry suit. And he had superstitions. He had tugged his tangled beard, muttered Cree. He insisted that each passenger think of one song to lure them in. It had seemed an unnecessary extravagance, a cheap ploy to grow chummier. There were doubts, yet soon enough the captain raised a meaty fist into the wind, then released his fingers. No one spoke as the last echoes of the outboard sank, and the wake pulled the Zodiac to repose.
There, the captain growled softly. He pointed to the cold, calm bay. Get in and sing. You’ll see.
With that the passengers slipped overboard one by one. Pak Taemok was chagrined to be the last to go. He had already determined that the tour rate was $4 a minute, a Stokke stroller, the omakase at Masa; nevertheless, his preoccupation with creating the perfect seal with his mask had cost him. At last, he slid in but kept his head aloft while the other passengers bobbed around. He heard kazoo-like verses of pop songs and arias resonate through their snorkels. Some gurgled, then cleared short spumes of seawater into the air.
The captain lit a cigarette and gave Pak Taemok a thumbs down. Nothing up here, he said. It’s down in the depths you want.
And so Pak Taemok dutifully submersed his face. He turned his head to and fro, cupped his palms to paddle into better position. Beneath the surface, nothing. Only the belated realization that his dry suit was unduly snug; the patch of exposed skin around his mouth drained all heat. Though he knew the others were not far off, the muffled clinks of splash left him afloat in a hazy isolation, as if he were at the very cusp of life, surrounded by womb and quite alone.
He soon regretted not indulging the captain’s call for song. He found that he was indeed too distracted by the cold to freshly conjure any music. His shoulders shuddered, and the only chatter he recalled was the words they would forever trade in her absence. His chest squeezed within an entanglement of unsheltered quiet, grief and guilt, the seismic furies that shattered his wife when she embraced her daughter’s bedclothes once more to breathe her. Sometimes he would find himself mumbling explanations in the shower, nonsense mixing with the lathery patter that could never cleanse him, the stains persisting and soon enough other sounds would surge in his throat, echoing against the tiled chamber while he knelt down and clawed his temples.
He now struggled to prevent these shards from piercing through his snorkel. His eyes brimmed when he lifted his head up from the water. He had drifted away from the Zodiac and his group. The captain was beached on his back, enjoying his smoke and the northern summer sun. Seawater sprayed into the air as the other passengers found need to again clear their snorkels. Seconds later, the sprays were followed by blow bursts of an altogether more prodigious volume, and a series of scarred gray backs and flukes gently breached before slipping back into the bay.
Pak Taemok plunged his head back in. The water was enmeshed in a gauzy sheet of blips and squawks and minor whistles. The sounds enveloped him from all directions. Suddenly, the green veil filled with two dozen gray apparitions. Stacks of belugas slowly undulated by, then doubled back. Each swiveled its gaze toward him, fusiform bodies bending with the impossible neck twist of a newborn. They maintained their unmoving smiles, the curious gaze of an intelligence borne of sea beds and migrations, eons of sleek, cetaceous thoughts.
A calf nearly nosed his chest before gliding onward with its mother. The harmonic squeals crescendoed, and it was no different from the trills his daughter enjoyed when blowing into the pool. He recalled how he had sat her for a moment on the edge while he retrieved his tumbler and camera. He suspected she would have babbled on as she watched him reach the picnic table. A couple swigs, refresh and stir, a prolonged Hello to the shapely neighbor. She would have sat still for a child’s eternity before she took the first cool step to her knees, holding her ceaseless discourse all the while. The next one went just past her waist, and two more reached shoulders and then submergence. While she sank she would have continued, bubble trills morphing to her usual shrieks and laughter save a touch of aquatic color. She may have sought further communion with him even then. She would have told him that she was departing his dry, jaded world for another, a brief farewell, a pat, a kiss, no need to linger any longer.
Amidst the chirps, the clicks and calls, the pod turned back toward him one last time before descending into a darker green. He kicked furiously after them into the nothing. Not yet, not yet, he longed to say, and water flooded into his snorkel and mouth. The reverberations grew fainter all around him, the unending trench of silence waiting patiently to spread its walls anew. At some point a song did eventually enter his head. The one he sang to her those first weeks of their lives together, when he learned her name and breaths, before he knew the rest, when a full night’s sleep was a distant, still possible dream. The tune was catchy; it had rhyme and rhythm, a happy ending. His lungs screamed it as he sank deeper. He held the last note as long as he could, and then let go.
Hun Ohm is a writer and intellectual property attorney. He lives in western Massachusetts. His fiction has recently appeared in The Citron Review, Literary Orphans, Foundling Review, Bartleby Snopes, Gone Lawn and other publications.