When a riptide comes, mother says to swim crosswise against it. But I am already thinking of the whales. Of all the heavy millennia before they went back to the sea—a dwindle of limb, a lengthening of spine and fingerbone steering them out, deeper and deeper, into such softness and hush, it would carry their voices for miles.
(I never heard your voice, only heartbeat, twinned with mine. The sound of you lost now, save for the lullaby mother sang beside the crib, how she tucked my name against yours, certain I would forget).
I cannot sing like a whale, but I spout like one now, salt and spume whooshing from my lungs as mother lifts me up, up, up. She knows what any whale mother knows, to nudge her young towards air. But whales breathe twice the oxygen any land mammal ever could, store it deep down in the muscle, like growing a third lung.
(I want to know which world would you have chosen, if you could. Which one would have let you breathe).
Mother puts me on her back and arcs above the waves, breaching. Once, I thought the same word meant three things: to rise, to rupture, to be born the way a whale is born in water, tail first so as not to drown. But on land, the opposite. The way some words change the moment they touch water:
(If the world were only liquid, would you feel any weight at all? Or would the sea carry what you couldn’t, would it swell to fill any lack?)
My first home was water, long before I can remember, the way whales must forget what it once felt like to walk. Still, mother knows the feel of my floating. She rocks us in the surf, limbs slick and glittered with sand, shaking from the water’s pull. Heart to heart on the tideline, we breathe, till within and without there is only the sound of currents, of rush and break, rush and break. Till neither of us knows which parts of us are earth, and which ocean. Till all of it becomes a kind of singing.
“Cetacea” first appeared in Lost Balloon, 2021
IMAGE: “The Whale Song” by Ophelia, Portugal.
Erin Calabria grew up on the edge of a field in rural Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Magdeburg, Germany. She is a co-founding editor at Empty House Press, which publishes writing about home, place, and memory. You can read more of her work in Third Point Press, Milk Candy Review, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, and other places.