This story is by A. K. Lambert and won an Honorable Mention in our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A. K. Lambert is a writer and editor who loves Smart Book Club Fiction, Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Fantasy, and YA stories that challenge perspectives, include magic, and explore the human condition. She cherishes long nature walks with her rescue dog and daughter, the ocean, and great movie quotes. Find her on her website.
It had been one of those Rarotonga summers when the heat consumed the day at dawn and baked the island late into the evening. The air was sticky, and many of the young honeymooners preferred the comfort of air-conditioned spas or their cleaned hotel sheets to the beach—even if it was whale season.
Marie Fuller preferred the ocean.
“Not much further, Marie.”
She nodded, eyes on the waves that broke against the front of the boat. She gripped the railing and tilted her chin over her shoulder to acknowledge her husband, but stopped. Leaned forward instead.
Out of her peripheral vision, Marie watched Zach reach for her elbow with his fingers stretched. She ached for him as his arms shuddered with a longing to comfort her—even if they both knew there was nothing he could really do. He shifted his hands to his hip. Tucked them inside his jean pockets.
“There’s a group of whales over there,” Marie said, pointing.
“I’ll tell Kathy and Sam,” Zach said. She locked her eyes on the whales, but sensed him glancing at her belly. Her muscles squeezed shut. She crisscrossed her arms around her waist to block his view. Like a pathetic, protective covering that was as flimsy as ripped plastic. She told herself she’d be happy today. They had confirmed that Agueda and her calf, Johanna, had returned safely to the island. A small memorial victory.
There was no good in mourning what no longer existed.
“I’m fine, Zach. Really.” He blinked twice, three times, as if pretending the sun bothered him. He ducked back to the cockpit, nodding at Kathy as she brought Marie her snorkel gear. Sam steered the boat a few degrees east.
Marie grabbed the video camera and satellite tracker. She triple-knotted the hair elastic securing her braid and then gripped the edge of the swim platform. Before jumping in the water, Zach kissed the top of her head. She swallowed the solid lump in her throat. Slid into the sea feet first.
Marie held her breath as she placed her face in the ocean, even though the snorkel allowed oxygen into her lungs. She kicked her legs in an up and down motion, mimicking the way humpbacks moved their tails. She concentrated on the music surrounding her. The groans and the cries. They danced around her body like silver liquid that wrapped her inside a safe cocoon. A rare gift.
The further away Marie swam from the boat, the more her bones loosened. The better her body cut through the sea. Weightless.
When Marie was within thirty feet of the whales, she paused. She adjusted the lens on her camera and hit record. She searched for the jagged white scars on Johanna’s tailfin, a battle wound from the misplaced fisherman’s net that Marie had cut free before Agueda guided her daughter to Antarctica. The young calf would be just over a year now, and nearing the day she would venture out on her own. Marie wondered if this made Agueda sad, or if their goodbye would be as common as nature’s endless changes.
Would they separate for good? Would they return to the same location?
Was it possible to remember each other after being apart for so long?
Close to the pod of female humpbacks, Marie spotted a large male resting vertically near a coral reef. His beak faced downward. Resting there, he sang the most striking song—a mix of two long moans and higher-pitched howls—the same music Sam had confirmed all the male humpbacks harmonized this year. He used the coral reefs to maximize the music like an amphitheater. The season’s mating melody.
The female humpbacks cried in higher, sharper whimpers from a distance. They waited for him to make his move.
All except one whale. The largest in the group—she had two notches on her right pectoral fin. Marie recognized her immediately. Agueda’s older sister, Link.
“How do they look, Marie?” Zach’s voice came through her headphones.
“Beautiful.” Her voice dipped into a whisper with each vowel. She treaded water. She willed her focus to remain on the gentle giants in front of her, not the baby she had lost on the last day she saw them.
Link stared at Marie, unmoving. And then, without warning, Link made a beeline for her. Fast. With no intention of stopping.
“Zach,” Marie said, not knowing what to do next. Zach couldn’t help her this far away from the boat. Her chest prickled. She knew she couldn’t push a 50,000-pound whale off her, but maybe she could use Link’s body to force her own in a different direction.
She held out her hands. Folded them on top of one another and braced herself for the collision. Link pushed her beak into Marie’s legs and thrust her on top of her head. The whale continued to swim at a great speed, trapping Marie in her body’s wake. Marie rolled down Link’s back. Shouted. She tumbled sideways. But Link caught Marie in her pectoral fin and pressed Marie against her body. Marie clambered to grip a space absent of the sharp barnacles that grew on the humpback. She pushed off Link’s side with her legs. But Link kept coming back.
For several minutes, they repeated this motion of underwater turbulence.
Finally, Link swam next to Marie so her eye was parallel to Marie’s. She stared, as if pleading her to stop. Like she was trying to help.
Because she knew something Marie didn’t.
“What’s going on? Marie?”
Marie stalled, and in these seconds, and without warning, Link scooped Marie with her fin and lifted her out of the water.
Marie saw Zach and the crew on the boat. Still far away. They waved at her, but all Marie could hear was Link’s powerful body bursting through the waves. “Somebody help me!” she called out, unsure if Link was swimming closer to the boat or further away from it.
A dark tail with a white spot popped up beside Marie. Even in the edge waves, Marie recognized the second whale immediately. Agueda.
Agueda slapped her tail against the water. On the second slap, Link rolled Marie under her pectoral fin a final time. She pinned Marie with her fin like a tightly sealed roof. Stiff. Immoveable. And that’s when Marie saw it: another whale on the opposite side of Link. It moved its pectoral fins down. Its tail darted side to side. Not like a whale. But a shark.
The largest tiger shark Marie had ever seen.
For years, Marie had studied humpback whales in the Cook Islands. She’d dedicated her life to conservation initiatives and had spent the last eighteen months stationed in the western waters of Australia. She had observed humpbacks’ altruistic behavior from a distance, and knew that they would try to protect an animal from a different species with no concern for their own life, like a lifeguard racing into a riptide. Or a parent covering a child’s body with their own.
Marie curled her legs into her chest.
If she wanted to survive, she needed to trust Link. She needed to stop fighting.
Marie let go.
She loosened her neck and unlatched her kneecaps. Link dove underneath Marie and spun her onto her head. Meanwhile, Agueda pulled back, blocking the shark. Link pushed Marie upwards. Their bodies broke through the surface. Marie’s snorkel pooled with water, which she blew out in a wild gust of air.
Link nudged the center of Marie’s back. They swam forward.
“Marie,” Zach called. He leaned out of the boat and reached for Marie while Kathy and Sam held onto his shirt. She took his hands. He pulled her into his chest. She collapsed onto him and laughed with a nervous jitter.
“Marie, the whale.”
“He was protecting me,” Marie said, shivering. Zach pulled off her snorkel mask, which burst with water. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
He stroked her hair. She counted the number of heartbeats that pounded inside his chest. Three. Seven. Fourteen. She pressed her lips against his sternum until her breathing slowed—turning around only when Link blew water out of her blowhole.
“Thank you,” Marie called out to her. Link breached, and then swam toward her pod while Zach wrapped his arms around Marie’s shoulders.
Marie put her hands on top of Zach’s fingers and wrapped them around her stomach. She embraced the forgotten warmth. Rested. Relaxed.
Then Marie turned her chin up towards the sky. A rare gust of wind rippled over her skin. She smiled and closed her eyes.
Licked the salt drying on her lips.