Monday, August 12, 2013

#94: "In the Empire of Cetaceans" by Pedro Ponce

~This story was originally published in Arroyo Literary Review (Spring 2011).




            The annual Pheasant Lake Psychic Fair draws upwards of 300 attendees. Most are curious if not entirely content with their fates divined via crystals, numbers, and totem animals. A great deal invest in products claiming to cure everything from insomnia and stomach upset to the human condition itself. A smaller number, believing that anxiety, aggression, and disappointment are terminal, peruse book bins containing startling revelations about the true meaning of Mayan ruins and presidential assassinations, or accounts of alien abductions by celebrities from decades past.
            Those in attendance during the first weekend of August, 2008, might have missed one of the fair’s most unusual offerings. On Saturday morning, a single placard, printed modestly in black letters on a white background, advertised

WHALES: THE SILENT THREAT

followed by a time that afternoon and a room number. The placard’s starkness caused a mild buzz over that morning’s continental breakfast, but it also led to some uncomfortable moments as the dozen in attendance crammed the listed venue, a hotel suite four floors above the designated meeting rooms. Roughly half the audience read the whales as threatened, humans the likeliest culprits after centuries of environmental neglect. The rest read equivalence in the intervening colon, relishing the prospect of a fair and balanced rejoinder to animal lovers. As the sides recognized each other over the murmur of respective platitudes, a young auburn-haired woman checked her watch and straightened several piles of literature for sale on a round table next to the minibar. Five minutes past the scheduled start time, she stood and knocked hesitantly at the door to the bedroom. Hearing no answer, she cracked the door and spoke through the narrow opening. Her smile as she walked away stiffened with resignation.


            The speaker emerged at 3:10. His first action was to approach the wall opposite the clustered audience and remove the generic seascape fixed there. He dragged the nearest end table towards the middle of the room, where he placed a slide carousel and a black three-ring binder, its corners peeling to reveal blunted cardboard beneath. The binder was covered in stickers—an orange cannabis leaf, a yellow ribbon, a smirking whale captioned SAVE THE HUMANS, a Jesus fish sprouting amphibian legs. The speaker was well-dressed in jacket and tie but still managed to look slovenly. Flecks of soap or shaving cream speckled his lapels.
            The first slide clicked into place:

MIXED MESSAGES

The speaker cleared his throat and took a sip of bottled water. “Mixed messages,” he repeated, in a voice that aspired for stentorian but just managed to avoid helium induced caricature. “If you take one thing away from all this, remember: mixed messages.”
            For many in the audience that day, this was indeed the extent of their understanding. The speaker, who introduced himself as Jeremy Wellfleet, claimed to have taught marine biology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, until circumstances forced him to take a permanent leave of absence. The nature of these circumstances was never elaborated.
            Wellfleet began with an accounting of the Earth’s surface: 25 percent land, 75 percent water. Within that 25 percent, humans make up only a fraction of the countless other species populating the land. And yet over the entire planet, Wellfleet noted, we alternately presume uncontested rank or sole stewardship, which essentially amounts to the same thing, recent alarmist documentaries notwithstanding. “The truth,” he quipped, “is that we are the real inconvenience.” He paused then for knowing laughter that was not forthcoming.
            At some point during his prelude, the slide had changed to

WE ARE NOT ALONE

after which a sequence of stock images appeared that might illustrate an evening news report: a rifle wielding militant, a cadaverous child folded against a pink wall, a bespectacled official, eyes askance as she addressed the microphones arrayed in front of her. Wellfleet narrated a series of questions as image followed image. Why does suffering continue in a species that purportedly represents the apex of evolution? What causes our history to repeat in cycles of alienation, ostracism, persecution, and war as predictable as they are tragic? And if we could, for one moment, relinquish the pretense of mastery, benevolent or otherwise, what might we learn from our planetary brethren?
            At this point, his assistant distributed several volumes to audience members; all were dream dictionaries in which readers could look up salient elements from their dreams and gloss their meanings under the corresponding alphabetized entry.
            “Who has Phillips’ Annotated Dream Lore?” Wellfleet said. A young man, pierced through the nose and lip, raised a volume bound in olive green with a cracked brown spine. Wellfleet instructed him to read the volume’s entry for WHALE. After a minute or two of turning pages, the audience member shyly announced that no such entry seemed to exist. The result was the same for Leviand’s Glossaire des Rêves, Danbury’s Reader’s Guide to Dreams, Morton’s Dream Yourself Happy, and Wesley and Currier’s Concordance of Manifest Content. Every volume lacked an entry on whales, despite assiduous documentation on the significance of aardvarks, bears, sparrows, and weasels, not to mention lost teeth and fingers, flying, and pregnancy, both male and female. The assistant collected the volumes and attention was directed once again to the improvised screen:

THE TRUE MARK OF THE PUPPET MASTER
IS HOW WELL HE CONCEALS HIS STRINGS.
—Anon.

            The largest brains on the planet, Wellfleet continued, belong to whales. One does not have to be a neuroscientist to understand the implications of this fact. The least intelligent whale, by extrapolation, is a genius exceeding the capacities of a da Vinci or an Einstein. Accounting for the species’ much longer history and the sophistication of its communication and social systems, which human scientists are only beginning to comprehend, the reasonable and responsible observer can come to only one conclusion: we are mere squatters at the primitive frontier of an empire of cetaceans.
            “Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Wellfleet assured as he regarded his audience over the rims of his glasses. Given the varied expressions in the room—ranging from suppressed mirth to skulking impatience to searching glances roaming the walls for hidden cameras—this was a claim of surprising confidence.
            If one were to believe in the mastery of whales, he nevertheless went on, how could one explain their regular slaughter at the hands of their natural inferiors? This presumes that a civilization as advanced as that of cetaceans lacks dissent, a quality that marks even human civilization. Whales are no different, though they have likely done a better job resolving what humans, lacking their genius, are content to designate timeless questions.
            While most whales, given their highly developed brains, are probably ruthlessly reasonable—had Swift studied whales instead of horses, we would have a very different concluding voyage for Gulliver—some perhaps are incapable of completely ignoring the pulse of their enormous hearts. At some point in our shared histories, these exceptions, smarter than the dumbest but far short of genius, rose to the surface to breathe, feed, and calve the natural way, refusing the aid of cetacean technology shrouded for centuries in the deepest ocean canyons. These empaths, over time, came to marvel at the beauties near the surface, the blue transparency of the upper ocean, the geometric precision of fish in schools. They developed a fascination for the bipeds seen in increasing numbers on ships and distant shorelines. They were perhaps amused by humans’ wonder at breaching, which for the whale is nothing more than scratching its back or swatting a fly off its face. In the seconds before resubmerging, they saw the terror in their faces, pivoting blindly like sea grass. Over time, the more sensitive developed tenderness for the surface dwellers. They were rewarded with spears and live dissection.
            Nevertheless, the whale was not to be pitied for its curiosity and compassion. The whales we often see hunted and butchered on posters and during benefit concerts are only a small minority. Numbers suggesting endangered status are highly suspect, given whales’ propensity for stealth.
            “Hold on,” said a skeptic leaning up in her seat. “I have a hard time imagining how even a single whale, much less an entire…civilization can hide, as it were, in plain sight.” The room rippled with laughter and murmured assent. The auburn haired assistant said something under her breath and continued to dab at the crossword folded discreetly on her lap.
            Wellfleet smiled as if the skeptic had just fallen into his trap. The carousel turned to

ALIENS IN OUR MIDST

The subsequent slide featured the iconic image of alien life reported in countless abduction narratives and recycled on film and television: a bulbous gray head surmounting an infant’s body, limbs hanging feebly like flippers. Wellfleet reassured the audience that he was not about to begin fulminating on an alien conspiracy that somehow brought his disparate points together. “This isn’t the movies,” he said. “If only things were that simple. Or that complicated.” According to Wellfleet, the only aliens that actually existed—within the constraints of human consciousness, at any rate—were terrestrial. He forwarded the carousel with a flourish. The alien was now superimposed onto an anatomical diagram of a sperm whale, its enormous brain centered behind the alien’s dark eyeholes. A humpback came next, its fin bones parallel with the alien’s feathery handprint. Then came an orca, a beluga, a narwhal captioned by an anonymous eyewitness:

I WAS THEN PROBED FOR AN INDETERMINATE
NUMBER OF HOURS BEFORE I WAS RELEASED.
                                    AS THE ALIEN CRAFT TOOK OFF, IT LEFT A BROAD
BLUE STREAK IN THE SKY THAT RIPPLED LIKE WATER.

            Why were whales abducting humans, implanting false memories of extraterrestrial excursions? Why were they indulging our false mastery of the planet by assuming the status of endangered species? Scientists and consultants working for forward-thinking nonprofits—here, Wellfleet circulated a laminated page from The Global Examiner—had conclusively mapped the evolution of man in the next million years, culminating in a homunculus consisting almost entirely of brain matter that could travel by mental projection and communicate telepathically. The whale doubtless already had such capabilities, suggesting that the species’ discretion was far from innocent.
            In ancient Rome, emperors created entire worlds for their amusement, filling coliseums with water for mock sea battles, planting jungles within arms’ reach of screaming plebeians, who wagered on which gladiator would survive the sheer cliffs and poisonous vines, the stalking lions and charging rhinos sprouting at will from the pavement of cities.
       At birth, the human body reveals a marvelous possibility: 25 percent solid, 75 percent water, the same proportion that gave rise to the planet’s real masters who perhaps used the same formula to mark the species of its own creation.
            As long as humans are content to remain among the planet’s lower species, the whales will continue their elusive plans. But, Wellfleet surmised, if we could show them how far we’ve come, perhaps we could rise in their estimation, never enough of course to share all their secrets, but perhaps enough to safeguard our status as a largely autonomous cetacean territory, still liable for a proportion of resources as tribute, and still under the ultimate authority of their governing council. (Whales, Wellfleet explained, were too reasonable to be dictators, but too intelligent to rely on a completely committee-based bureaucracy, thus a single body of multiple governors was the likely substance of their political system.) What we lost in independence, we would gain in access to discoveries that, however rudimentary to our masters, might ease and even cure any number of human maladies.
            The wall now filled with a diagram of the human brain. Wellfleet paused to trace the outlines of the medulla oblongata, hypothalamus, and cerebellum with his index finger. “Pathetic really,” he mused. “Everything we think and feel comes from this puddle of neurons. Our dreams. Our nightmares. But this…This is our ocean. We can continue to tread within reach of safe shores. Or we can sound it like the whale and see how deep it goes.”
            He went on to explain sounding, a technique which he had pioneered—patent pending—to cultivate the brain’s capacity to process and synthesize information. Human experience was hopelessly linear and compartmentalized, as shown on Wellfleet’s penultimate slide:

LOWER ORDER NEEDS
“I’m hungry”à
Seek foodà
Find foodà
Eat

HIGHER ORDER NEEDS
“I’m lonely”à
Seek companionshipà
Find companionshipà
Socialize


            “But what if,” Wellfleet proposed, indicating the foregoing diagram, “you could go from this…to this.” The wall seemed to turn orange. On closer inspection, however, the solid color was in fact a mesh of lines that crossed and recrossed. Points of intersection were labeled with letters, numbers, and mathematical symbols; some areas seemed to project in larval protuberances from the wall. Wellfleet offered to explain his secret in a series of weekend workshops that cost a mere $400 for a complete month, which included materials and meals for the first two weekends—participants would typically require little to no food for the remainder of the month. A handful remained to browse the literature table.
            The following November, a jogger awoke for his usual early morning run along the shore of Easton Bay, Maryland. At about the midpoint of his five-mile regimen, he hit his shin against something soft but solid. Cursing, he regained his balance and turned to look at the obstacle in the purpling sand. It was a knapsack full of papers and graphs. Next to the sack he saw a worn brown wallet. When the jogger leaned over to pick it up, he noticed other dark shapes from which sand sifted into the roiling tide. There were purses, briefcases, and more wallets, one of which belonged to a James R. Wellfleet, whose expired California license was the only clue to its owner. Police, following an anonymous tip, arrived to scour the scene and recovered the abandoned items, many of which belonged to missing persons reported in five states. Although the unusual discovery made headlines locally and nationally, the owners were never found. Their possessions remain unclaimed.

*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

            It usually takes months or even years before some jottings on a scrap of paper or notebook page start to become a story. This was not the case with “In the Empire of Cetaceans,” which was written shortly after two ostensibly unrelated experiences. The first was a conversation over dinner with friends about the intelligence of whales. For some reason, whales were in the news at the time, how smart they are, how scientists are only beginning to understand the sophistication of what can reasonably be described as whale culture through things like their language and social groupings. At some point, I recalled a brief scene in The Crying of Lot 49 about a conspiracy theorist who decides to start negotiating with whales in recognition of their true power over the world.
            Around the same time, I saw Craig Baldwin’s mockumentary Tribulation 99: Aliens Anomalies Under America. A collage of found footage that supposedly explains the conspiratorial connections between aliens, Fidel Castro, and the U.S. government (among many, many other players), Tribulation 99 prefigures The Colbert Report by espousing the subject so stridently its logic falls apart. The blatant fabrication of Baldwin’s “evidence”—presented in breathless voiceover—is clearly played for laughs. The more election cycles I experience, the less funny I find Baldwin’s film.
            I, too, play James Wellfleet’s paranoia for laughs. But there’s a serious undertone to the humor if you follow the dates alluded to at the end. Here is where, perhaps, I expose my own skepticism—and sure, paranoia—towards any group, regardless of ideology, that claims a monopoly on hope and change. 

*****

ABOUT PEDRO PONCE
Pedro Ponce is the author of Homeland: A Panorama in 50 States (Seven Kitchens Press) and Superstitions of Apartment Life (Burnside Review Press). He is a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts fellow in creative writing and an associate professor of English at St. Lawrence University. For more information, go to blogs.stlawu.edu/pponce.


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