We first saw her from the road, our eyes stopping briefly at the shape. The tide was out with the mountains in the distance, and the window through the trees offered a scene worthy of a sign along the highway advising motorists of a place to take a photo. There were no cars in the nearby gravel stretch, and my partner veered off the pavement just as we both registered the shock of seeing the 30-ton body of a humpback whale stretched out on the beach. The white of her pectoral fin from a distance appeared stained by blood and white graffiti lettering. We didn’t stop to talk about the safety of the rocks or sand as we ran out toward her. We didn’t stop until we had both touched the rubbery surface of her skin, and then we were under a spell of discovery, too lost for words except the exhales of amazement which are not words but raptures.
She was gone, although parts of her body were still warm. The body lay wrecked like a battleship. Her mouth, stomach, and tail collapsed against the sand in a shape her body never formed in life. In life she was suspended in water and sometimes air. The hard surface of the beach was a cliff she could not jump from. A man in an official jacket approached us as we circled her. Because of the jacket, I asked him what happened. He said she came up to the river at high tide, probably got disoriented, and wasn’t able to make it back out before the tide left her on the beach. “She died last night,” he said. “That’s when we tied her off. She was facing the other way last night.”
Then I saw the rope tied around her tail fin and followed it across the beach to the nearest trees. She was dead when the rope was tied, but biologists didn’t want to lose the opportunity to access the body, collect samples, and determine the cause of death. She had rolled with the tide. “People keep coming down here with their dogs,” he said. “No respect.” Did he mean disrespect to the biologists or to the whale, I wondered. How respectful was it to tie her off to a tree for a full necropsy and then throw her back to the sea in pieces. For a moment, she was Tiamat rising out of the salt water or the abyss. Tiamat was considered the grandmother of all the gods, but was killed, cut up, and the sky and heaven were made out of the upper half of her body. The lower part created the earth, her head a mountain, and out of her eyes run the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers of Old Babylon.
The mountain in the distance behind her looked the same color as her gray skin. I touched the white rings, which were scars left by barnacles that had been knocked off. “What are these?” I asked. “They’re from eels,” the man said. “The eels latch on and leave marks the shape of their mouths.” Higher on her body a deep blue gash appeared like rocky mountain topography. “And this?” I asked him. “That’s a bite mark from an Orca whale probably.” Above us, on the road, a car was slowing. We backed away sooner than we would liked to have left. The crowds would descend soon, and we had Hugo in the truck waiting to run the mountains. As we drove away, we could only describe our shock. We’d never seen a creature so big. We’d never forget it. It wasn’t something that belonged to anything we’d seen before. She was wrecked and destroyed on the beach, a picture of something wrong and out of place.
The shock stayed with me as we drove the winding gravel road through the mountain valley. When we stopped and unleashed Hugo to run, a man approached us. He had been camping there for a week. “There have been sightings of a grizzly bear up in that valley,” he pointed. “And other reports of a black bear wandering along the road.” We thanked him, and headed up the trail that would lead into the open mountain country. Hugo ran ahead and back to us, his tongue hanging out. He didn’t know about the whale or the bear. He was my un-initiated youth and vitality as it wished it ever was. I watched him run in his wide open manner, wishing he could claim wildness and freedom for me because I’d never be so fast, and still hoping he’d come back and stay in view. He did.
We were only a mile down the trail when we saw a young bull moose stopped on the side of the hill. His nose was in the air into the wind. He picked up and turned the opposite direction, and ran across a snow pack. He ran up the side of the valley and didn’t stop until he disappeared into alders. People often reported on bears, but I believed there was a bear. Even though he was impossible to see. There is an expression for the feeling I’d heard somewhere: “Grandfather is in the woods.” I called for Hugo. He was too small of a snack of a dog and charging into willow bushes without knowing any better.
It was only a few hours since we had left the whale. She was surrounded by officials. Her side facing the tide was open and coolers were stacked nearby. Her blood ran into the tidal currents in the sand and out to the inlet. It was impossible to look away. She seemed alive. She seemed to have emerged from the abyss willingly. She’d been lost, but maybe she knew it. There’s something here, I thought. Hugo and I climbed up the rocks to watch the scene from above. I watched the whale, and he watched the shadows of birds on the beach without thinking to look up. “Hugo,” I said. He knew how to follow a point. I pointed up, “the birds are in the sky.” He was too focused.
Her body was my body. It was 42-feet long. The body of my life, or what some ancients call the “long body,” that is, the body of our entire lives and not just our face in the present moment. The body we lose at the end. Even though I wasn’t, I felt tied by a rope to something just as I pulled Hugo’s leash to keep him from the edge. Would I let him go any more than myself or the whale? Were we all tethered to something that could not be cut down? Would we fly if we were free instead of swing. What was this thing that seemed to hold our attention and would it let us one day fall to the floor or come ashore? Grief so often isn’t just about missing someone, but a feeling that life has gone, that all our lives will go. And here it was, all of my life stretched out before me. A beautiful creature.