A woman with green highlights waves me down on the street and asks if I have thirty seconds to help the whales. I tell her I am sorry that I do not, which is a lie as I am only on my way to Fatburger to meet a friend. As I pass she hands me a brightly-colored pamphlet and a flyer with a link to a website where I can enter my credit card information. In exchange for my donation I can receive my choice between a tote bag and an umbrella.
“Every dollar helps,” she says, already in the process of engaging another passerby.
Coming back—two ground beef patties heavy in my belly—I notice that the woman is gone, and in her place sits a beggar with a cardboard sign: it’s my birthday, scrawled in shaky permanent marker.
At home I fish the crumpled pamphlet out of my pocket and set it on the bedside table. It uncurls slowly like a fist. There is a long crease across the face of an adult humpback whale, glossy paper cracking white like a tilted mouth.
Before bed I practice my ritual: ensure the stove is off, the doors locked, meat left in the fridge to thaw. While setting my alarm I pick up the pamphlet and unfold it over my lap, if nothing more than to occupy my hands. Inside are graphic photos of whale stomachs cut open, plastic bags slick with bile spilling out on the beach and men in hip waders measuring the dimensions of propellor scars—length, width, depth. More than little disgusted, I clumsily refold the pamphlet and place it back on the nightstand.
I dream of ocean, empty water column, waves cut through with sunlight.
As I crane to silence my alarm I am greeted again with the humpback whale, the crease, though now the corners are also bent, the hinge fold imprecise.
Waking to work I pass another fundraiser, this time a young man with a red cap. He hands me the exact same pamphlet and flyer. This time I stop.
“Yesterday someone gave me this same thing. I looked at it and it was horrifying.”
“It’s pretty gruesome. They go through a lot, those whales.”
“Do you know her, the person who worked here yesterday? She had green hair.”
“There’s a lot of us, we work in shifts. Sorry.”
I’m not going to give him any money, and once he discovers this he loses interest, crossing to the opposite corner and failing to catch the attention of people with earphones in.
Stove checked, doors locked, overnight oats chill in the fridge. I place my new pamphlet, which I kept neatly in my day planner so that it would stay flat, near the old one. I arrange them so they are propped up against the post of the lamp. The blue glow of my cell phone makes the whales seem as though they are in deep, clear water.
I dream again of the ocean, but this time I dive below, discover the dark edges of a sunken ship resting on the seafloor. I can just make out the sea stars pasted to the porthole windows before I am woke by birdsong.
The pamphlet says that in some parts of the world commercial whaling is still practiced, the carcasses pulled from the ocean and processed. At work I spend an hour reading about whale oil online. It was once used in transmission fluid, in lubricants, as a salve for World War One soldiers with trench foot. Before certain legislation it was found in margarine. I could have unknowingly consumed part of a whale on an English muffin.
At the train station there are yet more canvassers, two at every ticket machine. I go down the row and pick up a pamphlet from each. I can barely fit them in my bag, and when I get home I fan them out on my bed.
In my dream I linger outside the sunken ship. When it floated it was a cruise liner, and through the broken doors I see a grand stage. A piano sits on its side, several keys missing. A crab scurries out from beneath the strings. At the far end of the room abandoned roulette wheels are piled in a corner. I think, if I focus, that I can hear something in the distance.
The next morning I don’t see any of the whale people on my way to work. Nor do I see them while I walk home.
I linger over the stove, my hands each on a cold burner until the sensation irritates my skin. I do not dream.
Weeks pass and the whale people still don’t return. The pamphlets—now curling slightly in the direct sun from the bedroom window—clutter my end table, but I can’t bring myself to throw them out. Instead I stuff them into a shoebox, fold them over and wedge them beneath the short table leg, stuff them in my shoes wet from rain.
My sleep is fitful. In my dream I am now high above the ocean, at the height of planes. Birds fly below me, pass through my shadow. The water is simply a silent blue sheet pulled taut against the earth.
I wake up weary, and as I am half-asleep on the train I see through the windscreen a fundraiser positioned on the sidewalk. I get off two stops before my own and run to greet them. I stutter-step around cars, jump over a gentlemen picking through a pile of newspapers.
“I thought you’d gone,” I say, gasping for breath.
“Nope! Can you spare a minute to help save the planet? The forests need our help.”
There it is. The vest is a different color. They have tablets. There’s nothing to hold on to. “You’re not with the whales?”
The fundraiser shakes their head no and gives me a sticker that reads #forestranger. I unpeel its paper back and slap it onto a stop sign.
That night I take what remains of the pamphlets and place them in the garbage. For a moment I stand above the can and look at the whale faces speckled with spent coffee grounds, used tissues, and remnants of shredded kitchen sponge.
I am back in the water, but this time I am in the cruise ship’s performance hall, sitting in a fine armchair facing an empty stage. I can hear singing, the deep, sinuous whale song that seems to come from all around me. Outside there is nothing. The only thing I think I will remember is the song, that wanting wail that sits in me like water.
Benjamin Kessler’s writing has appeared in National Geographic, Pom Pom Lit Mag, Superstition Review, Hobart, and Portland Review. He reads for The Masters Review and lives in Portland, Oregon where he works at Powell’s City of Books.