Authors: Christopher Moore
Tags: #prose_contemporary, #Fiction, #General, #Psychological, #Humorous, #Psychological fiction, #Human-animal relationships, #Humorous Stories, #Humorous fiction, #Hawaii, #Whale sounds, #Humpback whale, #Midlife crisis
After reverently lambasting the most cherished rites and credos of virtually every one of the world's major religions in his transcendently hilarious novel
the one and only Christopher Moore returns with a wild look at interspecies communication, adventure on the high seas, and an eons-old mystery.
Marine behavioral biologist Nate Quinn is in love — with the salt air and sun-drenched waters off Maui… and especially with the majestic ocean-dwelling behemoths that have been bleeping and hooting their haunting music for more than twenty million years. But just why do the humpback whales sing? That's the question that has Nate and his crew poking, charting, recording, and photographing any large marine mammal that crosses their path. Until the extraordinary day when a whale lifts its tail into the air to display a cryptic message spelled out in foot-high letters:
No one on Nate's team has ever seen such a thing; not his longtime partner, photographer Clay Demodocus, not their saucy young research assistant, Amy. Not even spliff-puffing white-boy Rastaman, Kona (the former Preston Applebaum of New Jersey), could boast such a sighting in one of his dope-induced hallucinations. And when a roll of film returns from the lab missing the crucial tail shot — and their research facility is summarily trashed — Nate realizes that something very fishy indeed is going on.
This, apparently, is big, involving dangerously interested other parties — competitive researchers, the cutthroat tourist industry, perhaps even the military. The weirdness only gets weirder when a call comes in from Nate's big-bucks benefactor saying that a whale has made contact — by phone. And it's asking for a hot pastrami and Swiss on rye. Suddenly the answer to the question that has daunted and driven Nate throughout his adult life is within his reach. But it's waiting for him in the form of an amazing adventure beneath the waves, 623 feet down, somewhere off the coast of Chile. And it's not what anyone would think.
It must be said: Christopher Moore's
is a whale of a novel.
For Jim Darling, Flip Nicklin,
and Meagan Jones:
extraordinary people who do
Fluke (flook) 1. A stroke of good luck
2. A chance occurrence; an accident
3. A barb or barbed head, as on a harpoon
4. Either of the two horizontally flattened divisions of the tail of a whale
An ocean without its
unnamed monsters would be like a
completely dreamless sleep.
— JOHN STEINBECK
The scientific method is nothing
more than a system of rules to keep us
from lying to each other.
— KEN NORRIS
Amy called the whale punkin.
He was fifty feet long, wider than a city bus, and weighed eighty thousand pounds. One well-placed slap of his great tail would reduce the boat to fiberglass splinters and its occupants to red stains drifting in the blue Hawaiian waters. Amy leaned over the side of the boat and lowered the hydrophone down on the whale. "Good morning, punkin," she said.
Nathan Quinn shook his head and tried not to upchuck from the cuteness of it, of her, while surreptitiously sneaking a look at her bottom and feeling a little sleazy about it. Science can be complex. Nate was a scientist. Amy was a scientist, too, but she looked fantastic in a pair of khaki hiking shorts, scientifically speaking.
Below, the whale sang on, the boat vibrated with each note. The stainless rail at the bow began to buzz. Nate could feel the deeper notes resonate in his rib cage. The whale was into a section of the song they called the «green» themes, a long series of whoops that sounded like an ambulance driving through pudding. A less trained listener might have thought that the whale was rejoicing, celebrating, shouting howdy to the world to let everyone and everything know that he was alive and feeling good, but Nate was a trained listener, perhaps the most trained listener in the world, and to his expert ears the whale was saying — Well, he had no idea what in the hell the whale was saying, did he? That's why they were out there floating in that sapphire channel off Maui in a small speedboat, sloshing their breakfasts around at seven in the morning: No one knew why the humpbacks sang. Nate had been listening to them, observing them, photographing them, and poking them with sticks for twenty-five years, and he still had no idea why, exactly, they sang.
"He's into his ribbits," Amy said, identifying a section of the whale's song that usually came right before the animal was about to surface. The scientific term for this noise was «ribbits» because that's what they sounded like. Science can be simple.
Nate peeked over the side and looked at the whale that was suspended head down in the water about fifty feet below them. His flukes and pectoral fins were white and described a crystal-blue chevron in the deep blue water. So still was the great beast that he might have been floating in space, the last beacon of some long-dead space-traveling race — except that he was making croaky noises that would have sounded more appropriate coming out of a two-inch tree frog than the archaic remnant of a superrace. Nate smiled. He liked ribbits. The whale flicked his tail once and shot out of Nate's field of vision. "He's coming up," Nate said.
Amy tore off her headphones and picked up the motorized Nikon with the three-hundred-millimeter lens. Nate quickly pulled up the hydrophone, allowing the wet cord to spool into a coil at his feet, then turned to the console and started the engine. Then they waited.
There was a blast of air from behind them and they both spun around to see the column of water vapor hanging in the air, but it was far, perhaps three hundred meters behind them — too far away to be their whale. That was the problem with the channel between Maui and Lanai where they worked: There were so many whales that you often had a hard time distinguishing the one you were studying from the hundreds of others. The abundance of animals was a both a blessing and a curse. "That our guy?" Amy asked. All the singers were guys. As far as they knew anyway. The DNA tests had proven that.
There was another blow to their left, this one much closer. Nate could see the white flukes or blades of his tail under the water, even from a hundred meters away. Amy hit the stop button on her watch. Nate pushed the throttle forward and they were off. Amy braced a knee against the console to steady herself, keeping the camera pointed toward the whale as the boat bounced along. He would blow three, maybe four times, then fluke and dive. Amy had to be ready when the whale dove to get a clear shot of his flukes so he could be identified and cataloged. When they were within thirty yards of the whale, Nate backed the throttle down and held them in position. The whale blew again, and they were close enough to catch some of the mist. There was none of the dead fish and massive morning-mouth smell that they would have encountered in Alaska. Humpbacks didn't feed while they were in Hawaii.
The whale fluked and Amy fired off two quick frames with the Nikon.
"Good boy," Amy said to the whale. She hit the lap timer button on her watch.
Nate cut the engine and the speedboat settled into the gentle swell. He threw the hydrophone overboard, then hit the record button on the recorder that was bungee-corded to the console. Amy set the camera on the seat in front of the console, then snatched their notebook out of a waterproof pouch.
"He's right on sixteen minutes," Amy said, checking the time and recording it in the notebook. She wrote the time and the frame numbers of the film she had just shot. Nate read her the footage number off the recorder, then the longitude and latitude from the portable GPS (global positioning system) device. She put down the notebook, and they listened. They weren't right on top of the whale as they had been before, but they could hear him singing through the recorder's speaker. Nate put on the headphones and sat back to listen.
That's how field research was. Moments of frantic activity followed by long periods of waiting. (Nate's first ex-wife had once commented that their sex life could be described in exactly the same way, but that was after they had separated, and she was just being snotty.) Actually, the wait here in Maui wasn't bad — ten, fifteen minutes at a throw. When he'd been studying right whales in the North Atlantic, Nate had sometimes waited weeks before he found a whale to study. Usually he liked to use the downtime (literally, the time the whale was down) to think about how he should've gotten a real job, one where you made real money and had weekends off, or at least gotten into a branch of the field where the results of his work were more palpable, like sinking whaling ships — a pirate. You know, security.
Today Nate was actively trying not to watch Amy put on sunscreen. Amy was a snowflake in the land of the tanned. Most whale researchers spent a great deal of time outdoors, at sea. They were, for the most part, an intrepid, outdoorsy bunch who wore wind- and sunburn like battle scars, and there were few who didn't sport a semipermanent sunglasses raccoon tan and sun-bleached hair or a scaly bald spot. Amy, on the other hand, had milk-white skin and straight, short black hair so dark that the highlights appeared blue in the Hawaiian sun. She was wearing maroon lipstick, which was so wildly inappropriate and out of character for this setting that it approached the comical and made her seem like the goth geek of the Pacific, which was, in fact, one of the reasons her presence so disturbed Nate. (He reasoned: A well-formed bottom hanging in space is just a well-formed bottom, but you hook up a well-formed bottom to a whip-smart woman and apply a dash of the awkward and what you've got yourself is… well, trouble.)
Nate did not watch her rub the SPF50 on her legs, over her ankles and feet. He did not watch her strip to her bikini top and apply the sunscreen over her chest and shoulders. (Tropical sun can fry you even through a shirt.) Nate especially did not notice when she grabbed his hand, squirted lotion into it, then turned, indicating that he should apply it to her back, which he did — not noticing anything about her in the process. Professional courtesy. He was working. He was a scientist. He was listening to the song of
("big wings of New England," a scientist had named the whale, thus proving that scientists drink), and he was not intrigued by her intriguing bottom because he had encountered and analyzed similar data in the past. According to Nate's analysis, research assistants with intriguing bottoms turned into wives 66.666 percent of the time, and wives turned into ex-wives exactly 100 percent of the time — plus or minus 5 percent factored for post-divorce comfort sex.)
"Want me to do you?" Amy asked, holding out her preferred sunscreen-slathering hand.
You just don't go there, thought Nate, not even in a joke. One incorrect response to a line like that and you could lose your university position, if you had one, which Nate didn't, but still… You don't even think about it.
"No thanks, this shirt has UV protection woven in," he said, thinking about what it would be like to have Amy do him.
Amy looked suspiciously at his faded WE LIKE WHALES CONFERENCE 89 T-shirt and wiped the remaining sunscreen on her leg. " 'Kay," she said.
"You know, I sure wish I could figure out why these guys sing," Nate said, the hummingbird of his mind having tasted all the flowers in the garden to return to that one plastic daisy that would just not give up the nectar.
"No kidding?" Amy said, deadpan, smiling. "But if you figure it out, what would we do tomorrow?"
"Show off," Nate said, grinning.
"I'd be typing all day, analyzing research, matching photographs, filing song tapes —»
"Bringing us doughnuts," Nate added, trying to help.
Amy continued, counting down the list on her fingers, "- picking up blank tapes, washing down the trucks and the boats, running to the photo lab —»
"Not so fast," Nate interrupted.
"What, you're going to deprive me the joy of running to the photo lab while you bask in scientific glory?"
"No, you can still go to the photo lab, but Clay hired a guy to wash the trucks and boats."
A delicate hand went to her forehead as she swooned, the southern belle in hiking shorts, taken with the vapors. "If I faint and fall overboard, don't let me drown."
"You know, Amy," Nate said as he undressed the crossbow, "I don't know how it was at Boston doing survey, but in behavior, research assistants are only supposed to bitch about the humiliating grunt work and lowly status to other research assistants. It was that way when I was doing it, it was that way going back centuries, it has always been that way. Darwin himself had someone on the
to file dead birds and sort index cards."
"He did not. I've never read anything about that."
"Of course you didn't. Nobody writes about research assistants." Nate grinned again, celebration for a small victory. He realized he wasn't working up to standards on managing this research assistant. His partner, Clay, had hired her almost two weeks ago, and by now he should have had her terrorized. Instead she was working him like a Starbucks froth slave.
"Ten minutes," Amy said, checking the timer on her watch. "You going to shoot him?"
"Unless you want to?" Nate notched the arrow into the crossbow. He tucked the windbreaker they used to «dress» the crossbow under the console. It was very politically incorrect to carry a weapon for shooting whales through the crowded Lahaina harbor, so they carried it inside the windbreaker, making it appear that they had a jacket on a hanger.
Amy shook her head violently. "I'll drive the boat."
"You should learn to do it."
"I'll drive the boat," Amy said.
"No one drives the boat." No one but Nate drove the boat. Granted, the
was only a twenty-three-foot Mako speedboat, and an agile four-year-old could pilot it on a calm day like today. Still, no one else drove the boat. It was a man thing, being inherently uncomfortable with the thought of a woman operating a boat or a television remote control.
"Up sounds," Nate said. They had a recording of the full sixteen-minute cycle of the song now — all the way through twice, in fact. He stopped the recorder and pulled up the hydrophone, then started the engine.
"There," Amy said, pointing to the white fins and flukes moving under the water. The whale blew only twenty yards off the bow. Nate buried the throttle. Amy was wrenched off her feet and just caught herself on the railing next to the wheel console as the boat shot forward. Nate pulled up on the right side of the whale, no more than ten yards away as the whale came up for the second time. He steadied the wheel with his hip, pulled up the crossbow, and fired. The bolt bounced off the whale's rubbery back, the hollow surgical steel arrowhead taking out a cookie-cutter plug of skin and blubber the size of a pencil eraser before the wide plastic tip stopped the penetration.
The whale lifted his tail out of the water and snapped it in the air, making a sound like a giant knuckle cracking as the massive tail muscles contracted.
"He's pissed," Nate said. "Let's go for a measurement."
"Now?" Amy questioned. Normally they would wait for another dive cycle. Obviously Nate thought that because of their taking the skin sample the whale might start traveling. They could lose him before getting a measurement.
"Now. I'll shoot, you work the rangefinder."
Nate backed off the throttle a bit, so he would be able to catch the entire tail fluke in the camera frame when the whale dove. Amy grabbed the laser rangefinder, which looked very much like a pair of binoculars made for a cyclops. By taking a distance measurement from the animal's tail with the rangefinder and comparing the size of the tail in the frame of the picture, they could measure the relative size of the entire animal. Nate had come up with an algorithm that, so far, gave them the length of a whale with 98 percent accuracy. Just a few years ago they would've had to have been in an aircraft to measure the length of a whale.
"Ready," Amy said.
The whale blew and arched its back into a high hump as he readied for the dive (the reason whalers had named them humpbacks in the first place). Amy fixed the rangefinder on the whale's back; Nate trained the camera's telephoto on the same spot, and the autofocus motors made tiny adjustments with the movement of the boat.
The whale fluked, raising its tail high in the air, and there, instead of the distinct pattern of black-and-white markings by which all humpbacks were identified, were — spelled out in foot-high black letters across the white — the words BITE ME!
Nate hit the shutter button. Shocked, he fell into the captain's chair, pulling back the throttle as he slumped. He let the Nikon sag in his lap.