I savour the meal of plastic as I cut through the water; each pass a different symphony of flavour. It is sour and bitter by shifting degrees and always has been so. The meal brings me little comfort in my solitude. I would sing my complaints, but no one is left to hear them. My pod is gone; I am the last. I remember their songs and I moan them to the inky depths. There is no response.
When the pod first came to this feeding ground, we had only to open our mouths and flick our tails once to be filled. Now it takes a full day’s swimming to stave off hunger. Perhaps it is just as well that my pod does not suffer with me.
I hear a high-pitched whine and cast my eyes upwards to the shadowed speck of Little Note’s boat. Like food, Little Note’s people were more plentiful in the past. The water hummed with the drone of their presence, drowning out our songs, but I miss them almost as much as the melodies of my pod.
Spray from my blowhole reaches for the sky. Little Note is next to me. Grandmother One-eye called her Great Mother; for she was there from the start, leading our migration from one feeding ground to the next, until at last there is nothing left to eat. The rest of us called her Little Note, because her song was soft and stilted.
Grandmother One-eye was the first of our pod to die, slowing until her great fins could no longer bear her along the ocean winds; sinking into the black below. Her great body wracked with stiffness, she groaned in her sleep, infecting the song of the pod with her melancholy. I feel the same tightening down the length of my muscles now, the ache cutting to the bone.
Little Note swims beside me, tiny as a stillborn calf. I feel the pressure as she slaps something on my side and we speak.
“Are you well, White Nose?”
A twisting scar runs above my mouth, a reminder of an encounter with a shark. The name has stuck since my calfhood.
“Food is thin here. The plastic is almost gone, Little Note. Are you going to bring me to another feeding ground? There is no pod left to eat it.” Plastic is one of the strange, discordant words that our pod used. Grandmother One-eye said they came from Little Note.
“There are no more feeding grounds. The great work is nearly done.”
“So am I. Every day brings more pain. It was the same for the rest. I do not have long.”
“That is why I came. I spent the better part of my life with your pod and I would not have you go into the dark alone.”
“This is the end of my pod, then?”
“Yes, but not of the whales. A lifetime ago, there was nothing but a grand swirling mass of death here and in the other feeding grounds. We made your pod to eat it. Life returns to these waters. First the lesser, than the greater. Have you seen the others?”
I have. They were curious, those strangers that looked so much like my pod and me. There were only three of us left when they first appeared; frolicking amidst the shoals of flashing silver and glittering pink. We danced amongst them for a time, but they ignored us and followed some unheard call to other waters.
“We saw them for a season. They could not eat the plastic like we could. We sang to them but heard only silence in return. They left. We stayed.”
Little Note swims so close that I can no longer see her, but still I feel her touch on my throat. “They are not the same as you. Your songs are different. You will never hear theirs, nor they yours. It had to be this way. I made your pod different on the inside. It had to be so for the great work.”
I let loose a long, mournful wail, wordless but with clear meaning. “I have the songs of my pod; old One-eye, Blue, Broken Mouth and the others. When I die they will all be lost.”
“I will remember.”
I want to be free of the conversation. I would let myself sink into the depths if I could. But there is still that fear in me, like blundering into a cold current, chilling me deep to my rotting core. Better to be lonely with songs of my pod.
“Why do you come back, Little Note?”
“Because you are all my children. I knew your task would be hard, but I never imagined your pain. I promised One-eye that I would watch to the end.”
“Why is there pain?”
“Each piece of the death you eat is smaller than you can see. But your bodies gather them into the muscles of your flanks, of your tails, in your bones; binds them so death will never float on the sea winds. Your pod takes it all to the bottom of the ocean so that it can never hurt anything again. That is the great work. ”
The stiffness. The pain. A thousand meals dragging me down towards my pod.
“Who will eat all the plastic after I am gone?”
“There is no more. That is why you’re the last.”
The food is all but gone now. I am not sure whether it is starvation or the pain that will take me first, but it will be soon. The silvery fishes are back, and so are the krill, so thick that they cloud the water as far as I can see. Eating them wracks me with more pain than the hunger and I have long given up.
Little Note is by my side once more. I know we will not see each other again. Even her tiny form by my flank is enough to warm my skin; I am very cold.
“Are you in pain?”
“I am at peace.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
No answer presents itself. “I cannot eat what the other whales eat.”
“No. That’s not what you were made for.”
Little Note’s songs were always flat and lifeless through the thing she strapped to my side, but it seems I can hear a new softness in her voice.
“We knew so very little when we made your pod, White Nose. We watched your pod carry out the great work, witnessed your pain, but it was too late to take it back. Now that the work is done, we want to forget you. We forget too soon. It is the way of my pod. But I will not forget and I will not be the only one.”
It is darker now. I can hardly make her out, but I know Little Note is there. I can feel the others; the whales are back.
I cry out, maybe for the last time. Part of it is hurt, part of it is my song. For once, there is an acknowledgement. An old whale, even older than Grandmother One-eye comes forth.
“The little one told us about your pod and about you, White Nose.” Her voice is strange and alien to me. It comes from the same place as Little Note’s voice, that tiny itchy thing on the side of my head. “I am the oldest of my herd and the only one that remembers when this place was nothing but poison.”
It is nearly time. I feel the stiffness in my fins; an ocean’s worth of blight in my body, pressing on my lungs and slowing my blood. A pair of whales draws near, taking some of my weight on their backs. I am grateful.
“Our herd has a gift for you, to remember your sacrifice.” She begins to sing, her age showing in the quaver of the whalesong. It is different and strange, but it is mine. Mine and my pod’s. One by one, the others take it up, until the waters vibrate with music. The old one comes to me, her whisper louder than a hundred singing whales. “As long as our herd sings, your song will never be forgotten.”
The waters above are as dark as the depths below. It is not night yet. The light is fading. There is something I need to know.
“Do you regret the great work, Little Note?”
In the time it takes her to answer, the two whales bearing me aloft take more and more of my weight. There is no strength left.
“No, White Nose.” She pauses, taking in the sound of the pod singing. “No,” she says again, softer now, “Do you?”
The pain is near unbearable. My companions will not last much longer without surfacing. It matters little, I will not break the glittering skin of the ocean again. But there, with the song of my pod, I am content.