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Apocalypse from inside the orca enclosure

by Audrey Lovinger

 

The woman who brings the fish is dead on the floor.

The orca knows what this looks like because her calf was born small and gray and crumpled and never opened its mouth to nurse.  
 
The glass between them is very thick and smeared by fingerprints. The orca cannot break it, though she tried for hours when the feedings stopped.
 
It is very dark inside the big room. Most of the bulbs that illuminate the tanks and walkways have stopped working.  
 
The orca still had her dead calf on her back when they trapped her and brought her in. She snapped and thrashed and crushed the mechanical arm that hoisted her away but they left her baby anyways. She watched her calf’s body sink very slowly into the black water. There was nothing she could do.
 
The woman who brings the fish used to recite poetry at night with her blue-gloved hands covered in chum and viscera. Poetry is not something the orca knows much about, but the woman’s voice sounded like bells ringing underwater, soft and silvery. Nothing dies. Nothing really dies.
 
The orca cannot tell how many days it has been since she last ate. She swims laps around the tank. Hunger keeps her awake, a cruel, watery ache in her belly.  
 
The gestation period of an orca is eighteen months. Orcas live and travel together in matrilineal pods. Orcas stay with their mothers until one of them dies.  
 
The woman who brings the fish used to stand and talk to the orca when nobody else was around. The orca cannot speak her language but she understands it. (This is unique; dolphins cannot understand any language but their own. Neither can sharks.) Orcas have very good hearing.  
 
The woman had a child who was going far away for a long time. It made the woman very sad.  
 
I know you had a baby too, the woman said once as she cleaned the glass with a yellow rag. I’m so sorry. It isn’t fair.
 
There are tall green plants in the orca’s tank, but they are not the kind that grew where she lived. She eats them very slowly. It is not a very good meal.  
 
Orcas can go for a long time without food. But she does not know how long exactly, nor does she know how long it has already been.  
 
The orca thinks of the large pink salmon she used to eat every day. They were still alive when the woman brought them, alive so that the orca could chase and catch and kill them in her massive jaws. Orcas are very fast and very strong. Apex predators. It is supposed to stoke her prey drive, chasing the salmon; however, the orca knows better. She knows she is not in the ocean. She knows that the salmon are bred and fed and raised expressly for this purpose. It does not matter how fast they swim. They cannot escape. Their short lives have been predetermined for them. In the ocean, it is bad luck. In here, it is an inevitability.
 
Or course, the orca cannot escape either.  
 
It is bad luck, but the orca is glad that it was her rather than her mother or her sister or her sister’s calf. The orca hopes that they found her baby after the ocean settled. She tells herself that they did; orcas are very fast and can see well, even underneath the water. Orcas mourn for forty days.  
 
This is what she wants to tell the woman who brings the fish when she cries about her child: it will stop hurting after forty days.  
 
Of course, the orca is not sure whether this is true up here. (After all, it is not true for dolphins, or for sharks.) Of course, though she is sure it has been more than forty days, the orca is still mourning.
 
The woman’s body has become bloated and soft with rot. In the ocean, things decompose quietly; in the ocean, flesh breaks apart and returns to silt and settles on the seafloor. Salty and cold and clean. The concrete beneath the woman’s body does not offer the same grace.  
 
The orca is very tired. She cannot bear to swim anymore, only to hover above the smooth floor of her tank in the unmoving water. She thinks of her baby, who was never hungry, never cold, never afraid.  
 
There is a quiet hydraulic hiss in the distance. There is the faint hum of overlapping human voices.  
 
Good, the orca thinks, that’s enough. Someone has come to remove the earrings of the woman who brings the fish and take them to her child who has gone far away for a long time.  
 
The voices grow louder. The orca opens her eyes. It is very difficult. Orcas can see well, even in the dark.  
 
A finger taps against the thick, smeared glass. Hey, a voice says. Look.
 

Jesus. That’s a big fucking fish.
 
The gestation period of an orca is eighteen months, resulting, most of the time, in the birth of a live young. Orcas are not fish.  
 
Shit!  
 
Quiet.
 
Did you see the stiff?
 
Yeah. Shut up.
 
 
The woman who brings the fish did not lock the door that connects the big room to the orca’s tank. The orca hears it open, hears heavy footsteps on the stairway. Orcas have very good hearing.  
 
She wonders whether she will be fed. She wonders whether she can still open her mouth to chew.  
 
The two men have reached the top of the staircase. The orca can see their faces blurring and rippling through the surface of the water.  
 
Just put it out of its misery. I’m fucking starving.
 
One of the men is holding something that the orca has never seen before. It is small and silver and clicks metallically in his hands. The orca is very, very tired.  
 
The orca hears a cruel, explosive sound. It is very loud and very close, and her eyes feel very heavy, and then she cannot open them at all anymore.  
 
Good, the orca thinks, that’s enough. The woman who recites poetry gets up off the floor and turns on the lights.

 

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