by Krista Beucler
“Daddy is taking us to Hawaii,” Mom tells Keziah. She uses the bright voice she saves for talking to children, but Keziah can hear the edge of hurt and bitterness and tears beneath, as if her sentence doesn’t end with “because he loves us,” but instead, “to make it up to me.” And Keziah does not know what is wrong, only that something is, something pulled taut between her parents. She flinches away like she does when the boy who sits behind her in class stretches his rubber band, ready to snap it against her skin.
Keziah has never seen the ocean before she sees it from the window of the plane, and it scares her. It is so big and so dark. It is like the underneath of her bed, and Keziah is sure it, too, is full of monsters.
The hotel is clean and white and impersonal. The palm trees bob in the breeze, and the constant sound of the ocean roars in the background. How could it not be the sound of many monsters? But people come to Hawaii for the ocean, to lie on the sand, to tumble in the waves, to golden in the sun.
Keziah’s mother is determined that they enjoy themselves, or at least that they appear to enjoy themselves. In the hotel room, Keziah’s mother helps her put on the new sea-blue swimsuit that matches her own.
“Look how pretty we are,” Mom says to the two reflections in the mirror. “Two mermaids clothed in ocean.”
The hotel concierge directs them smilingly to a kayak rental office on the beach. The fragile peace begins to fracture, but as they walk along the sand, Keziah lets the words exchanged between her parents blend into the crashing of the waves.
As they go into the rental office, the sound of the waves recedes, and the words come rushing back:
“I don’t know what else you want me to do. I said I was sorry. I deleted her number. I brought you to fucking Hawaii. You want me to buy Keziah a pony?” her father says.
“I want you not to cause a scene.” Her mom’s mouth thins to a pursed line. “Just book us a damn kayak so we can see some damn whales.”
“I don’t wanna go.” But Keziah isn’t sure she said it aloud. Even if she had spoken the words, she knows her parents wouldn’t have listened anyway.
“This is supposed to be fun,” Dad insists. “You’re having fun, right, Keziah? Family vacations are always fun.” He doesn’t give her a chance to answer.
A man with suntanned skin and dark brown eyes cinches tight Keziah’s life vest, his smile warm.
Keziah’s mother returns his smile, playing the part of a carefree vacationer. The kayak guide walks the big, yellow kayak into the surf. Keziah’s mother holds her hand, and they and Keziah’s father walk into the ocean, where the guide is holding the kayak steady in the shallow water.
They put Keziah in first, and for a moment she fears they’ll push the boat off, just her aboard, floating along, alone on the lemon-yellow kayak in the limitless ocean as monsters swirl beneath her. She’ll look back at her parents’ forms growing smaller and smaller as they wave from the beach.
But the guide holds the boat as Keziah’s parents get in one after the other. He hands them each a paddle and indicates to her father where they should go to see the whales, where it’s not safe to take the kayak. He mimes paddling while he tells them how to get past the breaking waves. He pushes them off, and the boat rocks with the waves.
Everything is big, and Keziah feels so small beside her parents, small sitting in the middle of the kayak, small atop the wide, flat ocean that swallows up the horizon, small beneath the sky that domes the earth.
Keziah hugs her knees while her parents paddle them out. In school, Keziah has studied humpback whales. She did a science project on them once. She knows they eat tiny crustaceans called krill and they live in groups called pods. She’s looked up videos of their wide mouths levering shut, of the barnacles that crust their skin, of the spiral bubble nets that trap their prey. She has listened to the sounds of the whale song recorded on underwater microphones by divers. She has seen the divers, puny beside the whales.
All the books called humpback whales “gentle giants,” but Keziah doesn’t know how anything that big could really be gentle. An accidental flick of its mighty tail, and the diver would go flinging off into oblivion.
She sits in the center of their flat-bottomed kayak in the waves, so unstable, the barest movements jostle it. She imagines a whale longer than the school bus. How many kayaks end to end would make up a whale? The kayak is so small; a little bump from the whale would send it flipping into the deep.
Keziah pulls her knees tighter to her chest, her heart constricting with fear.
“See the spouts, Keziah?” Mom calls over her shoulder.
Keziah sees them in the distance—water from the humpbacks’ blowholes expels into the air like the interactive fountain at the park.
“Jalene, you have to keep paddling and match my strokes.” Keziah’s father’s breath puffs out his nose in irritation.
“I can’t see you. You have to match me because I’m in front.”
A shadow passes under the boat, and Keziah leans over to look, her heart pounding. If it’s a monster, she wants to know. A humpback whale has broken away from the rest of the pod, as if curious about the yellow boat. Keziah knows it’s a humpback whale, but she doesn’t know yet if it’s a monster.
Keziah’s parents still trade barbs, but their voices fade into the background. The way the water moves makes it hard to see the whale, just a dark, oblong shape as big as four lemon-yellow kayaks.
“Then I’ll just turn the boat around,” shouts her father, digging his paddle in hard on one side of the boat. The forward momentum is checked and the boat lurches. Keziah overbalances and falls overboard with a tiny splash.
The whole world is blue. Light shifts through the water, dappling patches of light and dark. The whale swims below her and looks right at Keziah. Keziah knows it. The whale’s eye is almost human, calm and kind and baleful, hooded and soft. The light through the water plays over her dark gray skin like tiny fairies, dipping and cavorting, painting the whale with brightness.
The whole world of the ocean surrounds her, and the whale pauses beside her, and Keziah is so small, but she doesn’t feel small. She feels as if she is part of something huge. Her chest fizzes with bubbles, expanding, drifting, levitating. It’s as if the whole of the ocean is inside her.
She puts out a hand, smooths it over the slick skin of the whale. The cool water raises prickled bumps over Keziah’s skin. The whale blinks slowly, and with a slight movement of a fin, she drifts closer to Keziah, closer to the surface. Keziah has no idea how long she’s been in the water. It feels like an instant. It feels like an eternity.
Humpback whales can hold their breath for sixty minutes, Keziah knows. She doesn’t know how long she can hold her breath, but she knows she can hold it all the way through the tunnel they drive through on the way to the city. But only if she takes a big breath first. She didn’t take a deep breath before she fell into the ocean. She’s not worried though.
She could float beside the whale forever. The light in her vision expands and dances, and Keziah imagines she transforms into a light mote that lances through the ocean. She feels as if she is billions and billions of atoms drifting apart and joining together with the whole world.
And if a hand grabs the back of her life jacket, she doesn’t feel it, or she does, in the way that she feels everything that is happening in the ocean, everywhere all at once. If she has to leave the water, she is sure her heart will break.
Around her the water fills with whale song, haunting and pulsing and whistling and crying. And Keziah sings too.
Originally from Colorado, Krista Beucler received a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. She was the Editor-in-Chief for Issue 7.2 of the Rappahannock Review, the literary journal published by the University of Mary Washington. Krista is a winner of the Julia Peterkin Award, and her creative work has been published in From Whispers To Roars, South 85 Journal, and Under the Sun. She can be found online at her website, krustabeucler.com and on Instagram @authorkristabeuclerand