The Ballad of the Humpbacks

Tim Keppel


          On the Lancha headed for Gorgona Island, with the ocean spray in his face and the smell of the life jackets and the roar of the motor, John Waite was thinking about the whales. Beside him sat a spunky young woman, pouty, long-haired, a little scrawny, but with whiskey-colored skin and white teeth that gave her an air of innocence. And just her name, Paola. Not the simple English Paula, but PaOla, with that inspiring "O" right there in the middle, that round, gaping "O," impossible to say unenthusiastically. PaOla! You stole my heart! Though not an old man, Waite was conspicuously, perhaps scandalously, older than the girl. But at this point what did he care?

                    He sniffed the wetness of his backpack to make sure it was salt water, not alcohol: a leak. One of the rules of the island was no drinking—something about the large population of snakes and how alcohol-thinned blood quickened the effects of the poison, not leaving enough time to get back to the mainland. Waite had packed a fifth of bourbon and a good stash of weed. What were they going to do, lock him up?

          He had found out a few weeks before. The doc had offered him chemo by I.V. or pills—or nothing at all "if you so choose." At one point he used the phrase, "with the pills, you could travel," which helped Waite make up his mind.

          "How much time do I have?"

          "Do what you need to do."

          Leaving his personal affairs in disarray, Waite booked a flight down to Miami and then on to Cali.

          A tongue of water lapped up over the boat and Paola grabbed Waite's arm. He felt a rush of tenderness as she covered up the green and yellow backpack he'd bought for her. With his poncho, he gallantly shielded her from the spray.

          Waite resumed his discourse about the snakes and monkeys and tropical fish they would see on the island. And then for the highlight they'd go out to see the hump-backed whales.

          Paola groaned. "I feel like I'm going to puke."

          Waite had told her to take the Dramamine, but she'd refused.

          "That's crazy," Waite said. "Would you rather suffer?"

          "Pills are bad for you," Paola snapped. "Too many chemicals."

          Paola had a lot of strange notions like that. She believed that reading on a bus would detach your corneas, and that freckles came from not drying off all the little water drops before getting sun. And she told him you should never drink your beverage until you'd finished eating your entire meal.

          "What?" Waite said.

          "Well, you don't see dogs eating and drinking at the same time, do you?"

          Paola was a handful: superstitious and impulsive, both spoiled and deprived; she pouted for obscure reasons, then acted euphoric and out of control. She was rib-showing-thin ("Flaca, Flaca, throw me a bone!") and a salsa fanatic; she found jazz "boring," and she had the unfortunate habit of sucking on fish bones. But Waite liked the way she kneaded his ears sometimes ("You knead me and I knead you!") and all in all they had gotten along pretty well; he kept thinking that things could work out.

          Waite had first spotted Paola the day he checked in at the Tropicana Hotel, and they gave him a room overlooking the palm-lined park, from which he could see the tinterillos with their ancient Remingtons, banging out documents and love letters for the illiterate and the lonely. He was thrilled to see them still there, just as they'd been many years before when he was with Natalia, the one who broke his heart.

          Waite was strolling past a clothing store called La Luna when he saw Paola leaning hip-cocked in the doorway, a gum-chewing sardina in a halter top and heels, with that restless, sophisticated boredom of a nineteen year-old. He observed her from a café across the street, sipping a tinto, planning and scheming.

          "Why don't you try them on," Paola said as Waite eyed the phony Levi's. She led him back to a miniscule dressing booth, impossible to maneuver in, where he bumped and banged until Paola suddenly threw open the curtain.

          Waite's pants were down around his knees.

          Paola stood there, arms crossed, watching him fasten up. "They look real good on you." She smiled.

          Waite narrowed his eyes and responded like someone who has nothing—or everything—to lose. "Would you like to go with me to see the whales?"

          Waite's dream went like this: he felt himself waking up, hearing voices from outside. A blue glow beamed from the TV which was, confusingly, down on the floor. Noticing that the other side of the bed was empty, he got up and wandered into the den to discover that all the furniture had been pushed over against the sliding glass doors. A large crowd of people stood outside, talking and laughing, many of whom Waite had known forever. But he couldn't get near them because the furniture was blocking the way.

          Now the wind stretched his cheeks into a ghoulish grin. Paola was still feeling sick and refusing to take the pills. She's irrational, Waite thought, but as Keats said: Those who are rational about love are incapable of it.

          "Just wait till you see the whales," Waite raved. "They come all the way from Antarctica, 8000 kilometers from here, the longest migration of any living mammal."

          All this information. All this stuff he'd stored in his head: the meaning of Latin roots, the lives of the philosophers. And for what? So it would suddenly, like words on a blackboard, be erased?

          "I've heard they make the most amazing sounds," Waite went on. "The males, during mating season. Long repeated sequences of sound, which qualify by definition as 'songs'."

          "I'm impressed," Paola said, with a jab of sarcasm. That's the kind of thing she would do. Natalia was never like that. (To the contrary, she always wanted Waite to be more enthusiastic. She was tired of his cynicism. Which was ultimately why she started seeing someone else. But that was another story.)

          Yet when they reached the island, Paola introduced herself to the park authority guy as Waite's pareja. Which suggested that they were a couple. Which warmed Waite's heart. Then, walking to their cabin, she asked Waite if he thought a man should help his pareja out financially.

          Waite considered this for a moment. "That depends."

          "On what?"

          "On whether she acts like she'd be sorry to lose him."

          In Cali, Paola lived out near the prison: busted streetlights, trash-heaped lots, shady characters eyeing you larcenously. The wall around her small adobe house was capped with glass from broken bottles. Inside hung a picture of the Virgin. Paola, wearing a gauzy white dress, said, "Hola, Gringolandia!"

          At a restaurant high above the city, spreading flyers and brochures out over the table, Waite had made his case for the trip.

          "I can't get off work," Paola said, slurping borojó juice through a straw.

          "Get Claudia to replace you." Waite had lovingly memorized the names of Paola's co-workers, family members and favorite celebrities. He had listened attentively as she told him all about her lecherous, contraband-dealing boss, and her situation at home with her step-father, recently deceased—murdered, no less—and her sister who needed extra care because she was—Paola sought the word—special.

          "I can't," Paola said. "I need the money."

          "How much do you earn a day?"

          She told him.

          "I'll triple it."

          Her back went up. "What do you think I am?"

          "Do you know how much this trip means to me?"

          Paola bit her lip. "You'll have to talk to my boss."


          The sight of their cabin, quaint and cozy, with a narrow, springy bed where they would sleep, brought Waite almost to tears. He imagined the two of them getting a little place in the city, with a terrace where they could hang a hammock and look out at the mountains in the late afternoon breeze.

          Waite asked Paola if she'd ever been in love. Only with the motorcyclist, she said, and she told how he used to ride her on the back of his throbbing Suzuki, racing through red lights, zigzagging through traffic. He was a wild man, always in high gear. He had no brakes.

          Paola met him at a discotheque, where they danced until late. That's when he slipped escopolamina in her drink and took her to a motel. Paola woke up angry but soon cooled off. He was such a charmer; she couldn't let him go.

          One evening after watching TV with him on her sofa, Paola said good-night at the door. Moments later, she heard the roar of his Suzuki and then four blasts. She raced outside to find him twisting on the ground, gnawing the pavement.

          Paola teared up just telling it.

          That afternoon the park official gave a talk about the island's wildlife. Snakes were so populous here, he explained, because millenniums ago this island was a mountaintop; when the ocean waters rose, all the snakes sought higher ground. The Spaniards baptized it Gorgona after the serpent-haired sisters of Greek mythology. The park guy held up several large snakes in jars of formaldehyde—corals, copperheads, moccasins—explaining their different characteristics and the potency of their venom.

          Then he showed a film about the whales. The humpbacks were among the most fascinating creatures on earth, it said. The sound they made raised the hairs on Waite's arms. It was the oddest sound he'd ever heard and yet uncannily familiar, as if he'd always known it or somehow sensed he would someday hear it.

          It appeared to be not one but many different calls, as if coming from many different animals, or one animal imitating all the rest, the whole animal kingdom. There was lowing, screeching, howling, roaring, and a sound almost like crying, as if the huge creatures were desperate to explain something but didn't know how. As if they were just smart enough to know there was something they wanted to say, and not stupid enough to not care that they couldn't.

          Scientists weren't sure why the humpbacks sang, the film said, or what their song was supposed to mean. Some thought the songs were an elaborate acoustic display designed to attract females. Others believed the song patterns helped the whales communicate over long distances, perhaps providing information about their journey.

          That night Waite dreamed the same dream, of waking up to discover all the furniture pushed against the glass doors. He could see all the people out there talking and laughing, but he couldn't get near them, or even make himself known.

          He woke up sweating, his stomach clenched. Beside him, Paola was breathing deeply through parted lips. He wanted to touch her, cling to her, unleash all the wild yearnings in his heart. Instead he stumbled to his knapsack and grabbed the bourbon. After several long pulls, he remembered that he hadn't taken his pills. So he popped a couple and brought the bottle to his lips. No, that wasn't kosher, he thought, so he washed them down with water and then drank the bourbon.

          Then he noticed, sticking out of Paola's backpack, a picture postcard of the island. Keeping one eye on her, Waite stealthily slid it out. He was touched by her awkward but earnest scrawl: Hola Momá. I got sick in the boat. The gringo bought me a backpack. He reads all the time and underlines everything. He tells me not to eat with my fingers…

          Waite returned the card to the backpack and stood watching Paola sleep. He had been without a woman at different times in his life; he had played musical chairs with them, never once thinking he'd get left out when the music stopped. To say that Waite was afraid of dying would have been incorrect; he was terrified.

          Waite wandered outside and stared up at the stars; the night was cloudless and bright. He took another swig of bourbon and listened to the surf. Ever since he was a kid, he'd been fascinated by the ocean. He remembered walking along in the surf as a boy, ankle-deep in the sparkling tide, captivated by the tiny sand fiddlers and minnows scurrying back with the receding rush, just before being left stranded. The memory came back to him with an unexpected force, all his hopes and illusions; he could feel the sensations exactly, just as if he were there, and suddenly the thought of having to let go of everything was almost overwhelming. He sucked again from the bottle, and in his mind he began to hear the song of the whales—that haunting, noble ballad, that roaring and crying and squealing, all those incommunicable messages from the deep.

          Something moved in the grass; Waite leapt back and froze. He'd almost stepped on it. Now it recoiled, glaring at him with elliptical eyes. Its head was broad and triangular and its body gray with dark crossbands. Waite felt a jolt of adrenaline and did something that surprised him. He lunged toward the serpent, taunting it, daring it to strike. The creature tensed and drew back its head, flicking its long, forked tongue. Then it struck. Waite jumped back; a hair more and it would have got him. Then it turned abruptly and slithered away.

          When Waite opened his eyes the next morning, he found Paola wearing a lime green string bikini that could have fit into a shot glass. She had oiled her amber skin. She was twirling around and singing, euphoric: there was a dance that night.

          Waite wasn't a big dancer, this he had made clear. "Who said anything about a dance?"

          Paola looked appalled. "I don't believe you!" She leapt up on the bed and began jumping up and down, landing, each time, dangerously closer to Waite's crotch. The mattress squeaked furiously.

          "Hey, hey, hey!" Waite said. "All right, we'll go. Just so you're coming with me tomorrow to see the whales."

          Now she wanted to get her hair braided. Waite had planned on taking her snorkeling. He had looked forward to giving her instructions, patient and reassuring, cupping his hands under her ribs to keep her afloat.

          As Paola was putting on her sandals, Waite felt something wet above his lip. He touched his fingers to his nose and they came back scarlet with blood. Quickly he ducked into the bathroom, closing the door as if from an attack of modesty.

          At the thatch-roofed hut down by the beach, a heavy woman with a gold tooth sat on a stool; two younger women acted as helpers. All three grabbed strands and commenced to braid, capping each end with a brightly colored tab. Holding her head exceptionally still, Paola was relishing the attention. A stick of jasmine incense burned in a clay bowl and a radio played costeña music.

          The three women giggled and chattered in their lively accents, making comments which appeared to pertain to Waite, who sat at a distance writing a letter, pretending to pay no attention.

          Then one of them addressed him in broken English. "She wanna know where can she find another one like you!" It was the gold-toothed hair-twister, and she was indicating one of the girls, who beamed shyly and covered her mouth with her hand. "She say she'll wash your dishes and clean your shoes. Ha ha ha!" Everyone laughed. Waite laughed too. He glanced at Paola, who looked away, tightening her lips.

          Waite continued with his letter. He was writing to his younger brother in Philadelphia, the lawyer, the responsible one in the family: Well, I made it; everything's going as planned. The island's as beautiful as I remember it, and I'm accompanied by a lovely young woman who'd make you burn with envy. She works at a clothing store called La Luna. You can get in touch with her there. I want you to give her whatever's coming to me, okay? A little at a time, or however you want to do it…

          Suddenly another woman entered the hut, floating in on the scent of coconut oil and the jangle of beads. She produced some tarot cards and offered to read Paola's palm. When Paola's eagerness was unconcealable, the adivina jacked up her price.

          But Waite didn't flinch. When all eyes turned for his answer, he leveled his gaze and nodded regally.

          Bending back Paola's fingers and elaborately examining her palm, the adivina announced in a measured, raspy voice, that Waite and Paola would "grow old together."

          "Bravo!" cried the girls.

          Paola was speechless, dumbstruck with the weight of prophesy.


          That night at the gazebo, the salsa music blaring, Paola granted Waite the first dance. She grimaced as he stepped on her shoes and tried awkwardly to spin her around, at one point knocking over a chair. Embarrassed to death, she suggested he sit down and rest while she danced with a guy sporting a two-tiered haircut.

          Waite sat at a small table near several couples. He sipped from the bourbon he concealed beneath his chair. His face was flaming. Blood rushed in his ears.

          "Hey," he said in a loud voice to the couple beside him. "I almost got bit by a snake last night."

          "What?" The man shouted over the music.

          "A snake!" Waite said. "Almost got me!" He sawed his finger across his neck, then turned his palms up like "Oh, well."

          The man looked puzzled and pointed to his ear.

          Waite nodded and surveyed the dancers. Everything seemed far away.

          Suddenly, yielding to a wild impulse, he jumped up and began pushing his table over beside the couple's. Then the next table, and the next, he pulled those over too. Six or seven tables he pushed right up together—"Excuse me, please"—spilling soft drinks and candle wax in the process, until all the people were sitting close, a whole big group of people, all at the bequest of Waite, who began to narrate his adventure with the snake, talking boisterously, getting up to act it out, suddenly on a roll, exaggerating and embroidering, making himself seem fearful then fearless, reckless then wise, philosophical in the face of doom. He quoted from Julius Cesar: "The coward dies a thousand deaths, the valiant only one." He'd never been more entertaining. And he enjoyed it! Everyone was impressed, even Paola, who drew her braids behind her ears and smiled flirtatiously. For a moment everything was perfect.

          But then the band started up and they all got up to dance.

          Waite woke before daylight. It was foggy and cool. A nightbird called and a cricket scratched a tune. Waite dressed quietly, letting Paola sleep. In the mirror his face didn't look all that bad. But maybe it was like a haircut, which always looks best right before it looks the worst. He made sure to take the camera, the sun block, a cap. Then he opened a carton of juice and poured two cups.

          Waking, Paola stretched and yawned. "Why don't you just go on by yourself?"

          Waite grabbed the bedrail. He knew it. He knew it. He studied her face intently, interminably, trying to decide. Finally he nodded to himself and tossed the envelope on the bed.

          "Here," he said. "Can you mail this with yours?"

          Waite leaned over the prow of the boat, the wind in his face. He stared out at the cloud-marbled horizon, far, far off where the water met the sky. After a while they reached a place where schools of silvery shad were leaping from the sea, and scores of gulls were swooping down to scoop them up. A good sign, Waite would have explained to Paola if she'd been there.

          The ocean grew suddenly calm, and the sun threw down its light in prisms. The boat slowed and hushed, rocking on the waves. Then a huge spout of water shot up in the air. Six times a man's height, a high expanding column. An enormous barnacled tail fin rose up, then landed with a clap. Spellbound, Waite watched as the giant creature surfaced and dived, then rose once more, clearing the water magnificently. Then it went under—somehow Waite knew it—for the final time, plummeting into the darkness and disappearing, leaving only a vanishing circle of foam.

          Waite, his face on fire, heard rushing and flapping sounds in his ears, underwater sounds, cries and questioning squeals… Each whale sings a song unique to its group. This was the last thing he had marked in the book. Each year the humpbacks produce a new song, which contains elements from the previous year's. Over time the song changes completely.

          Waite faced the wind and drew a deep breath, feeling exhilarated, as one might feel after surviving a scare. This is something I can do. Then he closed his eyes and listened to the song.