Perhaps the fishermen saw it first, lanterns swinging in their hands, on their walk before dawn to the outrigger canoes moored softly in the sand. Or maybe the children did, running to school for the early Monday flag ceremony, dropping their backpacks to the sand in surprise.
We didn’t know who found it first, but it didn’t matter. It was not there the night before, and then it was.
Ang gulo! We woke to a commotion, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in ages. Not since the last typhoon, not since Mang Berto fell asleep drunk with his bonfire of dried leaves and grass still ablaze. We were only a small fishing village, and nothing happened here. Balyena! Balyena! the children shouted, and we ran to the sand to see the whale on our beach.
The creature lay turned away from the water, listed to one side, the surf lapping at its tail. Its face was pointed towards a dirt road and a broken wall of gray cement blocks. We warned our children not to get too close. We didn’t know whether the animal was dead or alive, dazed or sleeping. We gazed into its misshapen oval of an eye and could read neither hurt nor woe. There was much we didn’t know about the whale.
It was the biggest animal we’d ever seen. A width we could not measure with our sunburned hands. We touched the whale carefully, its body scraped and scarred. Its flesh did not have the slipperiness of sapsap flopping breathless at the bottom of a boat, nor the hard, rumbling warmth of a carabao. Instead, we felt a slight yielding, like a peeled hard-boiled egg in our palms.
We pried its mouth open gently with a piece of driftwood, afraid the whale would bite, and saw two teeth the color of spoiled milk. Hindi nagsisipilyo, someone said, and we laughed, imagining a toothbrush the size of a coconut branch.
We wondered how the whale would taste. What we could do with just a piece of flank, spun slow on a spit.
We looked for its ears and couldn’t find them. We wondered if it could hear all the fuss around it.
How we wished our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, could see this! But it was the middle of the night in Saudi Arabia where Papa was. And we’d have to wait until Sunday to call Nanay in Hong Kong on her one day off. And on the cargo ship most times Kuya couldn’t even get a signal.
We tried to take photographs of ourselves with the whale, but the animal was too large to fit in the frame. We posed instead with part of a fin, or a heavy-lidded eye, the whale captured in small slices.
Residents from the neighboring barangays arrived later, people like us with worn-out tsinelas on their feet, then the townspeople in their jeepneys and cars. The mayor’s wife, who had never visited us before, tiptoed across the sand, the cuffs of her pants carefully rolled. Her driver carried an umbrella to shield her from the sun.
Hands on his waist, the mayor surveyed the beach. Do something, see if you can push it into the sea, he said. We shook our heads but rolled up our sleeves and grunted, and our feet sank into wet sand.
When the scientists from the college arrived they told us to give it room. It was alive, all right. They said it was extremely rare for such a creature, especially of this size, to be found in Philippine waters. Even they had never seen one.
The scientists asked the mayor if a bulldozer could be brought in from the city, to nudge the thing out to sea without injuring it. Otherwise it would soon die. A boat to tug it back home, we said, hoping we’d be heard. The mayor grunted and looked out at the water.
That evening, by a bonfire, we kept the whale company. We took turns pouring buckets of water, away from the blowhole. The whale was clothed in a drenched quilt of blue and yellow towels.
What sound does it make? the children asked.
Whales sing, a scientist answered. They call out to other whales hundreds of miles away.
We looked at the whale. It had not made a sound since it arrived.
Why is it not singing? the children asked. How do we hear it?
Only if you listen very hard, the scientist said, winking.
We stopped to listen. If only we could speak its language, the children said.
The scientists said the whale’s calls sounded like a mournful sob. We knew the taktalaok of the rooster, and the singing of mayas in the trees, but this would be unlike any song we’d ever heard. A keening so loud you could hear it over the pounding of surf.
We listened hard, but could not hear. The only music we heard was the whisper of surf in the sand.
We were a village of fishermen. We lived in awe of the ocean: its generosity and cruelty, the beauty and terror of its expanse. The typhoon surges that roared in every season on our defenseless village, dragging corrugated roofs and people out to sea; the ocean wind unstitching the clouds from the sky. But our village remained rooted to the water, to the spray stinging our eyes, to the salt on our lips.
We’d been a village of fishermen for as long as our elders could remember. They recalled how the Americans and the Japanese fought in the war, but our barangay was too far from the cities and towns. We were only a speckle of a village, and nothing happened here.
Decades later, the Americans and Japanese returned, not as enemies, but as fellow tourists. But our village did not have surf gentle enough. Our beach is rockier, the sand less refined. So the resorts were built further north, though we all had the same sea and the same sunset. We watched as the rich people drove by but did not stop.
So we followed them north. We picked up passengers in our tricycles and wrapped burgers at Jollibee. We worked at the resorts to clean pools and cook Western food. We learned how to say thank you in German and Korean. Every morning we raked their beaches to a picture-perfect sheet of sand, without fallen leaves or tangles of seaweed to spoil the view, for tourists to trip across it with their manicured toes.
The day after the whale appeared, the tourists from Manila drove in, accompanied by the gleam of metal and the smell of sunscreen.
Down our dirt roads we watched the visitors stroll, their bodies soft and complexions fair, and we saw our own shabby houses, our unpainted walls, our crooked fences. Tao po, they asked, looking for the whale, saan po ‘yung balyena, and we pointed opposite of where they came. There. Couldn’t they see the ocean beyond the coconut trees, and smell the salt coming from the west? As if one couldn’t tell where the land ended and the sea began. Past a certain point it was all water.
Finally the tourists stopped asking because they simply followed the crowds. We followed them too. We sold them lukewarm water bottles and bags of salted peanuts and cigarettes by the pack. Aling Lita sold all her suman, even to the foreigners, who got their fingers sticky unwrapping hot sweetened rice from banana leaves.
The noise, the traffic, the hordes of people in the streets. Such chaos! We skipped algebra and science. We forgot to tune in to our soap operas. We neglected to feed the chickens.
We wanted to tell our daughters, our sons. Everyone agreed this was the most excitement to happen to our village. More than the governor coming to town seeking reelection, more than all the Santacruzan parades combined. We tried taking photographs of the visitors, but there were so many, they could not fit inside the frame.
The mayor had no time to pinch Brylcreem into his hair before the cameras arrived. The reporter from Aksyon Tonite, the newscaster from Channel 7, walking among us. We gathered behind the mayor like a wayward school of fish. Waving our thin arms at the camera, hoping we’d be seen.
Later that evening, we saw our faces on television, fuzzy and unfamiliar. The scene was brief. The reporter spoke, and the mayor spoke. The whale said nothing.
We’d been a village of fishermen until the big boats came, the greedy mouths of their nets scooping into our shoals. It is true, the fish had never come willingly to our nets and rods, but they lived in the same waters our grandfathers had sailed.
The fish were no longer ours, and our jobs were no longer enough. We wanted to send our children to school, to college even; we needed to pay for medicine; we wanted a little more food on the table; we all had debts to pay.
And so our daughters, our fathers, learned how to say thank you in Arabic, in Cantonese, in Italian. Words they struggled to speak, hoping they would be understood.
We became a village of fishermen with our mothers in Singapore taking care of other people’s children. Our brothers in Dubai driving trucks in the desert. They were here the day before, and then they weren’t.
There were many things we did not know about our sisters, our sons. We did not know firsthand the feel of desert heat, or ice on the ground that would not melt, nor what it was like to be where all the words were unfamiliar.
Where did they go, the children asked, and we said, pointing to the water, Across.
And we wrote them our words in the chop of the waves. We drew our whispers in the sand at the edge of the sea.
Bedtime, and the children lay restless under mosquito nets, still talking about the whale. A fluorescent bulb stammering overhead, its ends going dark. Our fans barely stirred the warm summer air stuffed in our houses. All our windows flung open to summon in a murmur of wind from the ocean.
We lay in our beds, thinking of stealing out to the sea to look at the beast on the gray sand, darkness edged by darkness. To see if it was still there, but hoping it was gone. That somehow it had returned home, swallowed into the surf like a dream.
We looked out at the cold stars and could sense the whale out in the night, like a ship, but larger, perhaps two ships. The biggest thing we’d ever seen.
And in our sleep we saw the whale tower over our small village, above the trees, a great gentle shadow covering the sky, and beneath it a sliver of blue ocean.
When the whale died the next day we were not there. No doctors were at its side to witness its passing; it died as quietly as it had slipped onto our beach. Some of us swore they heard the whale exhale its last breath, a long sigh carried on the night breeze, but this could not be true. We didn’t even hear it when it was alive, the air in its lungs growing faint over the sound of waves. We simply woke the next day to a silence deeper than on other mornings.
The scientists packed up their gear and drove away. The tourists came and left disappointed, as if the difference between a living whale and a dead one could be captured in their photographs.
The mayor called for a barangay meeting that same day, the announcement blared from a megaphone as a jeepney inched through our streets. So many of us came, they had to move the meeting from one of the elementary school classrooms to the basketball court. We watched the mayor’s people pull a microphone and speakers out from storage, and scrape folding chairs out onto the cement.
The day was hot, with a reef of gray clouds suspended in the sky. Our clothes stuck to our skin, and we fanned ourselves with yesterday’s newspaper, the one with the photograph of our whale.
The scientists had warned that the whale’s insides might be a seething cloud of gas. Some of the children thrilled at the possibility of an explosion.
The mayor jabbed a finger into the air, his voice echoing across the school grounds. This is an emergency, he said, but I will help you. We could not see his eyes behind his sunglasses. He promised to go to the provincial capital, to walk right up to the governor’s desk, and request the immediate appropriation of funds, and ask for trucks and a bulldozer, and we applauded politely, though we wished he had done it earlier, while the whale had still been alive.
Let it be, someone in the crowd shouted. If it rots, it rots. If it explodes into a thousand pieces, then the sea will take it back.
Settle down, the police chief said, taking his turn at the microphone. The flies will come swarming, he said, and we need to be rid of the whale.
Can we sell the meat? Or give it to the barangay, someone asked.
The chief shook his head. The whale may simply have been crushed by its own weight, he said. But it may also be carrying disease. We don’t know.
The mayor’s face changed. He whispered to an aide and raised a hand, waiting for the chief to return the microphone.
Perhaps the chief was a little hasty, the mayor said. If the meat is good to eat, then it belongs to the barangay, he said, beaming, showing us his white teeth. We’ll have a fiesta! Some of us clapped.
We’ll have it right here, he said, one arm sweeping across the basketball court. I’ll donate the rice, the pansit, whatever you want. We’ll have a singing contest and I’ll donate prizes. I’d be honored to host a celebration for you.
We looked at each other and started applauding, a little louder this time, and the mayor’s smile grew even wider.
It had been so long since we had any kind of feast. Something other than our meals of rice and tomatoes and galunggong and licking the fishbones clean before throwing them to the stray village dogs.
We imagined the whale sizzling, its fat sputtering in a pan. Barbecued skewers marinated in banana ketchup and soy sauce and kalamansi juice. Enough to feed the whole barangay.
Everyone agreed this was the biggest thing to happen to our village in recent memory, the biggest for sure. Not since Papa left. Not since Ate left. Not since we crammed our entire families into rented jeepneys, and drove through the mountains to Manila, and to the airports and piers, so our brothers, our mothers, could be taken across the sea. Outside the terminals we took photographs. So many of us, we could not fit inside the frame.
It was decided, then. We went down to the sea again, to inspect the bounty of the whale, the largeness of it. We saw the whale in different parts, its fins, its eyes never to open again.
Our fathers would know what to do with the meat if they were here. Find the best parts. Hack away at the bruised and the decaying until all that was left was gleaming and pure.
Our mothers would strain coconut through cloth, squeezing its milk into a bowl, to simmer it with boiled taro leaves and sliced peppers.
Our daughters and sons would insist on serving everyone else, scooping fragrant rice onto paper plates, before sitting down to eat.
The feast we all wanted was the one to welcome them back home. To let fathers be fathers again. To let daughters be daughters once more.
We stood by the whale. We shook our heads. We cannot eat of it, someone said, and another agreed, and another.
There was much we didn’t know about the whale. We wondered how it traveled without the sun and moon to mark its passage, not seeing how the color of the ocean followed the hue of the sky. How it had gotten lost, pushing blind and alone through the currents, past the vanishing coral reefs. How it had not sensed the sea warming around its dark mass, the coolness of the north Pacific ebbing behind it. If perhaps, tired from its journey, tired from singing with no whales to hear it, the whale had only wanted to swim to any shore, to lie in the sun, to rest.
It is said that hearing is the last of the senses to fade at death. We wondered if that was also true for our whale. If in its last moments it could still hear the sea.
And we wondered, too, about what might have been, had the whale lived. For we would have gone down to the water, one by one, and whispered to the whale. Sending our words to Nanay and Kuya across the ocean, hoping they would listen hard enough to hear its song when the whale returned to the sea. We could not speak the whale’s language, but we knew the whale would understand.