This used to be a fishing boat, back when there were any fish.
I wondered if the boat thought it strange that we were hauling a net on board again. Torn, ragged, but still a fishing net. Did the boat remember what it was like to have a hold full of fish instead of old plastic?
The net was so big, my brothers began to laugh, exclaiming that we could head for home after this, back home with our catch of garbage, to be sold and melted down into fuel.
All around us, things drifted on the rust-red surface of the water. The ocean used to be as blue as the sky. I wondered what it had looked like. Here was an old plastic oil barrel, bumping up against the boat. There an empty bucket, cracked, drifting. I hauled the net into the boat, hand-over-hand, and wondered what giant fishing vessel had once dragged it behind. Our little fishing boat could never have pulled it. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to bring it all on board.
Something moved under the murky water, something huge. I stopped hauling to stare as it broke the surface. It was no piece of garbage. A smooth hide covered with dead barnacles, it was a whale!
My brothers shouted, cries of surprise. A whale! Maybe the last one alive. It wouldn’t be alive for long, though. A length of bright blue plastic rope was cinched around its body, so tight it dug into its hide. I could feel its pain, almost as if the rope were around my own shoulders. But there was nothing we could do.
Or was there? The whale had come close to our boat, so close I could almost reach out and touch it, almost as if it wanted help.
I jumped into the water.
My oldest brother shouted angrily for me to come back, but I struck out strongly and reached the side of the whale. I took my knife from my pocket and started to work on the rope. The swells pushed me against the whale’s side and the barnacles cut into my shoulder, but I kept working at the rope, tearing fiber by fiber.
Maybe the whale hadn’t really wanted help, or maybe it changed its mind, because it blew out its top hole, then dove. Determined to get the rope free, I took a deep breath and held on. I would not see this last whale sentenced to death by some careless ancestor’s cast away rope. I could feel the water rushing past me, the light got dimmer, but still I worked. It was almost free.
No use, I had to give up or I would drown. I tried to push myself upward against the whale, but it dove so fast as soon as I let go it was gone. Above me the sun shone an angry red through the algae. I kicked and stroked, dropping my knife, cursing my clothes that dragged at me. My vision darkened as the air inside me turned poison and burned my lungs. Even when I could no longer see, I groped through the thick water for the surface.
My head broke out into the air and I took a long, deep breath before stretching out on my back in the waves. I heard my brothers shouting, and the soft whine of the electric motor as the boat came to pick me up.
“Stay in the boat,” was all my older brother said to me by way of a scolding. I think he understood.