Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Poem: "Not the Opposite of Life"

This poem is spillover from the December 4, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] dialecticdreamer. It also fills the "fighting" square in my 6-4-18 Mixed card for the Winteriron Bingo Adventure fest. This poem has been sponsored by a pool organized by [personal profile] ng_moonmoth. It belongs to the Aquariana thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

WARNING: This poem contains scenes that may be disturbing to some readers. It includes a nasty fight over cetacean religions, consensual whale-hunting, characterization of boneworms as demons, graphic subjective description of death, aquatic roughhousing, and other challenges. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider whether this is something you want to read before clicking through.


"Not the Opposite of Life"

[Friday, December 5, 2014]

Aquariana was fascinated
by the movements of whales.

Most of the great whales migrated
toward the poles in summer and
toward the equator in winter, except
for a few species that stayed primarily
in colder or warmer water all the time.

The Republic of the Maldives had begun
to influence that somewhat, by establishing
not only protected waters but actual citizenship
for those whales who wished to apply for it.

Now some of them spent more time
in its warm, tropical waters -- even those
who typically traveled with the seasons.

They were a lot safer there, patrolled
by the world's only all-aquatic navy
consisting of two whales, and there
just weren't many places on Earth
where whales were really safe.

In December, though, migratory whales
who had summered in the north were
now moving into tropical waters, and
it seemed like a lot of them wanted
to check out the Maldives.

They kept Aquariana busy as
she traveled around to meet them
and explain some of the local customs.

Steel and Moderato also helped
to introduce new whales to life in
the Maldives, whether they were
potential residents or just tourists.

Most of the time, it went well ... until it didn't.

Aquariana, help! Moderato shouted.
Steel is fighting with one of the new whales.

"What? Why?" Aquariana said, already
heading for the controls of her houseboat.
She checked the location of Moderato's beacon,
then headed towards him. "Did someone break
a local law, or start a mating fight, or what?"

They're arguing over religion, Moderato said.
Steel is so upset, he's not thinking, just FEELING.

"I didn't know that whales even had religions,"
Aquariana said. "You haven't talked much
about that sort of thing, not that I've heard."

We do have different beliefs, Moderato said.
It's just that few of us pay attention to religion
five times a day like the local landers do
.

Aquariana laughed at the description,
despite the serious issue. "Not many
of us are that focused on religion either,"
she said. "The Muslims stand out for
their devotion to daily prayers -- although
I have to admit, now I'm living among them,
I admire the idea of taking multiple breaks
for self-care. Few people do enough of that."

Moderato riffled gently through her memories
in search of understanding. Ah. I hear you now.
Yes, it is good to take time for that, whether
one is praying or just basking in the sun
.

"So what got Steel all wound up this time?"
Aquariana wondered. "He doesn't seem
like the type to argue over existential stuff."

Normally he isn't, but the new minke whale
is a priestess of the Landreachers,
said Moderato
He doesn't care much about the spiritual parts, but
the practical parts of that religion enrage him.
Most of us just find it bizarre and distasteful
.

"Okay, sometimes people disagree, but
what makes it so awful?" Aquariana said.

Moderato did the mental shuffle that meant
he wasn't comfortable with the topic. I don't
think that I could explain it very well. Ask
the priestess; she can explain it better than
anyone else, he said. Please, just come
make Steel stop fighting with her
.

"I'll come, but you know Steel --
nobody can make him do anything,"
Aquariana reminded Moderato.

Fortunately, they weren't
very far apart, and soon
Aquariana arrived to find
Steel looming over a minke
who was less than half his size.

"Hey Steel, back off a bit, you're
scaring her," Aquariana said.
"Let's talk about this and --"

A wave of rage and fear
washed over her, clotted
with disgust like clumps of
garbage floating on the wave.

"Yeah, I get it, you can't stand
their religion," Aquariana said.
"Just ease down for a few minutes
and let me see if I can help you
sort this out, okay? I'll talk to her."

Steel spouted, showering her with
slobbery water, and then dove.

"Well, I guess that works,"
Aquariana muttered.

The minke, who had been
hanging back because of
Steel, flicked her fins and
glided close to the boat.

"Hi, I'm Aquariana, and I'd like
to help work out the tangles
between you and Steel,"
the superhera said, leaning
over the rail of the boat.

Greetings, land-angel,
said the whale. I am Curl.
It is an honor to meet you.


"I'm not an angel, just a woman,"
Aquariana said. "Being a superhera
doesn't make me a spirit being."

We are all spirit beings, Curl replied.
We are song made solid. You live where
all the interesting things are concrete and
close together. How could that not be
heaven? So you are an angel
.

Aquariana felt like the world was
tilting under her, as if she were
rising up the slope of a wave.
She took a firmer grip on the rail.

"That's an interesting perspective,"
said Aquariana. "I'd like to hear more."

It is not difficult, said Curl. You have
an exceptionally clear mind. Not many of
the land-angels can converse with me in words.
Usually it is just dreams and images. I only
know one
haquum who can share words
with me like this, and she is so strong that
she can enter the mind of a dying whale
and help them cast off their old body
.

With the words came the impression
of a whale-hunter's wife, a woman
with a body round as a walrus, who
spread calm around her like a blanket.

"Okay ... I'm having a hard time
understanding how someone could
want to be hunted," Aquariana said.
"Could you help me with that?"

First, we don't want to be eaten
by the bone demons,
said Curl.
They dwell in the deep water and
devour the dead who sink into hell
.

Boneworms, Aquariana realized,
recognizing the feathery image.

"I can see how that would be
unsettling," she said. "Why turn
to human hunters, though?"

Sometimes when a person reaches
the end of their life, the body does not
come off as it should,
Curl explained.
It clings and itches, and they feel awful.
Then they need help to get it off. It is
like when a cow gives birth and the calf
gets stuck -- someone has to help them
come apart from each other safely
.

"So like a midwife, but for death,
instead of birth," Aquariana said.
"That still seems weird to me, but
it's starting to make more sense.
How does it work? I mean, how
do the whales and hunters know
who wants to be hunted and who
doesn't, or who's on a hunt?"

That's my job, Curl said proudly.
I am a priestess. I can tell when
someone needs to leave their body.
Then I send a message to the land-angels,
who begin their preparations. They have
many ceremonies to show their skill. That
helps us to choose the best hunters
.

"How do you choose?" Aquariana said.

We watch them, smell them, and listen
to them,
Curl said. If the hunters are dirty,
smelly, or lazy then we know they won't
do a good job. It would hurt too much,
and they wouldn't respect the gift
.

"Definitely not good," Aquariana said.
"So how do you tell the competent ones?"

If their prayers are strong, the boat is
beautiful, and everything is clean then
we know they are good at their work,

Curl explained. They will make the kill
quick and easy. Then it only hurts a little,
and after that the soul feels so much better
.

It sounded oddly like looking for medical care,
right down to checking reviews to find out
the best provider ... if you had to do it across
species boundaries, which doubtless made
communications much more challenging.

Yes, exactly, Curl said, picking up her thoughts.
I could show you my mother's death, if you like?

Aquariana thought about that. She wasn't sure
she wanted to something so intimate, so violent,
especially after dealing with Steel and his issues.

But she needed to understand the Landreachers
if she had any hope of explaining them to Steel.

"Yes, please," said Aquariana. "Just be gentle
with me, you're much stronger than I am."

Curl spouted a soft tsk-tsk. I am a priestess,
she said. Of course I know how to pray gently!
Nobody wants to dream with someone who
leaves them with a nasty headache
.

Her mind rolled under Aquariana
like a low wave, warm and rocking.
Aquariana just had time to sit down
before the world washed softly away.

She itched. Every inch of her body
itched unbearably, like a scab that
needed to come off, and there was
nothing for her to scratch against.

She had hope, though.

Her daughters were watching
the land-angels, pointing out
this one and that one, discussing
which might be the most suitable.

Their voices were high and sweet,
like birds, promising relief, and
their boats were so beautiful.

She felt drawn to them,
to one in particular, and
she began to drift upwards.

Then the haquum was with her,
inside her somehow, urging her body
to surface beside the sleek canoe.

She felt the prick of the first harpoon,
and part of her wanted to dive away.

Stay up! Both her daughters and
the haquum chorused encouragement.

The harpoons hurt, yes, but now she
could feel her body beginning to peel away
so that her soul could wriggle free of it.

That excitement buoyed her upwards.

The haw’iith beckoned her closer
to the side of his beautiful boat,
singing praise and promises.

Hold still, the haquum urged.
Try not to hit the boat with your tail.

It was hard to hold still when everything
itched so much, but the haquum lay still
and shared generously of her calm.

The last harpoon was a deeper sting,
and then her whole body seemed
to split away from her, and she was --

Aquariana heaved a deep breath,
clutching the chair with her hands,
fingers feeling unfamiliar for a moment
before she wriggled her way back into them.

The funeral was lovely too, Curl said.
They sang with us for four days while
we remembered my mother and they
thanked her for her gift to them
.

"Okay, I guess it works for you,"
Aquariana said. "Just minke whales,
or do other whales share your beliefs?"

Mostly beluga and bowhead whales,
actually,
said Curl. The Landreacher faith
has some followers among minke whales,
and a few in gray, humpback, and others
.

"Those are the species most often hunted
by native whalers," Aquariana said.

We take care of each other, Curl said.
We have been working together a long time.

"What about other whalers?" Aquariana said.
"Not all of them are as careful as the tribal ones."

Curl spouted violently. Blasphemers! They
take what is not offered to them. They kill
without care. They hunt mothers with calves,
and even calves. Their ships are hideous
and, and FILTHY! They are evil creatures
.

"Okay, we finally found something that
you and Steel agree on," said Aquariana.
"Now if I can just convince him of that."

She tried reaching for the sperm whale,
but he was either out of her range,
ignoring her, or possibly both.

"Moderato?" said Aquariana.
"I can't reach Steel. Would
you give me a boost, please?"

Yes, I will try, Moderato said.
Be careful. He is very grouchy.

Grouchy was a big improvement
over Steel trying to bash in
someone's ribs -- or boat.

Now what do you want?
Steel snapped, loud enough
to make Aquariana's head ring.

Gently, Curl said. You should
be careful with the little angel
.

Steel spouted a mocking snort.
Aquariana is not an angel, he said.
She is just a lander with funny skin.

"It's okay, Curl, I'm used to Steel's voice,"
Aquariana said. "He doesn't have
your practice talking to humans."

Then he should work on it more,
so he doesn't hurt you,
Curl said.

Steel grumbled a complaint that
made the boat buzz underfoot.

"Hey Steel, I found something
that you and Curl agree on,"
Aquariana said. "Want to hear?"

If you must, Steel rumbled.

"You both hate commercial whalers,"
Aquariana said. "Harsh words were used."

Well, good! Steel said. They are evil.

Yes, the blasphemers are wicked things,
Curl said. I came here because I heard
that they were not allowed in these waters
.

Not if they want to live, Steel said.
I crushed the last ship they sent here.

We heard about that, Curl said.
You were so very brave! Fighting
them like that was dangerous
.

Steel preened a little, rolling over
in the water. Perhaps, he said.

Definitely, said Curl. They could have
sent your body down to the bone demons
.

Steel snorted. They are not demons.
They are just worms -- much like
the ones that live in sand
.

Curl shuddered, ducking
away from the surface.

"Steel, it's not nice to mock
someone else's beliefs or
fears," Aquariana said.

But they're nonsense,
Steel protested.

"I know you feel
that way, but Curl
feels differently,"
Aquariana said.

So? Steel said.

"Where I come from,
we hold that everyone has
the right to freedom of religion,"
Aquariana said. "I know that it's
different in the Maldives, because
this is a Muslim nation -- but they're
trying to accommodate more diversity
as more people move into the country."

I do not care what landers believe,
Steel said. It is not my concern.

"That's fine," Aquariana said.
"Religion isn't for everyone."

But everyone knows the ocean,
Moderato said. The water-angels
aren't beliefs. They just are.


Like the bone demons, Curl said.
Even the land-angels can see those.

Aquariana had seen pictures of
the boneworms, and admittedly,
they had looked pretty creepy.

She wasn't sure about what
the whales called water-angels,
but she had felt something brush
against her mind during the accident
that had left her with superpowers.

Maybe it had been her imagination,
maybe it had been a giant squid ...
maybe something more numinous.

There was no way to know.

It didn't matter, though, because
she respected other people's beliefs
even if she didn't share them.

It is better to disagree nicely
than to fight over beliefs,

Moderato said. Please?

If Steel wants the bone demons
to feast on his body after he dies,
that is his business,
Curl said,
although Aquariana could feel
the distaste in her mindvoice.

What do I care? Steel said.
I would be dead. It is right that
my body and my spirit should
go back to the ocean then
.

"Then it shouldn't bother you
that Curl's people choose differently,"
Aquariana said. "It doesn't affect you."

It does if they come here, Steel said.
They let the landers think that it is
all right to kill us. Hunting is not
a religion, hunting is murder!


For a moment, Aquariana
could taste blood in the water,
before the memory swirled away.

It is OUR religion, my people and
the land-angels together,
Curl said.
We are related. We help each other.
We sing together. We pray. They make
beautiful images for us. Sometimes we
chase the fish-that-are-too-big-to-eat
towards their boats in the summer.
It is good to be in harmony
.

"I'm impressed that you managed
to work out such agreements across
species lines," Aquariana said.
"That must take a lot of work."

I do not trust anyone who worships
death,
Steel said. The Landreachers
are the absolute antithesis of life
.

Death is not the opposite
of life, but a part of it,

Curl argued. We don't
worship death, we just
accept it in due time
.

And when the landers
disagree about that time?

Steel asked darkly.

Then we don't go to them,
Curl said. They learn to obey
our wishes, or they go hungry
.

Steel's memory of a whaling ship
crashed through everyone's awareness
before he slammed it back down into
the deepest recesses of his mind.

Blasphemers, Curl said firmly.
We agree that they are evil.

"Do your chosen hunters
really obey the rules you set,
so they can tell who is ready
for them and who is not?"
Aquariana asked.

Yes, they do, Curl said.
They learned not to hunt calves,
or mothers with young calves
.

Curious, Aquariana tapped a query
into her dashboard computer.

And there it was.

She skimmed an article
about indigenous cultures in
the Arctic and how they communed
with whales, including the story of
why they stopped hunting mothers.

Steel couldn't resist ransacking
her mind to read over her shoulder.

Gently! Curl said, bumping him
hard enough to break his concentration.

Steel huffed at her, and Moderato
pushed his way in between them.
nudging the two of them apart.

Please, don't fight, Moderato said.
I don't like it when you fight.

I am a priestess, Steel, I cannot
ignore it when someone gets rough
with a land-angel,
Curl said. If we
do not treat them gently, then
they will not treat us gently
.

Oh, Steel said. I ... hadn't
thought about it like that before
.

Curl must be a damn good priestess
if she could get through to Steel,
even if it was just a little bit.

"Okay, then," Aquariana said.
"Can we agree to disagree
on the topic of religion?"

If we must, Steel grumbled.

"Thank you," Aquariana said.
"I don't like seeing you pick on
someone half your size. It's
a bad habit if you want to be
around humans and dolphins.
We're more fragile than you are."

True, Steel said, his mindvoice
barely a whisper against hers.
I will try to be gentler. It is hard.
I don't really know how to do it
.

I could teach you, Curl said.
I've taught novices. The same
techniques should work for you
.

I will think about it, Steel said.
Then he spouted and sank away.

"Thank you for the offer, but
that's going to take a lot of
patience," Aquariana said.

"I am a priestess," said Curl.
"Patience is part of my job."

* * *

Notes:

Curl -- She is a northern minke whale, primarily gray with lighter underparts and a white bar on her front flippers. She is a fast and agile swimmer. Curl enjoys traveling around the world and exploring new places. She belongs to the Landreacher religion. Most common among beluga and bowhead whales, it has some followers in minke whales, and a few in gray, humpback, and other species. Landreachers loathe the boneworms that live at the bottom of the ocean and eat the carcasses of dead whales that sink to the ocean floor, regarding them as bone demons. Instead, they prefer to seek out traditional whale hunters -- the land angels -- for assistance in removing their body at the end of their life. They believe this will grant them rebirth as land creatures in a heaven where all the interesting things are so much denser and closer together. As a Landreacher priestess, Curl's job is to help other whales identify when they approach the end of their life, communicate with human hunters what the whales want, judge which of the land angels are worthy of assisting a whale into the next life, and then help them get together. The whale gets out of an itchy, too-tight body, the humans get food, and everyone's religion is fulfilled. This belief system puts the Landreachers at odds with many other whales who hate and fear humans.
Origin: Curl developed her powers through diligent spirtual practice.
Uniform: None. She goes nude.
Qualities: Good (+2) Curiosity, Good (+2) Existential Intelligence, Good (+2) Fast, Good (+2) Landreacher Priestess, Good (+2) Traveler
Poor (-2) Conflict-Avoidant
Powers: Expert (+4) Telempathy
Motivation: To interface between her people and the land angels.

* * *

"Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it."
-- Haruki Murakami

Aboriginal whaling has a long history and continues today in modest numbers.

Beluga whales live primarily in the far north.

Bowhead whales also live in the far north.

Minke whales have two species, including the common minke whale. They range from the equator north. Like other great whales, they migrate with the seasons.

Gray whales favor coastal waters and move with the seasons.

Humpback whales inhabit all but the polar seas, spending most of their time in shallow waters.

Sperm whales likewise inhabit all the but polar seas, but rarely come near shore.

Here is a lesson about whales and a size comparison.

Indigenous hunters make an effort to talk to the whales and carve canoes that will please them.

Osedax are commonly called boneworms. See a video of them.

Taphonomy is the study of how organisms decay and become fossilized.

Freedom of religion is often thought of as arising from American history. Yet it and religious tolerance appear in other cultures, including some Islamic ones. In Terramagne, the Republic of the Maldives is still Islamic, but is now becoming more multicultural, so it has more need of religious freedom, tolerance, and inclusivity. There are ways to teach religious tolerance.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, spirituality, weblit, writing
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