Killer Whales



The morning after we first call my family to tell them I’m pregnant, my husband awakes from an awful dream. I’m sitting in the kitchen rebooking our plans for his upcoming birthday, a weekend trip we’ve rescheduled to avoid traveling to a beach where the Zika virus has been reported. When he walks into the kitchen, I look up from my computer and his face is ashen. He tells me he dreamed I was standing at the edge of a pier when a killer whale lunged from the ocean and swallowed me whole.

Five mornings earlier as I stood in the bathroom and watched a second pink line streak across a plastic indicator, a mother orca in the Pacific Northwest relinquished her dead calf after carrying the infant’s body for seventeen days. The mother drew the attention of scientists and ocean researchers concerned for her health and for such a physical display of grief. The orca’s female calf had been born breach, tooth marks on her body suggesting that other family members in the pod attempted to pull her out. The morning I realized I was pregnant, a mother orca on the other side of the continent surrendered her deceased child to the depth of the Salish Sea.

That night, we cancel our plans for the beach. We never thought it would happen this quickly and that any plans would need canceling. We’ve been actively trying for six weeks past the age of thirty-five and past five years of indecision and stalling and past my own roiling anxiety about becoming a mother at all. But here I am: five weeks along. I lie awake all night but the next morning we drive to a sunflower farm and watch fields upon fields of yellow blooms wave beneath the upstate sky. My body is filled with fear but I watch a million sunflowers catch the color of the sun and imagine taking a three-month-old next summer to see what we saw when we first knew our child was coming and there is a calm where the fear was, a room opening up beneath my breastbone where once there was only empty space.

Mine is the story of a woman: Woman assumes motherhood somewhere in the distant future. Woman graduates into high school, college, post-college. Woman finds herself chased on a running trail, locked in a storage closet at work, bribed for sexual exchange to get out, stalked. Woman finds herself pressed against a mattress by hands that will not let her up. Woman mistrusts her own body. Woman vows to keep everything out. Woman considers motherhood, that distant promise, and takes a Plan B pill every time the promise comes too close. Woman takes three Plan B pills across two years then vows at last to interrogate the distant promise. Woman works on herself for eight months through meditation, self-help, podcasts, deep work. Woman recognizes her fear, the deepest one: the transgression of the body, a well of violation and loss.

We will tell friends that storms ravaging the East Coast canceled our flights south, that we drove to Lake George instead to still salvage my husband’s birthday celebration. We will tell friends the truth once the safe window of three months has passed. Two hours after I’ve booked a new hotel and dinner plans on Lake George and three hours after my husband has told me he dreamed of killer whales, I am putting the final touches on syllabi for fall classes that will begin in one week and I am finishing up my daily word count on a new novel when my body begins to pass the first streaks of bright-red blood.

Researchers believe the mother orca who carried her dead calf for seventeen days endured two miscarriages before the infant was finally born. Part of a community of seventy-five orcas that scientists have tracked for decades, the mother birthed one calf in 2010 and not another until the female calf this summer. The unusual term of eight years between pregnancies, as well as the duration of time the mother clung to her dead calf, signifies to researchers that the mother had reached a capacity, that she’d already endured two unseen intervals of grief.

One week earlier, when I was four weeks pregnant but still didn’t know, I drove to a deserted lake in the afternoon heat of early August. Beneath the shade of lime-bright trees I kicked through the water and watched puffed clouds pass across the sky. As I was leaving a man in a truck drove up the lane toward the lake. I waved. He did not. He just kept watching me. His tires slowed. I climbed in my car and the same animal fear spilled down my spine, no other cars for miles, his unsmiling watching. This buried need to protect my body always churning just below the surface, right where some small seed was just beginning to grow.

Killer whales form tight social communities based on matrilines, centered around the oldest female and her children and the descendants of her daughters. Resident whales, including the seventy-five orcas within the pod of the Salish Sea, live with their mothers their entire lives. Researchers noted that the mother orca’s female relatives attempted to hold the dead calf across those seventeen days so the mother would eat. She did not lean into her community. Instead she grew emaciated, her jaw holding onto her deceased infant for an unprecedented three weeks.

I call my doctor but don’t call my husband at work. I hide the pregnancy book we’ve already bought while I wait for her to call me back. When she calls, she tells me to go immediately to the ER, her voice urgent enough that I forget to throw out the bathroom trash that still has our positive pregnancy test lying face-up. I have called my sister and my parents the day before but I am unable to pick up the phone from the hospital bed. Instead I text: Miscarriage likely. I also text my husband: Bleeding heavily and at the ER. Please don’t come. I tell myself this isn’t serious, just five weeks, that I can take care of this on my own. The nurse takes four vials of my blood and gives me an hour to drink thirty-two ounces of water and I tell myself my husband is in meetings and that there’s nothing either of us can do. But when he comes to the hospital room while I’m still drinking water and waiting for the sonogram I break down in tears, the real reason I don’t want him here. I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to hear the sorrow in my parents’ voices, this taking away not twenty-four hours after I’ve told them. I don’t want to see my husband’s disappointment and sadness. I want this to be a procedure, nothing else. Not this loss, this transgression, my body failing all of us.

Woman assumes motherhood in the distant future but never feels the palpitations, never says I have wanted children my whole life. Woman graduates into high school, college, post-college. Woman feels more distance from the distant future, that motherhood comes with so many prescribed expectations. And more unknown variables, all of them stacked out of her favor. That in seemingly equal partnerships between cisgender straight parents, women still take on at least sixty percent of parenting and household duties. That in such partnerships, women more than men sacrifice their careers, their salaries overwhelmingly less. Woman doubles down. Woman focuses on career. Woman ensures no man will derail her again. Woman publishes, earns degrees, teaches, moves around the country. Woman controls as many variables as she can, a control that dovetails so seamlessly with the control of her own body to keep violation at bay.

A sonogram technician finally comes and wheels me into a darkened room. I ask her if my husband can come and he does, seated at the base of the bed. He can see the machine over the technician’s shoulder as she moves the wand across my abdomen and I can see nothing but his face and the technician’s face as she grimaces and bites her lip. My husband touches my toe as the wand presses into my full bladder and I know before the technician refuses to say anything at all that there is nothing on the screen. I know before there is any need for a report that our first sonogram is only empty space.

When the doctor finally comes to the hospital room accompanied by a nurse, she tells me and my husband that I am miscarrying, what I already knew. She says to call in sick tomorrow and stay home. She says to expect a lot of blood. After she leaves the room, the nurse lingers and looks at both of us. She tells us she lost her first pregnancy at sixteen weeks and now has a healthy, beautiful daughter. She tells us at least fifty percent of first pregnancies end in premature loss.

There is a reason ocean researchers grew worried about the mother orca beyond her lengthened display of grief. In fact, the entire pod’s population is at a thirty-year low. Due to increasing food scarcity and human overfishing, no new calves have survived in the pod across the past three years. Miscarriages are common. Over seventy-five percent of newborn orcas die. As a result, the mother orca’s loss is also common.

The discharge handout the ER doctor gives me, “Miscarriage” typed in bold across the top, includes a list of common symptoms. Severe cramping. Excess blood. Fatigue. Back pain. Dizziness. Large clumps of tissue. And beneath the symptoms, bullet points of at-home care. Bed rest. Light activity. Having help at home. No sex or tampons. And just below the bold type a definition to describe in words what my body is doing: A miscarriage is the loss of an unborn baby (fetus) before the twentieth week of pregnancy. The cause is often unknown.

I tell myself drinking. Two summer parties with whiskey and beer before I knew. Tell myself coffee, the switch to tea too late, the same morning the plastic indicator revealed two lines, the same morning the mother orca unclenched her teeth and let go. Tell myself age. Tell myself thirty-six. Tell myself I waited too long because a few men did what they wanted and my fears took over and now look what I’ve fucking done. Tell myself sushi. Unpasteurized cider. Every fucking thing I ate and drank before two faint pink lines. Tell myself this is punishment for ambivalence, for never saying I have wanted children my whole life so this is what I get. Tell myself whatever I can because what I tell myself is everything I can control. Tell myself I can write a book but failed a child. Tell myself known.

Because we don’t know what else to do with ourselves my husband situates me on the couch where I stay for two days. He drives to the store and buys frozen yogurt and we watch The Lost Boys and St. Elmo’s Fire and Reality Bites, every movie we grew up with that for no reason at all feels like a comfort now. The first night, vampires. The teenage undead suck the life from each other as one continuous strand of thick blood drains from inside me. All the next day, a fist reaches into my abdomen and twists and twists. I scream in the shower only once, so much blood falling out of me and swirling down the drain. I watch the room that had opened inside me turn red and then pink once it mixes with water. I watch the room circle away from me counterclockwise. I watch the room’s door close.

A week after my husband’s dream and a few hours before my follow-up sonogram and blood work to officially confirm the loss, I mention offhand to him that the mother orca is eating again. What orca? he asks. I’ve forgotten that we never actually talked about the orca together. I followed her story for the seventeen days that she carried her dead calf, all seventeen of which I was pregnant and didn’t yet know. I thought of her three weeks into my pregnancy as I whale-watched alone in Boston while my husband was at a conference in the city, a gift to myself before my fall semester began. I saw five humpback whales, orcas only rarely spotted off the coast of Cape Cod. Two of the five were a mother and calf. I watched the calf, alive and playful and breaking the ocean’s surface, and thought of the mother orca on the other side of country gripping her dead infant in her teeth and didn’t know as the boat made its way back to shore that I held in my body the seed of something already readying to leave.

That weekend, we still drive to the Adirondacks and Lake George. I am still bleeding but we hike thirteen miles of mountains, barely speaking, to walk through the walls of our grief. We have dinner on the lake and watch fireworks on the shore among a crowd of families. Two women talk near us, one of them pregnant. She reveals that her due date is in March. Mine would have been mid-April and it is my husband’s birthday and I know he hears them speaking. Just over a week ago when I read the plastic indicator and we canceled our trip, he said, I don’t care if we don’t go to the beach. This is the best gift I could have imagined. 

Two days later I jog for miles deep into the woods, my body still streaming a thin line of blood, and think, What if this is the story? Woman fears for years. Woman overcomes fear. Woman never tries again. Woman has one night of telling her family the news, her resident pod of orcas. Woman experiences two sonograms with her husband, both of them empty. Woman tries to imagine risking another loss like this as she runs and the still-humid summer air chokes her lungs and she drops to her knees in the dirt and grass and the sweat soaks her shirt and she presses her hands against her body’s emptiness and it is here that she is swallowed alive at last.

Killer whales communicate in dialects unique to each resident pod, comprised of specific calls that are distinctive to matrilines. Newborns learn dialects through communication with their mothers and with other pod members, their resident calls increased in the days following a calf’s birth for the infant to learn. Perhaps, even in the brief half-hour that the breach female calf was alive, the mother orca was able to communicate a language only the two of them knew. Perhaps, small five-week seed, if there’s anything at all that I could have communicated to you, it is that even in my fear you were wanted. Small seed, I hope you know I tried.

And what maybe you know, what shames me the most, is that when I first saw the blood I didn’t call the doctor but just kept writing at my desk. I didn’t want to admit this was over, what I knew as soon as I saw the first bright-red streaks. But the greater truth is that I reverted to the variables I could control. I could write a book. I could set down word after word after word. But I couldn’t control the thought of tiny hands gripping the walls of my uterus even if there were no hands, even if a stream of blood would only flood them away. I couldn’t control the flooding away. No more than I could control a man pushing me against a bed and no more than I can control the deadness I feel inside now, this unnamable loss. This empty room.

I have walked through classrooms, through departmental meetings, through parties and movie theaters and parks these weeks since. I am no good at speaking this pain. I don’t know the story from here. Woman loses child. Woman knows her body as a graveyard. This well of violation, this sonogrammed sea of loss. But I have thought again and again of a mother orca letting go the grip of her teeth at last and watching her dead infant sink away to the bottom of the ocean. I have felt the edges of my own aquarium at social gatherings as if I am swimming in an unseen pool of grief. I have been unable to speak this but even still, I want to press my hand to the glass. I want someone to press their hand back on the other side. I want to feel the weight of someone’s palm through an invisible pane, to feel the taking away of this story for only a moment. I want someone to look me in the eye and say, Let go. 


Rumpus original art by Stephanie Tartick.

Anne Valente is the author of two novels, The Desert Sky Before Us (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2019) and Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow, 2016), as well as the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014). Her fiction appears in One Story, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and the Chicago Tribune, and her essays appear in The Believer, Literary Hub, Catapult and the Washington Post. More from this author →