THE TIDE COMES IN AT MIDNIGHT
No one knew why a hundred and one sperm whales had beached themselves on a small stretch of black-sand shore halfway between Kilninian Church and Normann’s Ruh—nor why yet more sleek, inky bodies thrashed in the shallows with each passing wave. No one, that was, except for Clever Fykes, whose father always said that the day the ocean’s biggest creatures began to kill themselves would also be the day the world would end. That’s what the science sorties from the Scottish Marine Mammal Stranding Scheme likely wouldn’t comprehend as they milled about the cove with their clipboards and puke-green waders. Tissue samples told no tales. Blubber hid no secrets. When the reporters—itching with impatience as they endured the 45-minute ferry from the mainland—descended en masse to ask their why’s and how’s, the PhDs and post-docs would say mass stranding with doubt in their eyes. Doubt, because something in their marrow knew they were wrong. Something in their bones vibrated with an instinctual awareness of their own misunderstanding.
It wasn’t a mass stranding, Clever thought, perched on the nearby bluffs.
It was mass suicide.
The woman was hard to miss in her yellow raincoat; impossible to ignore when she swept its hood back to reveal a bob of wild red waves. Even in the dark it was as golden straw, blushed by the warm pinks of a vivacious summer sunset he could neither see nor feel in the winter night. The solitary soldier, it would seem, ahead of a cavalry of university and government quacks, she arrived well ahead of the small army to stop and stare. Clever wondered what it must be like. Smell like, sound like, down there in the trenches.
Shalto landed beside him, the will-o’-the-wisp around her talons casting the rocks in cyan relief.
“Did you find it?”
The eagle trilled, flashing the bouquet of red dulse seaweed tucked in her beak. It looked slimy. Diseased. As if dead sea beasts weren’t enough of an ill omen.
“Fly ahead,” he said. “You’re faster.”
Shalto caught the homebound wind. With an airborne barrel roll, she shook off the wisps and disappeared into the sky, soaring in secret over the heads of men.
Clever stole one last glance of the solitary soldier, who stood stunned amid the whales. Harrowing pain tightened her lips. Drew her face. Knotted her jaw, as if she were the unwilling lightning rod to all the creatures’ suffering. Perhaps she was. Two diamond tears twinkling on her lashes betrayed the phlegmatic mask she so desperately fought to maintain.
But Clever couldn’t tarry; his sister must be warned. All of them, everyone, had to be warned.
He leapt off the edge of the cliff.
The end has come to Mull.
Whales sound different in the open air, especially when they’re dying. After each crash of waves, a chorus of shrill clicking rushed to fill the void until the next breaker hit them: sardine-packed on barely 500 feet of shoreline, clogging the short and shallow artery of sea feeding the inlet. Moonlight silvered their backs. Made them shine. From up on the dirt path leading down from the road, one could be forgiven for mistaking them for obsidian hillocks, leftovers from lava flows past. At least until the smell smacked you. Until they writhed in agony. Until pitifully short puffs of spray spouted from the blowholes of those unlucky enough to still be alive.
“Get a move on, Ms. Crawford!” Dr. Ingraham called. “Help the boys set up triage on the grass.”
A swarm of white headlamps bobbed across the footbridge, beelining for the beach to erect tents and lights and a menage of equipment; the whole kit and caboodle circus. Ivy didn’t wait for them. Dropping her pack for any one of her colleagues to trip on, she gingerly picked her way across volcanic sand tiger-striped with oily bands of blood.
Dead whales are warm to the touch. Ivy knew this, but the knowledge didn’t prepare her palm for the shock of it when she laid it on a bulbous snout, one crosshatched with ancient scars earned from a lifetime of battling ships and squids. Its body heat engulfed her. Its enormous presence dwarfed her. Tidal stink wafted from its gaping maw, one studded with eight-inch teeth, the threat of its bite gone along with the life in its eye.
Block it out. Block it all out. She had to, lest she crumble; the willow-hearted grad student without the stomach for fieldwork. That was all they’d see—Ingraham and the others—so Ivy searched for something, anything else to focus on, but it was nighttime in the Hebrides with nothing but corpses for company.
Turquoise light winked on the bluff overlooking the strand. The silhouette of a man crouched on its lip. Squinting did nothing to make him clearer; the cliff was squat but far enough away to obscure any semblance of face—
A calloused hand clamped her shoulder. “Back on grunt duty, Crawford.”
“Rhys, do you see—”
“Now,” said the doctor. “And put some damned gloves on, would you?”
When Ivy glanced back, the bluff was dark. No movement. No man. No hazy blue-green glow. She counted her steps on the way back to the grass—to people—fending off their buzzing chatter, the lapping waves, the oppressive weight of the dead and dying pounding at her back. She clutched her wet hand close and tight, remembering how to breathe.
A great, winged shadow blotted the stars. It vanished before Ivy looked up.
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