At the whaling museum in Newport: wandering through rooms of scrimshaw, carved bones of whales, teeth and tusk, ribs and cartilage illuminated by soft exhibit light. Glowing mermaids, billowing sails and lost fishermen, so many versions of the female form. Memory carved in solitude. I learn wale is the plank alongside a wooden ship that protects the hull from damage, it is also the ridge of fabric on my corduroy pants, the swooshing sound of my legs rubbing together.
I teach my students in Beijing about mammals and birds: they are both warm-blooded, though birds lay eggs and mammals have live births. We work again and again on whale, how it is a mammal, not cold-blooded like fish that also live in the sea. They pronounce it “well” and we’ve just learned that a well is where you get water; when I say well done, both thumbs enthusiastically up, that is a different kind of well.
The summer we all watched the one whale: how she carried her dead calf on her back for 17 days and more than 1,000 miles in a tour of grief while we all looked on in wonder, a solidarity of loss. After this year of thrashing, it is confirmed this whale is pregnant again. Researchers have tracked her pod by satellite. This seems a miracle. Every time I see our planet from space it makes me believe in a reverse Pangea, that the continents might slowly move toward each other the way a cello leans on the shoulder of a musician.
In the church basements of my childhood: every funeral farewell lunch featured shining Jell-O salads. They glistened like stained glass, fruit suspended in molds of rings and braids, all jiggling companionably next to a jellied tuna salad in the shape of a whale.
My students watch me cry on our video screen. Whale I say. Well done. Wail.
I have spent a year of days slowly teaching a wild thing to eat from my hand, only to find it dead, matted fur, broken paw. I wail to the ground, to the clouds, to the sea. Well. Well. How wail is a high-pitched cry of pain—it’s what we do when we are mourning, a parade of grief we wake to each morning. We hold a wake for the dead, this language is impossible.
Kindra McDonald is the author of the books Fossils and In the Meat Years, (both in 2019) and the chapbooks Elements and Briars (2016) and Concealed Weapons (2015). She received her M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte. She is an adjunct professor of writing and teaches poetry at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. She serves as regional VP of the Virginia Poetry Society and was the recipient of the 2020 Haunted Waters Press Poetry Award. She lives in the city of mermaids with her husband and cats, where she bakes, hikes, and changes hobbies monthly. You can find her in the woods or at kindramcdonald.com.
Image: “Crowded in with Isolation” by Abby Zarakovich