She Wants to Swim with Narwhals

by Billie Hinton

To hear the bulls rubbing tusks together as they tell stories about the waters they’ve traveled through, waters she too might explore. Their tusks are long canine teeth that grow from the left sides of their upper jaws. She clicks her own canines, imagines them growing like helixes through her lips and outward, longer and longer until she can touch things ten feet away, tap on windows, tilt them to the sky.

Some years ago she thought narwhals were mythical creatures until an exhibit in a museum of natural science where she touched a nine-foot narwhal tusk, hollow and spiraled, as if carved by the hands of artisans. Opposite to the usual way, thinking magical things like unicorns exist, only to learn they’re the product of myth. Now that she knows the truth, she’ll swim up through its surface to seek out a rare bull with two tusks, a female narwhal who has defied biology to grow her own.  

She wants to roll and spin in cold arctic waters, brush against wet slippery mottled gray narwhal bodies, as big as horses in the sea around her, to eavesdrop on their clicking, whistling conversations, before they dive down thousands of feet and rise again, tusky teeth like giant needles pointing to the stars. 

Polar bears hunt narwhal calves, and orcas hunt narwhal pods in groups large enough to quell them. She loves polar bears, adores orcas, wants to protect them all, but in their ecosystems they carry out their own feeding habits and who is she to intervene. 

Though humans intervene all the time: polluting oceans, changing climate, hunting whales for no good reasons she can conjure. Narwhals swim past and she makes clicking sounds with her tongue to assure them she is not that kind of human. 

Narwhals live long lives, averaging fifty years, but some live more than a hundred; females live longer than males. No one knows if this has to do with the tusks, but females do not have them and they live on when the males do not. The mystery of that, the secrets females carry. The deep dives they do until one day they come up to ice so thick they cannot penetrate it, and they die.

She wants to make holes for them. She wants to breathe for them until the wind blows hard and the thick ice shifts and cracks, creating spaces for long canines to push through to salty air.

She wants to see narwhals being born, slipping out of the wombs of their mothers, slipping into salt water, salt water like tears, salt water like blood, whose composition is kin to the sea. Wants to see them nursing, swimming close to the bodies of their mothers, wants to watch them learn the sea. To herself learn from that observation. The young males do not have tusks yet, it takes time for them to grow.

Perhaps when the tusks grow too long to nurse is when the young bulls wean.  Perhaps if she swims in cold waters long enough, clicks her canines enough times in a row, perhaps her skin too will be mottled, dappled gray, like horses and like narwhals, until they recognize her as one of them.  

A group of narwhals is called a blessing. 

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