In the early mornings, Skaana Bay was the quietest place in the state of Washington. Nothing, not even birds flapping their wings, made a sound; nothing moved. Mist covered the ocean and the smell of fresh rain came from the ground. The bay was quiet and peaceful, and the only thing disturbing the water was the beam coming from the lighthouse, skimming across its surface. Along with the oceanography museum, the bay was one of the main landmarks of the town. People came from all over the state to visit this place, as it was a perfect spot for whale watching.
Penny had not been back in Skaana Bay for several years, her research in marine biology keeping her busy overseas. On the plane that was taking her back to the States, she felt like she was coming home much too late. She’d promised Old John she would be there for his 70th birthday but had to miss it, being stuck in Antarctica due to weather hazards. Now he would not reach 71 and she was on her way home for the funeral. Her older sister Karen had called her three days earlier to tell her the news as Anabelle, their mother, was too saddened by the loss of her older brother to talk to anyone.
Moving in her seat, trying to find a comfortable position, Penny let out a deep sigh. Her partner Rob was sitting next to her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Nothing, I’m okay…This plane is just too damn tiny,” she hissed between her teeth, frustrated.
“Penny, look at me,” Robert said firmly.
She turned her face to him. Her eyes were puffy as she was fighting not to let out any tears. He grabbed her around the shoulders and held her close.
Old John Pierce used to work in Skaana Bay’s lighthouse, making sure that the boats coming to the bay found their way safely. He spent all his time up there, alone with the light, watching over the ocean. The only company he got was when he went to the pub once a week to play cards with the fishermen, or when his niece Penelope would bring him lunch.
When Penny was a child, Anabelle used to send her daughter to the lighthouse with treats for her brother, every Tuesday and Thursday. Karen refused to go up there, arguing the view and the height made her dizzy. Anabelle was always looking after Old John, and Penny loved to spend time in the lighthouse, gazing at the ocean, hoping to catch sight of a pod of killer whales. The creatures were famous for populating this part of the ocean, and the first time she saw some, Penny was six years old. She could still remember it perfectly.
It was a Tuesday. From the top of the lighthouse, Old John noticed a black fin troubling the tranquil surface of the morning waters. Heading for the bay, the blackfish was swimming along Tulalip Rock, the point where the bay turned into the wide, endless ocean. Old John caught his breath and put a hand on Penny’s shoulder, the other one pointing at the sea giant. Chances were that more than one of the animals was coming to pay the inhabitants of Skaana Bay a visit. Soon enough, they spotted several other fins piercing the waters.
“Come along, Penny,” shouted Old John. “Let’s go down there. Maybe we’ll get a closer look.”
The animals came all the way to the marina and swam among the boats, puffing air through their blowholes. There were six of them overall, but only two came close to the humans.
“Look at that! This one must be about 25 feet long,” Old John told Penny, pointing at the closest whale, a majestic mammal with glossy black and white skin. “See how this little one swims close to it? It’s probably her calf.”
They sat on the pontoon to watch the whales inspect the marina. The gigantic animals were going in and out of the water at a steady pace. Penny kept trying to lock her gaze on their small dark eyes, but seemed to always lose sight of them.
Pointing at the 25-foot-long orca, Old John said, “This one is a pretty big female, they usually reach about 28 feet at the most.”
Penny looked up at him, intrigued to hear more about the creatures.
“Killer whales are highly social mammals,” Old John said, answering his niece’s avid looks. “In a pod, it’s the mother who makes the rules. See how they won’t leave until this one decides it’s time to go?”
“How do you know so much about whales, Uncle John?”
“Look at them! Don’t you think they are fascinating?” Old John said, beaming at the animals.
She gave him one of her tell-me-more kind of looks and Old John went on.
“Several Native American tribes in this region have legends about killer whales. Some call them the ‘Lords of the Ocean.’ They are seen as protectors of the water, and some people even think they are reincarnations of people they loved and lost.”
“Reincarnation?” asked Penny, frowning.
“It means they believe that when their ancestor died—like their great-great-grandparents you know— they came back to life in the form of whales.”
“Wow,” whispered Penny, staring at the calf, wondering whose grandpa or grandma it could be.
She watched the pod inspect the marina, going above and below the water and, after a few minutes, she heard their cry. The sound rang as a melody to her ear and she smiled. The female orca and her calf only stayed around for a couple more minutes before going back to the rest of the pod, and for Penny, it was the beginning of a never-ending love story with the Lords of the Ocean. Like her uncle, she was fascinated by the creatures, amazed by their size and cry. After the encounter, she asked Anabelle if they could adopt a whale, and when her mother told her it wasn’t quite possible, Penny said it didn’t matter because she would become one when she grew old instead.
They were an hour away from Bellingham, where Karen would pick them up and drive them back to Skaana Bay. As much as Penny was glad that she would get to see her mother, her sister and even her little niece, Malina, she wished the circumstances would be different. She was not sure she was ready to face her sister’s reproaches, nor her mother’s despair.
The airport runway was wet and the air filled with the heat from the plane’s engine. As she crossed the tarmac, Penny glanced up at the windows of the tiny air terminal and saw a familiar face smiling at her, while a small child frantically waved. Malina was now eight years old, and the last time Penny had seen her, she was still riding in a car seat. The four of them met at baggage claim and Karen gave her sister a warm embrace.
“I’m so glad you made it out here,” Karen said, and Penny couldn’t help but think she restrained herself from adding “this time” at the end of her sentence.
“I am too,” Penny answered with a timid smile. “Hi, Malina, do you remember me?”
“Not really,” the little girl answered. “But I’ve been told it’s okay ’cause I was too little to remember last time you came home.”
Penny gave a see-what-my-sister-did-there kind of look at Rob and he chuckled.
“How’s Mom?” she asked Karen.
“As well as she can be within the circumstances, you know.”
Two minutes with her sister and Penny already had a taste of what her trip would be like, the insinuated reproaches already slowly spilling out of her sister’s mouth. Penny did not expect less from her; she knew Karen would give her the impression that she should feel awful about not being there for Old John when she should have, as if Penny wasn’t sorrowful already. But knowing what to expect didn’t make the perspective of the experience any more pleasant.
On the car trip to Skaana Bay, or “home” as she kept calling it with a repeated insistence, Karen blabbed about the inconvenience of Old John’s last will regarding his funeral—being cremated then scattered over the ocean at Tulalip Rock—and in the back seat, sitting next to Rob, Malina drew on the steamy car window.
“I mean, I understand he loved the ocean and all that, but the weather is really not helping with the planning of a boat trip right now,” said Karen, pulling into her mother’s driveway.
Penny nodded absent-mindedly and took a deep breath of fresh air when she stepped out of the car. A wave of nostalgia hit her as she looked at the house she grew up in. It hadn’t changed much over the past few years. There were still brown nest boxes hanging on the porch, and the house still needed to be repainted. Penny was dragged out of her reverie by Malina’s arm pulling her towards the entrance. Anabelle was already on the doorstep, her arms wide open and a good-hearted smile on her face.
“Penny,” she wrapped her daughter in her embrace and added, “I’m so happy to see you.”
Everyone moved into the house, Rob carrying the bags, glancing around with the nervousness of someone who does not know what to do with himself, and Anabelle refusing to let go of Penny.
“You’ll be staying in Penny’s old room, at the end of the hall,” Karen told Rob, guiding him deeper into the house.
Penny sat down with her mother while Malina disappeared upstairs.
“How are you holding up, Mom?” Penny asked.
Anabelle shrugged and said, “I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t come home sooner,” Penny said with no further ado. She knew she had to get it off her chest.
“You couldn’t. I know you couldn’t, and he knew it too.” Anabelle hugged her again. “You are here now, and that’s all that matters.”
“Tell that to Karen,” Penny mumbled.
“Your sister doesn’t know how to communicate her feelings, you know that. She’s just upset like the rest of us.”
Louder than it seemed possible for such a small person, Malina rushed downstairs with a book bigger than her torso in her hands and ran to the couch.
“Aunt Penny, look what I’ve got!”
Rob and Karen joined them back in the living room and Karen sighed at the sight of the book.
“Oh, here comes the fishes,” she shook her head. “I’ll go make us some tea,” she added before vanishing in the kitchen.
Penny grabbed the book, which turned out to be Marine Biology for Kids. Malina had marked the pages about whales with bright yellow bookmarks.
“Mom says you are a whale expert!”
“Well, yes. Rob and I study and help protect orcas,” Penny said, flipping through the pages. “We track and document them all around the world.”
“We met thanks to the whales,” Rob said as he came to sit next to Penny, gently putting his hand on her knee.
“Do you like them?” Penny asked her niece.
“I LOVE them! I’ve seen Free Willy 47 times but I’ve never seen them up close. Mom saw a documentary about a blackfish and won’t take me on a whale watcher. She says it’s not safe.”
“Oh your mom is…” she interrupted herself. Malina didn’t need to know how much of a killjoy her Mom was. “I used to work on a whale watcher when I was a teenager,” she added trying to reorient the conversation. “Entertaining the tourists coming to town in hopes of seeing a blackfish and all that.”
“And it was Old John who taught her all she knows about whales,” added Anabelle kindly. “They would spend hours listening to recordings of orcas’ cries, and he would go on and on about how social and family-oriented those animals can be.”
“That’s right,” Penny said, a hint of melancholy crawling through her skin as she recalled those times.
“Did Karen fall into the teapot?” Anabelle asked.
Penny went to the kitchen and left Rob surrounded by every single book Malina had about the inhabitants of the ocean, answering all the questions the little girl could come up with.
“Mom asked if you fell in the teapot,” Penny said, leaning on the kitchen counter and grabbing an orange to peel. Karen was going through a box of teabags, putting the misplaced flavors where they belonged. The heavy silence made Penny ill at ease and she sighed.
“Are you mad at me, Karen?”
“No…” Karen started, turning off the boiling water.
“What’s wrong then?”
“Nothing, everything’s fine. Just great,” Karen shrugged.
“Come on, I’ve known you to be more direct than that,” Penny raised her eyebrows, waiting for her sister to say whatever she had on her mind.
Karen arranged teacups on a wooden tray, her shoulders tensed and her face unreadable.
“It’s just—” she started when someone cleared their throat behind Penny.
Karen grabbed the tray and rushed out of the room, leaving Penny baffled in the kitchen and Anabelle wearing a quizzical look in the doorway.
Penny sighed, “I don’t know, Mom.”
Rob and Penny were staying in Penny’s old room and that evening, she could not fall asleep. Dinner had been quite silent except for Malina’s never-ending list of questions about whales. Karen was still showing Penny a cold attitude, and thinking about the following day prevented her from finding sleep.
“You okay?” Rob asked as she paced the room, taking things out of her bags before packing them back in for no apparent reason.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Penny dropped a stack of clothes on top of a bag and cursed.
She approached the bed and sat down next to Rob. He seized her hand and stared at her. “Is this about your uncle’s funeral or your sister?”
“You noticed, huh?” She chuckled more out of aggravation than because she found the situation comical. “I don’t know, I guess a bit of both. I don’t get what her problem is.”
“You told me she’s always been like that, so I don’t know, maybe she is just more stressed out than usual?”
“Maybe…” Penny stared at her feet, wondering if stress really was the explanation for her sister’s behavior, or if a deeper wound was not healing. She stood up and walked to the door. “I can’t sleep,” she told Rob. “I’m gonna try the old warm milk trick; don’t wait for me to fall asleep.”
Penny found her way around the house in the dark, avoiding making too much noise and risking awakening everyone. As she reached the kitchen, she noticed a dim light coming out of the room. Karen was standing in front of the open fridge, the yellow light from the appliance illuminating her face.
“Can’t sleep either?” Penny said, signaling her presence.
“Nope.” Karen closed the fridge and turned on the light above the sink. She opened the overhead cabinet to retrieve a glass and filled it with water as Penny took milk out of the fridge.
“Worried about tomorrow?” Penny could feel her sister’s tension and kept trying to make light conversation.
“I guess so,” Karen said without looking at her.
“Karen…Just say it, whatever is wrong, tell me.” Penny could not deal with her sister’s attitude any longer.
“You know, you were always his favorite,” Karen blurted out.
“Old John. You were always his favorite,” Karen repeated.
“I wasn’t, we just had a lot in common.”
“Oh, please. You were inseparable and every other month he’d come up with a new book about marine animals to show you or a new excursion to take you on. You were never around, always at the lighthouse waiting for killer whales.”
“They aren’t killers; you know I hate that term,” Penny exclaimed.
“I don’t care about the damn fishes, Penny!” Karen turned to face her sister. “You’ve always been the favorite, the one everyone is dying to have home, but who took care of him and Mom all those years, huh? Who’s always been there?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to be here—” Penny started, but her sister held out her hand to interrupt her.
“You know what? Never mind. I don’t want to hear it.” Karen left the room without another word.
Penny went back to her bedroom, feeling a mixture of anger and incomprehension towards her sister. While Rob was moving around the bed, she paced the room again and finally stopped in front of her bookshelf. Penny dug out one of her old books. It was a collection of Haida legends, some of them about orcas, and she buried herself in the book in hopes it would take her mind off reality.
The next morning was Old John’s funeral. The sky was cloudy and light gray, and the boat trip would not be that big of a deal after all. Penny had been awake most of the night, reading through her old book, and she now was staring through the window, her gaze fixed on the sky and her thoughts lost in the air. A knock on the door interrupted her daydreaming.
“Penny?” she heard her mother call from the hallway. “It’s almost time.”
A half-hour later, the whole family was heading to the crematorium where a wake would take place. After that, the plan was to take a boat to the cove by Tulalip Rock where Anabelle would take care of her brother’s last wish. If some people think things go from dust to dust, Old John’s idea was from dust to water.
To Penny, the wake went by in a blur. She spent most of the time standing by her mother, trying to give her as much support as she could while having no idea of her surroundings. She didn’t pay attention to the faces giving her their condolences, or to Karen buzzing around complaining about the flower arrangements and the room setup. No priest was there since Old John did not care much for that, but Penny and her mother read poems, and some of Old John’s friends said a few words.
After the wake, she just followed the others. Followed as Rob took her to the car. Followed as they pulled over at the marina. Followed as Malina grabbed her hand to guide her to the medium-size boat. Rob took the helm and listened to Karen’s instructions for the twelfth time as to where exactly they were heading and to which particular point at the Tulalip Rock cove they would stop to spread Old John’s ashes. As the boat started its motion and the engines took care of covering Karen’s voice with their whirring, Penny walked to the bow and stared at the horizon. The trip would be a matter of minutes but the endlessness of the water before them made her feel like it could take forever. Anabelle silently appeared beside her, holding the funeral urn closely against her chest.
“Penny, I’d like you to do it. I know he asked for me but I really think it should be you.”
Penny kept staring at the trees speeding up along the shore leading to Tulalip Rock.
“You know I’ve never thanked him,” she said glancing at her mother. “For anything…while I owe him everything. I took the first opportunity I got to get out in the world, and I didn’t even take time to look back and thank him.”
She bowed her head and felt tears running down her cheeks. Anabelle wrapped an arm around her daughter’s shoulders.
“Shush. You didn’t have to. Old John wasn’t big on demonstrations of affection or anything of the like. You didn’t need to say anything, he knew how you felt…”
Anabelle paused and started giggling.
“He was so proud of you…and he would never stop going on and on about you and those damn whales! Every time he’d meet someone with the slightest interest about them, he would say ‘My niece is an orca expert, she follows them everywhere!'”
The thought of her uncle bragging about her brought a smile on Penny’s face, but it wasn’t enough to cheer her up and erase her guilt. Behind them, they could hear Karen lecture Malina on the dangers of running on deck.
“Oh your sister…” chuckled Anabelle. “I’ll never understand how I raised two children who couldn’t be more different than you two.”
“I doubt she’ll miss an opportunity to rub my absence in my face the entire time we’re in town,” muttered Penny.
“You know how she is,” Anabelle started. “Karen needs…structure, I guess. Ignore her, that’s just the way she is.”
“I guess so. Poor Malina though,” Penny said, and they both laughed quietly.
Anabelle turned to her daughter and held the urn towards her.
“You need to do this. It would have meant the world to him, and I know it would be good for you.”
Penny nodded and grabbed the urn as Karen approached them.
“We are almost there,” she said.
“I think you two need a minute,” Anabelle declared. “I’ll go see if Rob needs anything.”
She left the heavy silence between the two sisters and walked back inside. Penny shook her head.
“You know what I don’t understand? You always hated the lighthouse, and you always thought my obsession with orcas was stupid,” Penny shrugged in disbelief. “So why are you so bitter about all this?”
“Penny, we were kids! I didn’t want to be Mom’s delivery man, so I pretended I was scared of the lighthouse, but then you and Uncle John bonded and I was…left out…”
“It’s not my fault though, I never intended to exclude you, and I’m sure Old John never meant it either.” Penny glanced at the urn in her arms and had an idea. She had never considered how Karen might have felt as they grew up, always being the one left behind.
“Why don’t you do it?”
“Throw his ashes in the water.”
“Mom wants you to do it,” Karen said, frowning. “Why would you want me to?”
“It would be one last opportunity for you to do something with him.”
Karen’s eyes betrayed her surprise. “I don’t know. Are you sure?”
“Karen, just do as I ask for once. Please?” Penny said, a faint smile crossing her face.
Taking a step towards Penny, Karen said, “That would be very nice. Thank you.”
Penny pressed the urn against her heart and kissed it before handing it to her sister. The humming of the engines grew quieter as they reached the cove for the last part of the funeral ritual. Sunrays were making the water sparkle, and as soon as Rob turned off the engines, no sound except the lapping of the water disrupted the peacefulness of the scenery. Everybody gathered on the left side of the boat, unsure of what to do next. Penny glanced at her mother who smiled when she saw Karen was the one now holding the urn. Penny put her hand on her sister’s shoulder as a way to signal her that it was time to say goodbye. Then, Karen slowly opened the urn and leaned above the water.
“Bye, Uncle John. We’ll see you around,” she said.
They all kept quiet for a minute, watching the ashes dissolve in the ocean. Rob grabbed Penny’s hand and she pressed it, appreciating his presence. He put his other hands on her shoulders and leaned towards her ear, whispering “Do you hear that?”
She was so lost in her thoughts that she hadn’t paid attention. She could recognize that splashing sound in her sleep. They were close, but not too close. A pod, heading their way, probably calling each other under the surface of the ocean. She turned to Malina and grabbed her hand.
“Are you ready to meet the Lords of the Ocean?” Penny asked with a smile.
Malina’s eyes brightened, and she hurried behind her aunt to the boat’s stern while Rob grabbed a pair of binoculars.
“Malina!” Karen called after her daughter. Penny turned around, her niece at her side, and saw a familiar look on her sister’s face. It was the same look she had when they were kids and Karen watched Penny come back from a day at sea with Old John. All this time she had interpreted it as reprobation, but on that day, she finally read it as envy.
“It’s okay, Karen, come along,” Penny said holding out her free hand to her sister.
Rob was pointing at a spot some 200 feet ahead of them, where about 12 orcas were cutting the surface of the water with their dorsal fins. Malina was jumping up and down, clapping her hands while calling out the whales.
“They’re coming!” Rob yelled.
“Mom, Mom! Aren’t they beautiful?” an excited Malina asked her mother.
“Yeah, they are,” Karen smiled.
The orcas’ blowholes sprayed water above the animals, and soon the whales started peeking their heads out of the water, talking to each other through their peculiar squeaks. Penny glanced at Malina and saw herself in the enthusiasm of the little girl. She went to grab her handbag as two whales were approaching their boat. One of them, a young calf, got close enough to play with the rubber ring on the side of the boat.
“Aunt Penny! Look!”
Penny took a book out of her handbag and approached Malina.
“I thought you might like this. It talks about whales. Old John gave it to me when I was about your age.”
“What is it?” asked Malina.
“Haida legends. See, the Haida believe that orcas act in the water like people do on earth,” she started to explain.
The calf whistled at them, flapping its fluke and splashing water on the boat.
“Some think that when whales swim close to land, it’s because they are former humans trying to reconnect with their families,” Penny added. “See, they believe after people die they turn into orcas.”
Malina looked at her in silence and then looked at the calf. A smile appeared on her face as she said, “How old is this one?”
Penny evaluated the calf, “Not very old.”
The calf sent another wave of water their way, through his mouth this time. The rest of the pod started calling for him, their cry alerting the calf that it was time for him to stop playing and go home.
“Aunt Penny…” Malina started. “Do you think this one is Uncle John?”
Penny considered the question. She watched the calf swim through Old John’s remaining ashes and leave to go back to his family.
Marine Pérot is a French writer living in the United States. She graduated with a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing from Southeast Missouri State University in 2016 and is now a screenwriter for Middletown Studios.