Saturday, July 22, 2023

The Song of Summer Visitors - First Draft

 With San Diego to his right and the Pacific Ocean to his left, Marc expertly turned the steering wheel of his old, but maticulously maintained truck down the ramp edging the trailer with the skiff on it into the water.  Tyler watched his grandfather with rapt attention, like he was watching a ballet.  There was nothing Tyler loved more than sailing with his grandfather.  There was nothing Marc loved more than Tyler, even the sea.

Years ago, many years ago now, Marc tried to teach his wife how to back the trailer down the ramp.  He tried and tried, but she never got the hang of driving in reverse with a trailer behind.  When it became clear that she only had a few years left to live, Marc’s wife, Tyler’s grandmother, asked him to take her out to sea one last time.  He lifted her frail, emaciated body out onto the boat, then miles off shore, in the lanes where the whales pass from North to South, under a starlight sky, she passed from this world into the next.  

He wrapped her body in yards of linen he found at an abandoned craft store with enough stones from her garden to make sure her body went to the bottom of the sea, and he gently lifted the woman he loved over the side of the boat and dipped her into the sea, which would become her final home.  Watching the shrouded white figure of his wife sink into the sea, he heard the impossibly, long keening song of the whales, joining him in this moment of sorrow.

The skiff today had the same body as the boat Marc buried Tyler’s grandmother with, but in the years since it’s had many upgrades, including an array of photo-generator cells on the roof of the cabin, condensed batteries that would hold a charge for years.  The cabin was big enough for Tyler and Marc to sleep, and stored enough food and water for a month’s excursion.  

With the skiff, afloat, inspected and secured, Marc parked the truck, and he and Tyler set sail.  Many years ago, Marcus shucked oysters, bussed tables and tended bar so he could pay his way through college with a marine biology degree.  He had two jobs, one was cataloguing and observing the number of cetaceans that passed by San Diego for the California Dept of Wildlife, and another leading tourists in the winter to see gray whales, and blue whales in the summer.  Watching human beings observe and interact with these ancient and mysterious creatures made him very happy.

Clear of the dock, Marc raised the sail, and steered seaward.  His thick, white hair, with curls as thick as his thumb blew in the wind.  Tyler’s hari was the same texture, same cure, but glossy black.  They set sail.  Marc’s strong broad hand on the tiller, his deeply tanned skin wrinkled at the knuckles.  A roadmap of tiny wrinkles in his ancient flesh, the veins in the back of his stand out beneath the bleached white hairs.

Tyler sat forward.  His job was to hold the lines to the Jib and keep it in trim.  A few feet away from his grandfather, tyler studied the chords flowing back from the top of the jib to make sure then went back straight, tugging the line for the jib to one side or the other if they began to flap.

Marc could easily make this trip by himself with just the mainsail, but Tyler liked having responsibilities, and doing things to make Tyler happy was the point of life these days.

With more than an hour to go before they reach their destination, Tyler intensely watched his sail, while Marc intensely watched Tyler.  Tyler loved his grandfather.  He loved sailing, he loved his parrot and he loved chocolate, but he’ll never know the feeling of loving his own child, or grandchild.  That made Marc very sad.

Marc’s grandmother taught ancient history at a private catholic academy in San Diego, long before the city became what it is now.  Through her connections and utilizing his keen mind, Marc won a scholarship to attend.  One day  a boy asked if he was named for Marc Anthony.  “No,” Marc Said.  “I’m named for Marcus Aurelius, one of the five good emperors and a philosopher king.”  

With a strong steady wind, the sea rippled against the hull of the skiff.  Tyler focused his eyes out to sea and said, as he has many times before, “Tell me how the world ended, grandpa?”  Marc sighed.  The ruins of San Diego were still visible behind him.  The architectural glass skins of the towers long ago broke and dropped away as the steel and concrete skeleton of the buildings began to buckle and collapse under the weight of time.  

Tyler was exceedingly intelligent, but he was nine years old.  For nine year olds, telling the same story over and over provides some comfort for them.  Tyler knew there were a million stories about the past, but this was the story of his past, and as horrible as it sounds to you and me, it was fascinating to him.

Marc’s eyes focused.  He wanted to tell the story honestly and correctly, but in the way a nine year old would understand.  Tyler had been nine years old for seven hundred years, so Marc had the opportunity to practice this enough times to make it perfect, but it was never any less painful.  

“You were six,” Marc said.  “You were six years old when the virus hit.  It hit first in Greece, but within a year spread to the whole world.  People had been talking about the end of the world, probably since the world began.  Some thought it would be fire.  Some thought it would be flood.  Some thought the hand of God would smite us.  Some thought zombies would eat our brains.  Some thought we used use nuclear weapons to destroy ourselvles.  Some thought an asteroid would take us out like the dinosaurs.  Nobody expected something so tiny it couldn’t be seen would destroy the world.”

“There were a little over eight billion people on earth when the virus hit, within a hundred and fifty years, there would be less than two million.  It would take a hundred and fifty years for the world’s population to bottom out and stabalize, but within five years of the initial outbreak, everybody left on earth stopped aging.”

“You were six then the outbreak began.  You aged three more years after than, then your body stopped getting older, but you also stopped getting sick.  Your body became able to heal itself of almost anything.  Your nine years old now.  You’ll be nine years old forever.”

“Some people died very quickly once they became infected.  Your mother died five days after she contracted the virus.  Your father was deployed in one of our stupid wars in Eastern Africa, so it took a week for command to get the message to him.  With the world dying, we ended the war pretty quickly and your father came home.  He lived another five years.  Your grandmother another twenty.”

“If the virus didn’t kill you, it turned you into superman.  No disease could touch you.  I was seventy-three when the virus hit, but my body never got any older.  My skin was still wrinkled and old, but my muscles and my organs worked better than they did when I was twenty.  My hair came back, but it was all stark white as a seagul.”

“Something about the disease responded to hormonal changes in the body.  Once your body started to show the first sign of puberty, you quit aging.  You’re strong and healthy and really very, very smart, but you’ll be a little boy forever.  Ther’s a little more than two million people left on earth.  About a quarter of them are little kids like you.  The rest are grandparents like me, mostly grandpas.  Everybody inbetween died out.  We’re all that’s left and we’re not getting any older.  This fall, it will be seven hundred years since the virus broke out.  You and I never got any older.  We never will.”

“Something about the disease made me desire the company of a woman again in ways I hadn’t thought about in twenty years.  Your grandmother and I were very happy for almost seventy years after your mother and father died.  We took over a big house on a hill.  I had enough knowledge of mechanics and electronics to keep everything running.  The people who owned the house converted it to solar power long ago, so there was always electricity.  Your grandmother was a whiz at raising vegetables and chickens, and that’s how we lived for a long time.  We were happy in a world that was dying, dead really–except for us.”

“The disease made our bodies incredibly strong.  The only thign that could kill an infected person who survived was dispair.  There were stories of people who gave up on living after the world died, but found it almost impossible to end their own lives.  Almost that is.  There were a few ways left to break an unbreakable body.”

“The disease killed off anybody who had normal adult hormone levels.  People who had reduced hormone level like your grandma and me survived the first wave of the disease.  Little kids like you who hadn’t started the puberty level of hormones survived too.  Everybody in between died within twenty years, leaving just old people like me, and young people like you.”

“A lot of old and a lot of young people died, but some survived like we did.  For some reason, the diseae lasted longer in men that in women.  Men who were infected and survived were almost supermen.  Women who were infected and survived were too, but for some reason, for many of them, the disease would one day just stop working.  The immortality the disease gave them ended, and they began to be susceptible to diseases again.  That’s what happened to your grandma.  The disease extended your grandma’s life, then it ended it.”  

There are women left in the world, but not many, and those who are left don’t have much need of men.  Some have grandchildren of their own to look after.  Some are hold up somewhere using the kybernet to communicate with what’s left of mankind, some still trying to find a cure.

It wasn’t long after people began theorizing that sub atomic particles could communicate with each other regardless of constraints of time or space than people began developing a way to communicate on the sub atomic level, allowing computers to exchange information without wires or radio transmission, even through space without the constraint of c2, the Speed of light.

This way, humans on earth could communicate, in real time, with the human colonists on Mars.  There were less than three thousand people on Mars when the virus broke out.  There are almost forty thousand now.  They live completely separately from the humans on Earth.  Any interaction carried the risk of the virus infecting the Martian population, which would spell the end of mankind.  The last uninfected human beings in the universe live on Mars, and they are growing and prospering, turning Mars into a beautiful living planet again, like it once was.  Humans lived, grew up, fell in love, had children, grew old and died agian, but only on Mars.

“I’m gonna be a little boy forever.” Tyler said.  “FOREVER!” he shouted in the winds, with an impossibly happy look on his face.  “Forever,” Marcus said, with a tear in his eye.

By instinct, Marc knew where to stop.  He lowered the mainsil and tied it to the boom.  He pulled fried eggplant, tomato and pepper sandwiches out of the cooler, so he and Tyler could eat in the cool breeze.

“Is this the spot?” Tyler said.  “I think so,” Marc said.  He’s been knowing where to stop for seven hundred years.  He knew even before the disease, but now he knows weeks before when his friends are returning.  They speek to him in his sleep.

“What does it sound like,” Tyler said, “when they sing to you?”

“Do you know what it sounds like when you can hear their song through the hull of the skiff?”  Marc asked.  “It’s like that, only louder, and longer, and only when I sleep.”

“What do you think they say in their songs?” Tyler asked.”

“I think they say, ‘hello friend.  I’m coming soon.  I missed you.’” Marc said.  The old ones sign to me first, then the younger ones, then the younger ones become the older ones, and the new younger ones are born.  The older ones teach the younger ones the song, and tell them about their friend in the boat.”

“There was a time when men hunted whales.  They cooked down their bodies to make lamp oil.  They used their teeth to make women’s corsets.”  Marc thought it was important for Tyler to know the whole history.

“Whale teeth are like giant feathers, they strain the tiny shrimps they eat of the water.” Tyler added.  

“That’s right.  It’s called ‘Baleen’ and they used that to make girdles for women so they wouldn’t look fat.”  Marc grinned while Tyler puffed out his cheeks and stuck out his belly like the photos of fat women he’d seen.  Tyler could barely remember meeting any women ever.  What he knew about people he knew mostly from photographs.  

“Why do you think the whales chose you to talk to?” Tyler asked.

Marcus looked out to sea.  “I think I chose them.  I’ve been studying whales since I was a little boy like you.  The disease made me able to do things I could never do before.  I would remember word-for-word books that I read when I was thirteen.  I could hear and identify the song of birds miles away, and when I sleep I can hear the songs of whales at sea.”

“And they tell you when they’re coming!” Tyler said.  

“Well, I’ve known what time of year they were coming for a very long time, but their songs in my head let me know when shales I knew were coming near.”

“Like Notch!” Tyler said, excited he remembered the name of one of grandpa’s friends.

“Like Notch,” Marc said.  Notch was one of the first blue whales Marc recocognized from one season to the next as blue whales made their way North to South past San Diego.  There was a noticeable notch taken out of his dorsal fin.  Marc assumed it was from some sort of accident, maybe a shark attack when he was a juvinile, but it must have been some sort of congenital defect, because Notche’s children had it, then grandchildren, now the great grandchildren of notch pass by San Diego every year, with the song they sung to Marc passed down from generation to generation.  

When men stopped hunting whales, there was some concern that blue whales were near extinct, but once they were protected, they started making a comeback.  Now that man’s pollution dropped to almost nothing when their population was decimated, whales traveled the oceans in numbers not seen since before men learned to sail.  

“When you think they’ll get here?” Tyler asked.  

“Pretty soon now.  We’ll sleep here tonight.” Marc answered, and pulled out his guitar to play songs Tyler knew.  Marcus liked songs written by a man named Yusuf Islam, who died a century before Marc was born.  He played “Morning has Broken, Peace Train, and Father and Son, a song Marc understood too well, but Tyler never would.”  They sang into the night and ate grapes, blueberries and figs, and waited for the whales.

Marc woke with the sun.  He made coffee while Tyler slept.  When the world goes from a population of eight billion down to two million, there’s an awful lot of somethings left stored in warehouses.  Marc knew of a dock side warehouse that had entire containers of freeze dried and vacuum sealed coffee beans.  Enough for the rest of his extroridinarily long life.  He might be the last man on earth to enjoy coffee in the morning, but enjoy it he would.  Tyler slept in the tiny cabin as the yellow fingers of the sun stretched across the world.

Soft at first, but growing louder, long, deep whistles vibrated through the hull of the skiff.  “Wheel, wheel, wheel, wheeeeeeeeeel.” they sounded.  Tyler sprang into awakeness.  “They here!” he shouted.

Tyler scrambles to the deck of the skiff, hanging onto to the stanchion so he doesn’t go over.  Marc uses his binoculars to scan the horizon.  “There!” He shouts, pointing to the north.  A spout breaks the surface of the water, then another, then another.  A pod of whales was coming towards them.  

“Quick!” Marc shouted, as he raised the mainsail and tyler raised the jib.  They turned the skiff in the direction the whales were headed and waited for them to catch up to them.

The flukes of a blue whale are twenty-five feet wide.  Almost wider than the skiff is long.  They look slow because they’re a hundred feet long, but blue whales are remarkably fast.  Soon there are spouts on both sides of the skiff, as the pod slows it pace to travel in time with Marc and Tyler on the skiff. 

Tyler looks out and counts two adults and two juviniles with notched dorsal fins.  The great grandchildren of his grandfather’s whale.  The largest whale, an ancient female with a notched fin breaks the surface not twelve feet from the skiff.  She’s many times longer than the skiff, which looks tiny and frail now.  Her pectral flipper reaches under the skiff and nudges it’s keel.  Tyler shakes with excitement when he feels her touching the boat.  He can smell her breath as she spouts mere feet from him, the mist falling down on his shoulders.

For most of the day, Tyler and Marc sail in the middle of a blue whale pod.  Animals they’d known for years, descendants of animals they’d known for seven hundred years.  Marc was seven hundred and seventy eight years old.  Tyler was seven hundred and six years old.  Their bodies never aged, they never feared death, and neither knew how long this would last.  

As the sun began to set, the pod pulled away from the skiff.  Their journey was many miles yet.  Tyler sat in the cockpit of the skiff with his ear to the hull, listening for the last of the whale songs.  

Marcus Aurelius Delehandro studied the tan shirtless chest of his grandson, in an eternal hope that one day, a black hair would appear among the downy white fuz that constituted most of Tyler’s body hair, some sort of sign that this arrested life might one day start moving again, that one day his precious grandchild might still become a man, then an old man, then a grandfather like himself.  It crushed him knowing that tyler’s life would never be complete.  

There’s not much to compare with the love of a grandparent for a grandchild.  It’s easy to think you’d want that to go on forever, but when the day came that it did go on forever, after seven hundred years, the thought that consumed Marc’s life was that his grandson, the last heir of his family, the last living human being he loved on earth would never live a life complete.

Tyler never understood this.  He was happy to be a boy forever, as boys usually are.  Marc had no friends who ever understood him, except in the summertime, when the whales swim by and spend the day with their old friend.

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