Fluke by Jen Michalski


I was watching a National Geographic episode about people who take pictures of whale flukes (a fancy word for the tail) to help ID the whales for scientists to study migration and breeding patterns. Like a fingerprint, no two flukes are the same, but some of the most prominent marks on whale flukes come from scars they’ve gotten, from barnacles and from attacks and other dangerous situations. Like these citizen photographers, I really connected with a whale’s fluke scars—they’re often highly visible, and you might take a photo of a whale with a really unique scar one summer and then hope to see it the next summer. Or the next, Or next—maybe, hopefully. It kind of becomes an obsession, kind of the way we connect with people and their particular scars, their damage. Our vulnerabilities that we see in others. 

When they leave Alaska, you are waiting. As they travel six thousand miles to mate in the warm embryo of Mexican bays, you will travel to the Monterey coast to meet them, to find her, your whale. When you first saw her, a rotation of the earth ago, you touched her fluke as it flicked past your boat, splashing your face. When you found her, the salt from the water cut your lips and you tasted the blood of your vulnerability.  A pain, and a pleasure, that you still stab with your tongue.

You will know her because of her scar. Each whale’s fluke, or tail, a story of scars, of brushes with barnacles and shark and orcas and with fishing nets, boat rotors. Your whale’s scar cracked long and jagged, like a vein or a map, a point to place your finger and trace back to yourself. You carved the same long, jagged scar in the soft of your arm, years ago, before you found her. If the two scars could meet, they will close the chasm in you, where the water, dark and bottomless, presses against the stretch marks, the pores, the fissures of your skin and threatens to dissolve you into sea.

There are so many whales, so many flukes. Some linger, circle your boat. Some flukes fit so closely, could stem the bleeding from your lips, your knuckles, your wounds. But you will not unmoor. She will come, take you miles away from where you are so lost, an undulating place between north and south, a waystation. If not this year then next, and if not next then the one that follows. Every rotation of the earth, every weathering of ice and thaw, the rawness of your lips and the redness of your cheeks, you will wait, your steadfastness keeping you afloat, a buoy for her to find.

Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water, The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and three collections of fiction (The Company of Strangers, From Here, and Close Encounters). Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, The Washington Post, and the Literary Hub, among others, and she’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. She’s the editor in chief of the literary weekly jmww and lives in Southern California, although she will always be a Baltimorean at heart.  

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