There’s a joke at the resort and on the whale-watching boats. Tourists who are leaving the island pass it on. New arrivals splurt laughter, clap hands to mouths in embarrassment, cast sidelong glances at the skipper of the Moby Dick, then furtively retell and embellish. The whispering buffets Rufus – his hearing is painfully acute – though he knows no malice is intended. The rumours multiply like krill and bruise him, but gossip is normal, he knows that. He knows this is the sort of thing that normal people do. He watches as they arrive from the mainland on the catamaran, already infected, brushing salt and hearsay from their cheeks. The story, the joke – with variations – always travels sotto voce, stealthy as a harpoon, but hits target with a brutal bang of laughter.
This is the way the joke goes.
Question: How do you know if he likes you?
Answer: He looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you.
Rufus gets it.
Call him Rufus he has heard many times, always spoken with a slow American twang. He gets that one too, though the backpacking college students believe it is their secret in-joke.
Call him Weird.
Rufus does not keep count of the contusions. They are lobbed from bar chatter, from beach recliners, from the railings when he casts off. When Tangalooma is behind them, when they are heading north at a brisk fifteen knots, the wind mutes and muddies the voices. Even so, he can sometimes hear entire phrases, sharp as fish hooks, when the boat passes over the wrecks of the two Norwegian whale-chasers sunk in the early sixties and when he navigates the tricky passage between Cape Moreton and Flinders Reef.
He’s a bit, you know, retarded.
Not retarded, just weird, like everyone who lives on the island year round. Talks to whales – or believes he can. There was an ABC documentary, don’t you recognise him?
Ssh, he can hear you.
Even if he hears, he can’t understand – can’t process – what you say.
He never speaks.
It’s the aftermath of childhood trauma.
Born below the waterline, one story goes. He’s part fish.
Rufus more often feels like a fish out of water, though he believes he is indeed part ichthyosaur. He also knows he was actually born in the front parlour of his grandparents’ home in Redcliffe, a four-room cottage on the shores of Moreton Bay.
His father was a whaler and his mother was a marine biologist and a diver, tourists are told when they purchase tickets for the cruise. A shark got his mother when Rufus was ten and they say he hasn’t spoken since. But he’s an expert on whaling and whales.
Rufus shivers whenever a fin breaks the surface of Moreton Bay.
With Cape Moreton behind him, he keeps his eyes on the smudged line between ocean and sky, scanning for humpback pods. At first sight of a breaching whale, he rings the ship’s bell and tourists crowd the decks. The Americans (who outnumber all others) hold video cameras aloft. There is much oohing and aahing. A pod of perhaps thirty humpbacks, undertaking their annual trek up the coast of Australia from Antarctica to the tropical Whitsunday Passage where they calve, is frolicking out there like puppies. What acrobats! They are an oceanic circus troupe, their striated white bellies flashing sunlight as they make their astonishing leaps, their black flukes pelting spray.
What easy victims they were, Rufus thinks sadly. Slow moving (at only four to five knots per hour), passing close to land when other whales (blue whales, killer whales) kept well out to sea, the humpbacks offered themselves as lambs to the slaughter.
And slaughtered they were.
Rufus remembers the day his father took him to the flensing deck at Tangalooma. He was eight years old. He remembers the way the whales were winched up the ramp, their shattered hulks belching blood, the hooked knives ripping away their skin and blubber with a truly nightmarish sound. He watched his father shove the long jellied ribbons through great holes in the deck to the furnace-cookers below.
‘See!’ his father pointed to the stripped carcass. ‘Now you can see the harpoon.’
It was twisted like a pretzel, its explosive head peppered through bone cage and flesh like shrapnel.
Rufus remembers leaning over the edge of the flensing deck to vomit, clinging to the rail at the top of the ramp. Below him, at the foot of the slick and bloodied slope, the tethered carcasses of six dead whales, each pumped full of air to keep it afloat, rocked gently against the dock. They looked like six black pontoons, each gushing rivers of scarlet. He remembers watching the circling sharks, the way their jaws closed repeatedly on the tough black hides, the way the bloodied water drove them mad, the way they plunged into the dead gaping mouths of the leviathans and ate the tongues.
He remembers sobbing in his father’s arms.
He remembers that the ocean was made not of water but of blood and that when his father took him down to the jetty, the blood crested in waves and lapped his ankles.
He has never forgotten the dirges of the whales who escaped the harpoons.
It’s a requiem mass for their mates, his father had told him.
The Moby Dick has cut its engines and now the tourists can hear the humpbacks singing: the low-throated bass notes, the high keening, the fluted mating calls, the lullabies of mothers to calves.
‘It’s like the music of the spheres,’ a man says, busily recording.
Some of the tourists (and not only the women) are weeping.
‘This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen or heard,’ another man says. ‘It’s awesome.’ He can’t even hold his camera steady. He brushes his sleeve across his eyes.
Even normal people, Rufus thinks with a vaulting flicker of hope, can sometimes understand a language they cannot speak.
When he was a child, his mother and grandmother loved to tell him that his baby clothes were made from American sheets washed ashore from the Rufus King. ‘That’s why we christened you Rufus.’
In the school library in Redcliffe (a one-room affair, but well endowed with the diaries of nineteenth- and twentieth-century settlers) Rufus tracked down the history of the wreck whose name he bore. He did this when he was in the fifth grade and needed to believe that salvage was possible. His need to believe was desperate. For months, he could not look at the ocean for fear of seeing the haemorrhaging of whales or the bloodlust of sharks or the remains of his mother’s body, never found.
The Rufus King, he discovered, was an American Liberty ship that mistook the South Passage below Moreton Island for the North West Channel. She struck a sandbar and was wrecked in ’42, in the month of July.
There are shoreline scavengers still living who will swear that the date was the Glorious Fourth and that the bodies washed up on island beaches in rigor mortis had their fingers clamped around American flags, the miniature kind waved in parades.
The ship was already mythical for Rufus before he started school. It was his favourite bedtime story, and his grandmother told and retold and embroidered it. ‘In those days we were more worried about Japanese subs than sharks,’ she confessed. ‘We’d stand on the beach with telescopes and watch for black conning towers. We’d place bets. We bet on everything that moved. Were they humpbacks or sharks or submarines? The odds favoured submarines. We watched for hours on end every day. We were perpetually expecting Japs but what we got was dead Yanks with American flags in their hands.’
Rufus knows the rest of the story by heart: the debris washed ashore, the salvage fever. ‘Miles of American cotton, soft as silk,’ his grandmother recalled. ‘Like a gift from God. The luxuries those Yanks took for granted! I’m talking the bedding on their bunks. You’d think it was the Ritz not the US navy. You can’t believe how excited we were, wartime rationing and all. You couldn’t get cloth for love nor money back then.’
Rufus pictures his mother and his grandmother dragging stinking soggy bundles from the sea. He pictures them pegging yards of sheeting to the clothesline and hosing off seaweed and salt.
‘Then we boiled them in the copper for days,’ his grandmother recalled. ‘And we bleached them and made blouses and skirts and your baby clothes. It was almost sinful … It was sinful, I suppose. Or at least indecent. But don’t get me wrong: we were sorry for those American boys who drowned, and we held a service on the beach and said prayers and sang hymns for them.’
His grandmother’s face would turn dreamy. ‘Still, I made a lovely dance dress for your mother. MacArthur had his HQ in Brisbane by then and there were Yanks all over the place, at all the dances … oversexed, overpaid and over here, we used to say. We hated them and we loved them. They buzzed around your mother like flies round a honey pot. There was a boy from Oklahoma,’ his grandmother would say, ‘at one of the dances. He gave your mother a ring and he promised her … oh, what he promised!’
‘What?’ Rufus would ask, entranced with his possible histories. ‘What did he promise?’
‘Let’s just say you were almost a Yank and you almost had a daddy from Oklahoma. Oh, those Yanks! They were like people in fairy tales. They believed anything – anything – was possible. They expected magic beanstalks outside every kitchen window. They made promises the way the rest of us breathe.’
‘What happened to the boy from Oklahoma who could have been my dad?’
‘The usual: his ship was torpedoed. He’s part of the reef now. He’s part of the Coral Sea.’
Part of the Pacific, Rufus thinks now. Like my mother, like my father, like all the dead whales. He needs to stay close to the ones he has lost.
‘So much wreckage from the Rufus King,’ his grandmother would reminisce. ‘Washing ashore for days and days. We had a beachcombing party with a bonfire and dancing on the sand. And then we had a sewing bee. You have to understand, the Rufus King was like manna from heaven. And it wasn’t just all those yards of American cotton, though I can’t begin to tell you how many bridal gowns were made from ship’s bedding …’
She would take to daydreaming until her little grandson would prompt her. ‘What else?’
‘Oh, there were the medical supplies. And there was vacuum-sealed coffee – real coffee, oh my!’ She would put a hand on her breast. ‘To this day, all I can say is that my heart races when I remember what washed ashore. And best of all was your baby clothes.’
‘But I wasn’t even born when it sank.’
‘That’s true,’ his grandmother acknowledged. ‘But we knew you’d come sooner or later. Your daddy was somewhere in the Coral Sea at the time, along with those American boys fighting the Japs, but we knew he’d come home and when he did, we knew he’d make you.’
Rufus knew that his father’s ship was bombed by a Japanese plane and that his father, clinging to wreckage, was picked up by the USS Yorktown. ‘They shipped him home to us in casts and bandages,’ his grandmother said, ‘but that didn’t stop him and your mother making you. You were our VJ baby.’
Rufus knows this story: Victory-over-Japan Day, August 15, 1945, the day he was born.
‘You popped out and Japan surrendered,’ his parents used to tease.
His mother had already made his baby suit from cotton flotsam. ‘It’s undrownable stuff,’ she claimed. ‘That’s how we knew your father would come home.’ She had sent him off to war with underwear made from sheets. ‘Anything salvaged from the Rufus King can’t drown.’
Rufus thinks he would not mind drowning. It would be like a family reunion.
When Rufus was seven years old, his demobbed father signed on at Tangalooma as a whaler. The ships and crews were Norwegian; the blood-work was done by Australians. In the first four months of 1952, 600 whales were killed.
‘We only go for the males,’ his father told him. ‘We don’t touch the females and calves. This is how we cut off the flukes, with these long knives.’
Rufus threw up again.
‘I know, I know,’ his father said. ‘It’s not pretty. But you’ve got to toughen up.’
Nevertheless his father began to drink heavily. He worked seven days a week, twelve-hour shifts, on six-week stints.
‘Worth it though,’ he told Rufus. ‘I’m rolling in money. Besides, where else can I get work?’
By the time whaling was banned in 1962, the recorded voice on the PA system tells the tourists, the whales had been almost wiped out. Tangalooma began operations in 1952. In that year, it is estimated that fifteen thousand humpbacks were migrating up the east coast of Australia. As pods were depleted, the whalers became more desperate and less selective, and females and calves were harpooned. After ten years, it is estimated that only 500 whales were left.
Now the cetacean population is slowly regenerating itself, though humpbacks remain at risk from Japanese whalers in the Antarctic. The illegal slaughter in Australian and New Zealand waters has provoked international protest.
And yet the whales may have the last laugh because spermaceti is the only known substance that will work as a lubricant in the ferociously cold temperatures of outer space. The NASA shuttles run on whale oil, and the Voyager probe beams the recorded song of the humpback as a terrestrial salutation to aliens.
Rufus feels the whale song like a caress. It brushes his skin and travels like a low electrical charge through his veins. It hums and reverberates inside his skull. He is filled with happiness. He sings back to them, silently, but he knows they hear. He asks what he always asks.
So close that he is showered with salt spray, he receives an answer. A humpback breaches like a rocket in front of the ship, its vertically pleated white belly like a bridal gown made from salvaged sheets. The whale thumps the lizard-skin of the Pacific with its black flukes, and her calf, as though summoned, leaps out of the water beside her. Their long curved bodies make a fleeting uneven arch. They sing an antiphonal chant, and Rufus translates.
Thank you, he telegraphs back.