Bartolome swam across the coral and nudged Whitefinn playfully. But Whitefinn didn’t react as he usually did with his childlike smile, summersault out of the water or race off after a fishing boat. Whitefinn’s mouth remained closed and his small eyes barely gave Bartolome a second glance.
“What’s wrong?” asked Bartolome.
Whitefinn remained silent as he struggled to make sense of the puzzle in his head although he needed to understand. Bartolome was the cleverest of his friends so Whitefinn decided to share his dilemma.
“Where does everyone go? I mean, eventually?”
Bartolome was becoming impatient and a sarcastic reply flashed through his head, in response to Whitefinn’s question. But he resisted the temptation to slap a flipper on the surface as Whitefinn had been his friend for as long as he could remember, and he knew he was prone to curiosity.
Bartolome remained where he was and replied, “Nobody goes anywhere.” Then he turned and said, “Come on I spotted the blue boat at the far side of the bay, the one with the father and son.”
Whitefinn blinked and remained anchored to the spot.
“Come on Whitefinn, they’re always generous with their catch. Race you there,” urged Bartolome.
“No I don’t think you understand my question,” said Whitefinn eventually. “I don’t think we live forever.”
Bartolome was getting hungrier with every ripple that knocked against him. Though it was always easier and so much more fun to catch fish with his friend, he resisted the temptation to dart off and replied, “Why do you say that?”
“The last time I met Blackbeard at the shoreline the moon was full, but last night the moon was a crescent shape and he still hasn’t come back. That’s a long time don’t you think?”
“Hmm,” replied Bartolome. “That does sound a bit strange, you meet him most moons. But you must understand this about humans; they are very industrious animals and work very hard. They often travel very far to eat and I think he must have travelled many nautical miles and that’s why you have not seen him for many moons.”
“No I don’t believe that’s it,” replied Whitefinn. “Some full moons ago I began noticing his beard glowing in the moonlight, and more recently his hand shook when he stroked me. And it has been many, many moons since he joined me in the sea to play.”
Momentarily Whitefinn rolled onto his side and lay still as if playing dead before he flipped himself upright and said, “He seemed different and now he has gone; I think Blackbeard has gone for good. I have this feeling inside me, that eventually all of us just stop and there is no more. Like the fish that float on the surface, no longer breathing.”
“We are all aware that there are dangers in the sea and we must be careful, you know that,” interjected Bartolome.
Whitefinn ignored his friend’s words and continued.
“I used to feel the vibrations of his heart through his hand, once they were very regular but the last few times he came his beats were slower and irregular. And I have this sense Blackbeard’s heart stopped beating like it had run its course. What if dolphins are the same, perhaps one day our hearts will stop beating and that will be that?”
Whitefinn stopped talking and moved his tail against the current, as he contemplated his own words. Then a word he had never used before came into his mind. It was a word that scared him, but at the same time, it was one that commanded respect. He shouted it out, “Old!”
Bartolome eyed Whitefinn strangely and wrinkled his snout.
“If men become old and eventually stop,” continued Whitefinn. “Perhaps sometime we will become old like Blackbeard?” He beat his tail fin against a strengthening current and as he did another new word entered his mind. The word encapsulated everything he was trying to say. “I think all animals eventually DIE!”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” exclaimed Bartolome. “But I think you’re probably going delirious through not eating this morning.”
Bartolome kicked his tail fin impatiently and darted towards the darker depths but before he disappeared he turned back and responded sharply, “What you are trying to explain does not exist in nature.”
Whitefinn floated on the spot not knowing quite what to think. He’d observed the changes in Blackbeard take place slowly over the years and it now made sense to him that this thing, to “die,” occurs to all creatures. But he also respected Bartolome’s intelligence. His friend had taught him so much about fishing and the ways of the sea. And he thought if Bartolome couldn’t confirm this new awareness he now felt, nobody else would be able to endorse it. “Perhaps it was a knowledge that was solely human?” he thought. Though now that Blackbeard was gone, he wouldn’t be able to ask another human. Blackbeard was the only human who had permission to enter the waters of the beach, a sanctioned wildlife area.
The current was getting stronger and Whitefinn was feeling hungry. He thought, “I can either float here all day getting tired, trying to figure out something I’ll probably never get an answer to, or I can go eat, then have some fun. But just in case I’m right, from now on I’m going to really chew on my fish and taste each mouthful and I’ll not forget my friends and always make time to swim with them.”
Whitefinn swam to the surface and blasted a spray of water from his blowhole, opened his mouth wide and smiled. He then breathed in and before he dived he declared to the heavens, “Today I’m going to explore the deep oceans where the Orca whales go because tomorrow it may be too late.”