Vince Meyer wondered if walking towards the mysterious sound was a terribly bright idea. He was already hiking alone on the furthest stretches of Fin Island. Sure, he had told people where he was, but help was hours away in the best case. Vince was a good five miles from where he had parked his car, which was itself a half-hour’s drive from the civilized southern end of the island. Unidentified noises in the distance could be anything from a falling tree to a cougar. Not that anybody had seen a cougar on Fin Island since 1984, but in Vince’s experience, wild animals loved to turn up where they did not belong.
Still, Vince was no stranger to solo hiking. Most of his friends were more inclined to spend a Saturday afternoon with an Xbox and a six pack. He was usually happy to join them, but not when the fickle weather gods of the Puget Sound blessed him with a clear weather forecast. Even when those turned out to be wrong, which was often, he could wait out a little rain.
Waiting out a veritable deluge was another thing. The violent storm had come out of nowhere and passed a few minutes later, but the hiking path had been transformed into a muddy slurry. The pine-needle carpeted forest floor off the trail was more passable, though he might have gotten a tad lost. Not entirely lost, since Vince had been visiting the north side of Fin Island since he was a teen, but he was less sure of his location than he would have liked.
When in doubt, head towards the beach. I can find the old Greene Point lighthouse and get my bearings.
He was almost to the tree line when he had heard the distant, muffled crash, followed by high-pitched squeal. The forest was eerily quiet after that, with the sudden commotion even silencing the constant calling of the songbirds.
“Whatever made that noise was alive,” he mused to himself. “Or at least, it was. Might still be, if I hurry.” It was up to Vince to decide if that was a good thing or not.
Decision time: either I keep working my way towards the beach and pretend I didn’t hear anything, or I sack up and check it out.
There was danger, but if he left, it would gnaw at him. It might be better to get literally gnawed than never knowing. Worse, what if I guess wrong and someone else suffers? I can’t be the only hiker around here on a day like this.
Vince sighed with resignation. Not really much of a choice, is it? After checking that his hunting knife was still in its sheath, he set out towards the direction of the sound. The Bowie knife might have been a bit excessive for what he cut on a normal hike, but the situation was no longer normal.
A few minutes’ walk brought him to the bank of a small, deep creek that emptied into the Sound. The flow would have normally been a slow trickle, but the water was nearly up to the bank after the sudden deluge before. That struck Vince as odd until he saw the enormous, writhing form that had plugged the mouth of the creek. The black, glistening skin and distinctive eyespots could only be one thing.
“An orca?” Vince had never seen one up close, but the triangular fins were a common enough sight out in the sound. He had not realized the fins were almost as tall as him. The whale it sprouted from was no less imposing; the beast could crush him like an empty beer can and never notice.
“Jesus,” he whispered to himself. “How did you get all the way up here?”
The orca did not answer, of course. At least, not in a language Vince understood; another piercing squeal filled the air as it struggled to free itself. The desperate sound made Vince’s heart sink.
Checking his phone, Vince found that he had no coverage. Figures. He locked eyes with the struggling beast and it redoubled its efforts in apparent panic. It was all for nothing; the creature was tangled from chest to tail in a rope fishing net. With its right fin pinned, it could not get enough traction to move towards the beach a dozen yards away. The whale’s struggles did uncork the creek, sending a wave of water on either side of it.
Vince was presented with another difficult choice, which was hardly the way he had planned to spend his Saturday. The trail would take time to dry out, so he would have to go cross country. In the best case, he was an hour from cell coverage, and who would he call, exactly? Animal control? The Coast Guard? Not like I ever had to get a whale unstuck before. They would take time to get out there, and the way the creature was thrashing about, it would hurt itself before help could possibly arrive. The black and white hide was already marred by numerous cuts and abrasions from its attempts to free itself. I think I read somewhere they can’t breathe out of water anyway? Is that a thing?
It squealed plaintively again.
He sighed, shuffling off his well-stocked backpack. Another seeming choice that was no choice at all. Hopping down from the bank, he circled the stranded beast to get the lay of the land. The orca neither noticed nor cared as it continued its futile struggles.
“How did you even get into this mess?” he murmured aloud. He could understand the creature getting beached after being wrapped by the net, but why had it hauled itself so far up the beach on one fin? How, for that matter? It was even facing the wrong way, nose towards the beach, and there were no signs of anything so large moving across the water-soaked sand where the creek’s rivulets rejoined the sea. “It’s like you just popped in out of thin air.”
An ear-splitting cry from the orca made him wince. “Guess you don’t care about the how, huh, boy? Don’t worry, buddy, we’ll get you right out.” He smirked to himself as he approached the tangled side, drawing his knife. “Boy? You’re bigger than my car and I’m talking to you like you’re Rufus. He’s a Saint Bernard, so he isn’t much smaller than you.”
The trapped whale did not seem amused and redoubled its struggles when it caught sight of his glinting blade.
“Guess you aren’t in the mood for jokes.” Vince frowned. They aren’t smart enough to know what a knife is, are they? No, he decided, that was ridiculous. He’s just nervous because I’m getting closer. Don’t blame him. Still, he’s going to make those wounds worse rubbing against that net!
He reached out, gently caressing the trapped creature’s flank. It was mind-blowing to think something so large was alive. Vince could feel the frantic heartbeat through the whale’s thick, blubbery skin, and he wondered if the creature was hyperventilating through its blowhole. “It’s okay, boy. It’s okay. I won’t hurt you, but you’ve got to stay still!”
Shoot, that just pissed him off more! Vince had to hop back as the whale rolled from side to side. Hoping he would get the idea, Vince crawled back on the riverbank where the whale could not reach. Not the most useful section of net to cut off, but if he’s smart, he’ll realize I’m a friend. Grabbing hold of some of the densely woven, waterlogged rope, he pulled it taught and started cutting. He stopped talking, since it seemed to annoy the whale.
The thrashing stopped around his third cut, which he took as an encouraging sign… right up until he realized the whale had ceased breathing. “No, come on, don’t do this to me.”
He slid down the muddy bank towards the whale’s head, not caring about ruining his newish cargo shorts. The whale looked listlessly upon him with half-lidded eyes. Seagulls circled overhead, drawn by the sounds of struggle and promise of a free meal. It all seemed over.
Vince hesitated a moment before setting his jaw. “Hey!” The shout seemed to rouse the whale. He poured the contents of his water bottle over the orca’s back. He remembered whales had to stay moist, and it was all he had. “Don’t give up, alright? I’ll cut you loose, then we just need to get you down to the water. Keep breathing!”
The whale let out a sad keen, but he did manage to suck down a ragged breath.
I’m giving a pep talk to a whale, and it’s listening to me. The effort seemed as useless as it was surreal, but Vince had to try. He willed the creature not to die as he rubbed his own fingers raw on the thick cordage. I just need time to cut you loose, then you can haul yourself down. After a few minutes’ frantic work, a slip of his tired fingers gouged a shallow gash in the whale’s thick hide.
The creature twisted in apparent pain, its cries echoing through the pine trees, scaring off the circling gulls.
“Sorry, boy,” said Vince, caressing its side.
The pained wails continued, and the orca slumped again, its breathing ever more labored.
“No, come on,” he begged. “I’ve only got… crap that’s a lot of rope left to cut.” He inhaled sharply. Don’t die. Please don’t die. That thought turned into a mantra, a prayer in his mind as he grabbed the rope. If he could just breathe, I’d have all the time in the world! I wish it had been some random hiker. I could’ve helped them!
He let out a sigh. “No sense complaining about what I can’t change.” Before he could make another cut, a tingle passed through his fingers. “The hell?”
The orca’s dark skin lightened for an instant before a brilliant glow shot in all directions, forcing Vince to avert his eyes. Even facing away, the light was as piercing.
The dazzling glare abruptly ended. Vince’s jaw dropped as he took in the impossible sight before him. The whale was gone, replaced by a young woman with long, silky black hair and pale, porcelain-white skin. He corrected himself; her hair was not entirely black, being interrupted by a teardrop-shaped white section on either side of her head. Her modesty was preserved by a sleeveless white and black dress that stretched down to her ankles.
Vince’s eyes widened. “I guess I shouldn’t have been calling you ‘boy’.”
Thanks for reading!