Friday, December 31, 2010

Further tests on the Carrolin whales.

31 December, 2010 / Further Tests On The Carrolin Whales / By Jaret Ferratusco.

An ever thickening blanket of rain held our front windows hostage from the night. Almost nothing could be seen beyond the sill, as if a large gray wall of runny wet cement was growing up from the surrounding hedges, and though all the curtains were closed in case the same wasn't so from the outside looking in, it was still painfully obvious that our privacy could not be secured anywhere in the main part of the house. I shut all the lights off behind me to get the glare out, but I could still see nothing out there. Not even as far as the driveway. And with the steady pounding of the rain, I couldn't hear when cars passed by on the street although at times I could make out the watery red of the taillights. Under these circumstances, if a car pulled up to the house we'd never know.

We wouldn't know if someone was on the way up to the house until it was too late and they were in.

So that was that. The main part of the house was just no good tonight.

We moved our meeting to the most private room available on the first floor, the front hall closet. It was never really used unless we had guests over, so even if someone came through the house we'd have time to hear them walking around before anyone found us. Adequate room for our party of four was effected by pulling out the vacuum, some brooms and suitcases and a box of old leather coats. The evidence of this clearing we deposited into the basement stairwell, another safe spot. The basement was not used at night unless to take care of excess loads of laundry, and it being days off from laundry day, we could even stand to let a lot of it sit overnight if we had to.

Underneath the carpet in the closet was a fire safe we installed at the beginning of the summer. Emy alone knew the combination to this lock so she was in charge of keeping all of our more sensitive documents there. When we needed to confer over a certain set of notes, two of us would squeeze out of the way and Dannis would lift the carpet and look in the other direction as Emy spun the dial of the combination lock and let us in and out of the world of private notes. Her secret was our pride, because some of us were bad liars and we didn't want to have to know about things we didn't need to, in case we were to be questioned on the spot at any point. She had the combination written down in the woods and she told us if we ever really needed it when she wasn't around, we would definitely know where to look. All of us kind of did, but we didn't go out there ever, unless we had to.

Now, all together in the closet, we quieted down and listened to Emy talk about the bruises.

Distinct bruises on our two parallel whales was the first topic to be raised during the early stages of the conference, scrutinized under a thin yellow beam emanating from the small flashlight Emy brought with her everywhere. She moved the flashlight over the chart and did most of the talking. As she shifted between the flashlight and her notes, I offered to hold the heaviest item, the chart itself, but she said it wouldn't be necessary. The other two watched intently, listening closely. I found it hard to concentrate. Unless I could be made useful I always found it hard to concentrate, so I asked her again if I could hold the chart. She looked at me impatiently and sighed, “Just listen, okay?”

“Okay, Emy.”

The sketch tracing the histories of the whales from birth to now was scribbled across a dry erase board that I got off the kitchen wall in our neighbor's house. Without the dry erase board we'd have had to use colored chalk for the graphs and write on the white closet wall, and that always leaves stains, so inadvertently I was able to contain myself a little knowing I'd helped Emy with the presentation in this minimal way.

I fidgeted around a lot, but stuffed my hands into my pockets to try to stop. No matter what I did I always thought of myself as the least important out of the four.

I was more used to breaking and entering than anyone else and was actually good at it, so that, at least, was a strong point I could claim. One of my more noted performances had been the snatching of father's heart pills from the dashboard of his car while he was at work and I was supposed to be in school over nine miles away. I'd been able to sneak out of class that day and hire a cab using money lifted from the math teacher's purse. And with an authentic pass to the nurse's office, I used my time wisely getting to and from father's factory job parking lot and back into class with a forged release note from the nurse written up by Dannis, the committee script writer. That night father had to go to the hospital (mother stayed with him) and they were gone for the whole night and next day, giving us plenty of time to move the whales in and make sure the tanks were working before we covered them up with tarps.

I just wish she'd let me hold the damned chart. She's barely able to do it all, she just wants to be controlling.

To be fair, this was her job anyway, the presentations.

Emy would normally have me assist her in most of the presentations, but only really because I pestered her about it so much. And it would sometimes cause Dennis to smirk or make callous accusations. Such things would conceive to undermine the overall idea of our meetings, but I learned to just look past it. Besides, tonight Emy was skittish, and her long red hair repeatedly fell in front of her face as she talked, causing her to stop and push a lock of it here or there, disrupting the presentation. I was for the most part forgotten. After so much of her barely even looking my way I pulled out a hairband. It was green, her favorite color. She said thank you and I held the flashlight for her while she strung up her hair and we continued. I didn't feel so out of place when I was able to help Emy and this break in her presentation might have been a little distracting to the other two, but it made me feel a whole lot less nervous.

Nevertheless Dennis in the back smirked and I shot him a look.

Emy and Dannis sssshhhhhed us both, though it wasn't me who'd said anything.

Resuming her presentation, Emy went over the bruises previously noted on the whales. There were two of them. Freshly captured baby Carrolin whales we stole from the town harbor cages before they could be tagged. We put one of them in the built-in swimming pool, carefully re-filtered with a saline-saltwater oxygenation with ammonia previously tested out on a few manta rays we got from the Marina Library saltwater tanks. The other baby whale we kept in the above-ground pool in Dennis' backyard next door using the same filtration system. Both whales were raised precisely parallel in this way, from feeding and petting to the readings we gave to each, switching off from Emy to Dannis usually, but sometimes to Dennis too, all except for me since I couldn't keep from stumbling over the sentences all the time when reading aloud. In the daytime when we were supposed to be in school, the whales were given similar cycles of swimming to adhere to in tandem, from clockwise to counter-clockwise and then occasionally straight back and forth; we took turns skipping summer school classes to make sure the cycles never lapsed. At dusk small electric shocks were administered. Not heavy enough to electrify the pools or incapacitate the whales but enough to confuse them into temporary stillness. Their levels of stunned perplexity were recorded on line graphs and their progress back into the given swim cycle was noted on the clipboards. We raised or lowered the shock frequencies according to how similar their reactions were.

Over the course of the month different variables were added into the filtering tanks, from chlorine solutions to small amounts of talcum powder or old soot from the fireplace. Their meals were always fish-based, from crab meat to white fish, interspersed with tiny doses of pepper, soil, bleach and expired hamburger meat we left out on the pool decks every few days in clear plastic containers. In the latter experiments, all attempts to introduce food poisoning into the whales' systems failed, after which we concluded that their immune systems were so far advanced as to make our own digestive systems appear amateur on a line graph. After two inconclusive weeks of the spoiled meat we discontinued that portion of the testing and moved on to adding small amounts of confetti paper into their meals. Both whales suffered tremendously and their swim cycles slowed parallel, so the confetti was abruptly pulled and we started tainting the water supply with daily teaspoons of paint thinner.

ABB WHALE in the built-in pool was given a head start in her cycles because the pool was more elongated, so as to match up in a way with BEBB WHALE's larger circular tank. Overall the circumference of the pools differed by two feet only. So with the head start, our charts were fairly accurate.

Towards the end of the summer, troublesome rainstorms not only limited the amount of work we could do outside, but the thunderclaps had begun to scare the whales as well.

They were both running into the sides of the pool. Abb Whale suffered the most, as her walls were made from concrete, while Bebb Whale's pool was lined with sheet metal plating under a thin rubber covering.

The more physical the thunderstorms became, the more panicked the whales grew.

As the flashlight followed the charts of bruise exposure, Emy's voice started to waver. She told us if the whales got any worse they may damage their fins or give themselves concussions and drown.

Her eyes welled with tears, “The bruising is becoming more intrusive,” She said, sniffling. “It's just not getting any better. And it may come to a point where they can no longer be tested.” She trained the beam of her small flashlight down toward Abb Whale's statistics on the line graph, whose harm line went jagged in spiking zig-zags over Bebb Whale's less stressful one. “Whether it's the storms or the head-butting against the pool walls, the end effect and our current reality is that they may both be dying,” she said, pulling the flashlight from the dry erase chart and pointing it up at her face so we could see her talk.

Her haunted black eyes bulged from their wet sockets, twinkling like stars in the sky.

I pushed some more coats up against the inside of the door, both to further insulate the sound of the conference as well as to allow more breathing room for the committee.

Dannis reached over for the chart. “Let me see that for a second.”

Emy handed her the chart.

Dannis frowned deeply. “This is serious. We may have to let the whales go.”

Dennis smirked again, this time more obnoxiously. “We can't let the whales go.”

“But if they get any worse,” Emy stressed, pounding her fist against the closet wall, “there's just no way of saying whether or not they'll start panicking. If they splash under the tarps while other people can see it we'll be found out. Not only are they getting more physical day by day, but we're running out of sedatives anyway. We can't give them any more than they're used to, and clearly they've built up a tolerance. Are you sure you can't get any more?”

This question was directed at Dannis, whose mother was constantly on tranquilizers. Half the sedatives were pulled from the overloaded medicine cabinet.

But according to Dannis, it was getting harder and harder to do this because father was starting to complain about the refills. Mother was always too doped up to confirm her doses, and at one point Dannis had been asked by both if she had been taking the pills without asking. It was hard for Dannis to keep coming up with new ways of denying the fact, and so the pills were being hid around the house in different places. From our surveillance, we'd discovered a few of the more obvious hiding places, but once a hiding place was pilfered it was then left naked and Dannis was more and more becoming a suspect.

“We have to do something different,” she pleaded. “What if mother just plain stops bringing them home? We'll be stuck. We need to figure something else out.”

In her defense Dennis suggested raising the voltage of the electric shocks.

“No good,” Emy said. “They could drown. We already came to that conclusion a long time ago. If even one of the whales drowns we're stuck with a failed study. Worse, the whales are bigger now and they will be harder to get rid of if they die now.”

Me this time, “Yeah, but it'll be hard to do anyway. We can't keep them forever. Sooner or later we're going to have to do something with them. And anyway, we can't keep them unnoticed forever either. Sooner or later someone's going to want to go swimming.”

“Not now that summer's ending and father's still sick from the missing medication.”

“But what if the pools need to be drained for autumn? They'll be discovered.”

“What if they drain the pools without knowing the whales are in there? They'll suffocate.”

“Impossible. You can't drain a pool without lifting the tarp. They'll know.”

“Then we're fucked.”

“We're not fucked if we find a way to complete the study before the whales die.”

“Or before we run out of sedatives.”

“I already said we have to look for another option right now. I might not be able to get any more tranquilizers.”

Shit,” Emy said.

We were all silent for a little bit. The hall closet started to feel smaller and smaller by the second.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “It's just bruises. Maybe their muscles are weak and their defenses lowered. Can't we just put more protein in their diets? We can double the fish, or . . . wait, we can feed them from Dannis' basement freezer.”

Dannis' whole family were hunters. They had seasonal kill in the basement freezer year round. Some of it from years long passed. Why not?

Emy smiled a little. “Maybe. But we still have to advance the study. It's going too slow. We have to parallel the whales better. Faster. We need to figure out where the bodies are going, what they're doing inside. None of us know how to do a post-mortem so we need to figure it out while they're still alive.”

“We could take Abb Whale out of the deep pool and put it in with Bebb Whale. The above-ground pool has a higher elevation, naturally, so perhaps they just need to breath better.”

“That's stupid. Bebb Whale is dying too.”

“Yeah, that doesn't cut it at all. They're sea creatures. Anything above sea level's probably dangerous. If we're really talking about joining the whales to make breathing easier, we should be thinking about adding Bebb Whale to the tank here.”

“What if they fight?”

“They're not the type. Carrolin whales never fight each other, even in times of starvation or disease. They travel together in packs and are known to carry and protect their dead and bury them in sand banks. They've even developed a sort of ceremony that's not entirely unlike a human funeral procession. Which is all the more reason why we should be thinking about joining them. They might give each other strength and protect one another, or one will help the other somehow, in ways we probably can't even tell. It'll cease the panic attacks if anything can.”

“But then we'd have to alter the purpose of the parallel. If they're both in the same tank we can't compare living conditions or situational growth pattern because there won't be any difference in the conditions.”

“What if we blind one of them?”

“We're trying to get them healthier, not increase stress levels. If one of them is sick and the other is forced to abandon the cycles and play protector there's no project anymore, just a patient and nurse routine.”

Emy's face lit up. “Wait! A relief cut. We could put relief cuts underneath their fins.”

Dennis slapped her on the shoulder, “That's great! Who's the best at cutting?”

Dannis raised her hand. “I help father field-strip deer and dogs every spring. I could probably do the relief cuts in my sleep.”

Emy shrieked with giddiness. “That's the thing! That's just what we need to do!” Then she lunged forward and hugged Dannis. The flashlight fell to the floor and rolled in between our feet, visiting a haunted yellowish scene of our legs moving on the bottom wall of the closet that looked like trees in a forest swaying.

With the matter mostly settled, I took the opportunity to slip out of the closet to make a round of the house. Our tea candles were still lit in every room. Thunder rumbled outside and a few times lighting struck somewhere in the neighborhood. Definitely not good for the whales. I peeled the corner of the picture window curtain but still couldn't make out much further than the line of hedges directly in front of the window. There could be a helicopter landing in the driveway and I would neither hear nor see it doing so.

In the bathroom I washed my face and watched a shadowy reflection of myself flickering in the mirror.

Maybe it was because I was always nervous, but I was never the one who came up with any answers right when we needed them. Sure, the protein supplement could work, but that would take too long. If I ever had any truly useful answers they encompassed the long-run, never the now. Essentially we all had our strengths and weaknesses, and for recognizing these things we were able to function pretty good as a committee. If I could have just a little more out of it, though, I wanted to be more than a set of fast hands sometimes. I was the good thief; it's interesting to a degree but a lonely skill overall because I can't bring it out into the open. It's not a skill that helps in the study, just one that enables it. In the lab setting I basically just make sandwiches and be the look-out.

Or hold the chart.

Emy, Dennis and Dannis would excel in life, I have always felt that. Confidence bleeds from them in determined, white bolts of energy. They could go anywhere, and they undoubtedly would. But me, I could only go somewhere in life too if I followed along after them. I'd never make it on my own without at least one of them. Thankfully we were very close not just as a committee but as friends. The way it looked now I just might always be Emy's go-to—fetching supplies, figuring out how to get past a padlocked yard fence. Sneaking in and out of locked department stores. Getting the best gifts for her on her birthday.

And she'd always be there to protect me when I felt like I wasn't worth anything. Things were about as good as could be expected. But I still wanted to be something a little more than just the thief and the sandwich maker and the chart holder.

Despite my own shortcomings I very much liked the committee. We made fun of each other a lot, but we were really friendly about it.

I walked slowly back down the hall in the flickering candle light and then softly tapped out the secret knock at the very bottom of the closet door. It opened slightly and I slid in. We had about an hour to do something that had to stick; to come to some kind of proper conclusion on how best to go about the future of the study and the fate of the Carrolin whales, and get to work on it tonight. When seven o'clock rolled in we'd have to be on our guard. And probably separated again. Dennis and Dannis at home. Me here. Emy hiding out under my bed, whispering lines to me in case I was questioned about anything on the spot.