The Last Migration
by Keziah Weir
Alvaro Sáez grew up in the pink and gold dust motes of San Pedro de Atacama. He built houses with his father, and then hotels and roadways after his father’s death. He married a red haired American woman named Sandy who came to his town seeking some other God than the one she’d known in Western Massachusetts but found, instead, a husband.
In 2012, Alvaro joined a construction crew expanding the multi-lane Pan-American highway through the Atacama desert, that rainless, 600 mile-long expanse of salty sand known to birth the petrified remnants of species past, not to mention the thousands of geolyphs scratched into rock faces by Alvaro’s father’s father’s father’s father, on and on for forty generations, maybe. (Guzmán’s movie, I thought. That was how I knew about the Atacama. The old women searching for the disappeared bones of Pinochet’s victims—their children and lovers—as astronomers looked for life in old starlight.)
The job promised five or six months of work, but on the second day Alvaro and another man struck down and hit something. Alvaro stopped the jackhammer. Dragged his forearm across his eyes to clear the sweat. The thing was like ivory but older and huge. A bone, maybe a jawbone, maybe a dinosaur, they thought. They lay down their tools and walked over to their contractor, who was smoking a cigarette and trying to make a call. He was unmoved. He told them to keep digging and motioned aggressively, with both hands, towards the backhoe and the jackhammers and the rest of the crew—a tableau that looked, Alvaro thought, like a futuristic child’s interpretation of a paleolithic scene. Men and their machine dinosaurs.
When Alvaro refused to go on with the project he was fired, and when he went home to his wife, she cooked what she would later remember to be pan fried sea bass and roasted fingerling potatoes. Eventually, he looked up the number of the local nature conservancy, who directed him to a University of Chile paleontologist, who halted construction and sent a team out the next day. The bones were not dinosaurs, but very old baleen whales. When the paleontologist called Alvaro to tell him this, Alvaro rubbed his thumb over the jagged bone chip he’d picked up from the construction site, held it up and imagined the whale it belonged to. A few years later, Sandy’s brother was diagnosed with stage three lung cancer, and so the Saezes flew to Massachusetts to help out with their toddler nephews, and Alvaro suffered a fatal heart attack while shoveling snow after a freak October blizzard, which was how I learned about him and those old whales, at all—I read his obituary in the Times.
The Chilean whales, carbon dated at nine million years old, were belly up. Scientists posited that they’d died at sea and then floated into what was once an estuary, where their massive throat pouches behaved the way shipwreck victims hope life vests might. The intact skeletons ruled out predators, and because the scientists also identified the bones of myriad other marine life (including aquatic sloths!) alongside them, they dismissed theories of species-specific viral or bacterial infections.
A few feet beneath the initial set of fossils there was another, and then another. The scientists kept uncovering distinct layers of bones, and realized that the deaths had occurred in four temporal groups, in the same place, over some 16,000 years. For half a decade the team of scientists threw hypotheses back and forth until coming to rest on the current accepted theory: irregular, poisonous algae blooms. The lead scientist on the project, who had kept Alvaro’s number, called his house in Chile to tell him. A week later and you would have missed me, Alvaro said. We’re moving soon.
I thought about Alvaro often in the weeks after he died—the death was timely, you see, because our modern American whales were dying, too. Look, I said to my boyfriend the evening after my thirtieth birthday, swivelling my laptop towards where he sat across from me, typing on his laptop. He was wearing headphones. I half got up from my chair, leaning over our kitchen table and waving my fingers in front of his face until he took out one earbud. All these whales are dying, I said. All up and down the West Coast. He bobbed his head, either to me or the music, and made a yikes face, sucking air through his cheeks and side teeth.
During the west coast grey whale migration toward cool polar waters, their bodies started washing up on beaches in unprecedented numbers. Conservationists and beach-goers could do nothing but watch as the whales floated ashore, dead upon arrival. News crews surrounded the big animals, their tripods staked into the sand like so many colonizing flags. As the deaths continued into the summer, proper disposal became a widespread concern, and more than one sun-baked whale had, with dark comedy, exploded during removal efforts. Up and down the coast, the salt and synthetic coconut smell of mid-summer was replaced by a formidable mix of fish market and raw sewage as the whales, for lack of a better word, popped, releasing methane gas into our already at-risk atmosphere. We had long been warned that the death of honey bees and songbirds served as a prelude to apocalypse, but their small forms were easier to ignore than the mammoth pods filling our beaches by the dozen.
I moved back home at the end of that summer, finally severing two relationships (boyfriend, New York) that had long gone sour. Left my position at a city magazine, uncharacteristically, without first securing a situation in Northern California.
Jobless, from my parents’s guest room, I tracked the whales and also my boyfriend’s life as it spun on without me. His new girlfriend led aphorism-heavy stationary cycling classes in a lower east side building that was once a church. (Is the building still a church if the congregation is gone? Replaced by a perpetual influx of sweat-slicked young women swapping physical excess—the excess that is fat—for spiritual abundance, the illusion of self control, the transcendent high of exercise endorphins? A kind of worship too, to be sure.)
I started freelance copyediting for medical journals, and suddenly I was making money without the constraint of reporting daily to an office. I wanted to see the whales, I told my parents. That sounds like a good idea, honey, my mother said, and when you come back you’ll be all fresh and ready to look for an apartment. Where, my dad asked, are you thinking? I had been thinking about my old college friend, who lived in Whistler, where I had never been. He had a girlfriend and then a wife when I knew him well. Now, he did not. I would fly up and stay with him and then, when I was ready, drive back down the coastline to California and see as many whales as I could. I’d never taken a road trip, never driven so long alone.
When I got to Whistler, the attractive hazy boy I’d looked forward to turned out to be just another real-life man. Though we slept together the first night, and the next—and though he was not unattractive—I felt no attraction towards him. I think I’ll explore a little, I said on the third morning, sitting, once again, across a kitchen table. If you don’t mind. Maybe explore some of the coastline. In the middle of the night I had crawled out bed and taken out my laptop and stumbled upon the Gulf Islands, the Canadian continuation of our San Juan chain. They looked lush and a little craggy, full of lakes and surrounded by ocean. Because water is both scarce (rain) and ever encroaching (ocean), a place that had the right amount of both was appealing. The British Columbia tourism site declared them a Can’t Miss. I could take a bus to the coast, and then a ferry. My friend thought the trip sounded like a good idea. He smiled. Maybe you’ll see some whales, he said, and for a moment I wondered if I might not stay on for awhile.
But the next evening I boarded a big car ferry called the Queen Victoria, and from the top deck, looking out at the moss-colored sea, I thought of the potential porpoise and whale pods all around me, alive alive alive. The sun was setting, and most people quickly gave up the unadulterated view of the wide blue yonder in favor of the warm indoors: the gift shop, the children’s play area, the cafeteria room with its cheeseburgers and and watery hot chocolates and a thick, foreign dessert called a Nanaimo bar.
A woman and two girls, maybe nine and eleven, still stood at the ferry’s helm with their bodies pressed against the railing. The girls were in matching pink sweatshirts. One of them stood at the exact middle of the boat’s railing, spread her arms wide and shouted—because of the wind and engine and ocean, I couldn’t hear what she said, though I could guess—as thousands had likely done before her. Is metacinematic a word? The sky was lavender.
And yet. And yet, the algae. Was it beneath us, now? Did it multiply like the old biology videos we saw in highschool, one cell pulling at itself, pulling farther and farther until—pop!—it was two cells, conjoined? Then four. Pumping out a mysterious invisible toxin that suffocated the whales and sent me, lightheaded, running for the edge of the ferry; stepping up onto the first bar of the guardrail; bending forward at the waist; leaning out over the dizzying water. Thinking, not morbidly, about how easy it would be to tip myself into it. Could the algae multiply in the cool moonlight or was it just our sun’s rays, less fettered by atmosphere each day, that got the algal cells feeling so expansive? With my feet hooked between the two lowest bars of the railing and my hips creased over the top one I could bend almost in two. Sparks lit up the edges of my eyeballs.
A shriek from across the deck knocked me out of my daze and I straightened up, expecting one of the little girls, or perhaps her mother, to be no longer there. Victim to the pull of the churning waves below.
But the two girls and the woman were chasing after something on the deck, and after a moment I realized it was one of the thin, white, wax-paper bags that accompanies pastries and postcards. The second girl tried to catch it, jumping forward to trap the paper under her foot, but the movement just propelled the bag took further away. It shot from one side of the deck to the other, caught in some tiny wind whorl. Coming to rest, like a fly, before shooting off again. The woman and girls transitioned rapidly from purposeful amusement to hysterical mirth. When the younger girl finally succeeded in plucking the bag from the wind’s grip—this all happened in a minute or two, maybe less—all three collapsed against the rails in heaving giggles. But then I saw that the woman, her back turned to her daughters, was crying, not laughing. The older girl saw. Hey, she said, and pet the woman’s hair like she was stroking a kitten, damp from a bath. He’ll be ok. He’ll be ok. Who?
I thought about Sandy with the red hair, who cooked Alvaro fish and listened when he started talking about the bones in the sand. Said: Call. Who? Someone. As the woman cried and her daughter soothed her I wondered whether Sandy ever wanted children, whether she moved back to San Pedro de Atacama after her husband’s death, or stayed on in Massachusetts, settling back in with her old Episcopalian church, buying an inflatable kayak and a little terrier dog that sat in the front hatch, startling herself with the realization that she was almost content. Sometimes she would reach into her pocket and feel the cool, ragged bone chip her husband used to carry with him. Ah, she would think. I remember.
The ferry made its penultimate stop. The cars on the deck below bumped, two by two, up over the exit ramp, and the boat’s horn blared, as it had sporadically throughout the three-hour trip, and the girls clutched their hands against their ears, as they had before. The woman dragged the inside of her bicep across her eyes. She shepherded the girls back inside. The sky was dark. We would be arriving soon, and it was time to make my way down to the boarding level.
As the ferry neared what must be my island, I procrastinated, as I had so many times before, until it felt just like how I used to, when I knew if I didn’t immediately start writing I would miss my deadline. My stress signals kicked in. Heartbeat. A tickle at the back of the throat. I waited. The ferry moored, and cut its engine, and I held out until I heard the cars starting their engines below.
I righted my suitcase, which I hadn’t stowed in the luggage area, fearing it would be spirited away by some harried or malicious stranger. Checked my pockets for my passport and wallet once, twice, and started to head indoors. But then I realized: There were no officials, up there on the top deck, come to look for me. I stood still for what felt like a long time, and waited for someone to come up and ask me to exit the ferry, or for my body to tip itself over the edge, or for the ferry to pull free of the ramp and push into the night, churning curls of foamy silver water behind it, returning the way it had come. When the ferry wasn’t so close to land, the stars shone brighter, spilling into the space that human light so often occupies. Same ingredients, different quantities. We could go back and forth forever this way.
Keziah Weir is an associate editor at Vanity Fair. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Elle Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.