ysabetwordsmith: Damask smiling over their shoulder (polychrome)
[personal profile] ysabetwordsmith
This poem is, in essence, an elegy inspired by an article, "The Story of One Whale Who Tried to Bridge the Linguistic Divide Between Animals and Humans," and therefore posted for free. It also fills the "Stockholm syndrome" square in my 6-10-14 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. It belongs to the Aquariana thread in the Polychrome Heroics series.

The name "Noc" is pronounced "NOH-see."

WARNING: This poem features many intense topics, some of which actually happened in our world. The warnings contain spoilers; highlight to read. These include human/cetacean challenges, past enslavement of a sapient cetacean from childhood to death, Stockholm syndrome, survivor guilt, rough telepathic contact, grudging response to apology, and other issues. Viewer discretion is strongly advised. Please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether to dive in.

"A Voice from Beyond"

After Aquariana told
the President of the Maldives
about the whales Steel and Moderato,
word got around, and folks began
to wonder if other cetaceans
might be people too.

A captain who worked at
the Whale & Dolphin Company
swore that when he took a tour boat out,
one dolphin always showed up with a pod
as if leading a tour group of his own.

When Aquariana went to investigate,
Skipper turned out to be a soup too,
and soon became the third cetacean citizen
of the Republic of the Maldives.

Darker stories emerged, though,
relics of the troubled relationship
between humans and cetaceans.

An old man came to visit Aquariana,
a veteran of the U.S. Navy who had
worked with belugas in the Arctic
during the cold war era.

Seth Bridger was eighty years old,
bent by time and experience, and
he would not meet Aquariana's gaze
when he said, "I have something
that I want you to listen to."

He played a recording, full of
muffled chatter and strange squeals.

Aquariana could only make out a few words,
but for some reason, it gave her goosebumps.
"Is this someone ... talking underwater?"
she guessed, frowning.

Seth gave her a sad smile.
"That's what I'm hoping you could tell me,"
he said. "This was a recording of Noc,
a beluga whale from our Arctic program."

"But I heard words in there,"
Aquariana said, "English words."

"Noc did that for a few years," Seth said.
"He used to mimic us, play jokes --
he'd tell the divers to get out of the water,
and they'd think it was someone on the boat
using the wet phone to call them up."

"Humor is a pretty advanced trait,"
Aquariana said in a thoughtful tone.
"What brought this up now?"

"Noc died back in 1999 at the age of 23," Seth said,
"but then in 2012 some linguist used that recording
as a supplement in a new research paper
about cetacean mimicry of human behaviors."

"So he never left captivity?"
Aquariana asked.

Seth hung his head. "Once," he said slowly,
"some activists sabotaged the pen and
released Noc and Muk Tuk ... but then they
came back to us, just as they were trained to do.
At the time, I thought it was good work on our part,
but now I'm thinking of Stockholm syndrome."

"What do you want from me?"
Aquariana asked. The old man
made her uncomfortable.

"I want -- I need --" Seth said.
"I think I've done something terrible.
I was never completely comfortable
training cetaceans for war maneuvers,
but I had my orders and I followed them."
His wrinkled hands flailed the air.
"Noc was my favorite, but if he was a person,
then that means I was a slaveowner.
I need to know if that's true."

Aquariana sighed. "We're still learning
how self-aware the ordinary cetaceans are,"
she said. "It's not that simple,
especially working from just a recording."

"I don't know who else to ask,"
Seth said to her.

"I do," Aquariana said,
"but you have got to be polite.
Moderato is a sweetheart,
but Steel really dislikes humans.
Piss him off and he could kill us both."

"But you're a superhera," Seth said.
"Couldn't you protect us?"

"Against human pirates, sure," Aquariana said.
"Against an outraged sperm whale with
Super-Strength, a bunch of other powers,
and probably PTSD on top?
Not a chance."

Seth didn't change his mind, though,
and Aquariana took her houseboat out
in search of the two whales.

Eventually Aquariana made contact,
and they came alongside the boat.
She repeated the sad story to them
and asked if they could help.

Moderato was all for it, but
Steel shoved him out of the way.

I will do it, Steel said.
I already know what evil
the landers can do

"Aren't you usually the one
trying to convince him of that?"
Aquariana asked.

Not like this, Steel said.
It will be bad enough as a story.
Listening to a voice from beyond
would break his heart

"How can I play the song for you
without Moderato hearing it?"
Aquariana asked.

Sing it in the air, Steel said.
You listen to it, and I will listen to you.

So Aquariana played the recording again,
Noc's shrill voice echoing above the water.
She could feel Steel following along,
hearing it through her.

Then suddenly he pulled away,
the link drowning in rage.

A deep, strange conversation swished past
the edges of Aquariana's mind, all she could sense
of the two whales talking to each other.

"What happened?" Seth asked.

"He shut me out," Aquariana explained.
"All I can get from him now is ... wrath.
I think you have your answer, though."

"Noc must have said something ...
about what we did to him," Seth guessed.

What he said, Steel reported
with a wave of icy hatred,
was 'Why won't you listen to me?
Why won't anyone talk to me?'

"Oh, God," said Seth,
folding over his knees.

"You can hear Steel?"
Aquariana asked, startled.

"He made sure I could,"
Seth said. "He's very loud."

"Steel, tone it down some,
you're hurting us," Aquariana said.
She already had a headache
from his overbearing voice.
He was nowhere near as gentle
as Moderato was.

Why should I? Steel asked, sullen and bitter.
When did any lander care for our pain?

"I care," Aquariana said.
"Seth cares, or he would not
have come across the world
in search of this awful knowledge."

They're telling the truth, Steel,
said Moderato. I can feel it in them.
So could you, if you'd pay attention
instead of wallowing in your rage
The sweet tenor voice
was full of grief, not anger.

Aquariana felt Steel bump against her mind,
his thoughts as harsh as his barnacle-studded skin.
Beside her, Seth winced in pain.

Steel pulled away, though,
startled by whatever he had sensed.

"I'm sorry," Seth said,
his aged voice cracking.
"I didn't know -- I suspected --
I didn't know that Noc was a person.
He was my partner, my friend,
and I held him prisoner.
I was young and stupid and I'm sorry."

Did you come here expecting forgiveness?
Steel said, every word rasping against them.

"No," Seth said. "I came here to --
to own up to what I did,
if it turned out to be true after all.
I want expiation, not forgiveness."

Steel bumped against the hull of the boat,
not hard, but enough to make it shudder.
Oh, I can arrange that.

Do not harm them, Steel,
said Moderato, his voice turning stern.
Killing these landers will not
bring a dead child back to life

You would let him get away with it?
Where is the justice in that?

Steel demanded.

Murder is not justice, said Moderato.
You, Seth? You came here to face your crimes?
I say that you must tell what you have done
to the rest of your kind, so they understand
how wrong it is to treat people as property

The landers do not care, Steel argued.
They will not punish him for his wickedness.

Steel, he's punishing himself,
Moderato said softly.
Can't you feel it?

The sperm whale scraped past them again,
testing the truth of Moderato's claim.
What's he blubbering about now?
Steel wondered.

Aquariana looked at the old man
crying into a sodden handkerchief
and tried to project her understanding
of human knowledge to the sullen whale.

"Noc didn't even get a funeral," Seth said.
"He was a person, he was my friend,
and he deserved to have a damn funeral."

Was there no one to sing for him?
Moderato asked.

"I don't know," Seth said.
"There was Muk Tuk, I suppose,
but I'm not sure she would have known ...
Noc was only two years old when
he was captured, and the others
only a few years older."

Aquariana couldn't help recalling
that the recruitment of children under 15
for military use was a war crime.

Then we will sing for Noc,
said Moderato. You will tell me
the story of your time together,
what you did with him and to him,
who he was and how he lived.
You will sing of your regret,
and I will sing of his life

"I wouldn't know what to sing,"
Seth said. "I'd want to do him justice ..."

"May I suggest 'Amazing Grace' ...?"
Aquariana said. "It was composed
by a slave trader who later came
to regret his actions."

"Yes," Seth said softly,
"I think that will serve."

It took time to make the arrangements,
but they all persevered.

Seth confessed all of the declassified things
that he remembered from his work with Noc.
The remorse for his past weighed on him,
visible in the drag of his steps
and the slope of his shoulders.

Although the Maldives listed Islam
as the official religion, Aquariana
managed to find a chaplain versed
in the ceremonies of various traditions
who would organize the human portions
of the memorial service for Noc.

The Whale & Dolphin Company
loaned one of its tour boats,
because the Jeanne Baret could not
hold even the small funeral party assembled.

The human members consisted of
Aquariana and Seth, the President of the Maldives,
half a dozen independent marine biologists,
two linguists, the chaplain in his interfaith stole,
a soundman from a local recording studio
to manage the wet mike for Moderato's elegy,
and a sizable portion of Whale & Dolphin personnel.

In addition to Steel and Moderato,
other whales were congregating,
Skipper had brought his dolphins,
and the sea around the boat
foamed with fins and spouts.

The chaplain's introduction was
elegant and inclusive, tenderly invoking
the common sense of loss and regret,
along with a Muslim prayer for a child's funeral:
"O Allah! Make him a cause of recompense
for us and make him a treasure for us on
the day of Resurrection and an intercessor
and the one whose intercession is accepted."

Seth's worn voice followed,
his rendition of "Amazing Grace"
honest and bittersweet.

Moderato began singing then,
speakers carrying his true voice
even as he broadcast a translation
from mind to mind.

One of the crewmembers grabbed a tablet
and started a hasty transcript of the content.

The chaplain beckoned to Seth
with a lyrical reinterpretation,
"tears to seawater, breath to sky."

Seth picked up a wreath of white lilies
and lofted it gently over the rail.
It floated for a minute on the turquoise waves,
then sank slowly, visible for a long time
through the pellucid water.

He slipped a slim case from his pocket
and flipped it open to reveal
a row of bright medals inside.
He gazed at them, lost in memory,
then shut the case with a decisive snap
and hurled it as hard as he could into the sea.

Seth collapsed against the rail,
weeping for his lost friend
and his own inconsolable guilt.

All Aquariana could make out
were the words "sorry" and "my fault"
and a garble of something that
might have been "miss you."

Moderato sang for over an hour,
and through it all, Steel lurked alongside,
never breathing a word but just hovering,
grim and cold as the angel of death.

At the end of the elegy, the soundman
fished up his equipment with a nod of satisfaction.
They meant to publish the recording,
with proceeds from the sale going to aid
other cetaceans who wanted to apply
for citizenship in the Maldives.

The chaplain lifted his hands
and intoned a few words of closure
as everyone bowed their heads.

Afterwards, Aquariana stepped forward
to coax Seth off the rail, her hand
tender on the bony plane of his shoulder.

"I'm a terrible person," Seth said,
his voice hoarse with grief.

"You've done a terrible thing,"
Aquariana said gently,
"but if you were a terrible person,
then you wouldn't be so torn up about it.
Believe me, I've met some like that."

Seth sighed. "I appreciate the sympathy,
but it still doesn't make me feel
any less like a supervillain."

"All right then," Aquariana said,
"if that's how you feel, go with it.
SPOON has resources on restitution
for people who have abused their power
and now want to make up for those mistakes."

"That might help," Seth said, patting her hand.
"I've thought about doing something ...
I don't know what ... to atone for my crimes."

"What would you like to do?"
Aquariana asked.
"I'm sure there are options."

"Noc was just a toddler when we kidnapped him,
and a teenager when he tried to talk with us,"
Seth said, "so maybe something for abuse survivors
or children pressed into service as soldiers."
Then he shrugged. "But all I really know is whales,
and I can't imagine they'd want anything to do with me."

Steel butted in, brusque as ever and
not bothering to keep his mindvoice private.
If you would give us the remaining years of your life,
he sent, we would accept that as restitution.
You cannot bring back the dead,
but you could serve the living

"I am willing," Seth said,
"if a little surprised."

Steel's reply was slow and thoughtful.
You are the first lander I have ever known
to show remorse for his crimes.
It is ... worthy of consideration

"It sounds like a good idea to me,"
Aquariana said. "We could certainly
use the help, either on the environmental side
or assistance with government paperwork.
Residence might be an issue, though."

"I think ... I don't really want
to be American anymore," Seth said.
"They got me into some bad things
that the Maldives have never condoned."

The President cleared his throat.
"If you want to apply for Maldivian citizenship,
I would support that," he said. "I'm in favor
of anything that could help to mend
the breach between species."

"Thank you, sir," said Seth. "I'd like that."

It was not enough to make amends
for centuries of whaling and other offenses,
but at least it made an honest start.

* * *


Skipper -- He is a male spinner dolphin with a distinctive white spot on the top of his head. He is a citizen of the Maldives. As a tour guide, Skipper leads dolphins alongside the human tour boats so that the dolphins can go people-watching. He is friends with some of the human captains and crew in the Whale & Dolphin Company.
Origin: His Super-Intelligence developed slowly over time, followed by the Telepathy. Later on, the Teleportation emerged abruptly when Skipper got caught in a fishing net and nearly drowned.
Uniform: None. He goes nude.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Tour Guide, Good (+2) Agility, Good (+2) Clowning, Good (+2) Knowledge of Human Pop Songs
Poor (-2) Curiosity Killed the Cat
Powers: Expert (+4) Teleportation, Average (0) Super-Intelligence, Average (0) Telepathy
Motivation: Lead the way.

Seth Bridger -- He has ruddy skin, hazel eyes, and thinning white hair. During the cold war, he worked in the Arctic with beluga whales, training them to perform tasks where humans could not safely go. Upon realizing that at least some whales are sapient persons, he reviews those memories in a different light. Wracked with guilt, Seth travels to the Maldives in search of answers and expiation.
Qualities: Master (+6) Cetacean Handler, Master (+6) Honor, Master (+6) Navy Officer, Expert (+4) Constitution, Expert (+4) Storyteller, Good (+2) Living History, Good (+2) Macrame, Good (+2) World Traveler
Poor (-2) Self-Preservation

* * *

The Whale and Dolphin Company offers boat tours in the Maldives.

Some animals, including many mammals, do show a sense of humor.

Anger can be constructive or destructive. It has advantages and disadvantages. Steel has valid grounds for his anger over what humans have done to him, but not for taking it out on the whole human race. There are tips for making anger your ally, using it constructively, and managing the destructive aspects so they don't ruin your life.

Body language can show grief, guilt, and many other emotions.

Telepathy is useful for communication, but it has drawbacks. Not only is it unpleasant for a telepath to read the mind of a bad person, if the telepath himself has mental issues then they can easily spill over to other people -- especially if he's not being careful. Then your soul hurts.

Remorse and guilt are natural results of doing something bad. The path to forgiveness is complex, often requiring that the offender make amends in concrete ways. Follow the steps to overcome guilt and forgive yourself if you've hurt someone.

Justice includes distributive, retributive, and compensatory aspects. You can see that Steel is a big fan of retributive justice! Trouble is, punishment doesn't work very well. It does little if anything to help the victims recover. Enter restorative justice, which is all about repairing damage and making amends. There are ways to do this even if the person most harmed is dead or otherwise unavailable.

A basic tenet of ethics, especially for heroes, is that they don't kick someone while he's down. A lack of this shows in police brutality, beating people who have already surrendered. A lesser but still troublesome version appears when someone forcefully rejects a sincere apology. What these all have in common are a misuse of power that discourages people from backtracking after they have done something wrong. There is less incentive to stop behaving badly if it is not supported when people try. The point of open conflict is to stop someone from doing harm; once that is achieved, force is no longer justified, as it is counterproductive. When someone wishes to make amends, that reparative behavior should be encouraged. (This does not obligate victims to forgive them, or even be around them; someone else can work the process if necessary.)

A civilized nation does not use child soldiers. International law generally prohibits children under 18 from participating in armed conflict; recruiting and fielding children under 15 qualifies as a war crime. There are ways to help (human) child soldiers.

"Amazing Grace" is a famous hymn with its roots in slavery and abolition.

The Muslim funeral lines come from this prayer book. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is the funeral line paraphrased into aquatic and aerial concepts, since whales aren't land people. Interfaith funerals are challenging to design, but there are some good guidelines. A chaplain is a religious expert attached to a secular institution, originally Christian, but now of any faith, and increasingly interfaith -- there to serve the needs of whomever requires spiritual care or services. I figured that someone who could handle interfaith work in a heavily Islamic country would be up to the challenge of interspecies work too.

White lilies are among the most popular funeral flowers. They symbolize purity and the immortal soul, among other things.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 07:07 pm (UTC)
fyreharper: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fyreharper

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 09:56 pm (UTC)
helgatwb: Drawing of Helga, holding her sword, looking upset. (Default)
From: [personal profile] helgatwb

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-23 02:34 am (UTC)
thnidu: my familiar. "Beanie Baby" -type dragon, red with white wings (Default)
From: [personal profile] thnidu

• tender on bony plane of his shoulder
-> on the bony

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-23 03:38 am (UTC)
mdlbear: (rose)
From: [personal profile] mdlbear
Powerful and moving. Oh, my yes.

"other whales were congretating," -> congregating


Date: 2014-07-23 07:18 pm (UTC)
dialecticdreamer: My work (Default)
From: [personal profile] dialecticdreamer
Still trying to parse it all. Powerful, and extremely emotional reactions.

Put it this way, I'd have to re-read to look for typos and grammatical issues, which I'm just not /up/ to yet.

I think it's an excellent story, and ultimately a hopeful one.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 07:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] westrider.livejournal.com
I read that article in a copy of Smithsonian my grandmother had lying around. Very cool, but also very sad. This is a beautiful tribute.


Date: 2014-07-22 07:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
>> I read that article in a copy of Smithsonian my grandmother had lying around. <<


>> Very cool, but also very sad. <<

That's how I felt about it. I was fascinated by the idea of a whale speaking English, but knowing what I know about child abuse, child soldiers, Stockholm syndrome, slavery, linguistics ... it was also extremely creepy.

>> This is a beautiful tribute. <<

*bow, flourish* Happy to be of service. I needed to bear witness.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-07-22 01:47 pm (UTC)
ext_3294: Tux (Default)
From: [identity profile] technoshaman.livejournal.com
Peace to all, footed and flippered alike.

I suspect Seth will find his new work satisfying.


Date: 2014-07-22 06:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ysabetwordsmith.livejournal.com
>> Peace to all, footed and flippered alike. <<


>> I suspect Seth will find his new work satisfying. <<

I think he will. After all, he really does like whales. It will be interesting to see whether he and Steel can keep from killing each other or sinking somebody's boat.

Re: Thoughts

Date: 2014-08-13 05:46 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Where is the first part of the story of the cetacean citizens of the Maldives? And is there anything else with Steel in it? (Yes, I've found a new favorite character of yours again...)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-26 01:28 am (UTC)
mdlbear: the positively imaginary half of a cubic mandelbrot set (Default)
From: [personal profile] mdlbear
Just re-read this. "Amazing Grace" - YES! So incredibly appropriate.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-11-09 06:54 pm (UTC)
lynnoconnacht: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lynnoconnacht
*curls up and sobs*


Date: 2016-05-01 05:00 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
this was....heartwrenching
and beautiful
and sad
and...worthy. Gosh, what this did to me, I'm not sure I could put it into words. Good job.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-09-20 08:19 am (UTC)
callibr8: icon courtesy of Wyld_Dandelyon (Default)
From: [personal profile] callibr8
>> "Noc didn't even get a funeral," Seth said.
"He was a person, he was my friend,
and he deserved to have a damn funeral."

Was there no one to sing for him?
Moderato asked. <<

I read this for the first time tonight. Then after checking out some of the fascinating (as usual) links at the bottom, I read it again. Both times, the lines quoted above were where I started weeping. The way I hear the question Moderato asks, in my head, is that he uses a tone of sadness and incredulity ("how *could* this be true???"), that of a being who never before even thought to imagine the possibility of a member of any cetacean species dying alone, in silence, with no one to sing an elegy to mark zir passage.

I really, really like the "it was an honest start", at the end. Also, I liked that Moderato asserted his own opinion (the section that starts "Do not harm them" and ends "He's punishing himself. Can't you feel it?"). It shows definitively that he's not just a "yes-man" for Steel.


Date: 2017-03-23 01:19 am (UTC)
djbluejay: Man with dreds holding saxophone (Default)
From: [personal profile] djbluejay
Ya gotten me all in mah feelings. o.o

This were damn gorgeous, an' a damn good tribute. <3



ysabetwordsmith: Cartoon of me in Wordsmith persona (Default)

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