Chax: A Dolphin
This is a sample of Chax: A Dolphin’s Song
In which Chax’s first exploit is told.
Sound travels fast in the sea, three times faster than in the air, and so do stories. Some stories can go around the world underwater, and never be heard above it.
Members of the dolphin pod from the shallow, warm, western gulf of the green ocean (that men call Atlantic) have a story about the pod’s leader, Chax. Chax has led them well. His reputation is known. His first exploit is part of the pod’s song, the long, chirping song that is the pod’s story. It reminds the oldest members of what has come before, and informs its newest members. Dolphins from other pods — and even birds — know parts of it. Although Chax has been everywhere, and done many remarkable exploits, this was his first.
It tells how Chax kept sharks from eating men that fell from the sky, long before he became the leader of the pod. Every member of the pod can sing parts of it, but no one knows it all, except Chax. He sang it the first time. A few terns had been there and added details. Then it became part of the pod’s song. When Chax became the leader, it became important, but it was already a good part.
Chax protected the men, so the story goes, because he was offered the opportunity, and because he admired one of them. Some men are admirable.
Chax had been swimming out from the pod on a hot day in spring. The pod had been resting and feeding on mullet — slender, silver, easily excitable fish. Schools of tasty mullet thrive in the warm water along the edges of what men call the Gulf of Mexico. Chax heard about the men from terns, who had heard from whales.
The leaders had said Chax could swim away if he wished. As full-grown dolphin who was learning his place in the pod, he was ready.
Whales had seen the men fall. After Chax found those whales, he was guided to the spot by a noise they told him about. He swam until he heard the noise too. Eventually it stopped, but he found the bubble with the men in it by listening and asking gulls and terns and pelicans.
Sharks had found them too. By the time Chax arrived, several sharks had gathered.
Chax scanned the men with sounds he made. From the sounds that came back, he could tell that the men were riding what was mostly a bubble, covered with skin. Sound is intense under water, and full of information. Dolphins can send sound through the water, out of their soft foreheads — though it takes effort — and they can learn much from the sounds that bounce back.
Chax knew the men were riding in a bubble, something like a big bladder, but really, just a bubble. The sharks did not know that. All a shark knows is what he can taste, and what little he can see, dolphins like to say. Usually, that’s good, but when they’re intent on eating, sharks are dangerous. Even to a full-grown dolphin.
The men had poured something like oil onto the calm water. The oily stuff had a taste the sharks did not like. So, in a half-hearted way, they tried to stay out of it. Despite this, the sharks were sure that they were going to fill their bellies.
But they were also wary. When they swam close, the men hurt them. So the sharks had been taking turns, not the organized turns dolphins or bluefin tuna take, just rough, opportunistic turns. They made random passes close to the bubble, wearying the men. Chax could see that the sharks were afraid of the men in the bubble, because they never swam close under it. But they never stopped swimming around it.
Ignoring the sharks, who ignored him, Chax swam close. He was full-grown and strong, and too large for them to scare away. He showed no fear, for he felt none, but he made no threatening move. Sharks kept circling, six of them, all about his size. Or bigger.
Three men were in the bubble. They were full-grown, as the whales had told him. The whales were indifferent to the men, but they knew what was going on in their part of the ocean.
Chax had never been where he could watch men as much as he wanted, so he did. He was curious. As long as he could remember, he had known that men are unknowable, sometimes dangerous and attract trouble. Everybody knew that. His aunts had said it when he was small, and the songs said it. So Chax was wary. After watching and listening for a while, though, he saw that at least one of these men was smart.
One seemed to be hurting. He was tense, and moved as little as possible, as if in pain. Though the hurting man was not active, he still kept watch. Another was skilled with a long pole, an oar, and used it to hit the sharks. At times he would raise himself high above the water to hit them hard. He almost always hit with the sharp part, not the flat part. Sometimes it cut.
While that man used the oar, the third man used his weight to keep the shell from tipping. The one who worked to keep the bubble right-side-up was the one Chax liked best, because he seemed to be taking care of the others. He also seemed to encourage the other two.
After Chax’s first pass, the men paid little attention to him, though the third man looked at him now and again. After many hits from the sharp blade of the oar, the sharks lost some of their interest, and swam off, but not far. Chax was sure that they would be back when they had rested and argued enough. One would come back, then others.
While they were gone, he swam closer, and the men turned to look. The man with the oar relaxed when he saw him, Chax could tell. The man put his flipper in the water and splashed water at Chax. It occurred to Chax that this might be some sort of greeting, so he splashed back, and was startled when the men made noises like laughter. He had not been told that men could laugh.
The man splashed again. Chax splashed back. The man splashed bigger. Chax responded. The man laughed. Chax stopped in the water to listen. He liked it. The man hit the water with his fist, making a funny sound. Chax hit the water with his tail, making a bigger sound. He tried to do what the man did, because it made them laugh, and he marveled at the sound of it. He had to all but stand on his tail to approximate what the man did at times, but he did.
The men laughed until they grew tired, or remembered their predicament, and the sharks, and stopped. Until they stopped, Chax listened with all of his being. The sharks noticed, but indifferently, from a distance. The man with the oar lay down to rest.
Chax was more curious than ever. If men could laugh, what else could they do? He came closer, sound-scanning the shell from underneath. He could scan the men right through the skin of the bubble in the middle, but not so well on the edges. If one of the sharks bit the bubble, Chax could tell, that would be the end of it, and of the men.
He surfaced on the other side, closer. Not close enough to be reached by the oar, but closer. He wanted to know if the men were frightened. From their heartbeats, he could hear that they were, but they quickly got over it. Then the man who had watched him began making soothing noises.
Chax raised his head out of the water and listened — hard. He listened through his jaw and ears. He even listened through his forehead and blowhole, which took intent. He liked the sounds the man made. They sounded as if they might have meaning. Perhaps the man was singing, though if that was what he was doing, it was not as pretty as whale songs.
Chax had heard stories about good men; this must be one of them. This man cared about his brothers, and was not twisted in any way that Chax could see. He had a grin like a porpoise, a lean, flexible body, and good balance. He seemed almost helpless, but he had fallen from the sky, hadn’t he? He must have skill. Perhaps all three were good. Chax decided that he liked this man. He might like all three, though he was still prudent enough to be wary.
Then a strange thing happened. The man who was hurt began to speak, and though Chax could not understand it, somehow he knew that the man was talking to the Creator of the Seas and the Stars. The man dropped his head, then raised it again, looked up, and raised one hand toward the sky as he spoke. The other men dropped their heads too, but Chax knew before that. He had not seen much of men, mostly had only seen them in passing, and he was not prepared for this. He had been surprised and pleased when the men laughed, but now he was surprised indeed, considering the other things he knew about them. How could men know about the Creator of the Seas and Sky and still do as they do?
But there was no question about it. Chax listened respectfully. He could not tell what the man was saying, only that he must be talking to the Speaker of Life. But he liked the way this man sounded. As if he knew.
Soon enough, Chax was sure that he should stay by the men in the bubble and keep the sharks away. This sureness did not come from the man, though it started not long after the man grew quiet. Everything that Chax knew seemed to be telling him — directing him, offering him the opportunity — to help. The Creator of the waters and the land and all that is in them was inviting him. All his life, Chax had been told that this could happen, that it was an honor, and that if he were ever to be asked, he should obey. So he did. He would never have considered doing anything else.
It was now the hottest part of the day. The sharks had stayed away on their own for a while, but after a time they returned, and they did not like it when Chax interfered.
One, then two of the sharks began to challenge him. He could hit and evade them, because he was smarter and quicker and had moves they didn’t have, and because the sharks didn’t coordinate, except in the most selfish and opportunistic ways. But after a time, the sharks, being sharks, began to behave more like a pack. And, to keep from biting each other, they took turns challenging Chax. First the biggest one. When that one tired, others came forward.
Chax began to be tired. He had to ram one of the sharks as hard as he could, just to get a short rest, while the others argued about whether they would attack their injured brother shark. After a few minutes, when the rammed shark made a great show of being ready and strong, they again began moving on the bubble that fell from the sky. And Chax was still in their way.
He was as fully engaged in protecting the men as he had ever been engaged with anything. Somehow he no longer felt tired. He trained every sense he had on the sharks. Without forgetting the bubble, he probed for weaknesses, bad habits, slow turns, anything. Sometimes it seemed he could anticipate where a shark was going to go, and could be there to strike and be gone again. Sometimes it seemed like he had all the time in the world to strike, even though he was trashing and bashing and twisting and thrusting and stopping and starting again. He had not expected, when the sky had turned pink this morning, to be locked in the battle of his life, but that was what the day had brought. Now he was fighting not only for the men, but for his own life.
Chax knew he had injured the shark he had rammed. If he could hit that same one again in the same place, the others might turn on their brother. He was waiting for that opportunity, because it seemed to be the men’s only chance — his only chance, too — unless he fled, which he was not about to do. How could he? Where could he go that would be far enough? Besides, this was his first adventure, something he had been looking forward to all his young life. The newness of it frightened him at first, but now he was fully engaged and enjoying it.
Once, in the confusion, the man in the bubble-shell hit Chax with the flat of the oar, on his front flipper. Chax knew it had been a mistake, because immediately the others chastised the one who had done it. The blow hurt and slowed him a bit, though neither he nor the sharks looked slow to the men, or to each other. Several times the lean man with the good balance had all he could do to keep the raft upright, because of the gurgling turbulence of the twisting, twirling, bashing dolphin and the crazed sharks. The men watched, slack-jawed, as the dolphin hit the sharks again and again with his head, his beak, his tail flukes, and incredibly, with something that — until they saw — they would have sworn he did not have: shoulders.
Chax knew it would not be long before one of the sharks took a bite out of him. They could just as easily take a bite out of the shell and men, now, because the sharks really were crazed. And deadly intent. The man with the oar had made cuts on some of the sharks, and the smell of their own blood in the water, and perhaps a little of Chax’s blood, was making them take more risks. Two of them had been knocked nearly senseless and sidelined briefly when they crashed headlong into each other, but now they were back.
They kept saying, “Eat! Eat!”
Chax was slowing, and the sharks were missing by less and less. Soon he would slow too much — or just miscalculate — and die. But he knew, as surely as he knew anything, that it was his duty and privilege to stay with the men, and guard them, or perhaps become the sharks’ meal himself.
He knew this as surely as he knew he was a member of the dolphin pod from the big, green, warm, shallow, curved gulf of the western Atlantic, chasing all manner of fish along the rivers and paths of the seas.
Chax was a good, strong, healthy dolphin, not bent or twisted. He had been told, invited, allowed to help. Now it was part of his story — several long chirps of his song. He would die hearing it, whether he died today or a long time from now. Probably today. If it came to that, well, he was also proud and grateful that he had been considered fit for what he was doing.
If he died, he would die full of purpose, and that purpose filled his being as the sharks began to close in.
For some time, from somewhere far off, Chax had heard a single whale sing about obedience and duty. It was a strong song, and it began abruptly for a whale song.
The sharks heard it too, of course, or felt it, and one of them almost laughed, a grim, oily laugh. But the others turned to look behind themselves. The smallest one almost looked frightened. Seeing this, a flock of terns dove at his head, as they had been diving at all of the sharks, and the small shark flinched, and swam down and away. When the small shark came back, the terns circled and chattered and mocked. When it bit the air where a tern had just been, the mocking increased terribly.
The terns’ support and especially the whale’s song strengthened Chax, who renewed his defense. What little strength he had now was coming from knowing he was where he was meant to be, doing the right thing.
Circling to rest his tiring right side, he found himself in position to butt the underbelly of the largest of the sharks (not the one he had already hit) so hard that it stopped, then swam away. Chax watched him go, amazed.
When Chax had first come upon the men, the afternoon had been bright, hot, and calm. At some point, however, without him noticing, the day had grown dark, and the water was now anything but calm. So busy had he been, swimming so hard, that Chax had not noticed the gathering storm. Now he could not help noticing. The waves had built until one rose so large that it lifted the shell — as well as Chax and several sharks — up out of the water, then threw them down, hard. While they were trying to recover, another wave at least as large came, and another, and another. The waves seemed to come from every side.
Swimming hard and downhill by mistake in one huge surge, Chax quite unexpectedly found himself in position to use his own motion and inertia — and the power of the water — to butt a shark very hard with his beak, with great effect. The shark crumpled as the wave crashed back to the receding, heaving, bubbling surface. Whenever the song was sung, Chax always remembered hearing yelps of exuberance — later he realized they must have been his own — as he and the shark were lifted up again and fell through the air. The shark smacked the water hard on its side, and swam down in retreat, bent in a way the young dolphin had never seen a shark bend.
Chax fell too, but hit the water tail first, easily. As he rose on the next surge, he watched in amazement as the men in the bubble slid down the inside curl, as gently as his aunts had nudged him into place between them when he was tiny and wanted to stray from his mother.
He was as excited, as elated, as overjoyed as he had ever been, because he had been chosen for this, and because the storm had come to help. It looked as if it had arrived in time.
One by one the waves overcame the remaining sharks, who — as they lost contact with the bubble raft — gave up, swimming down to calmer water.
Grateful, happy and a little proud, Chax stayed with the shell as long as he could. His heart wanted to stay even after his muscles began to tremble and jitter and spasm so much that he could not swim well. Those exhausted spasms were a feeling he had never experienced until then. He had never been so tired. Or so full of joy. But at last, he had to do as the sharks had done, as the storm continued. Taking an enormous breath and a last look at the bubble shell with the men still in it, Chax started down, swimming like a newborn, in little lunges, he noticed. It was the only way he could swim, by then.
The men returned his look, tossed about though they were. Chax could tell that they were still too full of fear to really see how much help they had. But after seeing the bubble ride the inside curl of that huge wave, with the men hanging sideways but still in the bubble raft, Chax knew that they did.
The current pushed him in the same direction that the sharks had gone, until something he did not want to deny urged him to swim at a curious angle to the current. When he changed course, he found the going easier, almost restful. He surged and glided a long time before he remembered to take a breath. From then on, all he was aware of was breathing and swimming. He had never had to be aware of those things before.
The end of the storm was as unnoticed as its beginning. After a night of slow, tired, easy swimming, he heard his pod again, and headed their way. He reached them as the day began. The pod had ridden out the storm in deep water. A flock of gulls had given them incomplete, bird’s-eye accounts of what he had been doing.
When the others began nuzzling him, welcoming him, comforting him, Chax was amazed to find that his body was covered with the marks of shark teeth. A wedge bigger than his beak was torn out of the right side of his flukes, something that he had noticed himself, though not until after the storm. The flipper that had been hit by the oar was pocked with a half-ring of tooth holes, but he could not remember how they had gotten there.
By the time he told his story, he was so sore and tired that it wasn’t much of a song. But the `terns confirmed and added to it, telling things he could hardly remember. The terns had risked their lives to stay and see — and had helped as best they could, and were proud of diving at the sharks’ heads. Their stories became part of Chax’s story too, and his song.
Chax began to swim with the leaders from that day, even though he was still young, and not quite mature.