At first, his world was consumed by the sounds of the sea. Rolling waves smashing against rocks. The shrill caw of seagulls from somewhere high above. Then a noise. A song? Four repetitious notes that began on the lowest frequency sound perceptible to the human ear that rose to an ear-splitting wail. Roland was pulled into consciousness sometime around dawn. His eyes fluttered open and he thought he was blind for a moment, his vision refusing to cooperate, but as sight gradually returned, for an instant he wished for darkness again. Emerging from the haze of blurry blobs and shapes were the aftereffects of a shipwreck, thrust upon the shore by the relentless crash of waves.
He pushed the wreckage of broken wood and fabrics off of himself and stood unsteadily in the scattered aftermath that was once a vessel. The morning mist began to burn off and Roland could see for miles in the sunlight reflecting off the sea. The beach was quiet and uninhabited, polluted with ownerless possessions, jagged spires of twisted metal and wood pointing at odd angles towards the sky.
Combing through the debris for other survivors, all he uncovered were bloated bodies clustered in puddles of black blood. It felt like a long, sharp blade slowly being driven into his heart. A great weight of hopelessness settled on him, getting heavier and heavier. Although he was the only living thing on this deserted strip of an uncharted island, he felt like he was dead. No, it felt like he was dying, over and over again. Unliving forever.
He was lost. Roland wasn’t a mariner, the furthest thing from it, stranded without a map, without the slightest idea where the waters had washed him, without a means of communicating to another living soul. He was surrounded by gritty sand that irritated his already raw skin, a few trees that bore no fruit, and a great body of water that uttered waves of mocking laughter at his uncertainty of it being safe to drink. At first, he collected containers of seawater and strained it through fabric, but he soon acknowledged he didn’t know what he was doing and truth be told it was too time-consuming and he had always been an impatient man, even with so much time on his hands. If it was salt water, so be it. Better than dying of thirst.
He was lonely. Over the course of several days, remnants of the ship washed ashore. He tried to occupy his mind by building a makeshift camp from flotsam and foliage. He also created signal fires from bits of wood he placed in the sun to dry and spelled out giant SOS messages in stones on the sand, but none of this was enough to dull the ache for companionship that swelled within him and nearly outweighed his ever-increasing hunger.
During the early mornings before the sun set itself at the hottest point in the sky, forcing him to find shade, Roland explored the shoreline and picked through the mostly useless debris. It was a futile effort and he wasn’t sure why he kept at it. Most of the litter had been committed to memory, but on the morning he swore to himself that he wouldn’t explore any longer—
Roland came upon an enormous whale beached on the surf.
Elated that his food worries were over, he scrounged around and found a bit of metal with a sharp enough edge to be used as a knife and wrapped a length of cloth around the other end, fashioning a handle that ensured he wouldn’t cut himself in the process. But before Roland drove his blade into the beast, the whale regarded him with its great eye, and something in that momentary exchange of glances struck a strange sort of empathy in the man’s heart. It turned out his need for a companion outweighed his need for sustenance.
Roland gathered up all the cloth he could lay his hands on, dipped the fabrics into the sea and draped them over the cetacean. He then dismantled his shelter and rebuilt it nearer to his new island mate. It was the hardest relationship he ever had to maintain, constantly gathering water in containers to keep his friend wet and spearing fish to feed it, most of which he was forced to eat when his friend declined. But it was worth the price of not being alone. Of having someone to talk to, even if the conversations were all one-sided.
The following day Roland heard a sound. A vocalization of four notes that registered on the borders of his perception. He wasn’t sure if it was whalesong, wasn’t sure that whales possessed the ability to speak out of the water, but whatever it was, it was a sound. And the whale made it.
Among the many things he knew nothing about, whalesong ranked high, but somehow he understood what the whale attempted to communicate. It had said to him:
let me die
Saddened by the prospect of being alone again, Roland argued with the whale, tried to reason with it, pleaded his case. The whale did not respond, apparently resolute in its decision. He had no choice but to abide by his friend’s wishes and formed a pact with the massive marine mammal not to leave its side, not to eat until the whale died.
For two days the man recounted the story of his life. He spoke of accomplishments and regrets in equal measure and tried to calculate the good he had done in the world and the legacy, if any, he would have left behind. And at the end of the second day, when all the stories worth telling had been told, the whale, skin dried and cracked rattled the notes for:
Roland mourned the passing of his friend and tried to no avail to commit the whale’s body back to the sea. His appetite never returned.
One morning, a week or so later, he spotted a ship on the horizon. He dragged his weakened frame across the sand over to the kindling of the signal fire and set about to light it but paused instead and looked over his shoulder at the decaying whale.
“Don’t think they’d be anxious to take you along, would they?” he sighed. “No. I guess they wouldn’t.” Roland turned his back on the ship and returned to his shelter.
He released his grip on life that very same evening.
A commercial fishing trawler, more rust than boat, bobbed across the heavy chops of the sea. The hard, beaten-faced crew hoisted up nets filled with their catch. A shadow suddenly fell over the deck and the fishermen looked to the vast spill of stars in the night sky and for the briefest of moments spotted the silhouette of a man riding on the back of a whale against the waning moon.