Kelle Schillaci Clarke
From Here, You Can Hear Them Scream
There are social cliques, even among the orcas. The Southern Residents stay near the shore, coasting the inland waters, searching for salmon, of which there is often too little. Like the popular girls at the lunch table, they are the most highly sociable of the killer whales. They travel in pods through the central Salish Sea, where they are often found frolicking together in clusters, breaching, tail-slapping, and communicating in a language only they understand.
Kyla watches the popular girls from her corner of the long, eggshell blue lunch table, her dirty fingernail tracing tiny swear words carved deep into its painted surface. She chants them inside her head, her lips moving silently: stupid, dumb, ass, stupid-dumb-ass, stupidumbass, until the words lose their meaning. Cool air flows in through the opened cafeteria windows, the salt and low-tide, dead-fish smell from the shoreline combining with the sloppy joes being served by the lunch ladies. Kyla nibbles a crumbly turkey-and-cheese-on-wheat, sips a Caprisun, and listens to the sea, to the popular girls practicing cheers, to the heavy trays being slid noisily across counters and table tops, to the ring of the bell, calling them back to class.
Transients, the second type of orca in this area, are both fundamentally and culturally different from the affable Southern Residents. Stealth hunters, they duck quietly into waves, working together with their pod to circle and trap sealions and seals who don't know they are in danger until it is too late. They are less likely than the Residents to go hungry, but they are misunderstood. They are sloppy eaters.
Kyla is learning about killer whales in her fifth grade science class, about the differences between the populations and how they communicate using a language unique to their pod, employing a series of specific clicks and whistles. If you look through these windows long enough, says their science teacher, staring out toward sandy shoreline, you're bound to spot a rubbery dorsal fin—rounded dull on the Southern Residents, pointy-sharp on the Transients.
Kyla's class has been learning about the orcas, their neighbors, since they first learned how to fashion letters, create number bonds, tie their shoes. And since they live on an island, the information is actually relevant. Not like in the Midwest somewhere, says their science teacher, where the only contact kids have with the enormous mammals is at a natural history museum exhibit or a phony fiberglass orca outside an aquarium, crawling with toddlers and squirrels.
Island girls know the difference between the killer whales. Their squeaks, whistles and whines. From here—in their homes, their schoolyards—they can hear them scream. Kyla can. She may not have been born yet when trappers set up a floating pen not far from the island, designed to separate the orca babies from their mamas, take them into captivity. But Kyla's mom was here when it happened. She was a young girl at the time, and she tells Kyla about it at night, tells her she hears their ghosts on the water, still. Her mom tells her things, then tells her not to say anything about the things she tells her, not to anyone else.
Like the killer whales, Kyla has a distinct sound only she can make, a high-pitched screech she can't always control, though she has gotten better at it. Take a walk, her mom says, when she comes home from school and needs to noise it up. Otherwise, it builds in her head, making it hurt. Take it upstairs, her mom says. You're hurting my ears. So she does.
In school, the popular girls ignore Kyla. Everyone ignores Kyla. She is invisible to them, to their subsets, and their voices echo around her head as if she were a ghost, until the screech of her metal-legged chair rings out as she reaches down to pick up a dropped pencil. Then, they all go quiet. All of them stop to watch as she bends over, deliberately, carefully, so she doesn't fall out of her chair, like last time.
Last time, she'd leaned over, distracted by the cry of gulls through the open window, and she fell hard enough to hurt. Her foot had kicked the leg of her desk out, sending it across the floor into Mekayla's desk, causing an eruption of sound. The whole class, even her teacher, jumped as if a rifle had been triggered. She'd laid there for a moment on the cold, dirty tile, her small body curled tight like a shrimp, wanting to disappear, until the sound emerged suddenly from wherever it comes from, somewhere deep inside of her. The sound, filling the room.
Now, when she moves, the class goes silent. All of them waiting, like a held breath. One girl quickly contains a laugh, like she absolutely can't help it, another coughs to cover the laugh, and all of them exchange smirks. Kyla sits up, straightens herself, and bites her lip to keep from screeching.
In school, Kyla's class is taught about the Southern Resident called Tahlequah, the grieving mother who has been carrying the dead carcass of her baby for over a week, through thousands of miles of ocean water, unable to let it go. Her science teacher is careful in choosing his words, but her story is all over the news, her grief an international, public display.
But Kyla already knows about Tahlequah, because her mom is far less careful with words and has been following her story since the beginning.
"I would have carried mine the same way," her mom whispers in Kyla's ear late one night, the family room dark except for the glow of the network news, always on. "I would have carried them on my back through a thousand miles of cold sea water, if I'd have only been given time to grieve."
Maybe she thought Kyla was asleep when she said this, but she wasn't. Maybe she didn't care. When her mom talks about her lost babies, Kyla wants to screech. She wants to screech so loudly it breaks through water, travels out to sea.
During recess, Kyla rushes across the cracked cement playground to perch high in the branches of her favorite Garry Oak. Balanced in its limbs, she watches the younger kids chase one another around the raised tail of the garish orca play-sculpture that's probably been there since Kyla's mom went to school here. The first graders climb on his tail, run circles around his faded black body, push sticky fingers into his rubber-coated blowhole, declaring safety from whoever is "It."
She closes her eyes and hears only the rise and fall of their chorused voices, pulling the separate noises apart like strands of seaweed and recreating each in her head, resisting the urge to release them into the salty air. Sometimes, she has to pinch the soft flesh on her inner arm to stop herself.
Meanwhile, in the far end of the field where only a chain-link fence separates schoolgrounds from shoreline, the kids Kyla's age duck in the long grass playing card games, swapping secrets, pretending not to hear the whistle of the playground monitor, calling them all in.
Look at my tail, Kyla used to tell her mom, when she was little, flipping around in the bathtub.
You're splashing all over the floor, her mom would say.
Isn't it beautiful? she would ask her mom, twirling and screeching, the sound coming from inside of her, bouncing from bathroom walls. Her mom tried to ignore the screeches, hoping that by not drawing attention to them, Kyla would stop, grow out of it. But she couldn't hide how they made her cringe.
It's how mermaids talk, Kyla would say, as if she were taking on a character, as if the screeching wasn't hers, at all.
There is a third type of orca—the Offshore Orcas. Less is known about this elusive breed of killer whale, except that they feed on sharks, and that's a big something, if you ask Kyla. These are her favorite orcas of all, because there is so little known about them. They tend to be more nicked up and scarred than the other types, probably from battling all those sharks, but they're strong and resilient, and as loud as the fish-eating Residents. No one follows these killer whales with camera crews, but Kyla is certain they're the ones she hears at night, when her mom falls asleep on the couch with the screen doors splayed open, the cool, night air all around them.
Kelle Schillaci Clarke
is a Seattle-based writer with deep L.A. roots. Her stories have recently appeared appeared or are forthcoming in Los Angeles Review, LEON Literary Review, Superstition Review, Bending Genres, Cotton Xenomorph, Cheap Pop
and other journals. She holds an MFA from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and was recently named a Pen Parentis fellow 2021-2022. She can be found on Twitter at @kelle224
and at her website