Whales in the Mountains

Faith Merino

The boys’ flashlights bounce in the dark as they line up on the dock closest to the spot where the silver Corolla disappeared twelve years ago after it soared off the dam road, flew through the rain for a few weightless seconds, and then fell 274 feet to the water below, no witnesses except for an old man who lived on the north side and said he saw a pair of headlights in the night, but then he blinked and they were gone, so he didn’t bother calling 911 because he just assumed they pulled over or turned around or made it to the other side or they were beamed up by a goddamn spaceship! –that they’d gone literally anywhere else but into the water, and besides, it was late and rainy and he’d just tried some of his neighbor’s homebrewed beer that had been left in the garage next to the water heater for so long that it had oxidized and taken on a buttery popcorn taste that the old man liked—the same homebrewed beer that he was drinking a few nights later when he heard what sounded like a woman’s gasp right next to him, right there in his own living room where he’d fallen asleep in the recliner with the lamp on but the TV off, and he sat up so fast that the chair rocked forward and threw him onto his feet, spinning wild-eyed because when the headlights vanished, it was like a ghost, something there but not, and he couldn’t be sure he actually saw the real headlights or if he saw a bleed-through from a parallel universe, a six-second delay in the infinite film reel they were all in—and his home-brewer neighbor said, “you sound crazy,” but now he hears the gasp almost every night at 9:17 p.m. and he knows that if he hooks a finger in the kinked blinds and tugs down, he’ll see a pair of headlights gutter into darkness—

but now, he looks out the window and sees the boys’ flashlights and he knows they’re going to push someone into the ice melt to see how long he can stand the cold—can stand the not-knowing what’s in the water with him—because the schoolchildren tell stories about a ghost woman who drifts along the lake bottom, toes dragging through the silt, dress floating in rags, head hanging to one side as she rocks in the moonlit current with silver-clouded eyes—eyes that will lock on you and see who you really are if her hands catch you—which is why the boys have brought along a new boy, a small child the old man can’t see from his window, who just moved to town, something off about him, something uncanny, something like an in-betweenness—a boy and not a boy but not a girl, and when they start whispering the words gay! bi! trans! hermaphrodite! one of them says loudly, “It’s genetics! You either have a Y chromosome or you don’t!” and that boy, a freckled red-head with a bowl-cut, wants to know what the secret text is, like when he learned in second grade that a prehistoric whale skeleton had been discovered in the bowels of this very mountain over a hundred years ago—a hidden historical text unearthed by forty-niners who were looking for gold in the 1850s, because this whole mountain was once underwater!—was once seafloor!—and actually!—there’s traces of fossilized coral at the top of the Sierras!—and his dad made a sound like a deep puff in his chest and said, “Whales in the mountains? You sound crazy,” and the boy took his homework out of his backpack and sat at the kitchen table without another word about the Pleistocene seafloor, and thought, “am I crazy? Or is he? Am I crazy?”

which is the same thing the woman in the silver Corolla was thinking as she drove through the night, wiping her fogging windshield with a onesie as the rain pulsed in sheets on the other side of the glass, driving faster because she couldn’t remember what she said that made him say, “you sound crazy”—something about the multiverse and the double-headed arrow of time—alternate universes where time moves backwards away from its own conclusion toward an origin point—how this land was once seabed and whales soared through the sky, and maybe in an alternate universe they’re flying overhead right now, singing and listening for mountains in the dark water—

and now the boys are gathering around the smallest one to push them in, to send them down to the dark depths to find a hidden text that will reveal the truth of their identity to them all while the old man is tugging down the blinds, wondering if he’ll be able to hear the gasp of the child’s body hitting the ice cold water—

and at the same time that the boys are staring down into the black water, the woman is driving through the rain on the bridge above them, picking up speed twelve years in the past, accelerating into the future, and the old man is peering through the blinds twelve years ago tonight to see headlights floating in the darkness, beaming through the rain to light up a swinging kelp forest full of silver fish that dart into the clouds, the car picking up speed until the tires lose contact with the asphalt, and the small child plunges into the freeze and starts swimming down toward nothingness, but as the cold water floods their ears, they look up to see a dark shadow soaring through the sky above—the same shadow the old man sees through the blinds—

A car sailing off a bridge. A whale sliding through the night, calling out in the dark and listening for mountains.


Faith Merino is a Stegner Fellow at Stanford with an MFA in Fiction from UC Davis. Her novel, Cormorant Lake, was longlisted for The Center For Fiction’s First Novel Award, and her short stories have appeared in The Indiana Review, Harpur Palate, The Notre Dame Review, and more. She lives in Sacramento with her husband, sons, and animal friends.