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Drip. Drip. Drip. Ti’al had not come up. Drip. Drip. Yahaini listened to the water clock splash away the seconds of his life as she eyed the lapping waves of the ocean. The water level in the conch shell top of the clock slipped past three quarters empty and still Ti’al did not come up. Any deep ocean diver of the great archipelago could hold his breath as long, but Yahaini could not dispel the worry suffusing her soul. Ti’al should have come up.
“Where is he?” Inohana demanded, every word punctuated by a new drop. Yahaini’s fellow initiate showed her agitation more vividly as her eyes darted rapidly from the water clock to the swaying waves.
“There is still time. Ti’al has swum deeper and longer before.” Their master, Hotala responded standing immobile and watchful in the front of their boat.
“Perhaps he has tamed a great whale and has been taken to unknown depths!” Ti’al’s father declared pride evident in his voice. Behind his back, Yahaini and Inohana exchanged a frightened look. Ti’al’s father was rightly proud of his son for being apprenticed to the wave riders, but the two young women knew that of the three initiates at the sacred mating ground today, Ti’al was the least likely to earn distinction or fame.
He possessed all the talents required of their discipline, but none in abundance. His determination had brought him to proficiency and with help from Yahaini and Inohana he had become talented enough to attempt the whale dive. Now, as the water clock emptied, Yahaini regretted giving the good natured boy her aid as it had likely caused his death.
“He may surface on his own—“ Yahaini began, but Ti’al’s father cut her off with a snort.
“Absolutely not!” He gestured broadly with both hands to show what he thought of her suggestion, “Ti’al is a great diver and exemplary magic user like his mother was before him. There is no way he will fail.”
Yahaini decided to take comfort from the man’s optimism. She wanted Ti’al to succeed as well, but could not help suspecting his speech was more bravado than belief. Calming herself, Yahaini returned to preparing for her own dive.
Before the water clock emptied, a whale spout propelled a spray into the air and as the fine mist rained down on her. Yahaini lowered her head in regret, sadness, and reflection. Ti’al would not come up. Around her the other wave riders respectful hide their faces from the sun, in honor of their fallen brother-to-be.
“What is it? What’s happened?” Ti’al’s father shouted, understanding in his heart, but not his mind the fate that befell his son.
“I am sorry.” Hotala began, “But Ti’al has failed. My whale watched him through his dive and reports his failure.”
Ti’al’s father sat down hard on the wooden slats of the ocean canoe, “No! How could the whale watch and do nothing?” The man demanded a tide of anger rising in his voice.
“If Ti’al floundered in his interaction with his own whale, there would be little for mine to do. I am sorry. Ti’al was a wonderful boy and would have made a great man.” Hotala said.
Inohana threw her arms around Yahini and the two women rested their heads on each other’s shoulders while they prayed to the sea gods for Ti’al’s swift deliverance. Behind them on a separate boat, three priests raised their voices in prayers, one to the sea itself, one to the sea winds, and one to the lady of the whales, in similar prayers. The well-muscled fisherman who had been Ti’al’s father began to sob behind his hands in the bottom of the boat.
When the prayers finished Hotala rested her eyes on the two female initiates, “Inohana, prepare yourself.”
The two women separated and Inohana nodded as resolution filled her eyes. She paced through the ritual movements of the deep water divers. A jerky dance filled with stops and starts as she loosened her muscles and expanded her lungs. Hotala watched Inohana rejuvenate herself with a critical eye. If their master believed either of the women was too affected by Ti’al’s death to continue, she would call off the initiation. The women at best would have to wait until next year to bound with their whales and become full wave riders, or at worst be excused from the discipline entirely.
For this reason, Yahaini watched Hotala. The older woman stood with her back to Yahaini near the front of the boat, arms folded across her chest, unmoving. Her sun darkened skin was nearly as back as the four tattoos emblazoned in a square pattern on her upper and middle back which marked her as a wave rider. If Yahaini and Inohana survived this day, they would also be branded with the ink of their office, for these tattoos were what set wave riders apart from the average deep water diver.
The marks allowed a person to focus their magic and pull air directly from salt water of the sea, into the individual’s blood stream, allowing them to stay underwater indefinitely. However, on this day, no one was allowed to use the ability in the water, especially not Inohana or Yahaini who possessed an innate magical ability to harvest air from the water even without the tattoos.
Whales sensed when human magic disturbed their waters and were mistrustful of it. In other parts of the world, humans killed whales with such magic. In the barrier islands, a wicked iron harpoon would be set into the sides of a whale. A man born with the same ability as the wave riders would then dive to the whale and draw the air from the majestic animal’s lungs and blood. Once the whale had been suffocated it would be hauled onto shore and slaughtered for food and oil. Because of these horrific actions, the whales trusted no stranger entering their water and practicing magic.
Today the initiates dived with training and physical ability alone to keep them alive. They would call to the whales, here in the breeding grounds and if they were as blessed as Hotala believed them to be, a great whale would answer.
As Inohana finished her exercises, she snapped to rigid attention in front of Hotala. The older woman looked her up and down before inclining her head briefly. A second wave rider brought Inohana her gear and the young woman prepared for her dive.
Inohana was clothed in tight fitting shorts as was tradition. Over her shoulders she slipped a harness crafted from rope. Threaded through the harness were several more feet of rope that could be unclipped quickly and reattached around the girth of a whale, should the goddess favor Inohana. Obsidian hooks protruded from the ends of the rope and could be clasped securely together once the thread was in place. The harness was precisely weighted to be no more or less buoyant than Inohana was naturally and it fit her snugly. A system of weights with quick release hooks were attached last, one on each shoulder and two at the waist.
A set of fins molded from tree rubber to mimic a whales tail were placed before Inohana and she stepped into them at the edge of the canoe. With a last look at Hotala for reassurance, Inohana dove into the ocean. In a moment she resurfaced and propelled herself along the surface for several boat lengths.
Turning back to face the boat Inohana called, “To the Lord of the Sea and the Great Lady of Life, I dedicate myself, now and forever, in life and in death. If the Lady should call for my death and the Lord accept it, I shall go willingly.”
“Your sacrifice is accepted. You shall be reborn.” Called the priest of the Lady.
A small woman with tear tracks on her face yelled from behind the priest, “We love you!”
Perhaps Inohana heard hear, but she gave no sign. The young woman propelled herself above the water with her fin, turned in the air and began her dive. The water clock was refilled and began to drip at its regular interval, counting down the seconds until all hope was lost.
Yahaini distracted herself by watching Inohana’s family from the corner of her eye. Both her mother and father had elected to attend, but Inohana had requested they wait in the second canoe with the priests. She had been concerned they would interfere and after her mother’s improper outburst, Yahaini knew why.
No member of Yahaini’s family waited in the canoes. Her home island was on the southernmost tip of the archipelago in the heart of the storm wall. Yahaini did not want to worry over her family’s safe passage in the days leading up to the most important moment of her life, and had not invited them to attend.
After a minute, Yahaini switched her focus to an internal one. Monitoring her breath and heartbeat by the art of Tah’nal. She acknowledged the grief of Ti’al’s failure and the dread and anticipation knotted in her stomach for Inohana, but allowed the feelings to break and wash over her. Fear and exhilaration for her own endeavor pulled in their undertow and Yahaini recognized these feelings to before letting them wash out to sea where they were lost in the vastness of her breathing.
A sideways glance and Yahaini knew the water clock was half empty. Her breathing slowed to allow deeper pulls of air to suffuse her lungs. Yahaini worked methodically to expand the capacity of her lungs as she had practiced many times in the past. Imagining the light of the sun and the soul of the sea breeze drawing up through her nostrils, sliding down her windpipe, and filling her lungs to bursting, the light passed from the bottom of her lungs into her stomach, cleansing the darkness of fear and grief from her body. When she exhaled the light in her core pushed her inner demons out in a long controlled breath.
Several hundred feet away, a whale broke the surface of the water in a crystalline cascade. Yahaini turned her head to it in surprise, but the whale’s belly was to the spectators in the canoes and it was too far away to discern a guide rope wrapped around the beast. Hotala’s whale broke the surface in a more controlled fashion alongside the canoe, sending a wave of water at the onlookers as she crashed back into the ocean. Inohana had succeeded.
Yahaini continued her breathing; the joy she experienced on Inohana’s behalf was but a flicker in her mind. The distant whale jumped again and this time, Yahaini could see a tiny human figure clinging to a rope on the animal’s back. The whale was good sized, perhaps larger than Hotala’s although not the largest Yahaini had ever seen, taming it would still be an accomplishment that spoke well of Inohana.
The taming took some time, as it always did. There were two schools of thought regarding the taming among the wave riders. One group held the event was a divine journey undertaken between man and beast where bonds meant to last a lifetime were forged in mutual fear turned to trust, understanding, and triumph. The second group believed the taming was a divine battle where man brought the great animals of the ocean under his command through determination and force of will. With Hotala as her master, Yahaini had been brought up in the first school of thought, but privately she agreed more with the second.
The water clock ran out ten times and had started on the eleventh when Inohana returned to the waiting canoes. Her whale glided smoothly beneath the surface and Inohana stood up to her thighs in ocean water, twin wakes forming behind her. She leaned back on her rope and dug her heels into the whales back. Her head was held high and she beamed at the watching crowd. The priests raised a prayer of thanks, each in their own tradition. During Yahaini’s dive, Inohana would wait on the back of her whale, taking the time to bond with it.
It was now past midday, although the canoes had left shore at first light. The sun beat down on Yahaini and sweat flung off her fingertips as she moved through the motions of her own preparation. First the exercises under Hotala’s intense observation, a nod of approval, then the aid of another wave rider as the harness slipped around her shoulders.
The rope bit roughly into her bare skin, rubbing at places already callused over from repeated wear. The harness was intentionally too small when dry, as the ocean water would loosen the rope. The weights were hooked into place, and Yahaini stepped forward into her flippers. Another nod of approval from Hotala, and she dived over the side of the canoe.
Water cooled her skin instantly and wicked away the sweat, one more grain of salt in the vast ocean. The faint reverberations of whale song reached her ears underwater although she could not tell how close or how many they were.
Yahaini smoothly propelled herself away from the canoe by pumping both legs in unison. The motion drove through her entire body starting with the tense, powerful, muscles of her stomach and ending with the tiniest muscle in her little toe. She flipped underwater and broke the surface facing back towards the canoes.
“To the Lord of the Sea and the Great Lady of Life, I dedicate myself, now and forever, in life and in death. If the Lady should call for my death and the Lord accept it, I shall go willingly.” Yahaini spoke the words loudly, clearly, and calmly.
“Your sacrifice is accepted. You shall be reborn.” Called the priest of the Lady. There was no one in either boat to call their love after her or break into hysterics for which Yahaini was thankful. She drew down a deep breath and in one practiced motion shoot out of the water, bent double and dived.
The salt water stung at Yahaini’s eyes and distorted her vision, but the sensation was so familiar she barely registered it. Her head aimed at the ocean floor, miles beneath her and out of sight. The weights dragged her down and Yahaini kicked lazily to hasten her descent without consuming too much energy or oxygen.
Out of the corner of her eye, Yahaini saw the impression of Hotala’s whale circling beneath the two canoes. No other whales were in sight, and Yahaini continued to dive deeper. Every few seconds she sawed her jaw back and forth, rewarded by the popping noises in her ears as they equalized with the increasing pressure bearing down on her.
Soon the sunlight began to fade. Yahaini felt at peace at this depth in the ocean. Spearfishing and pearl diving were often accomplished in the diminishing light and the wavering rays comforted her. A placid feeling of infinite aloneness in the vast underwater realm nestled in her soul.
The first whale startled her because she was not expecting it. Logically, she knew the sacred breeding grounds were packed with whales of all species this time of year, but Yahaini was still surprised to see one swimming this close to the surface. A small, black and white whale chattered at her in whale tongue.
It stayed with her and Yahaini realized it pitied her and wanted to offer her a ride back to the surface. The whales disliked it when their land bound cousins drowned and often offered their services. Yahaini did not want to be saved and the kind whale was too small for her purposes. She looked away from the gentle black eye facing her and continued her descent.
More whale song reached her ears as darkness settled in around her. The pressure could be felt in her fingers, toes, and eyes now as well as her ears. Hundreds of practice dives prepared her for the feeling and her emotions and mind remained as placid as fresh water, although the feeling of safety leaked away in her wake.
Despite the tantalizing song, no other whale approached her. She began unwinding the rope from the back and waist of her harness all the same, to be prepared when opportunity struck. The pressure built more and an uncomfortable sensation radiated from her lungs.
As the discomfort spread to her entire body, Yahaini assessed this to be the deepest point she had ever dived to. A bud of fear blossomed in the pit of her stomach and she despaired for no other whale had come to her. The kind whale should have been her whale, Yahaini realized. Now her rude dismissal and hubris would be the death of her for she thought it unlikely she could reach the surface unaided.
Pulling the slipknot released the first weight from her waist as Yahaini repositioned herself to face the surface. Air harvesting in the sacred breeding grounds would bring a shame worse than death, for the act would disrupt and disturb the whales during the most important time of the year.
The second weight plummeted into darkness followed by the third. Returning without a whale would be shameful as well. Yahaini would be forced to repeat her training. If Hotala deemed her incapable of the task after all she would be demoted to dolphins or perhaps even to sea otters. The final weight slid off of her body as it fell, Yahaini saw a mass of darkness arising from the dark ocean below. Red fear flashed behind her eyes, until the shape moved closer and an eerie call reached her ears.
Yahaini grasped one hook tightly in her left hand and unfurled the remaining rope with her right. The whale angled up at the surface, away from where she estimated the observation boats to be, and straight towards her. It called at her again in ghostly song before nearly battering her out of its path.
As the animal’s eye drifted past her, Yahaini saw a spark of annoyances that fueled her desire to tame this whale. She reached out and grasped a the whale’s flipper with her right arm, sliding down it with her hand, until her armpit locked on the beasts shoulder, next to its immense underbelly. The rapid change of direction unsettled her, she ground her teeth contionusely, and prayed she would not be deaf when they broke the surface.
In quick, steady motions, Yahaini threw one hook around the back of the whale, watching the rope stream downward in the current created by the whale. Her second hook she fitted snugly next to her elbow, being careful to place it securely without breaking the whales skin.
Now came the dangerous part. Grasping the rope, Yahaini flipped around to the whales back, letting enough rope slide down her palm to give her room to run across the creatures back. A quick dash across the slick hide of the whale brought her the other flipper. The whale let out a low of agitation, but Yahaini ignored it for now. Glancing up she saw the light of the sky above and judged them to be near breaking the surface.
Wrapping the rope once around the flipper, she pushed herself halfway across the whale’s body before clawing for purchase at the hide of its underbelly. A ridge of bone at its sternum gave her the opportunity she needed. Reaching her original position, Yahaini unhooked the rope there, wrapped the loose end around the whale’s flipper, reeled in the extra rope, and hooked the two ends together, flicking a clasp to make the connection more sturdy and permanent.
Yahaini’s head broke the surface of the water in the down swell caused by the whale being half out already. Releasing her long held breath, she drew down a new one, concerned that the observers would not witness her success based on her indignant position, huddled next the whale’s belly.
A glimpse of the sun and a taste of the wind were all she got before the whale slammed his back into the surface of the ocean, sending a massive wave in all directions. Clinging to the whale, Yahaini was almost jarred from her position by the impact, but a momentary respite while they sank beneath the sea allowed her to assess her situation. For a moment, Yahaini felt a bubble of pride as she estimated her whale’s size, at least half again as large as Hotala’s and a grey whale. The greys were rare in these waters, often preferring to stay near the stromwalls in the south and north.
The pair sank back below the waves. Once fully submerged, Yahaini swung herself around onto the back of her whale. Her whale chattered at her as the current easily carried her back as the whale plunged down into the deep. The quick descent troubled Yahaini who barely kept her ears pressurized during the dive.
Within a minute, they were back near the depth of her first dive and panic tugged at Yahaini’s mind as her whale continued into the abyss. A sharp jerk to the rope and her whale muttered again before leveling off and pulling up, rising at a more gradual rate. As they rose, Yahaini realized her whale was plotting a course away from the observation boats and the speed at which they were travelling meant they would be out of sight by the time they breached the surface.
The second time they broke through the water her whale did not jump. He did not dive again either, but stayed near the surface, continuing to move away from the other humans. Yahaini remained standing, with the water streaming about her hips at the lowest point of a wave and up to her neck at the highest. Her biceps tensed up as did her calf and stomach muscles, from the strain of standing in the rushing water.
After several pulls on the rope met with no response, she sighed, took a breath, and lay flat on her whales back. The pair streaked off in this more favorable conformation, but her whale never dove far beneath the surface again, allowing her to stand and take a breath as needed.
Yahaini puzzled over what her whale could possibly be doing. As far as she knew, whales did exactly what Inohana’s had done in this situation. Stayed near the observation boats and jumped into the air several times in an attempt to throw off their rider. Perhaps after seeing another whale fail, her’s had decided to try and be clever with this new tactic. Her whale would.
After a while, Yahaini began to shiver with cold and wonder when this would end. If it came down to a test of endurance, the whale would win and Yahaini would be abandoned in the ocean. Years of physical training had prepared her for the drain of riding whaleback, but without being able to harvest air from the water, her strength was sapped by standing to breath and fighting against the whale’s momentum.
To her right, swam a school of colorful fish. Yahaini frowned at them and turned back to look. Reef fish like them rarely ventured into the open ocean. Sighting a reef to her right startled her before it dawned on her how far and how long they had been traveling.
Popping her head back above the water, Yahaini saw her island home. A dormant volcano wrapped in a wreath of clouds guarded fields of dark, old lava flow. Here and there were signs of human habitation, and a white glint off the king’s palace confirmed the identity of the island. Her whale had brought her home!
Yahaini whooped and lay flat on her whale’s back. Knowing they were well clear of the sacred breeding grounds, she pulled the microscopic air molecules from the water, feeding them into her own bloodstream. Beneath her, the whale sang and convulsed, bursting from the water in a low flying leap.
Returning to the water with a massive splash, he dived again, turning away from the reef and moving into the deep trench off the coast. Yahaini fumbled with her rope and slammed back into the whale as the dive began, imagining him to be displeased with her action.
As he continued to undulate through the water, staying at a comfortable human depth, her whale continued to sing. Yahaini let her mind drift and began to enjoy the ocean once again. Marveling at the speed and power of the whale, it mildly concerned her that he seemed to be agitated and attempting to throw her off. Knowing they were close to home gave her hope and she vowed to stick with the task.
Her whale broke the surface in a spectacular jump, his whole body clearing the crests of the waves. The world whirled around Yahaini’s head in dizzying beauty and she realized the whale was pleased.
After a brief dive, they returned to the ocean surface, and the whale hovered there. The waves gently lapped over Yahaini’s ankles as she searched about for human habitation in the setting sun.
“That was fun.” She said to her whale, “How about if you take me home now?”
In response her whale let a burst of salt water spray from his blow hole directly in front of her.