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How to speak dolphin, p.1
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       How to Speak Dolphin, p.1

           Ginny Rorby
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How to Speak Dolphin





















































  Born in a gush of blood, the dolphin calf’s initial sense of the world is tail first into water colder than her mother’s body. Her mother zips away to break the umbilical cord. The baby holds her breath out of instinct, not knowledge, and begins to drift away from the light above her into the darkness below. She’s used to the comforting dark.

  Her mother is back as suddenly as she departed and pushes her calf with her beak toward the surface and into the blinding brightness. Other female dolphins, some with calves of their own, are here when this newest arrival’s blowhole opens and she takes in her first breath of the heavy warm air.

  Inside her mother she could only arch her back and feel the confines of the womb with her flippers and tail. In this open water, she can swim freely, but instinctively she tucks herself in close to her mother’s body and nudges one of her nipples. A jet of milk squirts into her mouth, then another, again and again until the baby dolphin is full.

  Her mother will continue to nurse her for another year. During that time, the small community of dolphins roams the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It will be six months before the calf learns to follow her mother’s lead and catch her own fish. She’ll learn to follow boats because the humans sometimes share the fish they catch, tossing the scraps—skins and heads—into the water for the dolphins. The bolder dolphins are skilled at biting fish off lines, leaving only the head with the lethal hook embedded for the humans to reel aboard.

  As summer approaches and the water warms, the dolphins travel to a spot where humans in boats from a place called AquaPlanet come to meet them. The first time the young dolphin sees these people squeaking and squealing at their arrival, she is frightened. She swims past the boat and turns on her side to watch. There are big humans and small humans. When the first of them steps off into the water, the calf darts away, but finds she is alone. Her mother, her aunts, and her cousins are letting the humans touch them.

  She draws closer. Beneath the surface, she sees bony legs dangling uselessly from a puffy orange thing that makes the small human look like he is wearing a sponge to keep him afloat. The calf comes closer to inspect him with her sonar and can see his tiny heart beat as he flails the surface of the water with thin arms.

  Curiosity gets the best of her and she draws closer. His face is distorted and red, and water, in big drops, drips off his chin. He lifts his arms and wails.

  The dolphin starts to back away, but the boy sees her and stops the terrible noise. His head begins to waggle side to side like sea grass at the mercy of a current, and he reaches out to her with a small hand. She looks for her mother and sees her with one of the other children. This must be safe. Her mother would never lead her into danger. She lets herself float toward the child’s outstretched hand.

  When her rostrum touches the child’s open palm, a shock runs through her; the child feels it, too. His head stills, his legs stop twitching; he smiles and makes a sound like water rolling across sand.

  “This is that little dolphin’s first visit to us,” a human says. “You may have the honor of naming her,” he tells the child whose cheek is now pressed against the calf’s.

  “What do you think, Owen?” says a woman in the water near the child. “You get to name her.”

  The child opens his mouth, and tries to speak. “Nor … nor …” His head falls forward, and he tips face-first into the water. His mother reaches and rights him. His eyes widen, and he starts the unhappy noise again.

  The little dolphin puts her head just beneath the surface and blows puffs of air out her blowhole. The bubbles, one after the other, erupt on the surface, which makes the little boy laugh. He reaches for the dolphin. “Nor … e … e … een.”

  “He’s trying to say Noreen.” The woman smiles. “That’s his sister’s name. Her nickname is Nori.”

  “Nor … e,” the boy says.

  Today is the kind of day I wish I had someplace else to go, like a friend’s house. But a friend would expect to be invited to my house once in a while, and there’s no one I can trust not to tell others what my life is like.

  It’s my fault. I haven’t tried to make new friends since my first year at Biscayne Middle School. I’d invited a girl I’d just met over to swim. Mom was still alive, and when she left the room, that girl made fun of my brother. Adam’s weirdness was just starting back then. The next day at school, she told everyone how “the retard” spent the entire time babbling and staring at his fingers, which he wiggled in front of his face, how he went stiff as a board when Mom picked him up, and screamed bloody murder when the phone rang.

  Today Adam’s having one of his tantrums, and I’ve shut myself in my room. Even with my door closed and my earphones on, I can hear his screams. By the clock on my computer, this meltdown is in its third hour.

  I don’t hear Don, my stepfather, knock, if he bothered, but I know he’s opened my door because the volume of Adam’s shrieks goes up.

  He motions. “Come on.”

  “I’m trying to do my homework.” Not true, of course, but studying is the only excuse that sometimes works.

  “Lily. I need you to help me.”

  “Where’s what’s-her-name?” He hired a new nanny yesterday.

  “She quit an hour ago.”

  I give her credit—she lasted a couple hours longer than the last three.

  “Did you try his dolphin movie?” I ask. Adam would watch his scratchy and sticky DVD over and over all day long if we let him, so we usually save it for mealtimes. If he’s watching it, he’s more likely to eat what gets put into his mouth.

  “I’ve tried everything.”

  I follow Don to the living room, where Adam lies on his back in the soft-sided, large-dog play yard Don bought at PetSmart. He’s kicking and flailing his arms, and he’s pooped his pants. Kind of like my life—the smell is awful.

  Don puts his hands in Adam’s armpits, lifts and holds him out so he doesn’t get kicked in the stomach. “Take his pants off.”

  I almost gag from the smell. He’s got poop down his arms and legs, up his back, even in his hair.

  Stiff-armed, Don carries him into the backyard. I get the hose, which we leave coiled in the sun so the water will be warm. Adam’s voice is hoarse, but he’s still crying and kicking, trying to get away. I glance at our neighbor’s house and see Mrs. Walden at her kitchen window. I think she had her gardener tri
m her hedge just so she could spy on us. She doesn’t even pretend to look away. Don holds Adam’s wrists together and suspends him so only his toes touch the ground. Even though Adam loves running water—fountains, sprinklers, the kitchen faucet—he hates being washed down with the hose. When the water hits his bottom, his shrieks rise to an earsplitting level.

  The nozzle drips at the point where it’s connected to the hose, so I feel the temperature change to cold and release the trigger. Don wraps Adam in a towel, carries him into the house and down the hall to the bathroom. I follow.

  Don holds Adam pressed to his chest, one arm around his legs and the other pinning his arms to his sides as I test the water temperature and start filling the tub. Don’s eyes are closed. I think from the pain of Adam screaming in his ear, but decide maybe it’s because his heart is broken. I was seven and a half when Mom and Don found out she was pregnant and that the baby would be a boy. Don was so over-the-top thrilled that Mom looked at me and said she’d wanted another girl. She was trying to make sure my feelings weren’t hurt, but it made me wonder if my real father had wished for a boy, too.

  The tub is ready. I turn off the spigot, fold one of our big bath towels, and put it into the water against the back of the tub—something soft to protect Adam’s head until he stops thrashing.

  Don lowers him into the warm water. At first the volume of his screams goes up like we’ve lowered him into boiling oil, then he stops as suddenly as he started three hours ago. He begins to kick and swing his arms like he’s swimming.

  I stay with him until he tires of taking his bath toys out of their plastic bucket and lining them up on the side of the tub, knocking them off and lining them up again. I select a towel that’s been rinsed in enough fabric softener to feel slimy, lift him out, and start to pat him dry. Sometimes he lets this happen unnoticed, other times he screams like I’m taking his skin off with sandpaper. I never know how he will react until it happens. Today, he leans over the side of the tub and flicks his fingers in the water while I dry his back and legs.

  “Can I have a hug?”

  Adam doesn’t turn or hold his arms out like other kids. If he wants a hug, he’ll back into my arms, and lean against me. He does that now, and I dry his belly, then his hair.

  Adam no longer speaks, hates to be touched, and won’t look at people, including us. Mom suspected he was autistic almost two years ago. Then she was killed, and I figured Don was too broken up to follow through with finding real help for him. Instead he went through a directory full of nannies and child-care facilities. Then, last year, Adam was finally diagnosed as severely autistic. I can’t help feeling sorry for Don. He’s a doctor but he can’t help his son. His specialty is oncology. If Adam had cancer, Don might be able to cure him.

  The first reaction of new nannies when they see Adam in his padded play yard is horror. But Adam is happier when he’s confined. Maybe happy is not the right word—he’s calmer in a tight space. Before Mom was killed she used to let him sleep in the bottom drawer of her dresser, surrounded by soft old sweaters and silk scarves. Don used to accuse Mom of coddling Adam, and after she died, he stopped letting him sleep in the drawer, and Adam went back to waking at all hours of the night.

  Don’s older than most fathers. I never gave that any thought until yesterday after school. Adam was asleep in his play yard. Don was in his recliner, leaning forward, watching him sleep, which is about the only time Adam is at peace. He looked up, saw me in the doorway, and put a finger to his lips.

  I’d gotten close enough to see that his eyes were red. “What’s wrong?”

  He shook his head.

  “Have you been crying?”

  He didn’t say yes or no. “I had to go downtown today for a meeting and I was at that traffic light at the bottom of the off-ramp. You know, where the men try to wash your windshield for tips.” Don bowed his head. “I’m not sure you’ll understand.”

  “You could try me.”

  “It was raining. Not hard, just enough that I had the wipers on intermittent, but this guy squirts my window and starts wiping. I tried to wave him off, but he didn’t see me. Like Adam doesn’t see me. The light changed and the woman behind me blasted her horn. That man got the same look Adam gets when he hears loud noises. I could see the pain it caused him, but he kept wiping my windshield, trying to get every drop.”

  I think about patting Don’s shoulder, but don’t.

  “You know Miami drivers. Five seconds and the whole line of cars is honking. My wipers sweep across, catch the man’s cloth, and snatch it away. He stood there, his face scrunched up in pain from the blaring horns, his cloth snagged by my wipers, and he couldn’t move. I felt like I was looking at Adam twenty or thirty years from now.” He looks at me. “What will become of him?”

  “I’ll take care of him.”

  “That’s easy to say.”

  “I will. I promise.” In spite of everything, I love my brother.

  I’m not sure I meant what I said about taking care of Adam. Since Mom died, Don has expected me to take her place. Instead of Adam’s half sister, I’m supposed to be his mother. But if Don croaks tomorrow, here one day and gone the next, like Mom, I’m not sure I could take care of myself, or Adam. And there is my own life to think about.

  Nothing worked out the way Mom thought it would when she married Don. He’s a successful doctor and was really in love with her. I didn’t have any feelings one way or the other about them getting married. My real dad was killed in the Iraq war when I was two, and though there were pictures of him all over our apartment, I didn’t remember him.

  After Mom married Don, we moved from an apartment on Kendall Drive near Mom’s job as a nurse’s aide at Baptist Hospital, to a beautiful coral rock house with an automatic gate and a swimming pool in Coconut Grove. It’s within walking distance of Biscayne Middle School—a private school that Mom would never have been able to afford to send me to if she hadn’t married Don.

  Our new life seemed perfect and she and Don were even happier after Adam was born. I was, too. But by the time he was a year old, Mom started to worry something was wrong. Don said it was her imagination, and since he’s a doctor, Mom stopped talking about it to him, but not to me. She went online and found a list of symptoms that fit Adam’s behavior. “Watch, Lily, he doesn’t look at me when I feed him.”

  “Maybe he’s more interested in what he is looking at.”

  “He doesn’t smile when I smile, and he’s stopped responding when I say his name.”

  “Mom, Don says there is nothing wrong with him. He should know.”

  Mom looked at me. “He’s wrong, Lily. I’m sure of it. Adam is autistic. He has all the signs. Look at this list.” She took a ragged piece of paper from the pocket of her robe and handed it to me. I had to unfold it carefully since she’d nearly worn it out checking and rechecking his symptoms. There were little blue marks beside the ones she thought he’d shown so far: doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t smile when smiled at, doesn’t respond to his name or to a familiar voice, no longer sleeps well, doesn’t follow an object visually, doesn’t point or wave good-bye or use other gestures to communicate, doesn’t look when you point things out, doesn’t imitate your movements or facial expressions, doesn’t reach to be picked up …

  I refolded it and handed it back to her. I was only nine, but she watched me, waiting to see if I agreed with her. The problem was, I did, but I didn’t want to believe it, either. There was an autistic kid in school. He had to go to special classes in the morning and be shadowed by an aide the rest of the day. He did weird stuff all the time, like cover his ears and bark like a dog when it got too noisy. At lunch he couldn’t stand for his food to touch. If his aide or a teacher wasn’t nearby, mean boys would stir his food together, or put a ringing cell phone next to his ear.

  “What do you think?” Mom asked.

  “I don’t know, Mom. I’m nine.”

  “But you can see these all apply, can’t you?”

sp; “I guess.”

  At that moment, the kitchen phone rang. Adam began to scream.

  Don’s hired a new nanny. Her name is Suzanne and she’s been here a week; I’m hopeful. When I come into the kitchen Monday morning, she turns from wiping down the walls after feeding Adam and smiles at me. There’s a spot of cereal on her cheek. I point to my own. “He got you, too.”

  “That child’s a handful.” She grins.

  That is such an understatement, I can’t help but laugh.

  She laughs, too.

  I like this woman best of anyone Don has hired. Her face is young-looking for someone Don’s age but her hair is silver gray, so she looks motherly and grandmotherly at the same time.

  Adam’s high chair is jammed in a corner of the kitchen so he can’t tip himself over when he rocks. Suzanne and I watch him swing his head from side to side, which explains the arc of cereal blobs on both walls. He’s also banging on his tray with something round and hard.

  I walk over and see it’s the head off the doll Mom gave me when I was five. It had been given to her by her mother when she was little. It’s my only treasure—the only thing special that I have of my mother’s. I try to take it away from him, but he holds on with an iron grip.

  “Give that to me.” I pull up a finger at a time.

  “You’re going to set him off,” Suzanne says.

  “I can’t help it. That’s my doll’s head.”

  “Aren’t you past caring about dolls?”

  “It was my mother’s, and she gave it to me.” My voice cracks.

  “I’m sorry,” Suzanne says. “It was in his toy box, so I thought it was okay for him to play with.” She comes over and holds Adam’s arm still while I pry his fingers loose. As soon as I have it, Adam starts to shriek.

  “You go on and get ready for school, toots.” She reaches in her apron pocket, takes out a pair of purple foam earplugs, places them in her ears, and goes back to wiping the walls.

  I find the body of my doll in Adam’s play yard. He’s broken off her head, both arms, and a leg. I hug the parts to my chest and go to my room, furious with Don, who must have tossed it into the toy box.

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