Six days after my son was born, I started to worry. Though my body was exhausted from having carried him for twelve months, the memory remains as clear to me as the deepest waters of the still ocean. He opened his mouth as though to babble, but all we heard was a pop of his jaw. For weeks, he swam in my slipstream, emitting only these soft pops that sometimes sounded like cracks, depending on how they refracted through the pool. Over time, we’d learn it was how he’d show us he wanted to be left alone. Our stubborn firstborn, swimming on his own wavelength from the first week of his life.
The other parents in our pod swore he’d vocalize soon, but each day passed without so much as a click. Instead, he developed other ways to communicate. A slap of his tail against the water’s surface meant he was angry. A flick of his flipper meant he wanted to play. Sometimes it meant he wanted another fish. It all depended on the look on his face, which I alone could interpret. His father only guessed right half the time.
We could tell he was on a different path from other calves. I tried not to compare him to the brood. Still, we expected his signature whistle by his first birthday. The year came and went, in the alternating flurry of activity and mundanity that any new parent would recognize. Our ears remained open, but we heard nothing.
At fifteen months, the trainers intervened. There were tests, followed by his first report card. They deemed his motor skills advanced, like an eighteen-month-old calf. His language skills, both receptive and expressive, were that of a newborn. It was hard not to interpret this as a failure, not on his part, but of mine. I swam in circles, my mind on a loop. If I worried enough, I could pinpoint where I had gone wrong. Faulty milk, perhaps—a lifetime of too much mercury, or endless jumping through hoops. His father shrugged it off, the news washing over him like an oil slick. He blamed the trainers and their crude instruments. As a calf, he’d never been much of a test-taker, either.
My mother suggested it was an outgrowth of coddling, a life that had known nothing but the pool. She’d heard chlorine stunts brain development. I dismissed the thought. If captivity’s the reason, shouldn’t it affect all the calves equally? I didn’t tell her I stayed up late worrying about invisible wave transmissions from the deep end’s night-vision camera. Maybe that had something to do with it. I asked her if I was a late babbler, too. She said I clicked the day I was born.
Three days ago, I heard him squeak. We were eating lunch; frozen cod, like every other Tuesday. Usually we float together in silence, or rather, he’s silent as I vocalize, rambling in hope that he’ll repeat something back to me. That’s what one of the trainers suggested. He has to learn to imitate before he can speak on his own.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard him make a sound. He’s done it before, then stopped—coasting on a verbal plateau before descending back into his silent bubble, the one in which I’ve feared he’d be trapped forever. This time, I could tell from the look on his face that the squeak meant something. He squeaked again, louder this time, and angled his nose in my direction. Mama. The squeak meant Mama. My heart could have burst. I wanted to hug him.
Two strokes forward, one stroke back. He hasn’t squeaked since. Maybe he’ll do it today, or tomorrow. Or never again. Either way, we don’t have much time left. His baby-dark skin has lightened, and he’s almost as long as his father. Soon he’ll be ready to anchor his own show.
I berate myself for wasted years. Couldn’t I have enjoyed those quiet moments, instead of willing him to speak? Our interventions seem so futile. I take a deep breath through the crest of my forehead. My thoughts cycle back to wanting to hear him whistle, once, before he leaves me. I want a cute anecdote about something he said to share with the other parents in the pool. I want to know he’ll be okay when they haul him into a holding tank, awaiting a destination I’ll never see. But what I want no longer matters, and I don’t get to decide when the story ends.
Colleen Rothman grew up in southern Louisiana and currently lives in the Chicago area. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Atlantic, Jellyfish Review, MUTHA Magazine, and Chicago Literati. You can find her @colleenrothman.