The Mormon smiled at me. I didn't smile back but it didn't seem to deter him. They're everywhere you know, mormons. We even had an infestation in Tromsø. I had to dodge their aggressive kindness on the main street (no Joseph, I'm not interested and for fuck's sake, it's minus twenty fucking degrees why the fuck are you smiling). They're always fucking smiling and they always have good teeth and fine skin.
The mormon across from me was a bit stouter and stronger than your basic mormon. It happens that he wasn't a missionary but a mason helping to build the church in Moorea. He had thick shoulders, arms and a heavy set of hands. He told me he had six children back in Salt Lake City, Utah (yeah man, I know where the fuck Salt Lake City is) that he missed very much. I told him that was nice. He didn't speak about his wife.
He kept smiling at me as the boat rocked up and down. The problem was that the landscape around us bounced up and down violently but since I was on this boat with this maniac, his face and smile remained constantly in my vision; still and unmoving, like Faith. My eyes might as well have been tied with ropes to his because they were so level and still.
The weather had turned and the sky was a thick smokey grey. We had passed the coral breakpoint quite some time ago and we were now in open water. Out here the waves were nothing like the ones you see on the beach. Instead of coming at you in neat lines, each of them seemed to be their own beast forcefully pushing in each of their own directions and occasionally smashing headfirst into each other.
I looked at the water from the boat and to me it seemed like stone. It was so thick, dark and solid that I had to drag my hand through it to make sure I was not going crazy.
There were about ten of us on the boat, excluding the driver, Pongi. He had broad features and a flaring nose, not too dissimilar to the indigenous people of Malaysia and tanned skin. He had a flowing mane of curly hair bleached almost a brown orange by the sun and it spread out gloriously behind him in the wind.
He pointed at something in the distance:
A scream rises from the boat and a the commotion of camera finding ensues. Instead of just turning his head, The Mormon turns his entire body like a child at zoo.
Over the summit of the next wave, I could see the silouhette like a shadow puppet on the horizon hanging in the air. To think that entire thing in the distance was flesh and bone is absurd. It stood there like a monument that had always been there and always was. In a split second it was gone.
Pongi turned the boat sharply and we hung onto whatever we could grab as we plunged into the space between the waves.
It stuck in my mind for a long time, that image of the tail on the horizon, it seemed so out of place here in this desert of water. Other than the fact that everyone saw it, how could we be sure it ever happened? The sea is a flexing canvas that has no discernible memory. Sure the machinery of man can for a short time carve its mark with the wakes of large ships but time washes it all out to the changing textures of the waves.
Which made it all the more surprising when Pongi told us to dive in. This is exactly the whale was, he said. But I only saw the same waves I had seen since we left land.
I lowered myself carefully since loud noises can scare whales off.
The water was colder than I expected and I did my best to move gently through it. The waves crashed around me and poured water down my snorkel - saltwater always tastes so much saltier than what you remember.
Suddenly I was thrown to the side by a violent force. I reoriented myself and looked to my right to see the Mormon sinking slowly into the ocean like a human depth charge. I hoped that he had knocked himself out with his bold entrance but slowly his arms and legs started kicking and he was on his way. He motored right past the entire group that was now a loose collection spread over a couple of different waves. I hoped it would be the end of him.
The whale was meant to be ahead of us and we climbed a few waves and slid down a few more. I kept my head above the water for as long as I could to see where Pongi was. He swam with such speed that it might as well have been a child’s pool for him.
The group tired and the Mormon appeared, panting, his scuba mask pressed against his puffing rosy cheeks. I treaded water calmly as the rest of the group flapped about in various states of drowning. Pongi signalled for us to get on the boat. The whale had gone.
We did this a couple more times. In the distance we would see a tail rise up and we would race over to where we thought it was. Everyone would scramble out of the boat, half-drown, then get back in. The french tourists on the boat had given up speaking english a long time ago and a couple on their honeymoon opposite me had gone completely pale. I've never seen someone so sad to carry a GoPro mounted on a selfie stick before, he may as well have been at a funeral. But imagine that, a GoPro selfie stick at a funeral. Amazing.
The afternoon was getting late. Pongi searched the ocean neurotically. I guess the thing about Tahiti is that people come from a long way and they want their money's worth. One of the Frenchies was already seasick and everyone was shivering at this point.
The waves are gentle and bluer blue in Norway. Actually, it was probably because we were out on a good day. Uncle Magnus was steering the boat. The tips of his fingers lightly guided the wheel. Lina's parents were sitting on each side of her little sister. She was boasting about the size of the fish she caught last time she was out on the boat. She had a slight stutter and each sentence seemed to build up in her and explode out with appropriate hand motions and widening of the eyes. Lina's parents leaned thoughtfully in as she explained how it was only because of Uncle Magnus that they managed to survive the fish. I felt Lina chuckling beside me. Uncle Magnus himself, with his cowboy hat and lack of shirt, simply smiled, his eyes never leaving the water ahead.
The wind whipped up around us and Lina turned to point out a mountain range in the distance. If you ever go to Northern Norway, take the ferry out of Bodø. On a good day you might be able to see the Lofoten islands. On a map they look like an arm of the milky way, a slow disintegrating limb of stars. All small, broken but in a some sort of line. From where I was sitting they looked like an ethereal wall of stone planted in the shining water, an arctic mirage, a line of glistening fangs of a beast larger than the sea.
Lina turned back smiling and I took a photo. It would be her Skype profile picture for sometime and I would curse it in the early hours of the morning when conversations would end with cries of anguish and nothing else. I would sit in the darkness and in the cacophony of college parties and see nothing but the photo of her with her light brown hair darkened by the salt spray, her summer smile a child of laughter, and in her eyes a light that I no longer believed existed, a light in her eyes as she gazed upon the mountain range standing tall and rising still, impossibly from the moving water.
It was all so beautiful, in a wild and threatening kind of way. I closed my eyes and let myself go to the rocking of the boat and the crashing of the waves. I was content at this point so when Pongi ordered us to jump again I almost refused and huddled with the cowardly french. The Mormon was flapping about excitedly and I thought there wasn't a chance in Mormon hell that he was going to go in without me.
It was just me and Pongi in the water. The Mormon was having trouble putting his fins on and so we just started without him. The sun had hidden itself behind some clouds and the hulking waves moved quietly around us as if they were biding their time. Even Pongi seemed defeated. We had been on the chase for the better part of the day and it showed on his face and in his eyes.
I felt a sucking feeling below me as if the water was being pulled away and drained as if you would drain a bathtub. I kicked and felt like I was grabbed by a force larger than my comprehension. I pushed down. My vision closed. Pongi was gone. The boat full of scared frenchmen was gone. The Mormon was gone (thank God). Around me foam. Foam, waves. I fight up. I gasp for air and above me I see a towering tail curving over me like an ancient wonder.
It was only there for a moment before it crashed down to my right, throwing me and thrusting me underwater. I didn't know which way to swim so I just held my breath for as long as I could. I hear a shouting.
"Look down! Look down!"
I suck in some air and then look down. Nothing. Layers of increasingly opaque blue.
"Look down! Look down!"
I spin and there it was.