Galactic gray whales' migratory patterns and simple, loud vocalizations make them perfect subjects for study when mapping the universe. They travel along edges, near the burning of young stars, and through recording their calls, scientists can chart the borders of irregular galaxies.
When she was a little girl, Janelle dreamed of wandering on whaleback, turning slow loop-de-loops around Jupiter's moons. She owned a picture book about the whales, which she read until memorized. When her sister was young, Janelle tried to read it to her, but Little Ashley tore one of the pages with her sticky toddler fingers, ripping a dorsal fin. Janelle had sobbed, even though she was twelve and considered herself too old to cry.
Janelle has Saturdays off, but she drives to the lab. She exits her car and walks past the tour groups gawking at the radio telescopes. The great dishes, ninety feet in diameter, look like giant ears cocked as they listen to the murmurs of distant clusters.
As she scans her badge and lets herself in, she is concerned that someone will remark that today is her day off and raise a fuss about it. Today, she caves to her whim, but this worry often keeps her from driving into work on weekends and keeps her in bed when she can't fall asleep, puzzling over some issue.
She shares the lab with a handful of astronomers. They like their predictable, stale numbers, and they don't care about the organic. They also don't care enough about Janelle to look up as she enters. A few sit at their computers, faces lit by their scrolling. They click pensively.
Her worries quelled, Janelle sits down, boots up her computer, and plugs in her headphones. When she works, she rarely listens to the whales' transmissions. The telescopes turn the messages into numbers, and the computer turns the numbers into sounds, and it's faster for her to just look at the screen. But today, she slips the cool insulation of the headphones over her ears.
She tunes into a familiar pod, one of the first she ever tracked by herself, back in grad school. She smiles when she recognizes the voice of Amatheia, the female in pod L-B813. Janelle has never seen her—telescopes cannot yet squint hard enough to get an eye on the creatures—but she has pieced together a mental image. She imagines her with soulful eyes and a fluke battered by meteoroids. That tail propels her forward in rhythmic bursts as the pod glides through the currents of gravitational pull.
Amatheia speaks to her latest calf, L-112, and he chirps back. Janelle leans back in her chair and lets their conversation wash over her. She tries to relax the muscles in her jaw.
Ashley had called her that morning. They never had anything to talk about, separated by eight years and eight hundred miles. Janelle had just embarked on this weekend's project—reorganizing her books in the Library of Congress system—when she was interrupted by the blare of a default ringtone. She waded through books to grab her phone.
When she saw that it was Ashley, she was puzzled since it was only February—too early to start coordinating their parents' Christmas gift. Janelle answered, and Ashley told her that she was pregnant, that she had taken a bunch of tests just to be sure, that they all came back positive—even the cheap ones—that she had made a doctor's appointment and was worried about missing work to go, that she had felt sick that morning and nearly threw up but wasn't sure if it was nerves or not.
"And I've decided," Ashley said, and she paused for the first time. She took a deep breath. "I'm keeping it. You're the first one I called. I haven't told Mom and Dad yet."
"Oh, wow," Janelle said. She was not sure what she should say, but she suspected that that wasn't it. "Wow, Ash. That's, uh… that's big."
"Michael's excited to be a dad. A little nervous, but excited."
"Well that's good."
With her phone clapped to her ear, Janelle paced her apartment and piped up at what she hoped were appropriate intervals: "Oh, wow. What did he say? Then what did you do? Oh, ouch. How many weeks? Wow. Yeah. That sounds really frustrating."
She wanted to cry, "You're only twenty-two!"
The last time she saw her sister was over the holidays. Ashley and her boyfriend were squished together in her parents' big recliner, legs intertwined, giggling at each other. Janelle tried to imagine the scene with a half-open diaper bag leaning against the chair, a stroller tucked into the corner, an actual, human child in her little sister's arms. She tried to imagine a new weariness under Ashley's eyes.
Janelle wished she had something better to say, something comforting. She couldn't imagine why, of all people, Ashley called her first. She listened and "mmhmed" and hoped that's what she needed to hear.
When they hung up an hour later, Janelle tried to return to her books, but she found herself slipping on her shoes and driving to work.
Now, Janelle does the only thing she can think to do: turns up the volume and closes her eyes. She listens to the pod curling around the borders of the Sculptor Dwarf Irregular Galaxy, the calf trailing a few hundred miles behind his mother. Their bellows are so vivid to Janelle, but they are in the past tense: light years away, thousands of centuries old by the time earth's ears hear them.
But in the present, out in the margins of space, scores of gray whales vocalize, almost harmonize, as they swim between solar systems. They trace the galaxies, straining the vacuum with their baleen. They call out to each other, and they call to Janelle—head in her hands, unfathomable millions of miles and years away—the woman who will listen to the anxious hums of the universe.
Notes from the Author
This story was partially inspired by the Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, WV, home of the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope. The area that surrounds it is called the National Radio Quiet Zone—radio, cell reception, and wifi are all forbidden within a certain radius of the telescope.