Desert Whales and a Fishing Village

Edited by Zora Sanders & Zoe Naughten

(c) Percy Cáceres Photography
(c) Percy Cáceres Photography


[…] The houses and lots fall behind us. To our left is the ocean, the colour of steel, its waves thrashing the shore with rhythmic insistence; everywhere else is sand littered with grey pebbles. When we can no longer see the ocean and the sand is all around, Rafael exhales and says, I love walking in the desert. He keeps a measured pace, grinning. In contrast, Gregoria seems ill at ease. Her heels thwack against the soles of her thongs and sweat shines on her forehead.

Then Rafael pauses with excitement before a certain fist-sized rock among all the fist-sized rocks, somehow recognising it as one of his markers, and pushes away the sand beneath it to expose a fossilised seal. Soon after, Gregoria mentions the new sea wall that is being constructed to better protect the fishermen, which has been the talk of the town for months now. She is astonished when Rafael responds that this is the first he’s heard of it. And so it becomes clear, as the day lengthens and these and other moments play out, that each of these people is the embodiment of one, and only one, of the environments that rule their town: of desert, or of sea.

We walk more than eight kilometres. Rafael points to dunes on the horizon, names them, speaks about the shifting landscape as if it’s knowable, but I can’t see how that’s possible with the lack of landmarks and the hills that can shift location and level out. We reach a spot where there is a telltale mound and Rafael hurries ahead of us, falls to his knees and starts scooping the sand. He uncovers a skull, then a spine. Standing in the haze of heat as Rafael carefully reveals his treasure I feel a world away from the cool, still museum. It’s the emotional landscape of my dream all over again, that tingling sense of wonder and veneration and, at its centre, a whale.

Rafael scouts the area and finds a few scattered vertebrae; he collects them, aligns them with the rest of the spine and murmurs, There we go. As I watch him ordering the pieces into a recognisable whole, Canadian author Isabel Huggan’s words come to mind: ‘Fossils are time’s shorthand.’ Yes, I want to say to her, that’s true. But the fossil kind of shorthand doesn’t represent the thing as the abbreviated writing system does; it is the thing, or at least the memory of the thing, the trace it left behind. And this particular remnant from deep time lies unprotected and unmemorialised in a hot desert, pinpointed on the map that only Rafael and perhaps a few others have plotted in their minds.

You can read the essay in full at Meanjin.


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