Kate Dreams of Whales

January 22, 2011
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Every morning, the girl named Kate who lives in the blue house down by the lake shore talks to the seagulls. I watch her through the open window of train car 2B as I pour milk into my espresso, the gray tones of a Washington morning flooding my cabin. I am able to catch sweet snippets of Australian bush songs and poetry. While my knowledge of Australian culture is limited, I hum along to Waltzing Matilda as best as possible as I watch the drops of milk float on the surface of my coffee. I wish I could make those fern shapes in my espresso, like they do in Italy, and turn my coffee into a macchiato. Funny, how easy it is to change one thing into another, just with a few drops of milk. I realize I need to return the china mug to Brittany up at the ranger station. This one is obviously hers, reading ‘University of Arizona School of Geosciences’ along one side in large golden letters that have begun to chip away.
After the gold paint lodged under my fingernails temporarily distracts me, I look up to see Kate Kaleba run across the abandoned railroad tracks, hopping over irregularities on the pathway to train car 2B in her Mary Jane's.
Usually on weekends, Kate gathers stones down by Alder Lake or sits in a lawn chair with Brett Kendall in his sculpture yard, waiting to collect money from the occasional tourist carrying off one of his works. Clampton is a minuscule railroad town where there no longer is an operating railroad, just the Mountain Highway. A car rarely comes through, looking for the way to Mt. Rainier. Kate Kaleba moved to the isolated blue house in late December from Cairns, Australia, and she usually tries to escape the general Clampton area. Why was she coming to me? I expect her to turn, but she continues to skip up to my train car. She stops at the rails across from me and sits. The hood of her parka falls down, revealing her short, pale blond hair, white in the dim lighting. The Douglas firs here in Washington do that.
I sip my café macchiato and stare at Kate, who just looks at me, green eyes wide. She slowly blinks as she hugs her knees and tucks them under her chin. Staring back.
“You’re very quiet sometimes, Jackson.” she says softly.
I put down my coffee and lean out the window, ranger station keys in hand. “I need to go to work now, Kate.”
She grins. “No you don’t. Not really. No one says what you have to do and what you don’t.”
“No, No, really, Kate.”
I really have to. I do. I do.
“I don’t.”
I throw the keys on my bed and jog out to where Kate sits, tapping her small feet on the railroad stones.
“Why are there stones on old railroads?” She asks.
I laugh. “I don’t know, Kate. I don’t know everything. I’m pretty much an average guy. “
I look up at the stormy gray sky, Kate’s pretty olive eyes following my gaze, and then flicking back down to Earth. She looks at my neat ranger uniform, my Mt. Rainier National Park badge, and my polished boots. Observing. Inspecting. Looking from me, to the sky, to the crowded pine trees. Maria Callas sings to us from someone’s radio sitting in the windowsill of a house nearby. All the buildings in Clampton are white. Except for Kate’s blue house, secluded from the others on the lake shore. A door slams behind us, and we turn.
The sound comes from the small church, all the way across the tracks. A group of people, possibly the Turner family, exit the church, dressed in their usual Sunday finery. You can tell they’re glaring at us, young people up to no good in their eyes.
“Oh, I ran away from church today,” says Kate. “That’s why I’m wearing this.” She gestures towards her Mary Jane's. “I left my dress in that little shack down by the lake.”
I grin. We are young people up to no good. “You go to church?” I ask Kate.
“Not really,” she says, “My mom makes me.“
We are sitting close together now, and I look down, studying the contours of her face, her skin. Kate is maybe thirteen or fourteen, pretty. Light freckles are splashed across her small nose, and her eyebrows are arched upwards, making her look slightly surprised. There are flecks of gold in her eyes. I’m starting to get worried after a while, thinking we’re just going to sit here on the tracks and stare at each other all day.
She stands up, pulling her hood over her hair again. Something sinks in my chest. I like Kate’s hair, and I feel like pulling the hood down just so I can see it again. Kate smooths down her blue goose down parka.
“Want to go to my house?” She asks.
I don’t know if I can. She tosses me a cough drop and hops across the train tracks, and I have no choice but to follow her and suck on my cough drop quietly. It’s the blue kind. I’ve never actually tried it before, but it tastes like Listerine.
“How old are you?” Kate asks, turning around to face me as she walks.
“And you have a job?” Her eyebrows fly up further.
“It’s more like volunteering, I do it on weekends. I’m an assistant park ranger. What do you do?”
Her eyes lighten up with excitement. “I collect fish,” she says. “Like in that Richard Flanagan book? I have my own book of fish, too. “
Collect Fish? I frown, confused. “You’ll have to show me, Kate.”
Kate winks, laughs, and waves me over to catch up with her and cross the highway, which is more of a road, really.
Once across midtown, Kate leads me on a brief walk through a dense patch of forest. On the other side, there is a rocky cliff leading to the far shore of Alder Lake. And then, I see the blue house.
Kate’s house is the color of the water and sky behind it, slightly different in tone. It looks strange, that bluish-gray wind beaten house separating darker and lighter shades of itself. The horizon is clear except for the house and the lake. Like something out of a glorious, surreal dream. Or like looking at a painting in which the perspective is toyed with. I wonder if this is how Kate feels every time she goes home. Idyllic. We stand there for a while, the wind whipping at our hair and faces, as if to wear it down like the house before us. Maybe we could stand here for centuries, wearing down.
“C’mon, my mom should be back from mass now,” says Kate. We trudge down the hill, stumbling and laughing, Kate’s Mary Jane's flying like a dancer’s feet over the sharp, lichen covered rocks.
“Did you know there are about 25,000 different types of lichen?” Asks Kate.
I shake my head. “Where’d you here that?”
“Jackson, don’t you listen to the radio? They’re doing this global search for new kinds, apparently lichen is important now. You take a picture and you put it online, and experts tell you what kind it is, or if you discovered a new kind. “
“Have they found anything new yet?”
“Not that I know of.” she grins.
I remember sitting on some large rocks outside Pier 93 on Alaskan Way in Seattle when I was younger. They had lichen on them, and absent-mindedly, I began to pry at large chunks of it. Then I realized what I was doing, killing all these tiny organisms that had grown together to form something beautiful, something fragile. I was maybe seven, and was horrified at what I had done. I remember washing my hands frantically several times, eliminating all traces of the deed.
The beach was snow-covered, because, hell, everything is snow-covered in Washington, right? Kate stomps up to the mahogany porch; something added much, much later to the ancient house. No one had lived here since I was nine, the last inhabitant being a reclusive writer no one knew well in town. Kate pulls out some keys decorated with a Queensland key-chain and a small plush turtle among a couple hundred other things. I marvel at how she fits them on one key ring. She fumbles with the door, curses, and then pulls it open. Right before us, there is a hall that runs in a circle throughout the first floor and the back of white stairs decorated with a painting of seashells. We yank off our shoes and tiptoe around to where Mrs. Kaleba sits at a table in a brightly lit living room, typing on a laptop and drinking tea. She isn’t wearing shoes, but she still wears tights and her dress from church. Her feet are moving around, toes splaying apart, wriggling. Her eyes are closed.
Mrs. Kaleba opens her eyes. She blinks, as if she had been sleeping the whole time, and then smiles.
“Hey, you two. You must be Jackson Wilson. “
I try not to wince at the sound of my name. Jackson Wilson sounds crude. My parents should have just named me Wilson Wilson.
“Please call me Jack.”
“And please call me Yindi. I see you’ve met my daughter, Katherine.”
I’ve seen Yindi Kaleba before at Spokane Day School, where I go to school, but I’ve never been in any of her classes. Of course not, I think. She’s been here three months. We sat down to drink some of Yindi’s Indonesian tea and talk.
Later, Kate brings me to her room. The room is white, a barren utopia in which it is always sunny even when it’s dark outside. An elaborate drawing of a box jellyfish, labeled, hangs on one wall.
“Did you draw that?” I ask.
Kate sips her tea. “Yes. It’s one of my fish.”
“You want to be a marine biologist?” I ask.
“No, I want to go back to Australia and work at the Kemp Museum of Natural Science as one of those people who answer the hot line for newly discovered species. Someone has to do that, right? Just how someone has to write fortune cookie fortunes.” Kate scoots over to her radio, and I realize on sock is red and faded, the other green and new. Christmas colors. Kate pops in a CD and turns the volume up. One of Aaron Copeland’s clarinet concertos drifts out of the speakers. Kate kind of sways with the music as she walks over to a stout Australian Cypress bookshelf in one corner and pulls out a long blue sketchbook with ribbons marking some pages. An avalanche of key chains pours out from where the book was.
“Crap!” Kate laughs and puts them back, but takes a small one with her. It’s a clear orb with a tiny plastic orca whale floating in blue liquid. She sits on her bed and shakes it a couple times.
“I like this one.” She pauses pensively. “I’ve never seen a whale. Ever. Dad’s in Seattle and he won’t take me so I can see them. You know, once I had this dream, right?”
“Right.” I sit next to her and brush at one of her eyelashes, which has caught a drop of water somehow, maybe from when we walked under the trees.
“And I’m standing, underwater, okay, but there’s glass around me, and I’m lying on my back and I think I’m in some dome-shaped tank, anyways. I notice I’m not in the water. I’m the one in a dome, watching the ocean, watching all the fish swim by. There are all kinds, Jackson. They’re all around, so beautiful. And there are whales, something I’ve only ever seen on National Geographic and stuff.” Kate gets silent.
Without needing to be told, I open the sketchbook.
All we know of oceans had been compounded into Kate’s book. Drawings of sharks, beautifully rendered in charcoal and pen and watercolors, of turtles and seabirds and tropical fish. Maps of the Great Barrier Reef here and there, colors, words, drifting around the page dreamily.
Kate Kaleba has never seen a whale, I think. She has seen all of this, but she has never even seen the Pacific Ocean from where she is now. From a literally new perspective. Would she like it?
It wouldn’t be the same. And maybe that’s a good thing, come to think of it.
Kate does collect fish. It’s just the only way to say it, after I spend maybe a whole hour reading the sketchbook. Kate is distracted, shaking the plastic orca violently, rocking it into the sides of its glass home. Her mouth is slightly open, almost as if she’s concentrating on what she’s doing.
“Kate.” I whisper.
“Yeah?” Her breath smells like tea and watermelon lip gloss. Lovely Kate.
“I have to go now.”
“Okay.” Our eyes meet briefly, and then she goes back to looking at her Orca. When I leave her room, she is staring at a page of her sketchbook with a drawing of a seagull, the tips of her fingers dragging along the page softly. I say thank you to Yindi, and climb back up home.
I hope my mom isn’t back at the Railroad Inn, but considering she owns it, she’ll have realized by now that I left my station keys in my room. My macchiato sits on the counter, and the window is still open.
I am about to go back home, but instead, I feel my feet turn, turn towards the part of the lake where Kate was earlier. Stand in the spot that belongs to Kate. Look at the seagulls that await Kate’s return, because even they love her.
I hum Waltzing Matilda, and watch the water of Alder Lake closely, and if you look closely, you could imagine that it was Kate’s ocean. Just for an instant.

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