Julie Bird closed her eyes and listened to water slap the hull. The tinny taste of lager coated the back of her tongue. She and her father, Marty, spread themselves over lawn chairs on the deck of the old troller. Waves rolled under the boat, and the strips of rainbow vinyl creaked under their weight. Ice sloshed rhythmically against the sides of the cooler.
Ian, Marty’s best and only friend, emerged from the cabin and fished another beer from the ice. He called out to his two passengers. “Set?”
Julie’s father had his beer jammed into his prosthesis—his Captain Hook—and held it in the air for Ian to see. With his good hand he held binoculars fast to his eyes.
For the last half hour, Marty had been watching a figure on shore and giving Julie updates. The details were still shady. The figure, of indeterminate age, gender and height had been weighted like a pack mule when it’d arrived on the beach, and it was now setting up a bright orange A-frame tent, set in contrast to the navy water and dark conifers. Marty’s eyebrows, or the fatty lumps where his eyebrows used to be, rose.
“Now they’re stringing up a hammock in the trees. Looks like they’re there for the long haul. I didn’t think anyone camped on Tallicurn.”
“Marty, please stop spying,” Julie said.
“They just seem so familiar.”
“You know a lot of faraway specks?”
By Marty’s feet sat a small Tupperware container of herring pieces that were melting together in the heat. He’d set up a rod on the port side for some mooching, but so far, the line hadn’t budged. Marty wouldn’t have noticed anyway. Earlier, Ian had tossed a piece into the open water to “get the ocean’s juices flowing.”
“Hey,” Marty said. “I think they’re waving at me.” He took off his bandana, scratched his bald head, and retied the fabric.
“Marty, you’re a stick figure on a boat to them.”
“Look.” Marty handed the binoculars to her. Through the viewfinder, she saw a crowd of gulls circling above the orange tent. Farther down the beach, the backlit figure appeared with a blond puff of hair catching the light and shining like an anglerfish lure. The person stood in the water, looking in their direction. The waves crashed against their shins. They were gesturing with their arms, but it didn’t seem like a wave. More of a come hither.
Ian barged into the middle of their assembly and pointed starboard. “Hey, you two. Whale.”
Plumes of mist were approaching the troller. With a bird’s-eye view, one could trace a straight line between the puff-topped shadow, the fishing boat and the whale.
“Think it’s an orca?” Julie asked.
“Nah. No pod—it’s solo.” Ian hoisted himself up and took the binoculars from Julie’s hand. He stood on the deck with one leg propped on the railing. His white shorts flapped in the breeze, revealing a vast expanse of untanned thigh. “Too big, too,” he said.
“Grey?” Julie asked.
“Maybe. Look at it.” Ian passed the binoculars back.
All she could see was sun bouncing off waves and a flash of black and white as a flock of murres glided above the surface, but then the whale’s rolling back filled the viewing area. A burst of mist shot into the air and dissipated. Julie adjusted the sight. A group of fat barnacles pocked the skin around its blowhole, but otherwise the whale’s complexion was uninterrupted slate, like a blackboard wiped clean with a damp cloth. It was smoother than the greys Julie had seen.
“Fuck, yeah,” she whispered.
The back of the whale rolled over the surface until the flukes broke free and heaved into the air. The whale dipped below the surface.
Ian’s voice came from behind them, somewhere between a prayer and a curse. “It’s coming towards us.”
Julie imagined the whale as a submarine designed to look like a biological being, but with two soldiers sitting behind the eyes. If they could build a camera the size of a housefly, why not this? The submarine theory seemed so much more likely than a living being double the length of the Greyhound she rode from Port Braid to Vancouver. Fifty-five people could sit inside that Greyhound on a busy holiday, meaning that 110 humans could be comfortably hidden within the whale’s blubber, with leg and luggage room to spare.
Julie zipped her life vest and shoved one at her father as the whale got closer to the boat. As usual, Marty wouldn’t think of his welfare, so she’d have to do it for him. She watched him slide the life vest on and struggle to do it up. When the zipper wouldn’t go past his belly, he visited the cooler for another beer. Julie counted this as his fourth, still within safe limits for a calm day.
The list of events that could disrupt a calm day had shape-shifted since she was last home in Port Braid. Once again the rules had to be relearned. Marty’s triggers developed like allergies. Some were long-term—bird bangers, air brakes, metal-tinged smoke—and others came and went in a matter of years—the smell of Julie’s hair straightener, the rattle of Boggle.
She stood up for a better look, binoculars pressed to her cheekbones.
The whale broke the surface again, much closer to the boat. Its blowhole looked like the thieved nose of an Easter Island statue. It let out another giant breath, and this time Julie could hear the sound—a bucket of ice water hitting a campfire. Julie brought the binoculars down and turned to her father. “It’s a blue, you know.”
Blues migrated by Port Braid but weren’t typically interested in stopping. They were half-starved from raising their young at the equator. Up north, all they’d have to do to be full was open their mouths.
So much of Port Braid’s aesthetic was based on the idea that whale spirits permeated the air: a metallic statue stood proud outside the bank, a badly constructed orca mural graced the side of the pharmacy, and of course, all of the T-shirts in the town’s single gift shop were a blend of semi-transparent moons, whales, wolves, eagles and feathers.
“I’m serious,” Julie said. “It’s a blue.”
Marty brought his beer to his lips and held it there, waiting for the beast to reappear.
A bulge of water appeared a few boat-lengths away. Julie’s breath caught. The whale’s nose pushed through the centre of this water mountain. Its body rose up to its pectoral fins. Columns of water fell away. The animal lunged and sent a boat-rocking wave.
“Move over, Linnaeus! Your domains and your kingdoms have been overthrown. Land Mammals and Sea Creatures is in the reclassification business and the results are profound and beautiful. This is a novel of great loss, but even greater love. Jen Neale — there’s no denying it — is one of this country’s wisest, and most shockingly original, young writers.” – Alexander MacLeod, Giller Prize-shortlisted author of Light Lifting
“With light touches of magical realism and vivid descriptions of the Canadian seaside, Neale's haunting tale reminds us that our lives are bound to others' in both restricting and deeply comforting ways . . . A wholly original and stunning debut.” — Booklist Starred Review
“Land Mammals and Sea Creatures was a revelation, a welcome back to fiction, a novel that engrosses, captures the readers until they too are stranded on a beach, unable to return to safety.” — Owen Sound Times
“Land Mammals and Sea Creatures’s magical realism is dark and apocryphal. On this journey through the valley of the shadow of death, the only clear signal is distress. As Julie, Marty, and the mysterious stranger traverse illuminating fictions and inexplicable animal suicides, Neale never lets you forget that humans are animals too.” — Foreword Reviews
“A mysterious and unsettling debut touching on grief, mourning, environmental calamity, and the healing potential of friendship.” — Kirkus Reviews