I think this is decomposing whale skin on my jeans. Probably not fully grown, definitely female. I don't know this, of course; I read it in the paper the next day.
There's a dead whale on Torii Beach. She's all over Facebook, lying there under the heavily clouded sky, a quiet island of navy rising from the cacophony of turquoises and blues and greens and browns of the warm shallow water. We debate going to look--it seems low, but it seems once-in-a-lifetime, but we don't want to traumatize Eva, but she doesn't really get death yet anyway. In the end the kids fall asleep in the car and our problems are solved. We take turns joining other casualty-gazers to stare at the 30-foot corpse.
Earlier she was stuck on the reef a ways out, but she's been washed up to the base of the little cliff by the beach's landing zone. (Because this is Okinawa, and this is Army, so of course the beach has a spot for helicopters to land.) Cars are lined up on the LZ in spacious American rows.
The baby-mom in me stops breathing for a minute when I look over the cliff and see her perfect stillness: the oversize, cross-species embodiment of an unspoken nightmare.
Humanity is out in all its glory. They're almost all Americans because this is on post. A husband and wife stride toward the site, arguing, "If you don't WANT to look at it you DON'T HAVE TO COME," her angry tone contradicting their quick cooperative march. An unsupervised girl tries for a front-row seat on the cliff and accelerates erosion in a serious way, scrambling backwards as earth collapses under her. Down on the beach a dad drags his scared, sobbing four-yr-old closer to the whale. People take smiling pictures with the carcass, throwing up the Japanese two-fingered cheese-u! sign. A couple of Okinawans pseudo-sneak onto post for a gander by walking down the beach because it's low tide.
We wear sweat pants, jeans, business casual, suits, green berets, field caps, and an off-duty gate guard wears a holstered weapon as he watches the girl ruining the cliff; he vaguely considers an intervention. We wield every flavor of recording device, from cell phone to thousand-dollar lens. We gawk.
An MP officiously stands guard on what is probably his most exciting duty of his tour here, preventing...what? We're not sure. Maybe preventing the guy with the son from making him ride the whale for a photo op.
She rests on the sharp coral sand and squishy green seaweed, stretching across the tide lines. The graceful curve of her tail droops pathetically over a half-submerged rock into a tidal pool. It's hard to tell what's what on her bulk--is that a blow hole? I can't find her eye.
"It smells like...rutabaga!" a man says.
I squat for a picture, trying to fit all of her in, and start to fall in the deep broken-coral sand but catch myself. I kneel instead and a boy next to me points out, "There's whale skin...there's a piece of whale skin...there's a piece...there's a piece." We're surrounded by bits of suntanned whale. You can see the white scrapes where they've been rubbed off by the tide dragging her over coral, long after death.
The whole thing is sad and impressive and makes me feel like a chump, and I leave. The next day scientists come and strip her down to her bones and the beach is, not for the first time, covered in blood.
No, we're not on island anymore, but this is going to continue 'til my drafts folder is empty! This is Okinawa is a series meant to capture observations and moments in our last days here, the sorts of things I like to think I'll never forget but know I will. Read more about Oki here and here.