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David Michael Kaplan

Bagpipes

Someone is playing bagpipes again in the park across from my apartment. All this past week he's been coming here in late afternoon to play for awhile before it gets dark. Since he plays somewhere beyond the row of trees lining the park, I've never seen him. He always begins in fits and starts, sort of musical coughs or throat clearings. But then suddenly he'll really play, and the melody rises and falls like a strange dark bird. I turn off the lights in my apartment so I can listen better, and I listen.

I've been thinking about wolves. Their howling, I think, sounds just like bagpipes, sort of dark and lonely. It's funny--I've never understood how wolves can run in packs and be so sociable and all, yet sound so mournful, like each one was the last of his kind left on earth. Coyotes are like that, too. I've got a theory about it--the most social animals always sound the loneliest. It's strange.

I've never seen a wolf in my life, but I know what they sound like because of Kate, a woman I saw for awhile after Sarah--my wife--and I finally split for good. Kate had an album of wolf calls put out by some wildlife preservation group. It was narrated by a movie star who used to make a lot of westerns. There was a picture of him on the cover hugging a big gray wolf.

"He looks pretty uneasy," I told Kate.

"Who?" she asked. "The guy or the wolf?"

Kate had lots of records of animal sounds: wolves howling, monkeys screeching, cockatoos jabbering like old men. You name it, she had it. It's funny--she wasn't really an animal lover. I don't think she even liked live animals--she didn't have a pet or anything, after all. But she did like turning off the lights and putting on one of those albums--the wolves were one of her favorites. We'd drink wine and lie on the sofa or the floor.

"Just pretend," she said, "that we're in the steppes of Asia, in a cottage, and there's a fire roaring and it's snowing outside and we hear the wolves."

Kate was always trying to pretend she was somewhere else, and I'd play along, even though it annoyed me sometimes. I mean, I was trying hard just to be exactly where I was, because life in those days right after the divorce was confusing enough, and I didn't need to make it any worse. I wanted to be right where I was, no place else. Anyway, we'd listen to the animals, and drink wine, and maybe even make love right there on the sofa or on the floor while the alligators thrashed or the wolves howled. One time Kate bit me on the lip, hard, and I yelped.

"What?" she asked, blinking, and I said, "You bit me." I couldn't believe it.

"You're bleeding," she said.

I licked my lip--sure enough, it tasted salty. She touched it. "Look," she said wonderingly, holding up her finger. "Blood."

I remember another album Kate had, one of humpback whale songs. Sometimes we'd sit in the dark and listen to them. You could hear ocean sounds on the record (I don't know whether they dubbed them in or what), so it was almost like we were underwater, too. The whales' calls were really something, not at all what you'd expect from such big creatures. They sounded as far away as the wolves, and just as sad, like big lonely babies. I told Kate that.

"They're not lonely at all," she said? "They're really very social animals."

There it was again, my theory.

"Do you know," she said, "that whales can call to each other across thousands of miles of ocean?"

I said, No, I didn't know that. For some reason, it didn't make me feel they were any less lonely. In fact, I was actually getting depressed about it.

"What're you thinking?" Kate asked. "You're so quiet."

"I feel like I'm underwater," I told her. I lay on my stomach and dog-paddled on the floor. I started making frothing, bubbly sounds. I flailed and thrashed. I think I really did just want to swim off, out of there, away. Kate thought it was funny and began giggling. I flailed harder.

"Help," I cried. "Killer whales? They're after me!"

"Don't be silly," Kate laughed. "Whales won't hurt you. They like people."

_____


It's funny--Sarah and I tried to see whales once, years ago. We were staying on the Cape for a week the summer after we got married. Whale-watching trips left from Wellfleet, and one blustery afternoon we went on one. We didn't know it could get so chilly on summer days out on the open ocean, so we spent much of the time huddled together in a deck chair while the captain kept us cheerily posted on his lack of success in finding whales.

"Folks, I don't know what to say," he told us over the loudspeaker. "This is--I swear--the only time we've gone out all summer that we haven't seen any."

To be fair, he did find some eventually. But Sarah and I were below deck then, having a cup of coffee, and when we heard all the commotion and got back on top, they were gone.

"Where are they?" Sarah asked breathlessly.

"Just over there." An old man in a Red Sox cap lowered his binoculars and pointed. "Two of `em."

We stared and stared but couldn't see them. I didn't care too much myself, but I felt bad for Sarah--I knew she was disappointed. I told her we'd come back another time, for sure we'd see some then, but we never got around to it. We were in love after all, and there were other things to do that week, and later, and later. We could always come back.

_____


And then--so fast, it all seems so fast--it really was later and we were back on the Cape again, but everything was different. I'd just confessed to Sarah about Blake, the woman I'd gotten involved with five months earlier and whom I thought I loved too. Everything was confused, and we'd gone to the Cape hoping to get a little perspective, a little breathing room. It was my idea--I thought maybe it would help things. We were going crazy in our house crying and yelling and sulking and hiding out from each other. But of course being there, where we'd been happy before, just seemed to make everything worse. To top it off, the weather was just beautiful, clear and gentle and warm. We could've been having a wonderful time, if only we were two other people. After one really bad fight, I stormed out of the cottage, took a chair from the deck and went down to the beach. I planted it in the sand only a few feet from the water. The surf was soft, the sand squishy between my toes. Nobody was swimming, although two boys in bathing suits were standing on the last rock of the breakwater, daring each other to dive. I must have dozed, because suddenly I started, aware of something blocking the sun. I shaded my eyes. Sarah was standing there in her swimsuit, snorkeling mask on her forehead, flippers tucked under her arm, holding a knife. "You're not going to hurt me, are you?" I asked. A crazy thing to say.

"I'm going to get some mussels off the rocks for dinner," she said. "If we go out to one more restaurant, I'm going to scream." She put on her flippers, and flipflopped into the water, stomach slightly thrust out for balance, like some ungainly bird. Not hesitating a moment, she breasted the chill water, and dove. I had to smile. My brave wife, I thought. She came up, and waved. I waved back. It was better than anything we'd said all week.

I closed my eyes and must have dozed again or at least was in that half-way state between dream and fantasy, because suddenly I felt, I really felt, that I was out there swimming with her. Or rather, I was on the surface, looking down at her swimming below me. Large dark shapes were moving under her, toward her, and I was frightened. I tried to cry out to warn her, but my words were just bubbling sounds in the water. And then, like a slide coming into focus, I could see everything clearly: the dark shapes were whales, and they weren't attacking Sarah at all. She was swimming toward them, and then among them, without any fear, as if she belonged there. She grabbed one by the flipper and stroked it, and I thought, my wife, my brave and gentle wife, and even though we were fathoms apart, at that moment I just couldn't understand how anything beyond water could ever really separate us. I wanted to call to Sarah, to tell her that. But already she couldn't hear me, she was following the whales, sounding with them to where no sound, no sound, no sound, neither of whales nor wolves nor bagpipes, could ever raise her from the deep again.

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