“Rupert, would you please be careful?”
The narwhal bumped the hull of the sailboat one more time, then disappeared beneath the waves.
“Sorry,” Jim said, turning back to his laptop screen.
“No problem,” came a bemused voice from the computer. The woman on the screen smiled, her Persian cat curled around her shoulders. “I always love my conference calls with you and Rupert.”
Jim rolled his eyes. “Ok, so what’s next?”
“Well the numbers look good for next quarter,” she said, “but what do we think about hiring that freelancer, uh, what was her name?”
“Leila,” came a rumbling voice. Rupert had resurfaced. “What’s a freelancer?”
“Uh, yeah, Leila. Thanks Rup,” she said. “Her work looks perfect for your website revamp.”
“Ok, sounds good. Send me some of her stuff.” Jim clutched the papers in his lap as a gust of wind threatened to blow them overboard. He had rigged his sailboat to keep a straight course so he wouldn’t have to man the wheel during their meeting. But the wind strengthened, sending him out of the harbor faster than he’d anticipated.
Rupert stretched his tusk into the air alongside the boat, then blasted sea water from his blow hole. He narrowly missed a passing seagull, who squawked as it flew away. Rupert laughed and blew more water into the air.
“Rupert…” Jim said through clenched teeth.
“Where are you?” the woman asked.
“Southern coast of Greenland,” Jim said, pulling his fur-trimmed hood tighter. “But the ice is much sparser this winter. In fact there’s hardly any of it.”
“Yeah it’s bad,” Rupert said, his voice low and sonorous. He flooshed his tail as he dove under again, splashing Jim and his laptop.
“Rupert! Come on, we’ve talked about this!”
The woman in the computer laughed, waking up her cat companion. It uncurled from her shoulders and stretched luxuriously before walking out of frame.
“Narwhals…” the cat said, its soft voice dripping with disdain.
Jim sighed as he wiped water from his screen. “Yeah, Jamie, can I call you later? I need to have a word with Rupert.”
“Ok, but go easy on him. If there’s no ice, there’s no food for him, right? He’s probably just hungry. And this sounds like a fantastic new post for your blog! It could be a great intro for your talk at the Oceanography Institute later this month…”
“I’ll get on it soon as I can. Signal’s going to be spotty when we head north after tomorrow though.”
“Alright, be safe you two!”
He said goodbye and shut his laptop. The northern wind bit at his skin, and he turned to starboard to watch the coast slide by. The glaciers had receded since last year, their blue sheen dulled by the overcast sky. The steel-grey waters shushed underneath the boat as it sailed out into open sea.
“Rupert,” Jim called, knowing the narwhal – his companion animal – wasn’t far beneath the waves. After a few minutes of silence, broken only by the gulls’ cries overhead, a thundering splash sounded to the side of the boat. The narwhal’s black eye blinked up at him.
“Bud, you can’t keep interrupting me during meetings. First with the director of the Institute last week, now Jaime-”
“And her snooty cat. Cats are weird. How do they swim with all that fur?”
Jim sighed. “They don’t swim. Cats hate water.”
Rupert gasped. “What? How could anyone hate water?”
“Good question Rup,” Jim said, his thoughts turning to the asshats back on land signing deals and shaking hands to drill for more oil offshore. Which would result – as it always did – in more spills and more damage to the oceans.
A fishing boat came around the headland up ahead and steered towards them
“Oooh watch out!” Rupert said, grinning as he splooshed underwater when the boat came near.
The crew called out a greeting and laughed as Rupert waved his tail fluke at them. Jim heaved a sigh and lifted his laptop out of the way as another splash washed over the deck of his boat, soaking through his thick winter trousers.
The fishing crew’s companion animals – a terrier, a parakeet, and a sloth – didn’t splash and bump and thump around. They didn’t have to keep to the Arctic Ocean all year round. They could stay inside and snuggle their humans, or sit on their lap, or crawl on their shoulders.
Why couldn’t I have had a different companion animal? Jim thought, and not for the first time. Any other animal would be easier. A turtle. A rabbit. A starfish even!
“What’s a freelancer?” Rupert asked.
Jim sighed again. “Someone who works on their own schedule, on different projects. They don’t have a boss unless they want one.”
“That sounds pretty good,” Rupert said, tapping his tusk up and down on the water. “Hey we’re freelancers, right? We can go wherever we want! We’re free!”
Jim gave a small smile as he stood. “Yeah, I guess you’re right pal.”
“Where are you going?”
“To get changed out of these wet clothes, and I’ll need to call Jaime back at some point. I think she wants me to speak at that university after my talk at the Institute-”
“Sounds boring,” Rupert said, blowing bubbles in the water. “But, we’re going north first right? To find some food? I’m hungry…”
Jim’s chest tightened. Rupert had lost some weight recently, and these southern waters weren’t his usual habitat. If they couldn’t find food for him up north, Jim knew he might have to call the Institute and ask if they’d take Rupert in for a while, at least while Jim was working on land.
Then as he watched his companion, his best friend, frolicking in his clumsy narwhal-way, a plastic bag bobbed by on the waves. Rupert saw it and speared it with his tusk.
“What’s this? It’s cool!”
“Rupert, no!” Jim cried as the bag slid down Rupert’s tusk and towards his mouth. He leaned over and grabbed the slimy bag before it could suffocate him. Rupert’s eye drooped as Jim slid it off.
“It’s not your fault bud.”
“I was just curious.”
Jim looked down at the sopping mass of plastic. He thought of all the sea creatures who hadn’t been so lucky, who had eaten or gotten stuck in these human-made pieces of death that will never decay.
Rupert was watching Jim, still afraid that he had done something wrong. Jim reached out and rubbed his smooth head, speckled with flecks of grey and white. Rupert flapped his flippers happily.
And an idea occurred to Jim. He dashed inside and changed his trousers, then sent off a quick email to Jaime. He grabbed something from the fridge before coming back on deck and rubbing Rupert’s nose.
“Guess what pal?”
“What?” Rupert asked, his tail swishing excitedly.
“We’re going to stay up north for a while. Find lots of fish for you, ok?”
Rupert smiled, his long tooth lifting into the air. “But…don’t you have to go back on land? And talk to all those people?”
Jim grinned. “Nope. We’ll do the talks at sea, you and me. Together. They’ll love you.”
Rupert cheered. Jim tossed him a fish he had been saving in the fridge, then dashed around the deck to loosen more sails.
As the sun sank behind the clouds, slivers of orange and pink light slipped out onto the waves. Rupert laughed again as he splashed at another gull, and Jim laughed too. They turned north, and as Jim took a deep breath of frigid salt air he knew, deep in his heart, he wouldn’t want any other companion animal. The sea was his home, just as much as it was Rupert’s.