The Whale Roads in the Stars by Rebecca Harrison

I waved goodbye to the ocean when it left. That’s the story Ma likes to tell. Me jumping up and down on the shore. Me waving as the ocean rises from its bed. Me waving as it lifts into the sky. Me waving as it soars through the clouds. All her life by the water, and Ma didn’t know ‘not waving but drowning.’ And that’s where she ends the story. Before Cassie’s Pa comes barrelling down the beach. Before he’s shaking me so hard it hurts. Before he’s shouting—where is she? Where is she? And before I’m weeping—on your boat. He tried not to blame me, but it didn’t work. So, Ma pretended it never happened. She pretended there was never a Cassie, tangle-haired and tiger-eyed, spinning arms-outstretched on the shore. Never a Cassie drawing constellations in the sand. Never a Cassie whistling wrensong outside my window.

But I heard Ma on the phone when she didn’t know I was listening—that Cassie girl was pure star stuff. Maybe she’s where she was always meant to be? And I ran down the shore and I lobbed pebbles into where the waves had been. I cut those satellite photos out of the newspapers, the ones of the oceans all whale-shaped swimming through space, and I kept them in an envelope with Cassie’s letters. And when I couldn’t sleep cos of the soreness in my chest, I held Ma’s magnifying glass to the photos. But I didn’t see Cassie’s Pa’s boat. You’ve got to pull yourself together, Ruby—Ma said. Stop wallowing. No one knew where the oceans were going. No point moving away cos the water would be back before we knew it. So, we stayed to pretend, though everything went quiet around us.

That quiet was the only ocean we had. And we were right at the bottom of it. All slow and weighted down by the miles of quiet going up and up. There were no birds or cars. There was only the whir of our water-maker. We drank stale cups and sometimes I tossed mine onto the beach just to see the sand darken. I was here—in the winds without salt. But Cassie? She was trailing her hands in Jupiter’s storms, she was sleeping with the stars in her hair, she was whistling wrensong to Ganymede.

Ten years of quiet crept by. I could count the words Ma spoke. I walked where the ocean had been and whispered the constellations. All the stars belonged to Cassie. Always had. Since we were little and she’d dreamed of riding Ursa Major, the bear, across the universe. She pawed at a nebula and ate it like honeycomb, she’d giggled. And we’d huddled under a blanket as the fire went to embers.

There were no new satellite photos. The oceans had swum past Pluto. It was all over the TV. Some folk reckoned they’d loop round, head back, be home by next Christmas. But they just swam out the solar system.

I stopped walking on the beach. I shook the waiting from me. Not that there was anything else to do. When I got home, there were men in our living room. Suited and booted. Ma hadn’t even offered them a cup of whir water. Her arms were folded.

“You come to move us on?” I asked.

“Why did you never leave?”

“Couldn’t.”

“We’re looking for someone who knows the ocean real well. Would that be you?” And it was. And I was off. Clutching my envelope with Cassie’s letters. I didn’t wave to Ma from the back of their car. I knew she wasn’t watching. I had hours of withered ways and rotted roads. What happened to the green? I asked. But they just looked at each other. I shut up after that.

I didn’t have any skills. Just a long time in one place. I was good at waiting when there was nothing else to do. Turns out that’s what they were looking for. You’ll be on your own up there—they said. I didn’t tell them I was on my own down here.

I was an ocean hunter. That’s what they called me in the interviews. I got letters but I didn’t read them. They stank of hope. What did folk think I was going to do? Harpoon the oceans and drag them back to Earth? TV nicknamed me Ruby Rocket cos I was going to be the fastest human there ever was.

I was glad to go. But I wasn’t glad to look down. They never showed us the satellite photos of what Earth had become, so I wasn’t ready for the gray. I still expected blue. And I didn’t wave. Though all the folk of Earth were waving up at me. I saw them on my screens. Not waving, but drowning.

Then Earth was gone.

They were wrong, I wasn’t on my own up here. Cassie was out there. And the oceans with their seals and shipwrecks. I read her letters. And when I looked up, Jupiter was on my shoulder. And I was close enough to see if there were krakens fighting in its red storm. Just like Cassie’s whispered stories. The winds of Saturn were golden. Pluto was dusk dipped. Then I left the solar system. Stars turned to clouds turned to blue.

Forever was night to its edges.

There were no years where I was going. I’d left them behind. Behind Sirius and Vega. Behind Neptune’s wings. And if there were years on Earth, I didn’t know how to count them. For I was in the always of unknown stars. And somewhere among them were the waves that had lulled me to sleep, was the tide that had carried me from shore.

I found the oceans swimming in a nebula’s towers. Five whales of salt water. Blue deep in orange. I followed the last whale through the star moss, and I saw icebergs on its tail and walruses basking. I flew between the whales. There was no dark in the water, only shining. Only blue. And then I was gliding round my ocean. Those were my waves. That was my tide. I landed by Cassie’s boat. And she was leaning over the side—her tangle hair—her tiger eyes. I didn’t ask her why she’d left me behind. I sat by her on the deck. We huddled under the blanket. It still smelled of home. And for a long time, I couldn’t talk. For so long, that she fell asleep on my shoulder. And I breathed quietly, so’s not to wake her as our ocean swam through the nebula and on to the distant stars.


Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count. Her first book, The White Horse, a gothic folk horror that’s Jane Eyre meets The Wicker Man, is out now on Spooky House Press.