Communications Research Institute, St Thomas, British Virgin Islands, 1965
A dolphin’s teeth are small and sharp, clean rows, tilted up in a smile that’s not a smile. Each tooth is perfectly even, and even though they don’t break the skin, they do mark her temporarily, flesh turning white then red. It doesn’t hurt at first, small nips, gentle entreaties to her calves and ankles. They’ve been together in the house for two weeks, her wading through three feet of water, Peter swimming from room to room, circling away and back again. From her desk, she lowers a hand and lets him slip past, his rubbery skin smooth on the tips of her fingers. He nudges for attention, lets out a laughing cry, puts his mouth to her calf. She pushes him off and starts another lesson: AY, EE, I. She gets the bucket with the fish.
It’s about nurturing, mother and child. He is her child, she his mother, loving, patient. Practice the sounds, AY, EE, I. He can’t say OH or YOU. You, you, you. Oh you. Emphasize the humanoid. Prize those sounds. Fish from the bucket, a hand held forth, contact. Don’t respond to clicks and whistles. Clicks aren’t consonants. Whistles aren’t words. The trilling breet has no English equivalent. Ignore. Ignore. A mother who reacts to a child’s whine will raise a whiney child. There are plenty of sounds she can’t even hear, pitches his real mother would respond to. It doesn’t matter, English only. It’s the only way he’ll learn.
Dr Lilly is at the window taking notes, giving notes. He doesn’t interfere with the lesson, but he will comment later, suggest more fish, maybe fewer. He will read from his pad, put marks on the chart in the Center, refine her technique. He can see what she cannot – that she is too submissive or too curt. He corrects her movements, shows her the ways she’s been signaling Peter without knowing.
‘Hold your shoulders square,’ he’s said. ‘Straighten your spine. Take control. Compassionate dominance.’ Dr Lilly is a genius. He’s her father’s age but with a full head of hair, no shirtsleeves or tie. He has a PhD, shorts and a tan. Beneath brushy brows, he is watching. His eyes, a deep gray, are blank, his mouth neither generous nor withholding. He has a way of saying things that make her self-conscious. He makes her want to succeed.
Peter is no longer nursing. He weaned before coming to the house. She wants to think of him as a child, her child, but he is more of an adolescent or preteen really, active and rambunctious. And now he is nipping again, asking for more.
‘AY,’ she says. ‘AY, AY, EE, EE, I, I.’ She tries singing the sounds to add variety, make them sound more like his.
This is the first study of its kind. She is the first dolphin mother, Peter her boy genius. Of course there was Gua, the chimp they dressed in diapers and spoon-fed and talked to constantly, Gua who understood seventy words but never spoke herself. Dr Lilly gave Margaret the literature, explained the results. There was also Viki, another chimp, who learned to say mama and papa and cup, which she pronounced ‘softly and hoarsely and not quite acceptably’. Poor Viki, who drew skepticism in larger circles for confusing her words when excited. If Peter says ‘cup’, no matter how hoarsely, or how confused, Margaret will celebrate him and love him all the more.
She tries not to think about how much work there is between now and cup. She tries not to think of chimps, their human faces, their hands and feet. Peter is an alien, a cypher, grey and oblong, swimming, swimming, always swimming. He lives in a world she can barely inhabit. He must speak to her from the water: I, I, I.
During her break, her hour outside the house, she searches her calves for bruises. It feels good to be dry. She has not gone far from Peter, just out the window and onto the deck near his tank while they drain, clean and refill the house. There are no marks on her legs. Dr Lilly has mentioned that she can swim if she’d like, immerse herself. Instead, she closes her eyes and lays back on the deck, letting the sun dry her all the way.
Is he biting harder or is she just tired of his odd attentions? This morning, Margaret caught herself pulling away. She hopes Dr Lilly didn’t notice. Dominance, she thinks. She must push back. EE, EE, EE. She would like to tuck her legs up somehow or edge into the corner of the bed where Peter can’t reach her. But that’s not what it’s for. Peter needs access. She is his pod. They ‘swim together’. She can control him with stern compassion. Eventually she will control him with words. Once Peter understands her, then all of this will be just a childish memory.
She takes out the props, the ball, the stick, the rubber ring. He knows the difference between them, but does not know their names.
‘Ball,’ she says, putting it in front of him. ‘Ball, ALL, ALL.’ He will not be able to make this sound, but he will learn what it means. Before children speak words, they hear them. She throws the ball and Peter follows, nosing it around the room. We are playing, she thinks. Play, AY, AY. When he returns, she pats his head, not like a dog, like a child. His melon is soft and fatty. It feels like a bag of seawater. Acoustic fat. It’s how he hears her. There’s more beneath his jaw. With it, he takes in her sounds, but also her movements in the water. When he speaks, he hears himself, feels the waves ripple and return, warped by the shape of the room, her position in it. She is echolocated, ever present. As long as they share the same water, she is his.
She throws the ring.
‘Ring,’ she says, and her tongue bounces across the top of her mouth. Peter’s tongue is long and thin, textured at the edges and the tip. If she were his real mother and he was nursing still, he would use that tongue to create a seal, to pull from her what he needs. Pale pink, slightly lighter than her own, it cannot make the ING sound. Peter almost makes the R sound sometimes, but not with his tongue. He has no voice box, no vocal cords. His sounds come from the blowhole. Even with his mouth open and nodding, he is speaking through his head. It’s also where he breathes. She can cover it with her hand, and he will blow her palm away. His R sound is not an R, it’s a quick vibration that sounds R-ish. He will never say ring.
‘Ring, ring, ring,’ she calls and lets the sound come up out of her, not just through the throat, but up out the top of her head. Peter finds the ring and brings it back, ready for the stick.
‘Stick,’ she says and holds it out, showing him what it looks like, touching it to his skin. She will not throw it. It is too much like playing fetch, and he is not her dog, Peter is not her trained pet. Learning is different from training, and Peter is her son, not a circus animal.
‘Stick, stick, stick,’ she tells him, and hears in her voice a slowed down version of his clicking. His is quick and incomprehensible, a sound she cannot imitate. Hers is simple and direct. He will learn this, she thinks. We will teach him.
Peter nudges the stick, tries to take it from her, opens his mouth with a rapid ‘ah-ah-ah-ah’. She will not reward him for that. Ah-ah-ah-ah is not one of the humanoid sounds. She knows what he wants, but this experiment was not designed for her to learn dolphin. Peter must learn English. He must use his words.
‘AY, AY, AY,’ she says and waits for his reply.
Dolphins use their teeth on each other, raking them across the lesser males to mark their place in the pod. She’s seen the evenly spaced tracks, first pink, then black, then white, parallel lines etched in skin. Peter has none. He’s never been in a pod. First he was with his real mother and now he’s here with her. He has come to this practice spontaneously, on his own. No one taught him to rake her.
Margaret fights the instinct to jump away when he swims near. She will not flinch. Her skin is not as thick as a dolphin’s and weeks of water work have softened her. She is spongy, defenseless. She throws Peter the color ball, says its name, waits as he noses it back to her, marks her chart. He clicks and breets and touches her leg. She tries to untense her muscles, says the words. ‘Green, EEN, EEN.’
She has considered wearing waders, a second skin between her and her boy, but she is not supposed to separate herself in any way. Dr Lilly wants them close. She throws the red ball, red, ED, ED and Peter circles away, slapping her with his pectoral fin as he goes. It doesn’t hurt, not really, just a quick smack as he swims by. It is not an accidental touch. Peter has been doing this all afternoon. She is sure to stand firm, not dodge out of his way. He cannot know that this affects her.
‘Peter is jockeying for place,’ Dr Lilly has said. She cannot let him.
At first, nights were the worst. She was damp all the time. She could hardly sleep, found herself floundering, splashing a hand over the side and waking Peter. Or did Peter wake her? He only ever closed one eye at a time, swimming, swimming, watching her as he would in the wild. More often now he will sleep fully, floating his blowhole above the water’s surface, kicking his tail reflexively. She has grown used to sleeping here too.
‘It is a different state than dry sleep,’ Dr Lilly told her. ‘A deep inner-consciousness. You may feel even more awake than you do when walking around.’ There are tanks in the Center and Dr Lilly spends long hours afloat, tracking his mind in perceptual isolation. He does not detail for Margaret the results of his journeys, but sometimes he comes to her window, eyes dilated, and describes some theory or plan.
‘You have to leave your human body,’ he says. ‘Leave your human mind behind. Become a point, a spark of awareness in an empty infinite space.’ Dr Lilly’s tanks are dark and contained and he does not share them with adolescent cetaceans, but it helps to think of her bed in this other way, not as a damp mattress but as a floating world. The LSD also helps. It’s not officially a part of the experiment. She hasn’t marked it on her charts, tracked its effects as she did as an undergraduate that one semester, working with her professors and peers to quantify its psychiatric benefits. It’s merely a supplement to the process. Some days Dr Lilly gives her a tab and it helps. She can feel the water, really feel it, the way Peter must. She hears herself, not just sounds, but intonations. Her lessons seem less like repetition and more like communication. During those times, Peter’s noises fill her with meaning.
It was on one early trip that she learned how to ease into the bed, to accept that she was wet, that she would always be wet. Water both within and without, water and salt. When it’s right and she is awake and asleep, her inner quiet does not exclude Peter. He is not so much outside of her as an external part of her. It is all part of her. The house is a space in her mind, a mind that is larger than the confines of her skull, a mind that lives and breathes and touches all it takes in – the water, the house, the doctor, the dolphin. In some moments she can feel herself out past those finite things, linked and part of the whole world – the Center, the island, the scientists, her family, her past, her future – all water, all wet, all a part of her, in her, all of space and time. It’s easier to sleep now.
‘The attention may be sexual in nature,’ Dr Lilly says in the weekly meeting. Margaret looks down and misses the chance to see if any of the other scientists nod in agreement. She’s not a prude and they are not scientists like you’d think, lab-coated and stern. They smoke during meetings, wear corduroys, keep their hair fashionably long. But the comment echoes a suspicion she’s had herself and stifled many times over.
‘Peter is treating her more like a mate than a mother.’ Dr Lilly is not speaking to her, but about her.
She only attends these meetings on Saturdays. They don’t want her to leave Peter alone for too long. It’s good to be dry, but the air in the room feels cold and beneath her skirt she notices her exposed legs in a different way.
‘The frequency of biting and now the ramming indicate increased aggression.’ There are several charts on the walls whose purpose she should understand. Some of them reflect the notes she’s been taking, feeding schedules, sound exercises. Others are new. There must be a chart for the biting, an objective measure of what she had assumed was a foolish suspicion. She rubs a hard little knot in her calf where Peter hit her. He’s begun to leave marks.
She wants to ask Dr Lilly how she could better present herself. What possible signs might tell a dolphin that you’re not sexually available? What stance can she take to be clear with her boy that he is son and not lover? Or is this the inescapable state of the male child? Does he want to kill Dr Lilly as he wants to bed her? Has the bonding between them created in him something Oedipal? She feels both disoriented by the idea and oddly proud. Perhaps this is an early sign of success. She doesn’t ask – lets the scientists draw these deeper conclusions, half listens as they discuss it among themselves.
It takes them almost a week to decide. They’re going to put him in with the females, let him mate, satisfy his desires and refocus him on the task at hand. She goes through the exercises with him while the others prepare the tank. It will not happen here in the house. There’s no room for mating, only shallow swimming. Peter hardly pays attention to his tasks any more. He chuffs at her and swims off. This is why the scientists have decided to act. It’s him, not her that concerns them. He is less and less responsive to her AYs and EEs and Is. He doesn’t care about the ball or stick. He makes new and different sounds to show his frustration – loud bursting barks, clacking teeth. He swims and swims and swipes at her when he goes by. Fwack, the fin. Thunk, the fluke. There is no sound when he hits her, but she sees the comic book script hovering over each impact, sharp lines radiating outward as Peter gets her again in the same spot. He is relentless in his rubbing, grinding, knocking.
She asked Dr Lilly about the waders. He didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes either. He talked to her about the importance of contact, of the nurturing touch. Margaret finds herself wondering if it’s not about Peter at all, if it’s just that Dr Lilly likes her in shorts and skirts and bathing suits, wants to see her bare legs exposed. No, that’s foolish. She’s come to perceive everything as sexual since the change in Peter, his constant battering, the way he turns to reveal his underside and those peeking erections.
When Peter hits her, she pretends not to feel it, repeats her sounds, shows him colors. The goals are the same: teach language, reward progress. He will have his mate soon enough. In the meantime, she must persevere. He has not drawn blood, but the delicate abrasions that might otherwise be nothing will not heal, cannot dry out or scab over. The layers of thin skin puff up in the water. She rubs them and they flake and float away. Peter swims by, hitting her as he passes.
While Peter mates, she attends another meeting.
‘Separation threatens the integrity of the experiment,’ says Dr Lilly.
‘It lost its integrity the minute we chose a male dolphin,’ says the woman scientist. She has never spoken to Margaret, though they’ve been introduced several times. They are the only women here.
‘Four hours, maximum,’ says Dr Lilly.
‘Male privilege extends across species,’ says the woman scientist.
The others whisper to one another and eye her with what seems like contempt. Margaret doesn’t trust herself to interpret nonverbal signals. Everything now feels like an assault.
‘Four hours should be plenty of time,’ one of them says.
‘We can arrange for daily outings if necessary,’ says another.
A third speaks up in favor of returning Peter to the house.
The scientists go back and forth. None of it matters to Margaret. Either her boy will learn or he won’t. She stops paying attention to the details of their debate, hears only the emotion in their voices. She misses Peter. No one in this room is focused on her. No one is tracking her movements. It feels strange to sit here dry and unaccosted.
The scientists seem angrier. Their sounds are unlike the compassionate teachings she strives for. They do not repeat for better understanding or clarity. They slap their hands on the table or shake their heads when questioned. As they grow adamant, she has a hard time grasping words, syllables piling up into unwieldy sentences. To speak with Peter, they would have to slow down, simplify, open themselves. She focuses on the way their words break and repeat. She waits for the sounds that signal her, but the scientists are not asking for her opinion, they do not need her to speak.
He comes back calm. He no longer rams or hits her. He doesn’t breet plaintively or swim in desperate circles. He lets Margaret sit at her desk or move through the room as she pleases. When she calls to him or brings out the toys, he is attentive again, following her commands, reacting to her sounds. They are a team. They work together on their exercises. AY, EE, I. Ball, ring, stick. Green, red, blue. She speaks and he responds. He swims by and Margaret runs a hand along his side, grateful to have her boy back. She gives him as many fish as she has. She releases something she didn’t know she was holding.
Dr Lilly sits in the window nodding, proud. All is a success.
Peter does something he hasn’t done before. It’s coy almost, tentative. He dips his head down but does not bite her. Instead he rubs his teeth gently on her calf. It’s affectionate. She strokes his melon, says his name, ‘PEE-TER.’ He turns himself over, reveals his underside. She pets his throat and belly. He leans into her. It is not aggressive, not angry, just expectant, and she sees then that he is presenting, his pink member exposed like a tongue. He has not come to her as a son then, but as a mate. He has learned to be a better mate.
Dr Lilly scribbles something in his notes.
‘EE-EE-EE.’ The sound comes through the water, but she can hear quite clearly that it’s one of the humanoid sounds. It’s what they’ve been waiting for.
Dr Lilly locks eyes with her as Peter speaks again.
‘EE-EE-EE.’ He does it twice more. He’s speaking to her. It’s clear. This is as close to words as he has. He cannot make the sounds ‘mar’ and ‘gar’ and ‘ret’, cannot say ‘I’ or ‘love’ or ‘you’, but she knows he his naming her, calling her, loving her. He is asking for her touch. He is not hurting her or harassing her, merely reaching out and asking. What can she do but reach back and give him what he wants?
Everything is progressing rapidly now. Peter has broken through. He can make eight distinct sounds, identify four objects. The whole team is jubilant. They rush back and forth outside her window. Margaret barely leaves the house. She forgoes the Saturday meetings, does not take her breaks. She eats at her desk with Peter. When they need her out to clean, she swims with him in the tank. She feels uncomfortable away from water, sleeps deeply at night. They do not mate him with the female dolphin again. Margaret is his everything. She services him when he asks, and he speaks to her constantly. AYs and EEs, whistles and clicks. She does not note the clicks on her chart, but she doesn’t ignore them anymore either. Peter is speaking to her, and she will listen. If he is good enough to use her sounds, she will respond to his. She can’t say all the things he does, limited by her human mouth, the tight throat that won’t trill as high or shout as loud, but Peter is patient with her, compassionate. He nods his head, eats his fish, rolls over to be rubbed.
Dr Lilly gives her notes sometimes, but she barely listens. This is not his experiment anymore, it’s hers. His adjustments are technical, her connection is corporeal. The doctor means well, but he cannot possibly understand. He gives her a tab every now and then, but the experience is barely different from her daily life, a little more colorful, but now she is connected all the time, tuned in. She has trouble reporting. She can fill out the charts, but can’t answer questions. How can she express in human words what she and Peter know?
On Sunday when they shift him to the tank, she dives in too, swims for a while and then floats. There is enough room out here for Peter to move. The depth allows for more tail, more thrust. He is faster, self-assured. She herself is limited – she can only swim and float. She feels here that he is her equal. No, her superior. She stretches her body long as Peter makes a rapid loop and arcs out of the water playfully. He dives below her and looses a burst of bubbles that float up en masse and pop all together. She laughs aloud. He circles again, twisting underwater, working through all of the positions and orientations that their shallow house does not allow for. He is an incredible being. If she were like him, she would follow, circle and breach. She would match him in his movements and his sounds. Instead, she is stuck here, with her foolish arms and legs, floating, flapping.
‘Mar-gar-et.’ It’s Dr Lilly at the side of the tank. She must not have heard him the first few times. He is waving and calling her name. She swims to the edge but doesn’t get out. Peter continues behind her.
‘One week,’ Dr Lilly is saying, ‘for completion and breakdown.’ He points to the house. She doesn’t quite follow.
‘We’re not refilling the house,’ he says. She sees the scientists at work, not just cleaning, something more. They’re pulling out her things, her bed, her desk. Dr Lilly has a box – her balls and toys, her notebooks. It all seems out of place here in the open.
‘We’ve got another day, maybe two, while they pack,’ he says. ‘There’s enough funding left to write up the research when we get home. Once that’s published, we’re sure to get renewed. We just can’t afford the yearlong experiment yet.’
Yet. It’s the one sound that resonates above the others, easing her fears. Dr Lilly will get the funding. New grants will come through. No one can deny the progress she’s made. They’ll return her furniture, resupply. She and Peter can go back to their home.
Peter has come to the side of the pool. Dr Lilly pulls a fish from her bucket and feeds it to him. She feels instantly protective. That is her place, not his. For the last two months, she has been Peter’s only companion, his only source of food.
‘You’re disrupting the experiment,’ she wants to say. But there is no experiment anymore, not without funding.
Dr Lilly throws a ball and her boy takes off. He pulls from his pocket a sheet of paper acid. She looks more carefully at his eyes and sees that he is already turned on. She wants to say no. She is sure she’ll have a bad trip – that her new homelessness and the unknown future and the scientists bustling around will creep their way in. She pushes up out of the pool and sits on the side, her legs dangling.
When she looks back, it will be this moment that she thinks of, this moment that marks the real end of it all – not weeks later when she answers the phone from somewhere in the Midwest to learn that no funding can be found, and not the next seven hours in which she waits and worries and prays for that horrible trip to end, wishes that she’d been able to tell Dr Lilly, to access the words that would make him keep his acid and his enlightenment and leave her and Peter to their play for what little time they have left. No, in the years that follow, as she ages and graduates and eventually settles into the life she’ll have, a life with a man, a marriage, a house that’s not filled with three feet of water, a house where her own children bite and bang into her and keep her awake, a job at a community college teaching girls younger than she is now about the sea, it is this moment she will think of as the last – this unexceptional moment in which she got out of the water, left her boy in his world and returned to her own, positioned herself next to the man, not the dolphin.
She is sitting there on the edge of the pool when Peter returns with the ball. The sun has already begun to dry her skin. Peter opens his mouth and nods his head, breeting for Dr Lilly to throw another fish. How quickly his focus has shifted. He is not at all concerned with Margaret. Instead of reaching into the bucket beside him, the doctor puts the acid on Peter’s tongue, holds it there while he strokes Peter’s melon.
‘Dr Lilly,’ Margaret says, quickly, softly, though it feels like a shout. For all of her words, all of her training, she can think of nothing to say, no way to bridge the divide and tell this man to stop.
‘Please,’ says Dr Lilly, letting go of her boy so he can swim again. He lays a gentle hand on her arm and she fights the urge to pull away.
‘Please,’ he says. ‘Call me John.’
Photograph © Bryce Bradford