“Get inside the whale,” says Magda through her bullhorn, our boat scudding on steel-colored waves. Her voice is metal and ice, a seagod’s song. “Or rather, admit you are inside the whale…for you are, of course.”
I think this will be the final scene of the film or maybe even the opening, music swelling like breakers toward the distant shore. She has a keen sense of drama, Magda does, and no care for attribution. The words were George Orwell’s but then they became hers and the book they were in was mine, but that became hers as well, as did I. That’s just how it is. Some creatures are made to swallow everything.
Despite the bullhorn, Magda’s voice is partially muffled by the filtration mask that obscures her salt-scoured features, her beryl green eyes. Unruly copper hair snakes out in all directions, gives her the look of a minor sun. She makes a lasting impression: mask, hair, black sleeveless wetsuit, elaborately inked arms, the taught hemp-rope muscles. You know just by looking at Dr. Magda Viðarsdóttir that it’s no joke, opening up a whale.
“For the world’s leading expert on how polymers interact with living ecosystems, whale necropsies come with the territory…” This is what the narrator will say. I know, because I’ve seen the script, helped write it, in fact, but even I cannot hope to do justice to the vast power of this woman. I practice saying these words but they won’t ask me to do it. No one asks the assistant to be the voice of anything. Magda, on the other hand, is asked by everyone to speak about her particular areas of speciality: microplastics in the Arctic and the ecology of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the island of trash between California and Hawaii. “87,000 tons of plastic in that garbage vortex alone,” she informs the documentarians. And the familiar barrage begins: “An average North American consumes 100 kg of plastic per year. 8.8 million tons of plastic waste find their way into the oceans annually. Trillions of plastic fragments in the waters of the Arctic. Of the roughly 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics produced worldwide since the 1950s, about 6.3 billion have been thrown away and 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will be in some part of the environment by 2050.”
They don’t even need to ask her any questions. She can do this for hours and at any time, but it’s really something special in the light of early morning. Cinematic. I can imagine her on a postage stamp, a coin, a flag. I am certain that she will be a statue.
“It takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose, a monofilament fishing line takes 600 years and a plastic bag up to 1,000.” The bad news is endless. They’ll add the graphics in post- production. People only have so much attention span, after all, when it comes to what they don’t want to hear. “Both the genie and the bottle are made of plastic and neither can be put back,” she says. That’s another line from her book. The documentarians are happy to have captured it on film and can imagine it going in the trailer and the trailer playing at the film festival and the sound of their own voices as they accept the award, which may or may not be made of plastic. Magda looks good and right against the Indonesian sunrise. She is an epic poem. A crowd is already coming into view on the shore, encircling the whale.
“The eternal human footprint,” Magda says, still talking about the garbage vortex. This, we’ve been told by the documentarians, will be the title of this film. The Eternal Human Footprint. It’s wordy, sure, but it has presence. It’s also the title of Magda’s first book, the one that called to my younger self in Kissimee, Florida, made me understand who I was; who I was going to be. It was her words, yes, but also the author photo: in black and white I could not guess at the color of her eyes but they burned with summons, said to me: “Here I am. Come if you dare.” That was five years ago; even now I can’t believe that this was entirely my own choice. I know Magda can’t fully understands this, having never known hesitation except when it comes to giving herself over to emotion. I can’t put that in the script but I want to, because she needs to hear it. She needs to imagine what it’s like to be, on one day, a Florida State environmental science grad, unpaid lab internship awaiting, and then on the next to find oneself outside the Ólafsvík office of Dr. Magda Viðarsdóttir, astonished in the Icelandic midnight sun. For her, Viking that she is, such things are merely what is called living: you identify, you decide, and you do.
Five years ago, in the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, she frowned at my thin résumé and pursed her lips, her jaw pulsing lightly as though she were chewing on the possibility of me. It occurred to me only then that I was far from the first woman or man to show up on this doorstep with a unanswerable question burning in their eyes. How long had any of them lasted? The sun was setting and the shadows elongating. But the sun had been setting for hours. Time in Iceland is a different frame rate. At last she looked up and spoke, her voice the sound of dry leaves, woodsmoke: “Don’t have any expectations.” She led me in silence toward the forlorn turf house where I have lived ever since, one more stray taken in among Magda’s goats and sheepdogs, who also live at the house, along with the documentarians. It’s a tight fit, alright, but it distracts from the loneliness.
My turf house is one of three partially interred by the hill into which they were built by Magda’s great grandfather, Sporði whose name, I must mention, means “the tail of a whale” and who was, not coincidentally, a whaler. Maybe it’s a truth, of a sort, that we all act out scripts written long ago. But about our dwellings: simple a-frames crafted from white birch, these torfbæir are covered entirely with sod and tussocks of orchard grass. In spring they bloom with mountain avens, bilberries, and purple lupine. They look like what will happen to human habitations after the earth reclaims them all, leaving only a trace of a door or window, and here and there a tumbledown church spire. The loveliest sort of apocalypse.
It’s an inconvenience, sure, dwelling in a dog-, goat- and filmmaker-crowded turf house with neither gas nor electricity, five miles on foot from the main compound. But then, Magda insists it’s convenience that’s killing us all, so it’s about the principle, the purity. Still, I do wish the winters were less harsh, if I’m honest, and the smell of peat burning in the stove less pungent. An Icelandic winter is a long time to yearn but I can endure these things beneath the reindeer skins, imagining Magda and myself curled around one another, waiting for spring. But she rarely comes. Her torfbæir is several hundred yards closer to the sea; in between us are Magnus and Olafur, the cod specialists. We take our meals together in the stone longhouse overlooking Snaefellsjokull, the great glacier. Magnus and Olafur tell stories and drink beer while Magda looks on, placid and distant. She has heard their tales a thousand times but even she knows that the warmth of other bodies, the sound of other voices, is nourishing. It was a year before she first came to my window, unannounced, with a bottle of aquavit, a hand-cranked record player, and an armful of American 45s. We looked at one another from across the sill, forming an unspoken question. None of the things I had long thought to say were possible. The glacier and sod and aurora-rippled sky seemed to steal language.
I imagine saying all of this in voice-over to these scenes of us on the boat, the whale on the near horizon, the people gathering around the glistening black form. I imagine a different movie entirely.
It was Magda who spoke first that night.
“I would like to come in,” she said. And that’s all. I didn’t know how to disguise my excitement so as not to frighten her off. I thought of when I was a child and tried to coax a fawn that had appeared, incongruous on our suburban lawn, to eat from my hand. I can see still the twitch of its hind quarters, the arc of its sudden flight. But I should have known that Magda would not startle as easily. We drank and our skin glowed from inside and we danced, close, holding each other wordlessly as Patsy Cline sang “She’s Got You” into the dark. Magda kissed me, forcefully, with a unexpected hunger that planted an equally unknown hunger in me. She smelled like the deepest part of the sea and her tongue tasted like anise and when I awoke in the morning there were only the sheepdogs, asleep at the end of my bed, the goats bleating in the kitchen. She did not return to my home for another month and we never spoke of it then, nor any of the times the scene was repeated in the years that followed. This is not in the script. This movie is not about me. The documentarians are always off drinking in town with Magnus and Olafur when Magda comes to my window. They can’t know that their film about whales and plastic and the extraordinary woman who understands both is also about a nearly feral heart that does not understand what it means to feel attachment.
Magda gestures toward the tragedy that awaits us on the shore.
“We’re seeing this happening more and more,” she says, lowering the bullhorn. The cameraman tracks in. “100,000 marine mammals die each year because of plastic pollution alone. It has already become the rule, not the exception.” Then she gazes in silence toward the approaching archipelago. The documentarians nod; I nod. We know just what she means. We were first called to Spain in 2018 for the emaciated young sperm whale that washed ashore at Cape Palos, dead because it couldn’t digest the more than sixty pounds of trash clogging its stomach and helplessly tangled intestines. “Inside was fish netting, garbage bags, ropes, a plastic chemical drum…”
She is listing the items we found inside its body for the film, her voice steely but urgent. They will insert images of these things in post-production. It is important and good to get this all down on film. How else can we see it? The documentarians know as well as we do that it’s important to believe it’s not too late.
“Thailand just two months after that,” she continues, “Removed eighteen pounds of plastic from inside of a pilot whale.” It’s heartbreaking to hear it told so matter-of-factly. Magda offers mere numbers but I was there, too, and I know the depth charge. That pilot whale stayed alive, for a time, which was infinitely harder than coming upon a creature already dead. We saw ourselves reflected in its filmy eyes. We passed the night in the aura of its diminishing breathing, Magda and I, our hands touching as we embraced the slick body, felt the life ebbing. That’s when I knew what it is to truly desire. Because a dying whale becomes a permanent part of your story; it can’t be otherwise.
“Just this March, we were called to the Davao Gulf in the Philippines,” Magda says. “Where a juvenile beaked whale was vomiting blood. She was dead by the time we got there, eighty-eight pounds of trash inside of her. We’ve recovered sixty-one dead whales in the Davao Gulf alone in recent years and at least forty-five of them were stuffed with plastic.”
Magda has such passion, but it is all for plastics and marine life, not for flesh and people. “You must understand that we cannot go on like this,” she says, ending the commentary. She straps on her instrument kit and jumps off the boat before it has come to rest. But there’s no point in haste. It’s clear enough that this one, another sperm whale, adolescent male, never had a fighting chance. His bloated body, exhaling gasses like a punctured zeppelin, is already decomposing badly by the time we get to him. That’s why we have the masks on, for the stench. It’s a smell that can undo human reason. Because a smell like this is older than reason and it will long outlast it, too. I want to say this to the documentarians but no one asks me. We all know where the show is.
Magda inspects the carcass, the scars inscribed on its hull-shaped head like ancient writing. She runs her hands along the jagged saw of its open mouth. Her copper tendrils radiate in the rising sun and the crowd barely moves, knowing that they’re before something older than time, and stranger. We prepare to make the incision. The documentarians frame us in tight close-ups. We are serious and somber and I wonder if they can understand how much we are meant to be in love. I wonder if they know what it is they are seeing.
Magda cannot say for certain what brought this one to its end, but she knows already that plastic has something to do with it. It always does, one way or another. Eating plastic tricks a whale’s brain, makes it feel satiated, like Doritos and the softest spot on the Netflix-bathed couch. With a belly stuffed with soda bottles, fishing line, and dry cleaning bags it takes in too few nutrients, swims more slowly than it should, circling unaware on the meniscus of oblivion. Magda traces the graffiti arcs of the scars; they’re from ship motor blades and fishing lines. No obvious predator damage on this one, but then much of the rest of its skin has already peeled and bubbled away in the Indonesian summer heat. A rotting whale is like the beginning of the universe: what was once a body turns back into undifferentiated flesh and then further back into the volatile, chaotic contest of forces that it came from. Around our feet run thick billows of pearlescent fat, pools of blackening blood, waxy spermaceti and reeking leeched fluids; and inside it all the seething galaxies of microbial life. There will be a scene in the film where we see this happen, in time lapse.
A whale carcass this size and this far gone can’t be taken anywhere, so the necropsy has to happen here on the beach, onlookers fighting their gag reflexes to peer into the mystery. Magda makes the incision from the pectoral fin toward what remains of the tail. I move the crowd back, knowing what’s to come. It takes only an instant for the pressure of the gasses to force the intestines to tumble out like spring-coiled snakes from a novelty peanut can. The crowd gasps. The teeth gleaming in the whale’s exposed mandible make the whale appear to be in on the prank. Then the real work begins: Magda’s chapped but elegantly shaped pianist’s hands are swift with the scalpel. She’s a virtuoso. In moments the intestines and stomach are dissected and she commences the ritual that I have seen unfold on many shores, pulling out objects the way a magician produces a colored handkerchief from a volunteer’s ear. The documentarians get it all down, in close-up: from the forestomach Magda and I pull doll heads and pacifiers, diapers and baby bottles; flip-flops, toothbrushes, shampoo bottles, take-out containers, six-pack rings, a rain poncho, garbage bags, birthday balloons and scented markers and straws and straws and straws and straws. Of these we lose count, there are so very many. These disposable everythings, all blanched and warped by the pre-digestive process. You get used to seeing these things when you open up whales. You get used to finding a distance from the guilt and disgrace of it. You can stand there, ankle-deep in whale guts and ambergris and tell yourself that this is none of your doing; it’s the way of the world.
But there is too much of the world inside this whale. In the cardiac stomach, the main compartment where most of the business happens, we find toy pistols and rifles, green and tan army men, fused to cowboys, who are fused to Indians, a ball of permanent antagonism. Lego bits and an EasyBake Oven with a fossilized ShrinkyDink inside. Colorforms and Rubik’s cubes and a Green Machine tricycle. Next to come are tight balls of synthetic clothing, fast-fashion microfibers. Their styles are decades past, their colors long bled white. Attached to these are school binders and pencil cases, puffy stickers and a hot pink roller blade. Lunchables by the dozen. Magda, stoic, makes no comment; she has seen it all and there is much work to be done. Our muscles strain and our breathing is labored inside our masks. From the pyloric stomach, the last compartment, a shopping bag flutters slowly like a handkerchief waved by a Victorian hand. The cameraman zooms in, tight on the faded logo, still identifiable as having come from Zayre, a retail chain defunct since 1990. As it happens, that was the same year I, myself, last shopped with my grandmother at that particular location in Kissimmee to buy the Pocket Locker in which I would type and then erase and type again a hundred times the name of the Brazilian girl across the street who inspired in me the heat and shame of my first inextinguishable crush. And this, it would seem, is exactly what this bag from the whale contains.
Mercifully, we’ve already moved on to the duodenum, which disgorges a chain of Tamagotchis, an Atari 5200, housing melted to a seafoam-green Sharp boombox, barnacled by joysticks, game cartridges, CDs and audio cassettes. So very many Starbucks cups. The bank cards and IDs are too calcified to read the embossing, but even so, there is no longer any reasonable question about whose lifetime this whale has consumed, for out come the X-rays of my own broken bones, the stones in my kidneys, the menacing stain on the now-missing portion of my thyroid. The camera is on me and I extract the objects with a fury bordering on frenzy, the humiliation of it scorching. Is it my fault that this noble creature had an appetite for only the things that I had discarded? Is it my fault that I only realized too late that my pleasures came at such a cost? Still, the whale bears witness.
Only later, watching the film, will I see in the deliberate slowing of her movements that Magda knows that here in Indonesia she is looking at an unmistakably American autobiography. Its gleaming, beaming whiteness. Its unforgivable Floridian consumerism. The gendered limitations of its aspirations. This is what is on trial, I want to say. Not me. The things that made me but not me. I can only hope she sees as well the complexity of the narrative: the first glimmers of ambivalence, the spark of self-knowledge when I knew at last why my child-self had seemed such a puzzle. The whale consents, offers a sequence that can only have been organized by intent: Barbie and Jem, blameless neutered nakedness welded by digestive juices to the floor of their DreamCamper. Limbs entangled, no concern for Ken and his kind. After these comes the damning pile of mini vodkas, the bottles of prescription meds lined up like orange shotgun shells, the collection of vibrators in multiple forms for various orifices, the red Solo cups—as many, by my count, as the number of parties at which I had done something regrettable, more still for the times I had been left unsatisfied and alone. There are the pornographic VHS cassettes, too, and the spill of Polaroids of the first one I could call my lover, the last one I would pretend was just an experiment, just a phase.
There are murmurs from the spectators. Do they know that they are seeing not only a whale but also a woman, dissected here in the noon light? The things I have consumed and the things that have consumed me. I feel the questions in their gaze. But don’t you recognize yourselves in this? I want to say. Can’t you see we all have a hand in this? I want to say. Are you so certain that none of you has a whale in which to find yourselves condemned? But these words won’t come. My fear of confrontation makes confessions of all sorts catch in my throat.
It takes the better part of the afternoon to account for it all and by the time Magda extracts the last item, the laminated book dust jacket bearing her own startling image, it is nearly sundown. The camera zooms in, this time not on Magda but on me. I did not consent to this, to any of this. And so I must make it mine.
“Hvalreki,” I say, before I even know I’m speaking. The crowd looks in my direction. I repeat it, my voice a rasp on rusty iron. Magda already knows what I have in mind. “Hvalreki. You know what that means? It’s Icelandic. For beached whale. But it also means something good that is unexpectedly yours or at your disposal. Do you understand? Do you understand?” And I don’t mean to cry but it happens anyway because it’s true: anything you find inside of a whale is a gift, a cause for wonder. Magda removes her mask and I, mine. Her face is wind-carved granite. I am certain that I can hear her pulse thrum in time with mine. Her ancient eyes take the measure of me.
“Admit that you are inside the whale,” says Magda, tender as a song.
I whisper, “For you are, of course.”
The documentarians are ecstatic. Cut!, they cry in triumphant unison. The spectators appear deeply satisfied. They have forgotten the whale. They coo and chatter, applaud what they take for a performance. But Magda and I know that there is nothing more real than what is found inside the belly of a whale. A drone camera whirrs violently overhead, invading the intimate immensity of the moment. It holds itself in the air, captures the final shot. I can imagine what it all looks like from above: two women and a whale. A spiral of accusatory objects. Spread out on the shore like this, there’s an argument in it all, a sign, perhaps, that the way we came is not the way we must go forward. It’s maybe even a little bit beautiful, seen from the proper distance.