Nothing exciting ever went on around this small town on the Delaware River—until an earth angel with fins showed up.
Small-town life never seems to change. I barely had to think about my daily routine as I went through it one morning in early spring. Grab a cup of coffee; make breakfast; kiss my husband, Tony, good-bye as he left for work; clear the table; do the dishes. Next was my list of errands to get done around town.
I got in the car and drove past the old Roebling's factory, left behind from the days when Bordentown provided the steel cables for the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges, transporting them on the nearby Delaware River. The factory was long-closed now. I doubt anything exciting has happened around here since, I thought as I pulled up to my regular dry cleaner.
The man at the counter barely looked at me as I handed him my ticket. It was just the same at the supermarket. The cashier wearily rang me up. The woman behind me gave my groceries an impatient shove up the conveyer belt and started unloading her own purchases without a glance at me.
Clothes picked up and shopping done, I stopped in at the bakery to get something for dessert. The usual pastries. The counter was full of the familiar display of buns and cakes. I barely had to look at them to see the selection. My eye was much more drawn to the woman ahead of me in line.
"Jumped clear out of the water!" she said as I stepped up behind her to pay. "Can you believe it? Right there in the Delaware River!"
The woman was bursting with excitement, waving her hands in the air as she talked. She looked so different than everyone else I'd seen that day. It was as if we were all in a black-and-white movie and she in brilliant Technicolor. What could possibly have happened around here to make her look like that?
"What was in the river?" I couldn't stop myself from asking.
The woman turned to me with a wide grin. "A whale!"
"A what?" I looked to the baker for a confirmation—maybe this woman was seeing things.
He shook his head and laughed. "She says there's a whale in the Delaware River. A big white whale. Craziest thing I've ever heard, but she swears it's true." He winked at me.
"You'll see," the woman promised us as she gathered up her bags. "Everyone will be talking about it."
I bought my own pastries and drove home to do the laundry. By the time I'd finished I'd forgotten the woman at the bakery with the wild story. After dinner Tony watched TV while I cleared up the dishes. "Marilyn," he called suddenly. "Come quick! You've got to see this. You'll never believe it."
I ran into the room. He pointed at the television. A reporter was standing out by the river, the wind whipping through his hair. Tony turned up the sound.
"Local residents thought they must be dreaming when they saw a whale in the Delaware River, but this is no joke. The beluga white swam all the way from the Arctic to visit our area."
"Well, I'll be," I said. The woman at the bakery was right—there was a whale in the Delaware River. A whale named Helis, according to the news report. No wonder she had looked so excited. Imagine seeing a real live whale!
The next day when I went to the bank, everyone in line was buzzing.
"I heard that Helis came here from Greenland," a man said.
"Or Russia," said a woman with a toddler around her leg. "My mother-in-law actually saw him break the surface. He blew a spray through his blowhole!"
"I want to see the whale! I want to see the whale!" her little boy shouted.
His mother squeezed his hand tight. "And I want to see the whale, too, honey!"
"So do I!" I announced. Well, why not? It wasn't every day a whale came to Bordentown, New Jersey.
The next day was Saturday. Usually Tony and I spent the day doing things around the house. "How would you feel about going for a drive this afternoon?" I asked as we finished breakfast. "Maybe go down to the river?"
A smile broke out on Tony's face. "You mean go whale watching?" he said. "It's a date."
The shore was crowded with people by the time we got there. Several film crews were set up with bright lights. A lot of people had cameras. One family with children were crowded by a telescope. The children bounced around while their dad set everything up.
The fresh air blew in off the water, ruffling my hair. I took in a long, deep breath. We should get out here more often, I thought.
"See anything yet?" a woman with binoculars asked me.
We shook our heads.
"Me neither," she said. "But I'm sure he'll be up sometime."
"We saw him," two older women said proudly. In five minutes there was a whole circle of people swapping "fish" stories: people who saw the whale, people who knew people who saw the whale, people who thought they saw the whale, people who were convinced they'd see the whale if they were patient and kept looking. Tony and I joined right in.
We never saw Helis that day, but it still felt like a holiday. Tony and I started driving out to the river more often. Whenever there was a new Helis sighting we'd go directly to the spot. As the weeks went by, the weather got warmer and the trees began to blossom. I'd lived here for years. How had I never realized how beautiful Bordentown was in the spring?
More and more I appreciated the small-town world around me. It became part of my daily routine to smell the fresh air, gaze at the trees, feel the sun on my face. I wasn't the only one. Store owners took breaks to walk outside and stretch. The baker sold whale cookies in Helis' honor. Our minor-league baseball team, the Trenton Thunder, stopped playing when Helis appeared near the field. They ran over to get a look—and the opposing team ran right along with them, much to the coaches' frustration but to the crowd's delight!
Driving home along the interstate one evening in late spring, I marveled at how different life seemed since Helis came to town. How could a beluga whale have such an effect on people? I glanced at the river, orange and gold in the sunset. Something erupted through the surface. Helis's huge white head sparkled in the sun. He spouted a great fountain from his blowhole into the air. I held my breath as he rolled in the water. His fins were so graceful. They're like wings, I thought. Angel wings.
I knew my face was shining, just like that woman in the bakery. I had seen something special. Right here in Bordentown, New Jersey, where every day seemed special now, whale or no whale. What might tomorrow bring?