HIS MIND IS at its sharpest in the sensory deprivation tank. He has his best ideas floating in there. When he invented the tank, the rush of hallucinogenic imagery was thrilling, but now he only hears the dolphins; their chirps and whistles are like the song of the Sirens luring him out ever deeper; a staircase of high-pitched clicks, a tunnel of eerie wails. He had designed the tank to isolate and map brain cognition, but even NASA had agreed the results were phenomenal. All that floating unleashed the mind. What potential! The next logical step was to map dolphin cognition. The rest of his team jumped ship when the funding dried up, but he’s certain a breakthrough is imminent. He lifts the coffin-like lid; as he steps from the tank, dripping water across the tiles, daylight and the humming of the lab generators flood in. The Caribbean air is thick and woozy. He dries without a towel, pulls on a wetsuit. He slips into the pool and calls, a high-pitched gargle; they come to him, their mother duck. He stays with them long past sunset, patiently training them to echo and mimic his voice, running his finger along their backs, feeding them small fish as rewards. They find the ‘m’ sound particularly difficult.
At home he is quiet. He locks himself in the office and writes each night, feverish. Mary has stopped asking if he is coming to bed. He ignores her looks. The work is too important. He is a leader in his field. He is his own number-one research participant. He wakes in the night, head throbbing, mosquitoes buzzing, and records his dreams, feverish. Ever since the day, fresh out of med school, when he encountered the hulking carcass of the beached right whale, walked right up and put a hand to its already cold body, his purpose has been clear. Philosophy says the animal is without language, but he is collapsing this ancient divide. Mary is threatening to leave too. She lays the New York Times upon their breakfast table: the Wall has encircled West Berlin. Humans love to throw up walls, he says. She says he has made one of himself; a bubble admitting none but his dear dolphins. Not this again, he says. The work is too important. Imagine if there was an underwater living room, he says, where you could speak to a dolphin. What they could teach us, how much we could learn from them. Machines are unraveling the the universe. Every day, we come closer to the great mysteries of nature. He will teach them English, he can do it, he says. A dolphin will assume a post at the UN. She grabs at his hands, pruned and riveted like the planks of rotting wood that wash ashore on the beach. You shouldn’t spend so much time in the tank, she says.