Fiction · 09/24/2014

Whaleworld

When your father calls at two in the morning to ask if you’d like to go fishing, your first instinct is to say no, perhaps in not so succinct or polite a term, but on unbidden reflection you realize that some of the best bits of your life — the weekend in Vegas where the annular eclipse hovered over the Luxor; the tattoo of the Johnny-Cash-voiced coyote spirit guide from The Simpsons on the inside of your bicep; your wife, who is lying on her side in a squiggly proto-S shape next to you — have all come from saying yes to what was offhandedly offered you in the dead of night, as though they were discarded gifts the universe didn’t want for itself and you just happened by to scoop them up.

Besides, you reason to yourself as your wife’s hand slips from your chest to a thin arm uncontaminated by any muscle memory of throwing a ball around in the backyard, if the old man is calling you now, after a decade of silence following his drunken and uninvited appearance at your wedding reception where he punched out the DJ for playing “God Only Knows”, then he’s probably, y’know, dying or something, and to relieve the penitent of their burdens is to be subsequently relieved of yours as well, or so the half-logic of your sleepy mind deduces, for isn’t the prospect of a clean conscience at its most siren-like in the small quiet hours, here at the intersection of you and all you could have been?

So you agree, and so you get up, careful not to disturb your wife, who mumbles and unfolds into a lazy straightness as you leave the bed, and you put on two sweaters and heavy khakis and a peeling pair of leather Wellingtons, and you go outside to sit on the front porch and watch the fireflies walk each other home in the dark while you wait for your father, who by and by pulls up in his familiar old beater, which wheezes and rattles, trembling on its axles like a rusty leaf.

He says: Remember when we took this baby down to Antigua?

You say: Antigua’s an island, dad.

Huh. Then where did we go for your eighteenth?

IHOP, dad.

Eh. Antigua. IHOP. I can see how I’d mix those up.

+

You arrive at the docks, leave the car and climb into a canting wooden thing that is more a desert nomad’s dream of seaworthiness than an actual boat, and you and your father take turns at the oars until you arrive at what is more or less the middle of the ocean. It’s a shorter trip than you’d expect, considering it’s with the man who once picked you up from school and turned what should have been a five-minute drive home into a six-hour odyssey in the city to visit various friends of friends for a few things you can’t even remember what anymore but even back then you could already hear the quotation marks around them.

But here you are in placid waters, and the sun is high enough in the sky that all the reds and oranges and purples of its rising have settled into a deep blue all around you, the everything of blue, with you cracking a Heineken mini keg and your father cracking a joke as he impales a worm on a hook and tightly winds it into a wriggling mass of itself. You idly wonder when he’ll start apologizing, but that thought is quickly driven from your mind as you gaze at the cruciform silhouette of a shearwater slicing by overhead, a squid dangling from its beak, those many arms waving a feeble goodbye to the world.

And soon enough you forget your resentment just as surely as your father must have forgotten his shame, because the two of your are rocking to and fro suspended in the immensity of all the earth’s salt and sky, because there is sunlight on your face and on his face, which might have once resembled yours but has since branched out along its own particular thread in the ever-woven tapestry of human misery, and you feel close to beatific, full of grace and understanding, for there is no use pondering the uncharted paths of your collective pasts when the two of you are exactly where you are supposed to be right now.

And that’s when the storm shows up, because of course it does.

+

As you tread water and cling tenaciously to an empty mini keg while the wounded ocean thrashes about you, you remain, almost stubbornly, unsurprised by how unsurprised you are. Rough seas have always followed your father after all, who in many ways is his own cyclone, the calm eye of which spirals above him like a dark star, the turbulent edges radiating outwards and away, catching slack-jawed in its thundering eyewall those of you who through ruinous resignation surround him.

Because who do you blame as you survey the aftermath of, say, an F-5 tornado, which, right on schedule, rips through the structures that make up lives and homes and communities in the areas most geographically suited for the colliding romance of hot and cold air?

Similarly or otherwise, can you really blame a man for spending only a scant few minutes waggling his fingers and tongue at you through the wired glass of the nursery before heading out on the road when he’s got another newborn to see several states over?

You can only, if determined enough, place an abstract and unaccountable blame on the nuclei of these things, the nameless alpha event which cascades unchecked through time and space as a consequence of its own enormity, subdividing and multiplying until it is lost among its myriad symptoms, unidentifiable, because when taken singly these symptoms represent existence as incompletely as the image of an empty seat among the crowd of smiling parents at your graduation ceremony represents the totality of your father and the grand unfurling mystery of his love.

But this image, and the many others like it projected on the inside of your eyelids by your panicky grasping mind, will not be the last thing you see in this world, nor will it be the sight of your father laughing as he does the backstroke in the shadow of a looming black wave, nor even the spectacle of a great and ancient whale breaching the surface of the sea as it screeches one last pained aria and collapses with a final inelegant certainty onto its back.

+

You and your father live there atop the upturned belly of the giant whale’s carcass for a long time, which, all in all, is not a completely intolerable way of being. When you are thirsty you lift your open mouth to the roiling clouds. When you are hungry you eat of the meat beneath you. You consign your rotting clothes to the depths and dress yourself in sinew and baleen, and you shake your skinny fists at the sky and feel very primitive and manly. Your father watches you with approval, nods with pride at your rage. He himself does not eat or drink but walks the length and breadth of the whale each day, polishing the bones where they begin to show through, repairing small tears in its skin with fishing line. He cultivates the small gardens of barnacles and planktonic life blooming on its flukes and beats away the larger scavengers with his oar. At night he takes out a stick made of baleen bristles wound around each other, places it in his mouth and inhales, and the vapor of his breath curling in the cold air lets him pretend he is smoking. He seems comfortable enough, at times approaching contentment, as though these twin twilights of your lives is the endpoint he’s been moving towards all along, his many disappearances and failings nothing but momentary pit stops like the many tenement buildings he walked into and returned from that afternoon in the city, you inside the car idling at the curb, patient as you ever were.

As the months lose their shape and fall away to coalesce into years the two of you move deeper into the whale, your progress through the leviathan hollowing it out until massive walls of ribs rise up on either side of you. Seawater spumes in through gashes in the leathern hull and is filtered out, forming tide pools by the hollows of the spine that teem with hardy life. Starfish prey on mollusks and are themselves preyed on by the gulls swooping down from their perches atop the mammoth ribs. Silvery fry spawn in the pools alongside small shoals of krill revelling in their conquest of their greatest enemy. Spurred on by vengeful ancestral memory, the tiny creatures wave their arms and eyestalks in manic and long-awaited victory. Algae takes hold along the inside of the tattered hide and spreads, viral verdancy, green on gray on blue. Your father maintains the equilibrium of the dead cetacean with steady hands and a critical eye, nurturing that which slips quietly into place in the delicate balance of this ad hoc ecosystem, evicting that which does not, and you tell yourself it is the perfect job for a man whose only discernible talent is keeping afloat far beyond the point of utility or rationale or mercy that which should have in a less carnivorous sea long ago sunk.

+

After an afternoon spent teaching you how to dismantle and piece back together the valves of a Hummer-sized heart, your father leads you to where the whale’s exposed metacarpals are splayed upon the surface of the water and where, in the yellow glow of a million bioluminescent polychaetes, the two of you sit with your legs dangling in the sea and gnaw on swordfish steaks grilled over a blubber-fueled fire and peer past the surface to where the denizens of the deep are taking each other apart in the extraordinary heatless light.

A snowy albatross drops exhausted from the sky and is dragged underwater by the tip of its wing and with tears in his eyes your father says: Boy, that’s something, eh?

And here it comes, you think to yourself, but it does not come, and all through the long eating night it does not come, and come morning you understand with small solace that it never will, that the two of you could remain where you are until ropy strands of kelp twine up your legs and scales form on your skin and fishers of men pull you from the waves and hang you from your ankles to slice open your bellies, and there will be nothing in the miasmic pile of your father’s guts lying on the docks that can ever be identified as guilt.

And freed from the burden of forgiving you instead think of your wife, who will eventually forgive herself for the relief she feels at waking up to find you gone, and of your own son, who will similarly learn to forgive himself for liking his new father more, and you look at your father who is looking at you with spherical telescoping eyes that look like your own, and you mouth words to one another that sound like the wind blowing through gills, blowing through and through this empty place, and you find that you could really go for a swim right about now.

+++

Rene Cajelo is getting ready to leave first the attic, then Pittsburgh. He’s appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Cease, Cows! and elsewhere. He Tumbls when he should be looking for a job, or for the girl who wrote the Missed Connections ad that he’s pretty sure was about him.