Lee Burton relaxed in the kayak, painting the sky with his fingers. A biplane, riding the clouds, put a smile on his face. It took some effort to remember the last time he had been on the water, “Life is sweet,” he sang into the wind. As he dried his face, the waves confronted the orange tube. He rowed harder into the blue-white froth, into the mesmerizing coming and going through eons of time. Yes, water was a rinse upon the dirt of life. He paid little attention to his location and found himself in darkening water. A few children, who’d been digging a moat, looked toward the sea. Suddenly they shouted at Lee, who glanced toward the almost apparitional gingerbread line of hotels behind them.
Lee brought up his arm stiffly, as if holding a lantern in the shifting winds, shouting a hello to the children. The kayak did a brief flying carpet ride and then suddenly dropped. Lee heard a huge noise, as if a group of yoga practitioners let out the Breath of Fire. He wondered why another boat plowed into him. His gaze and instincts were in pieces. Everything felt wrong and he could not tell up from down, blood from water or sense from nonsense. “Help me!” he yelled, only to gulp water and get that drowning panic. He hoped for lifeguards. In the moment between sunlight and swooning, he felt his life vanishing like water down a drain. It was total darkness and the quiet of pure emptiness – he was pulled away from the sunlight, the reality, he once counted on. The end.
When he awoke, the dripping sound redirected his attention outward. His second skin was maybe a cave. He pushed slop off his shoes. He struggled for air. Maybe he had a blackout or hit the rocks. Maybe he was one of the shipwrecks that passed or didn’t pass through history. He was alive; that is the least he could say. The ocean closed around him. Seaweed wrapped around his head. He unwound it.
“What the hell kind of market is this where you smell like a fish?” he said, glancing around; “Exit, get out. Must change clothes. Smelly cardboard.” The place was littered with krill, methane gas flailed his nostrils, the floor pulsed with an orchestra of life. When he quieted the terror, he felt himself being carried a long distance. It was a smooth ride with no sound but the inner workings of some great and unknown mechanism of the universe.
It was a mystery or a fact this place of unknowing and the reason for his presence here and not in his car heading home. Was this heaven or hell? Would there be gods here? He looked for the blue sky, any sky. He swayed from side to side, swishing in liquids and slime. He was inside the belly of a whale. Had to be. There was no other answer. He yelled until there was an echo, until his insides were on the outsides. He slid down the gelatinous sides. This was the world for him, “I will wake up from this. Will.”
He breathed and closed his burning eyes. Such things only happen in Bronze Age books, Lee reasoned. This was undeniable: he was moving through ocean within the innards of a giant beast – a leviathan of the sea. When he accepted this fate, his dread turned to laughter; perhaps this kept him from going bonkers. He interrogated himself but could only come up with bare facts and light biography. I am a science geek and Trekkie. Krista and I love birdwatching and pelagic surroundings. We fell in love and spotted a King Elder and Northern Pintail on our second date and fell in a muddy lane. I know, Lee continued, that life began in the ocean, that I am the ocean looking at itself, that I am the dream of the ocean, its mouth and song — a modern Whale Man am I.
He did not know where the poetry came from, for he preferred the logic – a kind of laconic personality – of computers. Lee listened to his breathing and the macro breathing around him. He wondered when the pressure would climax and his viscera and eyes would pop out, as well as other wonders of the sea. As he slipped around, tossed by the elevator of his surroundings, Lee wondered why he, of numberless people on the blue planet, had been swallowed. He wondered if he was a precursor of the future, the engulfed drowning being? He held onto his forehead for answers or a saving grace. It must be because I couldn’t accept my journey, couldn’t accept the world, that if I had a mission it had ended, he thought.
“Sound. It is a haunting sound, Mr. Whale,” Lee spoke, as whale song filled his ears; “Opera of the waves, the singing part of the ocean.” He enjoyed the exuberant repose and the long notes. He found it easy to focus and have clarity. If we see others through shadows, Lee realized, then this floating coffin was able to resurrect our vision. Perhaps, he was having a whale of a good time.
He wondered what whales thought as they roam the vast seas – what the Vikings called, “whale roads.” He wondered if whales recognized each other by song or face. They were monsters of the deep but, in truth, having made from them bone art and lamp oil, bringing them to the graveyard of extinction, it was humans who were the monsters.
Lee remembered when his parents took him to see the whaling ships at Mystic Seaport; those flesh factories were in the grim business of lighting homes and advanced civilization. Lee next recalled scenes in Star Trek IV where the crew travel back in time to save two whales – and, in turn, the whales save humanity from doomsday outer space probes.
Lee inhaled the digestion process in which he played a small part. He tripped over plastic bottles and a beach umbrella. Bioluminescent fish exhibited their bones in an eerie underworld cinema. Lee saw that bones are the scaffolds of life, and that there’s little separating the living from the dead – just a last breath. “Churning,” he said with a cold shiver and a big breath; “This will all be over soon.”
“You are here for a reason,” the whale said in a song-voice.
“Who said that? Huh?”
“Me, who else.”
“Is that really you, whale?”
“You are a pain in my side,” the whale responded.
“I’m more than that. Give me a chance.”
“Know the water and you will know yourself.”
Lee nodded, repeated the words, began crying. He curled up into a ball and vanished. Until… He grew frightened at the earthquake inside. The whale was shaking or being attacked by killer whales. Lee moaned. Then he wanted to fight the invader. Perhaps it was a small craft, for it zipped by without violence, the buzz changing chords and vanishing. But it came around again and he feared for the whale’s life and for his own, for they were one flesh now – and maybe that’s really how it always was but it was an unknown fact.
The whale went down to the bottom of mountains. “This whale swallows you”, he whispered. He counted the seconds, feeling the pressure on his bones and organs. The echolocation shook him. Terrified of the long descent that explodes one’s head, he accepted death. You have to come clean with death, Lee postulated, or you end up erasing the good times. He was alone. He longed for birdwatching with Krista and the poodle, longed for evenings with spicy dosas, marzipan and Netflix.
“Is that too much to ask? Lee said.
“You do nothing but ask,” the whale sang in long chords; “You look at me as alien life. You are the alien in your own home. I don’t want you. Be gone from this voyage.”
Lee knew this was the end. He waited for a sign. He heard again and again heard that swishing sound, and he brushed stomach acid and mucus from his scaly feet. He counted the seconds. In fact, with experiences of a Biblical kind, miracles were bound to happen. Paradoxes and pain, hope and deliverance, were on standby. Okay, he was not a praying man, but he mixed a few prayers from catechism and old movies. “Whale, I mean you no harm,” Lee said; “Just show me the door. I will be my best.” He squeezed his eyes shut until he saw the apparition of Sister Mary Thomas Malloy, a Franciscan nun of large body and soul who read stories and asked what they meant – lectio divina. There had to be a reason that adults wanted you to know this stuff so that you missed baseball or something. A myth held secrets, showing you a path out of the labyrinth, turning chaos into meaning, storm into raindrops you’d swallow, death onto life.
There was no place on this journey for Ahab’s God-is-dead vengeance. He shuddered and then covered his eyes to hide from the greater darkness. The answer was that Lee’s voyage was a God question, a punishment of sorts. But why would God favor or punish cities and send a whale to swallow someone, only to repeat this 3,000 years later at the Jersey Shore? Wasn’t there a covenant between God and humans? And why Lee of all people? Lee clutched his heart. He stopped pondering and longed for that pitch into the gloom.
“My story ends,” he said; “Yes, Mr. Whale, to the depths. I am a captured man, captured by the information machine; but you have not captured me – you’ve freed me. I don’t want to know what others say about me.” Lee heard lovely whale-song, and he was pleased, and felt that this was a high note of life and that now he could die, for everything afterwards would be decrescendo.
“I don’t want to be around if social media has replaced God,” Lee said. The whale took a dive and Lee felt the air squeeze out, he screamed red. He made promises and looked for redemption. He gripped bone railings. For moments, his soul left his body. He slid up and down the immense stomach, a vinegar rinse burning his eyes and skin.
There seemed no end to the depths to which the whale plummeted.
After a long period of anxiety, the whale reversed direction, up and up. Rapidly. Lee closed his eyes, gyrated his head, moaned. He fainted and didn’t know for how long. The whale rocketed into the air completely out of the water, dropping its mass into the waves — splash. If the whale was in ecstasy, his passenger was not. The whale sauntered toward the shore and opened its mouth, vomiting out Lee.
What a smell, what slime. Lee was caught between two states of being, the swallowed and the vomited. He looked blankly at the mountain of beast with eyes sunk in wrinkled blubber, eyes knowing that the secret of life is life, “I love you,” Lee said, spitting out water; “You are my vanished self. I’m afraid no longer. You are the perfect silent moment, the living on and beneath the waves.”
The whale turned its head to look at Lee, and said, “You don’t really love me. You don’t risk your safety. You must share the danger of all that is truly living now.” And then the whale slipped into the unknown depths. Lee flailed about and gasped for air. He coughed up seawater. Floating on his back for a few minutes Lee turned to swim but flopped like a fish, as the waves nearly carried him away.
Lee saw the Victorian hotels and it gladdened his heart, and the world was brought right again. He swam along the jetty toward the shore, crying out in desperation and joy. Seagulls floated; a few divebombed to eat the gunk floating around Lee. The breeze was salty and felt like a close shave on his face. Lee did not look back for fear of the whale changing its mind, of having multiple impulses, of gobbling him again. He fell onto the sand and waited for a while before he crawled away. He was back on land, but he already missed the sea.
Richard Marranca is published in the Raven’s Perch, DASH and Coneflower Review. The story in the latter was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2021. He teaches in the Classics and Religion Departments at Montclair State University. He received a NEH grant to study Ritual Arts in Hinduism and Buddhism at College of Holy Cross, Worcester.