According to the Stillboro County Citizens’ Almanac, reissued with addenda every couple of years between 1912 and 1988, the whale that washed up on shore and came to cover most of the Northeastern Coastline in March of 1929 was between 181 and 182 miles long. All along the whale’s body were caves that teenagers had carved with garden shovels, hideouts and forts gored into its sides, strands of dry muscle hanging from the ceiling like the guts of a giant pumpkin. They huddled in these caves to smoke and talk and touch, wrapped in blankets in winter, wearing nothing but swimsuits in summer.
The fact of its size, and of its seeming ability to live without food and family—for it was definitely alive, breathing heavily and flapping its tail on rare, spectacular occasion—was discussed in the coastal communities in the same awestruck but resigned way of all gross natural phenomena, like the size of certain trees in California and Brazil, or the ability of certain monks in Tibet and Nepal to weather feats of focus and privation that seemed to defy the human. Or the simple, incredible size of the universe. There was nothing, in other words, wrong with the whale being there, it was just remarkable in the way that all being was remarkable, or maybe a little more than that. It was what it was and people lived with it, equating it, perhaps, in their minds, with the even stranger immensity and ceaseless breathing of the ocean that had yielded it up.
The early newspaper reports, digested in the Almanac, put any question of the whale’s origin to rest. Everyone alive at the time agreed that there wasn’t any point in asking how or why it’d come here. Like a row of sheer cliffs or a dormant volcano, it came simply to define the part of the country where they lived and would raise their children.
For as long as he was a kid, in the 1980s, Max had come with his family every summer to see it, or a part of it, the part they always came to see. Each family had its own part that spoke to or excited or comforted it, being whatever it was as a family. Every early July and usually again in late August, Max and his parents drove out to the coast from their inland home, stayed three or four nights in Hyckham, enjoying the famous fudge and toffee and cotton candy colored merry-go-round, and then, around noon, packed up their lunch and ambled out along the dunes and down to the beach.
When he was five, six, seven, and eight, Max spent most of the summer thinking about the whale, sitting in his room with the shades drawn remembering the first visit and looking forward to the second, just before the new school year. On the night they returned home after that second visit, the envelope with the note that revealed what class he was in, and who was in it with him, would be waiting.
His family’s place was near the middle, with the fin a good fifteen miles up the road, where they’d go for day trips although it was especially touristy and hard to find a place to park where you didn’t have to walk a long way to put down your blanket with a possible view of the thing itself, and not just of the spindly ice cream and sorbet carts that had, after restrictions were lifted in ‘88, fanned out all up and down the area of prime beachfront from the base of the tail past what Max, as a child, had referred to as the whale’s arms.
On fin days, one of which per vacation was obligatory, they ordered turkey club sandwiches and raspberry soda and packed it all in the back of the car and drove off along the coastal highway, through traffic so thick they just barely outpaced the families that walked, or just barely didn’t.
When they got there, he’d unwrap his sandwich and take the pickle out of its soggy bed in the deli’s white paper and throw it skidding down the beach until it was covered in sand. Then he’d let himself think that the whale pricked up its nose and smelled the pickle and the sand and the whole smell of the whole day of him there then with his family and wanted something from him, even then, all the way down where its head was, a hundred miles away.
Eventually, many years of Max’s life passed by. The Millennium rolled over and the people from his past were consigned to it. He lay on a cot on the first floor of a B&B in Wyndhocken, near where, as the locals said, the whale’s shoulders hunkered.
He talked to his chest like it was another person in the room, his traveling partner. There were two pillows on the cot, so he put one under his head and the other over it, and lay there, a pebble between two rocks. He’d plugged in the water boiler for tea and gone to lie down while it worked, expecting the click that meant it was ready to rouse him. But it hadn’t. The click had come, and he was awake, aware of the water slipping back down the thermometer. Two butter biscuits in a red envelope sat ready beside the mug. He knew all this, and was hungry and thirsty, but could not rise. These were the times when he had to call upon his impressions of the cooling water and the biscuit envelope and everything else he couldn’t get a hold of to serve as a kind of mild but reliable personality, so as not to feel like no one. He tried to be gentle with himself as often as he could.
He looked from between the pillows at his curtained window, which had been advertised, like all the places on the coast, as having the best whale view that money could buy, at least until you started talking serious money.
Some towns lit their allotted sections at night, so you could sit on your balcony with a glass of wine and look out at the waves fanning through tunnels in the sand under the breathing flank. Whether or not to light it was a public ordinance kind of decision, and in general Max had been avoiding the towns that did, preferring instead to sit on his balcony with a glass of wine and just look at the sleek, black shape out there merging with the sleeker, blacker ocean, or, on nights like these, lie on his bed with the top of his corduroys open and not think much of anything, luxuriating in the rejection of each new whale metaphor as it came, pushing it back out there where it belonged, free for the taking, in a great swarm with all the others that some trolling behemoth might one day open its mouth and… but, again, this was not the way to think.
He fell asleep with the lights on, and in the morning reheated the water and dipped the teabag he’d unwrapped last night, and opened the biscuits, and then, after a shower, had his real breakfast downstairs with the couple who ran the place and wanted to discuss their daughter, who was across the country trying to make a life for herself in movies. After settling the bill, he got back in his car and drove into the morning, through a few tunnels along the coast, stopping at a scenic overlook, where he sat on the cliff railing and looked over.
Since leaving the city where he’d lived since 2009, Max had spent most of a week chronicling the coast from Portsmouth to Wyst. He had a ruled journal that he entered everything into, all his sketches and notes, turning it sideways when need be and drawing to scale.
He had recently been forced to accept, here in his late twenties, that all of the people he used to know were gone, and none of the new ones were doing anything to help loose the material that had been getting stuck and clingy down in his system, a kind of invisible fat that he assumed came from worry and fear. In fact, they seemed happy enough to watch it clog and overtake him as they sat together through the weekend nights at apartment kitchen tables backed by sinks of dishes, or in bars, wondering if the night would end here or if there’d be a next thing.
“You’re going to have to start being more present around the people around you,” his boss, who wanted to be seen as an only slightly older, medium-close friend, told him that day. “You’re moving into a new phase, one where you’re going to have start taking things on more fully. It’ll be hard, but it’s essential. Before you start, take a week’s vacation. You could use it.”
Now, mid-September, he was most of the way up the coast, remembering the whale heyday, when you could drive this road and actually see a progression of growing up along the animal’s body, a whole life cycle of kids playing in the sand way down towards the tail, to teenagers sitting on radios and throwing cans around and daring each other to carve an initial into a crunch of hide, to parked lovers’ lane cars at night, rocking along with the surf, to newlyweds with picnic baskets and beach reading strewn in spirals around them, flip-flops cast off but still in range, to older couples, strolling past middle age in the direction of a particularly windswept, bluff-strewn patch of late beach where the old men and some women came to sit on benches in raincoats with their hoods up, grizzling at the whale more than just gazing at it. They must have been starting to know bits of what it knew, lewd inklings, their hands shaking around paper cups of hot decaf.
Maybe, way up by the whale’s head, which was roped off by the Parks Service and not open any time of year, there was a graveyard for these very localest of the locals, those who had grown up and down with the whale and were, in a sense, coming to rest in its harbor. These were men and women whose bones had a powerful homing impulse, and might have been dangerous to try burying elsewhere.
Max left Windhassett as evening came on. He had spent the afternoon reading at a table outside the bakery, in his fall coat and corduroys. At a used book and antique store he’d found a volume of vintage whale photographs, full of those hazy mid-century postcard photos, the kind he’d often seen of Coney Island and Beverly Hills, and that his parents’ parents’ generation probably always saw when it closed its eyes.
The book was arranged by decades, and for the thirties, the first full whale decade, there was a typo that spelled “The Depression” with three s’s, in huge block letters. This put Max in a mood he could tell would last all day. It also firmed up his decision to go out to the head tonight, knowing suddenly for sure that he’d never have another chance.
He was a little cold when he got in his car and set out for the last stretch of road before he’d have to park and go the rest of the way on foot. The coastal road ended at the much-photographed SCENIC DETOUR sign, which had been nailed up by a work crew back in the Depression, illuminated with a crude but earnest whale symbol. He stopped here, regaining his composure after the road’s hairy unrailed turns.
When Max was growing up, there’d been a lot of talk about what you had to do to break in and see the head, wires to cut and fences to climb, and dogs, but, really, you just walked over a few bluffs and eased yourself down to the shore on the other side, scrambled along for a mile or two of late shoulder, and then waded through the waist-deep water over to another beach, and then there you were, face to face with the face. People had been doing it for years.
He made it quickly over the bluffs and through the wading and back up on shore, tearing open a plastic bag with dry socks inside that he’d held high above his head with the water up to his waist, like a soldier keeping his rifle dry across some treacherous bog in what he might, while reminiscing at a bar back home, have called simply The East.
He rolled up his pants and sat on the sand in his dry socks and set to work finding a way to look at the head. It was like a painted cliff that had shattered off from the landmass so long ago that maybe it was the older of the two.
In this moment, Max finally came to see that the whale was dying. Probably it had been dying ever since it washed up, but now death was near, and drawing nearer, from far out at sea. He understood that this was somehow what his boss had tried to tell him, why he’d been allowed to leave work and come here before entering his thirties.
The ghost world set in almost immediately. Most nights it takes some time, thought Max, and some doing, to bring it on, but there are other nights when it’s there already, like it’s been waiting for hours to meet him, checking its watch in a crowded restaurant.
He walked all the way down to the far edge of the beach. Candy wrappers and empty lighters littered the ground, but there were no people. A beach chair missing an arm sat buried at a weird angle in the sand. Max sat down next to it.
The whale was having a harder and harder time breathing. It seemed unsure of where to find the air, or where to put it, as if its heart had started to question whether air was what it really wanted. Maybe the body needed an operator to relay messages from its heart, up and down the coast, and that operator was now headed for bone- and fat-dwelling retirement.
He wondered who would mourn the whale, and, at the same time, had other related thoughts, like if there had ever been a boy lost inside, as there always tended to be in caves and wells. And if the police had had to cut their way in with pickaxes and hacksaws to find him in time for Christmas, and then some crew had come out in the slump between Christmas and New Year’s and repaired the hole with fiberglass and gray rubber, so the summer tourists wouldn’t know.
Maybe the people of the coast would turn up to mourn the whale, and so would other whales from far away, huge ones that would reach all the way south to Maryland or Virginia, drifting in during the night to hum and bellow and admit of their loss. And maybe after all that the carcass would decompose and inside, among the collapsing walls, whole parlors and taverns of lost boys playing pool and shooting darts would be found, blinking in the salty light of a place they barely recognized, if they hadn’t decomposed by then as well.
The moon glinted off the sleek upper neck, so that a curved white line was the only way to tell where the whale’s hide and the night sky began to differ, each so wrinkled by now they were surely allies. Max went closer, right up against the mouth and nose, venting warm air.
The ghosts were like mosquitoes, seasonal, pack animals, given to hanging out by the water. Max swatted them and dabbed at the blood on his skin with the edge of his shirt, tasting some before it soaked in.
Maybe, instead of lingering here on the coast, the dead whale would drift back out to sea, but there’d be no grave for it. It would tip down into a trench or crater, which its body would dam up until it began to fall apart and go its separate ways, or the earth’s plates crushed it into a cube of priceless stone.
Already Max had given in to thoughts of his own death, and the little ways that someone could help him then, if they were there and willing. The fact that help really was possible, even between a person who was still a person and a person who soon would not be. He wondered if, even inside a thing like the ocean, there was still a special river for bearing the dead away.
He wanted to help the whale however he could, tell it that it’d be remembered, and not just in photographs and national seaside nostalgia. Tell it that its time had come and that, when it’s your time, the time belongs to you, even as you’re being taken away and melted down and stripped for parts and thrown into a heap outside of time. Still, it’s your time, and no one else’s. It’s the last and realest thing you have, he wanted to tell the whale.
“Stop talking about me,” it growled, suddenly, in a low and rusty voice.
A few seconds passed, finding their way around the whale and into Max’s life. Then again it shuddered, “Stop talking about me.”
Something in all of this loosed in Max the smell of the whale’s rotting. This smell revolted him so much he wanted to lie down with his face in the sand and call it quits. But, instead, he decided to do whatever he could to help get the whale get off this beach and back to its home, where, after almost a century away, it probably belonged, and where maybe it could rot in peace.
He got up and ran the whole way back over the bluffs to his car, grabbing whatever he could find. He found a coil of thick rope, a pair of pliers, a shovel, and a hard hat. He’d rented the car from the superintendent of his apartment building, who ran a few side businesses, and this was what had turned out to be in the trunk.
As he was bundling all of this up, thinking about how to heave it back over the bluffs, a passing car flicked on its brights, gliding to a stop.
A man in a blue raincoat and a baseball cap got out, his hazard lights blinking, and came over to where Max was closing the trunk.
“Broken?” he asked, in a foreign accent that Max associated with the kind of old war movies that proudly oversimplified the causes and effects.
“The car? No,” Max replied.
“Yeah, good,” said the man. He stood there in his raincoat and looked at Max, probably thinking in his own language.
Then he walked over to his car and turned off the hazard lights and killed the engine, and came back with his keys clipped to his belt. The lights faded and the car became too dark to see. He took off his hat, which bore a beer logo, yawned, then put it back on. He wore windpants with reflective stripes down the sides, terminating in big rubber boots that smelled new.
“Okay, let’s go now?” he asked.
Maybe this man is here to help, thought Max, eyes foggy and ears ringing. He felt like a child at the naïveté of the thought, but he went with it. The two of them hiked back down to the beach and over the bluffs and through the wading interval and back to the whale, and the man did help, carrying a rope and a shovel.
Back near the head, a group of kids were starting to build a fire. Seeing Max and the man approach, they kicked out the few sticks they’d kindled and ran off into the underbrush, leaving behind a red can of kerosene and three bottles of supermarket vodka.
“He’s dying?” asked the man, looking at the whale.
“Yes,” replied Max, glad not to be alone with this knowledge.
“So we bury him now?”
The man nodded with a sadness like he knew something about all the dying there’d ever been.
Leaving the tools on the beach next to the kerosene can and the aborted fire, they slugged some vodka and began to push on the whale’s flank, just ahead of where Max imagined its ear to be.
They pushed for ten long minutes, up to their knees in the warm stagnant cove between the body and the beach. “This is the hardest thing I have ever done,” wheezed the man.
“I know,” said Max, and some coarse pride passed between them as the whale gasped for breath and the ghosts sucked up little thimblefuls of blood.
They pushed until their knees panicked. Max’s elbows radiated shivers into his wrists and shoulders, and he could feel them deep in his stomach, almost at the base of his spine.
The old military feeling of hoisting a gun or a shot man through the air came back, and the two of them felt sure that they still had many years ahead, to spend however they chose.
As the sun began to rise they collapsed into the water, leaning against the side of the whale, submerged in its shadow.
The sun rose higher and, as the light changed, the whale really did look farther out to sea.
When they came close to falling asleep there, they hoisted themselves back up and walked away from the beach, looking back at the head now bathed in sunlight. Max felt a quiet elation at the thought that he and this man had together eased a tremendous weight off their lives.
Back at the road, the man requested breakfast. Standing at his car, blotting at his wet pants with a towel and taking his journal from the glove compartment, Max said okay. He would drive back down the interstate right after that.
Across from where their cars were parked was a small fisherman’s diner with some boats up on cinderblocks out front, and two cars by the entrance. A big neon sign that read COFFEE perched unplugged in the window. Under it was a handwritten sign that read NO COFFEE.
It was empty inside. They found a table by the window, looking out at the parking lot and the cliff wall that held back the ocean, heavy clouds rolling in.
The waitress came by and left two menus and two glasses of water. The menu was printed on a sheet of orange paper, with just the words PEA SOUP written in the center of one side, and the sandwiches in a column on the other, beside a list of eggs.
Max read the menu again and again, while the man took one look and folded it down the center and put his water on top, like he knew exactly what he wanted.
He stretched and yawned into his fist, then said, “I have spent up all my God-given money on presents and souvenirs. You will buy it for me?”
Max looked at him now, head-on for the first time. In this light, he looked younger than Max had been treating him.
The waitress, barely twenty, returned with ketchup, Tabasco, and salt and pepper in a Budweiser box. She stood there, looking down at them with her notepad out.
Max wanted to tell her what they’d done and receive her congratulations. But he didn’t, because it would have made her job that much harder, probably, and pushed the delicate triumph of the morning too far. He didn’t need her to know what he knew. She looked like she could tell he was holding something back, as she stood there at the edge of his vision glowing like a candle, dimmer and then brighter with his breathing.
The man across from him cleared his throat and started to speak, but his voice caught and he swallowed hard. His eyes filled with water and blood like something extremely sour had reached his stomach, and he ducked his head and hurried away, past the counter and toward the back, into the bathroom.
Max used the finger of one hand to trace the three S’s from the Depression book on the underside of the table, like a protective charm, while his other hand held his journal closed.
“I just want so badly to have a good life,” he blurted. The waitress froze and the line cook looked over from the grill, and then there were three people in a room together, four if you counted the man in the bathroom, their respective wallets and keys and phones in their pockets and cars parked nearby. Something in the center of that room, though it was faint and temporary, exerted enough gravity to hold them all where they were, long enough to perceive one another without fear or expectation, or anything in their heads to say, before they all had to snap out of it and go back to work.
Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.