The Beaching of Nathaniel Horne
The blubberous mound was just laying there, like a shipwreck that had yet to fall to decay. Over sand and driftwood and tangled seaweed, the whale’s massive body cantilevered as if it could fall at any moment. I stood, a cautious distance away, trying to get the animal to meet my eye, willing it. I was certain we would have a moment. That moment. The one you read about when you come eye to eye with a wounded creature in need of saving, then we could both be saved.
“Nate, get away from there!” my mother called from the top of the wooden staircase that led back to the condo. My mother herself resembled the fat thing. An oblong round mammal, plentiful shiny skin. She didn’t have rolls like many obese people do, she was like an upright blimp; round in the middle, tapering at her neck and at her ankles. My father said it was her ankles that made him fall in love with her.
We were staying with my grandma, my father’s mother. But my father had died earlier that year. It was weird not having him there and my grandmother just walked around her condo muttering about Frankie’s shoes and how the bread would go stale if we didn’t make the sandwiches soon. Frankie was my dad, Frank by the time my mother got to him.
The vortex wind of a helicopter drew near. The whale, so graceful in the water, but so ineffectual on land flapped his tailfin continuously, pathetically, where it landed, a mini canyon of sand. I waved to it. The creature blinked its massive onyx eye. I took that as a sign and crept closer. Behind me I heard my mother’s plaintive cries. I also knew she would not be coming after me. Her heft made crossing any distance a challenge and walking in the thick miasma of sand even more so.
Someone in an orange parka was waving me away.
“Can’t go near it, son,” he said. I ignored him. I didn’t talk. Did I mention that? When my dad died I learned no one needed to hear my voice. That no one should hear my voice. After I said do it, and my father finally, after years of false starts, did it, I realized my voice could take the life right out of someone in an instant.
The orange bedecked man was holding back a growing crowd, so I was able to trip down the small dunes and approach. The whale’s skin was so shiny and mottled it looked like an abstract painting. Study in Gray II.
The enormity of the thing was awe-inspiring. It was so analogous to see the whale on land, where its size seemed more like an art installation. Something intentionally meant to make you gasp and question everything you ever knew in life.
The first time it happened, my father had been out shooting with his pals - this what he called his brother and the neighbor, whom he never talked to if it wasn’t in the presence of a firearm. Beer and barrels, they called it. And when they came home, both the beer cans and the barrels had been emptied. Let it be said there were no deer where we lived.
He came back rowdy and looking for trouble. You could see the testosterone leaking from his eyes. My mother, staunch believer of the frozen pizza, had just finished eating her own pie and I was on a second slice of my own.
“Got something for me, hun?” he said, amiably enough.
“There’s another pie in the freezer,” my mother said.
“There’s another pie in the freezer,” he mimicked. “Well, what are you doing on your whale ass? Make it for me.” Knowing my mother, she would have gotten up in a second, but as she took the last bite of her own food, he made it clear that was not fast enough. He yanked the chair out from under her, sending her chin to the table opening up a gushing wound.
“Don’t let your woman do shit like this,” he told me. She preheated the oven, opened the box, and placed the pie on a baking sheet while blood drip, drip, dripped onto my father’s pie. He didn’t notice or didn’t care – a witting cannibal – and began to swing his rifle around, placing my mother, and then me, in the gun’s scope. I knew what we looked like then, placed in the target cross - his cross to bear, his prize to keep.
On the underside of the whale, thick ridges swept up and down its massive body. A sea of barnacles scattered across the field of its skin. Were we my father’s barnacles? Was he ours?
I pulled up a driftwood log, sat. As more news crews tromped toward us, the whale sighed. It was a big and hollow sound and I understood. The sky was growing grayer. At first a fine cloudy ash, then inkier, until it was as gray as the whale itself; working in cahoots with the thing for camouflage.
Flash, flash went the cameras. Video crews turned on small but impossibly bright lights to shine on their overly made up women reporters who would then say a few words about the beaching – solemn their voices, giddy their eyes. A few kids – high schoolers – made a game of it. Run, run, slap, onto the whale’s skin. Could the whale feel such an insignificant touch? If he did, he made no indication. His giant eye reflecting only myself. The whole of me fitting entirely inside the black circle.
Reporting and staring and doing nothing. I too, did nothing. What could I do? As the afternoon turned to evening turned to night, people began to decamp. The gray skies opened up and wept for the whale. My mother had long given up on calling me back to the condo. When I turned, I could see her on the terrace, watching. From a distance. As she did.
The rain pelted holes into the sand. Passers-by kept on passing by. Locals from the condo development went inside, presumably to watch the whale on their 60 inch televisions. We saw it! Right there, in person! They’d tell this to friends and family when they recounted the story of the sad dead whale on the beach where they usually poured themselves into swimsuits and fried their skin, guzzling cola and compliments. The news crews packed up and said some local wildlife folks would come by; help the creature; poor thing. Then they hauled their jacket hoods up over their heads and slogged through the wet sand to their vans.
I stayed. When I was the only person left, I decided there wasn’t much to be lost with the whale. It was as good as dead already. What harm could I do? So I sang. I like to think I was entertaining the whale in his time of sorrow and fear, but I think I was really singing to myself, reminding myself of my voice. I am the Captain of the Pinafore. And a right good captain too. You’re very, very good. And be it understood, I command a right good crew.
It had been the night after my debut as a chorister in my school’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore. My mother had come, shoved herself into a flimsy auditorium seat; later I saw the indentation – plummy and chafed – on her hips. But she didn’t complain. Didn’t tell me I did a good job either. Just patted my back when she found me in the hallway afterwards. Took me out for ice cream. My father did not attend and when we returned to the house, we found him at the kitchen table in the dark.
There was a whole lot of swearing. A whole lot of But I’m hungry, Marie. I’m fucking hungry. And also quite a few I love yous. When he pointed the handgun at himself and threatened to shoot if he didn’t get his dinner, I called his bluff. Do it.
He wasn’t bluffing. The metallic ring reverberated in my ears for weeks, its’ echo still living in my ear drums, coming out when the silence was too deafening. Little Frankie-Frank-Dad’s shoe filled with blood. That’s what I remember. When his right shoe slipped off, it was caked in gelatinous blood. He went to the morgue with only one shoe.
The log shifted beneath me and I noticed the tips of my toes were numb with wet. The tide was inching closer and the whale’s tale was now submerged. The low moon lit up individual pieces of sand, as if creating a map just for me. Look here for the secret jewels. Only those who are out now can see them. The tips of my ears stung in the cold, though the rain had let up. I pulled my balled fists into my sleeves.
“I’m sorry,” I told the whale. I reached for it, thinking it would be the last opportunity and the last sensory detail this creature would know. I stood. Toed closer – as if the whale could have done anything anyway. I held my hand out and walked until my hand met his cold cetaceous body. It was the body of something prehistoric. Something of stories and wonder.
The whale’s blinks had become more infrequent but his heft continued to move up and down with each breath. He was still alive and the ocean was approaching. With the cadence of his breath, in the gust of the wind, I heard my name.
“Nate! Nate!” My mother stood at the edge of the sand, where the sand turned into vegetation. She waved and then began to walk onto the beach. Toward me. Toward us. I could see the effort she was making to walk on the uneven beach, each step sinking like in quicksand.
She came up next to me, her breath wheezy and heavy, and placed her own fat palm on his skin next to mine.
“That’s something you’ll never feel again,” she said. And I don’t know if she was talking to the whale or to me.
“Come on in now. He’ll be ok. He’s going to be ok.” He would, I saw. By then, the foamy water covered three quarters of the whale’s body. The barnacles too, would make it.
The water came in and the water came out, erasing the indentation made by the whale. As if it had never been there at all.