Whale of a Tale

whale totem!

The people gathered around a fire as people always do on a still night between hot golden days in June.  Wooded hills stretched over them, and beyond the fire a dazed stretch of sand wandered into a river: a great old snake in valleys. The peoples’ bellies were full and they had run out of things to say, and so an easy silence fell over them. The storyteller knew this was the hour for magic, when all the doing of the day was done and the silence before the fire opened like water under a wide sky and the peoples’ world became a reflection. As if to confirm this-a lonely star fell from heaven, drawing his eyes upward. He looked out at the stars hanging like scattered beads of water in the sky and thought of all he had seen in his life. Places, people and events rose and fell within him; each new part remembered pulling another part closer- like waves drawing up different parts of the ocean against the feet of a lonely out-looker…contemplating the horizon. This was the hour for magic and the hour for magic called for a story. The Storyteller cleared his throat and the last threads of tired conversation faded amidst the easy crackle of the fire and the melodic chirping of the crickets. The people looked up at the storyteller with the same wide eyes they had always looked up at him with.


“Would you like to hear a story?”


The people quietly nodded.


“You look like you want to hear a story…You look like you want to hear a good story” The story teller stood up and stretched his arms wide: projecting his voice out into to the amphitheatre of the sky. “here by the fire under the starry sky on this summer night.”


“A story from the very beginning.  So I’m going to tell you a story, the one about all the land coming up out of the waters… long ago. It’s got whales in it-bad tempered cachalots is what I think they were…Sperm whales like old Moby Dick… The story goes like this: Once the world was all covered in water. In those days the waters were all fresh as the river, they were too young to be salty. And people in that time all lived in boats:  they were born in boats, grew up in boats, ate, drank, fornicated and died in boats. Not really that comfortable as I’m sure you can imagine, if you’ve ever taken a long canoe trip anywhere-the boats were canoes, I didn’t mention-Anyway…the people… they lived in big canoes and they hunted whales, and they depended on whales for pretty much everything. Hunting those whales was dangerous mind you, and many a good whaler got lost over-board and was sometimes even eaten by whales or dragged down tangled in harpoon chords or battered to death by their flukes- lost in the rolling waves, never to be seen again. Our story starts with one of these whale hunts. The people in their boats come across a really big whale, and they say to themselves: “let’s get this big one, he’s got all kinds of meat and oil and bone and sinew on him huh?”  They can use it all. So they set out after this big whale, and they come up alongside him and the harpooner sticks him with his harpoon and that big whale he goes crazy with shock and pain and his tail comes up under the boat and the boat bucks upward and tosses that harpooner out and he lands in the water and that whale he turns on the man in the water with an angry eye choked with hot blood, and quick as you please he swallows the man whole. Now most people would feel pretty hopeless being swallowed whole by some big ugly whale -not this harpooner. He’s got a knife stashed in his belt and when he finds himself in that whale’s great, stinking stomach he doesn’t pause a beat; he sticks his knife in the stomach lining and starts sawing away and he saws and he saws and he cuts his way out of the stomach, and of course the whale starts thrashing around madly and the people still in the canoes are afraid because they’ve never seen a whale with such bad indigestion before, but that harpooner inside the whale; he stays steady and he cuts his way to the lungs and he breathes a deep breath of the whale’s air that keeps him breathing as he keeps cutting, cutting like mad with that little knife. He goes between the ribs, and the water starts shooting in and he’s covered in stomach acid and ambergris and blood and now sea water, and he reaches through and he starts squeezing himself out and he’s afraid the whales gonna bend double and crush him between its ribs, maybe nip him in two like a giant frog’s mouth would…all squeezing… but that whale’s in shock now: sinking and the harpooner’s gotta get away, and up above him he sees the boats and he frees himself from the sinking whale and he shoots up to the surface and he pops out of the water with all the whale’s blood and juices all over him and he’s disgusted and exultant and he grabs the rim of his boat and the people are amazed and he screams, screams a long terrifying angry scream, if I were to repeat it here, everyone’s hair in a five kilometre radius would go white, he’s saying: “I’m here! We’re here! I’m sick of living out of a boat!!” and from far away the land hears him and gets out of its stupor. The land’s kinda sheepish at not being there for the people all along so the land hurries to them and the people they finally get out of their canoes. And here we are. You wanna know how I know? It’s ‘cause I was the man steering that canoe. -How’s that for a story?”



Wide eyed, the people contemplated this re-telling. Some of the children had drifted off to sleep. Quietly now they all started the last small procedures of retirement. The Storyteller, an insomniac, padded out to the lake shore to be alone. Later, when all had gone to bed and were sleeping or pretending to sleep, he returned. Awkward and tender he made every attempt at silence in the late moonlight as he threw more sticks on the fire, and fell asleep lying on his side-looking into the embers.

How’s that for a story?



Copyright 2015 Duncan Griffiths