She was grey and slick, only a little darker than the waters. It was hard to keep sight of her as we rowed hard from the ship, but she seemed as unbothered by our approach as a horse by flies. Six rowboats, sliding through the uneasy waves toward her.
Malcolm had me in the front of our boat, and he sat directly behind me. As we lowered, he gripped my shoulder and I felt his hot breath in my ear, the sharp rasp of his badly-trimmed beard.
“You’ll show me your merit, boy,” he hissed. “Or I’ll strip you naked and whip you on the deck.”
The first sliver of terror went through me, groin to neck, like a boning knife through a fish. I had felt his eyes on me for weeks, here and there, but always Hamish was there to temper him. Malcolm had done nothing to me. I did not know what there was between them, why Hamish’s presence was enough to keep Malcolm from me, but it had occurred to me several times that Hamish, as well, was usually spared from the second mate’s volcanic rage.
Hamish was not here now. I did not dare look over my shoulder at the ship as we rowed away, but I felt it receding and with it the protection of my gruff and watchful mentor.
We were the last boat to descend to the water. It would be my duty to throw the harpoon, as I was at the bow, but the others in the boats ahead were such experienced whalers that I doubt anyone expected the matter of the whale would fall to me.
She did not inhabit the ocean; she was a part of it. But for the breach of her broad back, and her spray, and her fluke slipping above and beneath the waves, I fully would have believed she turned to water whenever she submerged.
I have never told this to anyone, not to Hamish, not to Nora, my wife, and not to any sailor. But in the moments before the hunt began, before the first spear was thrown, I felt the whale.
I heard her voice.
It was deep and dark. It rang low through the water, and though her tone was gentle, I thought my head would burst. Each pulse rattled my bones. For years I have kept this knowledge secret, for I feel I was never meant to know it. Hers was a voice I was never meant to hear. And it has not left me since.
My rowing slowed. I was transfixed by her call, by her voice which is the voice of the sea itself. As she called me to her embrace, the man in the first boat stood up in the bow and threw his harpoon.
He missed. His spear slipped under the water, and as he reeled it back by the rope, the whale’s fluke rose in a roaring cascade and fell like a hammer blow beside the boat. The shriek of splintering wood and the cries of the men were all a single, terrible sound.
Two boats altered course, rowing hard to reach the men before their boat sank and drowned them all. The man in the fourth boat stood and threw, but he was too far away and his harpoon fell short. The fifth harpoon grazed the whale’s great grey side and fell harmlessly away; a groan went up from the whalers.
My time had come. I gripped my harpoon and stood up, swaying and unsteady in the pitching rowboat. I was in a trance. Behind me, Malcolm was shouting, then screaming, but his voice rose ever in pitch and intensity in my mind, until his words were little more than wind.
And then I saw it, drifting past the prow of the whaling boat, and my fingers turned to wood around the shaft of the harpoon. It was a corpse.
It floated on its back, stiff and hard as driftwood, hands curled up toward the sky, fingers locked in strange claws that put me in mind of someone clutching an invisible hand. It was bloated and grey, its flesh sloughing off in great slippery patches like fish skin, the salt lapping over its upturned face, filling its mouth, its nostrils, its glassy eyes.
Eyes which rolled in their sockets and met mine. They were earthen eyes, soil-brown and dark and direct; eyes which did not belong at sea.
They were my own eyes.
The mouth of the drowned corpse, already gaping, opened further, and a spasm shook its rubbery lips. I thought it was trying to speak, but it gave the impression of a gasping fish, as did its desperate gaze, clutching at me with rabid intensity. I felt in that moment as if the world had halted on its axis, causing me to hurtle, blind and alone, into a cosmic void from which there was no hope of return.
I was looking at my own certain death. I cannot explain how I knew, only that the knowledge was suddenly a part of me, bound to my body and brain as completely as my own hands. I was to become this thing. Whatever I did, whatever I accomplished in my time upon the earth, this was my entire culmination. I would be nothing more than a bloated mass of rotting flesh, with hands clutching for someone who was not there, with eyes that did not belong at sea.
The grief that rose within me was unspeakable. I screamed, and my voice shattered the frozen instant. I threw my harpoon with all my strength into the sick facsimile of myself as it drifted past the bow. And it screamed, too, but its scream was not my voice but the voice of the whale.
The whaleboat bucked and I only just managed to keep myself from tumbling out. The water was suddenly frothy with seafoam and blood. The whale cried. Her low, dark ululation shook my bones, and I knew I had betrayed her somehow, that I had committed a terrible crime.
We all converged upon her. I alone saw the specter of my death surface on the other side of the whaleboat, its forest eyes scraping desperately at the sky, before the water closed over its head.
I never saw it again.