Read the story being discussed on Jesse Mulligan’s show on Radio New Zealand on 29 November 2018.
THE WHALE BABY
by Sarah Ell
It came to us from the sea, like our near neighbour had given us a gift. Henry brings it up from the beach and into the cottage and puts it on the end of the table, handling it so carefully, it’s as if it were made of precious metal. It sits there and I sit there, we two looking at each other, and finally I say, ‘What is it, Henry?’
‘It’s a whale baby!’ he says, his voice triumphant. ‘I found it washed up with the mother whale. And you should see her — you really should! Not much left but bones now, but a rib cage so big I can stand inside it. And the jaws on her! I’m going to write to Mr Arbuthnot at the museum today. I bet he’s never seen anything like this.’
I look at the yellowy-ivory, faintly shiny object sitting on the table. It is the size of a man’s fist, and doesn’t look much like a baby to me. It is a bit like something growing, I suppose, curled in on itself like a newborn pup, but it’s hard, like bone or a shell, not flesh and pulpy blood. Maybe it died a long time ago.
‘Are you sure?’ As soon as the words are out of my mouth I wish them back. Of course Henry’s sure. Henry’s sure about everything. He was sure he should come to New Zealand. He was so sure that I should follow him that he paid for my passage out. And he was sure we’d be having a baby before long, to keep me company in this lonely place.
‘Just wait,’ he says. ‘It’s only a matter of time.’
Before we came to New Zealand I had never even seen the sea. Now I know only too well this great, grey-green restless thing that never sleeps. It is always whispering, murmuring to me, except when it is roaring and howling as if I have committed some sin against it. I remember my first sight of the salt water, from the docks at Dublin, and my heart sinking: you expect a body to live on that sliding surface? And it smelt, or maybe that was just Dublin. Kind of fishy, but like a big living thing too, with the salt on its breath.
The trip across the Irish Sea to Liverpool, I thought I would die. The trip from Liverpool to New Zealand, I wished I would. Now I know it’s possible to retch and spew and spit out everything in your stomach, twenty times a day, and still live. The sea became my enemy, trying to kill me by stealth. Many times I lay on the hard wood of my bunk in the creaking insides of the ship and wished it would just come and take me.
It was hungry for lives; women and children mostly. Each one it took was wrapped in dirty white canvas, the last stitch put through their nose to make sure they weren’t only sleeping. That’s the law of the sea, the bosun said. Then they were slipped into its maw, sometimes a gentle plop like a dive into a lake on a summer’s day, sometimes an almighty slap as a wave reared up to snatch them.
It didn’t get me, though, and I felt as if I’d been born anew when finally we coasted into Port Cooper, after days sitting outside the heads in no wind, rolling, rolling on the glassy swell. It taunted us then, the sea, keeping us from the land we so desired to walk on. The hills were high here, rearing up around the harbour like ramparts, their flanks golden brown, not the green I longed to see. There was a shabby little town on the shore, flimsy-looking buildings made of timber, not stone, with the lighters buzzing back and forth like worker bees. We hung in the stream for another day while men whose lives depended on it worried and wondered about infection and quarantine, then at last we were allowed to go ashore, to feel dirt finally beneath our feet again.
As much as I wanted to get off the sea, I also quivered at the thought of what lay ahead: Henry. Would he recognise me? Would I recognise him? Was the promise we made to each other still good? Would he feel the same in this strange country, on the opposite side of the world?
The last letter I’d received — all crossings-out and blotted ink, as if his hands had been fighting with the pen — he was full of his usual self, bluster and jokes. In the bottom corner he had drawn two circles, their edges overlapping, one with an H in it, one with a K, for Kitty.
‘Ah, he’s still sweet on you, you’ve nothing to worry about,’ Ma had told me, stealing the letter from my hand before I could protest. That was six months past, while I wasted away at sea and he grew fat on the land. It is no small thing to sail to the other side of the world for somebody. What if he’d met another girl? What if — I had to swallow down the thought — what if he’d died?
But this was it now, Henry or no Henry. There was no way I was getting back on that ship. I knew then that this was the place I was going to die, whether it was tomorrow or in fifty years.
I never have been back on the ocean, and all. Would’ve been easier to take a coaster up to Kaiapoi but I say, ‘Not on my life’, so by horseback and dray we went, first to the town and then out here to the coast. Three years ago in November. Still I am not used to having my enemy as my closest neighbour.
And now it seems the sea has given me a gift. Is it a peace offering? Or is it not a gift at all, but a loan? What if that briny beast wants it back?
I listen to the sea as I lay out the supper things. Earlier in the day, it was quiet, but now the house is empty, and Henry has gone back off up the beach to see his magnificent whale — this big dead fish that he thinks is going to bring us so much fame and fortune — I can hear it starting up again. The water is booming up on the shingle, and dragging back with a clawing rattle. I think one day it will reach right up over the boulder bank and into our house, and sweep us all away.
I sit down at the table, all neatly set for two with plates and cups and cutlery, and stare at the whale baby.
‘What are you looking at?’ I say, fixing my gaze on where I think its eye might have been. ‘Shall I throw you back? Would that make it shut up?’
Of course, the whale baby says nothing, and I feel foolish for talking to a dead thing. My voice sounds loud in the empty room. No sign of Henry. I will eat alone, then.
Mr Arbuthnot is coming today, and not before time. Henry has been sleeping out on the beach these last few nights, standing guard over the corpse.
‘Someone else might get to it first,’ he frets, then when he sees me frowning he comes over to me and wraps me in his arms. The tang of salt and seaweed is on him. ‘It’s only for a couple of days,’ he says. ‘You’ll be all right here on your own, won’t you? The whale baby will keep you company.’
I nod and make my face smile. ‘Of course.’ You don’t get much company from a dead thing, I’m thinking. Doesn’t make very good conversation.
But once he has gone up the beach, the back of him trudging along the stones, swallowed up by the spume and spray, dread grips my heart and turns my stomach. I go back into the house and sit in the rocker and put my head in my hands and sob until I run out of tears. All my fears crowd in on me, like gawkers at an accident. Henry will die, and I’ll be left here on my own. We will never have a child. The sea will come and take us.
Mr Arbuthnot isn’t coming by the cottage at first — he’s taking his dray and horses further up the coast, to the Ashley mouth, and making his way from there. But Henry says they’ll be back here at dusk, and I’m to have a dinner ready. He’s shot me a pigeon, and I’m to make a pie from it. Crying never made a pie, so I wipe my eyes on my apron and set to work.
I can’t help myself; I talk to the whale baby while I’m about my business. Sing to it a little bit, too. It must feel a bit lonely, taken from its mother. No harm in me chatting away to it. It stops the sound of the sea from filling the house.
It’s nearly dark when the men arrive. I can hear the dray before I see them coming down the track, the wheels creaking and the horses snorting and blowing. Out of the darkness comes this cart, and on its back the head of the whale. Henry was right: it is stupendous. Its long curved jaw juts out of the sides, glowing white in the dusk, with lumps of flesh still hanging off it. And the smell! Like tallow and rotting meat and something that’s been lost down the privy. I can’t help myself: my hand goes to my mouth but my noonday meal comes out through my fingers and spatters my skirts. I didn’t realise it would still be so alive.
I quickly wash my hands and the worst of the stains before going inside to serve up the pie. The men bring the stench of the whale inside with them; it’s on their clothes and hair, so a few spatters on me won’t make a difference. Mr Arbuthnot has to duck his head to clear the lintel. Inside, he stands tall again and looks around at our little home. Then I see what he sees: one tiny room, our bed behind a curtain; rough walls with no lining, the noggins lined with a jumble of things that Henry has taken from the sea, the things he has found as he walks and walks, hoping for treasure washed up on the shore. Maybe he sees a floor swept clean and the table scrubbed white. And he sees the whale baby.
‘Ah, the tympanic bulla — did you find this with the carcass?’ He picks it up and peers at it, then slips it into his coat pocket, as if he has picked it up from the beach himself. I think I hear it make a little cry.
‘The what-you-call-it?’ Henry is frowning. ‘I thought it was its baby — you know, not born yet. It was lying by it in the sand.’
‘No, no, my man, it’s part of the whale’s ear,’ Arbuthnot says, pulling it back out and holding it for us to see. He runs his finger down the groove in it, the bit I thought was the baby curled around on itself. ‘It’s inside its jaw, did ye know that? It’s how the whale hears underwater.’
So, the sea had given me the whale baby, but now this man was saying it was just another bone. I had been whispering all my secrets into a whale’s ear. Did that mean the ocean knew them now, too?
Mr Arbuthnot puts the whale baby back in his pocket, and I am glad. Let the sea follow him home, try to take it from him, if it wants it back so badly. I don’t need that bony lump. I put my hand to my stomach and feel the real whale baby flip in my belly.
‘The Whale Baby’ © Sarah Ell, 2018
Sarah Ell’s latest book is Ocean: Tales of Discovery and Encounter that Defined New Zealand, December 2018.