by Michael John Grist
It was nearing high-tide on the Sheckledown Sea when Celibate Jayne the Hammerhand finally bashed his way out of the belly of the whale. Ashen face covered with gobbets of blubber and gut, he slithered down the black rubber side of the beached leviathan, a river of purple slime showering down on his head.
He gasped, coughed up a wad of bloody kelp and brine, then slumped himself starfish-splayed on the beach.
Soon enough the jubilant cries of his crew carried raucously over the sand, as they moored the 6-oar gully, hefted up the smelting cauldrons, and came pell-mell dashing down the beach towards him. First by his side was half-headed Elspeth, first mate, her big chin wagging with glee.
Image from Ben Saber.
“It’s a Ptarmigan, Jayne!” she gasped, gleaming, bouncing round the whale. “You only done gone and busted out a Ptarmigan!”
Jayne smiled weak up at her.
“50 barrels o’spermaceti oil,” she said all in fizz, “and just time fore the storm hits to boil it all. You done us right proud and halesome!”
Jayne coughed again, spotlets of whale’s blood and brine, caught his ragged breath.
“Y’alright?” asked Elspeth, stood in her tan hide galoshes looking down at Jayne in the bloody muck.
Jayne shook his head. “There’s a bloke,” he said, stopping to catch his air, “inside.”
“Eh?” asked Elspeth, stopping her happy flouncing to look at him. “What?”
“A yellow bloke,” said Jayne, “inside the whale.”
Elspeth twitched, as was her wont. “In the whale?”
Jayne nodded. “Aye,” he said, reaching up a clouty metal Hammerhand. “A yellow bloke.” Elspeth grabbed the metal hand and hauled him up. Jayne swayed on his feet, then turned to the slitted hole in the whale’s flank. “Thrashing about in there.”
Elspeth moved closer to see.
“Wait,” said Jayne, blocking her path. He pointed to the whale’s still trembling eye. It flickered, rolled, flared. The slow sussurus of breath in and out ground down. The spurty veins round the hammered-out gut-hole pulsed once, twice more, and finally the whale died.
“Woulda squashed you up in its throes,” he said. “Now’s OK.”
“You comin’?” she asked.
“I ain’t even breathin’ proper yet,” he said. “Go on.”
Elspeth moved closer, prised the wound’s sides apart, peered inside. “It’s pretty dark,” she said.
“He’s in there, up the gullet and in the mouth last I felt him.”
“Hello,” said Elspeth, calling through the thin gut gap. “Any folk home?”
“Nothing. Are you sure?”
“I landed on him coming in. He wriggled about some and yelped something.”
“Alright,” said Elspeth, and pushed her head and shoulders into and through the wound. Jayne heard her muted voice calling through the whale’s skin.
She popped out with a wet sucking sound.
“There’s an echo in there,” she said. “Mayhap you just heard yourself?”
“And landed on myself, too?”
“Ptarmigan’s got a big tongue. Could be you ‘fused the tongue with a bloke.”
Jayne shook his head slow. “Don’t sound straight. Tongues and blokes ain’t a bit similar.”
“Maybe was some whale food in there then, what slipped out as you bashed yourself free? Half-shark or some such, might’ve felt like a man. Might even o’been a twinge yellow.”
“Weren’t a twinge,” said Jayne. “Ain’t much light in a whale but for a pinhole through the spout, and this was bright yellow like gold. There’s no half-shark color of gold.”
“So what do we do?”
“Hold up while I catch breath, and keep them cauldron hops at bay round the other flank o’the whale. I’ll go in myself.”
Elspeth looked at the gully crew jogging along the beach, cauldrons in tow. “They’ll want to be celebratin’,” she said. “What do I tell ’em?”
“Tell them a live shark’s inside the whale, and the captain’s gonna hammer it himself. Just keep ’em clear ’til we’re sure.”
“Ayup Jayne. Just, if it is a shark, be careful.”
“It ain’t a shark,” said Jayne, and made for the slit in the whale.
While Elspeth was off becalming the jollied up “Ptarmigan!”-yelling boiler crew, Jayne scouted about for a strip of sturdy-looking driftwood. With a chunk in hand, he pushed himself up and into the whale side split, wedging the driftwood twixt the stiffening sides to let the light in.
After threading the bloody rib-side cavity, Jayne squirmed through the gut bag wall and into stomach’s quaggy mire. The sole chink of light crept in through the side-slit at his back.
He lolled to his feet on the rolling gut bag floor, reached up to the sagging stomach roof and grabbed a knobbin of gut muscle, planted his feet, and set out bumbling for the mouth.
At the bone-ribbed throat-way he grasped a thick vein running up like a banister, and climbed. In the fleshy dark at the top hung the whale’s baleen krill-sieve, and wrapped up in it with a shred of cloth for a hammock was a small yellow child.
Jayne stared in silence for a moment. Dull light chinked through the Ptarmigan’s blowhole and glowed on the child’s wiry body. Its skin was a bright jaundicy yellow.
“Hello,” said Jayne, voice echoing in the cartilagey throat-way.
The child sprang from its hammock like a cat at the sound. It landed on the thick bed of whale tongue, then squirmed and roiled until it was buried beneath the lolling wedge of lukewarm meat.
“Half-mast me and ride,” muttered Jayne, watching wide-eyed as the child disappeared under the near-black blanket of tongue.
The tongue shuffled, fell still.
“Y’ain’t for comin’ then?” asked Jayne.
Jayne stood still for a moment, staring at the tongue. Then he reached up to the baleen overhead and pulled himself up into its lattice work bars alongside the child’s hammock. It was canvas, torn rough, woven, and tied firm round the baleen bone with huddershank sailor’s knots. Sat in the hammock was a shard of engraved ivory, a bronze compass glinting in the dull light, and three bare yellow skulls.
Jayne took up the compass, then dropped himself onto the bed of tongue, which flattened under his weight.
“Is this your compass?” he asked, softening his voice.
“I can’t seem to make it work,” he said, tapping on the bronze. “Figure ye could help us out some?”
No answer. Jayne strode to the gum-line, knelt by the eave of the tongue and lifted it up by the edge. Through the near black shadows underneath he could just make out the child’s daffodil-yellow body, shuffling further from him.
“Sssh,” said Jayne, squatting in place, showing his empty open hands. “Look. I won’t hurt you. See.”
The child stared out at him.
“Can you speak?” asked Jayne.
The child only stared.
“Maybe not,” said Jayne. “Can you understand me?”
The child stared.
Jayne smiled at him. Then he stood, let the fat tongue fold softly back down over the child’s quivering body. He looked round the dim-lit mouth for a moment, down at the compass in his hand. Then he turned and walked back under the baleen, down the throat-way to the splash-pool stomach, and out of the whale.
The fresh sea air blasted him to shivers immediately. The whale had been warm. He had to blink as his eyes watered, adjusting to the mid-day spring sun. Then Elspeth was at his side and asking him quietly, “Well?”
Jayne stepped down from the gash and slicked whale-fat off his hands and arms. “It’s a child,” he said. Across the tide-line the boilers were rousting up two fire pits in the sand, scouting for tinder, and hoisting up the two black-iron cauldrons on their rimey black tripod legs.
“A child?” asked Elspeth. “There really is some folk in there?”
Jayne nodded. “A boy, I think, bright yellow from the whale’s stomach juices. Must’ve been from a wrecking, see this?” he said, showing her the rusty compass. “And sail cloth torn and sailor-knotted for a hammock in the baleen. Whale must’ve scooped him off the seafoam after she sank, probably on the Dartmaeus shipping lane to have drifted this close to the city.”
“Cavorta’s breath,” cursed Elspeth, hand over her mouth. “How long’s he been in there?”
“I don’t know,” said Jayne. “But a while, to be colored so. And he’s terrified.”
“No wonder,” said Elspeth. “Poor thing. Just a child?”
“Aye,” said Jayne.
“Then I’ll go,” said Elspeth, starting for the side-slit immediately. “I’ll go talk to him.”
Jayne shook his head, stood before the slit.
“He’s terrified, lass,” he said. “Give him a chance to calm down, eh? He’ll come out on his own.”
Elspeth sighed, stepped back. “Aye,” she said. “But Sweet Gibertus on a spike, who’d have thought a child inside the whale?”
“I know,” said Jayne. “It’s some kind of miracle, though looks like it weren’t just him, first at least. There’s 3 skeletons, skulls anyway, in there with him.”
“I never heard the like.”
“But there he is,” said Jayne.
Elspeth turned the compass over in her hands. “Says ‘Salubrious’ on the back,” she said.
Jayne shook his head. “Means nothing to me, though most likely the name of the ship it sailed for. We’ll have to scriven out some manifests.”
“What are we going to do?” asked Elspeth.
“Nothing to do but wait,” said Jayne. “Doubt I can safely haul him out of there if he ain’t for it, and right now he’s buried up under the tongue, scared stiff.”
“And if he don’t come out on his own?”
“Then we’ll dismantle his house around him,” said Jayne. “Ain’t no other way for it to go.”
Elspeth shook her head. “Storm’s rollin’ up soon, Jayne,” she said. “We ain’t got all the time we’d like for him to come on out.”
Jayne shrugged. “I know that,” he said. “But even a wry child like that could cause a whole heck of hurt for any bloke trying to haul him out. There ain’t no balance inside a whale, El, it’s like size don’t hardly matter. First lesson you learn as a Hammerhand. You’re only as good as what you’re held onto. Can’t be bashing a hole in a gut with nothing firm to cling to.”
“So we wait,” said Elspeth.
“As all we have,” said Jayne. “Aye. But now, other things. We gotta see to getting some more lads out here, and we gotta get the barrels rolling.”
“Already sent Shume and Fralla in the gully back to the city for a convoy,” she said.
“Good lass,” said Jayne. “And worry not on the child. That’s my province. We’ll have him afore the storm. And if we don’t, well, I can swim him out of a storm, as you’ll know.”
“I don’t like it,” said Elspeth.
“I ain’t highly in favor myself either,” said Jayne. “But we ain’t got no choice. Now get off and to it.”
Elspeth nodded, took a deep breath. “Aye, alright,” she said, set the compass back in Jayne’s hands, then walked off back to bully on the boilers.
Jayne looked over the compass, slipped it in a pocket, then waded out into the sea to wash himself off.
Night falling, Grammaton bonging a distant echo for All Hallows, and the work went on by freshly mulled whale-oil light, tallow-smoke swimming up on the breeze like incense. Jayne and Elspeth stood by the strip-work peeling of the whale’s front, up by the stomach slit, watching the new boiling crew rousting about the cauldrons.
“Reckon we got least a day, if the sun holds off,” said Elspeth. “Fore a storm rolls in.”
Jayne hummed agreement.
The whale behind them was stripped clean of skin down its sides, black rubber hide sloughed off like old wall-papering and paste. Long oblong tracts had been carved out in the blubber, the jelly white blocks of fat now slicking to boil in the raging cauldrons.
“Good crew,” said Elspeth.
“Aye,” said Jayne.
“Won’t be asking more than a fiftieth part a piece,” she said. “Seeing as it??s a Ptarmigan.”
Jayne nodded, watched two of the firelight flecked rousters step up to the blubber-side with a long hacking blade, set into sawing a fresh block clear.
“Already filled 11 barrels,” she said. “Shay reckoned we can have it shipped and sold within the week.”
“Good,” said Jayne. “Sounds good.”
“Y’ain’t listening a speck,” said Elspeth, half-head cocked, long hair hanging down loose in the salt-scrub night wind. “Ye’re thinking on that child, aren’t ye?”
“Hmm?” asked Jayne. “What?”
“Y’ain’t even listenin.”
Jayne smiled. “I am, lass,” he said. “Just, aye. What’s right, ye see?”
“Child in a whale,” said Jayne.
Elspeth waited a while longer. Driftwood sparks crackled up and swirled in the air over their heads. The soft low murmur of rousters talking carried over the steady lap of the sea.
“You thinking on your lad?” she asked, eventually.
Jayne looked up at her, smiled. “Mayhap,” he said. “Though it ain’t nearly the same thing.”
Off the other side of the whale, one of the rousters laughed. The sound thrummed through the night, faded, and was gone.
“Ain’t that different,” said Elspeth softly. “Both of em lost.”
Jayne sighed. “Aye. But my lad warn’t lost in a whale. My lad hated whales, grew up hating whales ‘cos they kept his pa away.”
“Aye,” said Elspeth. “Y’ever hear from him, now?”
Jayne shook his head. “Him and the lass both long gone now,” he said. “Don’t know where.”
“Lost,” said Elspeth.
“Aye, lost,” agreed Jayne.
“It warn’t your fault.”
Jayne smiled sadly. “Don’t follow that train, El,” he said. “Ain’t nothing good goin’ down that way. I had my choices, and I chose the life over them. Chose killin’ whales over my lass and my lad. Though at the time I thought both meant the same thing.”
“They had to eat,” said Elspeth.
“Aye, they did. But there was other ways. Ways what woulda kept me around. As it was, I left ’em. Lass alone with a cold bed most nights, weeks on end. Lad, growing up lonesome without a pa. And I bear that, El. Ain’t no use tryin’ to shirk it.”
“You ain’t ever tried, long as I’ve known you,” said Elspeth.
“Long as I spent out here, with you all, I shoulda been back there. Thought though I was almost done. Almost always done.”
“It ain’t about the money though,” said Elspeth, leaning in. “You’ve enough to quit times over, now.”
“Aye, I know.”
Elspeth leaning closer in to Jayne. She reached a hand up, touched his shoulder, then his cheek. “Y’ain’t hardly the same man, now.”
For a second he did nothing. Even melted against her touch a twinge. Then something shifted, and he stepped away.
“That ain’t possible, El,” he said sadly. “We talked about that.”
Elspeth let her hand fall down by her side, let her face show her feelings. “Celibate Jayne,” she said.
“Aye,” said Jayne. “Celibate. S’what’s best.”
A porpoise off in the distance hooted out a quick mating call.
“Ain’t ever gonna change, are ye?”
Jayne shook his head. “Ain’t wantin to hurt folk again. Ain’t wantin’ to hurt you, El, or a child. I just ain’t that man. Whales call and I come. I know that now.”
“I’m a whaler too,” said Elspeth. “It wouldn’t have to go the same way.”
“You’ll whale with child? No, I couldn’t bear it. The sea has me, El, and I’ll not pretend otherwise. I’ll not see you hurt.”
“Aye,” said Elspeth, her tone turning sour. “Aye, you’ll not take the risk.”
Silence fell between them.
After a time, a hue and cry arose from one of the cauldron spigot-sides as a fresh barrel batch was siphoned. A couple of rousters did a boily jig around the whale.
“You best off to the city,” said Jayne, into the silence between them. He wasn’t looking at her. “Fetch out them records we talked on, might help jig the child’s memory, bring it out. Gatherin’ families’ names, and the name of a child, if the records allow. Ship’s name being the Salubrious, wrecked. Take the compass, show it to the quay master.”
“I’ll be coming back with the storm on my heels,” said Elspeth.
“Then it’s best you set off soon,” said Jayne.
Elspeth stood for a moment, staring at him. But he didn’t turn to face her. He was staring out to sea.
“Aye, cap’n,” she said. Then she was up and shuffling the next barrel-load into the gully, taking up the head herself, and soon enough setting out with the rousters rowing back for the city.
Jayne, up against the whale, sat watching the night sky sworl slow over head for a long time before sleep found him.
He woke at first light, shook out the sleep and ambulated round the whale. All the rousters were decked out under burnt yellow tarpaulins asleep, and a steady rain drizzled down.
Over at the rouster’s camp the rain-cold cauldrons hung canted on their frames, damp fire-ash trickling black and white down to the tide beneath. Some 50 barrels of oil sat in the wettening sand, spread out random through the camp.
“Roustabout,” he called, nudging the sleeping forms nearest. He walked through the camp like that, nudging on shanks and tugging the rain out of pooled up lakes top the canvas shelters, calling for roustabouts. “We got work to do. Rise and be labourin’, boys.”
The boiler crew groaned, moaned, and slowly got up to work. Jayne bullied them at it until the tarpaulins were hung up over the cauldrons, the fires were fizzing and spitting their way to the boil, and the fat was bubbling once again in the pots.
Elspeth came back with grey high noon, and the rain a downpour. Jayne waded out into the ocean with a couple of boily rousters to haul the sea-tossed gully in.
“Storm’s rollin’ in a day early,” she shouted through the hammering crash of rain on the waves.
“Talk up at the camp,” he shouted back, pointing to the tarpaulin shelters over top of the cauldrons further up from the tide.
They towed the gully up through the foamy waves, affixed it to the anchor drive point, then made for the cauldrony warmth under the tarpaulins. The rousters made room for them, as Elspeth and the rest of the gully crew stamped their feet and shook off the worst of the wet.
“Ye found it?” asked Jayne, lowering his voice around the men.
“Aye,” said Elspeth. “And bad news on the storm too. S’rolling in at forty clips nor-Easterly, Dockhead reckoned. Bound to drench up to the lambaste line.”
Jayne shook his head. “That’ll loft the whale and the barrels,” he said.
“Aye,” said Elspeth. “And it’s rolling in fast. Come eventide and the beaches’ll be flumed, he reckoned. Barely let us outta the dock as it was, only after I said was you and your crew out here did he let us ride in just a gully.”
“We’ll have to move,” said Jayne.
“And move now,” said Elspeth.
Jayne nodded. Then he stepped back, Elspeth hollered the men to silence, and Jayne gave out his orders.
Hard winds were ice-whipping the deluged beach by the time all the barrels and rousting gear were safely up past the breakwater dunes and tarpaulined dry in the scrubby coastline brunifer wood.
Back down on the beach, the whale was starting to shift with the roughly rising tide.
Soaking wet, draggled, silver chips cut into his silver Hammerhands after hours straight of hauling barrels and tools clear, Jayne stopped in front of Elspeth and held her close to shout through the roaring storm.
“About the child,” he yelled over the rush of storm wind whistling through the craggy bushes. “What’d you find?”
“S’a lad, for sure,” yelled Elspeth back, words whipping out of her mouth as she spoke. Jayne strained in closer to hear, and she yelled straight into his ear. “Damaris on the manifest, his pa was first mate.”
Jayne nodded, rain streaming through his blonde hair plastered to his face.
“How long?” he yelled into her ear, her long hair whipping across his cheek. “How long’s he been gone?”
“5 years!” yelled Elspeth. “Salubrious sunk 5 years gone.”
Jayne held her back, stared at her.
“5 years!” she yelled again.
He turned into the wind coming off the sea, eyes slitted against the slathering ice frosting up the dune sides. The whale was rising on the frothing waters, slipping, sliding back into the sea.
“I have to go!” he yelled back into Elspeth’s face.
“I know,” cried Elspeth. “Be careful!”
“I will,” yelled Jayne. He held her against the wind for a moment longer than he had to. Then he was gone.
She watched him into the wind, down the scree-scrabbling duneside, slipping in the icy foam, up to the whale, thigh deep in the raging shallows, then thrusting, digging, and inside the whale.
Sheltered behind a thick brunifer clump she watched the whale get tossed out to sea.
Jayne lay in the roiling dark for a time. As the waves bashed the whale, it rolled and thrummed. Jayne rolled and thrummed with it. The beating of the sea was all around.
Then a calmer time came, as the whale rolled out deeper and sank beneath the storm. Jayne could hear the first trickles of water pushing their way in through the puckered gut-slit.
“Damaris,” he called, into the black.
The whale was silent but for the trickling of water, flooding in slow.
“That’s your name, ain’t it? Damaris?”
The child stirred, somewhere in the dark.
“It’s alright,” said Jayne. “I know it ain’t easy.”
The child splashed in the black.
“I killed your whale,” said Jayne. “You got reason to fear me, I understand that.”
A hiss of gas bubbled, the intestinal jut squeezing out the last vapours with the deepening pressure. The side-slit began to burp water in faster. Jayne took a deep breath.
“I’ve a lad of my own,” said Jayne. “Somewhere out there, what hates me, like you must hate me, for what I’ve done. But it’s all done now. The whale’s dead. It won’t breathe for us anymore, so we gotta breathe for ourselves, and swim.”
The child didn’t answer.
“I can swim us out,” said Jayne, “and once we’re out, I can call us a whale. It’s what a Hammerhand does. But you gotta go with me. Try swimming off without me and you’ll drown. You’ll not make it to the surface from here.”
Another burp of foul gas swelled into the gut, another rush of water flumed in through the slit.
“Not long now,” said Jayne. “Breathe deep. It’s gonna burst any second.”
He breathed in. The child breathed in.
Then the whale imploded.
The sudden rush of water tore its corpse in half. Jayne was smashed inwards with the violent influx. He slammed into the child, held him tight, and they rode out the gas bubble burst together.
Then they were hanging in a watery twilight. Jayne looked on the child beside him, hung in place easily, relaxed in the water, long hair haloing around his small yellow face. In the dim deep ocean’s fuzz his odd-colored skin didn’t look so strange.
Jayne nodded at the child. Then he opened his mouth, let the water rush in, and began to sing the Hammerhand’s song.
Whale-song. A single, simple note, pulsed out loud and strong.
The child’s eyes flicked wide. He stared at Jayne. Jayne held his gaze, and the note rang out. Then the child opened his mouth, let the water flow in, and began to sing too.
He built a slow melody upwards from Jayne’s single note, Jayne staring in shock at the melodious whale-song notes pouring up from the boy’s slim yellow throat. He added harmonies and glissandos. He tremeloed. He layered and twisted and spun Jayne’s bass thrum into something vast and haunting that hung in the water, that rang out like the Grammaton, that swelled out around them like a blossoming salvo of color in the deep.
They sang together.
And the whales came.
First the smaller Pilots, long sleek eely lengths whirling the water around them, with Bride’s and Pygmy Rights in their wake. Then a pod of Humpbacks, a pack of Left Blues, a sudden squall of scurrying black Mesoplodonts, then Brontochal Giants and Pterodal Fins and Greys and Bottlenoses and Toothed Lefts and Fanged Rights and Cuveir’s Beakeds and Sperms and Tramaleir’s Jogs and finally, booming into the symphony of wheeling whirling smaller whales like a slow grinding planet across the sky came a behemothic Ptarmigan, eclipsing all light and swelling the orchestra of song higher, and louder, and fuller.
Jayne’s jaw was agog, slack, his lungs giving out, his vision graying in the black.
The whales formed into living walls around them, the almighty Ptarmigan at the head. The cold water turned warm, and thick, and all was silence.
The child whale-sang into the void.
The Ptarmigan’s huge black eyes blinked slow, stared through the murk into Jayne, the boy. Jayne felt his lungs crumpling, the chokes in his throat rising as his body fought for air. Then the Ptarmigan’s drawbridge mouth opened, the baleen sieve was raised, and the influx of water pulled them inside.
Jayne sloshed in the hot cavernous dark. His breath came back slowly. All around him came the pulse of life, the whale’s heart booming, booming, booming.
“Sweet provender,” cursed Jayne softly, eyes wide into the black, reaching out for the length of the tongue on which he lay, crawling over to the teeth, the rising wall of gum, stretching up to the arcing roof of mouth but unable to reach. “It’s a behemoth.”
The child beside him began crooning whale-song.
“It’s alright,” said Jayne, reaching out to pat the child’s arm. “It’s alright now.”
The child shrank from him, and the whale-song rose, twisted, then stopped. Jayne felt the child padding across the giant Ptarmigan tongue in the dark. Then there was a slow grinding thrum of bone on bone.
Then silence, for a moment.
“Damaris?” called Jayne. His voice sounded weak and alone in the dark. Then the tongue sank away from him, the jaws opened wide, and the ocean flumed in.
He was rolling in murky half-light, the whale hanging massive behind him. The ocean was empty and cold, the conference of whales gone, the child gone. The deeps were still and black. He spun in the water, saw the giant Ptarmigan gliding away, snippets of whale-song fired off in its wake.
Then he began to swim.
He breached the surface with his lungs bursting for air, and gasped in a spray of water. The storm still fumed around him, the rain lashed down, and the waves stretched up higher than the city walls over his head.
He had no time to speak, or scream. He had no time to see the whale-spouts circled around him. He only had time to swim, and to breathe, and to swim and to breathe.
When the storm ended it was night, and Jayne paddled exhausted on the calming sea skein. His breaths came in salty ragged gasps. His arms and legs burned heavy with every stroke of every weak movement he made.
A sickle moon overhead looked down on him, and a night sky filled with stars.
He stared up at them, and through the grey haze that muffled everything, he smiled.
“Elspeth,” he said, a whispered croak.
Then he stopped moving. He stopped raging for breath. The sea-line, blank and straight in every direction, rose gently above his head, and the ocean soothed him in like a baby in its mother’s arms. His last breath squeezed out, his first suck on water poured in, and he sank slowly into the black.
He came to and there was light, and warmth. Cold water slapped his face. He spun to it, opened his eyes to the glare.
The yellow boy. The ocean. A mound of warm black whale beneath him.
The boy was looking out to sea. Jayne craned his neck, tried to loft himself on still shaking arms, but like limpen struts of sea-leaf they jellied beneath him, leaving him pressed up against the slick black back of the Ptarmigan like a baby at breast. He felt nauseous.
Somewhere distant, a blow-hole gusted spray up into the air. It settled with the wind, stroked Jayne’s face as it came down.
There were whales all around them.
Jayne could see them. Black mounds, some finned, some mottled, some brown some black, all their backs and snouts and eyes breasting the still ocean top like dark yolks of egg splotched out on a ruffled grey table-cloth.
A second slap of water stung his face. Salt stung his eyes and he gasped some in through his nose. The child turned back to the patch of open water. Jayne coughed, hacked, and the jolt rolled him off into the water. He tried to swim but his arms and legs only trembled weakly.
Something pushed up against him, lifted him from the brine and rolled him back over the black whale-back.
He gasped, choked, and blinked.
“This isn’t real,” he croaked.
Lying on his back, the child stood over him, sun spun round his head like a halo.
“This is very real,” said the child.
Jayne stared up at him. “You can speak,” he said.
“No,” said the child. “You’re just losing your mind.”
Jayne regarded him for a time, sunlight half-blinding him, the hot pulse of the whale thrumming on like the distant Grammaton beneath him. Occasional steaming blow-hole gusts from the surrounding whales showered him with half-warm water. The deadened waves sup-supped up the Ptarmigan’s rough-skinned side, licked at his fingers and toes.
“It seems real,” said Jayne.
The child laughed at him.
“You’re a whale buster,” he said. “You know the symptoms of Caissons.”
“You think I’m bendsing?” asked Jayne, and tried to chuckle. Instead, he almost vomited.
“You rose up too fast from depth,” said the child, checking off fingers, “you’re aching, hallucinating and nauseous. You’re lying on a whale. Think about it.”
“So where am I then?”
“Watch this,” said the child.
“This,” said the child, and pointed at the open patch of water.
Jayne turned, feeling the rush of bubbles under his skin adjusting, the tracer lines of pressured pain in his joints crying out with the motion.
Then the patch of water was rising. Brackish lines of krill span sideways as something bloomed up and spread itself onto the surface. At first it was just grey-white flashes through the wash, then a long stretched out sand-bar of puckered flesh rose clear, tipped black round the edges, with pink striates of bare red muscle peeking through the deep gouges where skin and blubber had been stripped. In the middle lay the fist-burst slit, ripped open now with the pressure blow-out from deep undersea, the purple insides all on show in the sun.
Gulls wheeled overhead.
“Oh no,” mumbled Jayne.
“You think they’re stupid,” said the child. “You think your single note whale-song is enough to fool them. It’s catching fish, to you. It’s only catching fish.”
“They are fish,” said Jayne, trying to lift a hand to shade the spreading white light. His arm didn’t move and instead he felt faint. “Big fish.”
The child’s face blazed in the sun. “Listen,” he said.
A silence fell across the ocean. A silence fell beneath him as the great Ptarmigan’s pulse stopped, as its breath stopped, as the gulls fell silent overhead and the sea ceased its lapping all around.
Then the world erupted into whale-song.
The sound exploded through Jayne’s head. He felt convulsions wracking him while the child looked on and the combined roaring chorus of a hundred whales thrummed into the sky out of the deep.
The child stared down at him through it all.
Jayne struggled through the avalanche of sound, tried to shake his head clear, tried to reach out to the child, but the child turned from him, threw back his head, and joined in the song.
Leaving Jayne shivering, wracked with the bends, and alone.
Before him lay the proof of his work, a butchered baby Ptarmigan burst from the inside out, body torn and mutilated of flesh and skin, ripped and rent and crumpled under its own weight.
The chorus went on for a long, long time.
Finally, when it was done and an awesome silence descended, Jayne found himself head to the whale’s rough back weeping and beating on the hard rubber skin with the flat silver palms of his lethal Hammerhands.
The child walked over to him. The child lifted his face by the chin, strewn down with tears.
Jayne stared up at the child.
The child stared down at Jayne.
A moment passed. Then the child turned, walked to the tip of the whale, and dived into the ocean.
The whales slowly disbanded.
The Ptarmigan remained, with Jayne on its back, until the sun set. Then it began to swim.
It stopped off the coast where he’d beached the first whale. Then it sank into the water, leaving Jayne to swim for the shore.
He came to with the dawn, weak light gushing grey across the shell-scragged beach around him, his head flumped down on a pillow of ocean foam and stones.
Aching and bendsing and covered in thick blooming blue bruises, he lurched to his feet, and set off for the city.
By the noon clanging for Midday Vespers he was through the Wicking Gate and trawling up Tullathon Quay. At the rust-ironed padlock to warehouse Gyr 36, he bunched a silver Hammerhand and smashed the door from its hinge.
Inside was gloom, motey dust unsettled, and 40 barrels of fresh Spermaceti oil. He lolled over to the nearest, braced his massive upper arms around its hoopy copper width, hawked, grunted, then hoisted it up, staggered, and headed back to the hung open doorway.
Off the Shearwater dock he set the quarter-ton barrel down. His arms were grooved with the barrel’s hoops, shaking and white.
A small child, a ratfer, saw him tip the barrel into the sea.
The Spermaceti oil glistened in the fall sunlight, splashing onto the spumey water below, rainbowing over the gentle landward waves.
When the first barrel was emptied, Jayne picked it up, and carried it easily back to the warehouse. Then he emerged with another.
The ratfer child ran off to tell its friends.
Around the Grammaton toll for 3 he’d splashed almost half the Ptarmigan’s rendered fat into the harbor, and the roustabout crew were gathering about to watch, at first bewildered to see him alive, then outraged at his actions. They rallied to reason and shout and force him down.
He ignored them. He promised them recompense. He said there was ample brass in his vault to see them all clear. And they ignored him, and emboldened by their numbers, laid hands on him as he lugged the 15th barrel out to the grindstone quay.
He hoisted them in his massive metal hands and flung them into the sea, then poured whale oil down onto their heads.
The others backed away. Some watched from the eaves. Others left, sickened at the waste.
By the 20th his arms and chest were lined with deep cuts from the barrel runnels and cooping lines, bleeding freely. He walked in a drunken weave and several times near fell off the quay.
By the 30th it was late and pushing All Hallows. Each haul from the Gyr to the dock-head was getting longer and slower. His legs and feet and chest were basted with dried and fresh blood from the rusted barrel rings. His trail was dark with it.
He kept on.
By the 40th it was dark and only the dock-body revelatory lights lit his passage. The crier passed his way, called out the all’s-well, tapered up the revelatory wicks, and moved along.
The char-houses and damask docks were faint lights blurry down the roll, the roar of their moany groany ruck echoing distant and unreal over the harbor waters.
Jayne trudged on through the night, far away from them all.
For a time he passed out, slumped over the final barrel. He saw whales in the motes of his mind, spume jetting up from their geysers.
When he came to, Elspeth was by his side, sponging his forehead with a soft white towel.
“You’re almost finished, Jayne,” she said. “Don’t quit now.”
“Elspeth,” he said, his mouth dry and grating round the name.
“It’s the last, Jayne. Finish what you’ve started.”
He slid down the side of the cool copper barrel, face to the metal, and drew it close in a tight hug. He felt the sharp runnels and lines slice into his lacerated skin. And he braced tighter, bunched his hulking leg muscles beneath him, and hoisted it up.
Elspeth led him through the dark of the warehouse, along the quay, and to the water’s edge.
“I thought you were dead,” she said, as he lowered the barrel, lay wretched over it gasping and reeling. He gasped to reply something, but she tutted him quiet.
“I’m glad you’re not.”
They stayed in silence like that for a time, the only sounds Jayne’s wheezy breathing, the slosh and lap of the waves against the grindstone beneath them.
Then Jayne tipped the barrel, and the thick amber oil splashed out.
Elspeth rested her hand on Jayne’s shoulder. He didn’t shuck it off.
“It’ll be alright,” she said.
Beneath them, the last barrel’s oil sparked with starlight on the black ocean-top, glimmered, and gradually sank out of sight.
Read more of MJG’s SF & Fantasy short stories here.
Learn about his epic fantasy novel project DAWN RISING here.
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