Thanksgiving Tale: Whale-Talk
This year on Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for my family, friends and all of you, my faithful readers who’ve stuck by my side as we build a little word studio community together. And though this tiny tale takes place floating atop the icy waters of Norway, I hope reading it finds you somewhere familiar, relaxing by a warm fire to the bright sounds of crackling wood and Thanksgiving laughter that belongs to all those special people for whom you’re thankful to have in your life this year.
By Melissa Kandel
My name is Yosemite. I’m five feet, six inches tall with a reddish tint to my hair, a long beard that I never comb and green-blue eyes that are noticeably two different sizes. I only shower on Thursdays, smoke at least five cigarettes a day and eat my cereal each morning with cinnamon whiskey instead of milk. I don’t own a computer, I’ve never read a single book or newspaper in my 33-year-long life and I listen to Frank Zappa music late at night when my world turns quiet and I can sing along uninterrupted (and off-key). I’m not exactly any kind of man you’d expect to be someone else’s hero, or someone else’s anything, but to Heraldine, I’m the greatest man in the world.
We met six months ago on the water. I run the whale watching tours in a small town whose name nobody outside of it can pronounce, which bumbles across sixteen acres of craggy land somewhere on the southern coast of Norway. On a whim, Heraldine signed up for one of my tours. (She later told me, “I thought, ‘I’ve never seen a real, live whale in the flesh before!’”)
The day she first went whale watching with me was colder than usual for August and I offered her my extra dry suit because she was the only one on the tour. As my boat lilted around the soft curve of a South Norwegian fjord, I took in Heraldine’s own soft curves, thinking how much I enjoyed a true, rounded woman and how very rare it was among the whale watching community to find one so plump in all the right places.
Right when I was examining the lovely heft of her wide-set shoulders, I decided to look up. In a moment of mutual observation, (I think Heraldine had been studying a patch of red hair on my left thumb) our eyes connected—at least the larger one of mine did—and that was really that. Three months later Heraldine moved into my flat above the cheese shop where we drank cinnamon whiskey and sang along to Zappa’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” A month after, I made her my second-in-command for all whale watching expeditions, so we became Captain Yosemite and First Mate Heraldine real quick.
The months passed and passed and it wasn’t long before I grew accustomed to having Heraldine aboard my ship. I surprised myself with how fast I could forget what it was like to go out whale watching alone, just a bunch of skittish passengers and me. My life skipped along easily once Heraldine stepped into it because she was good at all the things I couldn’t do and bad at all the things I could.
Our second week whale watching together, when we booked a loud-mouthed bachelorette party from Dublin, I learned Heraldine was especially talented at keeping a group quiet so as not to disturb the whales. Before Heraldine, I’d never been able to get my passengers to settle down because I rarely liked to tell anyone anything unless I really, really had to and even then I tended to mumble and get my words mixed up. Years ago, I wrote on a sheet of paper every possible question I was ever asked on a tour with the answers scribbled below—How deep is this water? How many varieties of whales are there in Norway? If a whale jumps right at me, can I pet it? I still pass out copies of that sheet at the start of every trip with a fast wave of my hand and a “Have a nice time.”
There’s no excuse for me being so tight-lipped, I’ve just never been one for talking to people. When the newspaper came around last year to do a story on me and a spectacled, wisp of a lady-reporter asked why my tours are so popular, I simply told her I’m the best at what I do and let her figure out the rest.
If I’m being honest, I’d much rather listen to the sloshing churns of the water and the wheezes of the wind as it rattles across the waves than discuss the mating habits of Orcas or what Humpbacks eat for breakfast or the best way to cook a Monkfish. Conversation, if you ask me, is for the whales.
Now Heraldine talks about all of the questions that can’t be answered from my sheet and whatever she doesn’t know she skillfully makes up. To hear her talk and talk, I’m convinced that woman can make lies come out like truth better than an Associate Professor in the Department of Crap.
“Hm, how do you prepare Monkfish?” She might repeat after a passenger would ask the question. Then she’d huff out her generous chest and put a hand to her curvaceous chin, scratching at some of her adorable, tiny hairs there for a second before speaking again. “Great question! Mr. Kimple, was it? Mr. Kimple here’s what you need to know: To cook a Monkfish properly, you have to let the fish rest at room temperature for no more than twelve minutes before you cook it or else the skin will dry up like a pinecone. Not thirteen and not eleven but exactly twelve. Oh, and be sure to soak its head in cold water before cutting it off from the body. Trust me; it’ll make for a cleaner chop.”
I once questioned how Heraldine could happily blabber on day after day but I think she finds joy in spewing hogwash to passengers she’ll probably never see again. For me, the wind and the waves, those are the only voices I care about because they tell me where to send my boat. They’re the only voices that matter anyway, besides Heraldine’s voice of course, and the ones I recognize best. Well, except for the whales.
I’ve never told anyone this before but I can speak and understand whale-talk. I’m pretty sure Heraldine figured it out after our third outing on the boat because that was when we saw our first whale together. It was breaching right by us and as it leapt out of the water—that majestic creature, night-black skin shimmering—I immediately turned silent and cocked my head sort of funny. I could tell by the way Heraldine’s mouth squished up while she watched me that she was working out in her crafty mind exactly what I was doing. Now I think she knows for sure what the silence and the head-cocks mean because her mouth no longer squishes up and there’s some unspoken understanding between us to leave me alone when the whales come near. And that’s fine. I don’t care if she knows. My communication with the whales is probably why she can love me. Not the Zappa or the whiskey or the apartment above the cheese or the boat rides. It’s the whale-talk that does it because whale-talk is the only thing that makes me great.
Yosemite is crazy. I always knew he was—it was part of the reason I concocted this plan—but with every day that passes, him sitting there like a mute dunce on an old boat that smells like wet tires and desiccated seaweed while I yell at yappy tourists who can’t shut up and watch the damn sea, I realize just how crazy he is.
Maybe I’m crazy, too, for staying in his hell-hole apartment above a cheese shop for six months and for burning my throat on cheap whiskey and for moving from my swanky loft in London to middle-of-nowhere Southern Norway just so I can finally kill a whale.
Reason dictates rhyme. I have to keep remembering my reason for being here, alone with nothing but lies so intricate even I can’t keep up. Shouldn’t Yosemite realize I’ve told him three different stories about how I discovered his whale watching tours? Wouldn’t he think it weird I already knew his name before he ever opened his mouth to speak? Sometimes I wonder if he’s the thickest man on the planet or just living, breathing proof that love is blind. And deaf. And also really, really dumb.
I don’t love him. I don’t even like him. I’m only here, like I said, to kill a whale. And not just kill it, I want to heave my long, hunting knife right into its skull, hear the shrill crack of whale-bone, watch the life flicker and fade from its eyes, see the blood pool dark in the water then scoop up a bottle of the red stuff to drip on my toothbrush later so I can taste it sweet and sticky across my teeth. I’m seriously licking my lips just thinking about it.
Five years. I’ve been waiting five long years to kill a whale, since I came across a YouTube clip about the spurting and the sputtering and the flailing they do when they die. Funny because the video was made by some anti-whaling organization as a gruesome display of what a whale looks like as it dies. Too bad they didn’t count on someone like me, someone who craves high drama and pain. That’s just how I wanted my whale-kill to go, though I wasn’t sure how to make any of it happen until last May. That’s when I read an article online about a “world-class whale watcher” in Norway, who, as the reporter wrote, “was so connected to the whales, you’d think he was able to speak to them as they swam by.” I remember reading the story three times more, googling Yosemite Whale Watching Tours and booking my flight to Norway that very night.
So I put up with Yosemite’s awful music and sandpaper beard for what seemed like an eternity in order to learn from him and study exactly how he’s able to draw the whales in, close enough for him to whisper nonsense as he pats their fins. It’s the perfect distance for me to strike.
And today, I strike.
Morgan The Whale
I can hear his heartbeat before I even see his boat. It’s the heartbeat of a great man who is simple but kind. Whenever he draws his ship toward us, I always get this funny tickle of excitement to know I’ll talk with Yosemite today. I enjoy our conversations. They’re pleasant and calming. We talk about the weather and where I swam today and what he will eat for dinner and what I might eat for lunch. Yosemite is the only human I’ve ever met who knows whale-talk and I’m grateful the gift was given to such a great man. I enjoy talking to him.
I don’t enjoy Heraldine. Her heartbeat is too slow and her breath makes me feel cold on my skin. I know how funny that sounds for a big, humpback whale like me to feel cold from the air that comes from her mouth but it’s true.
Do you think I should feel bad about what I did? Because I don’t. She’s trouble and always was. So when she reached into her bag this morning to get her knife while Yosemite wasn’t looking, I jostled their boat around a little—just a little!—enough for the knife to drop and Yosemite to say in his quiet Yosemite voice, “Heraldine, you think of everything. How did you know I forgot the knife to butcher the salmon for lunch today? Tell the passengers we’re having salmon sandwiches after all.”
It was worth it just to see her face mush up with anger when Yosemite grabbed the knife from her hands and smiled at his Heraldine. She didn’t smile. Why would she? Now she’s stuck in her cold life floating on a boat, watching us from a distance and we’re free to swim the watery heavens … at least for one more day.