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The Sea Half-Held By Night

Esteuan sees the bent figure at dusk and thinks nothing of it. His day has been long, beginning before the sun brightened the sky, ending as the sun takes a last gasp and puts herself away for the night. Exhaustion bends his own broad shoulders against this darkening sky and he presumes it is another man much like himself, wearied from a day on the ships, amid the tryworks. The stench of his own body, streaming with sweat, blood, and whale oil, masks anything else he might discern from the evening. Esteuan brings these scents home and even when he emerges from the bath some time later, he smells of whales, of sea, of hunting. I see the figure three days later; when I mention it to Esteuan, his head lifts from the tub of water and his eyes bore into me, as if what I have said makes no sense. There were only exhausted men; he tells me of the one he saw. I tell my story twice, and neither time does it change.

Coming home from the harbor, my hands and arms still caked with spermaceti, I see the figure wandering the rocky shore. Here, the shoreline is strewn with the corpses of whales, flesh melting from stark white bone into the waters where it turns green and black with rot. The water glimmers at all hours of the day with those colors. If one is new to Red Bay, the scent is vile, causing eyes to water and stomachs to heave; when one has been here for years as we have, this scent fades and becomes common. I smell at least as bad, spending most of my days curled inside whale heads to scoop the spermaceti into buckets which never quite contain it.

This figure—this man—stumbles. Perhaps on a rock, perhaps on an exposed whale vertebrae. He doesn’t catch himself, but staggers half a dozen steps, arms shaking. His shoulder knocks into the arc of a whale rib which rises from the mud and he stares at this shape for a long while. Even standing, his body seems oddly liquid, flowing. He is wet from the sea, I think; he is tired from a long day of hauling whales from the waters, his shirt streaked with whale blood, other debris. My mind fills in the information I cannot know with what I do know: long days of hard, awful work. This man doesn’t lift his head and look toward any destination, but he turns, as if knowing he’s going the wrong direction. These staggering steps lead him away from the whale corpses, back to the glimmering water.

He walks into the water and I think surely he will stop. He will realize his error and turn back yet again, toward the houses which scatter the land for certainly one is his own, but he doesn’t. He walks until I can see nothing more of him; the water swallows him bit by bit, hips and belly and narrow chest. His head vanishes though there should be bubbles of breath to mark the surface of the water, there are not. He sinks and is gone. Ghostsong rises in the air a breath later; this eerie sound is like the groaning of masts and sails, like the roll of thunder before a storm, but it is something else entirely. I think it is the whales, weeping in agony at what we do to them.

Esteuan refuses to talk to me about the man. He says I imagined him walking into the ocean. This is the only answer that makes sense to him. Where would he have gone, he asks me. I do not know. I cannot give him an answer. When I shake my head, Esteuan grunts and leaves the house, headed for the harbor. I follow; my work is there, too.

When a whale is taken, it screams. Esteuan tells me I am a fool for describing it this way, for imparting such a human sound to a monster, but this is only what it is. The rip of harpoon and drogue into flesh sound like nothing else. The tearing of fabric? No—it is not that. It is the opening of a life, one body sundered into two things. The spill of liquid into liquid—life-giving blood into dark water. The animal makes this sound: black birds raking gray sky, a mouth smothered beneath a hand, a child running until the world around it is unknown. Esteuan calls me a fool.

Our chalupas are small compared to the whales, and fragile. When captains are carelessly eager, we lose many ships. I used to go out into the waters with them, but now I do not. I wait in the harbor for them to return with the kill. Other than the young boys, I am the only one small enough to easily fit inside the split heads when they return with a sperm whale. I am the one they want scooping the soft spermaceti out by the bucketful. They train the boys to be men; train them to sail the chalupas and take the beasts in the open waters. Other wives stay home. They try not to see me most days, but when they do look, their eyes are mournful.

But this is why we came: to hunt the whales. I was seventeen my first summer, having come with my brother Joanes and his crew of six hundred men. Esteuan was among them and had not yet taken me for a wife, though the long looks he gave me said he wished this very thing. Among my brother’s men, he was the least offensive—high praise, indeed—but the long journey across the Atlantic gave us time to learn one another. His mouth was coarse in all ways, but in those days his hands were patient, coaxing shapes and images from whalebones before gifting them to me.

The first time Joanes took me to a hunt, the violence captivated me. The claiming of such beasts by mere men held a strange poetry; the manner in which we trailed the creatures, the way harpoons and ropes pulled them in. The great whales would bleed to death on the journey back to shore; would float once dead and unresisting. It was Joanes who cracked the head of the first sperm whale we brought back; the beast steamed in the cool autumn air and smelled like hot meat. It was Joanes who showed me the compartments inside that great head, the way the oils collected there. It was Joanes who first dared me to crawl inside.

When you stand inside one of these animals, you almost cannot believe it. You are aware of your own breath for it sounds very close in your ears, aware too that these walls around you are not walls at all, but flesh that once lived and carried breath of its own. If you spread your arms wide, you cannot touch each side of the chamber; you must rock from one side to the other to touch the damp walls. At first, they feel warm and then the heat bleeds out, until only cold remains. The colder it gets, the thicker the oil which clots this compartment, so you work quickly, scooping bucket after bucket of spermaceti out, so that it may be purified, turned into rare oil for lamps and candles.

The Bible tells its story of Jonah who was swallowed by a whale and thus saved, but standing within the creature is nothing like that. You do not feel as though you will be saved. This animal will draw you down if it can, so best you get there first. Standing inside, you still will not believe it, that you triumphed, but you did, and so you don’t mind the smell at the end of the day. You don’t mind the loss of occasional ships. This is part of the price to be paid for small miracles.

Esteuan marries me that first winter, when the harbor freezes so hard we don’t think we will survive. We can go nowhere, our ships frozen in place, and the whales have stopped coming. We can only hold on until the thaw and pray the beasts return and we can hunt them again.

Esteuan marries me in the shack that will become our home. The wind is awful, blowing in a fresh storm which will leave two feet of snow on the ground come morning. The wind slips in between the wood slats, causing every flame in the room to shudder. The room is painted in shivering gold, every lamp in the camp brought here because it was my foolish wish. I did not ask for every candle—we would need something to see us through the winter dark—but I wanted every glass lamp. Each is filled with our most precious oil, bright honey in color. The other wives and I spent the afternoon filling them and setting wicks.

This oil burns without scent and its color is clean, bright. It is the best marriage gift anyone could have given me. In this light, the shadows of Esteuan’s face are erased and he becomes a gilded being. Joanes stands at his side, offers my hand into his, and words are spoken. Words that, in that moment, seem easily kept. But after winter’s thaw, spring’s bloom, and summer’s harvest, there will come the autumn that will change everything. Joanes will leave us. He will cross the Atlantic in the San Juan, carrying casks of the oil we have made. Others will come in his place. He will return, in another year. Perhaps. Although there are days ahead of us, I already mourn his leaving.

Esteuan seems to understand. I find it strange that he does, for sailors come and go so and this is also his way, but after our wedding, after our friends and fellow workers each set into the storm with a wedding lamp in their hands, Esteuan offers me another gift. It is a whale’s rib, an unbroken length that has been smoothed by his hands. He has carved images and words into it: my likeness and his own are there, and so too Joanes, his nose crooked from a fight he lost years ago. The images are darkened with soot, rubbed so deeply in it seems part of the bone itself. I mean to thank my new husband, but already he has moved on, to close the door so the snow does not come in, to extinguish the lamps because he needs no light to claim me as his.

The stooped figure returns at sunrise. I am home today because Esteuan refuses to let me do my work. He refuses to let me do my work because I think I may be with child. I am sick these past two weeks and my courses have not come. We argued all night. I did not want to stay home—will I stay home for my entire pregnancy, should there be such a thing? Esteuan tells me I will. Marina, who has surely heard our arguments, comes to console me, but I don’t want consolation, so when the figure of the man returns, it is with relief I point at him and show Marina. She is slow to rise from the table; her hands are fisted in her skirt, because she has likely heard Esteuan and I argue over this man, too. Our houses are not so close; it is only that at night, the land is quiet and the walls thin. Voices carry.

The man is farther inland than I have seen him before, his eyes seeming to rest on the house. My house. I shudder at that idea and Marina reaches for me in fear. He will not run, I tell her. I do not know this for certain, but I remember the way he moves. He moves that way now, lumbering as though his body weighs him down. He is ill, Marina says, and we should ask Gil to come. I only stare at her. Gil is an old man; I am not certain what she thinks he can do, but I am insulted she believes he can do more than we can.

For now we only watch the man as he shuffles about. When he goes to our supply shed, I move to the back door. Marina tells me no, tries to hold my arm, but I pull from her grasp and open the door. I do not yell at her, but instead at the man who seems intent on looking through our tools, our stored oil and wood. He does not react to my voice, his focus falling to the pale curve of whale rib which stands upright against a wall. It is the rib Esteuan carved for me. His hand falls to it and a rough sound pours from him. I scream at him to leave it alone. His sound—it changes, rises to the sound the whales make at slaughter.

Leave us alone! Marina cries and it’s only then I realize she is there at all. She lifts a slat of wood and strikes the man, though he has done nothing. He turns and— Half of his face is gone. From the cheekbone down, he has rotted away, his skin glimmering the way the water does from the whale rot. I can see the curve of a bone and where the muscle once connected; the muscle is familiar, having worked with whales so long. Having cut them apart. His eyes are milky, waxy, soft. I think I could scoop them right out the way I scoop spermaceti from the whales’s heads.

Marina strikes him with the slat and he goes down at once, a pile of bones barely held together with muscle and fabric. His bone-thin fingers claw at the wet ground, toward my feet, and Marina jerks me backward when I can only stare in silent regard. She hits him again and still he reaches for me. Tota, run, she tells me, but I cannot, because I cannot stop staring.

It was like this with my first whale. I should have been frightened at the way the men split the body apart, by the blood and other fluids that spilled everywhere. The head cavity only ever seemed like a cocoon to me, a place where one could be away from the noise of the world, a place where I might bury myself so I would not have to experience Esteuan’s anger when my monthly blood comes. It is what a woman’s body does, I tell him. To him the blood only means no sons, no one to carry on the work when he no longer can. This man, I think, disappeared into the sea. What must it be like beneath those waves? Where the noise of the world also must vanish, where great beasts move through cold waters as gray shadows.

Marina hauls me back to the house, screeching. There is no lock upon the door; she wedges the slat of wood against it and pulls me toward the counter. Where did he touch you, she asks, over and over, and she dips a cloth into the bucket of clean water. What did he do to you, where did he touch you, and I cannot answer, for my attention is still anchored with the man who picks himself up from the ground and stares longingly at the whale rib before he shuffles away, toward the sea.

What did he do to you, Tota? Marina cries. She shakes me hard enough to steal my focus and I don’t understand what she means until I see the bloody footprints on the wood floor. My footprints, my blood. I press a hand to my belly. Tomorrow I will be back inside a whale.

The man from the sea is only the first of many who come to our camp. At first, the men refuse to believe it. They think the women are suffering from a shared illness. The men have not seen these strangers from the sea, therefore they cannot exist. They are a dream, Gil says, and he is so old and weathered that every younger man cries out in support of his words. Marina only stares with hard eyes; her own husband does not believe her, either.

Esteuan, who has seen the same strange man I have, says nothing. Why do you not speak of what you have seen? I ask him when we return to our home. Esteuan pours himself a cold bath and tells me he has seen nothing. His hands shake and he shoves them into the icy water as if it will numb him to the truth. He says we women have grown sick because we do not bear our husbands sons.

Though it is growing colder, I spend that night sleeping in the shed. I have no wish to lie beside Esteuan when he says such things. In the dark, I hear a rustle and I listen, to see if it is one of the sea strangers. The sound does not come again, but the low ghostsong rises up from the harbor to wend through the tryworks, the houses, the sheds where we store the casks of oil. I close my eyes and listen and am still listening when I wake at sunrise. I do not see Esteuan before I flee to the harbor where the men have brought in a whale already.

The men are triumphant, singing and hoisting harpoons into the air. These men have never brought in a whale before and though Arnaut was lost in the battle, the battle is still considered won. This is not a right whale or a bowhead; this is the treasured sperm whale and when Berasco sees me, he gestures for me to come, come, because they want only me to crawl inside. God help me, I long for that, to retreat from everything else if only for a little while.

The cool of the morning is erased inside the whale’s body. The body is so fresh I find myself sweating from the heat of it as I work. Some days it is mindless, the stretch of arms and bucket into the waxy innards, but today I am aware of every motion. Aware of the strength in my limbs and this strange ritual. I murmur a thanks to the whale, lift up another bucket, but find myself holding it too long. Where has Berasco gone? I peer up and he is not perched on the whale’s head. He is gone.

I climb my way out to find most of the crew gone. Young Dat hovers nearby, but his attention is not on me. Deeper in the harbor, there is a flurry of activity and I think perhaps another whale has come, but it is not a whale. It is the strangers from the sea. I cannot count how many there are, but it reminds me of a flood of fish, so many that they wriggle one atop the other, unsure of how they are suddenly on land and not in the water. These men look much like the one I have seen; they are in various states of rot, some worse than others, but all of them gleam with the sheen of whale oil.

Dat looks at me when I emerge, filthy from the whale’s innards. He offers me a wet rag and I wipe my face clean; the rest does not bother me and can wait. You can come, I tell the young boy as I move past him; I have no idea what we might do, but I want to get closer to see the furor. He follows me, mostly I think because he was charged with staying close. He wishes they let him crawl inside the whales, but I know they will not; he is destined for greater things, they say. They say this of all the young men.

We round the tryworks and ships, working our way closer to the shallows where the furor is greatest. Our men are beating the strangers back into the water, with fists and clubs, with harpoons and oars. Esteuan is there and his oar connects with one rotting head; the head bursts under the contact and the body collapses. For a moment, Esteuan looks victorious, but two more strangers step up to take the place of the first and he hefts the oar once more.

There is a frantic sound to the confrontation. It reminds me of men taking a whale in open waters. That scream, the opening of one body into two parts. Though our men are killing these rotting bodies, our men are also being devoured. This is the only word for what I witness. It occurs to me to reach for Dat, to cover his eyes, but he has already seen the horror. These rotting men are devouring the healthy flesh of the others. Ripping into them the way a harpoon would, tearing, sundering.

The strangers do not stop and our men continue to fall. The women stream into the harbor now, roused by the sound, the screams. I leave Dat, trusting him to not be a fool as I am about to be. I cry for Marina, for Isabel and Andere, and anyone else who can come. Marina sees me—she feared I would trapped in a whale! she cries, but I silence her and drag her toward the casks of oil.

She guesses what I mean to do because she protests. Isabel and Andere seem less worried over the loss of the oil—they each grab torches from the rendering fires as if they already know what must be done. We keep the tryworks, large iron tubs wreathed in brick, near the shore to try out the oil close to the water where the whales are kept. It lessens the work, for we haul the whales less distance than other stations must. It also adds risk, keeping this much oil near this much heat.

I grip Marina’s hands and tell her to quiet. I speak to her as one might a child and slowly she understands we must do this. The strangers are gaining on our men and what shall we do if this station is lost? She moans and I stroke a hand over her tear-streaked face. I know, I know. But when we roll the casks toward the combat, she is steady and true and silent.

On the long tongue of bridge that connects the docks to the land, we haul the casks onto the railing. Below us, the conflict continues. There is only that awful, furious sound—if there is a scent to the spilled blood, to our precious dead, we cannot smell it above the normal stench of this place. Isabel nods at me and I at her. The moment I push the cask off the edge, she touches her torch to its gleaming side. The cask drops into the fray, streaming oil which catches fire, bursts. Our men who have not fallen run the other way, but the strangers take no notice. They are wrecked and fall burning into the shallow waters.

After, the silence is staggering. So too is the reek of burnt, rotten flesh, which I can now distinguish above the usual stench of this place. It is Dat who runs down first, crying for his father. And soon after we are all there, wading through the charred and floating dead. Marina’s husband scoops her up from the water, carries her from the shore though he is streaming with blood. Isabel’s husband is covered in slash marks that call to mind the battle scars we see on whales. I imagine these men carrying these marks the way whales do, for the rest of their days—which they will do, but these days become short indeed.

Of Esteuan there is no sign.

Marina and Lope take me to their house. I hear myself protest: if Esteuan should come home, I should be there to greet him when he does; there should be a warm meal and a wife. There are many shoulds. While I speak these words, another part of me is numbed to them. Where has Esteuan gone? Which ship took him? Was there a whale? I ask Lope, for they work together every day. Certainly he will know where my husband is. Lope quiets me, settles me into a chair beside their hearth. In the warmth of the fire, my thoughts come into some better order. Esteuan was not on a ship, there was no whale; the strangers have taken him, devoured him.

There is a warm meal here, warm soup and Marina’s best bread. My hands smell like whale oil; they are steady when I break my bread, though Lope’s begin to shake then. He begins to have trouble feeding himself and Marina helps, her hand steadying his and the spoon. Still, the soup drops down his chin as though he were an infant and not a grown man. This frustrates him. He shakes her hand off, pushes away from the meal, and stalks across the room. This room is not large. I can smell him where he stands. He is rotting.

Once Lope is in bed, I suggest to Marina that we leave. She should not see what he will become. Though I do not know, I suspect. His flesh will fall to ribbons, his eyes will go milky and sightless. I do not say this to her, but Marina refuses. I cannot say what I would do in her place. She rests beside him, her hand upon his chest when he stops breathing in the night. She shakes him, pleading for him to wake and when his eyes come open, it is a sobbed laugh that escapes her. He loves to play, her Lope.

But these eyes are no longer his. Their green spark drowns in a haze of milk and I try to pull Marina away. Away before he can latch onto her. His movements are slow, the bedcovers confound him; I have Marina almost off the bed before she realizes I am taking her from her husband. She screams no, reaches for him. Lope groans and strains toward her. They are two lovers kept from one another, but she cannot see what has become of him. Perhaps she does not care. She wrenches from my hold and stumbles back to his. His rotting mouth glances her cheek and then sinks in.

It is that sound, the sundering. The ripping apart of flesh. Lope becomes the sharp harpoon and Marina the bloodied whale; he pulls her under. He breaks her open and scoops out all she is and no matter how I strike him, I cannot dislodge him. He is newly made, not wasted like the first man I saw, and terribly strong. I cannot separate her. Marina screeches and yet I see the way her hands hold fast. She holds to his arms to say she will not be parted even if this is how it ends. Until death, she swore to him.

Lope reaches past her for me, but I move toward the hearth. Toward the lamp which sits on the mantle. I throw the lamp into the fire and the oil bursts, licks up the walls and across the floor. The fire behind me throws my shadow across the grass. This shadow me staggers away into the night, hands held over ears as if this can forestall the wet screams that bleed into the dark.

The man waits near the supply shed. He stutters, the rut in the ground saying he has been here a while, pacing and waiting while others of his kind flooded the harbor and ate our men. When he sees me, he stops. I wonder what I look like through those milky eyes, though perhaps I am not so different from most days I come home from the whales, coated in cooling spermaceti. This man screams at me. Spittle flies and his jaw unhinges on one side. The rot devours him; he’s melting before me, but still lifts a hand, gestures. The whale rib rests on its side on the ground. Smears of blood and muck coat it, as though he tried to hold it. Oil gleams on the likeness of my brother.

Two years ago a storm pounded Red Bay; it was autumn and Marina and her chandlers had finished the candles we would need to see us through winter. These candles were shelved in pantries and cellars, wrapped in soft linen and closed away from the light of day. The excess were boxed in the hold of the San Juan, who stood ready to make her return across the Atlantic with Joanes as her captain. That return would never be made, for the storm did what she would with the ship, forcing her into the depths before she could leave. She went down with all hands, more than two hundred casks of whale oil, and all of Marina’s candles.

Whale oil drips from the man’s hand, into my outstretched palm. Not water or blood, but oil, and one look at what remains of his crooked nose tells me: this is Joanes. The men who have come back from the sea are our own men, dead and yet living still. Far behind us, someone screams—oh, it sounds like Isabel—and another house erupts in scouring flames. Joanes’s fingers rest in my palm, as cold as dead whale flesh. He has no strength to grip my hand. He turns and his fingers slide away, but he looks back at me once. Come with me, Tota, I can hear him say. I dare you.

I follow him to the shore, through the rotting carcasses and oily water that licks the rocks. Smoke roils through the air now and fire illuminates the sea, in long golden strips, in bright blotches between the stones. We move slow, because he doesn’t lift his feet. He drags one then shifts his weight to drag the other. We played this way as children, pretending injury he can no longer escape. He wades into the water and I hesitate. Joanes is waist-deep in the golden water when he realizes I am not there. He turns. Moans. I want to push his jaw back together, mend what the sea has broken. I extend a hand to him.

Joanes comes back to me. Difficult, slow, terrible. I make him drag himself through the water back to me, and picture the many times he has come to shore already, how demanding each journey was. The effort makes even me tired and I am reminded how my arms felt of lead after my first afternoon inside a whale. How I could not move the next morning and how the men laughed at me. They only ever laughed once. My brother lifts his arm with the same difficulty now, resting his dead fingers in my hand.

Something in the bones is familiar and I hold tight to him as he walks back into the sea. Every step takes me deeper, until the ground slips from beneath my shoes and I paddle. Joanes sinks, hand slipping from mine, and I can’t go under, I can’t, until I do. I take a breath and dive and spy him in the gloom beneath the surface. He walks as if anchored to the bottom, toward things I cannot see. When I do see them, my breath bubbles out of me and my chest screams a protest. I swim deeper.

Whales swim in the depths here, dead and yet living. These whales are injured, carrying harpoons that in turn carry ropes, weeds, moss. Some whales are split open across their broad heads, exposing the chambers where I would spend my days scooping them clean. The whales watch me with their unblinking eyes, steady, knowing all that I cannot know. My brother strides into the depth and I see others like him, drowned sailors all, shuffling amid the whales, broken casks of oil, strewn candles.

Do I drown? They will say so. It is the easiest explanation, because though I tell my story twice and it never changes, it never makes sense to those who remain. Isabel, her face scarred from that long ago night, refuses to believe, even when she leaves me bowls of warm soup in winter. Isabel’s daughter (gifts of bread), granddaughter (gifts of oil), great-grandson (gifts of candles), great-great-granddaughter (gifts of drawings—a tall house with a light that I think is a dream, but I see the light scrape the sky).

I watch them all and they say I am a ghost, a girl who drown because she could not give her husband sons. Estauan knows better. He watches as I crawl into the dead whales. Watches as I stretch from side to side and expand to fill this chamber, and, at long last, in the cold waters of Red Bay, feel saved.

Originally published in Dead North, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

About the Author

E. Catherine Tobler has never walked inside of a whale, but figures there’s still time! Among others, her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and on the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award ballot. The fifth Egyptian steampunk adventure in her Folley & Mallory series arrives later this year. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit or her website,