By Stephanie Ye
The village by the sea was in a foreign land. By foreign land, I don't mean just any land other than the one that issued my passport. This land was one I had absolutely no links to, neither by birth nor ancestry, history nor economy, literature nor language. That was precisely why I had decided to go there for my vacation.
I went when cold temperatures had driven all the swimmers, sunbathers and other superfluous folk away. Because it was the off-season, I could afford a large room on the upper storey of my hotel, with a balcony that overlooked the sea. Although I had to close the sliding door most of the time to keep the chill out, I could still hear the crashing of the waves as I lay in bed, while the hotel creaked and swayed around me from the force of the wind.
I had come to this place with the idea that if I removed myself from everything that was familiar, what was left would be the real me. As you might surmise, I had given my heart to the wrong person and was now trying to retrieve that organ, along with what remained of my pride.
I fell into a routine. In the morning, I would sit on the balcony with my coat on, reading my favourite books from my childhood as my face grew numb with cold. In the afternoon, I would walk along the beach, breathing in the salt and picking up seashells. I would meet few people and would not speak to anyone. I would not eat at the village's few restaurants but get takeaway at the deli, pointing wordlessly at the soggy vegetables, the meat and sauce. I would return to my room and sit on my balcony and eat, handling the disposable utensils with my gloves on.
At night, I would lie in bed and listen to the pounding waves, while the hotel shuddered about me. I would fall asleep and dream that I was in a strange room with soft, slippery walls that contracted and expanded around me. It was the interior of a giant heart, filling up with and then expelling blood. I would float in the thick, hot liquid, trying not to breathe it in. I would push at the swollen walls as the blood rose to my neck, my chin, my nose. I would drown and wake up, and it would be morning again.
Days and weeks went by like this, and I was not unhappy. Then one morning, I awoke from drowning to the sounds of a commotion. I went onto the balcony and saw a large group of people on the beach, clustered around a gargantuan, dark rock that veiled them in its shadow. Everyone was shouting and gesticulating. I ran down to the beach and as I got closer, I could see walnut-like ridges on the rock's surface, along with a crust of barnacles and limpets clustered like so many continents. A single, smooth and shiny black stone in the midst of this expanse puzzled me, until I realised it was an eye.
The whale's eye was the size of a fist. Its body, the size of an aeroplane. Its blowhole, the size of a dinner plate. I tried to imagine the parts of the whale I could not see. Its tongue must be the size of a bed. Its lungs, the size of limousines. Its heart, the size of a room.
The creature was too big for us to push back into the sea, so we just stood around the beached behemoth, waiting for it to die. People laid their hands on the creature, amazed to touch something from somewhere they could never travel. Everyone was speculating as to why the whale had swum out of the depths of the ocean, what had caused it to swim and swim until it swam off the edge of the sea. I did not speak the language, but somehow I could follow what people were saying.
It could be an act of evolution, someone said. Long ago, humans crawled out of the ocean. Maybe this is the next wave.
But it's dying here, someone else pointed out. How will it reproduce?
That's why it's called survival of the fittest, the first person replied sagely.
Another suggested that the whale might be committing suicide, akin to how a human might jump off a building. Whales are intelligent, he said, which means they can also be depressed. Maybe it has gotten into some kind of trouble in whale society, or suffered a romantic misadventure. Or perhaps life simply has not lived up to expectations.
Others said it must be a case of bad navigation, that the whale must have been confused and taken a wrong turn. They blamed the use of sonar by ships, or a disturbance in the Earth's magnetic forces. The whale had never intended to leave the ocean, might never even have known about the existence of a third realm that was neither air nor sea, until it had found itself stranded here on this foreign land.
Near sunset, the whale shook with a violent tremor, and then was still. Its great eye was a black mirror, reflecting sea and sky. Now that it was dead, we saw that it was just another chunk of flesh that would have to be returned to earth. Some vaguely official-looking people started talking about explosives and excavators. One by one, the rest of us left the beach and returned to our beds. It was dark when I got to my room. I stood on my balcony and the wind was cold and I could see nothing. I lay in bed and listened to the waves and, beneath that, the thump, thump, thump of a giant heart.
Theories were interesting, but we would never know why the whale had done what it did, just as we would never know how a heart starts beating and then how it comes to stop, and in between how many beats it will bear, and in a lifetime how far it must travel. I slept dreamlessly through the night, and the next morning left the village by the sea and headed for home.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013