“Words of The Whale” by Anna Sykora


“You need anything, Brian, you let me know. Call me this evening, hear?” Bert patted his friend’s back with his fingers, afraid of knocking him down. Built short and spare, Brian wore a black suit that smelled of mothballs. The creases between his dull eyes deepening, he nodded like a bobble-head doll.

“Radio said the bay’s full of whales,” Bert went on hopefully. “You could sit outside and watch ‘em for a while.” The big guy squinted up at the low-hanging sun over Lanai Bay. “I gotta get back to Olowalu. I’ll call you later.”

Brian forced a grin as his friend folded himself back into his Honda. He waved with his clean hand (the other gritty from the earth he’d tossed into Hashiko’s grave) as Bert rattled away, down the hill.

The bay looked calm, a wan blue-grey. Brian didn’t see any frolicking whales. He climbed the stairs to the porch, doffed his jacket, sat in his rocker and shut his eyes.

He should stow the chair’s twin away, maybe in the garage. Birds, still abundant in January, chirped in the frangipani trees. A mild, salt-scented breeze caressed his face, his stomach rumbled. He hadn’t eaten much these past few days: no appetite for food—or conversation. His throat felt tight, as if he’d gulped a stone and couldn’t move it up or down.

He rubbed his hot eyes, which felt shrunken. Hashiko always told him not to. He could do what he wanted, now. Not that he wanted anything.

He pushed back in his chair, rocking hard, and it creaked as if it hurt. You can’t oil a goddamn rocking chair. Hashiko’s never made any noise. Opening his eyes, he stared at hers as if perceiving it for the first time. There the scuffed old thing sat, still waiting for her to come watch whales. About 1,500 humpbacks swam to Maui from the Arctic every winter, in order to calve and feed their young in the shallow, warm waters in the island’s lee.

He wouldn’t watch them if they came. He’d never watch the goddamn whales again.

Getting up he noticed the garden’s border of plantain lilies turning brown. How often do you water that plant? He had no idea.

Hashiko’s garden looked neat, if already dry in spots. It hadn’t yet figured out she was gone.

Turning away, he fumbled with the front door key. Something was in his eye.

* * *

When he stuck a can of chili into the old pink Sunbeam, it didn’t buzz. Raising the handle he peered at the serrated wheel, which turns the can, and the sharp wheel, which cuts into it. Both looked fine, as did the cord.

Where did Hashiko keep the tools? Rifling through drawers and cabinets, he couldn’t find an opener. Didn’t she ask him to buy her a new one? Always rearranging stuff until you couldn’t find a goddamn thing in your own house. He finally banged the kitchen drawers and doors closed, irked by the racket it made.

Must be a screwdriver in the boy’s room—where he hadn’t set foot in years. Bowe, who made straight A’s in math and science, loved to tinker with his computer, taking it apart to add new drives or disks. The boy kept some tools in his desk, which was still in his room with his other gear.

Brian marched upstairs and pulled open the door, which squeaked as if surprised; he caught his breath. Sunset-lit in hues of pink and violet through the tidy, half-opened curtains, Bowe’s room looked unnaturally neat and clean, everything now in its place forever. The tiger-pattern spread, pulled up snugly over the pillow; the baseball pennants arranged on the walls; his skimboard standing in a corner with long oars for stand-up paddle-boarding, along with his almost new electric guitar: all things the boy would never touch again.

Hashiko sat in here after dinner for the last four years, the door tight shut. Passing in the hall, Brian heard her murmuring but couldn’t make out the words. All along she’d been keeping Bowe’s room like a shrine.

The corner of a postcard-bright beach poster lettered Maui No Ka’Oi hung loose. Brian smoothed it back and then sank into the lopsided chair at the end of Bowe’s bed. A heart-framed photo on the dresser caught his eye: the three of them grinning like fools at the camera. Damn it, whatever seemed so funny? You can smile when you don’t know what’s gonna happen.

The three of them looked so young and fresh, Bowe with his mom’s lovely, Asian eyes and his dad’s cleft chin. The boy got the best of both of them. Brian clenched his eyes.

Wait here long enough, and gangly Bowe would come bursting in again, a silly grin on his glowing, dark-tanned face. That’s why Hashiko kept his room the same: so their son would feel welcome.

Bowe went straight to the Army from high school; enlisting the day he turned l8, when he didn’t need parental consent anymore. This, after two years of noisy battles over the so-called War on Terror.

“It’s not our fight,” Brian told him, over and over again. “I was in Vietnam; I know. War doesn’t solve any problems, son. It’s just a waste of men and money.”

“Please, don’t go,” Hashiko would plead, gazing up at her son. Bowe blamed Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, not that any proof chained the dictator to those disasters.

“We have to stop him,” he’d insisted, with the noble foolishness of youth. “He’s an evil guy, like Hitler. Don’t you see?”

Bowe wanted to help the Iraqi people build a solid democracy. Then one of the folks he was trying to help blew him up with a homemade bomb.

So, after 18 years of hard work, of patient love and investment, you get your only kid back in a box. Your brilliant boy, who almost made valedictorian.

For Bowe, you built your highways and bridges in Hawaii as a civil engineer. Now everything ruined by the one blast that strewed his limbs down a road in Anbar.

For four years, Hashiko trotted the rounds of her routine as a registered nurse, head bent over like a patient beast of burden. Then she gulped the sleeping pills, her ticket out of misery, heart already dead.

Brian’s whole family: such a waste. It screamed out to blue heaven! But when he opened his mouth no words emerged, just a faint yammer like a feverish baby’s.

He grounded his hands into his burning eyes, trying to obliterate his memory. Slumped at the end of Bowe’s neat bed, he’d reached the end of the road he’d been building, a project of labor and materials cancelled now by an act of God.

So what was the point of his being here, still trapped in this suffering body? After 58 years of life, to come to this?

He remembered the dead whale on Molokai. Out inspecting viaducts, he heard about the whale on the radio, so after work he rode his Yamaha down the winding roads to Kawela Beach. (Back in the days when he couldn’t afford a used car, let alone a family.)

Surrounded by noisy onlookers, the small humpback, only about 20 feet long—about 20 tons of dead weight—lay on its side, tail to the sea. Just out of reach of the lapping waves, slightly parted jaws disclosed dark rows of baleen plates. Each knobby tubercle on its head and chin held a wiry, sensing hair.

He stared at the whale’s long white belly, patterned with smooth accordion grooves that expand whenever a baleen whale gulps seawater to feed. He studied its black and glistening back, encrusted with hundreds of barnacles and fingernail-sized lice. What a load of painful parasites to haul around each day.

Slowly he made the circuit of the corpse, inspecting it for flaws. You couldn’t see any wounds from a killer whale attack, or a ship collision. You couldn’t see any netting that might have interfered with the whale’s migration. It looked female.

Beginning to decay, she smelled like rotten crabs, and two hairy men pinched their noses and made crude jokes. Meanwhile a chubby mother in a red bathing suit was bobbing around with a camera. When she got all five of her kids lined up by height, she chirped:

“Now say ‘dead whale.’”

Stepping back to get out of the photo, Brian saw initials carved deeply into the whale beside her eye. Some moron had also stuck pieces of driftwood into her blowholes.

As the sun drooped towards the velvety Pacific, Brian lingered till the last onlookers left, before pulling out the wood and tossing it away. Tentatively he touched the whale’s sun-warmed cheek, which felt rubbery and rough, yet yielding.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t understand.”

Her large eye, fogged below its drooping sheath, stared forlornly past him, and he shivered in the sunset’s glow. She seemed an omen of unjust ruin.

Striding back to his motorbike then, he turned to peer again at her graceful curves, silhouetted against the darkening waves. He’d never seen such a waste, not since Vietnam.

There, once on a patrol he found a pregnant woman and her three small kids sprawled inside a smoking hut. Nobody knew who shot them or why. Food for the flies. Casualties of war.

The day the so-called “casualty assistance officers” made their visit to his home, he saw Hashiko’s watering can in the grass on its side when he got home from work. All the water had dribbled away, leaving a moist patch. He hurried up the creaking porch steps, perplexed by the male voices from the kitchen.

Hunched at the table, Hashiko raised her stained face with a look of a slaughter-stunned heifer, and he froze in the hall. Already she looked ten years older.

Meanwhile the two Army sergeants stood at attention in their spiffy uniforms, as if a senior officer had barged in and not the next-of-kin.

“Mr. Benson,” said the tall black one, who spoke soberly in a southern accent. “I’m very sorry to inform you that your son, Pfc. Bowe J. Benson…”

The rest didn’t register as Brian’s ears filled with the crashing of huge waves. He sank into a plastic kitchen chair. The cramped room only held three of them. Soon afterwards he stowed Bowe’s in the garage, to spare Hashiko the sight of it.

The day of Bowe’s funeral the sun paraded down the cloudless sky. How his flag-draped coffin glittered against the green of the neat-clipped, cemetery lawn, the rows of white stars oscillating, the bright stripes seeming to move and breathe.

The lone trumpet shrilled and faded. With meticulous care, the white-gloved honor guards folded up the flag and handed it to Hashiko. Tenderly, she raised it to her lips.

After that she died a little every day, her dark eyes giving up their sparkle, her musical voice its sweetness and its tone. Her back bent as if stricken by disease, dragging her down to the grave that grizzled old men would hollow out for her beside her son’s.

Getting home one morning from a business trip, Brian found her on her side of the bed, an empty vial beside her. She lay on her back, mouth puffed open like a drowning fish. He almost didn’t recognize the sweetheart he’d married, plump and cheerful, buoyant and kind. In Japanese Hashiko meant “Star Child.”

She didn’t bother to leave him a note, having nothing more to say. Still the house looked tidy and clean, as if she’d dusted and vacuumed and straightened up. She watered the gardens front and back, and given her canary more seed.

Brian freed the bird from her cage that night, and she twittered and darted away uncertainly through the frangipani trees. He threw away the empty cage. Birds don’t belong in cages, he’d told Hashiko for years. She loved the sounds the yellow bird made, and said:

“Each little chirp means love.”

* * *

His stomach groaning, he remembered the screwdriver. Getting up, he pulled open desk drawers still crammed with the boy’s unruly strew. Hashiko left the drawers alone. A lucky thing.

Soon he found the tool, along with a yellowing grocery list in her careful hand: dishwasher detergent, frozen OJ… Crumpling it, he threw it at the wastepaper basket and missed. He left it there.

She’d broken down and failed from the strain of missing Bowe, like an overpass built with substandard cement. Losing a child is bitter; still she had no right to leave Brian alone. Not like this; by her own free will. Now what was he going to do?

Feeling confused and angry he retreated to the kitchen, unwilling to fiddle with the Sunbeam now. He couldn’t repair the goddamned thing; he stuffed it into the garbage.

With the screwdriver he punched a ring of holes in the chili can. Prying the lid off with a knife, he cut his thumb on the ragged edge.

Cursing he stumbled back out to the porch and took refuge in his chair. Sitting in the dark, not rocking, he dug at the cold spicy beans with a spoon. Then he fetched a can of beer, to wash them down. Sipping and chewing without enjoyment, he watched the full moon rise over Lahaina Bay.

When the hall phone burbled he ignored it. Somebody (probably Bert) rang back and hung on for 12 appeals; Brian counted them but didn’t budge. He didn’t want to talk to anybody now, least of all his garrulous friend and fellow Vietnam vet.

Bert still had his second wife and three kids. He wanted Brian to beg him for help, but he wouldn’t; he couldn’t. Goddamn.

Had Hashiko ever asked him, Brian, for help in coping with her own grief? He dripped beer onto his stiff dress shirt, and it smelled sour. Had he missed the moment to save her life? Shouldn’t he have taken better care?

A couple of times she talked about going for therapy, then dropped the subject when he didn’t respond.

After Bowe died, he had thrown himself back into his work with both hands, taking any chance to travel to the other Hawaiian islands. Hashiko seemed busy and productive, a good, hard-working woman.

But what had she done here all those evenings alone? Conversed with her dead son?

Brian saw a lone whale leap, like a sudden thought from the moon-drenched bay. Gone again in a heartbeat, its strange grace lingered in his mind.

Once, as a tot, he saw a dancing dolphin in a Honolulu show, a birthday present from Aunt Lacy. Afterwards, as she and Brian strolled around the aquarium, the same dolphin tossed her a plastic ball, and she laughed and threw it back. Deftly it balanced the ball on its nose, and then flung it to Brian. He ran away though, scared the big creature would leap right out of its tank and chase him.

Later, Aunt Lacy scolded him for not being kind to one of God’s creatures: “You’ll never get another chance like that.” Too late.

He set the empty chili can on the well-swept tiles next to his rocker, his throbbing thumb still oozing blood. He didn’t care.

Hashiko’s rocker chided him. Getting up, he dragged it around the corner of the porch and out of sight. Then he felt bad about doing this, but too stubborn to fetch it back. He twiddled his spotted thumb in his lap and sucked the blood from the oozing one.

Shouldn’t he have noticed some warning sign? Like the cracks spreading under an overpass. She had stopped laughing; she had stopped making hour-long gossipy calls to her younger brothers over on Oahu. Watching TV in the evening, she sat stone still, hands hidden in her lap (before, she always plied an embroidery needle). At night, she burrowed into her side of her bed, turned her back and switched out her light.

He had stayed up for a while, reading until he felt sleepy. Sometimes this took him an hour, and in the meantime her breathing never evened. Still awake, she waited for him to doze off, so she could weep. He heard her a couple of times, but pretended he was sound asleep.

His dry eyes burned. He should have known, married to the woman for 22 years.

Another flash of motion down in the bay: maybe another breaching whale. This time he saw the high spout of its exhalation, like a geyser.

Standing up again he paced the porch like a prisoner, harried by sudden pangs of guilt. He’d let his dear wife slip away as if she didn’t matter.

Now what was the point of rattling around in this ruined house all by himself, until his heart—with its excess blood pressure—gave up or gave out? Years ahead loomed like a hungry void, like the open maw of a feeding whale, like the moony darkness engulfing Lahaina Bay.

Fired by a sudden impulse that almost felt like sweet relief, he hurried upstairs to the master bedroom and pulled the Baby Glock from his bedside drawer. He checked to make sure it was loaded and stuffed it into the waistband of his pants. Pressed against his belly, it felt cold and heavy, and oddly reassuring, like the certainty of justice without appeal.

Now where did she stash Bowe’s memorial flag? Hashiko had a place for everything. He pulled out her bedroom drawers and pawed through her nightgowns, underwear and scarves. Here: he remembered the silky tissue paper folded with precision like origami. He stuck the soft bundle under his shirt, and it felt strange there with the gun. Nobody could call him indecisive, once he made up his stubborn mind.

Bowe was gone, and Hashiko too now. It wasn’t fair; it wasn’t right. But, tonight he’d make it right.

* * *

The small boat harbor looked forsaken when he drove his pickup down to Lahaina Bay. He strode towards the small end of the marina, across from the breakwater’s opening. He chose a pair of oars from his sailboat, “The Surveyor,” and boarded its nameless dinghy.

Casting off, he sculled with strong strokes down the double line of the moored vessels. Riggings creaked and snapped in the breeze, and rattled and rang against metal masts, sounding a tingling music of strange clarity. Farewell.

Beyond the breakwater he rowed straight out to sea, and slowly Lahaina Town’s familiar ribbons and clusters of lights receded. The air felt mild, the sea pretty smooth, and rowing didn’t overtax his strength. He listened to his breathing, rhythmic above the plaintive cries of the oarlocks and the slapping of waves.

The round moon glided down its ancient, cosmic track, a dispassionate observer of his small demise. Meanwhile, he enjoyed the steady pull and feather of working his worn-smooth oars. Thinking of nothing, and regretting nothing now, he felt almost comforted.

The diamond stars in the clear jet sky looked close enough to finger. And wasn’t that a shooting star? Aren’t you supposed to make a wish?

When the town’s lights looked impossibly distant, too far to reclaim with all his strength, he dumped his oars overboard and stretched out in the bottom of the dinghy, pushing his legs beneath the rower’s bench. The wood felt uncomfortable; so he stuffed Bowe’s flag, still in its pure white paper, underneath his head.

For a while he lay there while the dinghy tossed and wandered around in the aimless waves. He listened to their restless music and gazed up at the opal moon peering down at him like the eye of God.

“I’m sorry,” he confessed to the darkness. “Sorry for everything I didn’t do.” Pulling the Baby Glock from his waist, he set its cold snout to his temple.

He took a full breath, gazing up at the perfect moon and jewelled strew of stars. This last night gleamed like an ebony princess in a half-remembered fairy tale. He paused on the lip of his private abyss, gun still pressed to his head.

And that’s when he heard, through the wooden hull, what sounded like a deep and distant moaning, followed by an eerie, high pitched squeal. The boat rocked so hard he dropped the Glock and cold seawater splashed his body. Gripping the gunwale with both hands, he peered out into the moony waves.

A baby whale raised its head, almost close enough to touch, and held there like an unexpected buoy. It looked him over, and its bright, round eye looked intensely focused with curiosity. Brian guffawed, as if a toddler in a diaper had caught him making love in a deep, dark forest.

The baby dived, making the hump of its name, and flashing its tail flukes shaped like a butterfly. The boat rocked madly as it swam underneath, and Brian clung on for dear life. Breaching to his left, the whale playfully flung itself almost out of the water, landing on its back with a tremendous splash that drenched him from head to foot.

Then it dove again. And just behind where it had been, slowly a huge tower of darkness rose like a wonder from the waves, with an exhalation of bursting floodgates. Brian saw its long white-undersided pectoral fins with deep rake marks.

Holding in place vertically, this enormous mother, maybe 50 feet long and encrusted with barnacles and lice that glittered like the jewels of a pagan queen, calmly considered Brian. With just one beat of her monstrous tail she could swamp his puny boat.

“Go ahead,” he dared her, though it sounded like a plea for mercy. “This is your place. I came out here to die.”

Having assured herself that her child had nothing to fear from this stranded, oarless human, slowly she settled back into the sea, like a snake regaining its hole.

Meanwhile her baby cavorted, slapping the water with his stubby flukes and dancing a reel of rolls and flips that made the dinghy buck and heave like a ride in an amusement park. Swimming in widening circles around him, the baby flashed his rounded, white belly at the moon. He dove then and rose from the waves again, and held.

Brian reached to touch his shiny, barrel nose, but couldn’t close the gap. He settled for a loud round of applause, and then groped for his gun to shoot at the moon like a fancy salute to these whales.

He couldn’t find the Glock in the bottom of the boat. Bowe’s flag had also flown.

Now this was a fine turn of events. He jettisoned his oars and sat in the dinghy with no way to end his life like a man in one clean, final burst.

Then he felt the boat rising straight up in the air like a child’s toy. The mother was lifting him out of the water, as if to make a vital point to the dimmest student in the class.

And then while he prayed, tears hot on his cheeks (she should help him; she should forgive him), down the whale dumped him with a splash. The rowboat heaved dizzily and spun. Slowly the night grew predictable again.

Greedily Brian peered all around, and way far off, towards Lanai Island, the mother whale breached, revealing her enormous body. She rolled her tail flukes like a fond farewell, her baby bouncing at her side.

Brian sat alone, without his equipment, gaping at the moon. The whale and her son did not return. Probably had better things to do.

Exhausted, he lay back down and shut his eyes. Soon he heard a new, mysterious song, faintly vibrating through the hull.

Humpbacks have no vocal cords, so they force air through their enormous nasal cavities, talking to each other and humming to everything in the sea. This song organ-piped and squealed and droned on and on like a recitation. Sometimes it sounded like chuckling, or even a wild guffaw. Sometimes Brian heard repetitive patterns, ascending like a hymn.

Or was it a tall tale, or a love song? Was it a history of Maui’s whales? He listened with every pore of his being, and as he strained to puzzle out the words of the whale, sleep claimed him.

* * *

He awoke to the boat rocking like a cradle. The sun beamed down from the balmy sky. Sitting up, he saw Mount Kilea’s cinder cone looming overhead.

He was about 20 yards off Olowalu Beach, just a few miles south of Lahaina. Having drifted southeast along Maui’s flank, he’d been carried back to shore by the tides.

The sea didn’t want him; it had tossed him back. He still had his wallet; he could take the bus. Or just borrow a pair of oars from old Bert and row the dinghy home.

Anna Sykora was an attorney in New York before becoming an English teacher in Germany, where she resides with her patient husband and three Norwegian Forest Cats. She has placed 90 short stories and 158 poems in small presses or in online publications. She has also written three unpublished novels. Writing is her joy. Motto: “Eat your rejections like pretzels.”

To read Anna Sykora’s comments on Chris Schafer’s “In Search of Life on Alameda VIII,” click here.

Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
Every so often you come across a story that seems to hit you at just the right moment. For me, “Words of The Whale” was very much that story. I can’t remember why, but I was a little down at the time, and this story—nicely textured and beautifully layered, weaving together themes of loss and mourning, the minutia of daily life and, ultimately, a surprisingly strong sense of hope—resonated deeply with me. Ultimately, I found this to be an extremely well-executed story, and one that I’m proud to see in 10ktobi.

Comments on this story by Dan Winnipeg, author of “Sugar Bowl”
“Words of The Whale” is a beautifully crafted, poignant narrative of grief, relationships and, ultimately, forgiveness and salvation. Located in Hawaii, with characters both alive and dead, the story delves into the mind and heart of Brian, whose wife, Hashiko recently committed suicide. With the ocean’s constant and steady presence, Brian gradually passes through all the stages of grief until the appearance of the ocean’s greatest creatures, whales, help him deal with his guilt, forgive himself and salvage his humanity. This is a carefully paced, finely detailed story that leads the reader to the brink of depression, only to finally offer reasons to go on living that have to do with a life form humanity has, inexplicably, hunted for mere flesh and oil. When “Words of The Whale” ended I took a deep breath and realized I was sitting alone, yet feeling as if I was a part of something bigger, and filled with happiness.

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