Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Kelly and the Whale

by Heather Beaton

Three beached whales by Johannes Wierix (1577)
Three beached whales by Johannes Wierix (1577)

Kelly danced across the sand, singing under her breath as she made her way towards the shore. The whale didn’t move, but she was used to that: whales beached here regularly and this one looked like just any other. A deposit from the sea that didn’t mean much, but this one was recent and fresh, and it was these she liked best, before they got smelly and rotted onto the sand.
Once upon a time the beachings would have been a rare occurrence. Kelly knew that from the mutterings of her mum and dad, above her head, about there being another one down on the shore, and it wouldn’t be long before there was none left in the sea if it kept going at this rate. Kelly wasn’t sure what it was, and didn’t really mind: life was an adventure, and the beach was a playground, and the whales were just another treasure that became part of a game where the carcasses acted as supporting characters that regained life as a prop for her imagination.
Wrapped up warm in her pink unicorn jacket, woolly gloves and wellies that cast a red light onto the wet sand as she walked, Kelly was ready for adventure. She’d brought her bucket and spade, just in case digging was required, and her parents wouldn’t expect her home until tea time. It was early winter, though, so the sun would be setting before she got hungry. The long walk back across the sand wasn’t a nice experience in the dark, and her parents, in their worry, would make even her homecoming unpleasant. She’d not been caught out by the darkness yet this winter, but this was the first whale for a couple of months and there was a lot to explore.
As she danced light-footed across the sand she tried not to look too closely at the whale. Her imagination had already started piecing together the story that she’d enact out, and too many distractions were no good: it needed to be right in front of her before she could commit to the whale and to the story. An only child, Kelly was used to spending lots of time by herself. This was changing though, her mum was heavy and slow with a full belly: a ‘surprise’, she’d heard her parents describe it as. She had no idea if they meant a good surprise, or a bad one. Adults, sometimes, were hard to read.
Once she reached the whale she completed the obligatory walk round clockwise, eyes averted to not ruin the surprise of examination while entering into her latest adventure. Someone had once told her that to walk clockwise around something for the first time was good luck, and she’d made sure to walk clockwise ever since then, especially with the whales. Using the time to complete the story, once the walk was complete she would be ready for her imagination to take over. This time, however, was different: the whale was still alive.
As she’d approached she’d thought she’d seen movement out of the corner of her eye. A gull, possibly, making early investigations into the carrion. But without even having looked directly at it, Kelly knew that the movements came from the whale itself. She’d never seen a live one before, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to now. But here she was, kneeling next to the great animal’s eye, looking into something that was looking back at her.  
“Hello?” she whispered, “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I just wanted to see.”
“Yes,” came a whisper back at her, “I understand. I am glad though, for I think I need some help.”
The whale was lying slightly tilted towards its left-hand side, mouth ajar. It was a sperm whale: Kelly knew that much. They had the big heavy head, and the teeth like bowling pins. She had a tooth sitting on her bedroom windowsill alongside other treasures. Her dad had told her that they used to cost a lot of money. They don’t any more, most people have one or two as the beached whales have become more frequent.
“What should I do?” Kelly asked, her voice only slightly louder than her breathing, her heart stopping with fright. When telling her about whales, no one had ever told her they talked back.
The whales voice seemed to come from somewhere deep inside Kelly herself. The vibrations came through the sand, as the deep voice whispered through her. The whisper was a soft, melodious cry, aching through millennia, a last call of a species heading towards extinction.
“There’s something inside me, right down deep and I am slowly starving to death. Remove it, and I think I’ll be able to get off the sand. The tide has turned, it won’t be long before it reaches us. If you are quick, there might be time.”
The whale lay in place and continued to slowly breathe through its still wet blowhole, moving as little as possible. It watched Kelly through its blood speckled eye, the weight of the world seeming to get heavier and heavier with every breath.
“Please.” It begged, and Kelly, kind-hearted and young enough to not have learnt the word ‘can’t’, couldn’t bear seeing the animal in pain and nodded her assent.
“Now I think this is how it’ll have to be,” the whale whispered, as Kelly crouched next to its one visible eye: “can you climb in my mouth, and reach down my throat, and take out all the stuff that’s stuck in me?”
The cold winter sun looked down and watched with interest as the wee girl worked away to save an unknown creature’s life. The sand shifted, eager to have the weight off its back, and the water worked on creating a channel through which the whale could extricate itself. The mountains cried with the wrongness of the whale on the land, and the particles in the air fizzed with intention, keeping the whale damp, trying desperately to lift the deadening weight off its heavy, water-requiring bones.
Half of Kelly’s life was lived in a daydream, and now her reality was equal to the wildest of her dreams. Perhaps that was what enabled her to remain calm as she walked towards the gaping mouth, and crouched down to see in. Then, apologising for being clumsy, and heavy, and weird-tasting, Kelly climbed past the teeth into the whale’s large mouth, and lay along the tongue. The tonsils were larger than her head, the oesophagus huge and gaping. The smell of fish, of digestion and of something sourer and wilder than both of those things rose from inside the whale. She covered her nose as well she could, burying it into the collar of her jacket and shifted forward so that she could reach down, before slipping she fell into the whale.
“Whoops,” she heard the voice from somewhere outside where she was, “You might need to climb out now, but grab something and bring it with you, please.”
Kelly looked at where she’d fallen. Everything was almost dark, and she must be on the way to the whale’s stomach, but there was something there, stuck, and as she looked below her feet, she could see it was plastic fishing net, tied and twisted and tangled. Easing a corner free, Kelly tied it around her waist, and clambered back up through the whale, using the ridges within the oesophagus for her hands and feet, while trailing a line of netting behind her.
The whale burped, and malodourous fumes followed Kelly out of the whale’s mouth.
“There’s a wee bit more, would you mind?” asked the whale, and kindly opened its mouth for Kelly to climb back in. Kelly this time slid down without hesitation, and carefully prodded and pulled at the remaining blockage to remove everything that remained. She had to climb in and out four more times before getting the last of it, tying a line around her waist each time and climbing up and walking straight out the mouth to release the foreign materials onto the sand. On her last visit, she took an almost intact plastic bag and picked up the wee bits of debris that stuck to the walls of the oesophagus: the crisp packets, the balloons, the cotton buds, the cigarette ends and the straws. The whale waited until Kelly was out safely, before coughing, then coughed thrice more, relishing the release from plastic and feeling instantly brighter and healthier.
The water was almost finished working on the channel, which was now the depth and width of a canal, and just right for a whale stranded on the sand. The sun continued to beam down, trying desperately not to set, and hoping to make the events below as pleasant as possible for both girl and whale, and the west wind died right down to prevent drying the whale out. The sand parted where the whale rested, allowing the whale to access the canal and knowing now was the time to leave, the whale exhaled its thanks as the sea pulled it home.
“A million times, thank you,” the whale sang in it’s deep, melodious voice, “I was near to death, and you, dear girl, have saved me. I will be eternally grateful, thank you, thank you.”
“Glad to have helped,” said Kelly brightly, waving her plastic spade in farewell. “I’ll take this plastic with me and put it in the bin for you. Please don’t eat any more.”
“I’ll do my best not to, thank you again!” and with final words of gratitude, the whale sank into the water of the canal and made the short journey to sea. Kelly watched as the whale swam out to the deeper waters beyond the rocks and waved frantically as it blew, and then with a dramatic pause, breached, landing back on the deep water with a splash that could be heard back at Kelly’s home.
Her parents looked out the window and saw the wee figure of their daughter marching about on the beach, still wearing her pink unicorn jacket, tying a large pile of plastic – which in the end consisted of one fishing net, three lengths of rope, one length of strapping, numerous plastic bags, plastic coffee cups, gloves and myriad other small pieces - together. Bemused, they looked at one another, shrugged, and went back to their respective tasks.