There was a man who built a whale out of wood.
He built it in the middle of a field out in the dry country, where nobody bothered him but birds and a couple of farm cats. The whale was white, and it took two years to build. He made it out of planks from old barns, which he stole in the night. He didn’t steal them from anyone who’d miss them. Most people were gone. There were a lot of things falling down. Nobody made a living at farming anymore. He was new to the place, and so he stayed. He didn’t mind. His own home was obliterated and all his friends were dead.
A hundred years earlier, there’d been a city in this spot, but they’d mined the ground until there wasn’t any gold left, and so the city picked up its buildings and took them down the river. Before they went, they buried the town under piles of dirt, and that dirt was what the man built his whale in now. Sometimes he dug and found old things, teacups, whiskey bottles, and he sorted them and looked at the way the glass had changed color underground. He had a heap of green bottles and one of purple, a smaller one of blue. He had a pile of tin cans dating from the middle of the last century, before most of the world had fled the world, some of them swollen with poison. All these things were going into the whale’s body.
A few thousand years before the city had died, there’d been a lake, and the man found things in the dirt from that too, fossilized freshwater fish. Before the lake, there’d been an ocean, and deep in the ground, far beneath everything else, there were bones of saltwater swimmers larger than the whale.
The man took rusted tractor parts and twists of metal, and loaded them into his truck. His hound sat in the front seat and crooned at the sky every time they drove to a new barn, every time he used his tools to pry off more planks and bits of silo. Some of the silos were full of rats, and others mice. If he stood his whale on end, it would be as tall as a silo, and even look like one. He might fill it with grain and use it to keep things safe from the weather.
The cats rode along and hunted, and the dog hunted too, and when they went back to the field where the whale was, they brought ratskins and mouseskins, and the man nailed the skins into the whale’s interior to make a soft place for himself to live when the whale began to swim. He’d made plans.
He was caulking his whale’s devilseam with pitch. He had white marine paint, which he’d brought hundreds of miles inland. The whale would be albino. There was a carpet for its tongue, and he’d enter through the teeth. The man had diagrammed the whale. There was a neat bunk inside, a clever piece of carpentry that folded down from the wall, just wide enough for one. There was a portal with a ladder in case he wanted to climb on to the whale’s head and look out over the sea while he fished.
Some afternoons, on the highway to the north of the field, a school bus passed the whale, and the remaining kids leaned out the windows, screaming and pointing because there it was, a whale swimming through the wheat, twice as long as their bus. Not even the kids thought the whale was likely to actually swim. It was a roadside attraction, but no one cared about it. It wasn’t in guidebooks. Whales were dead.
The man sat on his heels looking at his whale. He hadn’t had any kind of dream of angels. No one had told him about a flood. He’d come out his front door one morning and thought it was time to do something. It wasn’t a summons, not the kind he’d been waiting for, but he felt like he’d been called.
There were windfarms around him, and oil wells. He could see their spigots pouring out the black blood of dinosaurs, and at the horizon, the mills gobbled the sky, grabbing it bit by bit, tugging it out of place and chewing it. The sun had developed a ring of red around it, and one day a flock of geese fell out of the clouds, each one of them nothing but bones and feathers. He harvested their skeletons and added them to the whale, feathering the inside with their wings.
A long time before all this, he’d been a revolutionary. He’d overthrown a government and gone on the run for thirty years. No one knew his real name. He’d been married twice to women who thought he was somebody else. He had a son he’d lost track of. He was that kind of father, and maybe he was that kind of man. It was hard to say. No one ever thought of themselves that way, but statistically, it had to be true that some people were exactly what they thought they weren’t.
He cleaned himself up time to time and drove out to a casino, bet on something, drank a drink at the bar, ignored the people who thought he didn’t speak their language. He spoke their language. He spoke eleven languages, though he was out of practice. He’d had a life before this one. His neighbors thought he was a farmer, but his cellar was full of weapons. He grew grain because he could. At night, he assembled and disassembled. Sometimes he built a bomb, because he could do that too. Sometimes he built other kinds of firearms, ones less known here, and then broke them down again.
In daylight, he built his whale.
The afternoon he painted the whale, there was a storm. It wasn’t raining where he was. It’d stopped raining on the dirt. Now storms took place above the ground and if you were watching, you could see rain disappearing fifty feet above you, sputtering out like it had hit some invisible drought. He watched the storm roll across the sky like his first wife had rolled across his bed and out the other side. He’d done that one wrong. He probably could have told her who he was, but he had a new face, and why take responsibility for his old soul when he looked like someone who hadn’t been born into it?
The government he’d helped to overthrow was far away. It’d been corrupt. Thousands had died before his part in the revolution, and thousands died during his part, and thousands died after it. At night, even in his new identity as a farmer of failures, he still saw faces that belonged to the dead.
He saw one of his soldiers running, turning to look back at him, calling him to come, another shuddering as he aimed at the head of the President. He saw the details of their jawlines, the spaces beneath their eyes, the way their hands moved quickly and then slowly on their weapons.
He saw a footprint sometimes, right before he slept. He could see it very clearly. A bare foot, just one, printed in blood on a white floor. The foot had eight toes.
That revolution took place in the winter and everyone bled into the snow the occupiers had manufactured when they took the city. The cabarets were full of the occupier’s women wearing red satin, and drinking champagne. The occupier’s men wore white tie and drank Bordeaux, and when they spilled, it didn’t matter to them. They threw their clothes off and someone from the city picked them up and cleaned them.
There were three snow leopards in the entryway of the palace, brought from Earth, kept in cages. There was a table in the center of Great Room made of the many-limbed skeletons of murdered nuns from the mountains, and in one of the cabinets there was a collection of mummified babies, stolen from their mothers, each of their hands eight-fingered.
After the triumph, he and his rebel faction—they were not all men; some of them were women—sat in the occupier’s palace exhausted, and drank tea out of cups made of solid gold. They thought they’d won their country back. It wasn’t wrong to kill the people who’d stolen power. It was necessary.
The man painted his whale white. The carpet that led into its interior was red, something claimed from a movie theater gone out of business. Moth-eaten, but moths would eat everything in the end. Moths could be found at sea and on land. Weevils in the flour. He had a manual of seafaring necessities, and a series of novels about ships.
“The lesser of two weevils,” he muttered to himself, but he didn’t understand why it was funny. It was supposed to be. Everyone in the book laughed when it was said.
The man worked his brush along the planks, and the whale paled before him, until, as the moon rose, the whale came into being beneath it, a yellowish silver shape in the center of miles of wheat.
For a moment, the man looked up, not at the moon but at one of the bright planets, embedded there like a white monogram in a sail made of black. It looked like a name to him, but it was only a lonely light.
• • • •
The whale was dry by dawn, and the man embarked. He hitched it to the back of his truck and attached a set of wheels. He wouldn’t ride in his compartment, not yet. He watched the sun rising as he drove out of the place he’d been all this time, through what had been Oklahoma and was now part of Texas, through the dividing line between New Mexico and Colorado, where he was pulled over, his whale searched for drugs, though who was smuggling what these days, and how, he didn’t know. He didn’t feel afraid of police catching him. His new face bore no resemblance to any photos that’d ever been taken. The compartment in the whale’s head wasn’t found. No one knew anything about whales. No one even knew how to open its mouth.
The freeways were nearly empty. People had left in the last few years, on ships, en masse, but the man hadn’t considered it. There was nothing up there but night. He’d been on one of the outgoing ships once, and it had comforting screens showing images of the history of Earth. There was an idea that the world that had already been would be again, that a flag planted in a new planet would mean everything could comfortably stay the same.
He looked at himself in a filling station mirror, his face completely tattooed with a language that had been eradicated, his eyes the color of nicotine. He’d almost died back there and it had been enough for him. Coming down had been a peril. None of the other revolutionaries had made it. Eventually the government he’d lost everything in order to overthrow had taken power again.
It was women in red dresses and men in white tie, and though that had been in another place, the man drove through the cities in this country and didn’t stop. He was going to the ocean, as everyone always tried to do. He knew it was foolish. The land was dry and the water dead, but he went anyway. There was still gasoline. There were still cars. There were still radios that played music and on them he listened to people singing, even if he saw no people on the sides of the roads.
In the sky above him there was a storm, and along with the storm, a fleet of ships taking another set of occupiers up. They weren’t called occupiers. They were called colonists. Not everyone wanted to go. The dark station rumors had the place up there full of disease, no immunity to germs, poxes, and plagues, epidemics where skin turned from pink to green to red to purple, where lungs liquefied.
There was life on the planets, the news said, and the life was wet and gleaming. There was ice so cold that human skin burned at half a mile. The sun was the same, but that was all.
It seemed to the man that all this exploration of the universe was like putting the population of Earth into a catapult and shooting it into the sky. It was an act of war, humans substituting for flaming arrows being shot into enemy tents. There was no reason for exploration without an enemy. He knew that much. The humans weren’t the only ones dying of plagues. No one had immunity to everything. All creatures in the universe were like poisonous insects. They stung and bit and killed one another.
He’d been the enemy in his time, but now he was here on Earth, driving a whale along the highway, faster, faster, the whale catching wind and propelling him along. There were few other cars. The people in them looked out the windows, curiously, watching him go. He didn’t acknowledge them.
In a snowbound diner in Nevada he drank a cup of something hot. A waitress looked at his face and said, “How come I’m not going with you?”
“Don’t know,” he said, summoning the right language with only a little effort.
“I like that big fish you got,” she said. She was as old as he was, a wide mouth with a scar beside it. An arrow pointing toward her ear.
She ran a finger over the tattoos on his cheek, and started when she felt things beneath them moving.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Everyone left,” he said, being honest. He was never honest.
She leaned back and looked at the pie case. “I guess I hear that,” she said. “My family’s all up there. My kids are with their dad. I don’t know what I’m doing except waiting to see what happens. You been up?”
“Yes,” he said.
“I figured,” she said and went back to filling ketchup. “You got the look of one of those.”
He was surprised. No one else thought so. He passed. Everyone had tattoos here now. Not everyone’s tattoos contained their armies and families, their old loves and old enemies, the ones they’d been able to find. His were special down here, though where he was from, they weren’t anything unusual. Memories of grief were kept on display back home. He’d taken great pains to make himself look as humans did.
“What do you mean?” he asked and wondered if he’d have to kill her. He hadn’t killed anyone in thirty years.
“I was married to one of you,” she said. “That’s all. I know it when I see it. I don’t care who you are, and you don’t care who I am, and we can leave it like that and pretend we’re both the same thing. You drink your coffee, and I’ll pour you another.”
She brought a flask out from behind the counter and dripped some of it into his cup, then drank a slug herself.
“Safe travels,” she said. “Take that fish out somewhere it can swim.”
• • • •
When he got to the coast, the sun was setting, and the brightness blinded him. He drove down a rattling road to get to the sand. There were waves still, white and green and blue, and he made a sound he wasn’t expecting to make. He thought about red oceans and orange caverns.
It was twilight as he pushed the whale into the water, still on its wheels. He was thigh-deep in the surf, his clothing wet. It had been thirty years since he’d touched salt. The language of his dead was all over him, the tattoos wriggling and stretching, when the creature rose up out of the water fifty feet from shore.
He couldn’t tell what it was. A long and trembling shape, a serpent and then another. It was a nest of rattlesnakes, he thought, and then his whale pushed into the waves, insisting on floating, and he barely clasped its jaw before he was swimming too.
The wooden whale had seen it too, the thing in the ocean, and it swam faster, in pursuit. It was a wooden whale. It wasn’t alive. It wasn’t dead either. Its body contained everything left, and it hungered. He had given it some of his talents. There was no use for them here on Earth, but there were things he knew how to do.
The man threw himself into its mouth, down its throat and up a spiral stair, into his neat little compartment, where he closed himself off. From there, he looked out through an eyeball made of bottles and old windows, feeling his ship launching.
Outside the eyeball, he could see the other creature moving. There were tentacles and arms, he understood them now, swooping sections of metal and rubber, suckers made of old tires and shards of broken glass. It flared and beckoned to him. He could not see its mantle nor its beak. Only its limbs, quavering over the surface like seaweed.
His ship pushed deeper into the water, and finally dove, his window abruptly full of first green and then black.
Night was not night to him and never had been. The man sat beneath the water inside his ship lined in feathers, and watched the ocean around him, the deep and forgotten places left behind by the humans in favor of the stars.
His white whale passed a shipwreck drifting like the bones of those birds, flying all alone under the surface. A tentacle clutched at his window, pressing suckers against it. It didn’t give. The man wasn’t afraid. He’d worked on his whale a long time, and though he hadn’t expected to meet any others, he knew he should have. He’d felt called. It made sense that others would too.
His ship was strong. He’d done something, and if it was not revolution, it was a thing anyway, a reclamation of the lost, a celebration in the way his place had celebrated before the rise and fall.
Only for a moment did he think about a red footprint on white snow. Only for a moment did he think about blood spurting from an artery, he and his rebels fighting their way into the palace.
The squid passed close beside him and he saw through its eye to its interior, only a glimpse, but one that made him lean closer to the window.
There was a pilot at the helm. He saw her in profile and then the dinner plate eye was gone, and he saw only mantle and arms again, swishing and twisting, moving like a scarf with fringe.
The squid was silver and red, not painted but made of cans slicked together and welded, the smoothness of spoons, pounded into a surface. It was made of braided electrical cables and sheets of metal, and its tentacles wrote alphabets in the water, a sign language of forgotten words. He didn’t think he knew them.
He didn’t want to know them.
He watched it move, each arm and tentacle engineered, articulated.
His whale had teeth made of the bones of cows and horses. He’d sharpened them until they were keen as swords. This squid had a beak. It rolled in the water and he saw it as the tentacles began to wrap around his whale. The beak was bright and golden, goblets, something made of teacup—.
He recognized what it was made of.
The squid rolled again and he saw into its eye. There she was.
She was a ghost. He stared, his body pressed to his whale’s eyeball.
He wondered if he should make his whale attack the squid. That was what the whale was meant to do, in this world. But his whale was only a wooden whale, and though it had weapons, they were in its head.
She couldn’t be there. She was tattooed on his skin. He touched the place she was supposed to be, over his heart, a moving scar full of her burned body, a place her soul could stay captured and inked into him. She was a memory, but suddenly, she wasn’t.
She was inside the squid.
She looked out the eyeball at him, her mouth tight. Her face hadn’t changed. She’d done nothing to correct her revolutionary identification. She’d overthrown alongside him and been killed even as she killed the invaders.
The squid moved its tentacles, pulling the whale through the water, and the whale resisted, lashing its tail. The man crashed into the wall as his ship barreled to avoid the squid. His whale didn’t attack anything. It flipped and rolled, very slowly, over and then over again.
Inside the eyeball she looked out, unapologetic.
There had been a footprint. Eight toes in blood. Fake snow made of chemicals. A holiday for the occupiers. A tree and lights, singing and a suckling pig brought from their own planet. Outside the revolution began, quietly, creeping, and then louder, screaming, and then louder still, running through the streets, all the revolutionaries’ skin covered in memories of those who’d died of plague and violence, a country taken over by something fallen out of the sky.
He was the leader and she was the leader. They weren’t friends. They led opposite factions. They ran through the snow, screaming, knives in the air.
The invaders got her. One footprint where she’d tried to leap and been caught on a blade. The other leg severed. The ashes from that leg were inked into his tattoo. In the palace, drinking tea, all but her. The invaders took her and kept her. Surely she was dead. She’d been dead all this time.
Her squid pulled his whale closer. She was the captain of her ship and he was the captain of his and they navigated, separated by solder and seam.
Her squid used its tentacles to sign the words for You again in the language they’d shared, before the other languages he’d learned, before he came here, before he became this farmer.
His whale flipped and twisted, tail in the water, its skull an echo chamber, the walls around him strung with gut, a harp in the dark. You again, his whale sang.
The man let the squid take his whale’s jaw and open it, and he exited his compartment. The squid’s beak opened for him and he swam through it like swimming into a cave, salt, predator and prey at once, uncertain. He’d been in a field of wheat for thirty years.
His whale waited, white and solid, swimming in place. He scaled a staircase, up, and up, the curving walls of silver, the cool and unliving certainty of the ship’s mantle. The taste of salted licorice in the water, something she’d done to make the squid correct. He felt the tattoos on his back and arm moving in appreciation.
She’d died fighting. He’d fought the dying. The government was overthrown. He told himself it didn’t matter, that it was all in pursuit of a common goal. They’d won until they lost.
On his chest her ashes moved, shifting, reaching for their owner, and she turned in her chair, this woman he used to know, and looked at him as his chest tore open.
What was left of her returned to the rest. Her own body was covered in tattoos as well, but he wasn’t written on her. He was alive.
She was older. He was older too. She’d lost more of her people since he’d last seen her. Her arms and face moved with ink made of the dead. Thirty years ago, she’d been nearly unmarked. A sister on one arm. A mother on the other. Thirty years ago, he’d wanted to kill her himself. She was in the way of victory, until victory was nothing. Time had passed. He’d changed himself.
She held out her hands with all their sixteen fingers. His own fingers had been hidden all these years. She opened her arms to him, and there they were, her dead family, inked on her skin. Welcome, she said to him.
Welcome, he said. To Earth.
They weren’t where they’d come from. They owed each other nothing.
Her skin, he realized, showed the outlines of their whole planet, ash taken from something burning. Had she set it all on fire?
He looked at her. He thought about storms high in the sky, water never touching the ground. Geese falling.
We lost everything, he said, excusing himself from sins he wasn’t certain he’d committed. I left only when I was sure we’d lost forever.
Her face was not amused, exactly, but tolerant.
You left early, she said. We won. I kept fighting. We burned their palaces. We took their ships. We left them behind. Now we’re here. I came to find you.
She reached out her hands and wrapped her fingers around his arm. He looked down. She was missing one leg and her other had split into two to replace it. Underneath everything he’d hidden himself inside, he was missing an arm, and part of a foot, from the same battle. He was never naked. His tattoos covered the living with the dead. Her eyes were the yellow of the clouds of their home, and her mouth was black and written on with prayers so that they needn’t be spoken. Her tattoos were raised bodies, shadows burned into silhouettes.
Her body was a relic of the war, but she was smiling at him.
Outside the squid’s eyeball the man could see his whale. It was only wood and paint, but it let the metal squid tow it with its tentacles.
Silently then and swiftly, the squid and the whale dove together, down through the water the humans had called an ocean, and into an unsettled new world.
—For CTM, of course.
September 6, 2014