I have been just barely getting the necessary things done in a day lately, so I have no new, completed short story this month. However, a friend gave me a fantastic prompt and this is the first bit of the as-of-yet-unfinished result of that prompt.
When my father raged, and I could bear his curses and his fists no longer, I would escape outside, to the sea. It was not the balmy southern seas that we lived by; no, it was the dark, icy water of the Pacific that lapped our shores.
We lived on a little jut of rock, far away from the people who might have calmed my father from his rages or helped my mother escape him. I don’t know that she would have left him given the opportunity, though. What he said, she believed. He bound her, inexorably with his words: slut, idiot, stupid, worthless woman. She was tied tighter by what he said than by the ropes that he strapped around her before he threw her over the side of the cliff and into the sea below to die.
But years before that happened, I began my visits to the sea. When I ventured outside I wore sealskin and reindeer fur like the native girls I was not allowed to associate with on account of my high station as a lady—much good that high born blood did me out there on that bare rock. I would go down to the shore and watch the waves roll in, feel the cold salt wind whip my face, and watch for the whales. Sometimes I saw them, far out in the harbor, huge dark forms arcing out of the water with a fling of spray and an almighty crash at reentry. I dreamed of being so huge and fearless that I, too, could frolic even in the icy depths of the ocean.
I was only eleven when I found Rawlings by the side of the sea, beached. He was tiny, for a blue whale, anyway, and panicked. It was his cries for help that alerted my attention; I was far down the beach, almost out of earshot but I’d never heard a human voice that sounded so much like a giant glass bell, clear but ringing with immeasurable depths. So I went running and found to my surprise not a human, but a small whale, flapping his flippers frantically.
“Help me!” He shouted, rolling his massive eyes at me and nearly coating me with sand as a stray flipper threw some in the air.
“Hold on!” I spluttered, through a face full of sand. “I mean, hold still! I can’t get near you when you’re going to whack me with one of those flippers!”
“Well how else am I supposed to move?” He demanded but held still long enough for me to plant my hands on his rubbery body and shove. It didn’t work; no eleven year old is capable of moving even a small whale by herself. But as he calmed down we began to discuss the best ways for him to use his flippers while I shoved and how to use the tide to our advantage, and before I had time to realize that I was in conversation with a blue whale, he was shimmying his way back into the waves and I was standing, waist deep, staring after him. He frolicked once, and then he glided past me, just a few feet away, rolling up on one side. “Why do you stand there instead of playing? Aren’t you very young, like me?”
“I can’t play in the water.” I said. “I’m not allowed. And it’s too dangerous for me.”
“It won’t be if you’re with me,” the whale boasted.
“Oh can you fight giant squid?” I said, showing off my knowledge because I had been sneaking into my father’s study and reading about the naturalist scientists’ new discoveries about the ocean and the animals in it.
“Well…” he said. “Try me. I can take you for a ride, anyway. Are you too scared for that?”
We didn’t meet any giant squid the first day. It was the closest thing to freedom I could imagine; the salt wind flying across my face, my hair in a tangled mess streaming out behind me, the salt water drenching me and yet I remained snug in my sealskin and furs. He tried to teach me his name in Whale, but then he laughed so hard at my attempts that we decided I should give him a human name. I was eleven, and as well as sneaking natural science books, I had been reading far too many novels featuring brooding heroes and heroines who wander the heath in England with the wind whipping their hair. With this romantic background informing my imagination, I named him Rawlings. Later, after I had read more books to him, he teased me about his absurd name mercilessly.
As Rawlings grew, our adventures became more elaborate. I filched some rope from our stable and created a harness for me to sit securely on him without fear of sliding off his wet back. We arranged a system of communication so that I could tell him if he’d accidentally dunked me under water longer than I could bear—and as we ventured further, we did indeed begin to run into the giants of the deep. Squid, sharks, other whales—all of these Rawlings and I faced in the briny wilderness of waves and iron grey clouds.
None of them were as terrifying as the monster that waited for me at home. A shark did not frighten me, not with Rawlings’ mammoth sleekness coasting through the water beneath me. But at home there was no Rawlings to protect me. My mother only apologized and cringed and berated me for making my father angry. And then one day I saw him tie her up and drag her out the door.
Some parts of me, looking back at my eleven year old self, wishes I had fought him, that I had gone out and tried to free her. But I knew and still know that if he had ever known what I saw him do, I would not have survived past the moment of his knowing.
So I hid in the attic and did not come down till breakfast the next morning. The kitchen was empty and cold, and I knew what had happened. I made my father breakfast. I couldn’t eat, but only sat pretending to put food in my mouth and chew it so he wouldn’t be angry. And as soon as he was out of the room, I ran for the beach, not even throwing on my sealskins before my feet were flying through the sand. I ran to find my mother, knowing all the while what I would see when I found her.
Rawlings intercepted me. He was closer into the beach than he had been in months, seriously endangering himself since he was so large there was no chance of me managing to help him escape this time.
“Lotty.” He said, in his big, bell-like voice. I waded out to him; I couldn’t not. He swung his tail around, blocking my view of the beach.
“I want to find her!” I cried, tears finally coursing down my face in the protective sting of cold saltwater.
“Don’t try to look,” he said. “It’s not—you don’t want to see her like this.”
And far out in the depths, there was a thunder of huge bodies, raising up and spouting. I heard his pod tell me in voices so deep they made the waves tremble: “We whales will see to her body. She will be buried like the sailors who die at sea and we will sing for her.”
And so I knew my mother was truly gone.
Rawlings insisted I go back inside as soon as I could compose myself, but I still became violently ill. And that illness saved my life. My father never liked to be around anybody sick, so he left me alone and called the doctor from the local town to come out and tend me.
The doctor, a man of compassion and mental acuity, observed my father and I and the hollow absence where my mother had been, and understood more than he let on. He insisted on taking me into town for medical attention. I discovered later that as soon as I was safely ensconced in his guest bedroom, being tended by his wife, he immediately contacted local law enforcement, and then wrote to my only living relatives, in Chicago, where we’d moved from.
I do not remember much of the next months. My illness left me with dizzy spells and I know that many things were concealed from me by well-meaning people who felt I wasn’t strong enough to bear the truth. But I had ridden on a whale and faced the monsters of the deep.
At some point my father was taken to jail. Later I heard conflicting stories; some said he was executed, other said that he was sent to another prison, escaped en route, and was found mauled by a bear in the wilderness a week later. I do not know which is true, only that he died somehow.
What I do remember, the one constant of those disturbed and painful memories, is the absence of the sea. My living relatives, who I barely remembered from my early childhood, paid for me to come home. I traveled in stage coach, bumping over rough mountain roads, and then in trains, scorching their way across vast, flat prairie land, and I did not have a chance to visit my cold, rocky beach and say goodbye to my friend, the whale.