The Husk

Monday, January 15, 2024

Running toward the whale with a bucket full of water has the quality of a dream. The bucket gets lighter the closer I get to the whale as the water spills down the right leg of my jeans, but I don’t feel the splash or the wetness chapping my skin. The whale’s head lies in the wreckage of the barn. Its tail dips in the adjacent cornfield. I plant my right foot, step into my left, and fling the bucket of water into the whale’s middle. The water hits its skin, dilutes the gush of blood from where the barn timbers pierced through skin, organ, bone, muscle, and then again, skin. I stand. I stare. The whale’s mouth hung open like God punched it out of the water.
      I expect—no I hope for—a quick dart of movement, pray the whale will whimper or huff, give some indication it’s still alive and still worth saving, and that by my splashing water onto its skin, the whale will snap awake. There’s no movement. But at this angle, the iris of the whale is brown outlined in a band of blue, protected by a dome as tall as my shoulders. I see my own squiggled reflection in the clear shield—a sad farmer, who’s only a farmer because his parents were farmers, and their parents were farmers before them, stuck with the land they worked and crops they sold but never truly owned.
      Below its eye, along its jawline, whiskers sprout from its inky skin. If I flick one, will the whisker vibrate back and forth, a built-in doorstop, its motion making a new hourglass shape until it straightens out over time? No, I can’t. Somehow touching the whale makes it more real.
      There’s a musky deep smell, different from the shit from the pig farms, different than the zest of fresh-cut grass, different than concrete caked with dust, but this smell is an animal smell. For sure. A smell of the living. A memory perhaps? I close my eyes to sift through which one. No, it’s not the smell of blood, metal, or the wax of internal organs. Ah, there. I see myself as if in a movie, playing out in front of me: a child touches the chin hair of a horse, climbs up one more bar on the green gate to put his nose next to the horse’s, and takes a sniff—yes, it’s the same. I whip my neck around, half expecting my head to fly off, to count the buildings.
      There’s the farrowing house. There’s the chicken coop. Another shed right behind them, the tractor barn down in front, another shed, the creek. Then another memory starts: two boys fishing, but I put that one on pause. There’s the nursery, the barn green from moss, the building filled with naked corn husks, another barn, and the house, sitting in the middle of the backward “C” outlined on the property with buildings. There’s no sound. There’s one building left. There’s the barn in front of me, the one impaling the whale, the one once filled with horses, leaning to the left, and even though I know it’s not real, I still hear the blunt dull of horse hoof on the green swinging gate from a long time ago.

      My neighbor Peyton takes three laps around the whale. On the fourth lap, mid-whale, he yells, “Where’s its tits? Where’s its bunghole?” But the wind cuts Peyton’s voice in half. In school when he tried to whisper, the rest of the class still heard him, because he whispered the way an actor does on stage—to fill the audience in on the secret. Peyton wasn’t a theater kid, and neither was I.
      My voice never carries, even as I walk up to Peyton, my boots crunching the yellowing mops of grass—the wind dials my voice down. Peyton’s back is to me. “What was that?” I ask.
      “I said,” Peyton begins, “Where’s its tits? Where’s its bunghole?” Turning around, I see Peyton holds a dachshund, her four legs bent chicken-wing, lying along the length of his forearm, her nose pointing into Peyton’s elbow, her eyes locked onto mine.
      “You brought Jenna here?”
      “She’s barked all morning in your direction,” Peyton says. On cue Jenna opens her mouth in a yowl, exposing her two remaining canines. Peyton bends down to plop her on the ground. Jenna begins to scavenge, stops for a moment, lifts her left hind leg, lets a stream of piss jet onto the grass.
      “Daddy’s little heathen,” Peyton says. “So, where’s—"
      “Yeah, I heard you walking up and I don’t see how finding the whale’s tits or bunghole will get it off my barn.”
      Peyton looks in the direction of the head intermingled with the debris. Light hits the side of Peyton’s face and reaches the yard. The scar hugging Peyton’s smile is darker now. The sun dips below the body of the whale and cooks it from the other side.
      “Darn, I’ve always loved that dairy barn,” Peyton says.
      “Last time I checked, Peyton, you can’t milk a horse.”
      “But this was the cow barn,” Peyton says.
      “We never owned a cow, Peyton,” I say. “We didn’t have a pot to piss in, but we always had horses. This was the horse barn.”
      “Jenna!” Peyton yells.
      “She’s over there by the fin.”
      In a town of fifty people, Peyton is the one person I actively avoid. He says wild shit just like his father and his grandfather and their grandfathers all the way to the beginning “protozoa of Peyton,” which evolved with a big mouth to broadcast all their wild-shitness. But with the whale landing on both our properties, it’s not like I could continue pretending he doesn’t exist. Maybe I should have started with the wet dream? I begin to craft a smooth introduction—something like this—“Hey Peyton, I know we haven’t talked since graduation, but for some reason I had a wet dream last night and you were in it, and I think you should take it as a compliment . . .” High-school crush and small-town politics aside, I called Peyton, because I know removing the whale could split a tractor’s engine right down the middle. Better his than mine.
      “Wait . . . do you feel that?” Peyton asks. He reaches the side of the whale in two steps and places his hand on it. “Ouch,” Peyton says, removing his hand as if he burned it. He crumbles the dust in his hand and looks up at the print he left behind.
      “Is it hot?”
      “Feel for yourself,” Peyton says.
      I pull my hand away as soon as I placed it on the whale’s side, heat rolling down my fingers and into my palm. For a moment I was connected with the whale, its scars—the cuts run so deep, yet when compared to the rest of the carcass, the thick inner wall of muscles and organs lining the whale’s body, it’s just a scratch written in the language of propellers.
      “Yeah, that’s hot.”
      “Why?” Peyton asks.
      When whales are killed, the whale hunters cut them from mouth to tail, so the icy water can pour in and cool down the body. I recognize the fluke from my copy of Eyewitness on whales I had when I was young. Sea wings, I told Mom once. When I was a toddler, we opened the book in the kitchen to a hyperrealist illustration of a scuba diver photographing a whale in limbo. His six-pack shows through his wetsuit. My finger is a fish and swims to his crotch. Mom rips my hand away and uses it to move the next page. There was an illustration in the bottom corner of the page of a buried treasure undersea. Look, I said, while Mom continued reading. Bubbles escaped my imaginary breathing apparatus. Dad ruined the illusion by shucking sweet corn husks by the stove. The frills of silk and golden pebbles sat on the counter like sunken doubloons.

      On cue, Jenna slinks by with a nibble of whale fin in her mouth. Her tail springs back and forth as Peyton takes the parcel from her. Peyton sniffs it, takes a bite, looks at me, and says, “Tastes like cooked moose.”

      We dig the chains into the fluke, tethering the whale to Peyton’s tractor. Peyton climbs back into the cabinet of the Deere with Jenna, while I secure the end of the chains to the ball and socket of the machine. There is a slow roar. Massive tires claw up dirt and leftover corn husks, propelling the tractor forward, making the chains snake. Twenty-five feet out and the chains are taut. Peyton looks back at me. I look up at him and yell, “Gun it!” He doesn’t hear me, but he puts the Deere into a higher gear while gritting his teeth. The tail lifts an inch off the ground with a whining sound, the chain taut, tractor vs. whale, gears grinding on the clutch. It shifts, timbers in the head rearrange, its belly drags on the dirt, then a rip, severing the whale’s tail, spewing pulp, its fluke hitting the ground with a dusty thud, the white nub of the whale’s skeleton exposed, blood trickling out of both ends. Peyton kills the tractor, leaves Jenna inside the cabin, and follows the chains back to the fluke. Peyton gives them a kick.
      “It’s a couple inches more on your side,” I say. We both reach for the chains and end up bumping into one another. My hand touching the top of his hand. Peyton shakes it off. The ghost of his touch stays with me. I turn toward the carcass and hear a faint noise as if a pair of lips are puckering up and blowing a single breath into my ear. The sound grows into a steady hiss. I look to the ground for a pair of venomous eyes of the rattler I’m about to step on, but find no diamonded coil. Three steps toward the whale, and I can tell the sound must be the gas escaping from its belly or perhaps the gas freed from the whale’s decomposing body like a balloon deflating itself in a pair of angry hands.
      “Sounds like it could’ve blown up any minute,” Peyton says. He looks in the direction of the creek, looks down at his boots, then he looks at me.
      I expect Peyton to say, “Nothing—”
      “Remember fishing in the creek as kids?” Peyton asks instead.
      “I do,” I say.
      I pause—the memory plays—two kids fishing in the ocean in their backyard, we caught one, fist, fist, blood, man.
      “Do you want a beer?” I ask.
      “Is a frog’s ass watertight?” Peyton asks.
      “I didn’t know frogs have asses.”
      Peyton sighs, “Yes. The answer is yes.”

      I don’t drink much, but growing up, my folks always had a six-pack in the fridge. If some hay balers worked up a sweat, they’d be thanked with a cold one. If the mailman was out in the hot August dust, they’d keep a glass in the fridge until he arrived. Peyton helped—but failed—to move the whale, but it seemed fitting that he should have a can, too. When my parents treated themselves, they’d pull out one for each of them and let it sit a moment before cracking it open, letting the cool foam breathe, and then disappear just like the day’s worries.
      “Here,” I say and hand him the Busch. Peyton pops the can open and looks at me. “Oh.” I cut my fingernails the night before. The fleshy tips of my fingers sting on the cold metal.
      “You don’t drink much, do you?” Peyton askes. He whips out his set of keys, folding the pairs together along the large ring to expose a can opener. He stabs the can. As soon as the foam flows, he yells, “Go!”
      I suck the beer can to my lips—tasting the sour makings of bread—and take a gulp or two before I come up for air, breathe some, and let whatever demon that was trapped inside my stomach out. “Could you not open it like a caveman?” I ask.
      Peyton laughs all rootin’ tootin’.
      “I don’t have liquid dinners, Peyton. I just wanted to relax after this.” I motion to the sprawled-out carcass.
      “Here,” Peyton says, “help me up on the whale. I wanna sit.”
      I set my beer can on a bush where Jenna can’t get it and begin to talk myself through climbing the slope of the belly—It’s just a bounce house, it’s just a bounce house—until I get to a stable place, where I can pull Peyton up.
      We’re face to face and then we hear a squishing noise like running mouthwash through your teeth. We find our way to the spine and sit. “What does this feel like to you?” Peyton asks.
      “Like I’m sitting on a dead whale.”
      “No, it’s comfy, right?” Peyton says.
      “Sure,” I say, “as comfy as a beanbag filled with mashed potatoes.”
      “Ewww,” Peyton says. “Now I can’t eat the Idahos in my garden.” He looks around from our viewpoint. “You could put a garden right over there.”
      “Aw, that would require me to stay.”
      “You thinking about selling the place?” Peyton asks.
      “I’ve flirted with it, for sure. Do you ever get this feeling you’re not where you’re supposed to be?”
      “I’m here on your property,” Peyton starts. “I mean no, I can’t say I ever have. There’s always people coming and going at my house.”
      “And there’s your daughter too,” I say.
      “Yeah,” Peyton says. “She’s bright as a light and one day she’ll leave this place.”
      “Why do you say that?”
      “Because,” Peyton starts. “There’s nothing for her here.”
      “There’s nothing for me here,” I say.
      “I wouldn’t say that,” Peyton says. He downs his beer and checks his watch. When he looks at me next, I swear I hear him say, though his mouth isn’t moving, There’s me, sitting on this whale with a can of shitty beer right next to you, and that’s something.

      As I walk up to the house, I pass the whale’s open mouth, and only after the fwack of the screen door do I realize the upper and lower jaws are lined with sharp teeth.
      I kick off my fishy boots in the doorway. I walk up the white, scuffed steps of the staircase in the dark. The main bedroom sits at the top of the stairs. Shut, always shut. I could never sleep in their bed. I take a left to my childhood bedroom and sit on the edge of my mattress. Off in the distance I can see Peyton’s house, the night all-consuming against the bright indoor light from the window. The other night, I thought I saw him reading a story to his daughter in the alcove of the window. See, there’s good in him. Her name is Anna or Amanda, something with double A’s or double N’s or double M’s, but when Peyton flips off the light, everything outside turns off with it, and I’m the only one still up. There is a current species of loneliness I find myself passing through these days. I know I don’t belong here. I feel it driving down Main Street, seeing the families rush to the movies, sitting with the other farmers for morning coffee, how they open the door for their wives, how they drink their coffee straight. I need taste. I need flavor. So, I have mine with some cream and two sugars. Peyton, when he’s in the diner, does the same. We’re the youngest among those who work the land. The mound of blue animal still bleeds in the field.

      The next day, I wake up to three knocks on the front door. Ugh, Peyton again, I think, while scraping the gluey spatters off my chest with a corner of a quilt. I dress in yesterday’s clothes and fumble down the stairs. When I open the door, Peyton and Pastor Sally stand outside. Her eyes are the color of rust like a tacklebox.
      “So,” Pastor Sally says, “I hear, I see, I mean to say we have a problem.”
      “The whale got fishier,” Peyton says.
      The metal fumes steal my breath. I cup my hand over my mouth and nose, and walk between Peyton and Pastor Sally. The smell of brackish flesh only grows heavier the closer I get to the whale, and only when I leave the patio and hit the pasture do I see the full scope of the problem. Blackbirds perch all along the carcass, picking at the outside of the whale, burrowing down into the skin, bathing in blood. Coyote tracks, trapped in the wet ground, lead to the carcass, where no doubt they had a feast. Insects fling themselves at the whale, bounce back in the thirty-foot pond of blood, emitted from the whale’s throat and tail, which soaked down into the bedrock trails of blood that vein down the rows of Peyton’s cornfield. I step into the blood marsh, and my foot sinks into the ground. I drive up my knee, and the ground pulls off my shoe with a gulp and the blood pours into the sole. Five feet away, a black clot spirals on the face of the blood marsh.
      I walk back to Peyton and Pastor Sally. With every step after I hit the patio, there’s a squelch of liquid leaving my sock. “How can you stand it?”
      “My father was a butcher,” Pastor Sally says.
      “I need a hazmat suit,” Peyton says.
      “Well, we’ll have to DIY it.”
      The fwack of the screen door clips my sentence. I rip off the bloody sock and hop on one leg over to the bathroom by the kitchen with the tub. I let the water run warm and look in the pantry for rubbing alcohol and a bar of antimicrobial soap. I set my foot in the tub, rub the soap in my hands like I’m starting a fire, and lather. “You can come in!” I yell, realizing I left Peyton and Pastor Sally outside. When the farm had pigs, I remember Dad walking out to the hog barn at least three times a day to check for any cuts or nicks along the hogs’ ears or tails. If the other hogs smelled the blood, we’d have nothing left. If a hog did have a cut, then Dad would quarantine the animal until it healed completely, because even a scab sends the other hogs crazy. If blood hit the concrete in the hog barn, then Dad would spray the blood off with a power washer and bleach the area, until there was nothing left. Pastor Sally’s comment rings in my head: So [she pauses] we have a problem. There is the obvious problem of the goddamn whale bleeding out in the goddamn cornfield with no way to flush it down a drain. But the problem can have another meaning, especially when it comes from Pastor Sally brought to your home by your crush. How long did I stare at Peyton for him to suspect . . .? Did I say anything yesterday that hinted . . .? She appears in the doorway.
      “Everything okay?” Pastor Sally asks.
      I unplug the tub. Water sucks down the drain. I pour rubbing alcohol on my foot to finish the job.
      “Good deal!” Pastor Sally says. “I don’t want you to do a rush job, but is there another bathroom in the house?”
      I grab a towel and wipe my foot spotless. “Follow me.” At the top of the stairs, I stand in my doorway, gesturing with my left hand in the direction of the upstairs bathroom, “All yours.” When she closes the door, I turn over the Pollocked quilt. I grab a new sock and close the door behind me.
      Downstairs, Peyton helps himself to a glass of water in the kitchen, sits where Mom sat. Between the third and last step, I paint a life for Peyton and me, where he drinks water from my tap more frequently. I never imagined a man other than my father to take up room in my kitchen. It was like seeing a new color for the first time. Things were normal, and now with the addition of the gossamer, a new possibility is believed. I bite down to bury this pining. I walk right up to him and whisper, “What the hell is she doing here?”
      “Well,” Peyton begins—
      “I just thought we needed a little help,” Peyton whispers.
      “With what, Peyton?”
      “The whale,” Peyton whispers.
      “And how can a pastor help us?”
      “I’m here for spiritual support,” Pastor Sally says, coming down the stairs while holding her robe out by her sides, so she won’t trip.
      “I just thought the whale might need blessed,” Peyton says, “before we excavate.”
      “And we Lutherans don’t cover exorcisms,” Pastor Sally adds, “so a blessing is the best I can manage. Even though we haven’t seen you for some time, the church is always welcoming—”
      “Don’t bless the whale. Don’t bless any of this property,” I spit.
      She looks out the window to the hump of whale. “If it lived,” Pastor Sally says, “I’d call this a miracle.”
      “But it didn’t,” I say.
      “I think it’s meant to stay here,” she says. “Reabsorb into the earth.”
      “How else are we going to get rid of it?”
      “Dunk the whale in a tank of sharks,” Peyton says.
      As boys we were raised to be the men who catch fish the size of their arms, not aware of the shark coming along to eat the men or the whale who swallows the shark whole. I can’t tell if Pastor Sally—or the church, for that matter— is the shark or the whale. I don’t know what I am either. Peyton, on the other hand, is a sea cucumber.
      Pastor Sally walks around the whale, seeking divine inspiration. Her auburn hair matches the scabbed-over grass. Every few feet she stops and places her little hand on its body. She casts her robes aside at my suggestion and wears a brown flannel shirt tucked into her jeans. We all sport the same knee-high rubber boots I found in a closet, duct-taped to our knees, so the blood won’t soak into our socks. Peyton and I wear industrial-grade painting masks and welding sleeves. We roll out two bundles of planks twined together with the steel wire used to accumulate windblown snow in certain areas of a property and keep it away from others. Hopefully it’ll work with the blood marsh. Pastor Sally watches.
      “Who saw the whale first?” Pastor Sally asks.
      “The scarecrow was the first to see the whale dead in the cornfield,” Peyton jokes.
      “Not funny,”
      “In the Bible,” Pastor Sally says, “Leviathan is a metaphor for death and was so big it encircled the watery depths of the earth, twice.”
      Peyton sets down the bundle of fence and punctuates Pastor Sally’s sentence with a “Wow!” He’s so easily impressed.
      “Early American whalers used this Bible passage to justify their killing,” she says. “But seeing the whale on land, like this, I’m lost.”
      “Then we can forgo the whole blessing altogether,” I say.
      “Maybe we should bless the fence protecting the whale?” Pastor Sally suggests. “I’ll grab my Bible from my car, bless the fence, and my work is done.” She walks to her car.
      “You can bless the portion of fence on Peyton’s field!” I yell.
      “It’s either the whole fence or the whale or nothing,” Peyton says. “You need spiritual protection, too.”
      “We could’ve handled this ourselves!”
      “I just wanted some reassurance,” Peyton says—
      “Of what? That a whale dropped from the sky onto our land, and you want to be covered in the afterlife?”
      “Basically,” Peyton agreed. “When I die, I want to be taken care—”
      “I just don’t want anything tying me to this place,” I say, thinking of when I bought Mom and Dad’s plots and headstones. No one saw the deer jumping in front of the windshield. The deer had a historically low population that year. I bought the plot for myself right next to them. But that’s been years ago now, and I still walk around with the plot, the family farm, the small-town rural, my gay ass, and now the whale hanging over us all.
      “No,” Peyton says. “You’ve left a long time ago even though I’m still here.”
      “Well, boys, the whale isn’t getting any deader,” Pastor Sally says.
      Peyton says, “No need to bless the whole whale, my side will do.”
      They walk over to Peyton’s side, and Pastor Sally starts, “Oh, merciful whale dropping God”—but I stay frozen in place. Once the prayer is over, they go back to their lives, while the whale stays. Part of me wants to take a picture of it because people won’t believe it, but then who would I show it to? Who would I ask to believe? It’s just us two. Together, two perfectly impossible things. A whale in a cornfield and myself believing I’m right where I need to be.
      Would you like to hear a story? I ask. The whale agrees with silence. In the story to the whale, I call myself the boy.

      Two boys fish in the man-made creek, once a sinkhole, connecting the two corners of Peyton’s family farm and ours. Their fathers filled the sinkhole with earth, left it to dry over seasons, filled it up with well water and populated the creek with mooneye and bluegill. The boys hook worms, their weak, squirming bodies wriggling as they slide down the hook, dirt and green guts gritty on the boys’ chubby fingers. One of the boys struggles with hooking his worm, while the other places the fishing pole between his legs. He seals the plastic lid along the Styrofoam rim of the cup labeled “BAIT” in Sharpie, courtesy of the gas station thirty miles away, and plops the worm container in the tackle box. He wipes his dirty hands on the back of his jeans, pulls the bill of his green hat, and with his other hand grabs the fishing pole, casts it back, and lets the line fly forward with a zing, unraveling itself before the wormed hook plunks in the water.
      He places the cork handle of the rod between two slabs of limestone, before helping Peyton, hook his worm.
      “It keeps wrestlin’ me,” Peyton says, his ‘S’es’ slipping through his missing teeth.
      The boy takes the line with the hook and the worm from Peyton before he can respond. The boy wraps the tubular body around the neck of the hook before double-piercing the worm through both ends, locking the worm in place. Wasn’t that hard for me, the boy said.
      “It’s ’cause you live closer to the creek,” Peyton says. “You’re so poor all you can do is fish . . . besides . . .”
      “Besides what?”
      “Do you think it feels the hook?” Peyton asks.
      “Getting soft, are you—” then the boy hears and turns to see the top of his fishing pole touching the ground like a tapping finger hitting a tabletop. He dives for the handle as the whole pole slips out of the rock. On his belly, the boy reels the fish in, but the wrestling fish cancels out his efforts.
      Peyton runs to the edge of the creek, grabbing the thin fishing line, and pulls it with both hands. “Shit, shit, shit,” Peyton says, the line cutting into his palms, weakening his grip. It gives the boy holding the fishing pole a chance to prop his feet on the limestone and throw his lower body into one great pull. There’s another round of “shit, shit, shit,” the sound of metal about to snap, followed by the murderous splashing as the fish hits air. Peyton lets go of the line and inspects the blisters on his hands.
      The boy lays the mooneye on one of the limestone slabs. The fish is big as the boy’s arm is long, from finger to shoulder, far outside the normal length of this fish. Looking down, the boy finds the hook in the mooneye’s cheek instead of its lip. Blood hits the parts of the fish still dotted with creek water, flows down its side, stains limestone, and rusts its own silver scales. Every time the boy goes for the hook, the fish slaps the surface of the rock with enough power to partially lift its whole body in the air. When the mooneye hits the ground again, Peyton slams a rock down on the fish’s head with a pulpy thud. The boy stands there watching the cycle: the fish gulps, Peyton hits the fish with a rock, Peyton yells. Fish gulps, rock on rock, Peyton yells. Gulp, rock, yell. Peyton bends down and cuts the hook out of the fish’s cheek with a pocketknife and hands it to the boy. “Who’s faggy soft now?” Peyton asks. The boy looks at Peyton and out of the corner of his eye, he sees the smear of red across the limestone. He doesn’t break eye contact with Peyton, though. The boy doesn’t remember what was said, but Peyton says something. When he picks up the pole, the one Peyton used, I remember the worm was gone.

      In the ocean, when a whale dies, the air in their lungs makes them surface. The sun cooks their skin, and they start to deflate. Other whales in the pod will mourn, belting sad siren songs. Once the air is gone, the sea takes the dead whale back to the bottom of the ocean. They begin to decompose, feeding sea creatures and plants, the whale creating a whole other ecosystem on the ocean floor. This is called whale-fall.
      By July the locusts, Jenna, and other meat-eating critters work their way through the whale’s skin and muscle, pick it right down to the bone pincer by tooth and jaw. By August, its clean bones yellow by the heat of the sun. September, the leaves rain copper on the carcass and the leftover cartilage, and by winter the whale’s frozen in an icy armor. Fresh rain melts snow, revealing the white, two-pronged claw of the whale’s mouth, and come spring the corn sprouts grow tall enough to touch the sun, dotting the the whale’s ribcage and up the beast’s marbled jaws. Prairie grasses grow through its orbital bone, bringing pollinators, seeding flowers, growing herbs, bringing critters and bigger critters. I stay here, watching the whale become something new, watering the whale’s new form.
      I’ll stay a little longer and water my side of the whale, so it blooms and seeds greener, nurture it into something beautiful and haunting. Someday I’ll leave a sign, reading “Here lies a whale . . .” or something like that, and the whale of a town will become the new motto. When that day comes, I know Peyton will still mow the grass around his half of the whale, leaving a fishtail shape only discernible from the sky above.

Monday, January 15, 2024