NATHAN AND THE WHALE

by D.N. Stuefloten

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     Why are you here?
     I had nowhere else to go.
     She laughed.

     And that is the story, at least in outline. Of course there are details. And the details are green and blue, white and black. There are other colors too, but those are the dominant ones. There is a mountain, for example, where the green trees are sometimes brown. The top of the mountain is white, the same color as the clouds. In the little house near the summit the roof was covered with sparkling snow. The sun was shining. In front of the house the snow had been cleared, and the earth was black. Inside was a red fire, and the dark lustrous tone of the wooden walls. The girl herself was pale, with black hair. She was naked, and that is another detail. She asked him (Nathan, his name, and naked also):
     Why are you here?
     I had nowhere else to go.
     She laughed. Nathan rose up in anger.
     In the end I will be right.
     Never, she said.
     I can stand the cold.
     You havent seen the cold.
     You think I am weak.
     You are weak.
     I have suffered all my life. I’m strong, from suffering.
     You are worn out, she said. You are emptied.
     If that is true why am I here?
     The last gasp, she said, of a dying man.

     The dying man gasped and disappeared. Pine needles did a little dance. A dark animal with thick fur came up to the girl and licked her crotch. Nathan reappeared at a distance, wading through a drift of snow. He shouted at the girl, but she ignored him, petting the dark animal. The brittle snow surface cut Nathan’s thighs. He left behind him a trail of red blood on the white snow. After a while he discovered that the more he struggled towards the cabin, the further he went from it. He stopped, and stared at the wooden building and the thin trail of black smoke rising into the blue sky. It was such a clear, lovely sky, it seemed that clear, lovely things must happen. Instead a gnarled little man in a gray beard, smelling of fish, came walking over the snow and stopped in front of Nathan. He spat out phlegm and tobacco juice. It left a dark brown stain on the crystal whiteness. The man twisted his lips into a sneer, and his teeth were brown and black. Nathan tried to say something, buried to his hips in the snow, but found his throat choked with emotion. His eyesight became blurred. The little man wavered, and the sun grew dim.
     Well, said the man, now that youre here, what will you do?
     I dont know, gasped Nathan.
     You dont know, sneered the man. You were a fool to come here.
     No, he cried, no, I wasnt!
     A fool. An ignorant fool as well.
     From his robe the man pulled a piece of dried fish and began munching on it.
     Have you considered suicide? he inquired.
     Never!
     Here’s a rope.
     I have no need for a rope.
     And there is a tree. I would suggest doing it before dark. It’s quite painless, you know.
     Get out!
     Certainly.
     The little old man got out of his clothes and placed them carefully on the snow beside him.
     No, no! cried Nathan. Leave me alone!
     The man shrugged.

     Nathan found himself alone in the cold sea. The ocean was white, and the waves were poised motionless over his head. In front of him was a black whale, with its mouth open.
     My God! yelled Nathan.
     Yes? said the whale politely.

     When Nathan was a small boy, his mother pulled him along on a leash. He was fed on banana peels and orange seeds. His mother was a bright, intelligent creature with long fingers. Nevertheless she was absent minded, and one day she left him at the zoo. When she got home she discovered his absence, forgot about it, remembered it two days later in the midst of a Bach fugue, and promptly wrote him out of her will. Nathan lived with the monkeys until he grew a furry tail. Then a kind gentleman who was running for the presidency of a small African country discovered him, cut the tail off, and restored him to the usual erect splendor of the human race. When the gentleman won the election (with the aid of fourteen thousand Ghurkas on loan from the British government) Nathan became, in this order, the Prime Minister, the Court Jester, Leader of the Opposition, and a Political Exile in Gibraltar, where he resumed relations with the famous Gibraltar monkeys. He was investigated by an American Congressional Committee during the McCarthy Inquisitions, and forbidden to write Hollywood screenplays under his own name. Thus ended the political career of Nathan.

     A few years later Nathan found himself distributing CARE packages in the Middle East. He went to sleep one night on a cold rock, and woke up the next morning with a truck full of CARE packages in a desert. He found in his wallet all sorts of credentials, including a free pass to a Cairo theatre. The desert was red and white. The truck was black and green. Nathan drove into a black village and started handing out the packages. It wasnt until one of the Arabs opened a package that Nathan discovered they contained arms and ammunition. There were Bren guns and Sten guns, Mausers and Muskets. When Nathan asked about the strange contents, he was met by dumb stares and the jabber of a strange tongue. Nathan did not want any trouble to start. The Arabs, he argued, had no use for guns. There was no food to be shot in the desert. Guns could only be used for war, for robbery and killing. Nathan fled from the mass of cheering and gesticulating Arabs. He stopped at houses and knocked on doors. He yelled up at open windows: English! Do you speak English? Does anyone speak English? Blank faces greeted him. He despaired of doing any good, when suddenly four Bedouin girls in black veils grabbed him by the arms and hustled him into a large house. Nathan thought they were taking him to an English speaking person, perhaps a high government official. Instead they brought him down to a richly furnished cellar and raped him.
     Nathan cried at the loss of his virginity.
     The four girls, who had dark hair and pale bodies, danced naked around him. Why are you here? they teased him, and then showed him why he was there. For four years he was fed on pep pills and raw oysters. Nathan’s hair grew long and dank. His eyes acquired a burning light. His ribs and hips jutted through his skin. The girls tortured him in various obscene ways. They showed him tricks with dogs and cats. One day their father descended into the cellar, and saw Nathan. He stopped in amazement.
     Why are you here? he asked.
     I had nowhere else to go, Nathan said querulously.
     The man laughed in an ugly fashion, cut Nathan’s ear off with a scimitar, and chased him from the house.

     Nathan wandered through India, and soon found himself possessing a rabid following who claimed he was a prophet. Nathan was bewildered. They expected him to perform miracles. When a loudly wailing child was brought to him, Nathan knocked it over the head with his wooden staff. The child stopped crying and looked at Nathan in astonishment. The crowd cheered. Nathan bathed in the Ganges, and immediately the river was inundated with black bodies bathing themselves also. I am only getting rid of some dirt and grime, Nathan protested. The people bowed to him. Nathan saw a black whale in the river. It was lying there, half submerged, grinning at Nathan. Why am I here? Nathan demanded petulantly. The whale winked, and disappeared. Nathan cried, and his tears were gathered and sold as holy water. One day he failed to cure a leper. The crowd booed, and threw stones at him. He was driven from the streets, and finally limped over the border into Pakistan. Nathan swam through a narrow sea, and found himself on a sandy shore. He stood up, dripping red water. He was greeted by three Muslims who were burying the carcass of a donkey.
     Why are you here, they asked.
     I got tired of swimming.
     They laughed.
     Laugh if you like, said Nathan angrily, but it’s no funnier than the death of that donkey.
     They buried him too.

     He found a sort of quiet peace in the ground. He felt he would be happy there. He was now fifty years old, and his hair was graying and becoming thin at his temples. His leg ached whenever the weather turned damp. He kept imagining that he could hear a monkey barking in his one good ear. He was buried with just his head above ground. He had an almost irresistible urge to scratch the back of his neck. On lonely nights he would look at the moon, and feel a strange desire to start howling. Once he dreamed he found himself in a dark forest, climbing a tree, and then tried swinging from the branches. He woke up a couple of hours later—from the dream, perhaps, but with a bump on his head, and the vague memory of trying to catch a branch with his rump; almost, he thought, as though he had a tail, like a monkey. His past puzzled him. He felt that if he had a few years of peace he could unravel that ball of string knotted in his mind. He was happy to be resting in the ground, and his life, he felt, would be perfect, if only the donkey didnt stink. By the time the odor abated as the donkey's flesh was eaten by the maggots and dried by the heat, there was an unfortunate earthquake, which disgorged him from the earth and thrust him into a ruined village. Everywhere babies were crying. Mothers lay shattered on the ground. Armless men darted about, spraying blood everywhere. Nathan was so shocked by the sudden transition from peace to violent disorder that he claimed to be a doctor and started ministering to the people. He turned the city hall, the only building still standing, into an emergency hospital. By the time the Red Cross and the United Nations arrived, Nathan had the situation well in hand.
     Why are you here? they asked him.
     I had nowhere else to go, he replied simply.
     One of the patients laughed a sort of death rattle and died.

     Dr Nathan, said the reporter, can you say you are sorry to have given up all the pleasures and luxuries of civilized life?
     Nathan lifted his graying head and plucked the stethoscope from his ear.
     I find my life very rewarding, he said in a distinguished but tired voice. This hospital is my life.
     Why is it that so many of your patients are women?
     Nathan shrugged.
     It is God’s will.

     When it was discovered that in the three years he lived at the hospital, Nathan had fathered thirteen thousand sons and daughters by placing his women patients under anesthetic and molesting them, the country erupted into civil war and Nathan was finally put in prison. The thirteen thousand sons and daughters drew relief until, five years later, there was another revolution, and the new government dissolved all debts and responsibilities of the old, and nationalized the oil industry as well. Nathan crawled forth into sunlight, through a narrow vent. The gardener found him blinking at the midday brightness.
     Why are you here? the gardener asked.
     It was the only way out, Nathan said apologetically.
     The gardener laughed.

     Nathan returned to his own country, and found himself to be a sort of pariah. People sneered at him in the street and hurled insults and rotten tomatoes. The press lambasted him. The Daughters of the American Revolution had started an anti-intercourse drive, and held him up to public ridicule and shame. Nathan hobbled slowly down the unfriendly streets. The Salvation Army refused him admittance to their slum missions. He was kicked out of fourteen breadlines in one day. Finally he spied, in the distance, a tall mountain that was green and white against a blue sky. He discovered he was in a brown and gray valley. He slowly began climbing. He found a little house near the summit. The roof was covered with sparkling snow. The sun was shining. In front of the house the snow had been cleared, and the earth was black. When he went inside he found a red fire, and a pale naked girl with black hair. She asked:
     Why are you here?
     I had nowhere else to go.
     She laughed. Nathan hobbled forward in anger.
     In the end I will be right.
     Never.
     I will stay here until the world vindicates me.
     Youll freeze. Look, you have no clothes.
     I can stand the cold.
     You havent seen the cold.
     You think I am weak.
     You are weak.
     If I were weak I wouldnt be here.
     Youre dying, she said.

     He found himself struggling in the snow. A gnarled little man with a gray beard and a gray robe spat tobacco juice at his feet.
     Have you ever considered suicide? he inquired.
     Never!
     Here’s a rope.
     I have no need for a rope.
     And there’s a tree. I would suggest doing it before dark. It’s quite painless, you know.
     No, no! cried Nathan. Leave me alone!

     Nathan found himself alone in a cold sea. The ocean was white, and the waves were poised motionless over his head. In front of him was a black whale, with its mouth open.
     My God! yelled Nathan.
     Yes? said the whale politely.
     And swallowed him.

 

Text and photos copyright D.N. Stuefloten.
Contact:
don@dnstuefloten.com

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NOTES: Another of my (very few) amusing stories, about which I have little to say.

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