As Big as a Whale
~ Avra Margariti
The astronomer’s second wife called her husband Darling and Dearest. Their boy—three and a half vibrant years, two dimples, one missing front tooth—called him Father. The gargantuan whale circling their galactic observation tower expels echolocation groans across starlit dark matter, splashing with languid intent over the astronomer’s sonogram sensors. Through the lens of his telescope, her sight etches itself in silver thread onto his retinas. The whale doesn’t acknowledge the astronomer. He is but a cosmic speck on her back that has borne millennia of creation and destruction.
Ever since the marble orrery which contained the astronomer’s second wife and son was swallowed by the whale, nobody calls the astronomer anything in his empty tower amidst the half-known universe.
He’s called the whale his nemesis long before that.
The whale isn’t gray or black or even white. She swims through deep space and shadow matter, a rainbowed shimmer clinging to her thick skin, like nacre or the underside of Jupiter’s rings.
The astronomer holes himself up in his highest tower, surrounded by astrolabes and vellum scrolls. The observatory—resembling a black-stone keep—is held aloft through an esoteric blend of science and alchemy. His old laboratory in the west wing lies in shambles, the reinforced glass shattered, half of his instruments obliterated under the whale’s menace. Delirious, he contorts his spine over his new journals, scribbles of squid ink only he can read, while his tea grows death-cold and gibbous moons of mold sprout from his toast.
Hypothesis: The whale is the keeper of all the secrets of the universe.
He turns a page and watches his pen wobble. It’s a wicked world in all meridians. He doesn’t remember writing this.
A bellow sounds from outside, deep and velvet matte, high-pitched and silky silver. The bellow encompasses everything the universe has to offer. The whale does, too. The astronomer often wonders about what he’d find if he could dissect her. Just a tiny, tender piece. He bruises his eyes against his telescope, catching flicks of the whale’s dorsal fin, her flippers, her tail flukes. They leave comet trails of stardust behind them. Tainting the sky, taunting him forevermore.
Blindly, the astronomer extends a hand to his left, expecting the orrery’s smooth planets within easy reach, to stroke and whisper to them, soon, soon the whale will be captured and you shall be free.
But the marble orrery is gone, last he saw it caught between the needle-sharp, turret-sized teeth of the whale. The astronomer’s hand knocks his tea over.
The astronomer is also an astrophant: someone who reveals the sacred secrets of stars. He shoots tridents and harpoons from his observation deck. Sixth-magnitude stars are the dimmest, therefore easiest to catch. He reels them in, spreads them out under his scalpel and microscope. His harpoon gun, however, is far too small and flimsy for his great, cosmic archenemy. He attempts to order a bigger weapon from the space pirates that roam this part of the galaxy. When he cannot strike a deal—when even the back-stabbing mercenaries blanch at the thought of crossing the whale—the astronomer decides to build his own device.
Yet his meticulous notes and designs, his formulas and measurements, always end up ink-smudged or vanished altogether come morning. Sometimes he suspects his wife and son, although he’s never caught them in the act. Other times, he thinks they’d never disobey him. Not like his first, wilful wife, eaten by the whale some years ago. Perhaps this floating observatory is haunted by ghosts after all.
The whale dances, but sings also. He’s recorded the frequency of the wavelengths but has had no luck decoding them. At least not when the song is directed toward the abstract vastness of the cosmos. When the astronomer’s wife brings his lunch to his laboratory, the whale’s song shifts, the sonogram spiking. The second wife pauses, plate-laden tray held aloft, as the echolocation music morphs into a sea shanty. Certain passages almost resemble a mating call. When the astronomer’s son visits his father for a goodnight kiss on his sweaty, salty forehead, the song mellows into a lullaby.
The second wife often sleeps in the boy’s bed, cradling him in dreams, nautili in their shells. Alone in his tower, the astronomer sends recordings of himself, like harpoons, out into the universe. He tries to communicate with the whale that stole his first wife, but her response resounds with flat apathy rather than its customary polyphony. If there are traces of anger woven through the rumbling notes, it’s the type of anger a person experiences toward an incessantly buzzing mosquito.
The astronomer detests this. He can take being hated, but he cannot abide being ignored.
Dust gathers over every surface. The astronomer places it under his microscope to ascertain it’s not made of the stars swirling outside his window, or ghosts. Then again, everything is stars. Everywhere he looks are ghosts.
Dishes pile in the sink. The stone dulls, the tower falls into disrepair. When not a single crumb remains, the astronomer is forced to call the intergalactic delivery company for supplies. He stands in the doorway, oxygen mask secured haphazardly over his face, when his order arrives. He prefers when it’s a little robot bringing the groceries. The flesh-and-bone delivery boy cannot hide his surprise at the sight of the astronomer: his ink-stained robe and weeks-old facial hair, the dark circles and glazed over eyes.
“Doctor,” the boy says, collecting himself. “I trust your wife and son are well?”
“Hmm?” The astronomer peers over the boy’s shoulders, but the whale is gone. Only the boy’s enchanted velocipede hovers obediently behind him. “Oh, them. The whale got them.”
Unlike the last times anyone inquired after his wife and son, the astronomer doesn’t have to lie.
The delivery boy’s eyes widen to the size of moons behind his mask. “Doctor! Should I talk to the men at the fuel station? Arrange a hunt?”
The astronomer shuts the door in the boy’s slack face. “No need. The whale is mine.”
The second wife isn’t as young or pretty as the first, but she’s good at what she does. As she cleans the observatory to a black-diamond shine and washes their clothes and linens, she sings sea shanties of old. While hearty stews simmer on the stove, she recites poetry, likening the observatory to a lighthouse and, more and more lately, a floating prison. She walks through the halls like an echo, wielding her feather duster as a maestro’s baton. Sometimes she pauses, head tilted, listening to strains of ghosts. She always picks the sweetest songs and saddest poems when the ghosts are listening.
Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, I would know him when we meet.
The astronomer bristles and blazes like an imploding star. This was his first wife’s favorite poem. “Where did you find it?” he demands, but his second wife only blinks. The astronomer tears the tower apart but finds no book of poetry. From then on, he prohibits songs and poems of any kind.
The astronomer’s son has never seen the sunlight. Day and night, the world outside remains unchanging in its blackness. It might be cruel raising him here, but the astronomer believes you cannot miss what you’ve never known. The boy sprints up and down the spiral staircases, banging sticks and toys against frigid stone. When his toys are taken away, he takes to slamming himself against the walls. His arms and legs at first, then his head. Each heavy thud, each string of toddler talk, drives migrainous holes deeper into the astronomer’s skull as he hunches over his formulas. He needs to know things, and to know things he needs to study the whale, and to study the whale he needs to capture it, and his first wife with it. But to do all that, he needs silence above all.
“I’m working,” he shouts. “Make him stop, or I’ll do it.”
But even when the wife and son fall quiet, a paranoid part of him thinks they’re still communicating. It’s the way stars talk to one another, on nearly untraceable wavelengths. Echolocation, the whale’s cosmic language he has yet to decipher.
The astronomer leaves his laboratory in a flurry of white robes. Throbbing headache and unfurling fury, he searches the tower for his wife and their undisciplined son. He finds her at their bedroom’s window, body locked in a swaying dance, eyes fogged over. Her hands roam hypnotic over her own body, mouth opening and closing in soundless motifs. The whale is outside, swimming tight circles, opening and closing her great maws.
“Do you talk to her?” the astronomer asks, clutching his wife’s upper arms with bruising strength. “What lies is she spewing?”
“Let me go,” his second wife says.
Somewhere in the distance, his son wails and bellows.
The astronomer’s first wife was young and beautiful, and eaten by the whale. That’s what he told his second wife, and what she in turn told their son.
The astronomer lies, yet the astronomer remembers.
How the first wife walked out of the the tower and into the universe without an oxygen mask, her unshod feet barely touching the floor, her pearly mouth shaping the familiar lines of an old poem.
I have sworn, like Tycho Brahe, that a greater man may reap.
The astronomer watched from his laboratory, too late to run, too curious to stop her.
The first wife—so young, so beautiful—moved like a ghost in her white, gauzy gown woven with starlight. It billowed out around her calves, stretching taut over her half-moon belly growing fuller by the day. She walked down the boardwalk of the floating keep, while the whale’s perennial dance changed from a solo to a pas-de-deux. At the end of the boardwalk the whale awaited; its mouth wide open, teeth glittering with secrets. The first wife curtsied before stepping so gracefully, so eagerly, into the mouth of the whale.
The astronomer’s second wife cried Darling, no, Dearest, please when he discovered the alchemy that would trap her inside the marble orrery. His son wailed fatherfatherfather when he joined his mother in their own miniature Venus, set like a a paperweight upon the astronomer’s desk.
“You’ll be safe here,” the astronomer tells them, stroking the curved glass as they pound against it from the inside. “Away from the whale.”
They’ll be safe and protected, and he will be free of nuisance and distraction, left to do his sacred work undisturbed.
When the whale swims to his laboratory’s window like a silent, hulking ship, the astronomer is too absorbed in his research to notice. He looks up in time to see her giant tail slam against the glass magicked to withstand the pressure of outer space. It smashes into a thousand tiny pieces. The astronomer doesn’t have time to reach for a mask or a harpoon. He’s never seen the whale without glass separating them. Her eye is bigger than a black hole. It brings all the fears of humanity to the surface. I’ve been here before you, it says, and I will remain after you’re nothing but stardust, and after the dust eats itself, regurgitating a new universe.
The astronomer gasps from the lack of oxygen and the plethora of knowledge. When the whale opens her mouth to snatch the marble Venus containing the astronomer’s wife and son, he can do nothing but scream. The whale cradles the marble carefully between her rictus smile. Then, she’s gone.
The astronomer remains in the glass wreckage for a long while, puffing into an oxygen mask, intoxicated by the eldritch encounter and his own fury.
The astronomer sits at his desk, writing, despairing. All his experiments fail, all his hypotheses prove weak and foolish. The view is dim through his magnifying glass, the ink bleeds illegible through his parchments. He’s heard of planets where people’s sins manifest as demons, stuck like humps on their owners’ backs, bending them in half with the weight of guilt. A poet might have claimed the whale is one such manifestation. The astronomer never did like poetry.
Even stronger than the guilt is the righteous anger. Anger that his wife and son will learn everything the whale hid—all the secrets of the universe revealed from the inside out—and he won’t. He pictures his first and second wife meeting in the belly of the beast. They orbit each other in mistrust at first, then gravitate closer and closer together. They fall in love, familiar ghosts engaged in a long-awaited dance. They paint constellations against the whale’s walls, figures and formulas the astronomer can never dream of. The two former wives raise his children together, all four of them speaking in echolocation, the language of whales and stars.
Celestial bodies dance outside his window, and the whale does too. The astronomer sleeps in his dusty bed, with his dirty clothes and empty stomach. He sleeps, and he fears the starlit night.