The Whale and the Tea-Kettle
(Modus operandi: this is a part of a series I’m doing to stay creative during obligatory training with the Swiss military. The stories are super short – under a thousand words – and are meant to be read while listening to the music pieces written to accompany them. If you read more slowly, you can click on the Soundcloud link and then on the little looped-y-loop so that the music repeats itself. This first story is inspired by the now-very-famous 52 Hertz Whale, who spoke so differently from other whales that none of them could understand it. I hope you like it! 🙂
The Whale and the Tea-Kettle
Not far from a bleak winter beach – sharp stones and frost, thin grass and no sun to warm the edges of things – a boat drifted, rusting and old, its portholes covered in rime. It was the sort of boat people called a tea-kettle, which meant it was small and clad in metal, and had only one thin, crooked smokestack, and was prone to leakage.
The boat bobbed in the black water, mostly silent but for a few grumbles and grunts, until all at once a whale surfaced next to it. The whale’s great curious eye gazed at the boat, and the boat’s grimy portholes gazed back.
“Hello,” said the whale.
The wind whistled through the boat’s single smokestack. The whale took this to mean, “Hello to you, too.”
“Why are you floating here so quietly?” the whale inquired, not wanting the conversation to flag.
A wave came and knocked against the boat’s side. “Everything inside me has died,” said the boat melodramatically.
The whale peered into one porthole and sure enough there were skeletons around the table, and a skeleton tucked into bed, and a skeleton holding a mug in its bony fingers and grinning at the wall.
“What happened to them?” the whale asked, but the boat only bobbed to and fro and did not answer.
The whale stirred the water with its great tail, to wake the tea-kettle up.
“I don’t know,” the boat answered at last, in creaks and cracks of its rusting panels. “I suppose I took a wrong turn somewhere and they ran out of water. Funny, isn’t it, to run out of water in the middle of the sea?”
The whale wasn’t sure that was funny, but it laughed politely, a long, slow laugh that took several minutes. “How did you learn to speak to whales?” it asked, when it had finished.
“I didn’t,” said the boat. “I don’t know why I can talk to you. I suppose because your voice is very strange for a whale’s.”
The whale dipped its head underwater, feeling rather ashamed. It was true that its voice was not cavernous and bellowing like other whales. It sounded creaky and thin, much like the rasp of tea-kettle’s rivets and plates.
“I never learned to speak to whales either,” said the whale. “Or at least, none of them can understand what I say to them.”
One of the tea-kettle’s loose shutters clanked in the wind. “Well, I’ve forgotten how to speak boat-ish, if it’s any consolation. Boats wouldn’t be caught dead speaking to me, because I’m rusting, and I have only one thin, crooked smokestack, and I’m prone to leakage. But it’s not so bad. The fishers on my boat spoke nine languages between them, before they stopped speaking altogether, and it didn’t do them any good. They never agreed on anything.”
“I think,” said the whale, “that if I could speak to someone, I would never stop.”
“Well, you can speak to me,” said the boat, and one of the portholes in its prow spun in a gust of wind, like a wink.
The whale was delighted, and it told the tea-kettle its tale.
When the whale was no larger than a bicycle, its mother vanished in a cloud of orcas. The little whale wandered the seas, speaking to other whales with wild abandon. It spoke to great blue whales, and small bullish grey ones, and a white one as long as an ocean-liner. It asked them if it could join their herds, tried telling jokes and singing songs, but the other whales looked at it askance for its strange and ugly voice, and then chased it away. Not one of them understood what it was trying to say.
The whale travelled far and wide, growing larger and larger. It sang to a squid, and a coral reef. It bellowed a greeting to a child on a beach, who watched it curiously and then answered in an even stranger song than the whale’s own. It spoke to a starling, who was hitching a ride on a grey piece of driftwood. The whale surfaced very gently and murmured ‘good morning’ to the starling as nicely as it could, but the bird was startled anyway and fluttered indignantly away.
In time the whale grew weary, and floating in the blue dark of the ocean it wished it might turn into one of those small, mute, silvery fishes, or burst above the waves and become a starling, too, that could swoop away into the sky.
And just when the whale was as sad as it had ever been, it saw a boat floating on the surface of the water, and heard a sound – a long, rude creeeeeeak – and the whale was sure that meant “Hello.”
Perhaps you will say boats cannot speak. Perhaps you will insist the whale went mad from loneliness. But perhaps they were both very happy, the whale and the tea-kettle, drifting far from the shore and the thin grey grasses, and the sharp rocks, into the far cold sea, where they creaked and warbled in their own secret language for the rest of their days.