The river mouth

It was believed a whale had gone mad at the mouth of the river. Several fishing boats had been destroyed in acts of violence so extraordinary they were deemed inhuman. Each attack had come at dusk, while the boats were passing the heads on their way back to port – the same area where plumes of spray had been seen erupting from the water. Large transport ships reported strange and powerful vibrations ringing through their hulls. Gulls flew strangely, cormorants seemed skittish. Ocean swimmers’ strokes were thrown out of rhythm by a high, ancient melody that rose through the salt. A fluked tail had been seen troubling the waves.

Ned was about five years old when all this happened. In later years he struggled to remember the incidents with much clarity, but at the time it was all anyone was talking about. The animal had been harpooned far down south, someone’s uncle said, and after fleeing north was now visiting vengeance on any ship it encountered. Another version of the story was that the harpoon had lodged in the whale’s brain and turned it feral and vicious. Another was that the whalers had missed the beast, but not its pod, and the whale had been driven insane after witnessing the slaughter of its family.

There were other theories, too, ones that didn’t include whaling, ideas of chemical runoff and irradiated krill, although they weren’t paid much attention. Most held the southern whalers responsible for fouling the animal’s mind. There was talk of writing letters, demanding reparations, getting the council involved.

It’s nonsense, Ned’s father told his sons. He’d caught them whispering about the boat wrecks at the dinner table.

There is no whale, he said. No monster. Fishermen do three things: they drink too much and they make stuff up.

He took off his coat and hung it on a hook by the door.

What’s the third thing, asked Ned’s brother Bill.

Their father levered himself into his chair.

Occasionally they catch fish.

But their father’s words did not persuade them; the story of the mad whale had sunk too deep into their minds. Bill and Patty talked about it constantly. Ned was too young to provide much input, but he heard everything they said, and their conversations filled him with obsessive dread. All day he thought of the smashed ketches and skiffs, of an unseen giant with a blade snagged in its brain. At night his dreams were flooded with blood-foamed water. For a week he woke sweating and screaming until, when his exhausted mother demanded to know the cause of his turmoil, he revealed that his nightmares were of the murderous, hell-sent whale.

Right, his father said the next morning, toast cooling on his plate. We’re going to the river mouth tonight. I’ll show you the truth of this so-called man killer.

Late that afternoon they walked to a nearby jetty, where they piled into a small wooden boat their father had organised to borrow from a neighbour. For an hour they motored along the river until the course of the water straightened and the sea beyond it widened to fill their fields of vision. When they reached the mouth all that remained of the sun was a half-disc of orange light over the western hills. Their father killed the motor.

Forgot to bring rods, he said. Sorry boys.

They stayed there, bobbing on the light swell. The sliver of remaining sun vanished and the sky darkened into a clear night. Their father leaned back in the boat, appearing to contemplate the thick pattern of starlight above them. The wind was sharp and icy. Ned and his brothers shivered into their collars as they waited for the whale to explode out of the river and paste them into the waves.

In the long span of years that followed that night, Ned came to realise that there in the boat, terrified and cold, was the closest he ever came to his brothers. At some point he’d laid his head on Bill’s chest, burrowing for warmth, and for once his brother hadn’t shoved him away. Maybe Bill had even laid an arm around Ned’s shoulders when his fear overcame him and he began shaking and crying at the thought of their impending deaths. Ned couldn’t remember for sure. He knew that Patty had given him his coat, and rubbed Ned’s little hands between his own when the wind picked up.

The next day his brothers returned to treating him as a nuisance, and when they’d all grown into adulthood a formal, stilted coldness entered the relations they had with each other. They spoke only of practical things such as real estate and the merit of various highway shortcuts. They rarely wrote to each other, and when they met they did not embrace. When Bill died his wife spoke, but Ned did not. He didn’t know what he would say. The same thing happened at Patty’s funeral. By the time Ned was 85 he struggled to remember what his brothers had looked like, what little mannerisms had defined their speech and movement. His clearest memory was always of that night at the river mouth, huddled between them, their father prone and calm beneath the stars as they waited in terror for the mad whale.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "The river mouth".

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