It’s a moment when you reach back. Far back. You can’t reason why you do it. You’re jolted though, in the same way that you jump when thunder cuts the quiet of a mountain lake, until then almost still, except for fish running slight currents and heat lightning flirting with low clouds.
“Whale.” Soft as that word is, it firecrackered in my brain this morning. Random.
Mama Hattie sternly warned us never to touch the graying, splintered “whale-house” just steps outside her kitchen. Not even 6 years old, my sister Mary and I stood many hours before its boarded-up door. We speculated on how often Pawie changed the whale’s water and marveled that its tail did not lash the walls of rotting wood. It never slapped water through the cracks.
Sometime that mysterious creature sank below memory glimmer. Maybe in the summer I noticed that Mama Hattie’s voice crawled through words—”hit’s” for “it’s” and “yeller” for “yellow” and “aigs” for “eggs.” And “whale” for “well.”
That summer I wrapped an egg, fresh from the chicken house, in a red bandana. I crouched near the whale-house and clasped the egg in warming desperation. Then I knew. My chick was gone. It had never been. It had never slept, tucked inside the shell, waiting to pick that brittle wall and pop out wet.
The whale had never been.
Nothing else changed. Pawie rocked on the gray-painted porch of the white gabled, green-shuttered house, never talking but always watching for trucks headed to Atlanta. They rumbled on Highway 53, honking until he shot up his long right arm—in salute to a world bypassing his. A small braided rug hung on a side balcony, waiting for a beating.
The day dimmed. We chased fireflies on the front lawn, more like a strip of pasture, and trapped them in Coca-Cola bottles. They glowed until smothered under greenish glass. Our faint torches of summer.