The Whiteness of the Whale

A Novel

David Poyer

St. Martin's Press

1
 
 
Loomings
 
 
Forehead pressing cold scratched plastic, Sara Pollard looked down on melted silver and snowcapped mountains. From those gigantic peaks, reared in some ancient and unimaginably violent collision, glowing fingers of cloud groped toward a shabby jumble of tin roofs and shipping containers faded to the pinks and blues of sea-bleached shells.
The plane shuddered and tilted, lining up on a runway between blasted hills that bulged as if monsters writhed beneath them. Around her the other passengers stirred, speaking in many languages. Bad weather had grounded flights to Tierra del Fuego for a week. Making her barely in time, if one of those tiny specks below was the boat she was bound for.
Ushuaia. The southernmost city in Argentina.
The end is where we start from. Or so T. S. Eliot had said. But starting from the end of the world, what destination could her future possibly hold?
*   *   *
At the foot of a concrete pier a mustached taxi driver heaved her carry-on out into a brisk wind that smelled of ice, mountains, and sea. Hugging herself, she contemplated the craft still bound to the land by red nylon lines thick as her wrists.
Black Anemone was all white fiberglass and curves. A broad stern tapered like a splitting-wedge to a retro-looking bowsprit. Her smooth sides gleamed stark as an iceberg. Along her flank, a stylized logo of a fisted arm curled protectively around a breaching whale. A transparent plastic bubble midships looked out of place on a sailboat. A generator murmured, and a plume of steam or smoke drifted off toward those towering mountains. Sara glimpsed within its murky turbulence a figure bent over the lip of the pier, staring down. Into the water, or at something white beneath it, shimmering as if dissolving in the transparent blue.
The steam whipped away, and through it stepped an unshaven man in a black wool sweater, dark jeans, and deck boots. Deep-set eyes under heavy black brows measured her. Clearing her throat, she extended a hand. “I’m Dr. Pollard.”
His grip closed on hers strong as any human grip she’d ever felt. Rough as old leather, hard as rusted iron. She shivered at the memory it evoked of another hand, even more powerful. This man’s skin was weathered dark, though he couldn’t be much past thirty. His cropped hair was black and his beard stubble was pointed with pewter. Ivory teeth gleamed in a reluctant and quickly erased smile. A tear in his sweater had been stitched with oiled twine. She tried to hold his gaze but hers wavered and fell.
She’d always hated the way she looked. Too tall, too thin, face too pointed, lips too scanty, a sharp New England jaw. Hair a nest of curls. But really, who cared? Hadn’t she learned, by now? She averted her eyes from those teeth, that penetrating gaze.
“Dru Perrault,” he said. His accent was French, or perhaps French Canadian. “Anemone’s captain. We’re getting a late start, but I hope to head out before dusk. That your gear?”
“I think I brought everything.” She caught his glance at her shoes; added hastily, “I brought sea boots, too. These aren’t—”
“What color?”
“Excuse me?”
“What color are the boots?”
“Um, kind of lime green. If that’s—”
Perrault frowned. “Green, no. Everyone but her will be wearing ship’s gear.” He swept up the suitcase she’d barely been able to lift and with one hand tossed it over the lifelines, where it disappeared with a thud. “You’ll be rooming with Eddi. Up forward.”
“Eddie?”
“Skipper!” A bulky man in dirty coveralls swung down from the deck, vaulted a mooring line, and dropped heavily to the concrete. His gaze met hers, then hardened into … contempt? His piglike face seemed familiar, though surely they’d never met. She disliked him, instinctively, with no more justification than for love at first sight. “Any sign of ’em?” he asked Perrault.
“Not yet. Oh, this is the whale doctor.” The captain nodded her way. “Dr. Pollard; Jamie Quill. First mate.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jamie.”
“Yeah, same here.” But he didn’t look pleased. His accent was English or Irish, but not upper-class; almost Cockney-sounding. He scratched in a tangled beard as if hunting for fleas. A pale belly crusted with black hair gaped where buttons were missing. She looked away. He added, slightly less dismissively, “Welcome aboard. We’re gonna do some good out there.”
“I hope so. But I’m not really a whale specialist. Though I am an ethologist.”
“A what?” Quill frowned.
“I study animal behavior.”
Perrault’s eyebrows contracted, then relaxed. “Well, doesn’t matter now. Get your things aboard. We’ll sail as soon as she arrives. Jamie, lend me a hand up forward.”
*   *   *
The scooped-out afterdeck was packed tight with lemon-yellow plastic drums, lashed so intricately she wondered if someone was into bondage. She slid between them and a stainless-steel ship’s wheel to reach the companionway down.
Belowdecks, she wove between duffels and backpacks, heavy suits dangling from carabiners, coils of cable, toolboxes, crates. Netted bags of potatoes and onions swayed from overhead hooks. The interior was more spacious than she’d expected. Louvered teak doors led aft. Midships was one great saloon roofed with curved transparent plastic. Unfamiliar smells; oil, acetone? She threaded the control area to emerge into a wedge-walled space with cavelike nooks to either hand, carved from what looked like white ice. As she edged past she glanced through the slit of a partially drawn curtain.
And stopped, blinking.
The woman was nude, her back turned. But the bare skin, the smooth curve of well-muscled flank and buttock—that was not what had riveted her gaze.
The pattern ran from her right shoulder across her back and down to the left buttock, where it curled around her side. At first Sara thought it was a scarf, but her eye swiftly revised this impression into a massive scar. Healed, now, but welted and puckered as if a hot soldering iron had been dragged down the flesh. Looking more closely, she saw that the wound itself, so like a seam in the woman’s skin, had been tattooed with an intricately braided design.
Sara frowned, torn between curiosity and shame; finally took a step back.
Some sound as she did so must have reached the woman, who turned. By then Sara was facing away, but she heard quick steps, then a sliding rattle as the curtain twitched closed. Almost immediately it rattled open and the small woman, in blue running pants and a workout tee, stepped out lightly as a dancer.
“I’m sorry. Excuse me. Do you know where Eddie is?” Sara asked her.
“That’s me. Eddi. Edwige Auer.” A small hand pressed hers. “C’mon in. I took the lower because I’m short. Looks like that’ll work out, unless—?”
“No, no, that’s fine.” Sara hoisted her carry-on into a curved nook with recessed lighting, a small flat pillow, a neatly folded blanket of harsh gray wool. Her new roommate’s blond hair was cropped short. Bare muscular shoulders were sleeved with swirling tattoos of intricately intertwined whales and octopi and swordfish. A hard case lay open beside a video camera on her bunk. Sara fingered her glasses, then crossed her arms. “Have you been aboard long?”
“Two days. Been helping stow stores.”
“This is quite a boat.”
“It’s a Dewoitine. Do you sail?”
“A little, when I was a kid. In Nantucket. Where are you from?”
“Most recently, California. Before that, Munich. Dru’s a Vendée sailor. He skippered last year. In the lead most of the way, but he didn’t finish. Need help with that bag?”
“Just to get it out of the way for now.”
“You’ll want to change,” Auer said, eyeing her shoes the same way the captain had. “You’re supposed to wear what I’ve got on. Look on the table in the salon. You can go a little tight, we’ll probably be losing weight. And get boots.”
When Sara had everything stuffed into the locker, or at least on her bunk, she went to pick through a sheaf of plastic-filmed packages. She found a women’s medium long. In a coffinlike restroom she combed wind tangles out of her hair, cleaned her glasses, and washed away some of the airplane grime. The blue thermal ski gear fit reasonably well, though she wasn’t sure why they all had to dress alike. White piping outlined arms and legs, and the same arm-and-whale logo as on the outer hull was embroidered on the left breast.
She found her way topside once more as a delivery van pulled up where Perrault and Quill were working out of a large gray inflatable. The captain signed the clipboard with a flourish, then tossed Sara the package. “On the nav desk, yes?”
She ducked below, then came back up. Watched them work for a time, and finally ventured, “Uh, is there anything I can help out with?”
Perrault gave her a handheld two-way and sent her out to the marina gate. “Watch for a car from the airport. Call as soon as you spot it coming down the road. Then make sure the driver knows exactly where we’re moored.”
This seemed simple enough and she set out. On the far side of the fence the mountains, vast and tormented, like the frozen waves of an alien sea, accompanied her as she walked.
*   *   *
She waited for two hours, past when the floodlights came on, shivering and watching for a car that never came. Finally she called the boat on the handheld, but no one answered. She trudged back through the dark between long sheds and fishing vessels propped on blocks and abandoned-looking masts and spars piled against a fence. The loose-fitting boots chafed her heels. No one was out on the pier. Nor on deck, though yellow light glowed from the rounded, futuristic dome, like the upper half of a flying saucer. She almost expected to see big-eyed faces, both childlike and infinitely wise, peering out.
She let herself down the companionway into mouthwatering smells of garlic, basil, wine. The others looked up blankly. “Nothing?” Perrault said.
“No cars. I tried to call, on the radio—”
“I must have been up forward. Have some stew. Freeze-dried, but Eddi got us fresh bread out in town.”
“There’s no meat in this,” Auer said. “Just soy protein. All our food’s vegetarian on this cruise.” Aside from a snort from Quill, the two men didn’t say anything, just kept eating.
“For whom are we waiting?” Sara asked. They didn’t answer, just glanced at each other. Eddi jacked an eyebrow. Had she said something wrong?
“We have to get under way,” Perrault said at last. “Going to be pretty far along in the season, by the time we get out there.—Jamie, where can we stow another drum of fuel?”
When Sara’s bowl was empty Eddi got up and returned it rinsed out and filled with preserved pears. Their sweet pale flesh was so delicious she ate a second helping. The men got up and left, leaving everything on the table.
Eddi began to clear, but Sara hesitated. Her waitressing days were long past. Leo’d had his faults, but he’d always cleared at least his own place. Finally she carried her own plate and bowl into the galley.
Eddi left. Through the window Sara caught a frame of her under one of the pier lights, waving a finger as she argued with her cell. The wind was rising. Plastic bags and paper debris scudded along under the cold vibrating greenish light. Beyond the pier lay darkness. The boat jostled and leaned, creaked and sighed and clanked. A gurgle came from beneath, faded, then repeated itself, like some submarine monster attempting to communicate.
Hugging her chest, she walked the length of the boat, peeping into each compartment. The one farthest forward would probably be the lab. Someone had already installed a good deal of electronic equipment. She opened the louvered doors aft and looked in. Larger bunks—no, real beds—quite unlike the narrow shelves she and Eddi occupied. A corridor led to steps down which a faint light burned; the smells of diesel fuel and metal welled up. She considered her own cell, but couldn’t think of anyone who’d welcome hearing from her.
Finally she drew the curtain on her nook and undressed. The deck was cold against her bare feet. She shivered again, pulling palms down bare arms. Piloerection: an early mammalian response to fright and cold. She squirmed into her sleeping bag and pulled the blanket over it.
Then couldn’t sleep. The slight but never-ending motion, the abrupt, unfamiliar noises, kept startling her awake. She stared at the shifting pattern the light made as it came through the single port high up beside her bunk. It gleamed on the curved white of the bulkhead. Ivory white, white as …
… As teeth in a jaw ripped clean of flesh.
Terror rose like a cold sheet drawn up over her face, racing her heart, breaking sweat all over her body. She suffered it for a few minutes, then tried to roll out, intending to power up her e-reader. But she couldn’t move. She stared into the dark, panting, mind spiraling down into dumb panic.
Each time she saw a face—or even if she glimpsed her own, reflected in a mirrored surface—it came back.
She’d raised Arminius from a baby. Fed him with her own hands, nestled him to her breast in sleep. Taught him sign, and spent endless hours introducing him to the Montessori toys. Even when he’d grown to two hundred pounds, adolescent, tumescent, curious, he’d never shown her the least sign of agonistic behavior: the stretched lips, the bared teeth and fixed stare of the angry primate.
Save for an uncharacteristically grouchy snarl that last morning, as she’d slid his breakfast bowl into his cage.
Had the research assistant somehow angered him? Or had he, so imprinted on humans, become in his rough way enamored? They’d never know. The security guard, confronted by a supine girl, a mass of spattering blood, and the incisor-bared, window-rattling scream of an enraged adult male chimpanzee, had drawn his gun. Sara had heard the shot from her office, and come running.
Too late. For them all.
Someone had to bear the blame. So the university’s legal department had said. Better her than the school, her own counsel had advised. Accept responsibility. Move on. But there were memories one could not move past. Like distant mountains they walked with you, looming through veils of cloud on nights that hid gleaming shadows.
A once-lovely twenty-year-old blinded, left without lips or cheeks. The horror of it unveiled in the courtroom for sixty seconds, to stunned silence. Vacant sockets, bereft of sight. The white gleam of eternally bared teeth in what was no longer a face.
The chill shivered her curled-up legs and crawled along her spine. She panted into cupped hands, staring into the dark. Listening to the creak and sway of the boat, the hum of the wind, a distant voice on the pier arguing and arguing out over the ether, she waited helplessly for the dawn.


 
Copyright © 2013 by David Poyer