from Whale Medicine

by Banta Whitner

Author’s Note: Whale Medicine, a novel in progress, features central character Claire Montgomery, who hears odd haunting voices in her head. The voices first came to her when she was a small child, just after her father disappeared without a trace, and they swelled in volume when she married Martin O’Hara and moved into his graduate student quarters at Yale Divinity School. Unhappy in her new marriage, Claire seeks refuge and wisdom at the nearby Whale Time B&B, where the elderly owner (and closet shaman) Beryl Smithwick collects human misfits and dispenses a quirky brand of energy healing. In this excerpt, Claire has her first introduction to Beryl’s potent “whale medicine.”

The late April sun warmed Claire’s back as she stood on the front porch of the Whale Time B&B that Saturday morning. But before her finger could press the doorbell, Beryl’s gauzy voice called out from behind the house, “Come around back, dear, to the garden shed.”

Tendrils of chamomile and thyme crowded every crack in the gray cobblestone path, still damp with morning dew. Claire breathed in the heady mix of tangy herbs, sweet narcissus, loamy compost, and salt air off the nearby Sound. As she thrashed her way through a tangle of forsythia and lilac, she nearly stumbled into the tiny old woman who had stooped low to inspect a bulbous toadstool at her feet.

Claire pulled up short. “Oh, so sorry. I didn’t see you there. Nearly knocked you over.”

Beryl stood slowly, wiping her gnarled hands on a grass-stained bandanna she pulled from her pocket. Her long gray hair had a streak of fuchsia in it today and was gathered into an undisciplined braid. She peered up at Claire, squinting through wire-rimmed glasses. “Good, you got my message.”

“Your message?” Claire asked, puzzled. “No, I just heard—um, I knew I needed to stop by this morning.” She had no credible explanation for how she knew this, beyond an intuitive prodding from the familiar voices in her head.

“Exactly so,” agreed Beryl. “That was my message.” With a nod, she turned to dodder further into the overgrowth, motioning Claire to follow.

Claire knew better than to pursue this further. She would only end up more confused. Dutifully, she trailed after Beryl. The winding path led to a ramshackle shed, camouflaged by dense vines of ivy and old roses. Claire had to duck her head to clear the low doorframe.

Inside the shed sprawled a chaotic ensemble of maidenhair ferns, honeysuckle, and tattered silk lanterns strung like an elegant necklace of faded gems. Filtered sunlight poured through the glass roof and transom windows, and played rainbow tag with a dozen crystal prisms dangling from the ceiling beams. Transfixed by the dance of light and color, Claire lingered at the entrance, while Beryl rummaged through a weathered armoire in the corner, muttering to herself. She turned back to Claire with a triumphant smile, holding up what looked like a piece of rock.

“When it wasn’t in my workroom, I thought it might be in here.” Beryl presented the oddly shaped black lump to Claire. “You need to take this home with you. Keep it close for a while.”

Claire’s hand closed around the rough surface. Mystified, she met Beryl’s eyes. “Fossilized whale bone,” Beryl explained, as if this should be obvious. “The whale’s inner ear.” Without further comment, the old woman reached past Claire to pick up a red metal pitcher, and began to water a flat of lettuce seedlings. As she worked, she murmured words of encouragement to each fragile cluster of new leaves.

But Claire wasn’t listening. She was three years old again, building a sand castle on Vilano Beach just south of St. Augustine, Florida. She’d wiggled her toes in this very sand since before she could walk, crawled after fiddler crabs, and poked curious fingers into the tiny holes made by donax clams. When she could sit up on her own, her daddy had showed her how to make a sand castle. They decorated the turrets with ribbons of wet sand and called them drip castles. Her daddy always helped her dig the moat, but now he’d gone away and nobody would tell her why.

Missing him, Claire took her blue pail to the water’s edge. Her mama had her head in a magazine and paid Claire no mind. The water teased Claire’s toes and kept running away. Claire toddled closer to catch up. Water swirled around her dimpled thighs. She wanted to fill the pail and tote the water back to her moat. She’d do it just like Daddy taught her. He’d be so proud. Just a little farther now and the water would wash into the pail.

“Claire!” Mama’s shrill voice carried over the roar of the waves. Claire looked back to see her mama rushing toward her. In that instant a wave twice Claire’s size broke over her head, tumbled her into its curl, and plucked her off the beach. With one sweep the wave dragged her past the shallow sandbar where the coastline fell off steeply, and pitched her deep into a salty blue upside-down realm.

For a few dreamlike seconds, time stood still. As Claire hung suspended beneath the surface, something magical happened. A silky black whale sang to her. More of a moan really, borne on sweet sad notes that melted Claire’s heart. Dark and billowy and curiously benevolent, the creature watched her from a few watery yards away. Claire wanted to touch its white belly. She reached out her chubby arms, but this only served to float her upward. The second she broke the surface, she was hoisted onto a slippery yellow surfboard by a young man wearing a lifeguard cap. Before Claire could sit upright on the board, the young man had paddled them back to the shallows and her mama had splashed out to scoop her into a frantic hug. Mama held her tight and waded back to shore where a cluster of worried faces hovered and clucked over her.

Claire wondered what all the fuss was about. She rubbed her eyes and looked past the faces on the beach to the deep blue water beyond the breakers. It had all happened too fast. The swoosh and tumble into the wave, the underwater churning, the unnatural stillness in which she and the whale watched one another. She tried to grasp the memory, but already it was slipping away. Had she dreamed the creature into being? Surely not. Mostly, she wanted to hear the whale song again.

“Are you all right, dear?” Beryl Smithwick touched her arm.

Claire licked salt from her lips and recognized the taste of her own tears. As fast as Alice in Wonderland, she had grown tall again, leaving her three-year-old self behind on the beach. The whale bone felt heavy in her palm. Claire looked at Beryl and nodded mutely. But she was definitely not all right.

The play of prism light in the old shed, so like the play of sun on water, was disorienting to Claire. She had trouble finding her breath, as if the wave had sucked it right out of her lungs. Yet here she stood, not under water at all, but cloaked in the cloud of dust motes that swirled round this stuffy space. She reached for the potting bench to steady herself.

Beryl set down the red pitcher and covered Claire’s hand with her own. When she spoke, her voice was low and Claire bent closer to hear. “Whale bone is strong medicine.” Her fingertips brushed the fossil. “It took you somewhere just now, somewhere you hadn’t been in a very long time?” Claire had the feeling Beryl already knew the answer to this question. She took a step back.

“Yes,” Claire whispered, twisting the hem of her tee shirt. To still her trembling hands, she stuffed them into her jeans pockets. “When I was a little girl…the day I nearly drowned. And ever since then, well—I hear voices. Not voices exactly, more like wailing sounds in my head.” A splotchy flush crept up her neck. “While I was underwater that day, I saw a whale. He sang to me.” Claire had never spoken these words aloud to anyone, never told the secret of that strange encounter until now. She waited, head down, for the derision or reproach that would surely come.

Beryl offered neither. “Walk with me,” she said. “We need some air.” She steered Claire out of the shed and along the path toward the house. They made an odd pair, the tall and slender young woman with her small, round elder. Claire shortened her stride and exhaled deeply, grateful for the reprieve.

“My late husband John went out on his first whaleboat when he was only fifteen,” Beryl began in her storytelling voice. “He worked the boats for eight years, riding high swells in the middle of the ocean, throwing harpoons at a moving target that could crush the boat with one slap of its tail. Quite the adventure for a young man.”

Just inside the back door, Beryl pointed Claire toward another set of stairs, and took her arm for support as they climbed. Then she went on, “John used to say that whalers had either a sense of destiny or a death wish. He got hooked by the destiny part, but lost his taste for the whole business the first time he heard a whale sing.”

Claire stopped mid-tread. “John heard a whale sing, too?” She fixed her gaze on the old woman. “So you don’t think I’m crazy?”

Beryl’s kind eyes met Claire’s. “Quite the contrary, dear. You are far wiser than you know.”

At the top of the stairs, Beryl lifted a metal bolt and pushed open the heavy cedar door. “Welcome to my widow’s walk.” Stepping onto the rooftop platform that wrapped a narrow path around the double chimney, she spread her arms wide to embrace the panorama beneath them. “I come up here when the guts of the day turn sour and I need to remember the longer view.”

Claire took in the granite face of East Rock and the Quinnipiac River to the east, a narrow glint of Lake Whitney to the north, and the spires of Yale to the south. Beyond those spires the gray blue of the harbor opened onto the Long Island Sound. The smell of salt air and seawater prompted Claire to ask, “What happened to John?”

Beryl stared out toward the harbor. “When the whalers stopped sailing out of New Bedford and took the hunt elsewhere, John became a commercial fisherman. The sea was in his soul. One especially raw November, the day before Thanksgiving, his boat broke up in a bad storm. He died trying to save his crew.” Before Claire could offer a word of condolence, Beryl shook her head, as if to ward this off. “I like to think he’s swimming with the whales now,” she said. “They called him home.”

The two women stood in silence for a long moment. Claire twined her fingers around the ridged surface of the whale fossil—the inner ear—and thought of all the places where the guts of her own life had turned sour. Her unholy marriage to Martin, the doors her mother had slammed shut, a father who was still missing. For the first time, she did not include the voices in her head as part of the problem. An unwavering conviction washed over her. If she could tune in to the right sound frequency, the voices, like the whale bone in her hand, had life-changing messages she needed to hear.

When Beryl spoke again, her words struck a deep chord in Claire. “Some people say that the sounds of the whales are holding the planet together.”

Banta Whitner taught English and creative writing early in her career before returning to graduate school to study clinical social work. She has maintained a private practice in psychotherapy for many years. She and her husband now live full time in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Her book This Congruent Life: A Spiritual Ecology Practice was published in 2010. Whale Medicine is her first novel.