You tell me your father Jonah was eaten by a whale when you were a boy. Right before your eyes, you say. One moment you were fishing together in your old boat; the next, the beast breached, snatching your father between shadow-thin teeth as if he were bait. You had to row yourself back to shore. Your spindly arms took weeks to regain sensation. Your heart never did.
Is there a Jonah here? the delivery person asks as they hand me a loaded speargun wrapped in brown paper. Your name is also Jonah. The junior who will soon outlive the senior. Or so I thought before your online order arrived, the anniversary approached.
When you lie next to me in bed, you paddle like a dog in its sleep. You recite lines from Moby Dick, the Hebrew Bible. I’m grateful I hid the speargun and its harpoon in the garden among my sweet peas. When you hold my hand at night, you clutch it tight like a weapon. I won’t let the whale take you, you vow in the morning, but you won’t look me in the eye. It’s not me you see.
Over breakfast you play whale song recordings, try to decipher your father’s secret Morse Code, tap-tap-tapping against wet stomach lining. Revenge, you say. You need to get revenge on the whale, rescue your father from its giant gut. It’s been twenty years, you tell me, the milky white of your eyes bloodshot fever-red. His matches must have long since burned to nothing, the minnow-diet shrinking his proud skeleton. His fishing vest a chilled rag, waterlogged.
You need to kill the whale, slice its belly open; you need to get him out.
While we stroll through the park, a volunteer asks if we’ll sign a petition to end whaling. You knock the clipboard out of their hands. When I watch the Star Trek movie about humpback whales brought back from extinction, you kick the TV in: tinfoil screen, fishing line wires. Women want me, cetaceans fear me, the hat you never part with boasts above the brim. We haven’t touched each other in months.
I wake up in the middle of the night to find our bed empty but your side still warm. The speargun gone from my patch of sweet peas, trampled into muddy confetti. Cheery music emanates from the open laptop, a sea-blue aquarium ad playing on repeat.
I drive through town, retracing your steps. The aquarium’s chain link fence has been cut open. Security guards sleep slumped one against the other, tranquilizer darts flashing like lures from the side of their necks.
In the whale exhibit, the light is blue and oscillating. The ground rumbles with distant bellows. I spot you on the feeding platform, precariously balanced while the stunted orca below breaks the water’s surface. The beast regards you, sluggish, old.
Your speargun falls limp in the water. It sinks fast. Impassive, the whale returns to the bottom of its clear-glass prison. You prostrate yourself across the platform. My arms, you cry, I can’t feel my arms.
You dissolve into lament: My father, I can’t find my father.
I know, I tell you, and think of the broken TV, and the trampled sweet peas, and the nine-year-old boy who had to row his guilt home.