The Temple of the Whale
by Karissa Sluss
Late in the morning I find Terren in our palm tree shelter, packing his few possessions: his bone knife; a collection of coral carved into various whale poses; a square of cloth he uses as a blanket on rare, cool evenings; a flask of water; a day’s supply of food, enough to carry him until he reaches the village. His intent to leave me is clear.
I rub away budding tears and cough to clear the warble trapped in my throat. Stiffening my spine, I square my shoulders, a defense against the urge to melt into quivering lump. “I see you’ve made up your mind.”
Terren rearranges things in his satchel to keep his hands busy, to keep his attention occupied. A poor pretext to keep from having to face me. “I have.”
“And you’re set on going now? It can’t wait another day?”
“Safaro wants to leave tomorrow, at first light.”
Safaro is a peddler, a tinker who regularly visits the village at the other end of the tombolo connecting our small tied island. He has seduced my son with exotic trinkets and tales of travel and adventure in the big, grand world thriving beyond our self-imposed cloister. Terrren is almost eighteen. How can I expect him to resist?
“Who’s going to help me fish and forage?” A petulant tone creeps into my voice, something I would never allow under other circumstances, but I’ve temporarily misplaced my dignity. “Whose breath will lull me to sleep at night? What will I do with myself?” I haven’t been a wife for a long time. If Terren leaves, I’ll have no one left to mother. I’ll merely be a caretaker for the legacy of a ghost.
“You’ll still have the temple,” he says, but mutters something unintelligible under his breath.
“What did you say?” I put a hand to his arm to encourage him to face me.
Terren tosses his satchel over his shoulder. His eyes glitter, hard black stones reflecting a challenge. “I said you still have the temple, but I think you should let go of Bailene, too.”
I gasp and give into the tears I’d been trying to resist.
The hardness in his face breaks, and he wraps me in his embrace. “Mama…” He hasn’t called me that since he was a little boy. It’s my undoing. “Bailene gave up her life for us. Do you expect me to do the same, stay here the rest of my life? Children are supposed grow up and leave home. It’s the way of things.”
“How do you know?”
He muffles his chuckle against my hair. “I see birds leave the nest. Dolphins and whales leave their pods. It’s a feeling in my bones. I have to go.”
He lets me take advantage of his shoulder, supporting my sobs. I cried the same way when Terren and I crawled out from Bailene’s gullet and realized she was dead, all three of us washed ashore on this foreign beach, so many years before. Terren’s leaving is a death, too, in a way. This milestone has haunted me since I gave birth to him. This day was always going to come, but knowing that doesn’t make it easier. I did my best for him, taught him everything I could.
Please let it be enough.
“I’ve got to go,” he whispers in my ear. “I’ve got to get to the village before dark. You know it’s dangerous to cross the tombolo when the tide’s in.”
I clutch him a little tighter, and he humors me for a few more heartbeats, a few more breaths.
I let him go.
Bailene was a beautiful baby, despite the webbing between her toes and fingers. Despite the flap of flesh over her tailbone that resembled a pair of tail flukes. She never teethed, but her gums produced a thick curtain of bristles. When I rocked her in my arms, she stared up at me with great big eyes, blue and wide-set like her father’s.
Marin and Bailene spent hours on his boat, casting nets, drawing in fish and prawns, all manner of sea life. Bailene preferred boat and sea over hearth and home, and nothing pleased Marin more. I swallowed jealousy and objections because of my love for them, and because my disapproval awoke something disturbing in the depths of Marin’s eyes, something that hinted at inky clouds and writhing black tentacles.
Then came Terren, and he had nothing of his father in him. He was fully mine: dark eyed, quiet, and land loving. He was content to collect shells on the beach and watch his sister cavort among the pod of dolphins who were her best friends.
By the time Terren lost his first baby tooth, Bailene was no longer coming ashore. Her skin had darkened to a deep blue-gray, and she breathed through an opening in the top of her head. I should have understood, then, what Marin intended for her, but denial was easier. It kept the peace.
I prepare for evening meditation by lighting candles rendered from coconuts and whale oil. They scent the air with a mild, fishy odor. Yellow flames flicker and throw warm light on ivory walls, pushing against the shadows descending on the vestibule of the skull.
The flames highlight engravings in the bone, scrimshaw carvings of hallowed images: two figures—a mother and son—in draping sarongs, humble-headed and somber, hands outstretched towards a whale carcass. At the bottom of the picture, the figures stand upon these words: Can we elude the Adversary? On the room’s opposite wall, the two kneel, knives in hand to strip away the whale’s flesh. Their knees rest upon the words: At what cost can we escape Him?
I close my eyes and genuflect before the dark archway of the throat. My knees press into cool beach sand. My chin rests on my chest. I set one palm, fingers splayed, on my thigh. My other hand clenches my knife handle. When I pray, the words are hollow. Terren’s voice is not here to fill them out.
She who died so that we may live:
Come, let us adore her
Rejoice in her, and remember her, always, with joy
Glory be to the daughter and to her spirit
Oh, Bailene, protect us,
Oh, Daughter, shelter us always….
I hear the comforting crash of waves on the beach, the occasional call of some night bird, the distant roar of a prowling beast. Goosebumps break out across my shoulders, and I shiver despite the balmy temperatures. I keep my eyes squeezed shut and wonder if I can stay this way all night, surrounded by the glow of my candles, protected by the thick walls of jaw and skull.
But then comes a sound, the soft susurrus of footsteps in the sand.
My eyes fly open and my thoughts go first to Terren, who has perhaps returned. Does he regret leaving me, after all?
Holding my breath, I wait, but Terren doesn’t appear in the gloom of the vestibule. The thumping of my heart pounds in my ears. I squeeze my knife tighter and search the darkness beyond the oculi of the skull.
Something moves, a flash of shifting shadow in the periphery of my vision—beyond the arcade of the throat, in the temple itself where vertical columns of rib bones arch into the vaulting web of vertebrae.
“Bailene?” No one answers, but of course it isn’t her. Only my wishful thinking.
Leaping to my feet, I stumble back, away from the archway and whatever has breached the sanctity of the inner temple. My heart surges into my throat and flutters there like a bird trapped in a chimney. I stand, my back pressed against the reassuring hardness of teeth and jaw bone. Beyond the archway, the sand shifts again.
A light flares to life.
A figure appears before the entryway—a being, utterly foreign. Not like the villagers, not like Terren or me.
The light illuminating the inner temple exudes not from any candle, but from the figure itself—from skin and teeth and eyes—and he is terrible to behold. He snorts inky smoke and his mouth throws flashes of flame. An impression of tentacles surrounds him. In his current form, I can barely comprehend him, so I look away, closing my eyes. And still the vision of him burns the backs of my eyelids.
I press myself harder against the bones at my back. They don’t give way or release me into the freedom of the beach. The bones hold me captive, accountable to this monster with the flashing eyes. Swallowing against the dryness in my throat, I find the voice hiding beneath my terror. My words are quiet but steady when I say, “This is a holy place, consecrated by the blood and bones of our daughter. Every day Terren and I evoke her memory, and her spirit fills this place. You can’t harm me, here.”
His fearsomeness fades and for the first time, I can bear to look upon him. He’s not so formidable in this form. He looks like the man I knew before, not king or god. His skin is tanned to deep brown leather, like a fisherman. A fishhook pierces his ear, and his wide set eyes reflect the colors of the ocean on a stormy day. He’s not handsome, but experience shows in the lines of his face. Cunning sparkles in his eyes.
This is the man who once stole my heart.
How could it be that this being is Terren’s father, when our son has nothing of him in his character? Terren is so much like me—finite and fragile, yet so loyal and determined. Terren and I are survivors.
“Gaella, why do you think I’ve come to do harm?” Marin has the voice of someone who spent eons breathing salt water and wind.
“You tried to kill us, before.”
Darkness boils in the depths of his eyes. “You were trying to take Bailene from me.”
“I was trying to give her a choice.”
“And she chose to be your commodity? Reduced to blood and bones and meat?”
“She chose to give her life for Terren and me.”
“And you repay her by making her bones your temple?”
“To honor her.”
Marin sneers. “When she was mine, she ruled the oceans. You enslave her spirit to your benefit. Your purpose is no holier.”
I step forward, still clutching my knife at my side, but I am merely an ant standing up to a lion. “You made her into your monster. You turned her into your weapon.”
Marin bares his teeth at me. “And you made her your sentinel.”
I wheeze as if he punched me, but I don’t back down. “I’m sure you’ve always known we were here. It’s been ten years. Why wait all this time to come?”
“Your son has left you,” Marin says. “Perhaps I came to gloat.”
“I don’t remember you being petty. And he’s your son, too.”
Marin looks over my shoulder, staring behind me as if he can see the path Terren took. As if he might go after him. My heart skips a beat, but then Marin looks back at me and there is no malice in him, only sadness. “It’s not her bones that have been protecting you, or her spirit. Bailene gave her life for you and Terren, and I’ve spent the last ten years honoring her final wishes.”
“You haven’t retaliated out of respect for Bailene’s sacrifice?” I harrumph when Marin nods.
“That doesn’t explain why you’ve come tonight. I’m more vulnerable without Terren. You know that, and you’ve come because you want something.”
Marin tilts his head like a curious dog and arches a brow. “In some ways you are blind, Gaella. And in some ways you see so clearly. Terren’s leaving should show you that you can’t hold on to them forever. We have to let them go. It’s time we move on. Both of us.”
I had been expecting a lot from Marin when we met again: anger, rage, murderous intentions. Not this unlikely commiseration. “What do you mean?”
“Take it down.”
Marin’s statement baffles me. “What?”
He gestures around the room, pointing to jaws and ribs and spine. “Raze the temple. Return Bailene to the ocean, where she belongs.”
Scowling, I cross my arms over my chest. “Why should I?”
Marin peers at me and his gaze reveals his agelessness. I also see his infinite grief and broken heart, a reflection of my own hurts and sorrows. “I never meant for her to die,” he says. “The guilt for what I did is forever weighed against me, and I’ll always grieve her. Despite what you think, I did love her. Loved her more than anyone.”
Anyone except yourself, I think.
“Tear down the temple, Gaella. Let Bailene go. Let her spirit find peace, and I vow to do the same for you in return.”
“Why must it be me?” If Marin had come to kill me, it would have been more merciful than asking me to do this. If he wanted the temple gone, why couldn’t he do it himself? “Haven’t you already hurt me enough?”
He shakes his head and reaches for me, but stops himself. He must have read the aversion on my face. “If I wanted to hurt you, I could have done it years ago. You haven’t made a temple here—you’ve made a prison. I want to see you set free.”
I hack a cold, hard laugh. “Why do you care, now, after all this time?”
“Ten years is a long time to hold a grudge. Once you let your anger go, you’ll remember it wasn’t our hatred that conceived Bailene. Or Terren.” Marin backs into the archway of the throat, still holding my gaze. “On her bones you’ve carved the question: At what cost can we escape Him? Now, Gaella, you have your answer.” He steps into the darkness of the inner temple and disappears.
I move to go after him, but my knees give out, and I sink into the sand. He’s right that it wasn’t hatred that conceived our children, but if he expects me to ever confess what was between us back then, he’ll be waiting a very long time.
But perhaps that is no concern for an ageless being.
It was the dolphins who lead me to Bailene, showed me where Marin kept her. The dolphins were once her friends, and perhaps they objected to what had become of her as much as I had. Marin had forgotten—or never cared enough to remember—that I, too, was born on this bay to a fisherman father. Marriage and motherhood drew me away from my roots, but I remembered how to sail a simple skiff. I still had an old friend willing to lend me his boat.
As I set sail, the dolphin pod fanned out before me, the leader at point and the rest of the troupe following in a wide-angled V. If the dolphins were the arrowhead, then Terren and I, in our little skiff, were the shaft. The winds blew swiftly, and we crossed the bay into the open ocean fast enough to leave a wake in our path.
Terren and I had packed the skiff with supplies to last us for weeks. When we found Bailene, if we could change her mind, convince her to abandon Marin’s pursuits, we would have to run. I knew Marin would never allow us to return home. He’d never forgive us.
Bailene must have heard us coming. She rose to the surface, blasting a detonation of spray from her blowhole to rival a volcanic eruption. A plea or a warning? Both, perhaps.
Jagged scars crisscrossed her thick hide—evidence of the violence in which she had participated. Rumors circulated in the village of how she and Marin plundered ships and battled the navies of distant nations. He amassed riches through the collusion of her love. He overthrew armies through the subjection of her loyalty.
“Bailene,” I yelled. “Your brother and I want you to come with us. Let’s start over—a new life where you can be at peace. We’ll sail until we find a place far away from war and harpoons and cannons. You can swim and hunt krill and start a family of your own. It doesn’t have to be like this.”
Bailene sang out, a forlorn whale song that sounded like love. It also sounded like stubbornness, resignation, and defiance. She moaned again and turned away—her sleek blue flukes waving goodbye. Her dismissal was a blow, sharp and cutting.
Marin had led Bailene into this life, but he couldn’t have made her stay unless she wanted it. She had made her position clear. She had chosen this. She had chosen him.
“Bailene, please,” I said, undaunted. “Don’t let him tear us apart.”
But it was too late.
The squid and octopi must have warned him of my intentions. Lord of all the oceans, he arrived on a squall and refused to hear our appeals. We begged him, pleading with our tears, but he struck with wind and waves and lightning.
A burst of blue fire destroyed our sail and splintered our mast. A mountainous wave capsized our boat and flung us into the heart of the tempest. Terren and I clung to each other, desperately fighting the tides trying to tear us apart.
Another lightning bolt stabbed from the sky, an electric arrow aiming for two tiny targets in the grips of a ferocious sea. The ragged streak lit up the night, and static crackled in the air. A wave broke over us, wrenching Terren from my arms, drowning my senses in black, salty water.
Darkness swallowed me, and I thought I had fallen into the craw of the ocean.
But, no, it was merely the belly of a whale.
From my seat atop the bone temple, I watch a pod of dolphins playing close to the beach. I’ve sat up here off and on for days, working up the nerve to do what I must, and the dolphins have kept me company. There is a calf in the pod, a tiny thing. His mother—or her mother, how can I tell?—keeps the baby close. Terren had observed the dolphins for years, and he told me the mother keeps the baby with her for a while, but, ultimately, the calf will strike out on its own, find a mate, form another pod.
I turn away from the dolphins. I’m in no mood to sympathize with nature’s lessons today.
Bones that have stood in place for ten years resist extraction, especially when I can’t see what I’m doing through my tears. The spine, I decide, is the lynch pin. Remove the spine, remove the temple. After blinking my tears away, I set my knife tip between the two lattermost vertebrae and raise a rock overhead, aiming to hammer the knife between the bones, hoping it’s enough to shatter their connection.
If I’m lucky, the whole thing will crash down in one massive pile and the waves will take her away. It would be easier that way, better than ripping Bailene apart, piece by piece, like a pecking bird or a parasite. It feels like I’m ripping myself apart, piece by piece. I’d rather the pain just cave in on me all at once. Get it over with.
But of course it doesn’t go like that. Nothing about this ordeal is easy.
I should hate Marin for making me do this, but somewhere deep down, despite all his darkness and wretchedness, I believe him when he says he loved her. I can’t forget what he did to her, but maybe I can admit he’s right. It’s true when he says I made a prison here.
It’s true that I have to set us all free.
Marin returns near sunset on a day when only the skull remains. He helps me tow the massive set of jaws down into the waves. It was the last piece of her, and it was too heavy for me to move on my own.
“She’s gone,” I say when the beach is empty.
Marin gives me a piteous look. “Was that really all she was to you? Flesh and bones? You can’t keep her memory without the physical reminders?”
“I don’t know.” I stare at my feet, working my toes deeper into the sand. “I’ve never had to find out before.”
“Come.” He holds a hand out to me. “I’ll help you remember her.”
The sun descends, piercing the horizon, and Marin and I light the candles rendered from coconut shells and whale oil. Their scent drifts away in the open air. Yellow flames flicker, but without ivory walls to reflect their light, they throw out a paltry glow, like faded memories. But the light is something, anyway. And something is better than nothing, I guess.
“What will you do after this?” Marin asks.
“I’m not sure. Terren kept saying there was a big world out there, so full of opportunities, and I was wasting them. I didn’t want to admit he was right.”
Marin chuckles. “He’s wise for his age. Maybe he has more of me in him than you think.”
When I scowl at him, he only laughs harder.
“What about you?” I ask. “What will you do now that you’ve gotten what you wanted?”
He stops laughing, and his smile falters. The look he gives me is not dark or cold, but it makes me shiver nonetheless. “I haven’t gotten everything I wanted, Gaella.”
I turn away, shutting out Marin and the conflict he provokes in me. He’s a problem for another day. For now there’s only me and this moment of remembrance. I close my eyes and genuflect before the night sky. Clouds blot out most of the stars and the promise of rain fills the air. My knees press into cool beach sand. My chin rests on my chest. I set one palm, fingers splayed, on my thigh. My other hand clenches my knife handle, carved from my daughter’s bones. I will keep this little piece of her, no matter what.
When I pray this time, the words are not hollow. My voice is enough on its own.
She who died so that we may live:
Come, let us adore her
Rejoice in her, and remember her, always, with joy
Glory be to the daughter and to her spirit
Ever shall it be, without end.
About the Author
As KB Sluss, Karissa’s short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Everyday Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, and Stupefying Stories. She is also a first reader for Strange Horizons and an editor at Quantum Fairy Tales. As Karissa Laurel, she is the author of several adult and YA novels. Her latest, “Heir of Thunder”, is a YA fantasy about the daughter of the god of thunder. You can follow her online and on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Sandra is a New York born and raised voice actress with a background in literature and writing. After a childhood where video games were banned from the house, she one-eighty’d so hard she’s finally in them and never leaving.
Some games Sandra’s voiced for include Heroes of Newerth, Marvel’s Avengers Academy and the critically acclaimed Wadjet Eye Games adventure RPG “Unavowed” as Mandana. Catch her on Twitter or Facebook under the handle “DustyOldRoses,” obsessing over good food, good games and the color pink.