Reprinted from “People of the Whale,” by Linda Hogan. Copyright (c) 2008 by Linda Hogan. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Never miss a local story.
The infant Thomas W. Just was born on July 2, 1947, to much happiness and many pictures of his mother smiling down at him. It was the day just before the octopus left the water, walked on all eight legs across land and into Seal Cave. Sometimes young people made love in that cave. Sometimes boys escaped school and smoked cigarettes there.
But on this day, the day after Thomas was born, the octopus walked out of the sea and they watched it. Every one of these ocean people stood back, amazed to see it walk, the eye of it looking at them, each one seen, as if each one were known in all their past, all their future. Its skin paled at the sight of men smoking cigarettes and women in their cardigans pulled tight, with their dark windblown hair. One child stepped toward it as if to speak before his mother grabbed his arm and pulled him back to her, claiming him as a land dweller and no communicator or friend of any eight-legged sea creature.
None of them, not even the oldest, had ever seen an octopus do this and their people had lived there for thousands of years. It scared them into silence, then they talked about it. They knew it meant something. They didn't know what. Four fishermen in dirty clothes wanted to kill it and use it for fishing bait. “It's only practical!” they argued. “It's the best thing that could happen to us.” They could take it, undigested, out of the stomach of flounder and halibut and use it again. For days they talked about it. They quarreled. They cried about how blessed they were. A few wild-haired men, afraid of its potent meaning, wanted to throw kerosene in the cave and burn it.
But one of the powerful women stepped up. She believed it had a purpose for going into the cave and that the humans, a small group of lives beside a big ocean, should leave it alone. Others agreed. Its purpose was a mystery. Or perhaps it was sick or going to give birth. It turned a shade of red as it reached the safety of the cave. And so the people thought it was holy and they left gifts outside the entrance to the black rock cave. Some left sage and red cedar. Some offered shining things, glass smoothed by the sea, even their watches. As for the infant Thomas, his mother, whose own infancy was fed on whale and seal fat, was one of those who thought it was a holy creature and its presence at the time of his birth granted to Thomas a special life. She came from Thomas's birth at the place of the old people and stood before the entrance of the octopus cave and held her kicking baby up to it, to be seen by it. “Here is my son. You knew his grandfather. Watch over him.” They were poor people. She had little to leave but the pearl she inherited from her father, Witka. She rolled it into the cave. She was convinced the octopus would be the spirit-keeper of her son, because she thought like the old people used to think, that such helpers existed and they were benevolent spirits. An older man named Samuel left his silver ring at the entrance to the cave; it was his finest possession. Not to have given something they cared about would have been no gift at all, so, following his example, others left sparkling glasses, pieces of gold, beads, all the shining things the octopus people love in their homes beneath water.
For the time it dwelt there, they brought offerings, even the first flowers of morning. The treasures built up like small middens. Even the children didn't take the treasures, although they did go look at them and marvel at what they found, until their mothers grabbed them away. The younger children tasted them and found them without flavor except the salt from the air.
Those who were afraid the octopus was created by magic or called into being by some force on land not benevolent kept an eye on how it stood in the back of the cave. But it sensed their emotions and formed itself to fit beneath a ledge. It could shape itself to fit into anything, a bottle, a basket. That was how they were caught in the old days, by baskets lowered into the water at night and lifted in the mornings, the creature inside it. Yet, that quality scared people who knew little about them, but had heard much about shape-shifters and their deceits and witchery on humans, always with poor outcomes for the mortals.
Nevertheless, the mother of Thomas, in a plain white dress, took the baby Thomas daily across the sand to the cave when the tide was out.
Then, one night, without any sign, the octopus disappeared from human sight and went back into the water.
As closely as they watched, no one saw its return to the ocean. It must have been three in the morning, they decided, because early each morning the old people were on the beach singing powerful, old, and still-remembered songs. They sang around four each morning when the atmosphere is most charged with energy. They could say this now that they lived in measured time. Also, they could remain and pray and watch the reflected red of dawn on the rocks and sky. Drinkers might have seen it at two in the morning as they sat on the beach drumming and singing their newer songs. Of course, they may have missed it while kissing a lover or, like Dimitri Smith, the man who never tucked in his shirt and slept often on the beach, while gazing only upward at the sky, searching out and naming the constellations: Whale. Sea Lion. Octopus. Yes, that was one of them.
With the departure of the octopus went their gifts. The octopus, by accepting the Smiths' gold ring, Witka's pearl, gems, the pieces of silver, even a pair of glasses, knew it was loved by them and it would help them as it went back under the sea and stayed there, maybe giving them good fishing or good deer hunting, whaling money, love medicine, all things desperately wanted by humans and shifting in their value day by day, moment by moment, depending on their needs.
Thomas's grandfather was the well-known whaler named Witka. He was the one who told them what gifts the octopus loved. He was the last of those who could go under the sea holding his breath for long times and remain, so he had a great deal of knowledge about the ocean and all sea life. He was the last of a line of traditional men who loved and visited the whales to ensure a good whale hunt, along with his friend, the great-grandfather of Dimitri Smith and a man named Akita-si who could also remain beneath water for briefer times than Witka, but long enough to sew a whale's mouth closed when they killed a whale. This sewing was important so that the lungs wouldn't fill with water and the whale sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Witka's wife lived most of the time in the white town. His other women lived in the wooden houses that used to be up against the mountain before the tidal wave washed the places away, but he himself stayed and dreamed much of the time in the dark gray house he built on top of the thirty-two-foot-high black rock where his grandson, Thomas Witka Just, now dwells, thinking of his grandfather, whose watch on the sea had been constant, that man who spoke with the whales, entreated them, and asked, singing with his arms extended, if one of them would offer itself to the poor people on land. He beckoned and pleaded when the people were hungry. The rest of the time Witka watched their great numbers passing by, spraying or standing in water to look around, or rising and diving, their shining sides covered with barnacles. The infant whales were sometimes lifted on the backs of the mothers. They were such a sight for him to behold, the man who lived between the worlds and between the elements.
Water was not really a place for humans, but Witka the whale hunter had courage. He had practiced holding his breath from childhood in preparation for this role. Only for this. He was born to it and his parents were unhappy about it. When he went beneath water, they stood in their clothing woven of sea grass and waited for him to surface. But they couldn't hope away his destiny. He was born with a job set out for him and his life was already known to them. He wore white cloth that set him apart so the others would know and remember what and who he was. That way they would treat him well. He learned the songs and prayers. By the age of five he had dreamed the map of underwater mountains and valleys, the landscape of rock and kelp forests and the language of currents. He had an affinity for it. He saw it all. At night he dreamed of the way it changed from day to day. They were beautiful dreams and he loved the ocean world. “You should see the circle of shining fish,” he told his mother.
“Oh my,” was all she could say in return, creasing her embroidered handkerchief, wiping her eyes.
Later, as a man, he visited the world he dreamed. He traveled there. A person could always think of the old man in any way they wanted, but usually they saw him in their mind's eye as the old whaler who went underneath the water, white hair flying in the currents, old dark face even more wrinkled from the salt water, the man who was a medical oddity, a human curiosity, a visionary, a hunter and carver, and a medicine man who could cure rheumatism and dizzy spells.
His knowledge of the ocean was so great that scientists came to question him. Scientists and anthropologists then wrote papers about what he told them. Doctors from as far away as Russia came to find out how he held his breath and stayed beneath water for as long as he did with no ill effects, how he could remain in a hibernating state without breathing. “He's like those men in India who do yoga,” said one of them, thinking if they could learn it what a weapon it would make.
Once Witka remained for part of the time with an octopus. It was a larger one, a fifteen-footer all stretched out, Witka caressing the tentacles. Of course, he could have exaggerated. Who would ever know? The octopus, who had the gift of feeling its way into small places, searched out his pockets and took several coins. It then worked the wedding ring off his hand. That was how they knew what the octopus loved. Witka told them all about it, laughing, his missing tooth showing when he laughed. His left hand he held up for display, naked of the ring. “And not a single tentacle print did it leave!” he said.
All this was in the days when the women would sing the whales toward them. Witka's wife, too, was a chosen one. That's how they came to be matched. She was one of the whale-singers. As for whaling in those days, nothing except the women who sang the whales toward them was more serious than Witka's knowledge of the sea. When he walked into the cold depths of the ocean, or slipped so carefully out of the canoe, he began in earnest a hunt for the whale. When Witka went into the ocean, everyone and everything on land was still. The town stopped living. No one labored. No one bought or sold. No one laughed or kissed. It was the unspoken rule. All they did was wait, the women singing, eerily, at ocean's edge. They were solemn and spoke softly and they considered this the great act of a man who sacrificed for them. All they did was think of him out there in the sea and of the whales that would approach. For them. The people of the water. People of the whale.
When he entered the water, his wife, by spiritual rule, went underground. Even when she was very old and stooped, she dug the hole herself. With a small shovel and with her own thin, wrinkled hands. This was the way it was always done. She dug a hole, like a bear den, deep inside the giant roots of a tree. She covered herself with skins and she stayed under the earth, eyes closed, visions in her head of what her husband was seeing inside the water. She was beneath ground; he was beneath water. Maybe she breathed for him. People wondered if they were that connected because it was known that in the cold and dark they were as one.
With his mind and heart, Grandfather Witka told Mary, her catholic name, “My hands are swollen and cold,” and about a flotilla of plankton he'd just passed through. He said, “It's like a snowstorm,” and as he talked she saw it, too, as far away as she was. She asked the water to have mercy on the old man she'd known as a child when he climbed trees, laughed, practiced holding his breath, and hunted his first seal. “Look,” he'd said, his first gift to her, smiling, a tooth missing. “It's for you. I want to marry you someday.”
She smiled. “Only a seal? I'm worth more than that.” She laughed and walked away, looking back at him once or twice over her shoulder.
Mary sang to the whales, onio way no, loving them enough that one of them might listen and offer itself to her people. Entombed with the smell of cedar, curled like an infant newly born, even though her hair was gray now, her face bony, she was suspended and stiff. And then together, when he saw a whale, the two of them pleaded and spoke. Look how we are suffering. Take pity on us. Our people are small. We are hungry.
It was said the whale listened mostly to the woman because who could ignore her pleading, singing, beautiful voice?
The last time Witka entered the sea he did not return. Worse, a storm arrived. They all feared that this time, at his age, his heart failed and he would not come back to the air world where they lived. His daughter, the mother of Thomas, was little more than a child. She didn't know where her mother had buried herself in the trees. Out of grief, she pounded the gray sand beach with her fists. She was such a thin girl, too. She stood by the black rocks in her nightgown looking out into the dark water, watching in vain. She held hands with one of Witka's girlfriends and together they cried and hugged each other and grieved for the lost old man.
Then, when all had given up and some turned toward home, someone yelled, “Look,” and he came out of the dark under-water cave where he had anchored himself and rolled out of the green swells of the waves onto the sand, coughing. When he surfaced, the water rolling off his head and face, he took a great breath. He dragged himself up, skinny with age, wrinkled, and walked out from the sea with kelp still on him, looking anything but dignified. A fish caught in the kelp escaped his hair and dropped back down to the tide. He walked like a stick, stiff from the cold, and his face was nearly blue. He walked straight over to his daughter and said, “Girl, do you want to scare the whales away, hitting the ground so hard? I heard it all the way out there.” She ran off, ashamed, while he laughed. Everyone waited for his pronouncement. This time he said, with smiling eyes, “Yes, tomorrow. It is the right time for us to bring a whale back home,” as he looked with great joy at the green land and sunlight and his wife walking—no, -floating—toward him, earth and twigs still clinging to her hands and clothes and hair.
His brother and his best friend called the other men and they went to prepare the wooden canoes. They brought the harpoon, the floats, drinking water, for they might be gone four days or more. When they hunted, the women would be quiet the whole time the men were out. Everyone had to be pure in heart and mind. By then the whale would be coming gladly toward the village.
“Oh brother, sister whale,” he sang. “Grandmother whale, Grandfather whale. If you come here to land we have beautiful leaves and trees. We have warm places. We have babies to feed and we'll let your eyes gaze upon them. We will let your soul become a child again. We will pray it back into a body. It will enter our bodies. You will be part human. We'll be part whale. Within our bodies, you will dance in warm rooms, create light, make love. We will be strong in thought for you. We will welcome you. We will treat you well. Then one day I will join you.” His wife sang with him.
When Witka truly died, his wife, best girlfriend, and daughter held on to his body longer than they should. They couldn't be sure he was dead just because he wasn't breathing.
Those were the grandparents of Thomas Witka Just. They were the grandparents and mother, on one side, of Thomas, the man who had been missing in war, the man who now lived in -Witka's gray hut on the craggy rocks. Thomas, the man who'd won the Purple Hearts and nearly the last Medal of Honor and other shining tokens of actions that should have made him feel esteemed.
When Thomas was a boy, he, like his grandfather, always watched the water. As if keeping with the old traditions they'd all heard about, he and his friends, Dimitri III, Dwight, jealous of the abilities of Thomas, and the others would see how long they could hold their breath underwater. “It isn't funny,” Thomas's mother said when she thought, more than once, that he had drowned and she pulled him up to air by the back of his shirt. The last time, the shirt, an old Arrow, ripped off and Thomas nearly drowned, laughing.
Custer died in an Arrow shirt. That was their joke.
Later, as his grandfather had gone under the ocean, his grandmother under the land, Thomas had taken to the sky, a most unnatural thing for a human. On his way to war, the first plane crashed and he was the sole survivor. Before he could even protest or tell the story of what he'd seen, they put him on another plane. After that, he believed he was saved for a reason.
But now he hopes he has an appointment with death and all he wants to do is wait for it. He has turned his back on the sea.
It's a secret to the rest of the world where Thomas lives, as he wants it to be. If it were known, people would come searching. They would find him. He is a war hero missing for over five years after the war was declared over, until he was found by the army, then, after a stop in Hawaii, he was lost again in San Francisco, named for Saint Francis. Now he is missing from himself.
If you knew about him, you would want to go talk to him and tell him it's not his fault and you'd tell him to live, or if he is dying, or wanting to die, he should at least do it without closing the doors of the world. But your words would tire you out. Even more, they might convince him out of spite or frustration to go into the water and never come back, or to leap off the high rock where he sits, and throw himself to earth from one side of the rock like when he was ten and made wings and jumped off this very rock cliff. For one moment the air took hold of his sewn wings and he flew for just that moment before he landed, scratched and bruised on the ocean sand. What a moment, that second in air.
Now you look at him and think he never had a boyhood or wings.
Now at night he never lights his grandfather Witka's kerosene lamp. He doesn't even have a wick for it any longer. Just as it is for him, what ignites and maintains the fire is missing. He doesn't want light and some people hear voices from the place at night so they stay away.
Thomas wishes that, like the octopus that came to land when he was born, he could place himself inside something small and pull the last stone over the opening.
During the daylight hours he travels, without wanting to, the inside passage of his own self, a human labyrinth of memory, history, and the people that came before him. Witka's grandson, his dark hair unwashed, his face still one of handsome angles, sits in the dark of the old house like an octopus in a dark corner, is in trouble, not with the law, not with other people, but within. What lonely creatures humans are when they thread through these passages. It is an inner world, one of disasters and whirlwinds, unknown islands, and he must journey them all alone. There are circles inside the mind of a man, circles a man can't escape because each time he comes to a conclusion, it is the same place and it begins over again. It courses hard. And Thomas harbors too many secrets.
Death would be beautiful for him, but he's destined, miserably, to live. He owes a debt to life. It's as simple as accounting, as hard math. He owes something. Maybe he will understand what it is now in the dark at the place where the old man Witka once watched for whales. The sea is beautiful, but he looks at it not at all, not even for whales. Soon his clothes grow too large for him. Inside the sleeves and collars and legs are memories inside the body that can't be forgotten.
Like the octopus from 1947, the one that could have gone into a basket to hide, the one that portended good things for this child, Thomas is contained in small things, the gray house, cups and cans, packs of cigarettes.