Saturday, 18 August 2012

Phenomenon

It was a small round pond in the middle of the forest, a pond in which the willows on its single, circular bank bent over their shadows, and the blue sky and the birds that flew across it found themselves reflected during the day; and, at night, the surface shimmered with the reflections of stars and moon and sometimes the ephemeral blaze of a meteor.

It was a very deep pond. Under the surface the sides were nearly perpendicular and went down a long, long way. So deep was it, in fact, that there was a local story that it wasn’t really a pond at all but the entrance to an ancient, flooded mine. But it was only a story; and though deep, the pond was only a pond.

In summer, tourists came to the pond. It was not directly connected by a road or even a real path, but that was all to the good, because nobody wanted the near-perfect beauty of the spot ruined by roads and souvenir stalls and the like. But the highway was not too far off, and the tourists came hiking through the woods with their cameras slung round their necks; and some of them swam in the beautifully clear water, so clear that one could see, far down, the fishes swim in and out of the shadows of the willows.

Early one morning, just after dawn, when day was as yet only a pink flush in the sky, the flaps of a tent on the bank parted and a bearded face peered out. Apparently satisfied with the weather, the owner of the face emerged from inside the tent, stretched, yawning, and turned in a half circle by the ashes of last night’s campfire until he faced the pond. Then he stopped, staring.

At first he thought that the long, thick black object in the middle of the pond was only a shadow. A few moments later, he decided it was no shadow, because it rose and fell, rose and fell, not with the water like a shadow would, but as something separate from it. And yet, his brain would not admit to itself the evidence of his own eyes until the sky was eggshell blue and the light was too strong for the phenomenon to be denied.

There was a whale in the pond.

He could see the top of it clearly now, the great slate-grey back, the upper surface of the gigantic squared head and the spatulate flippers. The tail lifted, water falling away from the huge flukes. The whale, as if to put all doubts at rest, spouted, a column of vapour and spray rising many metres into the air. Then, apparently exhausted from the effort, it went back to floating somnolently.

The young man bent and parted the flaps of the tent. “You’d better come out and have a look at this,” he said.



By the time the sun had appeared over the rim of the surrounding trees, the pond’s bank was dotted with people. Some were casual visitors who had come to visit and stayed to gape. Others had come because they had been called; and they, in turn, called others on their cell-phones and told them what was up. And it wasn’t too long before the first hunters arrived carrying rifles and shotguns; stupid men, but effective, as such men usually are. They only happened to be just too late, because the first TV cameras already were there and because of this, they did not get a chance to fire even one shot.

By mid-morning there were so many people crowding the bank of the pond that new arrivals could only reach when others made room for them. The media were there, in large numbers. The police was there, too, and there were the gawkers in their hundreds, and of course there were the scientists. A team of biologists – both staff and research students – from the University were there, too, and other scientists were on the way from more distant parts of the country.

Helicopters clattered overhead, taking aerial camera footage, and often descending so close that the water of the pond rippled from the downwash and the topmost branches of the tallest trees whipped from the blast. It was only after repeated demands from the scientists that the choppers rose higher and stayed further away, but they never vanished altogether. And all through this the whale lay in the water, its great humped back breaching the surface, rolling ever so slightly and every few minutes exhaling noisily in a tall angled column of vapour.

“It’s a sperm whale,” the scientists told the importunate TV cameras. “A mature bull, from the size of it. And, no, we have no idea how it came to be here. This is a freshwater pond and we are very far from the sea.”

“Couldn’t it have...swum here somehow?” asked the prettiest and most highly-paid of the TV anchorwomen.

“We,” the scientist in question explained patiently, “are in the middle of a forest, many hundred kilometres from the sea, and this pond has only a couple of small brooks for inflow.” He motioned towards one, seen as a silver thread on the opposite bank. “You could step across one without wetting your shoes.”

“No, I meant, suppose this pond has some kind of...outlet to the sea, from down below? Can’t it have swum up that way?”

The scientist stared at her. “This is a freshwater lake,” he repeated. “I don’t know if you’re aware of the fact, but the sea is salt. And also, I don’t know if you’re aware that whales breathe air.”

Bastard, the anchorwoman hissed below her breath, and gave him a bright professional smile. “But still there could be some way we haven’t discovered that it could have got here from the sea, couldn’t it?”

“Yes,” said the scientist, blank-faced. “It could have flown. There might be flying whales just like flying fish.” That last bit never made it on the TV, of course.

Double bastard, the anchorwoman hissed, and smiled again. “Thank you, sir.”

At half past eleven, shortly before the only local with a scuba apparatus arrived, the first rubber dinghy put out on the water of the pond, followed closely by another. They approached the whale with great caution, thoughts of Moby Dick undoubtedly in their minds; and the whale, his colossal oblong head rising and falling slowly in the water, watched them come with one of his small eyes, but did nothing except breathe out another ten-metre-tall column of hot moist wind.

As the dinghies got closer, they could truly appreciate, at last, the size of the animal – twenty metres of muscle and bone and blubber wrapped in slate-grey skin, scarred with the beaks of squid and marked by their suckers. They could see the great flukes spread out behind, which could rise and smash them down below, and not one of them on the dinghies but re-checked his or her life-jacket. But the whale did nothing, just watched them come.

“Is he ill?” asked one of the graduate students, almost toppling overboard in her effort to get a clearer view. “Is something wrong with him?”

“Well, he probably has buoyancy problems in the fresh water, but he seems all right,” her professor said, reaching out a hand to steady her. “I would be much happier in my mind if only we could find out how the whale got here and...” the rest of what he said was drowned by another of the whale’s terrifically loud exhalations.

“Look at those scars,” said another of the students, taking yet another close-up photograph. “He must be quite old to have got so many.”

“An old bull,” the professor agreed. “But we knew that already from the size.” He dug his oar into the water so that the dinghy moved even closer to the whale. “I think we could almost get within touching range,” he said.

Very slowly and majestically, the whale raised his flukes and slapped the water surface. It sounded like a cannon discharge and the dinghies both wobbled and dipped.

“Maybe we shouldn’t get any closer, come to think of it,” the professor said.

Meanwhile, far under the flat bottoms of their rubber boats, the scuba diver was looking up towards the whale. He was staying well down, but even so he could see the light from the sky through the crystal clear water, warmed now by the sun’s rays. He saw the elongated bulk of the whale and the oval patches of darkness that were the dinghies. He heard the crash of the whale’s tail very clearly and uncomfortably loudly, and it sent a thrill of terror through him. But the whale made no other move, and a moment later he resumed swimming towards it, until he was in its shadow.

The blue surface light faded. The immense cone of the giant animal’s shadow fell over him, cold and almost intimidating. Looking up, he could see the great flippers and the narrow jaw of the huge beast, and the slight movements of the body as it rose and fell. It seemed to him that any moment that immense head would plunge under the surface and the whole tremendous bulk of it would come hurtling down towards him in a vertical dive. He remembered the videos on National Geographic, of sperm whales eating giant squids alive. It wasn’t a good time for that recollection. A few seconds later he had swum out of the shadow into the warm sunlit water and decided that watching proceedings from the shore was safer after all.


And so the day went on. By the time the sun was falling towards the trees, the news had made international headlines; and all over the world, scientists and paranormal researchers and plain simple cranks were making servers crash and giving airline booking staff headaches.

Everyone wanted something; the cetologists wanted to get a good look at the sperm whale from such close quarters and get to check what effect, if any, the fresh water was having on it; the animal rights campaigners were demanding it be set free, somehow, anyhow; the geologists were going slowly mad trying to find any possible route by which it might have reached the pond from the sea; the politicians were frantically trying to think of some way of making political capital out of this; a body of UFO enthusiasts had declared that the whale had been dropped into the lake from an alien spacecraft as a sign of something or other; and the gun owners’ associations were stridently proclaiming their God-given right to pepper this intruder with bullets.

Quantities of fish had been dumped into the water near its enormous head, but the whale had shown no interest. Nor did it make any move after warning off the dinghies with its tail, except for the periodic column of spray as it breathed. As darkness fell, the people drifted away, except for a police guard and a few campers, but they would be back tomorrow, and there would be questions answered, or they would know the reason why.

The night closed in, and to the occasional whoosh of the whale’s exhalation, little by little, everyone slept.


The bearded young camper was up at the crack of dawn. Today, though, he wasted no time in stretching and yawning. As soon as he had emerged from his tent, he turned to the pond. For a long moment, he goggled. Then he bent and parted the flap.

“It’s gone!” he said. “The damned pond’s empty!”

His girlfriend, who had still been sleeping, sat up, wiping her eyes with her hands. “Maybe it’s just diving,” she suggested.

“No,” he insisted. “It’s gone. I know.”

“You’re probably right,” she said. “And a good thing too. It’s going to be much better off in the sea where it belongs.”

“Well,” said the young man then, “at least you’ll now admit that the magic spell I found in that old book achieved something? When I tried it out the night before last, you were laughing at me.”

“Nothing of the sort,” said the girl, sticking out her small jaw. “Your magic spell, if you remember, was all about saving a life. What life did bringing that whale here possibly save?”



And far away, on the other side of the planet, where the winter seas were rough and flecked with chunks of floating ice, a harpooner on a Japanese whaling ship was still cursing his luck. To have a big sperm whale right in the sights – to be actually pressing the trigger of his harpoon gun – only to have the whale vanish like that...of course it must have dived somehow, however unlikely that was after it had been systematically chased down and exhausted, but he could have sworn it had just disappeared, right before his eyes, and the harpoon had then expended itself harmlessly in the water. What rotten luck, and now the whaling voyage was almost done and nothing to show for the effort.

It made him want to look for another job, it did. 


Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12

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