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Fiction

Whaling Song

by Je Banach

image“Are you Middle-Eastern?”

She leaned forward with her knees pressed together.

“I’m Italian and Polish.”

It was a common misconception. He had dark eyes, dark hair, and over the tanned skin of his face a five o’clock shadow which, left to its own devices, transformed itself into a dark and exceptionally full beard.

His name was equally deceiving.

“Is it Torin?” She looked down at her clipboard.

“Torun. Torun Opat.”

A college professor was the only person to have ever pronounced his name correctly in its entirety on the first try. He had recognized ‘Torun’ as the beautiful Polish city on the banks of the Vistula River and ‘Opat’ as the surname of a very famous Polish mathematician – a Catholic who had helped to rescue his own Jewish ancestors during the Holocaust. A man who had, by some miracle, survived the slaughter of the Polish intelligentsia and died of lung cancer many years later after the creation and documentation of an unprecedented number of critical theorems. There was no reason for Torun to think that they would be related. He was generally terrible at math, but when his professor suggested the possibility of their relation, he was curious, and so he spent two years learning everything he could about this hero-genius, tracking down relatives, people who knew nieces and cousins of Opat’s colleagues until, ultimately, he confirmed that they were family. He kept a picture of his great-uncle in his wallet because there in the picture was anatomical proof that they were connected. If one looked closely, it was apparent that their noses were both the slightest bit crooked, and on each of their faces the crook started in the exact same place, just less than a centimeter from the bridge.

He told her all of this so that she wouldn’t look so disappointed, but all she said in return was “You look Middle-Eastern.”

“My father’s family was from Milan, and my mother’s family was from Torun in Poland. That’s how I got my name. My mother and father are…” He cleared his throat. “American. Were American.”

She looked up with a hopeful expression that asked “Expatriates?”

“My parents are gone now actually.”

When she leaned back and slid her bottom so that it was now firmly and entirely on the cushion of the couch, he knew he had made a mistake. She had been considering if he could be the show’s villain or, alternatively, the misunderstood foreigner who ultimately unites the cast after exposing their ignorance.  Every reality show had one of each. But now he had ruined it by not being from the Middle East, and worse yet, by becoming the sad orphan. They had probably cast one of those weeks ago. It might have been alright if he was an orphan from the Middle East, but he was the son of an American writer and a very American movie star.

“My mother died last week.”

He was aware that they loved these sad disasters, that at least half of the cast would have lost a parent or a best friend, but he hadn’t said it for this reason. He had only said it because it was still so fresh that it had settled like a fog on his brain and clouded every minute of the day and night so that all he could do was think of her. To the rest of the world she was the actress who kissed Daniel Casey on the bridge in the film-turned-legend The Right Idea, but to him she was simply his mother. A certainty. It wasn’t until later in life that he was able to see her as anything other than this, that he started to consider that she may have been other things to other people, to question if her acting had ever seeped into their own lives, if he was ever fooled and, of course, he was. When it was close to the end and he did begin to know her in all of her capacities, he became angry with her for having the nerve to break character in what was her most important role, and he wished for the time before she spoke to him as a confidante, when she still spoke to him as a child, hiding things and making adjustments – a time when the preferred order of nature was still in intact and life was, for the most part, predictable and pleasurable.

“Do you think that she ever used her acting with you? Ever fooled you?” She asked it with a half-smile and her head cocked to one side. Torun found this kind of psychic aptitude in casting directors irritating.

“I don’t know.”

His mother had fooled him all the time.

“And your father?”

“He died a few years ago. Pancreatic cancer.”

His parents were buried together in a cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut three and a quarter miles from the house that his mother was born in. Even on the sunniest days most of the ground was shaded, and there were a good deal of flowers growing and ferns in the shady, damp corners of the grounds close to the woods that remained. One of his mother’s most prized possessions was a book of the works of Pierre-Joseph Redouté, and it was with this in mind that he had first set out with a pot of miniature roses under each arm which had subsequently spread like vines and now hung like curtains around her headstone. One of Torun’s earliest memories was of sitting in the grass at his mother’s feet as she dug holes for new rose bushes. Thorn. That’s your name. And this is a thorn too. They sound the same. But they’re spelled differently. She traced the letters in the dirt. T-o-r-u-n. T-h-o-r-n. He had swiped a small hand at the words, smearing the letters together.

The grounds were like one of her movie sets. There was a stunning display of landscaping, flowers and shrubs not typically found in combination in the every day world, framed by the dramatic urban gothic architecture of the city. The streets that formed its perimeter were each named for a different species of tree found along its walkways.  At the corner of Birch and Ash, a heavy Egyptian arch served as a doorway onto the grounds, and at the very top was reassurance from Corinthians. And the dead shall be raised. Unlike the other local cemeteries which held the remains of those who had been born and died in the same city, the inhabitants of the Grove Street Cemetery were an incredible cast of international players including soldiers, slaves, university presidents, inventors, mothers, father, and children alike. His own mother happened to be surrounded mostly by young soldiers, except that on her left was laid his father, a stranger who never belonged to him, a writer who the rest of the world claimed as theirs. Although he was twenty years her senior – a scandal in their time – here they failed to qualify among the countless odd-couples who were lodged together for all eternity.

“Was he sick for long?”

“No. It was fast actually.”

“Ah. And did you have a chance to say goodbye?”

“Not really.”

“No?”

“I didn’t know him very well.”

“And why is that?”

“He worked a lot.”

“Mm. I’ve read many of his books.”

Torun chose not to reply.

“Do you think that he loved you?”

This was a critical question. She was probing for any sign of an inability to love or be loved, any strange or dramatic reaction to its mention, any exhibition of longing or lack which might translate to entertainment when a camera was employed.

“Yes.”

He was aware that his father had fooled him too, but that was none of her business.

“So would you say that you grew up without a father figure?”

“I had other people to look up to who were more…” He paused. “Present.”

He had developed a relationship with one of his university

professors, a kind of father and son connection, but he too had died and Torun was ashamed to admit that his professor’s death had left him feeling more lost and disoriented, more like an orphan than the death of either of his parents.

“And was this the same professor who suggested that you might be related to the mathematician?” He wondered why she had chosen this word instead of ‘hero’ or ‘genius’.

“Yes.”

“What were you studying with him?”

“Philosophy.”

Torun had been hired to work as an assistant for the professor, organizing his research, typing, gathering books and articles, but when the professor was invited to speak at a conference in Prague, he invited Torun along and soon they were traveling together. Torun had stood by when he received a standing ovation in Venice for his speech on the modernization of positive existentialism. He had also stood at his side when a crippled old man limped up to the professor to spit in his face at the suggestion that the world’s most well-known philosopher might have had no choice but to work with the Nazis. Later the professor defended the man, explaining to Torun that the man had done it “not because I was wrong, necessarily. Just to show that he cared.” In a few years time, he explained, the center of the world had shifted and the collective global memory was filled with new horrors while the old horrors were put on a shelf. “Remember, these are not new wars being waged,” he reminded. The old horrors, he explained, had no expiration date and they shouldn’t be treated as such. He had found the old man’s gesture reassuring.

When they were in Germany the next winter, Torun began noticing signs that his professor’s mind was faltering. Evidence of a brain tumor that would be diagnosed three months later. Torun began spending more and more time with the professor, first at his office and then at his apartment. Working, talking, cooking. Then cleaning, making his bed, feeding him.

“That must have been difficult.”

Torun had been surprised at how natural it felt, how easy it was at first. Easy, perhaps, because it felt as if there really was no choice involved at all. How many times had they debated together the ins and outs of free will? Of ethics? And now it was clear. Without the illusion of options, ethics was simple. It was a military principle.

One does not abandon a dying man.

In the last days before the professor was checked in to the hospital where he would spend the rest of his days, he had convinced himself that they were aboard a whaling ship. Torun had been with the professor through countless delusions, but this one was made more uncomfortable by the fact that it was so dated. It was like being in a badly-acted period movie, and it was embarrassing how his professor adopted a fake accent. Worse yet, it became a musical when his professor began belting out whaling songs. He shouted at Torun and made him stretch his hands in an imaginary accordion.

“It should start with a bang! Now play!” He stamped his foot. In just one week, Torun had been his mother and his son, and now he was playing an imaginary accordion, a mate on his whaling ship. It made him nauseous.

“Like this?” Torun asked with his arms outstretched.

It was the same sign that people use to surrender.

Arms up.

Like they are playing an accordion.

“Why a whaling ship, do you think?”

“I’m not sure. I think he was reading Melville. Or maybe he just saw something in a newspaper.” There were stacks of newspapers in every room. No one seemed to know why they were there.

“And what does a whaling song sound like? I don’t think I’ve ever heard one.”

He was expected to perform on the spot.

“OHHHHHHH! ONE-two-three-four ONE-two-three-four…,” he complied. “And then it keeps going on like that.”

Before his professor had turned into a madman, Torun had only heard a whaling song once before at the local aquarium during a field trip in grade school. A dirty, unshaved man who smelled like fish stamping to a squeezebox.

“And they sing about hunting?”

The professor only sang about hunting whales occasionally. Most of his songs were about other things – a woman named Anya, philosophy, conjugations in Latin.

amō, amāre, amāvī, amātum

dēleō, dēlēre, dēlēvī, dēlētus

cupiō, cupere, cupīvī, cupītum

morior, morī,, mortuus sum

Sometimes the songs were made up entirely of nonsense words as if he was singing in tongues.

“Mostly. But not just about hunting whales. They sing about their lives, their struggles.”

“Like hip-hop.”

He couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.

After the funeral he had bought some cds. He kept them hidden under his mattress. Most were sung with no instrumentation backing them, just a raw voice and an occasional foot stamping wood. A few had strings or a single drum. None were accompanied by an accordion. The lyrics were stories about the hunt, about the departure and the voyage, but hardly ever about catching what they wanted most. The most unbearable was a song about a homesick whale-hunter who had left his love and lost his mind. The professor’s own constant departure from reality had eventually started to wear Torun down. He would have liked to be wherever his professor was without pretending, so that he could say it was the slamming of water on wood that made the acid rise up his throat. But it was another violent confrontation of man and nature that was making his stomach turn.

“Shhh! Wait! Do you see it? Do you see it?!” His eyes were on something beyond Torun.

“It’s sinking.” Torun said it quietly at first.

“No, no. It’s not sinking. We’re fine.” He said it as if he was sure.

“IT’S SINKING!” Torun had screamed so loud that the glasses on the table rattled. He was immediately sorry for being so dramatic. From the beginning he’d been disgusted with how cinematic it had all been – how Brahms’s Symphony Number 2 had played in the background as his professor confessed his illness in a monologue, how the crescendos coincided with his short outbursts of anger, how the last notes were drawn out as he told Torun that he loved him like a son. Better than his own son. Torun didn’t know that he had a son. The notes faded into silence as soon as he had said the words.

The day before was like a silent film. Torun thought that he would have welcomed it after the previous days, but he failed miserably. He opened his mouth to speak when there should have been quiet. His gestures were all nerves. Biting his nails, picking at the corner of his shirt where the seam had begun to pull apart. His family, who had been called in were all exaggerated facial expressions, overwrought gestures, and rolling eyes. Wringing their hands. All lips and hands and eyelids.

She tried to change the subject.

“What would you say is your biggest regret?”

It seemed ridiculous to acknowledge that eating a hot dog

at an inopportune moment could be someone’s biggest regret, but admitting this would give her what she wanted: the feeling that she knew him, that he was willing to give himself away, and confirmation that he could be both sympathized with and despised. In short, he would be entertaining.

He had driven four hours in the rain and spent the next twelve at the hospital watching his professor die. The entire time his professor looked him right in the eyes. And held his hand. Jesus, he shouldn’t have told her that. Ok, but it was too late now, he said it. When the professor’s breathing slowed and his eyes closed, Torun walked down the hall to the waiting room for people who are there to watch someone they love die and he ate a hot dog. A stranger had given it to him. “You need to eat.” A foot-long. There was nothing else to do. The bread stuck to the roof of his mouth. He didn’t have anything to drink. When he almost choked a round Mexican woman jumped out of her chair with children still hanging from her limbs. She clapped her hands and shouted at him “Necesita ayuda?”

Sí. Necesito ayuda.

Ayúdame.

My professor thinks he is on a whaling ship.

He is dying and I am eating a hot dog.

The ship is sinking.

He shook his head and waved her away. Eating it really disgusted him, made him feel the separation between life and death. Miles and miles of black ocean. A gaping chasm between him and the people he’d lost. Living people eat food. Dying people stare you in the eyes gasping for air. Where was his son?

Eating a hot dog at a moment like this made it extremely difficult to entertain the notion of heaven. 



Je Banach' photo