Spring 2024

A Bloated Blue Whale Washes Up on Unsuspecting Townspeople

By Lisa Favicchia

A dead blue whale washed up on the shore of a small fishing town […] A bloated, beached, blubbery bomb of a blue whale. As of Thursday morning, the carcass is still intact, but onlookers are worried that it might soon explode. –The Atlantic

The whale had washed up a few days ago—an 81-foot blue whale with long grooves down its throat and a mouth placed unnaturally high. It drew a large crowd from the beginning, though the townspeople were growing a bit hesitant as the corpse took on new life, audibly gurgling and bubbling outward. Leah walked several miles down the beach to escape it, tongue now expanding its throat and ballooning out of its mouth, grapefruit eyes soon to liquify. Even this far away Leah could still pick up the odor.
            Nothing this size had ever washed up on their shores before; only porpoises or smaller whales, juveniles, who sometimes beached themselves and were pushed back out to sea by the town. This one must have died some miles away in deeper waters, and the tides had gifted it here. They had no way of removing it, far too large and far too little manpower, so instead Sturge, the youngest fishing captain on the island, wandered around poking it with a big stick, rippling its inflated blubber, making some of the younger girls and boys squeal in excitement and terror, hoping and not hoping it would pop. Some of the more practical figureheads timidly cautioned Sturge, but he was only encouraged. They really did try, suggesting on the first day that the whale be carved up into pieces that could fit into the few pickups on the island, start a procession of whale carcass to somewhere away, but there was no away here.
            Leah hauled a large earthenware pot a few more paces down the shore before dropping it and dumping out olive branches and an assortment of large, white shells. She carefully placed a few branches just above the tide line, then waded into the water and hid the shells in small, coral-lined coves, fleshy mouths open and inviting. At one point she stumbled upon a particularly vulnerable mother, her paled tentacles limply holding onto the roof of her cave as her hundreds of dew-drop eggs waved back and forth in the current. Her eyes were almost as faded as her skin. The same cold current that kept her alive was slowing the growth of her children as she starved to death beneath them. Leah, embarrassed by this nakedness, turned around and swam back to shore.
            As she walked over the horizon and the whale became visible again, rancid grease invading her nose, she saw a tiny speck standing near it while a crowd looked on. She drew closer and heard cheers and shouts of encouragement, dares and shrieks and threats begging to be shown what it means to be a man. The subject of all the noise, as always, was Sturge, grinning by the belly of the whale and waving a large, long-handled blade above his head.

The town council had held a meeting that morning with all able-bodied fishermen wherein they intended to discuss the fate of the whale, but instead spent most of their time arguing over whose responsibility it was. It looked about ready to burst, but local and federal authorities turned on each other, insisting someone else, not them, needed to dispose of it.
            It was impossible. They were a small town of only 600 people. They didn’t make enough in taxes. They didn’t have the resources. No one did, and no one had any experience. At one point someone suggested they cut it up and cart it off. Of course the first question was to where. Whale body was utterly inescapable on an island of this size. The second question was how. The whale would stay put whether they liked it or not. The beach would have to be cleared; fishermen would just have to be grounded for a while, boats hidden beyond the massive body, marinating in fetid waves of grease, until it finally burst, as the creature could explode any minute and rain down car-sized flaps of blubber upon unsuspecting heads.
            Then someone had a real idea. Cut it open. Just a small incision, maybe a few feet long, to release the gases. With the immediate danger resolved, they would just allow it to decompose on the beach. Let the seagulls take care of everything and invest in surgical masks. Gather the fishermen.

It’s possible her bones were broken by her own collapsing weight, a star in supernova, 9-meter skull crushed by itself. Or she may have become stranded on pack ice, one of a small group unable to reproduce or save themselves from inanimacy, in her loneliness confusing the sub-nautical communications of ships with low and tender love calls, luring her to iced water which would trap her and gradually encroach upon her bones, breaking them slowly. There was no whale-fall for her, no soft sinking into pitch-black silt where her body would sustain ecosystems worlds over for one hundred years, crustaceans gently pulling apart light fibers that could be mistaken for hair. Instead summer would come quickly melting the ice and pushing her balloon-like into the hands of children.

He took it as an invitation. He had the idea to grab a head spade from a pile of old flensing tools kept in the town’s failed museum. It was full mostly of old fishing and whaling tools, all donated from collections of dead grandmothers and grandfathers, and a few small specimens from the taxidermist. The town didn’t actually have money, or the desire, to curate a museum, so it was mainly used as a communal storage shed.
            Sturge was eager to cut into the thick, blue-black flesh, already beginning to slough off, unable to stretch anymore. He inserted the long blade a few yards from the base of the tail. He had to use all his strength to force the tip of the spade before it would slip past the first several layers of blubber and glanced around to see if any of the onlookers had witnessed his struggle. The whole whale shuddered as he drew the blade forcefully back and forth, the wound puckering outward. He walked along the length of the whale until he grew close to the flippers, but despite the visible tension in the open gash, nothing had happened yet and the whale only looked more bloated than it did before, gasses visibly shifting inside its belly. He hadn’t gone deep enough, he decided, and shoved the blade back in, slicing hard, making his way back toward the tail.
            Then something changed. He could feel a clear puncture, a pop, the flesh releasing and finally giving way. He excitedly and swiftly dragged the blade through relenting blubber but only made it a few more feet before the entire thing opened itself up to the beach, forcefully expelling intestine and large sheets of tissue in a spray of red that extended halfway up the sand. While most of the small crowd present had made way in time, Sturge stood covered in velvety flesh, repeatedly piercing the sand with his spade, grinning, only the white of his teeth still visible.

A whale might make a playground; all she needed was that first cut. In the evenings couples could carve their initials into her flesh, sever a heart around them, sit atop her quivering ribs which might someday be used for swings and monkey bars—a second home to children. They could huddle together and point out constellations they didn’t really know the names of, braid long strands of blonde baleen, wave her flipper up and down for a slow evening breeze. They wanted to put their legs through her long tail, fan their feet out through her fluke, make themselves aquatic.

Some of the odor continued to be dispelled by the release, a long miserable groan that seemed to last through the night. The next morning, early, the town reentered the scene, led by Sturge. No one had bothered to clean up the mess from the day before; what was the point. Instead Sturge and his friends began hacking away at limbs and made very little progress, though not for lack of effort. Leah continued on down the beach, eventually making her way out of earshot. She finally arrived at her pot and began the long day of collection, reaching her hands inside private alcoves, the shells she had left open now sealed shut. She carefully clasped each one and placed it in the bottom of her pot. Only then would long, tentacled arms reach out to see what had happened, feeling along the walls and turning themselves terracotta. Her favorite, though, were the ones who sought the olive branches. If you leave an olive branch on the shore, an octopus will crawl out of the sea to reach for it, to wrap its body around it as many times as it can. Today there was only one. It was rather small, but had apparently walked along the beach collecting all the branches until it got tired and stayed by the tide line, twisting around its small bundle. Leah hated to separate them, so she cautiously picked up the branches and put them in the pot along with the small, relentless creature, young and purple. She didn’t dare venture back into the water where she had placed the last shell, afraid of what she might find nearby; the withered pale octopus or motherless eggs.
            Leah hauled her pot, lid thumping lightly against its lip with the gentle, curious taps of several tentacles, back up the beach toward the market, wishing there was some way to avoid the whale. The whale was visible over the horizon far before anything else, and it appeared to be moving on its own. As she grew closer, Leah could see the large crowd around it, carving the body open, unspooling intestines for an elaborate game of Double Dutch, hi-fiving death-frozen fins. The fish monger she had been on her way to see now crawled through its open aorta and came out glistening. Others had found harpoons and struck it repeatedly, struggling to pull the barbed pike out each time, pulling chunks of flesh along with it, while others stabbed out its eyes. Sturge stood waving the spade over his head once again; a call to action. Apparently he and his loyal crew, barely able to think for themselves, had decided to claim the penis to mount on their wall, but, finding none, took her ovaries instead.

A taxidermist could order her cut up into manageable pieces, dragged up the sand and through cobblestone streets by horses with dinner-plate hoofs, a parade to his lab where he could make a big show of stretching her skin across a wooden frame, dry her out and make a room inside her with carpeting and tapestries and, for special occasions, a 24-person dining table, immaculately set, stairs leading from her hinged jaw down into her belly. One day a couple would make love inside her and then they would finally close her up, rest her propped mouth and only open her once a year for small, private viewings.

Sturge immediately regretted the two, 15-pound white bundles of flesh he now sported in thick, twin nets. Why’d he do that. Now what was he going to do with them, slowly rotting. He knew he could sometimes take things too far, but he held his shoulders up and swung the nets over them with a toothy, overdone grin and wave. The young men in his crew who followed and looked up to Sturge were whooping and hollering around him, pushing each other’s shoulders, making lewd comments and encouraging the crowd. He briefly made eye contact with the octopus hunter, a woman he had never spoken to, afraid of her silence. A large earthenware pot was cradled on her back and thrumming inside, and he quickly turned away from her to begin the walk toward town, the opposite direction of the fish market. The weight on his back seemed to grow heavier, pressing on his kidneys. He suddenly began to think that, now separated from her body, they might shrivel into nothing, two small stones in his hands, and picked up his pace.
            He made it back to the cobblestone streets and wandered in a panic, gulping for air as he went, his hip waders leaving slick red footprints. Now that he had them there, he had no idea what to do with them and they grew soggy in their nets. He quickly ran into the shade of the museum whose doors had been blown open as a flood of townspeople rushed to collect blubber pikes, pick-haaks, krenging hooks, flensing blades, and tail saws, though even those still couldn’t make a dent in the ball joint of her massive fluke. The whole town had become illuminated by his first slice through viscera, and now they were swimming through her veins and children crawled through her blowholes, suffocating her with their sweating bodies.
            For a moment he thought he felt sloshing on his back and moved into the shade under an overhang. He held the bundles in his arms and inspected them—they were fine, but the distinct smell of grease and rotting blubber was already beginning to pass through the streets from the beach. He gently shuffled the bundles back around his body and formed a quick, half-baked plan. Maybe the taxidermist was looking for work.

Her body could have washed up in the Amazon, completely out of place among trees and strangling vines, left scientists pondering over what massive gale could have carried the immense weight of her there without anyone noticing, a gentle tip-toe through the Amazon river they would never have expected from her, snapped trees piled beneath the force of her fluke. If she couldn’t bellow, let her body be shrouded in the warmth of creeping greenery, though even that would have been dispelled by the collapse of her too-large spine. She was always made to be left open—

Sturge came in with two demands swinging from his back which he moved to set on a long metal table, cradling them down slowly. He asked what the taxidermist could do with them. The taxidermist knew what they were and where they had come from and looked at Sturge. Sturge shot back, defensive at first but then, maybe, something like an apology in his voice. But then again that may have been too much to expect from Sturge, just as it was too much to expect Sturge might understand that any attempts to preserve internal organs had only ended in grotesque failure.
            He wanted the taxidermist to take them. He didn’t want anything for them, didn’t want anything to do with them, disembodied and thrumming inside with unborn behemoths. Then he left, inviting the taxidermist to come meet him for a drink at the local tavern when he was done, and the taxidermist wondered if Sturge had any idea exactly how long it took to undecompose.

A taxidermist dreams of a cornea that could mimic his breakfast, a halved grapefruit, and the longest strips of baleen pulled from graying gums, hung and salted. He gently pulls fat in long, hair-like strands from skin, but he cannot save the eyes, buys them glass and hand-painted from the dollmaker who knows him well. He can stretch skin over wood convincingly but fears internal organs which can only melt in his hands. Now he dreams of her falling apart, unable to do anything while she hangs limp and open.

Her future young were only dead, gray cells now, and he filled them with embalming fluid, pumping formaldehyde through a large artery. The ovaries began to plump and the pale globes looked almost alive again, like luminous wall sconces, so he decided to give them this form. He had heard of a man in Germany who had turned flesh into fiberglass and prepared a bath of acetone. He slowly lowered them into the bath and waited for fat to dissolve, changing out the acetone every time the water concentration became too high. The taxidermist understood the parting of fats and fluids necessary to preservation and diligently monitored his brood, careful to take frequent breaks from the lab which smelled thickly of nail polish remover.

Her body was savored, eyes poked down to jelly so she wouldn’t see them, pleated throat soundless as one harpooned her side repeatedly and another tore open her lungs, alveoli popped like bubble wrap. The only fearsome thing about her the stomach that threatened to digest them with bubbling acid, the only part they wouldn’t sever open or bisect with long pikes. An artist carved flowing waves into her liver and children asked for their pictures taken on top of her, a beautiful animal. Every day that passed she thought about how to shudder in just the right way.

Leah had sold everything to the fish monger that week, including the small one, branch-wrapped. To get to her new hunting grounds every day she had to walk past the whale carcass, now hardly recognizable, in what had become an unpleasant routine. The smell was getting stronger day by day, a thick miasma washing over the sand, even permeating the town. Leah was surprised people could still stand being around it. But there they were, prying off blubber in sheets, poking organs they couldn’t identify, squealing when something would burst and fire a fine red mist. She refused to participate and walked silently by day after day. Finally at her new spot, she couldn’t wait to submerge herself in water as the heavy smell of oil could now follow her all the way there. Her only reprieve was beneath cool sea salt.
            Having set her traps for the day, her collection of large shells anyone would want to make a home in, she couldn’t resist the temptation to quietly peek on the mother octopus. Hesitance had turned to morbid curiosity, or maybe something more hopeful. She was still there, even sallower than before, eyes faded to nearly nothing, so cloudy they matched the rest of her deflating pale body. Her babies still hung above her, swaying. Leah could just make out hundreds of tiny black eyes. She left, knowing one day she would come back to find mother dead, maybe babies too.
            As she exited the waves, Leah sprinkled a few olive branches along the shoreline and headed back towards town. That’s when she heard the commotion. More frantic than it had been the last few days. She expected to look over at the whale and see her covered in people as always—perhaps today they had found her nipple. However, when she turned her head, she saw a young boy neck-deep in the soup of her chin, her skin imploded, shuddering beneath his weight, no longer strong enough not to cave in, and the boy sat drowning in liquefied flesh.

The taxidermist had transferred the ovaries to a vat of liquid plastic for forced impregnation, the acetone which had replaced fat had then been pushed out and replaced by something like fiberglass. They looked deflated and childless, but they were still a vibrant and pale pink. Now that he was no longer worried about their decomposition, he could shape them however he wanted. While he had been waiting for the plasticization process to finish, he had built two frames for them from wood, perfectly round. He now began to slowly, painstakingly stretch them over the frames, taking care not to tear them. Once on the frames, they looked glorious—he could see his vision taking form as he smoothed them again and again with his hands.
            Just as he was about to begin the heat curing process, the barkeep from the local tavern knocked at his door. He requested small projects from the taxidermist from time to time to decorate the walls of his tavern—usually his latest vanity catch, a large ray or even, one time, an impressive swordfish who had nearly impaled him. He still showed off his scar. The taxidermist opened the door and welcomed the barkeep inside, where his eyes immediately fell on the two pale globes, perfectly formed on their wood frames, filled out and blushing.

A young man had fallen sideways through her quivering chin and she tried her best to drown him. The people who came to his rescue slid off her slick sides in useless rubber boots. He ingested her in desperate gulps for air which she fowled. The town gathered their weapons and sliced her, and she spilled herself all over the sand as the boy came sloshing out, eyes open but not moving. No one was moving except to look up and down the beach, sand so saturated it had turned to a red paste, perfect for sandcastles, the water at least 100 yards out as threatening and fleshy as the consuming red tide.

Everyone went home to figure out what to do. The same problem still existed; she was just too large and there just weren’t enough of them. A few people had trucks for their businesses, but they were dwarfed by her flukes alone. The city council members had mentioned something about holding a town meeting, but nothing ever came of it and everyone just walked away quietly, contemplative, wanting nothing more than to soak dried blood off their skin in the tub, to rinse their hair and bury their ruined hip waders. The beach was silent for the first time in a little over a week, and Leah got into bed that night thinking about the fading octopus clinging to her white, grape-vine children.

Sturge stripped down to his wet skin, fingers pruned into blood-prints. He submerged himself completely in his tub and watched the warm water bleed, sun-blackened blood leaching out and turning everything a faint pink. He drained the tub once it had become too saturated and refilled it to the brim, sinking lower so his upper lip just met the surface of the water. He thought of the boy who had fallen into her, drenching the beach with his afterbirth, felt the need to scrub hard under his nails, to scrape his scalp clean, afraid that weeks later he would scratch his head and find remnant clots and dried flecks of blubber, that she had permeated him even in the smallest way.

Her body leached blood into cold currents for miles, calling hordes of rock crabs to her deflated side as she lay blushing on the beach, long, hair-like tendrils of deteriorating tissue flowing in the water. They cautiously circled around her, slowly began picking with delicate claws, just as they would pull apart cherries, piece by piece, fitting only tiny bites into barely perceivable mouths. She fed all of them in large swarms on her body, finally collapsing in a sigh. They helped her down to the bone, picking clean her egg-yolk spinal matter and dripping oil until morning, until there was finally nothing left of her, until a ribcage emerged and haunted the beach with angular shadows against the rising sun.

That morning there was nothing left of her. Leah searched carefully for her along the bottom of her coral alcove but saw no pale face or trembling limbs. The thin white egg sacs were all empty, only delicate see-through skins blowing back and forth in the current, inflating and deflating with saltwater like little lungs.

The townspeople walked sun-struck along the massive length of her exposed spine, polished and picked clean. They laid their hands on her blanched jaw before slowly walking off in groups of two or three, digging deep holes in the sand and burying what remained of her scattered blubber and skin. One person manned a long-stemmed shovel while one or two others helped carry wayward strips of flesh to lay them in graves up and down the shore. The smell was gone; the thick heat had nothing left to ferment, and instead got to work on drying out her impossible frame.
            They worked into the night, hands blistered and faces sallow, until they finally buried the last of her and silently made their way back to the town. The barkeep offered everyone a free beer, so they formed a long solemn procession through dimly lit streets until the narrow houses parted and opened onto the tavern, the red brick suddenly ablaze. Outside the barkeep had added some new décor; two equally large, round lamps, pale orbs that looked full and almost alive as they filled the streets, casting warm, pink light onto the drying cobblestone, permeating the masses of oil-slicked hair.

Lisa Favicchia is a PhD student in Creative Writing at the University of Kansas and is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of LandLocked. Her work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Hobart, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Peregrine Journal, among others. 

Spring 2024