Mysticeti Testament

Freya Mathews

The heart is a huge old barnacled whale,

Vastly outsize and cumbersome,

Encased in a mountain of deadweight flesh,

Lugubrious, peering out of her carnal tomb with little wrinkled eye,

Unable to encompass her own immensity.

Yet this great gravid tender yearning creature lies

Undetected, invisible, under the waters of appearance.

The whale dives amongst galaxies, dense and planetoid,

The curve of the universe reflected in her gaze.

Within her great compass is inscribed a contradiction:

The reaching out that afflicts all corporeal beings,

Set apart from the rest of Creation by flesh,

Condemned in this way to irremediable separation.

Yet this same flesh, on account of its very perishability,

Its susceptibility to pain and dissolution,

Occasions the turning away, the inward spiral,

The secretion of a shell, a hide, to keep at bay

The immensities outside.

Out of this tension, this cross-fire,

Emotions spring:

Out of finitude, seeking and striving.

Out of limitation, love.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

She was blown into a cove one wild, white-water night

In 1967,

Washed over a high reef and stranded in a walled inlet

When the storm subsided.

She was a finner,

One of the great whales, the Mysticeti, and one of the rarest.

At break of day

Fishermen were alerted to her inquisitive presence

When she circled their boat, taking care

Not to upset their nets.

The word spread.

Local men began to arrive, toting their rifles.

The fun commenced.

Since she had to rise to the surface to blow

She could not avoid exposure to the shells.

For five days, at their leisure, they fired at her.

Spectators came, children on shoulders, to enjoy the show.

For the most part she bore it patiently.

There were moments when she lashed and bluntly raged.

But she respected the small vessels which eventually entered the closed waters

On her behalf.

Out in the cove her mate, father of her unborn calf, patrolled,

Keeping faith.

Mysteriously, despite the reef, they blew and sounded

In unison,

The sea electrified with their communion.

After five days the shooting was stopped,


The hide of the whale was filled with lead,

Riddled and rent from head to tail.

For another week she kept to her beat,

Her taut circle of pain,

Conversing through the waters with her unseen mate.

What did they convey to eachother through those haggard days?

Were they aware that their separation was terminal,

That she, even while the foetus still turned within her,

Was going to die, ignominiously?

Is it a comfort, if death comes, to face it

In the fullness of gestation?

To hold a little hand, or fin, in yours

As you swim over the brink into oblivion?

Or does it etch grief deeper, to know that your sinking ship

Is a death-trap

For its tenderly stowed-away passenger?

In the night Old Barnacle returned to the centre of the pond

To drown.

Her body sank steeply.

It lay on the floor, capsized, its tail swaying slightly.

The accelerating music of her mate, swelling the waters,

Perhaps pacified the little calf turning, shivering, panicking,

In the now deserted inner cavern.

    *  *  *  *  *

Is this a measure of the dread with which man regards his own heart?

Are the tenderness and grace expressed unmistakably, on such a tragic scale,

In the lineaments of the whale,

Offensive? Do they tempt loss and rejection?

Do they spell surrender?

So, when a whale, unimaginably huge with vulnerability,

Sails into your midst,

Join in with the rest of the affronted, frightened boys,

And punish her.

Dismember her. Stamp out tenderness, lest it infect you,

Lest it open the grille of your heart to grief,

And release from your secret Alcatraz that supremely threatening inmate,

Your aloneness.

With hearts thus incarcerated, there is of course no chance of men

Achieving happiness.

If happiness has visited this planet yet

It has to be in the person of those sweet cetaceans.

Not perfect happiness. No.  Not ever.

Pleasure potentials are proportional to those for pain.

What could be more discreet and just than this distribution

Of potentialities on the part of Nature?

She does not dictate the contingencies of individual fate,

But she does decree that, as ye rejoice,

So may ye grieve.

Those with chainmail hearts, steelclad against grief,

Are of course immune to the shafts of happiness.

If happiness is so fallible, so premised on pain,

What advantage can cetaceans claim?

Just this: that they do, to all appearances, adore their oceanic matrix.

By way of their streamlines and their undulations

They elicit the marine caress.

In their demeanour they express exactly the glad abandon

With which they commune with their reality,

The sea. The inflections of their bodies advertise

Those ecstatic Pythagorean harmonies that orchestrate

Cetacean thought.

Having found the perfect fit with the ocean which beats out its rhythms

In their bodies and spirits,

They can fearlessly admit their aloneness, their distinctness,

And yet belong.

Even if it is the fate of an individual to end up as a carcass

Disfigured by tortures in an unmarked grave,

This is as nought beside the good fortune

Of her angel-like cetacean status.

As angel, at-one with things, her identity withstands

The vagaries of destiny and circumstance.

She has nothing to lose in life, and nothing to prove.

Her kin, the dolphins, those other incarnations of cetacean grace,

Risk catastophe, court hazard.

Loving on all fronts, they reconcile family ties

With expansive sexuality. They love recklessly,

Detonating endless rockets of happiness into the heavens,

And die regularly of broken hearts.

    *  *  *  *  *

Once a year, at dawn, off the coast of Devon - so it's said -

The steeple of a submerged church rises obliquely

Out of the waves. The bell tolls awhile

Before the grey, troubled waves reclaim it.

Does it matter if the whale becomes extinct?

If so, for whom?

Is it for the sake of those unborn, individual whales of the future

That we mourn? But any break in the thread

Of that constantly fretted and rewoven causal web

Would foreclose their individual chances of actuality.

So of whom are we bereaved?

The living whales violated in those floating death camps

Manufacturing obscene and precedented soap?

Yes, but they would each die anyway,

And harpoons are, from their viewpoint, as neutral a misfortune

As the jaws of a cachalot.

Is it then for the eclipse of a species that we grieve?

But every species marches to eventual sunset.

Would we beat our breast if it were a virus

On which the Mysticeti were impaled?

Maybe.  But in that case we could rail against a mindless fate.

It is mainly for ourselves that we sit, wrapped in rugs on the cliffs,

Waiting for the spire that will rise from the unquiet deep.

The voice of the drowned bell, thick with swallowed seaweed as it sounds its knell,

Foretells the harpoon which our brutality and greed

Will drive into the hide of our own already wounded planet.

Yes, the wake of the whale as it passes over the arc of the world

Into the dark makes us mindful of our own passage.

What does it mean that we may blast the very Wheel of Birth and Death

Apart?  How does this differ from an ice age blindly and incidentally

Placing its great white boot on Life on Earth?

Isn't it shame, not fear, that darkens our brain

When we think of the end? Shame the spear

That pierces us to our hearts' depths, and marks

As condemned?

But wait. Even if it is too late to halt the technology of hate

That has our struggling planet in its metal jaws

And is already feeling for the fontanelle in her defences,

It may not be overlate to win our individual redemption

From disgrace.

Can we indeed be retrieved, even as our boats

Gather momentum on the flood, and veer, faster and faster,

Toward the dark weir?

Could we just once encompass the stars in a circle of love,

Just once induce our heart to emit the pulse

That would dissolve its casing and travel to the rim

Of space, then could we stake out our claim

To hope.  The vectors of faith point not only forward,

Toward the future, but inward,

Where those whom we have driven to extinction

Still rise with dripping faces from the deep,

To forgive us.


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