Sturm und Drang

Friday, March 25

Rathskill carried a stool onto the lecture hall dais. He felt old and bent as if the accumulating years had a weight that pressed him to the ground. The gravity of old age, he thought bitterly, and braced himself with a foot on the stool’s cross piece.

The old shaman in the deerskin cape was in class again, sitting in the back row looking indistinct like a character not fully realized. Rathskill still had no clue to the old man’s metaphoric meaning. What was the point?

He still had no idea what had happened to him in the two days missing after the Apocalypto Motel. Those two days might as well be a road sign warning “Surrender all hope, ye who enter here.” He had left that sign far behind.

He felt control of his life slipping from cramped fingers. Soon, he suspected, his behavior would become more erratic, more obvious. People would notice. Eventually, he would have difficulty distinguishing what he alone saw or heard or smelled. Eventually, he would be the only rational person in a world no one else inhabited.

They’d lock him up again. For your own good, they’d assure him. Until you’re well, they’d promise, but never let him out again. He could expect to spend the rest of his life in pajamas without buttons.

Rathskill took a deep breath. “Please take your seats. Heads up, phones down.

“The other day we discussed the collapse of the community at Tse-whit-zen. Today we’re talking about cultures in conflict.”

The lights dimmed. The first slide was a monochrome photo taken from the middle of a dugout canoe. In the bow of the canoe the harpooner was poised, his torso naked, his right arm drawn back and tensed, the harpoon raised above his head for the thrust. Behind him, another man tended a line coiled in a wicker basket. The photographer was the third man in the canoe.

The whale’s blowhole was twenty feet ahead. The whale’s head was pushing a bow wave through the water. Foam flecked the surface.

There was a feeling of immediacy about the photo. The wake thrown by the whale, the dappled surface of the water flowing across its back, the men in the canoe, slightly blurred by motion, captured in the moment before the whale felt the wound, before it raised its flukes to dive deep and flee, before the harpoon line began to unreel from the basket. Or the moment before the whale’s flukes crushed the canoe and spilled the men into bitterly cold water they could survive only minutes.

The whale was so close the Makah could reach out and touch it, feel the scars left by orca attacks and the whale lice attached to the skin. They could hear the rush of air from the whale’s blowhole and smell the stink of bottom mud, crustaceans, and krill.

“The photo was taken by Asahel Curtis around 1930,” Rathskill said. “Asahel was the lesser known brother of Edward S. Curtis.

“It’s a remarkable photo. It gives you a sense of the physical intimacy that exists between predator and prey. There were no steel ships or bomb lances. No stockyards or processing plants. These men touched the life they took.

“For the Makah and other Coastal Salish people, the sea was their homeland,” Rathskill said, waving his hand toward the photograph on the screen. “Whaling was their identity. It defined who they were. It anchored their culture. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Makah have the right, guaranteed by treaty, to hunt whales off the coast of Cape Flattery. The Makah tribe is preparing to renew whaling. Their decision has been controversial. Many people now consider whaling barbaric, unconscionable, immoral. Which is right?”

“How can you justify taking the life of an intelligent species?” Avila Torres said. Avila was a bright Latina woman who usually sat at the edge of the class.

“Pigs are intelligent,” Martin Broadcutt said. “Does that mean we can’t eat bacon?” Laughter rippled through the room.

“How can you compare the intelligence of a whale to a pig?” Avila Torres said.

“Exactly,” Rathskill said. “We don’t even know how to measure human intelligence, much less another species. I don’t think intelligence will help us make this moral decision.”

“Even if we don’t know how to measure it, shouldn’t we give whales the benefit of a doubt?” she said. “We don’t need to eat them.”

“But to Mr. Broadcutt’s point, shouldn’t we extend the same benefit to pigs?” Rathskill said.

“When pigs fly,” Martin Broadcutt said. There was more laughter.

“It’s murder,” Avila Torres said.

“Technically,” Rathskill said, “murder is defined as killing another human being. At most, the law might judge it animal cruelty.”

“So, what makes us better than them?” she said.

Rathskill stood up from his stool and leaned forward. “That, Ms. Torres, is a profound question. What makes us better? What makes us different?”

“You’re not suggesting that whales are just as important as humans?” Martin Broadcutt said. “Or pigs?”

“Life feeds upon life, Mr. Broadcutt,” Rathskill said. “That’s a simple, inescapable truth. Life feeds upon life but with each death, a debt is incurred. Eventually, the debt comes due and predator becomes prey. Death makes us all equal. That’s a lesson the Makah knew intimately.”

“God commanded us to be fruitful and multiply,” Lydia Hempton said. “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you. Genesis 9:3.”

There were groans and a few catcalls from the class.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” Martin Broadcutt said. “The strong survive, the rest don’t. If whales are so fit, how come they’re almost extinct?”

Avila Torres got out of her seat and called Martin Broadcutt a chauvinistic creep. Broadcutt called her a tree hugger. The noise rose like storm surf against sea cliffs as everyone shouted their opinions, their passionate beliefs and entrenched prejudice and the hackneyed wisdom passed down from their parents.

In the back of the class, the shaman’s image became grainy and flickered, then faded to electronic snow like an old black and white television screen. Rathskill waited five minutes. The noise didn’t abate. He picked up his stool and walked out of the classroom. No one seemed to notice.

He returned to his office and collected his leather jacket and helmet. He was scheduled for office hours but left without even a note on the door. It was too much effort.

Time was everything. He was running out of it. Was it time to walk out onto the ice and expose himself to the cold mercy like an old Inuit? Wait too long and he’d lose the freedom to decide.

He needed to know what he didn’t. Blavatsky had said his memories might heal. He was sufficiently desperate to try any tomfoolery a second time. He started the Indian Chief and pointed it toward Shantytown.

He ran into traffic on the waterfront near the Black Ball Ferry docks. A cop was directing traffic at the intersection where the lights in every direction were flashing red. “What’s going on?” Rathskill asked him.

“Sea Defenders giving a press conference,” he said, his arms waving. “Indians are protesting.” A car failed to yield. The cop made an angry face and emphatically gestured for them to stop. “It’s a cluster, if you ask me.” He blew his whistle and changed the direction of traffic. “Move along. Light’s green.”

Rathskill parked the Chief behind Cock-a-doodle Donuts’ dumpster and worked his way into the crowd gathered at the ferry parking lot. At the dock in front of Downriggers on the Water, a big banner was draped over the side of a ship: Whaling kills tourism.

Crazy Elmo occupied the corner of Railroad Avenue. He was dressed in an orange Elmo suit and standing on a milk crate beside a cardboard sign. “Crazy Elmo photos—$5, autographs—$3, punch your lights out—free with a release form.”

He was shaking an orange fist at the sky. “You think that’s natural?” he shouted. “Harmless water vapor?” The silver contrails of passenger jets streaked the sky. “That’s climate change, courtesy of the U.S. government. Raise the oceans, turn fields into dust, and plant tornadoes. You never heard of HAARP?”

A Japanese couple laden with shopping bags and selfie sticks stopped to listen, thinking it a photo opportunity, but hurried away when Elmo pointed at them and shouted, “Too many people. Too many mouths to feed. Too many hands grabbing for what little’s left. They’ve weaponized the climate. They’re culling the herd. First the poor bastards in Nigeria and Bangladesh, people so far away you can’t hear them scream, and then it comes to a supermarket near you.”

Rathskill paused to listen to the rant. It was a mistake.

“You think I’m crazy?” Elmo said, pointing at Rathskill with an orange mitt. “You think it can’t be true? No one would kill millions of people to make a buck?” Elmo shook his head and seemed to deflate slightly. “All human suffering is someone’s business model.”


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

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