The Whale Caller

by Zakes Mda

The Whale Caller

Paperback, 230 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $14 | purchase

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Book Summary

The author's fifth novel charts a tender, funny romance between the "Whale Caller" in the small South African coastal town of Hermanus and the town drunk, Saluni. Reprint. 10,000 first printing.

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Excerpt: The Whale Caller

The Whale Caller

The Whale Caller


Picador USA

Copyright © 2006 Zakes Mda
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312425876

Chapter One

THE SEA IS BLEEDING from the wounds of Sharisha. But that is later. Now the tide returns in slight gentle movements. Half-moon is the time of small tides. The Whale Caller stands on one of the rugged cliffs that form an arena above the bay. He has spent the better part of the day standing there, blowing his horn. Blowing Sharisha's special song. Blowing louder and louder as the tide responds by receding in time to the staccato of his call. Yet she is nowhere to be seen. His eyes have become strained from looking into the distant waters, hoping to see Sharisha lobtailing in the glare of the setting sun. It is September and the southern rights have returned from the southern seas. But Sharisha is not among them.

Night is beginning to fall. Slowly the Whale Caller makes his way down the cliffs to pour out his pain to Mr. Yodd. He selects the longer but safer route that traverses the concrete slipway on which blue, green, yellow and red boats are displayed. They used to belong to fishermen of a century ago. He makes certain that he does not stumble against any of them for they are brittle. If he were to trip and fall on one of them it would surely disintegrate. Experts from Cape Town spend months trying to restore them to their former glory, so that present and future generations, brought up in these days of engine-powered trawlers, can see how fishermen of old endured the stormy seas in small open boats powered by their own muscles.

When the Whale Caller is in a happy mood he can see the weather-beaten fishermen shrouded in the mists of time, taking to sea in their fleet of small boats. Some are rowing back with their catch, while others are gutting the fish or drying it on the rocks. He can see even deeper in the mists, before there were boats and fishermen and whalers, the Khoikhoi of old dancing around a beached whale. Dancing their thanks to Tsiqua, He Who Tells His Stories in Heaven, for the bountiful food he occasionally provides for his children by allowing whales to strand themselves. But when there are mass strandings the dance freezes and the laughter in the eyes of the dancers melts into tears that leave stains on the white sands. The weepers harvest the blubber for the oil to fry meat and light lamps. They will ultimately use the rib bones to construct the skeletons of their huts, and will roof the houses with the baleen. Ear bones will be used as water carrying vessels. Other bones will become furniture. Or even pillows and beds. Nights are slept fervidly inside variable whales that speckle the landscape.

But first the weepers will eat the meat until their stomachs run. They will dry some of it in the sun. They cannot finish it though. Most of it will putrefy and fill the shores with a stench. Hence they weep for the waste. Tsiqua, He Who Tells His Stories in Heaven, should learn to strand only one whale at a time. One whale after seasons of migrations to the southern seas and back, and the bodies of the weepers explode into laughter once again. Once more the Men of Men-which is what the name Khoikhoi means-thank He Who Tells His Stories in Heaven for the bountiful provision.

Today the Whale Caller is not in the mood to amble in the mists of the past. He is racked by the sadness of the present. His whole body is pining for Sharisha.

He treads carefully down the crag until he reaches the grotto that Mr. Yodd shares with the rock rabbits that have become so tame that they don't run away from people. In daytime they can be seen scavenging in dustbins when there are no tourists to feed them. The grotto is just above the water made brown by seaweed that looks like dirty oil. He squats on a rock and looks into the grotto. A rock rabbit appears, looks at him closely and languidly walks back to its hole to resume its disturbed rest.

* * *

HOY, MR. YODD! She has not come. Like yesterday. Like the day before. I waited and waited and waited. She stood me up. They sail back, she does not. She lingers in the southern seas, and she thinks I care. I've got news for her, Mr. Yodd. I don't give a damn. If she wants to play that sort of game, she will find that two can play it just as well. She will find me ready and willing. Or she won't find me at all. There are plenty of fish in these seas. The leviathan with a whore's heart. There are plenty of fish in these seas, Mr. Yodd. And I bought a new tuxedo. Hire purchase. Not rental this time, but hire purchase. Six monthly instalments and I own it. Pay-as-you-wear. I bought it specially to welcome Sharisha back. No more hired tuxedos for me. I needed something permanent. Something that will absorb the odours of my soul and become part of what Sharisha associates with me. In any case, in the long run it's expensive to hire a tuxedo. It is cost-effective to own your own. Variety is nice, but stability is more important. It has never happened like this, Mr. Yodd. I fear something might have befallen her. I worry. I am a worrier when it comes to Sharisha. She may yet come, you say? I cannot help but entertain the unthinkable. What if whalers have harpooned her, and as we speak she is being cut into pieces for Japanese palates? I think the worst. I cannot help it. She has never done this before, Mr. Yodd. Southern rights appear on this coast as early as June. But I am never unduly worried when I don't see her in June because that is not her month. She waits for the winter rains to have their run and the warmth of spring to return. She is always punctual. In the middle of August she returns in all her breaching glory from the southern seas. Now September is about to end. Yet she is nowhere to be seen. Ya! Ya! I know that they are still coming back; that for the whole of September and October groups of them will be coming back. It is unlike Sharisha to be a straggler. If she comes in October, it means I will only have a month or two with her before she voyages back to the southern seas. She cannot give me the thrill of her massive splashes into the new year because by January the southern rights are almost all gone. A month or two with Sharisha is not enough. No, Mr. Yodd, I think you are just trying to twist the knife that she has already planted in my back. You seem to rejoice in my pain. Three years, you say! But Sharisha ... Sharisha comes every year. Not on a three-year cycle as other southern rights may do. Sharisha cannot live for three years without me, Mr. Yodd. She comes every year.

* * *

HE STANDS UP and attempts to walk up the crag. He has plodded only a few steps when he slips and falls on his knees. He is too tired to stand up again. Or perhaps too despondent. His confession to Mr. Yodd has failed to perform its intended function of lifting his spirits. He touches his left knee. His fingers are wet with warm blood. He hopes the lacerations are not too deep. In the sunshine of the day these rocks are beautiful in their bright yellow, grey, metallic brown and white. But they are sharp and at night, in the emaciated light of the half-moon, they can easily be deadly. He thanks his stars that he was not wearing his new tuxedo today. It would have been torn at the knees like the blue dungarees he is wearing. He is pleased with himself that he does not feel any pain. But he is even happier that he was able to save his horn. His options were clear: to fall on his hands and save the rest of his body, or to fall on his knees and save the horn. In the first option the horn would surely have broken into pieces since he was holding it. He sacrificed his knees for his horn. He chuckles at the silliness of it all. He can always get a new horn by making it. He cannot get new knees. But perhaps it is not silly at all. He has a sentimental attachment to this horn among all others that he owns. He has used this particular horn for the last three years. It has a special timbre that strikes a tingling chord for Sharisha. No two horns can sound exactly the same.

He decides to spend the night in the company of the stars. He holds his horn close to his heart. He dare not press it too hard against his chest, lest it break. He remembers how he created it out of the fronds of the kelp that grows among the rocks of the sea. Storms brought it to the shoreline. He took the wet fronds from the water and placed them on the roof of his house in the crooked and twisted shapes suited to producing the deep and hollow sounds of the whales. The seaweed dried up to become pipes. He has fashioned a number of horns this way.

The little waves break with a monotonous rhythm on the rocks, bringing with them more kelp. He remembers his first kelp horn.

It was forty years ago. He was a strapping young man in his early twenties. He loved the Church-as it was officially known-and looked forward to the Sundays when he and the other congregants would be dancing to the beat of the drums and the music of the harps and tambourines. For him the most heavenly part of the service, besides the snow white robes of the worshippers, was the kelp horn that an old man blew to accompany the hymns. He was so fascinated by the deep and hollow sounds of the horn that he asked the old man to teach him how to play it. He became so adept at it that His Eminence the Bishop made him official horn player after age had stolen the old man's breath. He inherited the old man's horn. That was his very first kelp horn. And he played it so celestially that His Eminence decided to do away with harps and tambourines, for they seemed to dilute the innocence of the horn. This caused an argument whose proportions had never been seen before at the Church. The Elders of the Church said that harps were by nature heavenly. Angels sang to harps and tambourines. To do away with them was playing into the hands of the Prince of Darkness. But His Eminence stood his ground. A kelp horn, he said, was a natural musical instrument that took the congregation back to its roots. It was an instrument that celebrated the essence of creation. God would lend a sharper ear to the prayers of those who praised Him to the accompaniment of an instrument that was shaped by His own hand through the agency of the seas. This led to a schism in the Church. The Elders appointed a new bishop among themselves, and His Eminence led his followers to a new church that would worship God in its own creative way. It became known as the Church of the Sacred Kelp Horn, and the Whale Caller-who had not learnt to call whales then-was anointed Chief Horn Player.

The Church of the Sacred Kelp Horn met every Sunday at Hoy's Koppie, a conical hill in the middle of the village. The flock and its shepherd sang and danced for the Lord among the fynbos that grew in front of the Klipgat Cave, which used to be the home, variously, of the Khoikhoi and the San peoples long before the village came into being. In their white robes-with blue sashes to distinguish themselves from the members of the Church-the worshippers waltzed and tangoed among the trees. When the winter rains came the service was conducted in the cave, which was too small for ballroom dance. The congregants itched for the foxtrots and rumbas of sunny Sundays.

Like His Eminence, the Chief Horn Player felt that the new church brought the worshippers closer to nature, and in greater communion with the spirits of the forebears that were hovering above the tall cliffs and in the cave. He blew the horn, sometimes to accompany the hymns, or just to arouse the spirits and to stir the members of the congregation into a climactic frenzy until they spoke in tongues.

The most exciting times for the Chief Horn Player were the Sundays when the sea became a baptistery. The worshippers stood on the white sands and sang their praises to the Lord. His Eminence led those who were to be christened further into the sea. The Chief Horn Player followed, blowing the sacred sounds of baptism. His Eminence then immersed each one into the water and out again three times, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The Chief Horn Player accompanied each immersion with bellows that caused tremors on the land under the water. It was on one such occasion that a whale surfaced about a hundred metres from the baptism. It swam closer to take a curious look. It seemed to be attracted by the sound of the horn. The whale stole the attention of the congregation from the baptism. The Chief Horn Player himself was fascinated by this big creature of the sea, which he had never seen at such close quarters. It might have been a humpback or even a killer whale. In those days he did not know the difference. A whale was a whale was a whale. What intrigued him most was the notion that it was his horn that had drawn it to the baptism.

It submerged and waved its tail above the water. It began to lobtail-slapping the water repeatedly with its tail. The congregation cheered. The Chief Horn Player blew the horn to the rhythm of the splashing water. His Eminence was struck by a brilliant idea for an instant sermon on Jonah and the whale.

"We are being sent to Nineveh, my children," he boomed above the din. "Like Jonah of the Bible, God is sending us to Nineveh."

He asked for a Bible from those who were standing on the beach. A saved woman waded in the water, raising her robe above the knees with one hand, and lifting the Bible to the sky with the other hand. She gave it to His Eminence and waded back. He turned the pages to the Book of Jonah. He raised his hand, demanding silence. And there was silence. Even the whale stopped lobtailing. He read from the Book of Books: "`Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.' God is speaking through this whale, my children, sending us to cry for Nineveh! Are we going to heed the call or are we going to flee to Tarshish?"

"But where is Nineveh, Your Eminence?" asked one of the worshippers.

"Out there in the sinful world," responded His Eminence. "In this very village. Wickedness is everywhere and God demands that we cry against it."

The congregation broke into moans and wails and screams, crying against Nineveh's wickedness. The whale began to sail away.

"I think Nineveh is in Cape Town," suggested the Chief Horn Player, remembering the trip to Cape Town that the congregation had been planning and postponing for the past three years. When the Church of the Sacred Kelp Horn broke away from the Church, the carrot His Eminence dangled to attract more followers-in addition to the introduction of ballroom dance as an integral part of the rites of worship-was a bus trip to Cape Town, to evangelise the multitudes that gathered on the beaches indulging in worldly joys and that wasted the summer nights away in nightclubs and strip joints.

"If we flee to Tarshish," continued His Eminence, "God will send His whales to swallow us, for it is written, 'Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.' Of course today we know what the writers of the Bible did not know; that a whale is not a fish. After all those days and nights living inside a whale, it vomited him out on dry land, and he ran straight to Nineveh to preach to the glory of the Lord! We must not be like Jonah; whales must not first swallow us before we can work for God. The sceptics among you will ask, how is it possible to survive in the stomach of a whale without being digested? But I ask you, my children, if Jesus himself believed in the story of Jonah and the whale, who are we to question it? In Matthew 12 verse 40 Jesus says, 'For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.' What more proof do we need that the story of Jonah is true?"

It was obvious to all that the spirit of Jonah had taken over the baptism. The whale had hijacked the whole ceremony, even though the creature's tail could now be seen sailing a distance away.

"It is sailing away!" screeched the Chief Horn Player.

He blew his horn with great vigour and the whale stopped. Once more it lobtailed. He was convinced that through his kelp horn he had the power to communicate with it. This discovery excited him no end, and he remained at the beach blowing his horn long after the rest of the congregation had gone home.

Continues...



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