Now, it is when he is cutting down the abdomen that she slides out of the whale, viscous red and slick blood clinging to her skin as she shivers. Her limbs are but bone, meager straw and thin worms, with ill-fitting skin drawn beyond its means overtop. She holds them to herself at inelegant places, legs twined like the world serpents and arms crossed over her own chest. Knuckle by knuckle he can count, and each one curls with starved reverence over her opposite shoulders. It is with black eyes, black as the sea around them, that she watches him.
In one hand he holds a long blade, one for cutting through skin and fat and flesh. With the other he grabs her wrist and helps her stand. Her legs, stretched out, are long -- too long, like that of a heron, with the sharp, thin face of one to accompany. There is no breeze, and his hair and her hair stand very very still. As still as the sea, the deep black mirror of the sky, the great white fire gnawing at the horizon from the maw of the moon. Smoke, from distant whales’ corpses, choke out the stars.
You wretched thing, she spits, but she allows herself to be led by his hand around the deep gash and across the splayed, prone belly of the great whale. He gestures for her to sit.
These wars of yours, she says, are the most evil of all the violences; it is a thing that writhes as if every whale is not a greater thing than you.
He raises his blade slowly, but drops it swiftly and viciously. His muscles churn as he drives it down into the whale; it takes a second, but deep red wells up from the faultline-wound and crawls so slowly into the night of the sea. She does not flinch, or cover her eyes, or look away. Her gaze is one of nauseous rapture.
I know a whale is a world, he says. He does not look at her. Pipe in his mouth, he huffs and shuffles, setting aside the blade to rummage through the pockets of his ratty brown coat. On the opposite end of the gash from her he kneels as he searches. Eventually, after an age in the mirror-still, he produces a match, striking it alight until it bathes his creased face in the deepest chiaroscuro, skin rendered golden where it is not drowned under inscrutable deep dark.
She snarls. It is a thing of spittle and rot. When a whale dies, she hisses, it sinks into the black. It loses the sun. Limp, body curled back until its chest rises, tugged on, a marionette on a string, it falls without aim and without comprehension or care. It was, now it is. It is torn by the hagfish, by the sharks. The worms, the limpets, coat its bareness like a carpet. It sinks.
It is not alone as it sinks; it is in the bowels of the whale, stretched across the skin of the whale, that the soul lies. Cities blossom on the topography of the whale. Wars are waged over the folds of the stomach, the frayed forests of the whale’s reaching nerves. Against the backdrop of the intestines -- deep, pink, and slick -- women are hanged until death. Their bodies dangle limp from the nooses lined in a row, and spectators plant their feet on the stomach lining to watch their swaying.
She trembles, cold against the air. The world is limned in blue. She says this: you dare burn up the history of the world?
He drops the match; the match slips from his fingers. It is both and one and neither.
The fat burns. By the gods does the fat burn. He holds his fist to his chest as he mutters a prayer to the wind, sand, and stars. Maybe none, maybe all. She watches it where it began, tilts her head back to watch the first tongues of flame convalesce into roiling billows of smoke that limp up, up, up -- until she has leaned back so far that she falls backwards onto the damp skin of the whale.
It makes me sad, she says, that the worms -- starving, at the deepest depths of the world -- will never feast on this whale. It makes me sad that the worms that will writhe within me, come zenith, will forever be eclipsed a thousandfold.
He stands again, with some effort from his old and creaky knees; favoring his left leg over his right he walks around the burning wound and to her side. Leaning down, he places a hand on her back and guides her upright again. When she turns to look, there is a deep pain, an unspeakable tenderness written into the lines of his long aquiline nose, the curl of his hair down his worn cheeks. An insect lands upon his brow -- gods know from where -- to drink upon the sweat that beads in the folds and the wrinkles. She cannot bear it.
When he was young his hair was black. Once outside a bar -- a place of squalor, of dirt under your boot -- he took a vicious swing into another man’s face. He watched as the glass bowed and cracked upon his skull, how the shards clawed into the man’s skin and ripped it free from its confines. Something burst within him and he roared out a howl of a laugh. When more blood than was possible spilled from the man’s visage, conjured from the sheer violence of the action, and tall men turned to him to say: boy, you should be a whaler. He was twenty when he killed his first whale; it was a group effort and his being was still hale and hearty. That wholeness was a sanguine thing; it turned on itself and crawled into its own gut with animalistic intensity that slobbered on the confines of its own being. He trembled with an unbearable excitement, the hunger of a creature beyond his means, until the harpoon in his hand rattled too; the whale that sang his subconscious melodies and deepest secrets solemnly into the black sea and foamy surf did not survive the evening.
The wound remains. It does more than remain; it burns alive, as the corpse it burns upon splays out dead, and only grows in its furiosity. Even after the cut, the act of it, the fire renders the wound still capable of violence. Even discounting how the wound cuts a world, the violence is eternal. Smoke belches itself out of the canyon-thing and joins the black, adds to its ink. The smell is dark and sour and salty.
He struggles to fall to his knees next to her. His boots, though strong fish-leather, are coming apart. His trousers, his vestments are woven from half-fine, uneven thread that now unravels from its own wounds. His fat hands are as rough as stone, and forever stained darkly rich with a blood that will never wash off, always sticky, just out of sight.
Somewhere, far away from this beastly pyre, a solemn war-horn cuts unclear across the still salt of the air. It is not like whalesong; it does not make one tear their own heart from their chest and offer it, bleeding; it is none so sophisticated as that. It is a horn, simply that, the instrument of surrender of a whale-gut world. And just like that, time remembers itself. The gods turn their eyes back on a seam thick with dust.
She comes to with a hand on her shoulder atop a great flame. It is the first time she has seen fire. It is the first time she has seen anything at all, belched out she was from her great womb, and it is this. The stench is thick of rot and bitter smoke and worse; she can see flesh touch fire and blacken, turn thick and shrink, peeling up and drying out to ephemeral ash. Snatch by snatch of the whale is eaten voraciously, and without mercy. It is the first time she has seen sprawl, and understood its truth. The whale is a sprawl, a great thing, an infinity that sings lowly dirges that make the kelp shiver. The sea is a sprawl, each droplet of water an infinity upon infinities. The empire is a sprawl -- sprawling in its violence. Within the realm of her eyes, the sea stretches out in all directions, dotted with countless burning corpses of whales. There are whales dead and dying unto forever.
Perhaps she may kill him. Perhaps she may rip the blade from his hands and turn the violence to his ends; leave his chest splayed like a whale for the gulls to pick at his liver, that hallowed thing. She’ll go for his throat, hear him choke and cough on his own blood, ripping down and snapping his bones off. His lungs would yield to her like overripe fruit. With his ribs she could carve scrimshaw of a father and daughter. Of a whale and her child. Of a god and a world. He may very well let her, if only for the knowledge that art would be made from the last of his being as it is torn, forcefully, from the worms.
It is with one hand that he holds the blade still, even now, as the wound burns. His other hand is the one that holds her shoulder, presses a thumb mindlessly into a knotted muscle.
Leave some food for the worms, she says softly. The stars deep below us, they are. The air is only turning colder, and her shivering grows beyond that, into trembles that wrack the whole of her body.
He removes his hand, he sets down the blade, and reaches for one of his cuffs. His eyes are strange, nacreous. It is with the thickened, calloused, blood-dark fingers that flay whales that he drapes his coat around her shoulders.