31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 30: “Whale Stories” by Théodora Armstrong

May 30, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

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Clear_Skies_No_Wind_100%_Visibility“Whale Stories” is an ambitious, audacious work of short fiction, told in third-person limited perspective from the point of view of William, the son of a woman who – with William and his younger sister, Miriam, in tow – has fled her home in the city to set up a bed and breakfast on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. William’s father is a geologist who travels frequently for his work; he is currently “somewhere in New Brunswick,” or so William supposes.

It becomes fairly clear as the story unfolds that a rift has developed between William’s parents. Whether they are in the process of divorcing is not made entirely explicit, but there is no question that husband and wife have reached an impasse of some sort:

Their mother’s walks were a habit now and came after dinner without any announcement. Miriam and William were never invited along and knew not to ask. For the first few evening walks, Miriam would clutch the porch railing and cry, believing their mother was never coming back. But now they barely blinked as she quietly escaped the house. Every once in a while, though, William still followed her, but always at a distance, watching her from the forest. He would crouch behind the tall ferns, his breath shallow and painful in his chest. She stopped at a different spot every time, and when she found her spot, she would sit on the beach and sink her hands deeper and deeper into the sand, staring out at the water. Sometimes she sat for a couple minutes and sometimes she sat for an hour. The longer she sat at the beach, the greater the chance she would cry.

Armstrong’s tactic in this story – reminiscent of Henry James or L.P. Hartley – is to relate the parents’ experience through the prism of a child, who is incapable of comprehending the full import of what is transpiring. The children’s mother is clearly struggling – she hasn’t been able to outfit them with curtains, a kitchen table, a television, or a doormat – but she tries to put the best face on things for the sake of William and Miriam. “His mother kept saying this was her dream,” Armstrong writes, “something she never could have done if she was still living in the city with William’s father.” At the bed and breakfast, William’s mother says, “instead of opening their home to one traveller – his dad – she could now open it to all of them.”

William’s father, it seems clear, was an absentee parent even before the trio decamped the city for the Sunshine Coast. “When they moved, they left all of his father’s clothes and books. His mom said it was easier for their father’s work if he left his things in the city.” This seems like fairly obvious prevarication on the mother’s part, but William remains oblivious to the implications of his parents’ situation.

Or, so it seems on the surface. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that the boy suffers a kind of separation anxiety resulting in manifestations of anger and acting out. On a walk by the beach one day, William encounters a boy who is staying at the bed and breakfast. The other boy has piece of Styrofoam he has been trying to float like a boat; William takes a stick and demolishes it, then threatens harm to the boy himself: “Don’t follow me or I’ll stab your neck.”

In his room, William keeps a collection of rocks his father has given him, but the rocks serve as much as symbols of their impersonal, distant relationship as they do reminders of his father’s presence. Sometimes, when the two were reunited at the airport following one of the father’s excursions, William had to wait for his gift, “aware the entire time of the hard lump pressed against his chest as his father carried him to the car” – a hard lump, that is, where he might otherwise feel the beating of his father’s heart.

His father’s absence has rendered William rigid and calcified, a loner who fancies himself a kind of pioneer on the order of Robinson Crusoe. Unbeknownst to his mother, William has been digging a hole on the beach in the hopes of catching something – “at least something small … and if he was lucky something bigger.” How significant that William’s project is a hole, a literal void. And more: a void that he masks or covers over by placing deadfall across the opening.

William lies to Miriam about the hole to prevent her from exploring in the area and possibly falling into his trap. He tells his sister that there is a beached whale decomposing on the shore and she must stay away. The image of the whale is fanciful – William says it has had “its eyes pecked out, and … it stank so bad you would throw up on the spot if you went anywhere near it.”

This fantasy is much more palatable than the reality William discovers upon inspecting the hole one morning: an injured dog, one of the pack of wild mutts that roams the area, lies broken and dying in the film of water at the bottom. Confronted with the painful reality of the injured canine, William is at a loss: he always imagined that whatever he captured in his hole would already be dead when he found it. Moreover, an old dog keeps watch over the broken body of the younger canine, “tongue hanging out sleepily, spotted belly exposed.”

The symbolism here – of a young mutt in distress and the elder dog that refuses to abandon it to die alone – is obvious, even to William: mere animals take care of their own, in a way William’s father seems unable, or unwilling, to do with him. William reacts to this unconscious realization by burying the injured dog alive. Whether his action constitutes a metaphorical erasure of his father (or, indeed, himself) is open to interpretation. Certainly this is one possible way of reading the story’s final lines, in which he tells Miriam (who has witnessed what he did) that the whale he had concocted has disappeared. In any event, his anger and sense of betrayal have reinforced in him a notion that his father’s disinterest implies: it is far easier to destroy something than it is to create it. “It only took him twenty minutes to fill the hole,” Armstrong writes. “Much less time than it had taken to dig.”