RIP Billy Graham, why do the good always die young?
Michael Fredman 1998
Every August the whales return. They come here to birth the calves which are conceived far out to sea.
Now it is their season once more, I hear them in the evening. Their low song, seemingly melancholic and sombre, rolls across the waves to the land.
Sometimes, when I’m fucked up on booze and grass and pills I sing back to them, I holler until my throat cracks and hurts. Then I cry and I cry.
I live in a bungalow that stands alone on the beach, sheltered by the rising rock of the cliffs. I rented it originally after finishing school, my plan was to spend a gap year surfing, having parties, getting high.
After my accident there was much discussion over my living arrangements, it was thought best for me to relocate to the city where amenities would be more accessible. I was stubborn and refused to leave my home by the sea, even though the sand was almost uncrossable by my wheelchair.
I took for granted many things that I now have lost. I get by, but I am sick with bitterness sometimes and other times I am broken with despair.
I am slowly learning to appreciate life again but it is like building a tower of cards and too often it collapses.
When my friends come and visit we have a fire on the beach and we get wrecked and I forget that I am unhappy.
We don’t talk about motorbikes though, ever.
Last August I was a different person. I was eighteen years old and I was taller for one thing. I walked along the shore watching the whales. I remember with such sadness, something simple I will never again experience, the hot sand sluicing through my toes.
I used to thrive on danger, the thrill of pushing myself and my existence to the limits. We used to burn along the coast, along the wide open roads, riding crazy-fast.
Then I turned my last corner and was embraced by the white hot arms of oblivion, the next thing I knew my shattered body was being cut free from the wreckage of my bike and a truck.
The driver of the truck died. I killed them. It was a million to one chance that I would survive and they would die. The impact did more damage to me than they, but they had a weak heart. They died of shock.
I don’t know anything about the driver, I don’t want to. They never existed, to me.
They, like my legs, are no more and that is that.
The sand outside is a quiet turquoise beneath the bright and whole moon, the sea is black but with cutlass flashes of light where the moonlight strikes it. I am sat in my wheelchair on my veranda nursed by a bottle of anti-depressants. They make me feel sad, but not care.
It is cold and late. I am shivering but that is as distant to me now as my pain, as the moon.
The waves are swollen and break upon the shore with a roar that fades to a hiss, as if the sea is a Chimera - part lion, part snake.
Around the wooden posts and floor, grow flowers. I am no gardener. They grow in spite of my neglect. Now they are dormant in the moonlight. Bats occasionally fleck the night.
I see a shooting star stretch across the night to burn and fade in a blink.
I wish I were dead.
I used to surf this ocean, I was a master of these waves. I stood and I commanded the water beneath me.
I can still paddle out on my board, but it seems pointless - paddling out and then paddling back. I have a kayak too, but mostly I just stay on the beach and watch the sea now, watch it slink back and forth.
To move around I have a sand buggy on which I can drive the ten kilometres along the beaches to the shops. A couple of weeks back I deliberately drove into a grocer's display, scattering fruit everywhere, and then claimed that I had lost control of the buggy. People were very understanding, and no-one mentioned that I stank of whisky.
My dick is still intact. That wasn’t cut from me. I had a girlfriend before my crash but we weren’t that serious.
‘You understand, we’re not that serious’, she had said to me in hospital.
There is a prostitute who comes over once a week. Very professional. Sometimes she acts out any fantasies I’ve had during the week. A couple of nights back she was the nurse who had looked after me directly after my crash.
When she asks me what my fantasy is I hear, in my head, my voice saying; “Having my legs again”, but I never say this.
To pass the time I started to learn Origami. I can make little cranes and frogs, butterflies and boats. It is a meditative pastime, I find my mind travels far away from me when I am making my paper animals.
I read a lot now, and listen to the radio. There’s a whole world out there, drifting to me in waves.
One night the the radio waves brought to me the story of a young Japanese girl, Sadako Sasiki, who was two years old when the Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Sadako developed Leukemia ten years after, when she was twelve.
In Japanese folklore there is a legend that if you make a thousand paper cranes, the Gods may grant you your wish.
The worst thing is how I tear myself to pieces living and reliving the past, right up to my accident.
It is as if there is no more time now, I am in limbo and only the past is real.
Behind my closed eyes I can feel myself whole once more, with all the optimism and arrogance of my youth, strutting and racing my way. But before my open eyes, it has all gone from me.
All the mistakes I ever made, the people I hurt, the chances I never took, they are like the scars that adorn my body in gruesome, permanent ribbons, they will never fade.
The only path from the beach to the cliff top is far from wheelchair friendly, but I have a winch to which I can be hooked. It has a portable engine and generator more than powerful enough to draw me up and down the cliffside. At the top is a road which leads to the city.
I can still go out drinking with my friends but I cannot dance and there are many places I used to go to which I cannot any more, because of stares and because of stairs. So I tend to remain here, by the beach, often alone.
Some nights I mix the pills and the booze so much I don’t expect to wake up and when I do it is with some disappointment.
There. There’s a whale now, a male calling for his mate. The whole air is shimmering with his call. And there is his jet, a fountain of water lit by the moonlight.
I can hear him splashing out in the sea, waiting for his mate's response.
Silence passes and he calls again.
Then there is another call on the wind, a different tone. She has found him.
It touches me, hearing these creatures. I have read that they are faithful to one another until death. They will travel across the oceans to be together. They have no wars, no nuclear bombs. They have one another and the vast realms of the deep where they raise their young.
I don’t suppose I will have children. No woman I’ve met so far has found my self loathing and self pitying personality an adequate compensation for my lost limbs. I look at my stumps with revulsion, and they are mine, how they must look to others, I can't imagine.
It's early days yet. Thats what my parents say, but they grow more absent as they provide more gadgets for me. The winch, the buggy, the wheelchair were all their gifts. In a few months I may get false limbs. So far I have refused them in sheer disgust.
They are calling together now, she is pregnant with his child. They are nuzzling one another as they sing. I can see their thick, lined backs and their fluked tails and two sprays of water that pass one another and then sink.
The sky is cloudless and a sheer black, there are many stars garlanded around the moon and I shake off these gloomy thoughts, a strong sense of wonder grips me.
I swiftly skirt over the sand, to the lip of the sea. The moonlight casts the whole sea directly before me in silver light. I drive along the slick sand by the edge of the sea with the tips of the waves occasionally nipping at my thighs.
I can see the whales clearly, one of them rises head upwards out of the water and then crashes back to the sea.
She is birthing.
Her song swells once more, long and low. I ride out onto a pier of flat black rock raised above the wave's reach and make a joint.
In this moment, as I cloud my mind with smoke and watch nature's beautiful struggle, I feel that I am alright. The sea is turbulent beneath me and the night sky is unfathomable above me, but I, I am inbetween. Calm.
In the summer even this secluded beach gains a mass of sunbathers, surfers and general beach heads but now, in winter, there are only the whales and me.
I smirk to myself, thinking we are all mammals, none of us have legs, we are alike in these ways. We are kindred.
As the mother labours, she wails and the male sings to her. I will them well from my rock perch.
After half an hour the calf is born. I watch it rise to meet its parents for the first time. I feel some aspect of the relief that they must feel.
The whale calf rolls in the water, its first ever moon is wide above it.
Then they all three start to move on and I rev up and ride along the shore alongside them. Then they are gone from me. Into the other world below.
I ride around the beach for a while, feeling a brightness and elation that makes me laugh aloud. I skid around the dunes, my heart pumping loud and strong and then I return home and go to sleep, without anti-depressants, painkillers or tranquilizers.
In dreams I am always running...
The morning is bright and clear and I am woken first by the sunlight which has crept through my window to fall on my eyes, I lie awake but with my lids closed, bathing in the warm orange of my eyelids. Then I hear the whale song. A lament. It stirs me up, and into my chair.
Once in my wheelchair I roll out onto the veranda. The day is bright and crisp, but there on the beach before me lies a Southern Right Whale calf, drying in the sun, breathing and occasionally wriggling weakly.
I ride down to it on my buggy and check it out. Then I drive back to my bungalow and, with some difficulty, collect my bedding and tie the sheets to the back of my buggy so they trail out behind me then I drive along the edge of the sea until the sheets are soaked. Finally, and with some difficulty, I drape the sheets over the stranded whale, I meet the mournful gaze of the dark blue eyes, before I cover them with the wet cloth - as if I am some helpless priest or doctor, closing the eyes of the departed.
The damp sheets soothe the poor creature, but still it pleads to the air.
I think of what I can do, It is too large for me to push into the sea by myself, even using the buggy. I fret.
I could ride to the shops along the beach or try to stop traffic on the road on the cliffs above. It would take at least an hour to get help from further up the beach and, optimistically, half an hour back if I got a lift. Some days no traffic comes along these cliff roads, especially in winter.
Also, obstinately I do not want to seek other peoples help. I felt that I should be capable of solving any problem myself. It is this obstinacy which means I do not have a phone.
Suddenly the whale bucks in a hopeless effort and its flipper knocks me from my buggy to land painfully on the wet sand. I lie there, gasping as the sea covers my face and then retires. I see the whale's tail flapping desperately by me, it is heavy enough to crush me to death.
This twenty foot scramble away from the sea and the thrashing tail leaves me exhausted and unable to clamber back into my buggy. I lie, parallel to the whale, on the hot sand. Both of us gasping and stranded. The whale saddens the air with its bone-flute call once more.
After a few minutes I have composed enough strength to be able to mount my buggy once more but then I am unable to decide what to do. The whale is dying before my eyes.
I swear loudly and impotently.
Why isn’t the world fair? In the dreary mournfulness of drunkeness I have asked myself that question many times. Boring myself and whomsoever was with me.
I find myself shouting, in anguish and in rage, about the whale. About my legs. About the dead driver, about all the nameless dead.
“It’s not fair”.
It isn’t fair that hope be born to this world simply to wither and die. Why should hope be born at all, just to suffer?
The whale moans and I scream. The seabirds rise from the neighbouring rocks and flit into the air, whooping around us.
I recall that I was wild in school, I used to set fire to my jeans to win money in stupid bets. I was always fighting the other boys and chasing the girls. I once let a poisonous snake loose in the teachers' lounge.
I never cared much for the whole thing, the order and the authority. It seemed absurd and stifling to me. I was always more interested in the world outside and how I could have the most fun in it.
Up until the age of eighteen I managed to live that way but now, nineteen and broken, I can not. I was chaos, but staring at this huge, dying creature before me, I hate what chaos does to hope.
I decide I must try something. So I decide I will use the electric winch to raise myself up to the road on the off chance of stopping some traffic.
It seems now that everything has taken more energy and concentration than I was aware of. As I hook myself into the harness of the winch from my buggy, planning to rise up to the top of the cliff, I find that I am sweaty, tired and clumsy, I fiddle with the straps with increasing irritation.
I feel defeated. I realise it is hopeless and I sink into submission, I am just tired. I am too tired.
The whale is going to die. So what.
Things die all the time. So what? How many children were born, even in this minute, in to war ravaged lands, to starve into silence, to fade away like shooting stars, in the blink of an eye?
More birds are gathering on the rocks and cliffs, they sound gloating, harping noisily in anticipation of the feast to come.
I wriggle from the harness, which is tight and irritating around my shoulders. I shrug it off in a tantrum of movements. My only plan now is to draw my blinds and to drink myself to sleep.
I press the button to drive the buggy away and I speed off when, with a jarring pain, I am abruptly reminded that one of my arms is still caught in a harness strap. The winch draws out behind me and then yanks back at me. I hear the metal above squeak with the strain and my shoulder stings with the wrench.
This winch, my umbilical link to the road, to the world I once belonged to. There is the answer.
With a renewed vigour I tie the harness to the back of my buggy and then I speed away from the cliffs towards the sea. The first two times the jarring stop throws me from the buggy and so it is a protracted process, but the third time the winch breaks free from the metal brace that had held it to the top of the cliff and it falls down to the beach with a flickering slither.
I then hook the engine and generator that power the winch to the back of my buggy and drive them down to the shore and then onto the outcrop of flat rock which juts out into the water. This is relatively easy as they are mounted on a wheeled trailer.
Finally I take the winch, connect it to the engine, and drive the harnessed end down to near the whale.
I take the sheets from around the whale's thick body and tie two of them together in a large loop. I know that I cannot tie them around its tail without risking death, but I know how to make a basic lasso and I am relying on this in order to complete my mission. I tie the other, long, end of the lasso to the buggy, so that I can draw it closed using the thrust of the vehicle.
With each attempt I am thankful for the strength of my arms, the soaking lasso I have made from the two sheets is painfully heavy to draw back in after a failed throw and heavier still to cast back out.
Time passes, I don't know how long, I must have thrown the lasso about fifteen times now. My arms ache, my breath is rasping. I see clearly that this idea is not going to work. Furthermore, I see starkly that I have ruined my best chance of saving the whale, there is no way for me to reach the road now.
I have a strange tightness in my throat, like I used to get when my father would beat me as a child. He would stare down at me, waiting for me to cry and I would fight furiously against the hot tears welling behind my eyes. I was determined that I would win that one battle. He could hit me as hard as he wanted, but he would not see me cry.
I am not religious, but now, now I feel absolutely that there is a God, there is a God who is cruel and I feel that He is looking down on me, waiting for me to cry, drawing back his omniscient hand to deliver one more blow.
My final throw is fuelled with defeat and bitterness, the loop landing on the shallow water behind the whale to dance limply there. Tears well in my eyes, I shudder, defeated.
The whale is too weak to thrash in protest but wriggles in weak defiance.
Then, from the rocky pier, I carefully winch the whale from the beach. The generator smokes and complains but it perseveres.
The enormous animal is pulled from the hot dry sand into the water, further and further until it is feeling waves crash over it, then it is covered by them.
Now back in the water it is too weak to swim and is still caught by the winch. I realise I have to release the whale from the lassoo. Again, the problem is the whale itself, which could snap my spine with an unfortunate movement if I get too close.
I sit helpless in my buggy while I try to work out what to do, the whale groans and blows water into the air.
I drive back to my home and find a knife and a kayak oar. I tie the knife to the end of the oar with rope and then return to the rocks.
The unhindered whale turns weakly in the water, to face out to sea. Then swims, wearily at first but then with gathering speed into the deep and far away.
I watch it leave and I feel, over and above the blisters, cuts and welts that cover my body, a surge of well-being.
Whatever else, however useless I am to this world, however much my misery wishes me dead, whatever else, today I saved the life of another creature. Nobody helped, I received no recognition or reward. My actions were even to my own detriment, I have destroyed many of the things I relied upon, I cut myself off from the road above and ruined the winch in the process. I am stranded.
But I am freed too. I hate myself because of what I once was, but today I am proud of what I am.
I gave another the one thing that I can never have, I gave another freedom.
It was just me and the world, and I won.
The day is at an end. The sun is setting and from a distance the sound of whales can be heard.
I am sure I can make out, against the ceaseless whispering of the sea, three voices, together.
Maybe one August in the future I shall become an unspoken Godfather.
Maybe. I shall wait for this, here on this simple beach, where I feel whole.