The Whale Hunter
by Steinur Bell
On the Faroe Islands, men hunt puffins. They clutch long poles with a netted basket on each end and rappel sheer cliffs in makeshift harnesses. The puffins build their nests in the cliffs but are otherwise not so smart. Suspended, with rocks and frigid water hundreds of feet below them, the men net the birds and kill them. They tie the dead puffins around their waists.
If you image search the Faroe Islands in Google, you’ll see the rugged, treeless landscapes and jagged cliffs jutting out of the sea like compound fractures. You’ll see fishing villages with wooden houses painted primary colors and the bright fishing boats and the foreboding North Atlantic. The general feeling there is one of frontier, beyond which human life faces peril.
Twelve pages into your search results, you’ll find him: the puffin hunter, harnessed, hanging over the cliff, focused, ostensibly, on his prey. Blond hair sticks out from under a wool cap, and his skin, you can imagine, could repel darts. I’ve named him Olaf, but he could be Fritz or Bent. His wife would be sturdy. She would salt cure the fish and the butchered sheep, tend to the garden, and raise their children. Her hands would be tough as mitts.
I’ve never visited the Faroe Islands, but my old best friend, Eric, has. He studied abroad in Denmark. He never watched them hunt puffins, but he watched them hunt whales. Each summer, men in boats drive migrating pilot whales to the shore. After the whales are beached, other men rush into the freezing water and use knives to sever a massive artery. The bay fills with whale blood. Many activist groups disagree with the hunt. They call it barbaric and boycott Faroese cod. They live in New York, Berlin, London, and most of them work in offices.
I work in a cube on the fifteenth floor of a building downtown. In a good wind, the building sways. During a real storm, when the rain beats hard against the windows, you can look out and almost pretend that you’re on a boat. But in my cube, I face a wall. I have to stand at the enormous windows in a conference room and coax the bay or the low clouds into a raging sea.
For a couple months, every other week or so, I’d look at the puffin hunter. As I watched him hanging there, I wondered if he knew that his picture was on the Internet. He’s not a man who would google himself. He has no idea about social networking sites. In the evening, I’m sure he watches TV with his wife—the news, the weather—and when that’s finished, he finds Beethoven or Brahms on the radio. Their children are out tending to the sheep, exploring the hills, or fishing, while his wife knits wool socks and listens as he recounts stories of the puffins or the cod that he caught.
Many mornings before most of my coworkers arrived, I’d find his picture and follow him around his village, up to the cliffs, and out to sea, where he’s fought rough waters and sneaker waves. In the summer, I’d rush with him into the water to kill the whales. My cube opens to a busy walkway, so everyone can see what I’m looking at. We all look.
One morning, I set the puffin hunter as my desktop background. By setting this background, I was not verifying my identity at work as a rugged adventurer. Usually my desktop displays images of sleek new buildings or bridges. In the framed photo next to my computer, my wife, Jean, and I stand next to the Archiv in Berlin. The picture of my son, Jeremy, shows us standing outside the Getty. I’ve pinned up a postcard of a Kandinsky print. Jean believes that I’ve defined myself as a fashionable aesthete, an architecture buff, a bit of a dandy, but she also believes that at heart I’m a good dad, a bit bumbling, eager for yard work, cold beer, and playing ball with my boy. You fit better in a Norman Rockwell, she’s said, more than once. She believes this. Jean. Whom I married.
Within minutes of setting the new image, I sensed someone standing at the edge of my cube, watching me. It was the maintenance man, an older guy with a ponytail and graying sideburns. His name was not embroidered across his breast, but I figured him a Simon, or a Ray, an old hippie not ready to completely give up.
“Your light’s out,” he said, nodding at the fluorescent tubes above us.
“I don’t like the buzzing,” I said, “or the light. I unhooked the tubes.”
“You can’t just leave them up there unhooked.” He shook his head like I was an asshole, shrugged, and walked off. He came back with a ladder, removed the tubes, and left without a word.
Later when I returned from the bathroom Trish was waiting at my desk, holding some folders. Her hair was up, secured with two fancy chopsticks, and with makeup she’d tried to cover a pimple on her cheek. She had on her favorite country-western blouse. Her charcoal slacks fit well, and her black leather shoes came to a sharp point.
Trish and I are having an affair. She’s the prize of our team, tall and fit. You wouldn’t guess she has a two-year-old boy. She doesn’t look thirty. I’m not a mother, she screams. She tans at a salon and barely eats. Her breasts are like acorns, hard little things I try to avoid.
Trish’s son is named Vance. Her husband, Glen, already runs a bank branch. He’s an unwavering sports fan, who, judging from the picture in her cube, imagines himself the quarterback or the point guard. Apparently he talks of nothing but athletes.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“In the Faroe Islands,” I said, unable to stop looking at the pimple on her cheek, “they hunt puffins.”
I think she could tell what I was hung up on. She shifted her weight and turned slightly. “Did you take that?”
I’d replayed this scene, anticipated this very question, so many times and did not even pause. “I was there,” I said, “in college.”
“I don’t even know where that is.”
“North. Far north of Scotland. Up kind of by Iceland, really. I traveled by boat.”
My monitor popped and went to sleep. But he was there now. I could sneeze and bump my desk—that’s all it would take—I could tap my mouse, and he would return. I had no choice but to tell them.
I glanced at the picture of Jean and me outside the Archiv—we look happy. She has her arm around me and we grin like teens. We were in our early twenties, unmarried. Jean knows that I’d never visited the Faroe Islands. She’s heard Eric’s story.
“You saw them do this?” Trish asked.
“They were hunting whales when I was there.”
“God,” she said, unimpressed.
“Each summer they still hunt pilot whales in the Faroe Islands. Everyone helps.”
Brandt, Judy, Marnie, Al, and everyone else, all of them clicked away at their keyboards, and listened. For a moment I watched Brandt absently messing with the z-axis of a chart. Then I found myself looking again at Trish’s pimple, bothered that I kept going back there, unsettled by these little defects, maybe I was even rubbing her nose in it. I forced myself up to her eyes—light brown and alive with a low-grade bitterness. A bit cold, you’d probably think upon first meeting her, but you’d keep looking.
Randy walked past, but stopped. He’s in charge of my professional development. He knows of the affair; the whole team knows. I sensed Randy was waiting for the right moment to pull me aside, maybe over a beer, and tell me to cut it off. For Trish and me, work has become a much chillier place.
Trish set the reports on my desk, and her fingernails, painted maroon, clicked the surface. I watched her nails, and then they were gone. I hit the space bar and the puffin hunter returned.
I had to wait three days, until Thursday. Thursdays we discuss budgets and team matters in one of the conference rooms. Someone had named the three conference rooms after Greek gods—conference rooms Zeus, Hera, and Apollo. We sat in Hera. We’d hardly started before Randy was called away to assuage an angry client. Randy’s our leader. Left alone, we mocked our clients for a while and then fell silent.
Outside, rain fell and the sky was dark gray, but not night-like, not like winter in the Faroe Islands, when you would spend your days in darkness, at sea or tending to the daily chores, when the darkness, presaging death, seeped so deeply into your whole being that you had no choice but to despair.
Trish sipped a latte and leafed through a pamphlet of figures; Al leaned back and closed his eyes; Judy’s eyes were already shut while she did her deep breathing.
Then it was my turn to take a deep breath. “I was part of the whale hunt,” I said.
Aloud, reaching an actual audience, the sentence sounded crazy. I’d repeated it hundreds of times, mostly in the car, fighting traffic—it’s how I always started the story. In my imagination, we would usually be sitting in conference room Hera when I would finally muster the courage to begin.
No one said anything, but I had their attention. I told them the story:
While studying in Copenhagen, I had a fling with a biology student, a Faroese girl named Brin. We’d been drunk and didn’t meet for a second date. But she’d told me a few things about her home. The story goes that one day, near the beginning, God clipped his fingernails and tossed them down to earth—and they are the Faroe Islands. She said that they were isolated and rugged and nearly uninhabitable. They were so far north that in the summer it was light almost all twenty-four hours; in the winter, it was almost always dark. She also mentioned the whale hunt.
By the time my semester ended, I knew that I had to visit these remote islands. In fact, I became obsessed with the idea of this far-off place, free from the tourist horde. I didn’t ask my college friends if they’d like to join me. I would go alone and arrive by boat. You could fly, but it seemed more appropriate to sail, preferably through a raging sea. That’s how I’d imagined it, even though it was summer and there were fewer storms. In my mind, I always clutched the railing for my life as waves exploded against the bow. The boat would lurch, and I would disappear into the spray and be nothing of consequence.
In late July, I boarded the boat, a solid, practical-looking sea liner, which pulled away from the pier with little fanfare. Somewhere below, a giant engine churned, its vibrations stirring in me great adolescent yearnings. In those moments, I could convince myself that I’d fall in love with a good woman who I’d settle down with, out in the country. I could be a decent person, an active part of something integral. This was always happening in Europe, on trains and boats and buses—large engines filling me full of stupid emotion.
A day and a half later, the first island came into sight, a jagged thing with jutting cliffs and greenish-gray hillsides. God’s twisted thumbnail. I wore a heavy jacket and stood on the deck, smoking, invigorated by the tobacco, the biting wind, and the sea-salt smell. I whispered, “Land.”
Later we pulled in to Torshaven. It wasn’t much of a city, just a bunch of small buildings and houses, many of them painted bright primary colors, some with grass growing on the roofs. My guidebook called this city boring because it had no real bars (alcohol was nearly forbidden) and no nightlife to speak of.
The locals didn’t seem welcoming. The hostel proprietor, a wiry man with white hair sticking out from under a seaman’s cap, refused to speak Danish, instead muttering broken English. Perhaps he thought I was an activist. He showed me to a small room with a single bed, a chair, and a window that did not face the water.
Midnight, I set off to walk the streets in the strange dusk, confident that I could uncover the essence of this place. Few people stirred. On a bench, two old men sat, smoking cigarettes and staring at the ground. An older-looking German couple walked by, clutching hands and cooing. As I walked past a battered Citroën, someone yelled something in Faroese, startling me. The yell came from the car, from a boy who looked too young to be driving, maybe only ten, all freckles and moppish hair. On the dashboard lay a dented cigarette package. The boy’s hand was heavily bandaged. He clutched the steering wheel and again shouted.
In Danish, I said, “I can’t understand you.”
He sneered. His teeth were spaced apart and twisted. I looked around but saw no one. No one peeked from the windows.
“I can speak Danish,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Danish is for assholes!” He honked the horn.
I hurried along, feeling as if I’d done something wrong, and continued toward the harbor. Two fishermen stood on a dock trying to untangle a net. A gull was caught in the net, flapping about in vain, while the fishermen laughed. They did not notice me watching.
My third day on the Faroe Islands, I traveled to the village of Vestmanna. The guidebook claimed there was little real reason to visit Vestmanna, save for its sea cliffs, but that’s where the Faroese girl had grown up. Brin had long, straight hair and a simple style. Even drunk, she’d been timid, and since our fling, I’d ascribed to her all kinds of innocence I’m sure didn’t exist or at least wouldn’t last. She was not fueled by an overwhelming bitterness. No abortions, no damaging parental relationships. I’m sure she’d never been hit.
Vestmanna was a colorful village populated by salt-of-the-earth types wearing wool sweaters and jeans—they had wind-blown faces and stoic expressions. The town was built on a hill and in the distance loomed the sheer cliffs, where men hunted puffins.
That first day, I wandered the streets trying to decide which house she’d grown up in. Next morning, I woke early, bought some rolls, and hiked a hill above town until I found a nice place to sit and view the village and the sea. The day was calm and I could hear birds gliding overhead. I could hear the grazing sheep that watched me for a moment before losing interest. In bursts, the sun broke through the clouds, warming me as I ate the hard rolls and grew more overwhelmed by the silence, and the scene itself—the cliffs, the water, and the hills, wind-scraped and treeless, all of it so desolate, a place completely stripped of pretension.
I didn’t spot the whales first. I noticed a number of boats speeding off, and then, further out, I saw the pod. In the village, people began rushing about while some of the boats veered across the bay to cut off the whales’ escape. This was the hunt. In college I learned to disagree with whale and seal hunting, but I’d traveled so far and would never again have the chance to witness this. I jogged back down the hill.
How many had been beached, I can’t say. At least thirty, it looked. The water throbbed with the panicked whales, thrashing and stuck. The average pilot whale stretches twenty feet and weighs a few tons. The men rushed, fearless, into the sea. They did not wear waders. They wore nothing special.
I’d stopped just before the rocks and the thin strip of beach that led to the bay. I was short of breath, sweating, transfixed, heavy into a fever dream, it felt like. The entire village—all these stoic, reserved people—had come out to join in the frenzy. In the bloody water, a man slipped and went under but popped up and made his cut. From the boats men hollered and all the people on the beach watched and shouted. Seven or eight men moved from whale to whale. They severed the arteries. The bay turned bright red.
Within minutes, it seemed, they’d killed all the whales. Only then did I notice someone standing near me, the woman who’d sold me the rolls earlier that morning.
“Everyone helps,” she said.
At first I didn’t move, but I knew I’d been given a chance to prove myself. I climbed down the rock barrier, to the beach, and I waded into the red water. I looked around, trying to make eye contact, and nobody seemed to find any of this strange, the American wading in to participate. I was following the natural order of things. Of course I helped. I had this one chance, an opportunity to feed the village, to do something of worth.
Little bloody waves washed against my legs as men took hold of a whale and began to haul it to the beach. To my right, another whale, and the cut, just below its head, opened like an enormous grin.
I stood amidst these men and the whales, the red water sloshing against my thighs, the smell of iron and foul flesh so strong I nearly gagged. The whale’s skin was smooth and cold, glimmering like obsidian in the sunlight. We dragged this giant weight out of the water.
Soon, the beach was full of whales and the bay was still red. My socks were red. My hands hurt, and I was cold. A little boy stood on a whale and stared out to sea, as if he hoped the new height might help him spot another pod. I couldn’t blame him. I, too, wanted us back in the water with all the thrashing whales.
In most war movies there’s the scene where the camera pans across a body-strewn field after a battle. The chaos has passed and order, to some extent, will soon be restored. We’d lined up the whales, twenty-four of them. They brought in the crane they would use to lift the whales over the rocks. A couple men nodded at me, but otherwise made no show of my participation. A few others had already cut into the whales and were eating the blubber. A man handed me a chunk the size of my fist and smiled. The blubber was almost black, filled with blood vessels.
In the conference room, when I mentioned the blubber, Judy grimaced. Trish, staring at her latte, did not look happy. Randy had returned and even he listened. I think they all believed that I’d done it. Yet still I’d become too aware of my hands, alive in my lap like kittens. I was sweating, maybe I even smelled.
"You have to try it." I continued. "That evening after the whales had been butchered, we all celebrated. In the town hall, we formed large circles and did a special dance. You could feel the collective sense of joy and relief in that town. The celebration wasn't the same as the hunt, though. I was happy to be part of the circle, but already I wanted to be back in the water, standing amidst the thrashing whales."
“I’d never watch that.” Judy shook her head. She exhaled. A gust of wind drove rain against the window. “It’s horrible.”
“It’s time for numbers,” Randy said. He rapped his knuckles on the table.
Trish glared at me.
When we’re together, Trish whispers all kinds of angry shit into my ear. Small dick, get deeper. Worthless fuck. Sometimes she scratches my back. Once she drew blood. I don’t think that she’s trying to leave evidence to force the issue. Trish doesn’t want us to ride off into the sunset together; she just comes unglued. We first hooked up at a leadership retreat, and every third week or so we call or send e-mail to our spouses and tell them we have to stay late. At the Sleep Here Motor Inn we pay cash, fifty-fifty. It’s a first, this affair, for both of us.
In Hera, Randy’s voice blended with the rain hitting the windows. Eric’s version of the whale hunt, which he told me two days after returning from Denmark, was much shorter. But I could tell how badly the event troubled him. His story contained none of the bravado that usually accompanied his tales of sexual conquest. He took me straight to Vestmanna via the girl and then straight to the hunt, with almost no buildup.
Eric never helped them haul the whales to the beach. A bread vendor never nudged him to wade into the red bay. The scene had so bewildered him that he barely moved. He watched the hunt, nothing more. Hence, he was shunned. A weak activist, they must have thought, too scared to protest or even to take pictures. He slumped back to the hostel, ashamed. Late into the night he waited for the darkness, but it stayed light, and the celebration grew louder.
The next morning, the blood had dissipated in the bay. Eric left Vestmanna and the next morning he left the Faroe Islands. I can still remember, almost word for word, how he ended his story: “My god, they celebrated. I’d never seen such a collective sense of joy and relief. And to know I could never be a part of it. I don’t know what we could ever do to reach that place.”
Eric, the world traveler! He lives in San Diego now, with his family, and manages a travel magazine. Each morning before work, he goes surfing. Online, I’ve found an image of him accepting an award, and in another he’s shaking hands with Anthony Bourdain. We haven’t spoken or even exchanged e-mail in three years.
As Randy went on, I occasionally glanced at my coworkers, particularly Trish, trying to gauge if they believed it. I’d left out a lot in the version I’d told them, of course, but their attention had not flagged. Brandt and Marnie had not interrupted me with their own stories, and Judy looked pale. Trish was the wildcard. If any of them would call me out, she would. She would start laughing and shake her head and say something cute. Degas with the whales. Ahab, speak Danish for us. She would know that I lacked whatever it takes to be part of the hunt. I waited. Come on, Trish, I thought. Say it. Please, say it. But she just messed with the lid of her empty drink.
Back in the cube, my monitor slept. I could feel my T-shirt, cold and wet under my armpits, as I stared at the black screen until someone walked past, forcing me to shake my mouse and unlock my computer. The puffin hunter appeared. If I changed the background too soon my coworkers would get suspicious. For at least two weeks he would have to remain, there on the cliff, before I could look for a new architectural feat with which to replace him. For two weeks he would mock me as my coworkers walked past and wondered.
I pulled up my e-mail and found no messages of consequence. I sat in my cube for nearly five minutes without doing a thing while around me the office returned to normal—everyone typing and clicking away, Judy whispering into her cell phone, and Brandt playing some rap too loudly.
I had two hours before I’d drive home and face Jean. I had to get working. If I didn’t type something soon, my colleagues would start to wonder, probably they already did. I opened a new e-mail message but didn’t know who to write. I stared at the empty message and then wrote “Hello.” I deleted the message. I opened a new one, and as I waited for something to come, I wrote “Hello.”
The next day seemed no different than any other, and Monday the same. In my cube, I worked. On my monitor, the man remained intent on his prey while I waited to be called a liar. I tried to catch my coworkers swapping knowing smirks but caught none. Randy didn’t call me in to ask why I’d told that story or try to put an end to our affair. Nothing. On Thursday, Trish, over IM, said that she had to stay late, could I help? She added the winking emoticon, probably a little fuck-you for Randy, in case he’s monitoring. Of course he’s monitoring.
That evening, at the Sleep Here, I showered. Trish had not drawn blood but I could feel the raised skin. In the mirror I could see it was not that bad, but I would still have to be careful.
In the bedroom, as I tucked in my shirt, Trish looked at me again as she had in the conference room, the way you might look at the scratch after someone keyed your car. She reapplied her lipstick and kissed a tissue. The pimple on her cheek was little more than a fleck of dead skin. “My terrier wouldn’t like you,” she said.
“He has special intuition. He senses in people when there’s something lurking. He would be suspicious and would never let you out of his sight.”
“I’ve been warned.”
“We’ve been doing this for eight months, to the day.” Trish dropped the tissue in the garbage can. “It seemed like a funny idea, meeting tonight.”
“Glen’s at the Sonics game?”
“His mom’s watching Vance.”
I followed Trish out to the parking lot, which as usual was nearly full. Next door, there’s a bar, Snookers. At her Explorer, we hugged. The neon sign—Vacancy—wheezed as we clutched each other, both of us terrified, I believe, afraid to let go. It’s always like this. We hold each other until finally a car pulls into the parking lot or a door opens somewhere, and it’s done.
Trish digs the clicker from her bag, unlocks the doors, and disappears behind the tinted windows. I don’t know what she does then, why it takes minutes for her to start the SUV, but I always wait, no matter how hard it rains. She turns on the wipers, and the drizzle glimmers in the headlights. She doesn’t wave as she pulls from the spot, or at least I don’t see it. I watch as she waits for an opening in the traffic and when it happens she turns right and her Explorer disappears. I don’t move. I never do. Among the parked cars I stand, still feeling her scratches, as the traffic and the neon sign grow louder.
Steinur Bell’s fiction has appeared in Hotel Amerika, Puerto del Sol, The South Carolina Review, The Jabberwock Review, and The Lullwater Review. He lives in Sarasota, Florida. (6/2008)