Whale-Oil

Issue #198

There was an old woman named Iris who lived in a tule hut in the middle of the Olema Marsh. She burned fish oil lamps with wicks of fallen star for light. They burned blue. She was often out at night, wading in the marsh on her great blue heron feet, hunting for the ghosts of fallen stars with her lamp held aloft. Every night, she hoped a traveller might follow that blue light to her door, but it had been many, many years since any visitors had come.

In the city to the south, over a ridge of small mountains, a cuff of fog, and a wide bay, a city named San Francisco for Saint Francis of Assisi who fed birds from his palms, the streets were lit by whale and seal oil. The machines in factories were lubricated with it. The headlamps of miners were lit with that refined blubber, to illuminate seams of coal in Mt. Diablo. When the streetlamps were blown out at dawn, the smoke rose and drifted, smelling of the sea.

Out in the ocean, the waters were growing empty, quiet of whalesong. The gray whales migrated miles offshore now, far beyond their ancestral path, to make sure they made it south to Baja for the winter alive. The females were especially cautious, because they carried babies in their wombs those seven thousand miles. When the mothers returned in spring with calves at their sides, they kept even farther out to sea. The humpbacks did the same. The elephant seals avoided the Farallon Islands, where they had overwintered every year since the beginning of time (or at least the beginning of the last Ice Age, which was its own kind of beginning) because men waited there now, killing them with bludgeons to the head, and left their carcasses to rot in mounds on the rocky shore.

At night, the streets of San Francisco glowed by the light of whales and seals, by that fat which had once kept the whales warm in the cold salt sea. It might have been different, murmured the ghosts of humpbacks and grays, elephants seals, and sperm whales from where they drifted, just below the fog and above the highest chimney pot, creating an almost invisible pall over the city at night, if someone had asked; if someone had laid my bones down again in the sea with a song; if someone had cried out my name. But no one had.

Only one person in all of San Francisco noticed that the streetlamps had the souls of whales and seals bound to their wicks like great drifting jinns, moored high above the skyline. The year was 1880, the month November. The person was a boy of sixteen whose blood was equal parts Scottish and Coast Miwok Indian, though the latter inheritance was hidden from him and called Mexican instead. His name was Altair, for the brightest star in the constellation Aquila; his father kept an amateur observatory which consisted of a brass-rimmed telescope and a sheepskin for star-gazing on the roof of their attic apartment at the corner of Liberty and Noe, and Altair was raised looking up at his own namesake.

The name had a nobility to it that the boy hardly knew what to make of. He had none of the handsome grace that Altair implied but rather was short for his age, skinny everywhere except his face, which made him look top-heavy, black-haired, and dark-skinned after his mother, and, as his father said, all thumbs. His round face was sweet and always rosy-tinged, giving him the appearance of a lad closer to twelve. His eyebrows were thick to the point of some humiliation at school, and his smile always quavered, likely because a boy in the second grade told him he had the teeth of a horse, and ever since he had trouble fully unveiling them except in the most trusted company.

His father was a tailor, after his own father on the Isle of Lewis, and kept a bustling shop on Jackson Street, co-run with his wife Matilda, who was quick with a needle and thread and always knew how to flatter a customer into having his waistcoat or his sport jacket mended, taken in, or updated to match the latest cut. Altair knew a lot about stars, which he reckoned were like pinpricks in some vast tailor’s tweed, but beyond such imaginings he was hopeless with a needle and worse with the thread, which he had never managed once to get through the eye without his mother’s patient assistance.

It wasn’t until a day in early November, just after his sixteenth birthday, that Altair noticed anything unusual about the streetlamps or the city skyline. He did have a knack for noticing things that other people didn’t—he could be depended upon to spot lost needles on the floor, or misplaced spectacles, or a formation of geese flying high up, or a distinctive cloud in the shape of a walnut. Once, when he was six, he very clearly saw a red-haired old woman drifting in a wooden boat the shape of an acorn, just beyond the second row of breakers at Ocean Beach. It was a Sunday, and people were out walking in warm shawls with their children, for it was always chilly there, at the westernmost edge of the city, and damp with fog. When he pointed and tugged his mother’s arm, the woman was gone.

Nobody thought much of the incident at the time; six-year-olds were always one foot deep in an alternate world as it was. But Altair never forgot her strange silhouette, nor the way it made him feel just below his ribs, in his solar plexus:  lit up, his stomach an oil lamp with a long fuse, flashing. Nor, indeed, did he disbelieve his own eyes, not for a second. In this way, Altair always held close to his own convictions. Unlike other children, he learned not to tell the things he had seen or believed in to his parents. These things stayed safe there in his dreams.

The same feeling struck and guttered in Altair’s stomach the night he saw the ghosts of whales where normally he saw only smog from the factories on the eastern shore of the city. He was walking home ahead of his parents from a day in the shop, where he worked as a reluctant cashier and floor-sweeper. Many a morning he spent entirely absorbed in collecting fallen pins.

Nothing out of the ordinary had befallen him that day, save a prick to the thumb from a needle he found under the counter. It had drawn a bead of blood, which he sucked clean and then forgot about. This was not out of the ordinary in itself, but the needle was—his mother’s, which had been her grandmother’s: a salmon-bone needle for beading baskets, which she had given up for lost months ago, never mentioning the sad seam in her heart to lose something that still had her grandmother’s ghost about it, and the ghost of a lost world.

At the top of a steep hill that left Altair breathing hard, a lamp danced in a sudden wind and he looked up. The sky was full of the ghosts of whales and seals, drifting at the slow pace of clouds, each hitched by a long thread to a particular lantern-wick: a tangle of haunted umbilici. His first thought was of strange hot air balloons made of some fog-woven fabric.

The sight made Altair’s eyes fill with tears, for the way the whales drifted and keened. The sound, faint above the hum of trains and cable cars even at this hour, was high, thin, and so sorrowful in its resonance that Altair sat down right there on the sidewalk with his back to a lamppost and gazed up, eyes streaming. Everywhere he looked, the skyscape was full of translucent whales and seals swimming mournfully, never straying further than the end of a long umbilical thread hitched to some or other lantern. Hundreds of whales might be hitched to one wick, for the oil was boiled and extracted in huge vats at the Arctic Oil Works refinery on the corner 16th and Illinois and the blubber brought in daily by the ton from whaling boats.

The city was veiled as if with a terrible lace, and Altair sat beneath that haunted shadow, feeling something seethe and shift inside his own heart. 

According to Old Iris, there were two kinds of fallen stars that could be foraged from the marsh. The first were more or less self-explanatory—reflections of shooting stars as they ribboned the sky and then went out. These she speared with her sharp fingers quick and efficient, as fast as any great-blue heron’s beak. Pulled up from the tidal marsh water, they were long thin ropes made of impossibly bright fibers. These, she used as wicks.

The second sort came up from the earth, but since above and below were both familiar countries to Old Iris—the middle of the earth was nothing more after all than an old shard of star, and the hot magma beneath the tectonic plates its own galaxy which she traversed in all seasons and weathers on the back of a night-blue heron whose wings were scattered with stars—she did not see the trouble in calling them fallen stars too, since they’d fallen from their own homes, where up and down were unimportant concepts. These were sudden bursts of blue flame that hovered just above the marsh, bell-shaped. They were the darting, dancing flames that the Irish immigrants who worked on the dairy farms of Point Reyes called will-o’-the-wisps: little lanterns held by bog pixies who would lead you either to your death or to a great treasure.

More like to my front stoop, Old Iris would chuckle, and with very muddy pant-cuffs.

Stones breathe, she would have explained to any traveller brave enough to follow the lights to her tule hut. The old fault line heats them from below, she would have whispered; that primordial wick-thin seam.

It was right beneath her feet. Old Iris could feel it with her scaled toes, her heron talons. When certain rocks heated, they sparked as they exhaled steam, and the flames danced in that breath, and she went out hunting them, to place them at the end of her wicks all coiled in salmon oil, because no light was as good for seeing in the dark. It cast only a gentle blue glow, but that was the sort of light that did not chase away the shadows. That was the sort of light that illuminated them. 

Altair was a gentle boy. He’d never once found himself in a fistfight; he’d rather disappear into some convenient shadow. But now in the lamplight, under the great sorrow of so many terrible marine phantoms, he was full of a focused, hot rage—that he lived in a world that bound ghosts to lamps to light the streets. He picked up a rock in the gutter near his hand, stood, aimed, and threw. The nearest lamp shattered, and the flame went out with the rush of falling glass. But up in the sky, the whales were still twined with umbilical threads into the heart of the lamp.

Hundreds of ancient eyes were turned on him now, quietly, the way stones watch. He waited until he thought the oil had cooled, then shimmied up the post to wrench the wick out. It took a great heave of strength and burned his hand, and he went sprawling down to the sidewalk, but when he opened his fingers the wick was there, slippery and twined with ghostly threads. Above him, six humpback whales, four gray whales, and three male elephant seals were tugged suddenly downwards. Their eyes were small, distant, and sad.

“You are lost souls,” Altair murmured. He could not explain it; he loved them. He carried the wick home tenderly in his scorched hands. The thirteen ghosts had no choice but to follow.

That night, Altair did not sleep at all. His tiny bedroom was thick with a fog of whales. He dreamed, though, swathed in those benthic phantoms—of dark cold water where the weight of it pressed stars into the brain; of songs more beautiful than any he had ever heard, sieving through the salt and waves; of great distances underwater and the way the moon pulled, and roads only whales could see, and then, terrible: harpoons, the keels of whaling boats, the pain of a body wrenched up dangling from a hook and a chain, not all the way dead.

By morning, Altair was a different boy than the shy, rosy-cheeked tailor’s assistant with a knack for lost pins he’d been the day before. He was haunted by whales and by seals and by what it meant to lose a world. He couldn’t breathe in this city air; he needed the ocean as badly as the humpbacks did.

Old Iris was eating fresh clams from a net on a rock beside her tule hut when she saw a figure out on the marsh. Two dancing blue-flamed lamps had been lit, hanging from willow branches, to illuminate her front porch. There appeared to be a mist rolling in behind the figure, though it was coming from a most unusual direction—east. It always came from the ocean to the west. Her eyes were not as sharp as they had once been—hence her love of lanterns—but her other senses were keen. She heard the ghosts of whales and seals before she could make out the phantom gauze of their forms. A high and lonesome melody that rattled the stars above and below the marsh, in the hot muck of the fault zone. She could hear them, like great rusty bells.

She stood abruptly. Clam shells clattered and then fell from her muddy apron. She took one step, then two, on her broad heron feet, in the way of the hunt, one foot pausing long above the mud before silently entering it again. The air carried the smell of boy, and city, and tweed. She wrinkled her nose, then smiled a small smile. At last, a visitor. At last, the blue marshlights had caught someone’s eye, or soul. The world seemed to have become full of skeptics. She had resigned herself to it; almost. Superstition buried in science. But here was one. She could see his heart now, through the dark. The color of will-o’-the-wisps. The color of fallen stars. She could see that he did not know it, how hot it glowed, how bright.

“Hello?” the boy called, seeing her form now by the light of those fish oil lamps. The humpback whales dove and danced in the air, very high up, having caught sight of the ocean beyond the Inverness Ridge. The elephant seals circled and barked terrible grinding barks of pleasure at the smell of fish oil burning in Old Iris’ lamp. A gray whale with the ghost of a baby in her belly sang a single long note at the sight of the whale roads far out over the ocean, where her family had once travelled.

“Young man,” Old Iris called back in her rough and croaking voice. It was just like the rough calls of herons. “You are trailing the ghosts of whales. You are tangled in the ghosts of seals. Are you a braggart or a rogue, following my blue lights to find your own fortune? Or are you simply lost?”

“I—I think I’m just lost,” Altair stuttered, drawing near. “Ma’am,” he added, seeing her immense, stooped age. Then he noticed her heron feet, her hut of tule grass, her apron embroidered with glinting fishbones in the bursting shapes of stars. He saw the blue flames of her lanterns, dancing though there was no wind. For a moment, he faltered, about to turn and flee. Then he took a step nearer, sinking ankle-deep in mud, and said, “There are no ghosts around your lamps.”

Old Iris laughed. “Of course not, boy. I take only the bodies of those fish who offer themselves to my beak. But the world is too big now, and too hungry for light. More wanting out there than there are gifts to be given. For that, it will fall.”

Altair blinked and swallowed, both at the mention of her beak, which he assumed she spoke of metaphorically given that she had a human nose and mouth, albeit both long and sharp, and at the vision of a world falling like a tree.

“Can you set them free?” he said, exhaling bravely and taking a final squelching step to her door. He held out the greasy wick with its translucent umbilici, woven deep.

Old Iris looked up at Altair, for she was shorter yet than he, though broad. She took the wick without looking down, and the boy had the distinct impression of a wading bird, ready to pierce her prey.

“This,” she whispered, “I did not expect.” Altair saw that the ferocity in her eyes had been an attempt to fight back tears.  There was a long silence, in which Altair suspected his heart had been pried open and examined by an invisible beak. Then she said, “Of course I can.  But then there is the matter of all the rest of them...” Her voice trailed off, and an unreadable, bright expression moved across her face. Altair took a step back.

She put the wick in the pocket of her apron, and the thirteen whales and seals dove low, to her side, wreathing her like an enormous wedding train. They swam in the air just as they once had in the waters—all their movements round and slow and without end.

“You’re rather the worse for wear,” Old Iris said to the lot of them, looking close. “So this is what a city looks like... I had wondered.”

Altair opened his mouth to explain that this was only a fraction of it, these battered ghosts. That a city was a neat grid like enormous train tracks, or...but there was nothing straight and angled enough in a marsh to describe it to her. Then he looked more closely and saw that she was peering inside the great bellies of the ghostly whales. There were silhouettes in them, as in smoke, of San Francisco, like an open mouth of blunt and crooked teeth.

“Come on then,” Old Iris said to Altair. She began to walk out through the marsh and the cattails, holding a blue flaming lamp in her hand.

They walked to the very edge, where tule grass was ribboned into curving inlets of bay water, the same dark indigo as the night. Altair was wet to his waist. In front of them Tomales Bay was a straight needle of calm water, stretching past the northern tip of Point Reyes into the open Pacific Ocean. It smelled everywhere of salt and mud and reeds and wet, a smell so thick Altair breathed heavily, to fit it all in. Who was he now? He had not paused to think. He did not know that his mother’s people had lived for all time at the edge of this bay, digging clams from the mud with sticks, dancing in skirts of tule, watching the stars. He only knew that he felt different, new, this marsh-wading by blue light a kind of baptism into belonging. When a great blue heron the same color as the indigo dark water swooped down from the sky and landed with a splash in front of Old Iris, his wings flecked with light, Altair did not gasp or flinch back. He grinned, and the yellow eye appraised him.

“Are you going to fly their souls to the ocean?” he asked eagerly, addressing both the heron and Old Iris. They seemed to him to somehow be the same creature, in two skins. Old Iris laughed heartily, the sound a heron’s harsh croaking.

 She handed Altair her lamp, without any reply save, “don’t be afraid,” and clambered onto the heron’s narrow back. She murmured something low and then was borne into the air on indigo wings that matched the night. A veil of whale souls rippled in the air behind her. Then, all at once, the heron dove, beak straight down, into the bay. They vanished, and Altair knew that such a dive had taken them far deeper than the bottom of the bay, which was not very deep, because the thirteen whales and seals strung behind on ghostly cords were pulled slowly into the bay as well, and soon were gone entirely, like fog burnt off the surface of the water.

Altair stood at the edge of the bay holding a blue salmon oil lamp with wick and flame made of fallen stars, shifting his weight from leg to leg like a heron, until dawn. The flame danced and cast his shadow all across the tules. His shadow dug for clams and knew the older names for all the stars, but Altair could not see it. Every time he turned to look, his shadow danced just out of view. 

Underneath his feet, Old Iris flew through the fault zone, where the North American and Pacific plates rubbed and rifted. It was its own ocean there, only of fire and stone and time, and therefore very hot. She followed the line of that rift zone on blue and starry wings until she was out under the weight of the ocean. Then with a cry she dropped the thick and oily rope of wick. It burned out faster than any falling star. Thirteen whales and seals dove after it into the magma, into the beginning of the world: singing, free.

After that, the Pacific Plate jumped north two feet, all at once. Maybe it was those ghosts, dancing with pleasure. Or maybe it was Old Iris on her wings of indigo. Whatever the case, at dawn on November 12th, 1880, the land leapt, and an enormous gust of wind blew from the south, toppling trees.

From where he stood on the edge of Tomales Bay, Altair saw the skin of the world dance. He saw the Inverness Ridge with its spine of fir trees writhe and move, while the land east of the fault only shook but did not step. The entire bay undulated like the back of a diving whale. He lost his balance and sat down in the marsh.

Time had left Altair’s side then, because he was watching the sky. Dawn arrived with a violet edge and a strong wind, and the sky became full of the ghosts of a new great wave of whales and seals. They were swimming from the south, along a very straight line from the city, along the wick of the San Andreas Fault, which was presently lit and smoldering at both ends. There were hundreds of thousands of them, moving at the pace of a billowing ocean fog. Altair stared. Where had they come from? Had their lamps shattered and freed them as the earth shook?

At the front of the mass of ghosts was a humpback whale Altair could clearly make out. Her long face was pocked and crusted with bumps, her throat white and creased, her flippers great oars. She was singing to the ghost child at her side, and it made a sound in the earth sing too, a sympathetic tone. All at once the whale dove straight down into the water of the bay, just as Old Iris and her heron had done. The others followed one by one by one into the bay, into the magma below.

After an indefinite amount of time—had he stood there all night, motionless?—Altair’s legs began to grow numb in the marsh. He shivered with cold. He had seen the earth open and swallow the ghosts of whales. Who was there left now in the world that he could speak to of such things? Stiff and shaking with the long wet hours, he set off through the marsh to find Old Iris, or sit quietly somewhere until she appeared.  There were so many things he wanted to ask her.

The earthquake of November 1880 did not go down in history because of its magnitude; in fact, nothing of importance was damaged in San Francisco, and only a few household shelves of china crashed to the floor, because the epicenter was located out in the ocean, beyond Tomales Bay. But throughout all the little towns and the one big city that rimmed the San Francisco Bay that day in 1880, not a single person could get a lantern or a candle to light. The wind that blew in from the south whipped out all the street lamps and filled the air with miasmic smoke. When it cleared, all the wicks in all the households around the bay had vanished. Rolled pieces of paper dipped in the oil at the bottom of a whale oil lantern refused to light as well. The hills were dark for a week.

It was an unsettling mystery, this darkness, but it did not last longer than that week, because a shipment of fresh kerosene lanterns and barrels of kerosene oil arrived from Los Angeles, where oilrigs dug deep into the La Brea tar pits. Soon after that, electricity, recently invented, reached San Francisco, and all the old lamps were replaced.

Old Iris had always understood that it was already too late; that the world was too hungry by now for easy illumination, and too afraid of a deeper dark, where shadows did not always behave. She did not tell Altair that the ghosts of whales were far less terrible than the ghosts of what was to come. She did not have the heart.

She also did not return to her tule hut ever again.

Altair waited all day, and another, for her at the edge of the bay. He saw a white egret hunting. He heard hundreds of red-winged blackbirds, and the splashing of frogs, but no small broad woman with an apron strung with fish bones and the feet of a great blue heron. He began to wonder if he’d lost his mind. Perhaps both the ghosts and she had been symptoms of some mental unraveling. After all, here he was, wading about in the marsh, while his parents might be injured!

He decided he would just make sure of his sanity before finding a train and a ferry and his way back to the city again. So he went looking for the tule hut. It was not hard to find, and it stood exactly as they had left it, flanked by two willows, little lanterns hanging from each. The flames were low, but had not died. The net with its half-eaten clams was still in a heap by the door. With a small, uncertain bow, Altair ducked through the low door. There was a firepit in the center and a bed in the corner piled high with river otter skins. Everywhere smelled of fish.

A glint of white on the earth floor caught his eye. He bent and retrieved a translucent fish bone needle and remembered his mother’s needle, then, in perfect detail. It might have been the twin to this one. It felt good in his hand. Just to see, he took a piece of fine sinew coiled in a tule basket where other needles resided, and tried to thread it. He managed it on the first try.

Outside the door, the blue flames flared against their starry wicks.


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Sylvia Victor Linsteadt is a writer, artist, and certified animal tracker. Her work—both fiction and non-fiction—explores the tenets of deep ecology and wild myth. Her books include a post-apocalyptic folktale cycle called Tatterdemalion (Unbound, forthcoming 2017), The Wonderments of the East Bay (Heyday, 2014), and The Lost Worlds of the Bay Area (Heyday, forthcoming 2017). She has a regular column with Earthlines Magazine, and her short fiction and nonfiction can also be found in publications such as Dark Mountain, News from Native California, and the Inverness Alamanac. More about Sylvia and her work can be found at www.sylvialinsteadt.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“Else This, Nothing Ever Grows” by Sylvia V. Linsteadt
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3 Comments on “Whale-Oil”

3 Responses to “Whale-Oil”

  1. Pamela Deering says:

    Oh, this is a beautiful story, beautiful and lyrical and … words fail. Thank you.

  2. Michael W Cho says:

    Sweet. I love whales and sea mammals and kind people. Thank you.

  3. […] Whale-Oil, by Sylvia V. Linsteadt at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. A very strange, very beautiful, and very moving story about a boy who sees the souls of whales floating above the city of San Francisco, and sets out to do something about it. Ecology, Native American spirituality and mythology, geology… many things are twined together in this story. […]

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