Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Whale God

by Alec Nevala-Lee

The September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact

One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself…

—George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”


When the trouble started, Exley was talking to an old woman about ghosts. The villager seated across from him had to be close to seventy, scrawny and brown from a lifetime of work, but her tone of voice was quiet and, as far as he could tell, entirely reasonable. Exley turned to his interpreter. “What did she say?”

The interpreter pointed at her own head. “She say she have beaucoup ghost problems. She haunted at night.”

Exley smiled patiently, aware of the line of children and elderly villagers snaking out the door of the classroom. He teased out the rest of the woman’s symptoms, which included headache and confusion, and after checking her blood pressure and heart rate, he wrote out a prescription for six tablets of ergotamine, which could be filled at the pharmacy truck outside.

He was giving directions through the interpreter when he heard a disturbance at the rear of the room. Glancing up, he saw the line waver as a message was passed from one villager to another, and as he watched, the crowd broke up and disappeared. “What’s going on?”

His interpreter had been listening to the murmurs without visible interest. “They going to the beach. Some bad trouble.”

Exley glanced at the private standing by the window, sweating in his fatigue shirt and web gear, a few steps away from a sergeant in the Vietnamese Army. He remembered that he was the ranking officer here. Rising from the table, he told the two soldiers to follow him, leaving the interpreter and medics at their stations. As he picked up his rucksack, conscious of the sidearm on his hip, he felt a stab of old fear that he hoped he had left behind.

They left the schoolhouse, where a temporary clinic had been set up earlier that morning, and emerged into the afternoon heat. Next to the pharmacy truck, a vendor in a ragged army shirt was selling ice cream from the back of his bicycle. As they joined the line of villagers, who were heading toward the sea, Exley saw the vendor climb onto his bike and pedal rapidly toward the excitement.

Exley could feel the tension in the soldiers at his side. He had arrived in the area only two weeks before, riding down with the Currahees, who had taken command of the airstrip nearby. So far, the district had been relatively quiet, but he knew how quickly such a situation could explode, especially on a day like this, with all eyes turned to the siege a thousand kilometers north at Khe Sanh.

At the moment, he was in a tiny fishing settlement, just south of Phan Thiet, that consisted of little more than a dirt road lined with cottages and a few tiled buildings. As they neared the water, he saw that the villagers were heading toward a part of the beach at some distance from where their sampans were berthed, shielded from the rest of the hamlet by the bluffs.

He descended a narrow trail to the white sand, the orange dust clinging to his boots. A crowd had gathered by the waterline, looking at something on the ground. Even from here, he could hear their voices, mingled with the isolated sounds of weeping, but they grew hushed as he made his way through the throng, the soldiers clearing the way, and finally saw what was there.

A whale lay beached on the shore, resting slightly on its side. It was twenty feet long, gray verging on black, its belly the color of new milk. At first, Exley thought it was dead. Then he saw its flanks rise almost imperceptibly with the intake of air, a single resigned breath, before falling again into heavy silence.

“Keep them back,” Exley said to the men beside him. He took a step closer. When he was a few paces away, the whale twitched its broad tail, which was crusted with the fine sand. He halted, waiting until the whale had grown quiet, then continued forward until he was almost in its shadow.

Exley stared at it, aware all the while of the countless pairs of eyes turned in his direction. He didn’t know the species, but could tell that it was a baleen whale, its head shaped something like the boots he was wearing, a band of white daubed along the center of each flipper. Looking at its dark body, he estimated that it weighed at least five tons. Its pores exuded a salty stink, and beneath it, the smell of a living thing whose systems were shutting down one by one.

He noticed that the Vietnamese soldier was speaking to the villagers. “What are they saying?”

The soldier, whose name, he remembered, was Sergeant Quyen, listened to one of the fishermen, then came closer, keeping a respectful distance from the whale. He was a slender figure in tiger fatigues, with bony shoulders and rough hands. “It was found by the children. Not sure how long it was here.”

Exley looked toward the edge of the water, which was well over sixty feet away. He didn’t know the schedule of the tides in this area, but suspected that high tide would have been shortly before noon, which meant that the whale had been here for hours. Feeling the sun beating down on the back of his neck, he realized that the crowd was waiting to see what he would do.

He had encountered something like this before. Years ago, a baby sperm whale had washed up on the beach in San Diego, not far from where he had gone to college, where it had lain for most of the morning before being discovered. A rescue team had arrived at once, along with local news crews and volunteers, but the whale had died before anything could be done. He still recalled how quickly the carrion birds had appeared, circling in a cone visible for miles.

Remembering this now, he heard himself issuing orders. “We need to keep him wet. Tell them to bring sheets. Cover him up and soak them.”

Quyen turned to translate. As a handful of villagers headed for the water, with others racing toward the trail to the hamlet, the private came up to Exley, his rifle cradled in his arms. “What’s the plan, sir?”

Exley almost said that he didn’t know, but instead, he turned to the whale again. “Just keep the crowd in line.”

As the private marched back toward the villagers, yelling at them to keep away, Exley approached the whale. Walking around to its other side, he extended a hand and put it gently against the broad dark flank. He felt the whale shudder at his touch, very slightly, and that was all.

The whale’s flesh was warm and soft. As the villagers began to douse its sides with water, which they bore from the sea in their straw hats, he looked into the whale’s visible eye, which was purple and rimmed with white. For a second, he imagined he could feel the pressure on its massive body.

Exley motioned to the private, who came up to him at once. The private was maybe eighteen or nineteen, solidly built, his hair still clipped to regulation length. “Give me your shovel.”

The private yanked the entrenching tool from the nylon pouch at his belt and handed it over. Exley unfolded it and went back around to the sand near the tail. Kneeling, he began taking up damp shovelfuls, digging a shallow depression where the flukes would rest if it were lying flat. As he worked, he heard a click as the private pulled out his camera and took a picture.

He was finishing up when he saw a line of soldiers approaching from the hamlet. At the head of the group was a specialist from the infantry escort, followed by another private, the interpreter, and the two medics from the clinic. The specialist, a lanky soldier in his twenties who stood a full head taller than Exley, halted at a short remove from the whale. “What are we doing here, captain?”

“We’re going to roll him over.” Exley rose, handing the entrenching tool back to the private, and turned to Quyen, who was standing nearby. “Tell some of those men to go around to the other side.”

Quyen motioned for the villagers to come closer. Once a group had been organized, Exley told them to line up along the broadest part of the whale’s back, keeping well clear of the tail. At his word, they pushed, their sandals leaving thin furrows as they strained forward. The whale tipped slowly over, then rolled onto its belly without a sound, ending with its tail pointed toward the water.

Exley took a step back as the villagers began to spread sheets across the whale’s body, soaking them with buckets carried hand over hand from the sea. Watching them work, he realized that he didn’t know what to do next. By now, they should have already packed up the clinic for the return to base camp, and with sundown only an hour away, he had unexpectedly found himself at the center of a situation that he wasn’t sure how to resolve.

He was still weighing his next move, aware that his men were awaiting further orders, when a voice came from over his shoulder. “Take care they keep those sheets away from the blowholes. And watch out for the sand.”

Exley turned. Standing behind him was a soldier from the engineer corps, Sergeant Byers, who had joined them that morning at the last minute to check on development work in the hamlet. The sergeant inclined his head toward the whale. “What do you have in mind?”

Until that moment, Exley had not been aware of what he was going to say. “I’m going to put him back in the water.”

Byers only nodded and continued to study the whale, evidently thinking it over. In the silence that followed, Exley thought back to what little he knew about this man. Byers had been in Phan Thiet for some time, a surveyor in the engineers platoon that had spent the last year building roads and repairing bridges. He had remained behind to advise on the transition, and although he rarely said much, he was widely respected as a smart, practical soldier.

“Need to turn him around first,” Byers said at last, scratching his head beneath his boonie hat. “Can’t drag him back by the tail. It’ll force the blowholes under and he’ll get scared, maybe drown. Can’t just tie a rope around him, either. It’ll cut right through the skin.”

Exley had listened with mounting discouragement. Tying a rope around the tail and pulling the whale toward the water was the closest thing to a plan he’d come up with so far. “Any ideas?”

“Maybe.” Keeping his eye on the whale, Byers explained what he had in mind, using as few words as possible. By the end, Exley found himself impressed by the plan’s detail, but was also aware that the sergeant was speaking mostly in the abstract. To him, this was simply an interesting problem, but if anything went wrong, Exley knew that he was the one who would bear the brunt of the responsibility.

When the surveyor had finished, Exley exhaled. “It might work. But if it doesn’t—”

He broke off. A number of villagers were standing close by, watching without evident comprehension. Byers seemed to sense what he was thinking. “You’re the white coat here. Hate to say it, but if worse comes to worse, we need to think about how to put him down.”

“I know.” Exley’s first thought was of the morphine in the pharmacy truck. Easiest, perhaps, to give it something to keep it calm, then open an artery and let it bleed out on the sand. Then he thought of his sidearm. “Leave it for now. If it comes to that, I’ll take care of it.”

As he spoke, he set down his rucksack and undid the top flap, fishing out a jar of petroleum jelly. Going to the whale, he brushed sand away from the blowholes, then dug two fingers into the jar and smeared jelly around the opening, which he hoped would keep it clear while he was gone. He wiped his hand on his trousers, then put the jar away and turned toward the others.

“We’re heading back to base,” Exley said. He gestured at the privates. “You two stay behind with Sergeant Quyen. Just keep the whale wet and the crowd away until we get back.”

Picking up his rucksack, Exley began to hike up the beach with the others, feeling all the while that he was playing a part in which he had been poorly cast. As he headed toward the trail, he passed Quyen, who was talking to a fisherman at the edge of the crowd. The sergeant finished the conversation, then signaled to Exley. “I asked about high tide. Six hours from now.”

“We’ll be back before then,” Exley said. “Don’t do anything until you hear from me.”

As the rest of the unit stayed to pack up the clinic, Exley got into the jeep with Byers, the specialist frowning behind the wheel. Exley spent a few minutes on the radio, then rode the rest of the way in silence, looking out at the rice paddies stretching between him and the jungle. In the failing light, the women in the fields, dressed all in black, seemed rooted to their own long shadows.

In time, they arrived at the camp, driving past the guardhouse through the main gate. The airstrip was high on the bluffs above the water, with mountains to the north and west. Colonial buildings stood at the east end of the apron, near the revetments where choppers and planes were parked, with clusters of hooches and barracks to either side of the runway. To the northwest, there was a vast cemetery, with rows of graves from the French occupation caked in the orange dust.

They pulled up at base ops, where Byers got out to secure the necessary supplies and the specialist went to round up some civilian maids. Sliding into the driver’s seat, Exley continued along the road south of the runway, heading for the port facility. “We can’t just pull him with manpower,” Byers had said. “If we start and stop, we’ll tear his spine apart. It’s got to be a steady pull. Best way, I think, is to take out one of the LARCs, set up a cable, and winch him in—”

Exley drove past the fuel storage tanks and took the dirt road down to the port, where he parked at the edge of the beach. In the distance, across the darkened water, he could make out the destroyer that had been holding station in the horseshoe bay since their arrival.

Looking out at the darkness, he felt a twinge of familiar apprehension. Night changed the quality of the landscape here in ways that made it easy to give in to your worst fears, whether they looked like sappers in spider holes or something more insidious. To the villagers, this was the country of hungry ghosts, of men who had died without the proper rituals, as far from home as that whale on the sand.

As Exley headed toward the water, he reflected that the villagers had arrived at their own accommodation with the night. A hungry ghost was no more frightening than any of the other factors that were out of their control, and at least it could be propitiated. Such forces were just a fact of life. And as he considered this now, and thought about what else this whale might represent, he began to wonder if he had taken on more than he could handle.

Exley approached the pier, where an amphibious cargo vehicle, one of two LARCs assigned to the engineer corps, was parked by the water. Two shirtless soldiers were leaning against the aluminum hull, talking to a man in uniform whose back was turned. As Exley approached, one of the men at the vehicle, a corporal he knew from Phan Rang, caught sight of him and waved.

When he was a few steps away, the third man turned around. “Good evening, captain,” Sergeant Major Kovac said. “We’ve been talking over the situation. What’s going on here?”

Exley came to a halt at the pier. Kovac, a hard man of forty, was the senior enlisted advisor on the base, and relations between the two of them had never been particularly friendly. “There’s been an unexpected complication at Ap Kim Hai. We’re working to resolve it now.”

As the other men listened, Exley explained the situation as quickly as he could. Even before he was finished, Kovac was shaking his head. “I don’t know about this. We can’t get involved with all their problems—”

“We’re involved whether you like it or not,” Exley said, aware that the enlisted men were watching them closely. “We’re knee deep in it. And we can write off the entire village if we let this whale die.”

He steeled himself for another objection, but instead, he saw a calculating look cross Kovac’s face. “These whales we’re talking about. They’re part of some kind of local religion?”

Exley nodded. He knew something about the whale cult in this country. A whale was treated with a sort of awe in its own right, but also as a representative of the faceless whale god that ruled the ocean and held all fishermen under its protection, accompanied by the souls of men lost at sea. “Yes. The whale cult. You see it in all these fishing villages. At the temple in Phan Thiet—”

“I know,” Kovac said sharply. “So if we float this whale, we’ve saved their god. He survives to bring the sampans home. But only with the help of military hardware, the kind most of these people want to see blown up.”

Exley could tell what Kovac was thinking. “That’s what I’m saying. The damn thing doesn’t make any difference to me. But it does to them. If you want to talk hearts and minds, it’s right there. And this is the best chance we’ll ever have to show them what we can do.”

He wasn’t sure if he believed his own words, but they seemed to have the desired effect. Kovac grunted. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission. We’ll get a winch ready and find you at the beach.”

“Fine,” Exley said. “I’ll finish up here. I’ll see you there at nineteen hundred hours.”

After making sure they understood what was needed, Exley headed back to where he had parked. The sun had long since disappeared behind the bluffs, and the sky had grown dark and brooding.

Exley was almost at the jeep when he felt a sudden chill, as if a long strand of seaweed had been drawn slowly up his back. He shook the feeling off, aware that his nerves were on edge. Then he felt it again, stronger than before, along with the unmistakable certainty that he was being followed.

He paused. Out of the corner of his eye, toward the water, he saw something faint and gray, a shape that was something like a man.

Exley spun around, his hand going instinctively to his sidearm. There was nothing there. Kovac and the others were standing by the vehicle at the pier. Otherwise, he was alone.

He stood there for a long moment, heart pounding, and told himself that it was only his imagination. Then he turned and headed quickly up the sand, knowing that he was running out of time.


When they arrived at the beach again, the tide had come in. Exley told the specialist to park as close to the water as he could, not far from the crowd, which was still lined up at the water. As he got out of the jeep, Exley saw that small fires had been lit along the shore. The two privates he had left behind were reclining apart from the villagers, their shirts and boots removed. Quyen was still standing near the whale, a short distance from the rising tide.

As the others climbed out, the two privates straightened up and headed for the jeep, where they helped Byers and the specialist unload the equipment. The first item was a big folded rectangle of canvas, constructed from a pair of hammocks that two hooch girls had been recruited to stitch together. “A kind of corset,” Byers had explained. “We put it around the tail, cinch it tight at the narrowest point. It’ll relieve some of the pressure from the ropes.”

The second item was a large rubberized truck tarp, cut to measure about eight feet by twenty. This was a belly pad that could be placed between the whale and the sand. A pair of tough grommets had been inserted at two of the corners. These, too, would be connected to ropes, along with the lines from the corset, all of which would be run together to a heavy metal ring.

As the men began to lay out the gear, Exley headed toward the crowd. When he was close enough to see the whale, he observed that the sheets across its back had been kept nice and damp. “How are we doing?”

“Okay,” Quyen said, coming up to his side. “Breathing four times a minute, maybe five. I had them bring hoses to keep him wet.”

Exley saw that a pair of watering pumps had been set up nearby, each connected to a hose attachment with a brass nozzle at the end. “Good. Tell them to keep at it until I give the word.”

Taking the jar from his pack, Exley smeared more jelly around the blowholes. The whale did not react to his touch, but under his fingers, its back rose as it took another breath. The apprehension he had felt since leaving the port at base camp was beginning to lift, and as he felt the eyes of the villagers on his face, he was grateful for the chance to take action.

He put the jar away. “All right. The first thing we’re going to do is have them rake the sand behind him. Make it smooth. Got it?”

Quyen nodded. As the sergeant turned to address the villagers, Exley mentally rehearsed the plan that he and Byers had devised. They would spread the belly pad behind the whale, then cinch the corset with the ropes. When they were ready, they would pull it backward onto the pad using simple manpower, ten or twenty men, taking care not to injure the spine. Then they would rig the ropes forward on the corset for the final pull into the sea.

Byers had rapidly made the necessary calculations, apparently in his head. “He’s fifteen feet long, not counting the tail or nose. Just over three and a half feet high. Sixty-four pounds per cubic foot and we’re talking a shade under five tons. Add in the nose and tail and call him five and a half even. Need cable with two thousand pounds of lift. Five-sixteenths diameter should do it—”

Exley had taken him at his word. The ring to which the ropes from the corset and belly pad were attached would connect to the cable, resulting, he hoped, in a system that would provide the necessary pull while putting as little pressure on the whale as possible. Once the cable was connected, it was only a matter of towing it in, using the electric winch at the rear of the amphibious vehicle, which would be set up, sufficiently loaded, at a safe distance from shore.

It was a decent plan. The only trouble, as far as Exley could tell, was that the LARC itself was nowhere in sight. Looking up and down the sand, he saw no sign of the vehicle, which was already past its scheduled arrival.

Exley swore silently to himself. He began to hike toward where the jeep was parked, and he had crossed just over half the distance when he heard a sudden cry go up from the crowd behind him.

He turned to see the whale starting to thrash again, dislodging the sheets that had been laid on its side. As the villagers who had been standing at the pumps fell back, he ran toward the whale, his boots kicking up damp clods, that sense of dread rising once more in his chest.

One of the privates near the crowd had a flashlight. Exley took it and approached the whale, feeling a vibration beneath his feet as the whale struck its tail against the ground. Halting a few steps away, he switched on the light and directed the beam at the whale’s head.

The whale’s mouth was opening and closing, its jaw scraping wetly from side to side. Lowering the flashlight, Exley saw something dark and foamy pooling on the sand beneath. Black fluid was welling from the corners of its mouth, a thin steady trickle of blood.

Exley thrust the flashlight back into the private’s hands. “Keep the light on his head. And don’t shine it in his eyes.”

He took a step closer. The whale was still thrashing, but more weakly now. Another stink rose from beneath the smell of the sea, one he knew all too well, waxy and sickeningly sweet. The whale was dying before him.

As he watched, the whale seemed to shudder, a fasculation moving visibly along the muscles under its skin. Within seconds, although nothing on the surface had changed, it seemed very old, as if it had aged immeasurably in the course of a heartbeat, only a few yards away from home.

Exley went forward until he was close enough to touch it. Extending a hand, he hesitated, then laid his palm flat against the whale’s side. It was not moving. He looked into the one eye he could see, so dark that he could no longer tell if it was purple or black, surrounded by a narrow ring of white like the penumbra around the moon on nights when the air was wet.

He saw the light go out of the whale’s eyes. The world fell silent. And for a moment, nothing else happened.

Exley stood with his hand still touching the whale, the coldness from before spreading through every part of his body. The private said something and switched off his flashlight. Exley did not respond.

After a while, he straightened up and took his hand away. He became aware that his men were standing nearby, watching him, along with the ranks of villagers. No one made a sound.

Exley turned, his head pounding, and began to walk up the beach, away from the fires on the shore. He did not know where he was going, conscious only of the urge to get away from those eyes, and found himself walking along the edge of the water, leaving an isolated line of bootprints in the sand.

Someone was following him. Feeling the hairs rise on the back of his neck, he froze. A gray shape was standing somewhere off to his right, toward the water, at the edge of his range of vision.

He spun to face it, but nothing was there, only the sea nearly black in the darkness.

Exley turned further, a sour taste in his mouth, and saw that the villagers on the beach were staring at him. He stood there for another second, then finally trudged back, unable to shake the chill at his heart’s core.

The following morning, he was ordered to report to the battalion commander. He had been expecting this for a long time, and although he had tried to work out what he would say, the words in his head all rang hollow.

As he walked across the airfield, he felt an unaccustomed tension in the air, although it was impossible to separate this from his own disquiet. He had spent a restless night in his room at the bachelor officers’ quarters. Earlier, after confirming that the whale was dead, they had packed up in silence, leaving the canvas corset and belly pad behind on the beach, along with the dark mass of the body. The eyes of the villagers had remained on him the entire time.

The battalion commander lived in a separate trailer at base camp headquarters, located near the turnaround apron at the western end of the runway. After being shown in by the private on duty, Exley found himself in a cool, comfortably furnished space with a dining table and chairs. Kovac was already at the table, across from Byers, and seated between them was the battalion commander, the lieutenant colonel in charge of the Currahees.

“At ease, captain.” The lieutenant colonel gestured toward a chair. “Have a seat.”

Exley sat down. The commander was in his early forties, muscular, tan, and respected by all his men, including Exley, who had worked alongside this battalion since his arrival a year ago in Phan Rang. When word came that the Currahees would be taking over the base camp, Exley’s platoon had been sectioned, with half heading south to provide medical clearing for the entire region. The transition had been peaceful, but it had not been easy, and as he looked now into the lieutenant colonel’s eyes, Exley sensed that this meeting would not go well.

“I’ve been reviewing what took place last night,” the lieutenant colonel began. “As usual, I seem to be the last to know anything. I’ve heard from Kovac and Byers, and now I want your side of the story. From the beginning.”

Exley began to relate what had happened as objectively as he could, starting from the time he noticed the disturbance at the clinic and ending with their departure from the beach. The lieutenant colonel listened mostly in silence, breaking in now and then with a question. Neither of the other men spoke.

When Exley was done, the lieutenant colonel shook his head. “Jesus. Well, it was a mighty good plan on paper, but you must have known the risks involved. What were you hoping to do if it went sideways?”

“I don’t know,” Exley said, already regretting the words as he spoke them. “Given the urgency, I wasn’t thinking about contingencies.”

“And that was your mistake. You broke the first rule of operations. Don’t interfere if you don’t know what the endgame will be. We can’t afford to enter into this kind of thing lightly. Not at a time like this.”

The lieutenant colonel lit a cigarette. After a contemplative moment, he said, “I’m not sure you understand the delicacy of the situation. Operation Byrd was an unqualified success. The last battalion spent a year on search and clear missions. Eight hundred kills. The enemy has fallen back to the pine forest or gone over the fence to Cambodia. We’ve been handed an enviable position.”

He looked out the window at the dust of the airstrip. “And we aren’t just talking about the strategic side. The highway is open for the first time in years. Villagers are sending fish sauce to Saigon. A lot of eyes are on this district. It’s a model for what revolutionary development can be. Given the situation at Khe Sanh, we need to show what we can do for these people. And your adventure last night threatens to ruin all this goodwill. Tell him.”

This comment was directed at the sergeant major, who spoke for the first time since Exley’s arrival. “I’ve been talking to some of the hooch maids from the village,” Kovac said. “Word is already out. They’re saying you killed that whale on purpose. Someone overheard you talk about putting it down. And they saw you put something on the blowholes just before it died.”

Exley couldn’t believe this. “It was vaseline. I was trying to keep the area clean—”

The lieutenant colonel broke in. “It doesn’t matter. These people saw what they think they saw. And until we’ve cleared this up, you’ve compromised yourself. We can’t put you on outreach or civic action. It’s a hell of a mess. And in the meantime, we still have a dead whale on our hands.”

He glanced at Kovac. “The sergeant major says we should just shove a few sticks of dynamite inside and blow it up, and maybe he’s right. Personally, I’m inclined to let the locals take care of it. But it’s a goddamned public health hazard.”

Grinding out his cigarette in the heavy ashtray, the lieutenant colonel fixed his eyes on Exley. “As for the rest, we’ll discuss it in due time. But this isn’t over yet. The two of you are dismissed.”

Exley thanked him and rose with Byers, who had remained silent throughout the meeting. Kovac stayed at the table with the lieutenant colonel. Neither looked at the others as they left.

Outside, the air was well over ninety degrees. Exley stood outside the trailer, the sun pounding down on his head. To the north, he could see the lines of graves at the cemetery, below the hooded peak of Whiskey Mountain.

Byers spoke quietly at his side. “I’m sorry it had to happen this way. But I’ve seen this kind of thing before. They’ll roll it up and move on. You’re too valuable for them to take it out on you forever.”

“Thanks.” Looking out at the cemetery, Exley fought off a wave of bitterness. “But I don’t even know what we did back there.”

“You did the right thing,” Byers said. “And you paid for it. I expect it won’t be the last time.”

They headed together across the airstrip, walking toward the base hospital and clinic, where they parted ways. Exley stood alone for a moment at the steps of the whitewashed hospital, then finally went inside.

He spent the rest of the day at the clearing station. As of yet, there were no seriously wounded patients, but there was still a great deal to be done. The clearing platoon would be responsible for all evacuations in the region, which meant setting up a facility of forty beds. As they worked, none of his colleagues made any reference to the events of the night before, and Exley sensed them steering clear of the topic, as if they didn’t want to get involved.

The worst part, he reflected grimly, was that the lieutenant colonel was right. Normally, villagers would line up for the privilege of being examined by an army doctor, even if he would later pass them in the street, trading pills like candy. And it wasn’t just about outpatient care. Village health was a nightmare, with bad water and insects giving rise to malaria, roundworm, dysentery. It was taxing work under any circumstances, but without their trust, he had only made it harder on himself. And he was set to remain for another year.

By the end of the day, Exley understood what he had to do. As afternoon gave way to evening, he tracked down Sergeant Quyen and explained what he had in mind. Quyen seemed doubtful at first, but in the end, he agreed, even if he kept his real thoughts to himself.

A quarter of an hour later, they hitched a ride to Phan Thiet. As always, Exley could smell the village long before it came into view. The factory by the water was one of the largest producers of nuoc mam in the country, and the stench of fish sauce was carried for miles.

The jeep dropped them off at the central square of the village, which stood where the river met the sea, five blocks of stores, houses, and crumbling buildings from French rule. As pedicabs and entire families perched on bikes went past in the evening light, Exley thought he could see the villagers looking at him, nudging one another and talking quietly as he walked by.

Before long, they arrived at the temple gate. Looking through the white posts, Exley felt another chill. He knew what was buried here. For a moment, he considered turning back, but when he glanced over his shoulder, he saw that they had drawn a crowd, the villagers standing in a silent cluster up the road.

They continued to watch as Exley and Quyen approached the yellow façade of the temple. At the door, they were ushered in by a stooped figure in a Navy cap, who looked them over suspiciously. Quyen spoke a few words, and after another lingering glance, the old man disappeared into an inner room.

Exley looked around the shrine. The space was dusty and cramped, the shadows cut at intervals by shafts of evening sunlight through the gaps in the roof. Before him stood an altar to the male water god, a robed figure with a beard like strands of kelp, next to a vase of wilting flowers.

Hearing footsteps, he saw the old man come back into the room, carrying something in his hands. It was a ceramic pot, painted blue and white, with a bundle of incense stuck into a bed of dry rice. Quyen accepted it, handing the old man a coin in return, and set the pot down before the altar. “You have matches?”

Exley reached into his pocket. As he lit the incense, already aware of how empty the gesture was, he noticed that a number of villagers were watching from outside. He shook out the match, then followed the sergeant to another door at the far end of the shrine, the villagers tracking him with their eyes.

The room he entered was longer than it was wide, with beams exposed in the ceiling. At the center, resting on a row of trusses, was the skeleton of a whale. It was at least sixty feet long, its bones brown with age. Exley knew that it had washed up on the beach almost a century before, and that elsewhere in the temple were boxes and ossuaries with close to a hundred other whale skeletons.

Quyen had hung back at the doorway. “Your whale will have a good home here.”

Exley studied the massive skull, with the two great parentheses of its lower jaw. “You believe in the whale god?”

Quyen smiled uneasily, as if Exley had asked an inappropriate question. “Safer to believe, maybe. Americans don’t understand. For them these are just stories. Like with Wandering Soul—”

Exley knew what he meant. Helicopters flying over enemy encampments would blast tapes on loudspeakers, recordings of ghostly noises and wailings warning of the fate of soldiers who died far from home and joined the hungry dead. “You think I was doing the same thing?”

“No,” Quyen said. “What you did was good. But maybe you did not understand.”

The sergeant fell silent. Exley looked at the skeleton for another moment, then turned to leave, thinking of what Quyen had left unspoken. Even if your intentions were good, there were always consequences for interfering. If you invoked the hungry ghosts, sometimes they came. And the whale god, real or not, answered your prayers in ways of his own.

When they left the shrine, night had fallen, and the villagers who had followed them to the temple had disappeared. They were returning to the square when Exley saw the lights of a jeep coming in his direction. Behind the wheel was the specialist from the day before. “I’ve been looking for you.”

At first, Exley thought that his visit to the temple had drawn official attention, and he braced himself for what it might be. “What is it?”

“We need to go back to Ap Kim Hai,” the specialist said. “There’s been trouble.”

After a beat, Exley got into the jeep and glanced at Quyen, who climbed into the back seat. The specialist reversed, then wheeled back around the way he came, heading for the road south from the village. As they drove through the darkness, Exley found that the dread he had been fighting had returned. For the first time in hours, he thought of the gray shape he had seen by the water, and wondered if he was losing his mind. He could not entirely rule out the possibility.

Arriving at the fishing hamlet, they parked and headed down toward the water. As they neared the sea, Exley saw that another crowd had gathered. For one unreal moment, it seemed that they had never left. The only signs that anything had changed were the marks of blood and grease, twenty paces up the beach, where the whale had been carved up and carted off.

As he drew closer, he saw one of the villagers turn in his direction, then another, until the entire crowd was looking his way. At his approach, they parted, giving Exley a good look for the first time at the scene before him. And when he saw what was there, he could only stare in disbelief.

At the point where the water met the shore, three whales lay beached on the sand.


 At first, Exley thought he was hallucinating. The dark shapes lay several yards apart, one close to the size of the whale from the night before, the others slightly smaller, perhaps fifteen feet from tail to nose. The smaller ones were moving their flippers weakly on the sand, while the larger was unmoving, but alive, at least for now. “What the hell happened here?”

Quyen was already consulting with the villagers. “They found them an hour ago. After they cleared away the whale that died.” The sergeant turned to Exley, an emotion vibrating in his eyes that the doctor had never seen there before. “You ever see anything like this?”

Exley was about to shake his head when something else occurred to him. It was nothing but the whisper of an idea, but as he stood there on the sand, it grew stronger. “Maybe.”

He looked back at the jeep. For a moment, he thought about calling it in. Then he remembered his conversation with the battalion commander, and understood that he would get no backup tonight.

Finally, he went closer, followed by the others, the villagers keeping their distance. He saw that they had already begun to cover the whales in wet sheets, and that a cluster of fishermen seemed to be discussing what do to next. As he went past them, he overheard a few murmurs aimed his way, but at a sharp reply from Quyen, the villagers fell silent.

He gradually became aware that his skin was prickled with gooseflesh, despite the heat of the night. Beneath it, however, there was something new, a growing realization that had nothing to do with his own uneasiness.

Exley closed his eyes, then opened them. At the edge of his vision, toward the water, the gray shape had reappeared. It was waiting patiently, as if inviting him to see its true face at last.

He did not turn toward it yet. As his heart began pounding again, he continued to look at the whales, holding the gray outline in the corner of his eye. At last, he turned toward the water. Once more, he saw nothing.

Exley began to speak to the men at his side, keeping his eyes on the dark surface of the sea. “It’s strange. I’ve been haunted by something since yesterday, ever since we saw that whale. There’s something here that wasn’t there before. Whenever I think I’m about to see it, it disappears. But it’s waiting just out of sight.” He turned to the others. “Do you feel it, too?”

Part of him was convinced that they would only laugh, but when he looked into the specialist’s broad face, he saw something that he had never expected to find there. It was recognition.

The specialist spoke slowly. “I felt it last night, out on the green line. I was walking past graves registration when I saw something out by the cemetery. At first, I thought it was a sapper, but when I turned, it was gone. I took some men to check it out, but there was nothing there. And the entire time—”

He hesitated, then finally said, “It’s like the feeling you get when you’re on patrol and you know you’re being watched. But I never felt anything like that, not even in the jungle. Like one of those graves was going to open up in front of me.” The specialist looked between the others, as if challenging them to make fun of him. “If you tell anyone else I said this, I’ll kill you. But I know what I saw.”

Most of this statement seemed to be directed at Quyen, who had been listening without any change in expression. When he spoke, however, his voice was very quiet. “I have seen it, too. By the sea. When we were leaving last night, I saw something gray in the water. I have been cold ever since. What the villagers here call ghost sickness.” He said all this calmly, but when he looked at Exley, his eyes were clouded. “You think this place is cursed?”

Exley looked back at the whales. In the darkness, the figures around him seemed like wraiths in their black garments, lit here and there by the firelight. “Yes. But not in the way you think—”

Raising his eyes further, he saw a man approaching along the footpath that led down from the hamlet, his pace quickening as he reached the sand. It was Byers. At the sight of the whales, the surveyor halted, then continued along the beach until he was standing with the others by the water. “I came as soon as I heard. There were rumors at the village. Captain, we need to talk.”

Exley already sensed what he was going to say. “I take it that we aren’t getting any support from base.”

“No,” Byers said. “Not now.” He looked at the whales, his fists balled at his sides, and although his face was as impassive as always, Exley had the impression of something else gathering below the surface. “We need to roll this up. These whales will die anyway. We can at least see that they aren’t in any pain.”

Listening, Exley thought again of the pistol at his side. The coldness from before was stronger than ever. “I was ordered not to interfere.”

“I know,” Byers said. “But maybe it’s time to do the right thing again. Even if we suffer for it.”

After a moment, Exley nodded. “All right. Let’s talk about our options.” He looked at the crowd, remembering how his previous conversation with Byers had been overheard, and turned to the other men. “The two of you stay here. Keep away from the villagers for now. We’ll be back in a minute.”

As the others remained behind, Exley followed Byers south along the water, moving away from the heart of the scene. They continued in silence until they were about twenty yards down the sand. Byers was walking a few steps ahead, and as they entered the darkest part of the beach, Exley reached down and drew his sidearm, holding it so that it was out of sight.

Byers heard it. He turned around, his eyes flicking down toward the pistol, then rising to Exley’s face. “What are you doing?”

Exley kept the gun by his side. Although he was not pointing it at the other man, he supposed that there could be little doubt about his intentions. “I want to ask you some questions. I know you aren’t really a surveyor. You stayed at the base for a reason. And I want to find out why.”

After a pause, the barest sliver of a smile crossed the other man’s face. “What makes you say that?”

“You called me a white coat,” Exley said. “Later you talked about rolling up this operation. That isn’t slang an engineer would use. I think there’s something going on here. And you came out yesterday for a closer look.”

Byers had listened without visible reaction. “And what do you think is happening?”

“Something I should have known sooner. I’ve been feeling it since yesterday, and it’s worse when I’m down by the water. Uneasiness and anxiety. Like I’ve gone cold inside. Or like I’m being watched.”

Byers was still smiling faintly. “It sounds like what the villagers call ghost sickness.”

“Maybe,” Exley said. “But they’re also symptoms of exposure to infrasound. Low-frequency vibrations do strange things to the human nervous system. At low levels, you get psychological effects. Higher levels can cause nausea, muscle tension, hyperventilation—”

“—and visual artifacts.” Byers regarded him with greater interest. “Have you been seeing things?”

“A gray shape in the corner of my vision. When I turn to look at it, it’s gone.”

“That’s a common side effect. We’re using frequencies of nineteen hertz. Close to the resonant frequency of the human eye. Under certain conditions, it can cause optical illusions. Some subjects report seeing ghosts. There’s a pet theory of mine, actually, that cases of supposed hauntings occur in areas where environmental infrasound is high. We’re still trying to see if we can use this.”

Exley was unsettled by his even tone of voice. “Is this part of Wandering Soul?”

Byers laughed. “That’s a smokescreen. The enemy knows it’s a joke. When they hear the tapes, all they do is open fire. Nobody could ever take it seriously. But it provides useful cover for what we’re doing. Any rumors of our real work just get filed away with the rest.”

Exley detected a quiet note of satisfaction. “How long have you been doing this?”

“It isn’t a new idea. There was a case ten years ago in Marseilles. Workers complaining of headaches and nausea. They traced it to infrasound from a ventilator in the factory next door. It took us a long time to get to the point where we could control it. If we can incapacitate the enemy this way, and use their fear of ghosts, it will save lives. It’s safer, anyway, than search and destroy.” Byers smiled. “Some of us still believe in hearts and minds.”

Exley felt a chill that had nothing to do with the other symptoms he had been feeling. “What’s the source?”

“The destroyer out in the bay. We began the test yesterday morning. It’s a favorable location. Water to the east, mountains to the north and west. It’s our first major field test in a region this size. We weren’t planning to start for another few months, but we’ve been ordered to move up the timeline. Khe Sanh has been under siege for a week. And with a weapon like this—”

“—you can clear out the enemy without putting your own forces at risk.” Turning to the water, where the destroyer was holding station at the base, unseen, Exley considered the implications. “And the result?”

“Based on what I’ve found, we aren’t ready,” Byers said. “There’s no good way of directing the effect or confining it to a fixed area. We’d end up using it on our own troops. And as you’ve seen, there are other issues as well.”

Exley had been waiting for this. “The whales. They’re affected by it, too.”

Byers nodded. “We’ve seen something like this before. Whales get confused by sonar in naval exercises. Beach themselves in groups. They use echolocation to communicate. Mostly in toothed whales, but minke whales use it, too. Sometimes you see ear damage. The same thing is happening here. I warned them about the effects, but they didn’t listen.”

Exley heard what sounded like genuine regret in his voice. “So what happens now?”

“I’ve advised against further deployment until we’ve conducted additional tests. I’m here to solve problems, not create them. We’re ending it tonight. Khe Sanh will have to fend for itself.” Byers glanced over Exley’s shoulder. “In any case, I’d say you have other things to worry about.”

Exley turned, keeping his pistol out of view, and saw that a delegation of villagers had approached them in silence. The man in the lead had something in his arms. Looking more closely, he saw it was the canvas corset they had left behind the night before. Others had coils of rope slung over their shoulders, and in the distance, he could see another group unfolding the belly pad.

He looked back at Byers, who had remained where he was. “You have a choice here,” Byers said. “I wasn’t lying when I told you that you did the right thing. It’s time to decide where you stand.”

For a moment, the two men remained eye to eye. At last, Exley holstered his sidearm and went up to the villagers, who were waiting several paces away. Without a word, he joined the group and returned to the point where the whales were lying. He did not look back at Byers.

At the other end of the beach, Quyen was still standing next to the specialist. “What are we doing?”

“We’re going to float these whales,” Exley said. “We’ll start with the big one. Maybe the younger ones will follow him. If we do him last, the others will just beach themselves again. We don’t have much time.”

He went to the spot where the villagers were unfolding the belly pad, helping them to position it behind the largest whale. After a moment, the other soldiers came to help. As he worked, Exley felt the same coldness pass across him as before, but put it aside, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand.

Once the belly pad was in place, they prepared the corset. As four of the villagers lifted the whale’s tail, they slipped the canvas underneath with some difficulty, cinching it tightly just forward of the tail flukes. The whale lay without resisting, taking a breath every minute or so, and it did not move as they arranged the ropes to run back from the harness.

Under Quyen’s instruction, ten men lined up at each of the ropes, which had been secured with trucker’s hitches to grommets at the edges of the corset. When the sergeant gave the word, they strained forward, the ropes on their shoulders going taut. For a second, as they pulled without result, Exley feared that the whale was too heavy. Then it began to slide backward onto the pad, flailing only briefly at the unexpected movement, and fell still again.

As soon as the whale was in position, they began to rig the lines forward, connecting them to a second pair of ropes from the belly pad. Exley motioned to Quyen. “We need to pull him as smoothly as we can. Once we’ve started, we can’t stop, or we’ll tear his backbone apart. You understand?”

Quyen nodded and relayed the message. Exley unbuttoned his shirt and removed it. The specialist did the same. Then they joined the villagers at the ropes, ten men on each side. Taking as tight a grip as he could, Exley saw that the others were waiting on his word. His heart was hammering, but he managed to keep his voice calm as he counted to three in Vietnamese.

The villagers pulled, groaning, and with a scraping sound, the whale slid forward. Exley took one step, then another, the rope biting into his fingers as they turned the whale around in a long arc on the sand. Once it was facing the surf, they pressed onward, moving as one, their eyes fixed on the water.

They marched into the sea. Exley felt the sand squishing beneath his boots as the water rose up to his ankles. At one point, he almost slipped, but the men around him kept him going, the rope stretched tight in their hands. As the water began to soak his trouser legs, he thought for the first time of the sea snakes here, but it was too late to worry about this now.

The men to his left were moving with their heads down, the tendons standing out on their slender arms. As they towed the whale, the water rising to their chests, Exley found that the gray shape in the corner of his eye had returned, except that now it no longer looked like a man, but like something else entirely, watching them wordlessly as they fought their way forward.

He felt the rope slacken. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw that the whale had entered the surf and was being lifted by the water beneath it. Another few steps, and the belly pad drifted away.

As Quyen gave the order to stop, Exley let go of the rope and waded back to the whale. It lay enormous before him, its sides glistening, its mouth hanging open as the seawater washed its flanks.

Taking a knife from his pocket, Exley cut the corset free. As the canvas came loose, he saw the whale drift forward, breasting the water, and begin to move its flippers for the first time. The villagers scattered to either side, panting, as the whale swam away from shore, its broad back showing as it passed through the lines of men and continued onward into the sea.

Exley stood in the surf, his pulse high, watching as the whale slowly made its way into deeper water. A second later, it began to turn, and he was afraid it would beach itself again, but instead, it moved on at an angle to the waterline, until only the dark oval of its head was visible at the surface.

There was no time for triumph. As the villagers gathered up the wet and heavy ropes, Exley walked back, dripping, toward the second whale, which had dug a shallow groove for itself in the sand.

An hour later, the whales were back in the sea. The second had been easier, but the third had begun to thrash as soon as they approached it, and it was only with considerable trouble that they managed to haul it onto the belly pad and rig the ropes. Looking out at the water, Exley thought he could see one of the whales forty yards from shore, but it was impossible to tell for sure.

Exley sank down on the sand, the muscles groaning in his shoulders and arms. His sense of dread had fallen to a murmur, a memory of something already gone, and as he looked out at the dark swell of the sea, it seemed to him that the unclean vibration in the air had ceased.

Someone sat down to his right. It was Quyen. The sergeant said nothing, but reached into his front pocket and extracted a pack of cigarettes. He lit one, then offered another to Exley, who took it without a word. It was only as they sat there, smoking, that he thought to look past the villagers, who were seated in small groups in the sand. At the far end of the beach, Byers had disappeared.


The following day, Exley went to the funeral of the whale in Phan Thiet. Somewhat to his surprise, Kovac had asked to join him, and the two of them ended up standing together in the crowd that lined all sides of the square. The funeral had drawn visitors from throughout the region, and none seemed to pay the outsiders any mind as they looked out at the procession.

At the head of the throng, among the dancers and drummers, was a fisherman from the day before, the one Quyen had asked about the tides. Exley gathered that he had been chosen to serve as the chief mourner, in the role of the whale’s firstborn son. After the funeral, the whale’s remains would be buried on the temple grounds, and after three years, its skeleton would be dug up and put on display.

Exley wondered if anyone would remember the story behind the bones, or if it would be lost along with so much else. Earlier that day, when he had gone looking for Byers, he had been told that the surveyor had left to rejoin his platoon. When he had gone up to the bluffs, the destroyer had still been anchored in the bay. For a long moment, he had stood there looking at it. Then he went back to the hospital.

The battalion commander had informed him that a memorandum of concern would be placed in his file, but privately, he was of the opinion that the situation in the village had improved. “I hope you learned your lesson,” the lieutenant colonel had said. “If we let these people solve their own problems, and don’t overstep ourselves, it won’t be long before the job is done.”

As Exley turned away from the funeral, heading with the sergeant major back toward the road, he found that the weight on his shoulders had lifted, at least for now. The whale god, he reminded himself, was ultimately a protector, the spirit who guided lost souls safely to land, as long as they acknowledged the extent of his power and the limitations of their own. And life, after all, went on. Tomorrow, he remembered, was the first day of Tet.

Note: “The Whale God” first appeared in the September 2013 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. For the story of how it came to be written, please see here

Written by nevalalee

February 3, 2014 at 9:24 am

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