Da Steppt Der Bär

By William Hayward

Nobody knew how the whale—which was the size of a scraper scraping land instead of sky and the color of a widowed summer day—got in the reservoir, nor if it was happy swimming in the not even remotely salty water, but nobody attempted to remove it or figure it out because everybody enjoyed the way it spurted that water with the upwardness of a biological fountain commissioned by local government to raise morale and sang its song, which had begun as deep and melodic but that time’s endless treadmill run had eventually turned into the high pitched wail of a kazoo if a kazoo wasn’t a kazoo but an extremely pleasant simply kazooish sounding instrument. The song echoing morning and night off surrounding concrete and glass expanses so that no matter where you were it couldn’t really not be heard. Nobody knew even less about how on one out of the blue day, just a year after its arrival, the whale got itself beached on the stony expanse that ran the length of the huge reservoir and that inner-city sun lovers sat on during big-bellied sun summers, but the change in its musical number as desperation writhed just as furiously in its vocals as in its attempts to get back to the reservoir—no longer a song but the wail of a bowl of jelly that’d lost its wibble wobble and wanted someone, anyone, to help get it back—haunted the air morning and night, like a lullaby designed to keep you awake and morose rather than asleep and peaceful. After a week had passed like this, and both the barely-deserving-of-the-name efforts to raise enough money to transport the whale to the nearest ocean and the not-even-pretending-to-try attempts to hoist the whale with local building equipment back into the reservoir had failed miserably, people gave up on caring and instead gathered in bulk to watch the whale let out its last song on a cloudy Sunday morning. Me being one of them, standing with my head bowed and my hands wrapped around the hands of sobbing strangers wearing t-shirts with the whale’s head on them as the whale’s real-life head’s eyes clouded gently over, a giant exhale being released with the cloud that we all collectively breathed in, despite it stinking to high heaven of a four-time fish triathlon athlete post triathlon completion, as if it was life itself. 

There was a period of mourning after the whale’s death where people wore little armbands colored in black, but that didn’t last long, and soon most forgot about the whale in the reservoir completely—black armbands gathered in bushes and trees like strange fruit for weeks after, tossed by people who suddenly saw they were wearing them and hadn’t the foggiest why—the government apparently included, as they provided no way of transporting the whale’s body from the rocky expanse to a place of burial or burning. Instead, they left it to sit there, an inglorious reminder to the ones who bothered to remember of both the magical year when the whale had played and the unmagical time of their present, when, instead of playing, the whale began to swell from the gases building within it. 

It was just after the swelling started that people, and not just the ones of the sobbing and t-shirts, began to visit again, standing on the rocks every morning with eyes closed and hands turned upwards and feet bathed in water, facing the whale straight on, making slight low ticking noises under their breaths and flinching ever so slightly with each splashing a raised foot caused. I’d seen these standers on mornings while passing the reservoir to get to the office, seen them increase in numbers too, but, having a complete lack of interest in what I assumed was a form of severe grief, didn’t think to ask what was happening until I noticed that some of those standers were colleagues, and that all of those colleagues had acquired a set of similar characteristics—a pulsing of the temples so aggressive and hard that it looked as if a builder was housed inside hammering to get out, some eyebrows so laden with sweat that they hung down low like a Neanderthal’s, and a set of buttocks so extraordinarily tense they walked around as if constantly desperate to release some load—asking and thou-shalt receiving in withdrawn tones from them the answer that it was quite the thrill, quite the rush, quite the high, to stand next to a creature that's building gases could make it erupt at any moment and push that standing to the last possible minute before they had to get on with getting to where ever they had to get to. Of course, once the intoxicating, high-inducing elements of the morning close-to-the-whale stand became better known, the morning aspect of it evaporated and the whole thing became, instead, a late night thing, a party thing, an entrepreneurial venture thing that certain entrepreneurial people took upon themselves to invest in, sticking a sign by the whale’s—held open by rigor mortis—mouth that read, THE PLACE, buying a huge disco ball, some bass-heavy speaker equipment, several industrial strength air freshers, streamers, neon lights, and a photobooth. Opening up a club inside the belly of the beast that swiftly became the hottest place in town to those who remembered the whale’s existence, which was everyone once it became apparent that The Place was the place to be, most nights the line to get in stretching from that gaping mouth—that perpetually looked as if it was about to let out a ginormous groan of indigestion—down the rocky expanse, around the whole reservoir, and back up onto the surrounding streets. 

As I’d never been, I had no real interest in going to The Place at first, the conundrum being that you only had a burning desire to go once you’d been. The sheer size of the line held the little curious cat in my heart at bay until a change in the parts of my work day involving the standing around office machines, the sitting in the canteen, and the general toilet talk became apparent, these things becoming unbearable instead of enjoyable—when previously they’d been very enjoyable indeed and my favourite parts of any given work day, being a part of a part-of-them feeling like I was a part of a something which was in turn a part of everything—as I was cut out of every single conversation, excluded, and simply shunted off to watch from the periphery as their sweaty brows and pulsing temples talked in the quickfire tones of cokeheads on fire about the THRILL! of being in the whale. 

It was after one day too many of standing silently apart from ever growing groups of people sweating on each other with pinball eyes that I finally prodded my cat awake and coaxed it into going nuts, heading to join The Place’s line, which was a good four miles away from the distant entrance, the heads lining the line bobbing up and down with either excitement or desperation, resembling countless disembodied jack-not-in-the-boxes early on that Thursday morning. The whale had been dead for a month or so at that point but, apart from some of its fins having completely rotted away, was still in remarkably good shape for the length of time it’d been dead and danced in; its skin still having a semblance of life’s shimmer to it and its cavernous torso holding up rather well under the growing strain as, even before gases had swelled it like the throat of a particularly offended bullfrog, it had been as bulbous as a nose post-punch and much more rotund than that of a regular whale. 

I entered The Place that Thursday night with a slight slouch, the baleen, which acted as teeth for most whales, hanging like a strange beaded curtain that both beckoned and threatened entanglement, brushing the skin of my shoulders with the rough feeling of a cat’s tongue as the whale’s tongue, well-trodden by that point and no longer pink but a dull grey, squelched with the inharmonious wetness of a sponge fresh from the school of bath as both my feet sank into it. Choking as I looked down towards the dance floor, a thin smokiness coating everything like a fine misty dew curling around me like the possessive arms of an abusive husband turned steam, the straightness of the gullet leading down made it so that even at the top you could see the faint, ever so dreamy, shape of dancers shaking their hearts out onto their sleeves and raising it with their heads and hands to the new flesh sky like shadows in the depths of a cloud. Down that gullet I went, the floor as slippery and wet as the gullet of a deceased whale could be expected to be—like a very smooth stone at the bottom of a bubbling brook simply waiting for an overtly courageous child to do some stepping, some slipping—and forcing me to hang onto the arms of the three clearly seasoned, unslippable visitors who’d been let in with me. My eyes, which streamed and blurred from the gaseous air, forced me onto their arms as well until, with the abrupt rudeness of a hat telling a head for the last time it isn’t interested, my sight improved and everything focused in a way it had never before so, blinking what remained of my blurriness away, I could see as a bloody discharge dripped from my lashes and onto my shirt with the consistency of a joyful porridge.

“Did your eyes bleed the first time in?” I screamed to the three walking with me.

“HOHO, YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. PARTYYYYY GOOOOOD!” their mouths mouthed back, not taking their eyes—complete with irises doing the rumpa-pumpa grind in their whiteish cages—off of me until we walked onto the dance floor, which, as if the dimensions of the colossal whale were skewed and screwed the deeper into it you got, seemed much larger and wider than it appeared it would be from the outside, so wide and large that my eyes could barely pick up the people dancing toward the back, them being the size of people viewed from the top of a cliff or particularly large tree, moveable freckles on the belly of the earth.

I turned to my seasoned companions to ask them about this, but succeeded only in seeing them blend, with the ease of slugs in the A&E of a snail hospital, into the packed crowd in which everyone was dancing in the same jerky manner of stop motion, and every few seconds, with the synchronicity of shadows, throwing their heads back to gutturally roar—the communist hot breath coming from them organizing itself into a gale that struck my then still-standing-to-the-side face and made my ears buzz as if a colony of lost bees were stuck inside them. The sharp scent of the swelling gases, like that of timber on a rainy day, filled my nose holes, taking up camp in them, and tickled my inner skull until my feet and hands, unknowingly at first but then very knowingly, began twisting in the ways of sultry spaghetti, wriggling and wrapping around each other and twisting me around myself and then deeper onto the floor and into the strands of others so that we twisted around each other, conjoining, collective feet stamping and pounding on whale flesh with the drumming sounds of soldiers declaring war on death itself and charging headfirst with no fear. I charged headfirst with the rest for a long old time, legs and arms wrapped around a multitude of other legs and arms, crabs in a bucket, eels in an orgy, familiar and unfamiliar faces flashing past me every second, minute, or hour, so high and happy that standing still wasn’t a thought and that if somehow someone’d stood me still, I imagine now it would have honest to God killed me. Time passed like that without ringing its alarm, banging its gong, or popping its cuckoo, so that when the thought of the outside world finally struck me again and I looked blearily up the gullet, I saw the glimmer of a distant day and felt in my pants the wetness of my own released substances, almost falling down and then actually falling down, but not actually falling because others were there, holding me up as a rumbling, like that of a steamroller steamrolling with tears in its headlights a motorway of limpets, shook the ground all around. The gases got smokier and my head emptier as the whale expanded further, a hot air balloon being puffed into from giant lips, and a cheer, coming from us all, harmonised with the rumbling, a rabid cheer that brought a foam to the mouth and a blur to the features from the expectation and fear that it could be over, just like that, right then, in that moment BOOMED into little nothings along with the big whale, all of us vibrating until enough time had passed for our expectation to sink to tation, our fear to crawl into its cave, and, freshly renewed, for the party to start all over again. 

I was still being held, but no longer up, as, in the desperate dancing manner of mice in an afire manger, we, the crowd, all collectively kicked our feet up into the air as if competing in a kicking contest where the prize for winning was simply more kicks, winning time and time again, our kicks shifting us, taking us, slowly, up toward the glimmer of light at the end of the gullet, a dry groan from our throats marking the way, forming a barely coherent, “Woooooork,” exiting The Place and going to the places of that instead, dishevelled and dirty. Standing in the office after that first how-ever-long period in the whale with my own temple going triple-time, my own brow as moist as the eyes of a window in pane, and my own thoughts ringa-ding-dinging about nothing but the fact that I could be dead and gone and that I wasn’t because I’d danced with death and jostled it into submission. I felt what I imagined a sandophile felt when deep in a dune as much as I felt what I imagined others felt when deep in the hole of addiction and knowing that they’d had the most fun they’d ever have and that they’d only have it again if their substance was swimming tadpoleish in their bodies again. With all these feelings and imaginings, I didn’t last a single full day before giving up on life and deciding to go back to The Place for good, taking the rest of the office with me, starting the movement by throwing my computer down and looking at my colleagues—neon paint and blubber still smeared across their cheeks, shirts, if they were worn at all, unbuttoned to bellybuttons—with a rousing cry of, “This isn’t the place.” That worked as rousing cries often do, rousing those who didn’t need much rousing as they all felt what I felt, which was a stripping of veins aching for nothing more than to be back in the sanctity of the whale, to throw down their own pens and computers and come back to The Place that was the place to be. 

I can’t say exactly, but it can’t have been more than a few days after, that most, if not all, places in the city began to empty both daily and nightly as everyone with a thumb, knee, or toe took the cookie and didn’t stop stuffing it in their mouths. Nobody wanted their veins to feel as if they were being pulled out in strips and so everybody stayed pretty much constantly in The Place, with only the occasional breaks—say every few days or so, not really away from the whale, just from the blast zone—to remove any of the suicidal aspects that could be attributed to the high and to refresh themselves.

It was at a moment when the music was doing a particular boom-boom-whoop-de-whoop and thruuuuuuup-zuuuuooooooooop type of pounding and the anticipation of the surely coming rumble grumble groan of the whale further swelling was sending us all into evangelical type ecstasy—jostling left and right with groans of blank-eyed pleasure from the constant almost-the-end, arms, when they could be, raised up and shook as if attempting to shake loose leaf fingers from winter-plagued hands—that I looked to the left and nodded at whoever was next to me, knowing the best time for a break was when you were feeling the best you could feel and that a break should never be taken alone. Collectively unthreading ourselves, we made our way out, mumbling pleasantries and nods, and stood at the break spot, ankle deep in the reservoir and designated as the spot of break by a little ragged flag a good twenty metres from the whale, with four other people. All of us huddled closer together than our familiarity, which was zilch and nowt, suggested we should be huddled, but huddled closely together all the same because the feeling of not being in the whale was an odd feeling like that of a babe being robbed from the womb too soon and our bodies, despite our persisting sweat, shivered violently.

“Time. Where’s it gone? I don’t know. But hell. Party. Eh?” the woman who’d left the whale with me said to one of the four. “Here. We. Are. At the center of it all. We all are.”

“I’m loving it. Absolutely loving it. Sometimes I don’t think it ever will end,” the one of the four chattered back to her, eyelashes brushing the skin of her cheek. “But then I remember I want it to, and I think it will again. That’s the point.”

“The pointiest point,” another of the four nodded, grinding their teeth together so hard they made the sound of splintering wood. “An explosion be coming. Yaar.”

“This place is a grasshopper. Hopping, absolutely hopping,” someone else put out there, doing a little hop themselves and splashing us all.

“An explosion. Sure, it’s coming. Boom. Boomdeboom. Booooooooooooooooooooom,” I let out before, after a brief pause, all six of us, simultaneously harmonising to the music coming from the depths of the whale, let out a, “Kablaaaammmmmmmmmmmmooooooo,” stretching the note until it was shoved aside by the visible groaning and growing of the whale, the surface of its body rippling with the dexterity of a tumultuous ocean as it raised again towards the heavens.

“The Place, it’s growing,” the woman who’d left with me whoopdewhooped before frowning and attempting to run towards it, being stopped only by a grabbing of her arms by the four. “We’re missssssssing it.”

“We can’t not miss it now. We would have to be in there already to be in there. It could go.”

“We’d be suicidal to go back there now when it could go.”

“Suicidal. We’re not,” I nodded, my eyes fixated on the whale, my mouth moist. 

“But I don’t think it’s grown this fast before.”

“You don’t think?”

“I don’t think.”

“I don’t think. I know.”

“I bet it’s manic in there.”

“It is swelling fast. People will be excited.”

“Very fast. Very Excited.”

“Does it usually ripple?”

“This is what makes The Place, the place.”

“God, maybe this is the boom.”

“The actual boom.”

“The real boom.”

We interrupted whatever it was any of us were going to say next by sprinting like disembodied legs seeking embodiment back towards The Place, which was grumbling and groaning like the starving belly of a bowl of cherries, tripping, falling, getting up, getting closer, the group of four shoving at the woman and I for purchase, springboarding off us to arrive first, diving with extended arms to land on the flat grey tongue as the violent shaking of the whale, with a great crashing, finally sent its rigor mortis mouth on a journey to closedness, leaving the woman and I trapped outside to simply watch with a tremble as the whale trembled itself and grew more and more, our hands scratching away at each other with both a wishing it was happening and a hoping that it wasn’t even as it became increasingly apparent that it was and would happen, right then. 

The sound of the music from The Place increased in volume as the whale grew to a point where it didn’t seem possible it could grow anymore but then grew some more anyway, its head swelling to be larger than the rest of its body, damning the possibilities until, with two champagne on a French Rivera afternoon pops, the eyes in that head revealed themselves from below closed eyelids and burst into the air like munition, the size of small cars, landing in the reservoir with a splashing as, with the great squeaking of a fart on the precipice of the great Anal Mountain Range, all the built up gas began to escape from the newly gaping eye sockets in streams resembling a torrent of smoky tears. The body of the whale deflated so swiftly and completely that, with the raggedness of a bear of teddy losing its stuffing or a vacuum its vroom, its flesh collapsed in on itself, falling like a billowing cloth and settling on the heads and bodies of the population within it, whose dancing had ceased and whose movements beneath that tarpaulin of flesh and blubber resembled instead the frantic movements of rats fleeing from some great fire, some great terror of darkness and sadism that would surely catch them. We watched this, our hearts sinking to our soles and anchoring us in place as they filled with the heavy feeling of the party being over, our hair and the chaotic mess of individual strands plastered to our foreheads pinging up, one by one, like broken springs gaining autonomy, as the sweat was chilled from our brows.