Eve in the Belly of the Whale
by Ljubo Popovich
“With immortality comes the need for infinite patience,” Eve said. “Once you’ve done almost everything, each day feels like déjà vu.”
For how many years had she been a nomad? Thunderclaps of memory, revelations, breaths... waiting for a death that never came, expecting a visitor or an end to the story... Patting the ground on which she sat, she continued, “Like the whale” — gesturing to the sky and the mist-shrouded landscape — “which has always existed and must always exist, regardless of the passage of time.”
“I’m bored most of the time...” one of the children started.
Eve shook her head at the restless children and said, “Of course I like not dying. Remaining young has its advantages.”
The children before her represented a gallery of emotive faces in various stages of distraction. So many dreams unrealized, so many places unexplored.
With a long, blood-red fingernail she scratched her leopard-spotted skin. Flesh peeled off like the skin of a fresh peach, and the livid spot underneath sealed itself quickly. The detached sliver of skin shriveled and dissolved into the air. A few of the girls and boys showed expressions of awe. Others had seen the trick before.
Their understanding of the whale in which they lived was innocent, and eternal life was beyond the capacity of their imaginations. They were chrysalides, enchanted by the obsolescence of Time.
After a few stories around the campfire, they fell asleep. She carried no books, but a million tales always floated through her mind.
* * *
In strangers’ faces Eve discovered the likenesses of vanished people, like departed souls reincarnated piecemeal: a familiar earlobe here, a twist of the mouth there, the cheekbones she remembered, but nothing more... And the years churning away in the great bellows of the sky only reformed and rearranged their physical bodies, scattering the elements only to recombine them.
A gentle rain drifted in on the crest of the whale’s breath, a thunderclap, echoes. The mouth hung open, she glanced to the scintillated horizon. Albatrosses flew through the cavernous maw. From a distance they looked like flies.
The whale turned one icy eye inward — a pale blue moon — and regarded her. For how many eons had that moon been full?
As it tipped its fin, she felt the world tilt on its axis. The long-abandoned cities on the barnacled ceiling slid into each other, curving along the arch into a textureless haze at the limit of her vision.
When the transparent sky glowed in the morning, the children woke naturally. She sat meditating before the abyss, contemplating its profound depth. On the edge of the cliff gazing down at a frozen ocean, she felt calm.
How lonely are the clear green depths? A mirror for the cool ambience of the air. Peering inward, the crystal framework of sunken fractures, cracks running deep. — Milky blue skies filled with invisible lightning.
“Where’re we going today?” Ana asked, sitting down next to her.
“To the top of the great basin, near the ghost trees,” Eve said.
The girl grew excited. Her lips were salty and cracked. All night Eve had prayed for rain but harvested only thunder.
The walk was long. The whale was dreaming; she could see the muscles twitching behind its great eye.
During midday it grew warm and they paused to rest. One by one the children filed up the slope and sat by the fire. Above, the ghost trees loomed. Menacing, pale stalks of moonlight, crooked bones, ashen and full of warm red veins.
It was too hot for a fire, but the fish in her pack needed cooking, since they were a day old.
Sweat glistened on one boy’s prematurely wrinkled forehead as he breathed heavily.
The air was close. She was beginning to feel stifled. Was the whale holding its breath?
* * *
The vague blur of light petering through the whale’s hide spread out and cast rainbow bridges between the clouds.
Eve looked down at the fillet of fish in her hand. Her stomach was flat, sleek and tan. Hesitating, she gave the last part of her meal to a thin child.
“Why don’t I get any more?” another boy complained.
Eve sighed. “I think the whale will provide plenty of food for us tomorrow.”
Their hungry eyes glistened with moisture.
“If you never eat, will you still live forever?” one boy asked.
“Probably,” Eve said.
“What if you fell in the abyss?” David asked.
“That’s enough questions, children. It’s time to start walking.” Eve splashed water on the fire and they all stood up.
* * *
Putrid, suffocating rain poured down when they reached the ridge of ghost trees. The quiet pulse of the rain numbed Eve’s mind. They stood under crooked branches that did nothing to keep them dry. She debated whether they should wait it out in discomfort or push on till they crossed the river.
“The rain hurts.” “I’m all sticky.” “I’m hungry.” Once the children started complaining it was difficult to stop them.
“What if I tell a story?” she suggested.
The light of dimly glowing mushrooms blossomed between their feet. The children shivered. She took off her cloak and laid it across the back of the youngest girl. The tattoos on Eve’s bare arms drew stares. The deep shadows were etched into their young minds, layer upon layer — the tales her body told...
“Tell us how you got the tattoos,” Jeremiah asked.
“It’s not a fun story,” Eve said.
They persisted in unison.
“Long ago,” Eve said, speaking up over the clatter of rain through the brittle branches, “I lived with my people next to a cold sea. There was fish enough in the sea to last forever, but there were other creatures too, ones we didn’t know the names of. This was when the whale was young, not as big as he is now.”
Some of the children sat down to listen, even as the rain pelted, and all of them were silent.
“The sea grew colder every day until it was full of floating ice. The fish swam to the bottom, so we couldn’t catch them anymore. For a while we trapped animals but there were too many of us and not enough beasts.”
“How many people were there?” one of the kids asked.
“Several hundred.” A look of amazement spread across their faces.
“How much is a hundred?” David asked.
“Ten times the number here,” Eve said simply, and continued. “The animals were intelligent. Much smarter than they are now. They were a lot bigger, too, and they hated men. We killed and skinned as many as we could, but winter grew long and harsh. The whale’s flesh was frozen hard, so that even the ghost trees withered, and the sun above the whale’s skin was gray and sad.
“We traveled to the hills, where it was a little warmer, and there were a few small animals left. In the rolling prairie, we could not see the sea, but we could survive for a short while. The women stopped having children. There just wasn’t enough to eat, and the men grew angry; they were frustrated because death was closing in upon us.
“In time, we left and traveled as a group into the mountains where huge birds lived, much bigger than men and, while the men fought these birds for their eggs, the women made camp and slowly starved. The birds owned the mountain, and we were invading their home. They were not like the birds today, but ancient, having no feathers and a sharp beak.
“The birds killed many men, and the men killed many birds. There were no children left among my people by this time, and the insects we had to eat gave us harmful diseases. The barren mountains were a terrible place. We left once every man had died. Only thirteen women remained.”
Eve hesitated before going on, but saw the rapt expressions on their faces. “Next, we came to a land with many types of plants and water that gushed up from the ground. We built a raft to cross the wide swamp, because walking in the mud hurt our feet. The water was poisonous to our mouths and to our skin.
“At the other end we met another type of men. They knew nothing of language and wore no clothing upon their bodies. Instead they carried the spines of cactuses in their flesh and pricked designs under the skin. Since they had no women among them, they took us in. From living with these men, we had many children and were covered with tattoos. But then we realized the horrible truth.”
Again she debated whether she should continue.
“This is the good part,” one of the boys said. He was the eldest, and had heard the story before. Eve shot him a serious glance, and his excitement withered into shame.
“They were not true men, but beasts in the shape of men. The tattoos on their bodies were full of evil power, and their minds were small, even though their bodies were big and strong. The twelve women that had come with me all bore sons and daughters but none of them lived.”
“What happened?” Ana asked.
“The men ate the children while they were still infants, leaving only the bones. We tried to run away, but we were captured and held in a cage for many months. One by one we starved. But I was born of the holy bloodline and could not die. The men saw this and let me out of the cage. When one of them struck me with a spear, he saw how the wound healed without a scar and bowed down to me. I knew I might kill them all and they would die willingly, but I knew this was not the right thing to do, even if they were not true men and were only savage beasts.
“And so I ordered them to travel to the mountains, where the birds ruled over the barren peaks, and to live there forever. But they didn’t understand me and wanted to follow me wherever I went. In the end, I left while they were sleeping.”
“Where did you go then?” one of the boys asked eagerly.
“That is a long story. Since the rain has stopped, I’ll have to tell it another time.”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Ljubo Popovich