J. M. G. Le Clézio’s "Pawana" is an apocalyptic 50-page short story, the central action of which takes place at the beginning of 1856, with the programmatic development of the American presence on the California coast. With deliberate echoes of Conrad and Melville, the story records the transition caused by the closure of the "western frontier" from an earlier native way of life to the beginning of the Faustian, resource–hungry early modern period in America.
Excerpted from Pawana, by J. M. G. Le Clézio
John, from Nantucket:
It was in the beginning, at the very beginning, when there was nobody on the sea, nothing more than birds and sunlight. Since childhood I had dreamed of going there, to this place where all began and all ended. They spoke of it as though of a secret, like a treasure. In Nantucket they all spoke about it, talking as though drunk. They said that over there in California there existed a secret place in the ocean where the whales went to birth their young, and where the old females went to die. There was this reservoir, this immense shallow in the sea, where they gathered by the thousands, the youngest along with the oldest, and the males formed a protective circle around them to prevent orcas and sharks from entering, and the sea roiled under the crash of fins, the sky grew misty with the spray of blowholes, with the cries of the birds sounding like a forge.
This is what they said. They all told stories of this place as though they had seen it. And I, on the piers of Nantucket, I listened to them and also remembered as though I had been there.
And now it all has disappeared. I remember it, it is as though my life has been this dream alone, in which everything that was beautiful and new in the world was undone, destroyed. I never returned to Nantucket. Does the ripple of this dream still exist?
The great streamlined ships, the high masts where the lookout kept watch on the sea, the launches attached to the flanks of the ships, ready to cut into the sea, the spars, the harpoons, the boathooks ready to take on their work.
And the sea the color of blood, blackened under a sky brimming with birds. My most distant memory of Nantucket is that of the odor of blood in the sea, in the port still gray from winter’s end, when the whalers returned from the other end of the world, hauling their dead giants. Then, on the piers, the gutting with axes and saws, the streams of black blood flowing through the basins of the pier, the powerful, acrid smell of the depths.
There I walked when I was eight, between the rotting carcasses. Seagulls lived in the bodies of the giants, they would burst out tearing off strips of skin and gristle. At night came the army of rats, invading the carcasses as though they were mountains spotted with caves.
My Uncle Samuel worked as a gutter. He was the first to show me the heads of the giants, the immense jaws, and what small eyes they had burrowed into folds of skin, a blank eye covered with a blue tint. I breathed in the frightful odor of blood and entrails, and imagined these bodies alive, leaping right through the waves, the thunder of the water against their skulls, the prodigious blows of their fins and tails. My Uncle Samuel taught me to distinguish the arctic whale from the fin whale, the sperm whale, the humpback. He told me how from a distance the lookout could tell them apart from their sprays: the arctic with its double spray, the blue fin whale with its single spray which surged up like a tree made of steam. All of these things I learned on the piers of Nantucket, with the cries of the scavenging birds, the dull sound of the axes falling upon the corpses, the odor of fat boiling in the basins. On the piers I saw an orca for the first time, immense and black, and a shark whose stomach they had opened.
Now, after so many years, these are the memories which come back here, in Punta Bunda, in the bay of Ensenada. I hear the sea, observe the reflection of the rocks polished by the wind, the beach, so soft, the sky, and it is the sea of Nantucket that I think of first of all, this gray and wild ocean which can turn men into savages. Perhaps I, too, was born like one of those cruel birds flying and screeching around the dead giants, these birds of prey following the Nantucket hunters? Now all is extinguished, done. The wake has closed. The blood no longer blackens the sea, the port basins are empty, the great lagoon shivers under the wind as though none of that had ever been, as though the hunting vessels had died in the same moment as their prey.
I remember when I was ten, the Nantucket boys and I borrowed a boat from Old John Nattick and navigated out to the lagoon—right out to the end of it—to the village of Wauwinet, where the strip of solid ground is so narrow that one hears the groaning of the ocean breakers on the other side. We landed on the beach and ran across the dunes until we were facing the sea. It was late afternoon, June, I recall it very well, and we were keeping watch on the horizon to see the hunting vessels return. The sky was empty and the sea came obliquely toward us in foamy waves. So long we waited, until dusk, our eyes burnt by the wind and the sea. Then we returned to Nantucket, expecting our punishment. Today it seems that not a single heartbeat separates me from that moment, when I tried in vain to see a vessel from the beach, carrying its prey attached to its side, surrounded by a flock of birds.
Afterwards, we often went to see Old Nattick on the piers. He told us of the time when the Indians where the only ones on the island, when they used to hunt whales standing at the prow of their launches, harpoon in hand. Back then the whales used to cross the channel between Nantucket and Cape Cod, so numerous that they nearly formed a black shadow on the sea, with great jets of vapor trailing overhead. The old man imitated for us the cry of the lookout when he spotted a group of whales: “Awaité, pawana!” Back then all the marine hunterswere Nantucket Indians, all of them speaking Nattik. Then these men died, one after another, of sickness, drunkenness, or in the brawls in the nightclubs of Bedford and Boston. They died of cold in the snow of the gutters, died at sea in pursuit of the giant pawana, died in sanitariums of tuberculosis. Old John Nattick was the only one who remembered all that. When he had finished talking, he did not move, sitting with his back against the wall, watching the swaying of masts upon the useless boats. His face was somber and wrinkled, his eyes two slits where the spark of attention no longer shone. He remained seated in silence, wrapped up in his filthy blanket, his white hair coiled under his Quaker hat. One day he showed us how to cast the harpoon. He tip-toed up to the prow of his ship, waving a long baton, and the fishermen passing by made fun of him, because he was blind. But then I imagined the body of the giant plunging towards the depths and the jet of blood which reddened the sea.
It is the blood that I see here now, without fail, in the blue sea of Ensenada. In Punta Bunda, the buccaneers’ cabins are still standing. They were made of one wall of dry stone, on which branches and palms were laid. Some of them are reinforced with the enormous ribs of whales, and the long white blades polished by wind and sea shine in the sun. Wind blowing between the blades and the stones makes a curious music that whistles and moans very low like a dirge. That was long ago . . . so long ago . . . then the sea was as man had found it when he first came into the world. Now I am the one who is old, like Old Nattick at the beginning of a new century. But the Léonore has disappeared, is no longer anything but a broken-up carcass wrecked upon a sandbar in San Francisco Bay. They have taken off everything that could be salvaged from her body: her masts, the planks of her bridge, the pieces of copper in her ribs, all her machinery, even her waters. The wreck looters passed over like cruel birds, leaving only the ribs to the air, just like the ribs of the giants on the beaches of California and Mexico—not white, hard, and beautiful, but black and rotted out by the sea, encrusted with wrack and worms.
It is in an old buccaneer’s cabin that I opt to take shelter. When the wind blows in off the sea, fog hangs down upon the boulders of the coast, and little by little the beach disappears in a cottony cloud. Then I see nothing but the bones of whales, I hear nothing more than the groaning wind. The great jaws jut up everywhere in the sand like arcs, and the backbones seem like columns of stone broken in some cataclysm.
During the winter, the ocean is as smooth as metal. I was eighteen when I embarked on the Léonore, commanded by Captain Charles Melville Scammon. I remember the route that we followed from San Francisco towards the south, and the day when we first arrived in Punta Bunda, in Baja California. This was not the desolate place then that I find today, this desert strewn with bones and ruins. It was a genuine buccaneer town with all the sailing vessels in the water of the great bay of Ensenada and the flight of the birds that circled around them, waiting for their departure. The bay was ruled by an activity like that which I had seen throughout my childhood in the ports of the East Coast, Bedford, Nantucket. Fires would burn to heat the oil and the pitch, the coopers repairing the barrels. There were stations for carpentry, forges, men who patched the sails, braided the cables and ropes. The launch dropped us off on the beach, and I walked in the sand under a baking sun. Wherever one went in the village he was deafened by the sound of the buccaneers. The sailors came from all corners of the world, and extraordinary languages were heard—Portuguese, Russian, Chinese. There were men from the Canary Islands, thick and black, Norwegians with nearly white hair, with eyebrows and beards discolored by salt. There were Kanaks from the other side of the Pacific who had their faces tattooed and wore pearly earrings, Patagonian Indians from South America, immense and taciturn, harpooners from Hawaii, Alaska, the Acore Islands. Everyone at Punta Bunda was expecting the arrival of gray and fin whales coming from the pole to birth their young in the warm Mexican waters.
Now I walk on this deserted beach and remember what it once was. I seem to hear the noise of the buccaneer town, the boilermakers, the coopers, the voices of the sailors hailing from one vessel to the other. I remember Araceli.
The first time I saw her was on the riverbank where the prostitutes had set up their palm hut. I had heard the girls’ laughter and walked upstream, over to this great cabin made of reeds and palms. Now I look for the mouth of this river in vain. I walk in the zone where the sea flows, my bare feet sinking in the silt, armies of quick crabs scattering before me. There are no other footprints but my own. Where was the girls’ hut? I don’t know any more. Long ago the wind blew away all human traces and left only the bones of dead giants behind.
The river has also changed. Now it is thin and meager, just a trickle of water creeping through the stagnant sand. As though the wind and the sun had dried out the water of the hills. But I know the wind has nothing to do with it. Death was brought by man. It is perhaps death that Araceli was fleeing until she lost her breath, when she left Emilio. The men burned the mesquite trees, the pines, the thorny shrubs, and the roots and the pitahayas to melt the blubber and heat the pitch. Everything that once was alive has been transformed into carbon.
I walk along the deserted beach, struck by the light, and it is as though I can still see the flames of the bonfires and still smell their smoke. All along the beach the buccaneer fires would make a great gray cloud that darkened the sky. The acrid, violent smell, the hot oil, the boiling fat and pitch. Life trailed off into smoke.
The water flows no more. Between the narrow banks, the old river disappears, forms pools where mosquitoes dance. Lizards and slowworms. When I approach, the sandpipers take off, giving out their harsh cries. These are the last inhabitants of Punta Bunda.
It was here that I saw Araceli for the first time. She lived with the other girls in the reed hut on the riverbank. There was a great boulder and a pool of clear water. They were set up there because whores were said to always need water—that’s how the buccaneers explained it. When the Léonore entered the bay, they were already there. Nobody knows how they got there. Perhaps they came from the south, from Manzanillo, from Mazatlan. Or perhaps they arrived by land, walking on foot with a train of mules descending from the north, from San Diego or Monterey. There was a man with them named Emilio. He took care of the mules, food, and alcohol. He was tall, dark, said to be Spanish. He was the one who settled the brawls. The girls were all Mexican, even the one with red-dyed hair. When I first saw Araceli, I did not realize that she was with these girls. She was so young and thin that she seemed a child. She was dressed in rags, walking barefoot. She had black hair, thickly braided, like the Indians. She was their servant, their slave.
It was here, in the river, that I saw her for the first time. It was very early morning, before daybreak, and she had gone to fetch water and wood. I enjoyed going to the river at dawn: there were flocks of birds among the reeds, sandpipers, cormorants, egrets, small silver birds that would take off in a great flurry of wings. That is where Araceli would come. I hid behind the reeds to watch her bathe in the river water. She was thin and supple like a liana and her skin appeared almost black in the darkness of dawn. She had a strange way of swimming around in the pool, throwing water over her head and disappearing entirely underwater, then floating up, her face breaking through the surface just long enough to get her breath, and then disappearing once more. She would catch camarons, fish without scales. I crouched without moving, watching the tremulous water, and the sunlight came out to shine upon her body, on her shoulders, her stomach, her breasts. Her disheveled hair, jet black, clung to her back and shoulders. She sat down in the sand, having dropped her catch into a bucket, and spent a while drying out her hair, shaking her head from side to side. I had never seen a woman like her.
I looked for her around the side of the reed hut, but did not dare to approach her. At night the buccaneers would come to drink and smoke. The girls stayed shut inside the hut. Sometimes I thought I could see her in the firelight, sliding through the night, dressed in a grey robe, her hair knotted. The girls would call out to her, calling her name for her to serve them, and that is how I came to learn that her name was Araceli.
The other sailors of the Léonore would speak of the girls, but never of her. I remained hidden in the shadows, watching the hut, trying to catch a glimpse of the Indian. I would have liked to do as the other sailors did, to get drunk and go in to hear the laughs of the girls. I was afraid. A Mexican sailor named Valdés told me about her one day. He told me about Emilio, the Spaniard, who had bought the Indian. She had been captured by the army in Sonora, and Emilio had bought her to be slave to the girls; she brought them water and washed their clothes. She was Seri, she spoke no other language. And why did she stay with those people? Why did she not escape? Several times she had taken flight, and each time Emilio went out after her. He whipped her, and she nearly died. But Indians never give up trying to flee. She hated Emilio and would kill him if she could. She was his mistress. He was the one who gave her the name of Araceli. After hearing this story, I went to the river every day before daybreak to watch her bathe. I did not know it then, but now I understood. From time to time, while she was combing her long hair, she would turn her face towards me as though she could see me across the reeds, and her stare made me tremble.
I walk along the beach where the river once flowed. Now, in the place where Araceli once bathed, there are no more reeds, no birds. There is only a great swamp of black sand spotted with salt. The dry hills into which she fled are still the same. It is as though I can still hear the shouts of the sailors, the noise of the horseshoes on Emilio’s horse. At dusk I remain standing on the beach, before the sea, as though expectant of their return. Or, sometimes, in the fog which hangs on the boulders at Punta Bunda, it is as though I can see the incredible silhouette of a sailing ship, all sails out, going toward the lagoon, and the slow shadows of whales, surrounded by flocks of birds.
Charles Melville Scammon:
I, Charles Melville Scammon, in this year 1911, approaching my own end, I remember the first January in 1856, when the Léonore left Punta Bunda, headed for the south. I did not want to give any explanation to the crew, but Thomas, my fourth mate, had overheard my conversation in the card room with the second captain, Roys. We were talking of this secret passage, of this refuge of gray whales, there where the females went to give birth to their young. Roys hardly believed in the existence of such a refuge, which, according to him, could only be born in the imaginations of those who also believed stories about elephant cemeteries and Amazonia.
Yet the rumor spread and a sort of fever overtook the whole crew. It was just that that we were going to search for in the south, this secret refuge, this fabulous hideaway where all the polar whales came together. For several days the Léonore had been following the Baja California coastline, so closely that one could see the sea whiten on the reef. There were no more whales in these waters, and the men of the crew were already saying that we should not have abandoned the waters of Ensenada, that in doing so we were risking a loss for the season. Sometimes, the lookout would signal a devil fish within view, but the Léonore continued on southward without deviation.
At dawn, on Sunday, the eastern wind fell. I was on the bridge because it was too hot in the holds. I was tired, as I had not slept the night before. The ocean was calm, the sail fluttering in a nearly imperceptible breeze. Leaning over the man ropes I scrutinized the coastline with a small telescope. The deck hands were already hard at work, washing the bridge with flushes of water, scrubbing with brushes and dark soap. One of them, just a child, was looking at the sea. I paid no attention to him. I was lost in daydream, or, rather, was absorbed by this idea which took me completely away from all the others.
The coast was still dark, unreal against the clarity of the sky.
The sea was heavy, opaque. Even the strip of seagulls which had followed the Léonore since our departure from Punta Bunda seemed to have dispersed. The ship crept slowly along, in the noise of its machines, on this thick and sluggish sea. I endlessly scouted out the coastline, following the contours of its shore. But I saw only a dark band, and the fragmented line of mountains of the Vizcaino desert. When the sun appeared, the relief became more of stone, the nudity of the mountains even more hostile.
The child watched the sea, now by my side.
“What is your name?”
He said his first name. For simple deckhands, last names have no importance. Only the first name and place of origin.
“John, from Nantucket.”
“You are from Nantucket Island?”
I studied him more closely. Then I turned back to the coast. “The maps tell us nothing,” I said. “But I know that the passage must not be too far off, now. It must be in that direction.” I pointed to the mountain range to the southeast. The sun already shone upon the summits, making the tops shimmer a brilliant white.
The child looked on in amazement. “Those are salt mines,” I explained, as though he had asked a question. “It’s the Vizcaino. We are too far away to see anything. So, you are from the island?”
“That’s quite far from here. Is this your first assignment?”
“Yes, sir. I signed on with the Nantucket Company.”
“How did you get here?”
“I heard that the company was heading for the Pacific.”
The child seemed to reflect. Not knowing why, I said, “I came to look for gold, myself. I didn’t find any, so I chartered this ship for hunting. Did you know that if we find some grays we will get immensely rich?”
The child’s stare shone strangely. But I misunderstood his expression. “Immensely rich. If you notice an opening, a channel, tell me at once. There is a reward for whoever sees the passage first.”
I turned back to the stern to observe the coast. Now the entire crew was on the bridge. They all knew why we had left Punta Bunda, why we were heading south, along the desert coast. We were going to be the first to discover the ancient secret of the devil fish, the place where the females came together to bear their young. We would come back immensely rich, so this would perhaps be the last expedition. And yet, no one spoke about it. It was something like a mystery we were forbidden to talk about, at the risk of foiling our steps toward fortune.
January 9, along the mountain range of Vizcaino.
Towards evening, the Léonore approached the coast. Little by little a large effusion appeared, the entry of which was guarded by an island. We had been passing it that afternoon, pushed on by a strong tail wind, when the lookout signaled the presence of whales. From high up on the stern I was able to make out a group of the animals right ahead of us off the coast of the island Cedres. At this distance, with the sun approaching the horizon, it was impossible to tell fin whales apart from grays. The Léonore had sailed toward the group, and soon I could clearly see the single spray shaped like a fan, which was characteristic of grays. The group was made up of about twenty whales, some of them males of enormous size (more than sixty feet). As the Léonore got progressively closer, the whales appeared upset. When we were close enough to arm the canon, the group split into two smaller groups which spread along port and starboard, fleeing toward the shore.
The crew’s disappointment was great. One heard only swearing. It was now more than a week since the Léonore had left the waters of Punta Bunda, and this was the first group of whales we had come across. Moreover, there was no other hunting vessel with whom to share the spoils. My initial idea was to continue further south, to take advantage of a wind that had just come up. But Roys made me realize that navigation along the shores of the strait which separates California from the island of Cedres was uncertain; these maps by Amirauté, certain of which had been drafted at the beginning of the century, were imprecise. To go on exploring after nightfall was dangerous. For all these reasons, and taking into account the growing impatience of the crew, I decided to turn around and head back, to take shelter in the end of the bay.
That was when I noticed the effusion through the telescope, hidden by the sand bar. The bay widened, and the coast was so low that it seemed to disappear into the sea. In the sparse light of dusk, the Léonore navigated closer, her sails leaning into the wind, shimmering in the rays of the sun. The sea at the end of the bay was calm and smooth as a mirror, and the sounding line indicated the presence of shallows. Dolphins filed before the stem, and at a few cables’ distance the dark forms of whales could be seen.
They surfaced brusquely, so close that we could hear the forge-like noise of their spray, and those acquainted with the hunt could already smell the acrid odor of their breath.
Night was beginning to fall. The sun was disappearing below the horizon, eaten by the fog. I continued tending the sounding line, and finding measurements of some thirty-five feet, I gave the order to cast right where we were in the bay up to the entry of the lagoon. The sails struck, I ordered a launch into the water to scout out the passage to the lagoon. Caution demanded that we wait, but this close to the goal, our impatience was so great that no one would get through the night if we didn’t find out now. I left Roys in charge of the Léonore and with a dozen dinghies we headed for shore.
There was something disturbing, even sinister, in this bay at dusk. The solitude of the shore, the roughness of the copper mountains, the white of the salt mines, and the dark water at the mouth of the lagoon, with this sort of island, or white sandbar, it all seemed like a passage into some fantastic world. Legends came to mind, those of devil fish attacking the launches, pulverizing them with their enormous bodies, smacking the water with their tails until no man was left alive. Night overtook us at the entry of the lagoon and we dragged the launch ashore. We set up a makeshift camp, waiting for the first tide of dawn to continue our exploration.
Never could I forget that night. We slept on the shore, without knowing where we were, without even seeing the lights of the Léonore. The men stretched out on the sand, without blankets, as the air was mild without a hint of wind. I tried to sleep, but could hear the noise of their voices. They spoke very quietly, with only the shimmer of the stars vaguely lighting the sand of the shore, listening to the waves coming to die on the beach. Sometimes we heard strange noises from the channel, the wrinkling of water over the giant bodies, and I could smell the characteristic odor of their breath. The harpooners stood up, trying to make them out, following the noise of their breath along the shore.
Later, the moon rose and the sea reappeared, the water of the lagoon smooth, without a ripple, and devoid of whales. Then I fell asleep, wrapped in my coat, my head upon my arms. The wind whistled, the moon rose slowly over the lagoon. I dreamed of what I had not yet seen, of the secret I was on the verge of discovering.
Before dawn we had all woken up together. Maybe the Indian had given the cry in his own tongue: “Awaité Pawana!” which we all had been expecting. He was standing on the beach, alongside the launch, leaning on his harpoon, watching the lagoon. The gray water appeared before us, covered with black marks slowly gliding. I couldn’t believe my eyes; certainly no one was very sure whether or not they were dreaming. Here I beheld what I had sought for so long, what the sailors of Nantucket had once recounted, when the winter sea was covered with fin whales and arctic whales, so numerous that one could have compared them to a herd on a plain.
Along the channel the bodies of devil fish slid slowly, foam whirling around the black backs. One could distinctly hear the tails striking the water and the jets from the blowholes spraying from all sides with a husky sound which resonated in the silence of the bay. One after another, the men approached the waterline, watching. Soon the cries rang out, savage and fierce cries, and I ordered the launch into the water. The draw of the tide was pushing the whales to the top of the channel, from which they penetrated the brackish waters of the lagoon. They were so many that they toppled over each other in places.
Paddling along slowly, the launch followed the route of the whales, close to the shallows to avoid being capsized by the giants. The sea covered almost entirely the sandbar where we had slept. Thousands of birds already darkened the sky, following the same movement, as though they knew what was about to happen.
January 10, towards six o’clock in the morning, we entered the waters of the lagoon. It was just as beautiful as I had dreamed it would be, immense, pale, meeting the sky at the fugitive lines of sandbars and peninsulas. All the way at the end, as though surging out of the sea, mountains of red quartz were already sparking in the sun with an incredible hardness. But it was the water that made one dizzy, this calm and mirror-like water, where immense black bodies pressed together by the hundreds, by the thousands, perhaps. At the front of the launch, beside the Indian harpooner, I watched all this, saying nothing, and it suddenly seemed to me that I had stolen into a lost world, one separated from our own by innumerable centuries. The whales slid gracefully into the lagoon, along the channel between the sandbars. There were some females who had already given birth and were holding their offspring at the surface so that they could capture their first breath. Others, enormous, waited, basking on their flanks, for the moment of birth to arrive. Some distance off, the males were grouped together to keep guard, their enormous forms brought together to form a dark wall.
I do not know how we tore ourselves away from this spectacle, but suddenly, upon my order, the silent hunt begun. The launch headed towards the group, the Indian harpooner up on the prow, holding his loaded gun. Behind him the deck hand readied the line and the floats. The launch streamed through the calm water of the lagoon, almost without noise or wake. Despite the daylight one could no longer see the depths. The water had a troubled, milky color which blended in with the sky. We were all on guard for what was about to occur.
A shadow passed by at a few fathoms off the starboard side, and a long black cloud sliding along just below the surface emerged all at once, became a mountain upright in the air, in a spray of droplets, and fell back to the water with a roar which petrified us all in the space of a single second. The Indian had already pulled the trigger, and the harpoon surged out straight ahead with a shock that stopped the launch, while the cable unwound, whistling. A cry of triumph was held back as the devil fish, a huge female, dove down underwater before we were able to see whether or not we had hit it with the harpoon. But just before going down, she gave out a husky breath which no man could forget. The cable unwound at incredible speed, dragging the brakes which knocked against the edge of the launch like gunshots, and the deckhand watered the wood so it would not catch flame under the friction. A moment later, the whale surged back through the surface of the lagoon in an extraordinary leap that weakened us all, so great were the beauty and force of this body up against the sky. She hung immobile for some fractions of a second and then fell back in a shower of foam, and floated to the surface, lightly across, and we saw blood tint her tongue, redden the breath of her spouting. Silently the launch approached the whale. At the last moment, when a ripple in the water indicated that she was about to move again, the Indian let go the second harpoon which then dug deeply into the whale’s body, just above the joint of the fin, between the ribs, into the heart. At once blood surged through the blowholes in a jet that rocketed skyward, a very clear red, and then fell down upon our heads and the sea like a rain. The immense body convulsed and then was still at the surface, turned on its side, showing the point of the harpoon while the dark patch widened through the lagoon, surrounding the launch. Curiously, the men said nothing more. They placed hook around the top of the head in silence, and the launch made for the estuary of the lagoon, hauling the whale toward the Léonore. Cries of triumph received us as we arrived. The men set about stowing the body to the flanks of the ship, passing chains around the body from the blowhole to the jaw. Other launches were immediately set to water, taking advantage of the high tide to hunt other devil fish. Toward noon, at low tide, upwards of ten had been killed. It was more than the Léonore could even bring back. We abandoned the largest kills, and turned back for the north, in the direction of the buccaneer campsite.
John, from Nantucket:
Three years later I went back to the lagoon. I was no longer aboard the Léonore but on a whaler, the Sag Harbor, with the Nantucket Company. I never again saw Captain Scammon. But when I arrived back in the lagoon which all the sailors of the company had named, I felt once more a horror I would never be able to forget. This place, once so beautiful, as theworld had been in the beginning, before the creation of man, had become a spot of carnage. The entry of the lagoon was blocked with ships; in this trap the devil fish turned around and around, the females pushing their young before them, searching for an exit. When they appeared before the vessels, the guns launched their explosive harpoons, and the blood of the giants filtered out through the lagoon, tainting the beaches. The drunken birds, ferocious as rats, circled above the wounded whales. Hoardes of sharks had made their way into the lagoon, attacking the injured whales. Hoardes of sharks had made their way into the lagoon, attacking the injured whales, tearing off pieces of the prey attached to the flanks of the ships, despite the efforts of the sailors on board, armed with air rifles. On every side, on the inaccessible sandbars, there lay great carcasses of gray whales, shards of flesh and bone, immense beaks pointing to the sky. The guns fired endlessly, harpoons striking the bodies, blowholes launching jets of blood. The very sound was inhuman. No one shouted, no one spoke. There was nothing but the heavy blows of the shells exploding into the bodies of whales, the shrieking of birds, and the husky breath of dying beasts. Sometimes two vessels would kill the same whale, and the crews would argue over the kill, but almost noiselessly, with only stifled threats. The sun shone down upon the desert mountains in the distance, upon the salt mines, on the thickened water.
Now there was no secret any longer. That is what horrified me, that is why I swore that I would never come back, that this would be the last time. The year following the discovery of the lagoon, they say that more than a hundred ships entered the threshold of the whales’ sanctuary, sending their launches after the birthing females. The slaughter would last an entire month, day in, day out. Vessels came from all points of the world. In the evening, the fires were lit on the shores of the lagoon, on the sandbars. A jetty had been constructed at the end of the cove by the entrance of the lagoon, where we had formerly slept before entering the realm of the gray whales. Now, there was the noise of men everywhere, cries and shouts, voices speaking in every language, and after the silence of the killing, a sharp groaning noise like that of the birds.
At daybreak the butchery began and went on until noon. The rowboats returned from the lagoon, hauling the giants out of the water onto the vessels. Now it was no longer a nameless, secret place, as it had existed since the beginning of the world. Each nook of the lagoon, each bay, every sandbar had its own name, that of a harpooner, a sailor, Cooper Lake, Fish Pond, the fort lagoon, the new port, the salt mines. Men laid claim to the entire lagoon. Already the first huts had appeared, the houses of Indian salt miners, water merchants: there may have been now a reed hut where girls sold themselves to buccaneers.
I still think of Araceli, here, after so many years, on this empty beach. I search along the dried-out creek bed for the place where I spied on her bathing at dawn among the reeds, among the birds. That is also where she spoke to me for the first time. It is so distant that I do not know it if really happened or if I dreamed it. I have not forgotten the color of her skin, the wild flame of her eyes. It was there, at dawn, in the wet sand, we spread ourselves out, I touched her body, I trembled with fever and desire. She spoke to me in her strange tongue, hard and singing, she showed me the hills of the desert where she came from. I did not understand. I did not know why she chose me, why she gave herself to me. She was so violent and wild, yet at the same time so timid, fleeting as a shadow. When the sun appeared, she left the reeds, returning to camp, to the hut where Emilio and the other girls slept. She is what I am searching for here, the memory of her skin, her black hair sliding over her back, her brilliant eyes, her voice, her breath.
One day, however, she did not come. Valdés, the Mexican, told me she had run off. Emilio had beaten her, and she escaped. I went upstream on the side of desert mountains. I searched for her footprints through the swamp, in the reeds. Then I saw Emilio upon his horse. He looked like a hunter galloping toward the mountains. I was at camp when they brought Araceli’s body back. The men had found her in the mountains among the mesquite woods. They left her in the sand, not far from the river. The prostitutes approached, looking down on her, cursing her. The men stayed at some distance, without saying anything. Then some of them dug a grave, right where she was, in the pebbles and sand of the river bank. It was nothing more than a hole in the earth into which they tumbled Araceli’s body. One man took the legs, another the arms, they heaved her for an instant and then dropped her into the hole. The grave was so narrow that her arms still clung to the pebbles at the edges, I remember, as though she did not want to disappear. I did not dare to approach. I was afraid to see her face with her gray skin dirtied by dust, her shut eyes and beautiful hair. The sailors loaded dirt upon her with shovels, then placed some large stones atop her. As she was only an Indian, there were no prayers said, no cross was placed, nothing to even mark the spot where she had been buried. But I myself did not forget. That is why I came here, to see this grave, to recognize it once more. The river has dried up, the mesquite forests have been burned, but I can see exactly the spot where Araceli is in this red earth, where the pebbles have never moved.
Afterward the girls left the camp, having no way to stay there. It was said that Emilio was caught in San Francisco and hanged the same year. Others say that he struck gold and became very rich. That year the Nantucket Company came to set up in San Francisco, and the buccaneers no longer stopped in Punta Bunda. There was no longer enough wood for fuel. Then they said that the river had ceased to flow.
That was long ago, that was another world. Now the Léonore exists no more. It is wrecked on a sandbar in San Francisco Bay. And who knows what has become of Captain Scammon; the second captain Roys; the Nattick harpooner, the Hawaiian and Kanak sailors; the Mexican Valdés; all the others who were with me when we entered the lagoon for the first time?
I wander along the beach, in the mild wind of winter, I hear the whistle of the tubers and the groaning of the bones and the branches of the old huts. I shiver, because it is like Araceli’s voice, this whistling which sings by the invisible river.
The new century begun, nothing will be as before. The world will not go back to its origin. The lagoon is no longer the place where life once could be born. It has become a heavy, acrid lake of bloodshed. I wander along its beaches, amidst the ruins of the huts. Perhaps I have become similar to the Old John Nattick of my youth, who would linger before the gray water of the lagoon, amidst the remains of useless boats he could no longer see. Will some child one day listen to the somber cry of the branches and bones? Sometimes vessels pass offshore. I look upon their lofty masts, their billowing smokestacks. They cross the bay, heading south. They are in search of other secrets, other prey. Then the sea is empty again, without a signal, without a whisper. How can one forget, so that the world can start anew? Everywhere I find Araceli’s grave. Everywhere the same stones, the same shuffled earth. Further off, on the other side of the cape, there is a new town. Listening closely, perhaps I could hear, carried on the wind, music, the laughs, the cries of children?
Charles Melville Scammon:
I, Charles Melville Scammon, commander of the John Dix, I lived that tale, I discovered this secret, I was the first to open up the passage through this unknown coast, to this shallow, this low island, this channel where the rising tide teemed with whales anxious to give birth to their young in the soft waters of the lagoon. I lived that tale like an ancient dream that was suddenly made real in a single flash. Those who accompanied me have not forgotten it, either—not Roys, not the harpooner from Nantucket, not the young boy who was hunting for the first time and who watched me as though I had done something forbidden, something damnable. I remember each and every one of them, now, at the final stage of my existence, and I swear, amen, that nothing like that can be given twice in life.
The entry into the lagoon, at dawn, in the launch, amidst innumerable bodies of whales, as large as gods, the females bent in the giving of birth, then bringing up their offspring to allow their first breath of air. Then our launch cutting through the pale water in silence, and it was death itself that we carried with us. Afterwards, the clamor of birds suddenly spun around us, and the lagoon was inked with the blood of whales, darkening under the light of dawn.
The launch cut through the water, and the Indian’s gun let loose the harpoon which entered into the whales’ flanks, making even more blood gush out. We had no spirit any longer, I think, we no longer knew the beauty of the world. We were made drunk by the odor of blood, by the noise of life going out with the sprays. Now I remember the looks of the men. How could I not have seen it? It was a voluntary and pitiless look. Certain injured whales would pull the launch down to the depths, and one had to cut through the line with an axe to avoid being run aground on the sandbars. There these whales died, and their corpses rotted like sea wrecks.
I remember the look of the child who was with us. He kept burning me with a single question that had no answer. I know now what this question was. How, he asked me, can one kill what one loves?
We were the first. If we had not come, would the others ever have found the entry into this paradise, the passage into the lagoon where whales were born into the world? How can one destroy such a secret?
Day after day, hunters remounted the channel to kill whales in the lagoon. Year after year they came, with larger and larger ships, from all parts of the world. From California, Chile, Argentina, Alaska, Norway, Russia, Japan. The vessels were like an army at the entrance of the lagoon. They carried harpoons poisoned with curare, torpedo cannons, electric harpoons, hoists, chains, boathooks. Around them the cloud of starving seagulls, and hundreds of sharks in the water. The lagoon was a lake of blood at the dawn of winter, a red river bathing the stony backs. The lagoon was no longer a secret, no longer mine. It had become a trap where gray whales were taken, a trap where they died with their newborns. How many thousands of stabbed-through bodies, hauled up on the ships, attached to the boathooks, gutted on the beaches, transformed into barrels of oil? The immense carcasses would rot on the sand, in the depths of the lagoon. If my attention had not been drawn, that fateful day in January 1856, to this low spot on the deserted coast, half-hidden by a sandy island, would this womb of the Earth still be there? Would the secret of the world’s origins have been retained? The lagoon was so beautiful and vast, in the center of the Earth between sky and ocean, between sea and sand, there where life could begin. In the lagoon whales were free and as vast as goddesses, like clouds. They came into the world in the place where life began, in the secret of the earth. Endlessly begun anew, there should have been no end.
But I, Charles Melville Scammon, commander of the Léonore of the Nantucket Company, I discovered this passage, and now nothing will be as it was before. My attention fell upon the secret, I put forth my bloodthirsty hunters, and then life ceased to be born. Now all was reversed and destroyed. On the beach where we spent the first night, randomly listening to the sprays of the approaching giants, we constructed a wooden jetty, where the carcasses of the whales were kept before being gutted. Huts sprang up, villages of salt gatherers, water merchants, wood cutters. The womb of the Earth dried up and perished, became sterile.
Now that I approach my end, I think of the stem of the launch silently cutting through the pale water of the lagoon, carrying the Indian’s gun towards the giants’ bodies. I recall the gigantic leap of the female, suspended for one instant in the light at the center of her cloud of droplets, falling back and dragging her infant into death. How dare one love that which one has killed? That is the question the child’s face put to me in the launch, and it is this question which I still hear. Then, when the stem of the launch cut through the water of the lagoon, we went harshly on with our intentions. I think of the child’s tears, when he hauled the bodies of whales up to the side of the ship, because he was alone in realizing the secret we had lost.
I think back to him, as though I could stop the course of time, the stem of the launch, as though I could close up the entrance of the passage once again. I dream of all that, just as I once dreamed of opening that passage up. Then the womb of the earth could begin to live again, and the whales would softly glide through the calmest waters in the world, in this lagoon which at last would no longer have a name.
(Translated from the French by Christophe Brunski.)
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