The Only Way to Save a Beached Whale
An Excerpt from the Novel "The Unpassing" by Chia-Chia Lin, Recommended by D. Wystan Owen
INTRODUCTION BY D. WYSTAN OWEN
Chia-Chia Lin’s extraordinary debut, The Unpassing, out this week from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is that rarest treasure in our age of distraction: a small, unassuming masterpiece of close attention, a novel that builds and moves across time while sustaining the intensity of a poet’s gaze. It is a quiet book, but that quiet is neither staid nor aloof. It is, rather, like the eerie hush that follows a violence, the quiet of dust clearing after explosion.
The novel opens, in fact, with a pair of explosions: one—the Challenger Shuttle disaster—literal and of national scope; the other—the death of a child, Ruby, youngest of four in a Taiwanese family living in isolation in Southcentral Alaska—figurative and deeply intimate, local. The story unfolds in their wake.
The following excerpt, from the book’s second chapter, takes place only six weeks after the tragedies. The young narrator, Gavin, and his mother have left the house to buy groceries for the family. On an unplanned, impulsive detour to the sea, they come across a beached whale in the sand. Their vigil, kept alongside a man they have met there, is fraught with longing: this creature is, like them, a pilgrim, marooned.
In these pages, there is a subtle but insistent quality of the surreal (by which I mean the hyper-real, the uncanny): in the warmth of the man’s hands on Gavin’s “cold…foreign” feet; the unruly spray of his mother’s hair in the wind; the whale, a stark and “unsullied” white; the very landscape, with its dark noons, its midnight suns, and those mudflats, whose image will recur in this novel, where you can’t tell what is solid ground and what isn’t. For long stretches, no one is speaking. One has the strange, vertiginous feeling of looking at an oversaturated photograph; of being touched on the soft, virgin skin of a scar; or waking in the night from a sleep without dreams and finding oneself alert and alive.
It is a disorientation endemic but perhaps not unique to grief. I know of few novels that so capture and embody in language the strangeness simply of being alive—what Elizabeth Bishop called “the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world.” Perhaps this accounts for the overwhelming intensity with which the reader comes to mourn alongside this family. One feels as if the book and its author carried with them a fathomless memory—personal, cultural, geological even—recalling not only grief’s omnipresence, but its fecundity, and the persistence of beauty. They suggest that art is, perhaps above anything else, what we make or summon the courage to say in the moments just after the end of the world.
I am so pleased to introduce readers to Chia-Chia Lin—a new literary hero of mine—and to recommend this unforgettable book.
D. Wystan Owen
Author of Other People’s Love Affairs: Stories
The Only Way to Save a Beached Whale
Excerpt, Chapter 2
We used to drive forty minutes into Anchorage to shop at a Korean grocery. The one vaguely Chinese store was associated with a Chinese mainlander, and mainlanders lacked values. That owner, my mother said, stirred rat meat into the ground pork; when you unwrapped the butcher paper, you might catch a faint scent of urine. Pork, in turn, was passed off as beef with a squirt of red dye. So she shopped at a Korean store no bigger than our garage, blocking pinched aisles to ponder the mystery of Korean packaging, while I snuck promising foods into the cart: purple rice, tofu that came in a squeezable tube, a can of what looked like shiny pretzels but turned out to be candied lotus root.
At the end of winter, my mother and I made our first visit to the store since Ruby had died. Six weeks had passed. Halley’s Comet had been visible as a smudge. It was to return bigger and brighter in 2061, but which of us would be alive to see it? Our aliveness was precarious. Divers had found the crew compartment of the Challenger with all of the bodies inside. Soon the wreckage would reveal that four emergency air packs had been activated; not all of them had died instantaneously.
At the grocery store my mother stood in an aisle and stared at the bottled vinegar. She walked the length of the display, following the spectrum from clear to black, and then stood staring at the blackest vinegar. We left the store without buying a thing. She pulled off the road and parked. In a series of actions that startled me, she hopped a guardrail, scampered across the forbidden railroad tracks, and led me down to a huge rock at the beginning of the mudflats. The rock was shaped like a fist, knuckles down. Standing on the rock, towering over the low beach, she said she was trying to listen to it speak, the water, but she couldn’t hear it from there. The tide was low; the mudflats were vast.
Across the rippled terrain was the same ocean she’d grown up beside; here was Turnagain Arm, which was part of Cook Inlet, which was part of the Pacific Ocean. If you cut a slanted path through the water, she said, you could end up on the eastern shores of Taiwan. Her village, even. You could stagger to land as the first light broke, coming in with the fishermen who’d just climbed down from their anchored boats. They dragged swollen nets of fish behind them on Styrofoam flats. As they came to shore in their rubber waders and boots, long squeaks marked the rhythm of their walking. On the sand, in early light, my mother waited for her father with a bamboo pole. They’d string the net over the pole and carry the fish between them. The short beach was sloped upward, so she walked at the front, and the load was easier on her.
My mother climbed off the rock and tested the hardness of the silt. These days, the sun was setting during dinner; we watched each other chewing and gulping in coppery light. In a couple of months the sun would be glowing in electric perimeters around our blinds into evening. Giving us all a charge. The previous summer, Ruby had insisted she was a fish, and my mother had fed her huge sheets of dried seaweed, folding and crumpling them into her mouth. Pei-Pei had asked to go camping with her friends. Camping! my mother exclaimed. Here, where black bears lumbered down from the Chugach Mountains, gorged on salmon at Campbell Creek, and then stuck around to swipe at your garbage cans.
Beyond a scrawny, twisted tree was a huge white boulder at the edge of the water. A person was squatting beside it. “My heavens,” my mother said, and started running. I tried to grab the bottom edge of her coat, but caught nothing, which made my hands feel empty. We ran past the tumbling of rocks and stray driftwood and made our way toward the boulder. For a while we followed the arcing tracks of a bird, stamped into the silt, a trail of half asterisks.
It was a whale, and my first impression of it was its whiteness, unsullied. It was nearly as long as my father’s pickup truck, lying in a puddle. The slump of its body came up to the chest of the squatting man, who stood up. “It’s still alive,” he called to us. “Bleached,” I thought he said, but of course he must have said, “Beached.”
“What is it?” my mother asked, though she knew about the belugas in Cook Inlet. On certain stretches of Seward Highway she told us to watch the water for their writhing bodies, whiter than the crests of the waves. Just once I’d seen a short, misty spray. But she didn’t know how to make conversation in English. She was always asking, What time is it?—with her watch curled in her coat pocket.
“Beluga,” he nearly sang, and each strange syllable was liquid and warm.
The man was short, with a wide, deep chest and arms so muscular they hung away from his sides. He was wearing a neon-orange cap with earflaps, from which a few gray curls escaped. I’d never seen such a funny hat, or such a happy color. My mother approached the whale and stopped two yards from its face. I hurried to her. The whale was situated in a crevice of mud and was wriggling its head side to side. I froze in the steady gaze of its small, oily black eye, not so much bigger than a human eye, embedded in a thick ring of skin. The protruding forehead and long mouth gave it a strange expression—a pained smile—as though we’d asked, Shouldn’t you be in the water?
“Go back,” the man said. “It’s dangerous, this glacial silt.”
“Is okay,” my mother said, and tapped the toe of her loafer against the ground. When nothing happened, she dug her toe in harder.
The whale lifted its head and slapped it back down. There was a cool, silty splatter on my arm.
“Oh,” my mother said, delighted. Her sweatpants were streaked.
Its flippers pressed against the silt and its flukes fanned the air twice. The heft of its midsection was too great for it to do more than flex. Here is a whale, I told myself, and then I wondered if it would die. It looked too big to die, too big to vanish during a sudden, silent creak of the world.
And what, I thought, had they done with Ruby’s body?
The man scratched his bristly neck and flicked the brim of his cap up. “Best she can do is stay still and wait for the tide to come back in.”
My mother sprang forward, and with a shock I saw her put her hands on the body of the whale. She ducked her head and shoved, arms locked straight, her loafers gouging tracks into the packed silt. Her feet slid out of her shoes. Her socks darkened where they soaked up water.
The man belted out a laugh. “That’s, like, two tons you’re trying to roll.”
My mother’s face hovered beside the blowhole, from which a milky foam was leaking. She slipped her shoes back on and walked around to stand before the whale’s face. She touched its forehead bump, the same gesture as when she pressed a palm to our sternums to put us to sleep at night. Pei-Pei, me, Natty. “Sleep,” she would say. And, so quietly we could barely hear, “Wake up again tomorrow.” The heavy weight of her hand, like sleep itself bearing down on us, paralyzing us where we lay. “Come here,” she said to me now. She lifted my hand to the whale’s forehead.
It was not especially cold or warm. The skin had a rough, porous texture, and behind the skin its flesh was soft, like a ripe peach; I could have left dents with my fingers.
I don’t know what kind of expression I made, but the man, a yard away, started laughing again. “This kid,” he said. I liked the way he laughed, upward, without self-consciousness.
He swept an arm back the way we had come. “Nothing to be done. We should get out of here.”
My mother did not move. She was staring hard at the whale, which began exerting more effort, its head and extremities whapping against the ground.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” His voice sounded far behind me, and when I felt his hand on my shoulder, I started and flung it off. “Easy. Does your ma speak English?”
The wind lifted my mother’s permed hair into a mane, making her taller and more savage.
“Do you? English? Hey, kid. English?”
I looked up. A neat mustache hid half his mouth, and his eyes were translucent.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Gavin,” I said.
“How would you spell that in English?”
My mother kicked off her shoes. She peeled off her wet socks, rolling them into a single ball that she stuffed into her coat pocket. She picked up her loafers, one in each hand.
Immediately I wanted to be barefoot, too. The man offered an arm to me as I balanced shakily on each leg and removed my sneakers and socks. When I ran to my mother, my feet stuck to the cold silt, which turned softer, muddier, where it met the water. It sucked on my heel.
“It’s thirsty,” my mother said. “The poor thing. It’s dry and it’s thirsty. The air hurts its skin.” She dipped a loafer into the puddle and dribbled water onto the whale’s back, spreading the liquid with her hands.
I became aware of my own thirst, big and insatiable; I looked past the flats at the glinting water, out of reach, and the wind felt sharp and dry.
The man said, “Tide’s starting to come in.” There was an icy splash at our legs. The puddle around the whale overfilled. I raised one clean foot to my hand; the foot was cold and foreign.
“Let’s go,” the man said.
My mother nudged me away from the water. The man began to walk, turning around to check that we were following. He held the laces of my sneakers in one hand, and below it my sneakers danced. In front of me, my mother swung her shoes in arcs to dry them, and there was an easiness to her walk. I watched our bare feet keeping pace with his boots. His khaki pants were folded once at the hems, showing the inside threads and exposing strips of wool sock at every step. My mother’s pants were darkened up to midcalf, and mine to my knees. Though my legs were wet and cold, I felt a slow loosening in my chest as the three of us walked, as though my windpipe were untwisting and clear, unobstructed air coming in.
At the fist-shaped rock, my mother took a seat at the far end. Her legs fit perfectly into two scallops on the rock’s front edge. She pulled me up beside her. The man stood for a while, then leaned against the rock, then scooted in until he was sitting beside me.
The water had come in; it was maybe a foot high around the whale. Even from this distance we could see the whale pulsing. I rubbed the tops of my cold feet. They were nearly dry and a little ashy. Beside me, the man was working his thumb through a hole in his windbreaker sleeve.
Then he bent over and grabbed my left foot, setting it on his lap and sandwiching it between his hands. He began to rub my foot. His hands were rough, and I could feel a snag of dried skin scratching the center of my sole. He moved his hands faster, making a rasping sound, and the resulting friction was very warm. I raised my other foot in the air, and the man chuckled and warmed it, too.
He and my mother conversed haltingly about the recent spell of rain and the plummeting oil prices. It was the kind of conversation I might have overheard any afternoon at Carrs or the Qwik Stop, and I was proud that my mother was part of it. The man absently alternated between my feet, and I sat rapt at his hands.
They fell silent, then the man said, “Where are you from?” and after my mother had answered, he asked, “And what’s that like?”
My mother tilted her head. “There, not so many signs,” she said. “Danger. Stay away from tracks. Don’t fall off cliff. Do not drown. There are no signs like this.”
The man laughed, and his eyes struggled to expand below his heavy brows as he looked at my mother in a way that made me turn to her, too. The curls of her hair had been loosened by wind, and they moved restlessly about her narrow shoulders. In her wool coat, gray sweatpants, and bare feet, she belonged nowhere but this forsaken beach. She paddled her callused feet on the rock, and the man looked down at her toes. There were threads of dirt beneath her toenails.
“And children there,” she said, nudging me, “are more useful.” In her childhood, she had tied nets and cleaned fish and scraped tiny oysters from rocks.
The man was still rubbing my feet, but more slowly. I could feel the warmth slide from my heels to my toes and back, following his large and heated hands. The skin pooled, darker, around his knuckles.
“And do you have a dad?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“And do you live with him?”
My mother moved her hand very slightly and dug her fingernail into my arm. She said to me in a low voice, in Taiwanese, “Say no.”
I looked at the notch her fingernail had left on me. “Yes,” I said.
Silence followed, and then my mother said in the same tone, “Couldn’t you just have pretended?”
“That you don’t have one.”
The man stopped rubbing my foot, and I was very sorry for it. The wind that bore down on us seemed to have traveled from afar; it carried a cold, unfamiliar scent. My damp pant legs turned icy.
My mother lurched forward and said, “Whale.”
I had to squint, for the sun had sunk lower. The whale was gone, and all that was left was water. I felt we had done this by waiting and watching over it.
“It went home,” my mother said. Her voice sounded strange to me, soft and full of too much air.
“It won’t die?” I said.
“Not today,” the man said. He flung his head back and let out a long whoop.
My mother jumped from the rock, hooked my elbow, and pulled me down, half catching me but allowing me to fall to my knees. It hurt but I didn’t show it. She picked me up by the armpits and started to run, staggering. I thought we were headed back to where the whale had been, but then she veered away. She was only running. I could not stop laughing at how she carried me, careening yet strong, each bare foot anchoring us as it drove into the ground. My legs swung like a doll’s and my toes dragged. The mudflats were clean and gleaming, raw batter shaken inside a pan, and we zigzagged across them, too nimble to sink.
When she stopped to catch her breath, I stared into her wind-raked face and said, in a voice that came out scratchy, “I love you.”
She narrowed her eyes to consider me. “Where did you learn that?” she asked.
The sound of clanging and the freight train’s whistle made my mother whirl around. The boxcars kept coming. I couldn’t have said if it was an eighty-car train or whether the cars numbered in the thousands, only that they kept barreling by, bringing their own wind, metal scrubbing metal, the couplings rattling. In winter, moose preferred the easy walking on the tracks when the snow was deep, and just two months earlier, a single train had killed twenty-four moose in one round trip. The cowcatcher mounted at the front had plowed right through them, fourteen on the northbound, ten on the southbound. My father, reading the newspaper, had rested his forehead on the dining table with a sadness that astonished us.
The freight train left behind a spoiled space and silence. My ears could still create the tone of the last whistle burst. Beneath it, a wheezing sound came from my mother.
“Let’s run again,” I said, but she didn’t respond. She was gazing at the rock. When I looked, the man was no longer there. I searched in vain for the bright blip of his orange hat.
“Let’s run,” I said.
“I don’t feel like it.”
I picked at my pants below the knee, trying to keep them from clinging to my skin.
“When can we go home?” I asked. When she didn’t reply, I said, “I want to go now.”
She scratched hard at her jaw, where there was a trace of mud. She tossed her head back so her hair settled behind her shoulders. “Why do you want to go home?”
I was stumped. A single gull cried far above us. “Natty,” I said. “Natty and Pei-Pei are home.”
“Don’t you want to go somewhere else?” she asked. “Anywhere else?”
I scraped hard at my upper lip with my lower teeth. I tried to imagine another home. Neither my mother nor father had taken to Michigan. We had lived in another home in Taiwan but had left when I was three. I could not picture it, though I had a feeling of dim, oily rooms, soggy air, sticky skin. Home was a place you could see every detail of. Not-home was a void, the outside that crept upon you when you were about to fall asleep—the thing you tried to keep at bay as you jolted yourself awake.
“Is there anything at home for us?” she asked.
I gnawed at my lip and tasted salt or blood, and when I pressed the side of my hand to my mouth for confirmation, it came away with a tiny red print.
“It’s possible to be someone else,” she said. “I used to be.”
I pretended to think about this, but the wind was constant now, as though it no longer needed to gather breaths, and I was trying not to shiver. The gull laughed. Where the sun met the water, it pulled wide into a tomato-orange strip and sent a corresponding line over the surface of the water straight at us, hot-forged steel.
My mother pinched my earlobe hard. “I’m just kidding. Of course we’re going home.”
“Yeah,” I said, “we’re going home.”
She grabbed my chin and pushed it up. “Don’t talk in English,” she said.
“We’re going home,” I said in Chinese.
My mother made an ugly face. “You never speak Taiwanese anymore,” she said. “It’s all your grandfather knows. When we visit, will you be able to say anything to him at all?”
I took a few steps toward the train tracks.
“You never speak it anymore,” she said. “Can you, even? Can you still speak it? Say something.”
“Khah kín-leh,” I said rudely, the phrase crooked and angular in my mouth.
But she didn’t hurry up. “Yes, speak like that when we visit.” Extending her arm over my shoulder, she pointed at the water, as though my grandfather were swimming out there, a speck but visible, waiting for us. I knew that in fact he was bedridden; once a month, my aunt pulled him on a wagon to the village school, where there was a phone, and they waited for my mother to call.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“You tell him you’ve missed him, that you remember him. It wasn’t so long ago. You remember him, don’t you?”
The tracks were still many yards away, up a little stretch of scree. Beyond that was another small slope, then the road where we had parked. We would have to cross the tracks and climb back over the bent guardrail. It wasn’t far, but I had a hard time lifting my feet. A couple of weeks after Ruby had died, my mother had woken us in the dark, running from bed to bed, her large fearful face so close we could smell the decay of her teeth. I could still hear her cracking voice, saying again and again to us: Never cross the train tracks. It’s dangerous to cross the tracks. Promise me you will never cross the tracks. Promise. Promise me.
Decades later, a woman ambling along the coastal trail told me this with the grave authority of a tourist: The mudflats here, they were not to be trifled with. A man had died on these flats, two legs rooted in the silt as the tide came in. Drowning or hypothermia, she didn’t know. They attached a rope to his body and the other end to a helicopter, but only managed to tear him in half. For the mudflats could turn watery on you, like quicksand, then cement you up to your thighs. Maybe she thought I was a tourist, too: an Asian man in Anchorage, carrying a backpack. Or maybe it was the way I stood at the edge of the flats, seduced, toeing the start of the sodden beach.