The Boy Who Swallowed A Whale
A Fairy Tale For Grown-Ups
Copyright © 2015 Nikos Roussos
Illustrations by Thodoris Droulias
Translation: Elly Kousoula
Free e-book posted by the C. G. Jung Society of Greece
Email: [email protected]
This e-book is available for free and is an original work. We kindly request that its use, possible distribution and partial or whole reproduction be carried out with respect and mention to its creators.
It is the property of the C. G. Jung Society of Greece.
Little Eric came home after a tiring Wednesday at school. His father was away on a trip, as usual. His mother, whilst washing the rugs on the balcony, was away on a trip, as usual. His grandmother poured him a warm bowl of soup. With her smile, she encouraged him to eat it all, as usual, so that he wouldn’t lose his strength. When he took a closer look at his bowl, he noticed a whale swimming casually next to the pasta and the carrots. It made quite a bit of noise splashing about, and he was rather surprised that his grandmother didn’t seem to notice it. But how could he tell her such a thing? Once, when he had informed her of the presence of a wolf on their balcony, she had smiled and told him that it was just a dream, and that he shouldn’t believe in dreams. How then could he tell her about the whale swimming in his soup? He would keep it to himself, like the times when he had kept some other peculiar things from her: the sculls that danced around in the living room, or the little girl his age that kept him company at night in his bedroom, or even that audacious yellowed piece of paper that he had secretly found in a cupboard which claimed to be his father’s death certificate. On his last spoonful, with the whale running out of water to swim in, he decided to swallow it. He was careful not to chew and kill it. He went up to his room. For three days and three nights his stomach felt very uncomfortable. Over the next few days he felt better and forgot about the nausea and the whale.
That Sunday little Eric had been watching children’s programs on TV all morning. His father still hadn’t returned from his distant travels. His mother, though it was summertime, had found a magic way to wash carpets. His grandmother, with her smile, was knitting. At that moment he was watching the movie Pinocchio. That wooden boy made such an impression on him. He was surprised that he only had a father. He was surprised that he had so many adventures. The good fairy made an impression on him. But as surprising as it may be for us, nothing else made an impression on him. When it was finished he climbed the stairs to his room, rubbing his nose.
Friday. Last class, religious studies. Inevitably eyes wandered out the window. The teacher was talking about the story of a prophet, Jonah. Although it was religious studies, Friday, last lesson, he found this story quite amusing. A prophet in a whale’s stomach. He imagined him lifting up his cassock so that it wouldn’t get wet. But he was not entirely sure that prophets wore cassocks. The story had a happy ending. Besides, this episode also had a happy ending because the bell rang at last.
Not so little anymore, Eric was asleep. He must have been dreaming. A mysterious woman, flying up high on a magic carpet, while a flood was cascading onto the ground. He was trying to scream for her to save him, but his voice wouldn’t come out. He was sure he would drown. Luckily he woke up drenched in sweat. It was three thirty a.m. He got up and turned the light on. He was sort of numb. His stomach felt upset. It didn’t feel like it does when you get sick. After all, it would have been a shame for something like that to happen, because the following day he was going on a school trip. He fell back asleep. The trip was cancelled due to heavy rain.
Elena was in Eric’s class. A beautiful teenage princess with freckles and All-Stars. Elena became even more seductive when she smoked in the high school’s restrooms. She resembled an unworldly seeress, full of erotic wisdom and great secrets. When he would see her, Eric’s heart would nudge the bones of his chest. Elena knew little of Eric’s existence, and absolutely nothing of their endless walks that he had fantasized about. It was Thursday, a day Eric would never forget. As he was walking across the schoolyard, Elena accidentally bumped into him and gave him a most charming apology.
During his senior year in high school, Eric spent his evenings studying. One particular evening he had a headache and went to the kitchen to take a painkiller. His mother’s new husband was sitting there, smiling. But how could something like that have been forgotten? My oversight. That audacious yellowed piece of paper, which claimed to be his father’s death certificate, was telling the truth. They had not revealed the reality regarding his father’s long trips. They had failed to mention the minor detail that his long trip was the one to the heavens. However, this did not fall under the same category as lies, they explained, like, say, dreams. His mother’s new husband was a good man. He got up, poured him some water and handed him the painkiller. Eric found it very difficult to swallow. In fact, he accidentally bit the pill, which had an awful bitterness.
Being accepted into University and living in another city is admittedly one of the most amazing experiences one can have. Eric was happy, of course, but he is one of those people that smile using words and not muscles. Not only did he get into University, but he also shared a flat with two of his closest friends. On the ground floor of their apartment building there was a laundry with light blue signs bearing its name, ‘Jonah’. The large washing machines and the water jumping about as they turned seemed odd to him every time he passed it. The owner of the shop was an old man too unlikable for Eric’s taste.
In the big city, Elena had transformed into Daphne and had lost her freckles and her All-Stars. Eric recognized her immediately among all the other female students despite her complete mutation. She was a brunette, with short hair and eyes light blue like seas. Had they not taken on a project together, he may never have spoken to her. But their professor was utterly wise in his choice to make students work in pairs that would be formed by a lottery. Their project got a good grade. One day before they submitted it, Eric confessed his love for her. Daphne looked at him confused. She told him that she would have an answer for him over the next few days.
His grandmother died. She had been very sick for some time. Eric went to her funeral. He wept. After many years he realized that tears are salty and bitter. Salty like the sea and bitter like painkillers.
His two friends, as well as two or three new ones he’d made, told him to forget about Daphne and how incredibly rude she had been to never give him an answer. Eric agreed, though somewhat hesitantly. It should be noted that the conversation took place on the steps below their apartment, as this explains the interruption of the old annoying laundry owner: ‘Fire, woman and sea’, he said with a smile. He also pointed out that one should fear women because most of them are witches. Eric carried on disliking the guy, despite the compassion to his dramatic situation.
It was a summer’s night. Eric’s mood was not good, so he decided not to go out with his friends. He ruled out the possibility of getting together with his girlfriend, with whom, try as he might, he couldn’t find a trace of his great love. From the balcony he gazed at the people strolling by, entranced by the moon’s seduction. He felt a sharp pain in his stomach. A mild nausea alarmed him. He tried to remember what he had eaten. Nothing. That was the problem, he thought. He made two toasties. But the pain returned, if only a little sweeter this time. “Who’s there?” he asked. “Me”, a voice answered. “And what do you want?” he asked again. The only answer he got was a sound like the splash of a dive. He was puzzled. A little while later he fell asleep.
He decided to move now that he had a job, a steady relationship and would soon own a car. As he walked past his building, the owner of the laundry called him over. With disarming honesty he asked: “Why don’t you like me?” Eric denied such a thing with a mumble. The old man gave him an angry look. He accused him of never having said hello. He had never had such a bad-mannered neighbor. Once he’d recovered from the shock, Eric started to boil with anger. “Where does he get off…?” he thought. He came back: “I do dislike you, because you seem like someone who is judgmental about everyone”. And then the old prophet’s voice sounded coarser than before: “Young man, you may be right, but did you not do the same to me?” Eric left feeling somewhat ashamed. Nevertheless, his shadow felt a little lighter as it followed him to the bus stop.
He entered the bus, and since he possessed the momentary clairvoyance of a light shadow*, something quite strange happened to him. He fell asleep. The bouncing caused by the potholes on the road was evidently quite relaxing, especially when you’re not driving. Defying all laws of sleep legitimacy, he had a dream. The unlikable Jonah, holding the doors to his washing machines shut, screaming that he didn’t know how long he could hold on for. Suddenly the doors burst open pouring out water as if from a waterfall. He started to run, but the great wave that had formed by then was close behind. He looked up to the sky for some sort of sign and sure enough Elena appeared on her magic carpet reaching her hand down to him. He was trying to grab it, in vain. Luckily a bus-driver saved him, uttering an enigmatic “Wake up, sir, we’re here!”.
Not long before he got his big promotion, he spent many hours in his office, believing that he was cultivating his future family responsibly. He showed the courage, the patience and the faith that farmers have in nature, without analyzing things too much. Utterly sweet with his wife on the phone, utterly obliging when addressing his boss’s polite demands. He was sitting in front of his computer, trying to send an urgent e-mail to an important client. The internet had been down all morning and it was impossible for anyone to stay online for more than a few seconds. Eric was puzzled by his primitive fantasy to punch the screen. He thought that technology couldn’t be so stupid that it didn’t understand when it was truly necessary for it to work. He called the important client on the phone and explained the delay. The client didn’t seem satisfied with the excuse, perhaps because he too was unaware of technology’s ignorance. When he hung up the phone he felt a pain in his stomach. He got up and headed to the coffee machine with great expectations, and it did not let him down at all that day, as it offered him hot coffee.
The pain in his stomach really bothered him lately, and, as if he knew, he didn’t go to a gastroenterologist but to a cardiologist. Aren’t cardiologists the doctors for the heart? The fatty substance that the doctor spread on his chest in order to perform the ultrasound made Eric shudder. That fatty substance seemed quite familiar. For some odd reason it resembled the very pain that it wanted to diagnose. The doctor explained with a smile that his heart was fine, and that, according to the description of the symptoms, his guess was that Eric was suffering from stress or some muscle pain. As he left the doctor’s he muttered to himself “super-sound”, feeling proud of his heart. It had been a while since he last felt so silly. It had been a while since he last felt so happy.
Eric had never really wondered what kind of person his father had been. He knew only of his love for travelling. And that piece of information was questionable. When he found out about his wife’s pregnancy, a shiver of joy and terror came over him. In his attempt to imagine his child in his wife’s belly, he failed systematically, while at the same time trying to get the image of Jonah’s washing machines out of his mind. A sound like a dive was heard once more from his stomach.
His son had been born and he had gotten the promotion. The relationship with his wife was good and he got together with his friends every now and then for some guy talk. His supervisor informed him that he would soon have a personal secretary, now that his responsibilities had almost doubled. Elena Daphnopoulou was the name of his assistant, who happened to be ten years younger than him. Isn’t that obvious, one could think. But if miracles aren’t obvious, then they are not miracles. From the first moment he saw her, he recognized her. No All-Stars of course, no light blue eyes. But he had become accustomed to her transformations. What could she want from him? Elena Daphnopoulou showed him how much she admired him from the very beginning.
His mother had grown quite old. His stepfather had his share of health problems. He didn’t visit them often, although they spoke on the phone regularly. “Do you remember how much you used to like Pinocchio?” his mother asked him from the other end of the line. “Do you remember hiding under the covers and telling me you were in the big fish’s belly?” There are some things about ourselves that make us look in the mirror with curiosity. That day, Eric had a hard time getting any work done. He felt like a small wooden boy.
Elena Daphnopoulou was dressing more provocatively than ever. Her gaze would stalk Eric’s eyes persistently, even when all she was doing was simply informing him about a mistake in an invoice. When she would accidentally touch him sparks would fly, and we all know how dangerous they can be for a wooden boy. Eric was clever enough to acknowledge the danger. Arrogant enough though to believe that he could easily control it. After all, that was his job. He was a risk analyst, whatever the hell that means.
The pains in his stomach had multiplied, as had his visits to doctors. Various state-of-the-art diagnostic tests showed absolutely nothing. Perhaps because medical equipment doesn’t specialize in detecting whales inside of people. Episode 20 will sound a bit strange, but one night, Eric was alone at home because his wife and the baby had gone to stay with the grandparents. That night, groaning with pain, he turned the TV and the lights off and sat silently in the dark. “Who’s there?” he asked. “It’s me,” a voice answered. “And what do you want?” he asked again. “Well, for a start, I have a huge complaint,” said the voice, “you don’t drink enough water and it’s pretty hard for me to survive in here.” Eric was puzzled, but he waited with patience to hear the rest. “I’m surprised you don’t remember me! We met a long time ago, when you spotted me in your soup. We’ve been together since then. Lately I’ve grown quite a bit so you see how our living together is uncomfortable for the both of us.”
When one has confirmed that they are living with a whale inside their body, they acquire a completely different point of view of things. To start with, they stop being so certain about their memories, they doubt the validity of free will, and they examine with renewed interest the details of their visits to the bathroom. They also adopt the strange belief that they are the only person in the world this is happening to. As he was driving the family car, Eric was watching the white stripes on the tarmac. They could be white dolphins doing leaps, he thought. He almost had a very serious accident. It’s dangerous to drive under the influence of whales.
Eric felt a sweet serenity while holding his little boy in his arms. They were watching a children’s T.V. station. An elephant putting on its nighty slowly and then walking to bed for ten kilometers or so. Lost in the sleepy warmth of the cartoon, he wondered for the first time how it was possible for a whale to speak.
Elena Daphnopoulou was the only conscientious employee, apart from Eric, to stay so late at the office. “It’s ok,” she said when he urged her to go home, “tomorrow’s a day off. Besides, time goes by so quickly when I’m with you.” He had never imagined he had such an effect on time. Realizing you have superpowers makes your mouth go dry. That’s why Eric had a sip of water and smiled. That night in bed he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned like Jonah’s washing machines. His wife woke up and asked him what was wrong. “I’m stressed with work”, he whispered. “Forget about work… try to think of something beautiful”, she advised him, turning to her other side. “But that’s the problem”, he wanted to say, but fortunately he kept quiet.
After searching online, here’s what Eric found out about whales: they are fully aquatic marine mammals. They are comprised by the Balaenids, Balaenopterids and the Physeteroids. Like all mammals they breathe air into their lungs, they nurse their young and have body hair, if very little. Their diet varies from plankton to other large aquatic mammals, depending on the species they belong to. Many species travel long distances to reproduce, either on their own or in groups. They are considered the descendants of land-dwelling animals that returned to the sea. Some ancient civilizations believed that whales were sacred and that the world rested on their backs, while others saw them as a source of disaster or as bloodthirsty monsters. For Christianity the whale was quite an ambiguous creature. Its belly was generally thought to be a representation of hell, in contrast to the story of Jonah where the whale was on God’s side. So to this day one could say that the whale is a symbol of the descent to the depths of the soul, and of regeneration. Eric learned some more things about whales, but these do not fit in this short story.
He never got calls from work on Sundays, so when he saw one that day from Elena Daphnopoulou, he got worried. When he answered, she was crying. She persistently asked to meet with him, because she said that she didn’t have anyone else close enough whom she trusted. Eric was completely honest, if a bit vague, when he explained to his wife that he had to leave because something came up with work. They met at her house. When she greeted him wearing a practically see-through nightgown, he no longer doubted the fact that his assistant’s phone call did indeed regard something extremely urgent. What pain spilled from her words as she held his hand and explained how lonely and unhappy she was! She asked him to hold her in his arms. She stroked his hair as she thanked him. He whispered that he had to leave, because his son was waiting for him. When he got out onto the road, Eric was so worn out, you’d think he had just managed a Hollywood getaway. Back at home, he was irritable. He was not at all happy about his wife sticking her nose in his business affairs.
Eric felt a strange impulse to write a poem: “I see you standing across from me / with your breasts free of cares and clothes / a snake wrapped around your one hand / in the other, with your long fingers you hold a drug / could it be an antidote to the snake’s poison / or poison that tricks the cowards to their death? / I’ve known you all these years but you never spoke to me / and now you come here begging on your knees / Are you a witch or a good fairy? / A butterfly or a scorpion?” He read what he had scribbled, which was ambivalent about whether to hide or reveal itself, and so practically illegible. He decided he did not have the stuff of poets. He meticulously tore up his work and threw it in the plastic bin, while humming “butterfly or scorpion”.
Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room any longer: Elena Daphnopoulou’s tenacious flirting towards Eric had provoked a fair share of thoughts, daydreams and physical stimulation. In fact, it had managed not only to dull the discovery of his inner whale, but also to cure his pains. He wanted to speak to someone about his torment, but he was finding it hard to think of anyone that he could trust with such a thing. One morning he took the day off work and travelled quite a few miles to his mother’s house. She was taken aback when he asked to be left alone with his stepfather. With his head hung low he explained everything regarding the Elena Daphnopoulou situation. His stepfather realized he had to muster all the wisdom he could in order to give any kind of decent answer. “Son,” he said, “you’ve come to the wrong person for advice. Someone who has never done anything wrong. So if I tell you to go ahead, it may be due to some sort of old-age revisionism, and if I tell you to take care of your family, it may be due to my cowardice. So I can really only say one thing: On your way back you will pass by an amazing pastry shop called Jason’s. Stop, order a slice of pastry number three, and as you eat it think about your dilemma.” Eric did exactly that. Although the pastry alleviated his impatience to solve the problem that was torturing him, that night he had awful pains in his stomach.
For his son’s second birthday, some friends gave him a well-made set of soft figures of Pinocchio, Geppetto and Jiminy Cricket. His son was completely indifferent to Geppetto, so Eric decided to spend more time with him.
The return of his pains on the night Eric had asked for his stepfather’s advice brought the issue of the whale back into the spotlight. He thought that he would probably have to get rid of it somehow. Maybe throwing up was a good idea? He didn’t know for sure if the whale confined itself to his stomach or if it floated around to other organs. He decided that when his wife and son went on holiday (a week before Eric’s leave), he would stay home and puke the devil up. Three nights he struggled, sweating and feeling as if his throat was being torn apart. Twice he nearly fainted from exhaustion. Nothing.
On the fourth night, having abandoned all efforts of dewhalization (interesting word, eh?), he called Elena Daphnopoulou and asked her out for a drink. Naturally she was more than willing to accompany him. She did however inform him that she had made plans with her girlfriends, which for him she would cancel. When she saw him at their meeting point she practically hung herself on him. Her theoretically friendly kiss was barely off the center of his mouth. They laughed, they drank, they were having a great time. It was a celebration of spring, when fertilization occurs by a mere exchange of a glance. Just before they were about to leave for probably not different destinations, a hand annoyingly grabbed Eric’s shoulder. It was his old buddy. The irritating old man from Jonah’s. “Surely you remember me, don’t you?ˮ he said, obviously drunk, “well, I never would have thought you’d have such a young and pretty wife. My best wishes miss. We used to be neighbors, your husband and I. A fine young man.” Such an interruption was enough to put a premature end to the celebration of spring. Eric said goodbye to Elena Daphnopoulou, even though she asked him to go upstairs to her place for one more drink. He justified declining her invitation by professing an imaginary pain in his stomach.
The next day Elena Daphnopoulou was in a foul mood and quite abrupt when addressing Eric. He avoided any mention of the night before. Summer vacation leaves would start soon. Toward the end of the shift, Elena Daphnopoulou softened a bit and asked him if he wanted to get together that night.
At six thirty p.m. Eric was home alone, stretched out on his new couch watching TV. “Don’t think I didn’t catch on to what you tried to do!ˮ said the whale, who didn’t usually speak first. Eric sat up, since he didn’t know if aquatic mammals were sensitive to matters of decorum. The whale continued: “How do you think you can get rid of something that is yours?ˮ Eric hadn’t thought of their relationship in that way before that moment. The whale was on a roll: “If only you knew how many things I’ve swallowed for you. What would happen if I threw it all up without your consent? How easy would your life become then? I have patiently waited, cramped in here, and you go declaring war on me for a few extra pains.ˮ Then it went quiet, leaving him to stare into nothing for a while.
Elena Daphnopoulou’s bad mood obviously terrified Eric, so he agreed to meet her that night, even though he would have liked to buy some more time. He felt he was broken in three pieces: One that urged him to experience a harmless little fling, another that advised him to resist the sirens’ song, and a third one that was wondering exactly what the whale had meant. As he went down the stairs of his house he came to the startling realization that one feels better when broken in three pieces rather than in two.
On their date, Elena Daphnopoulou had lost some of her glow. She was tired and she cut right to the chase: “Why are you playing with me? Haven’t you realized how much I want you?ˮ Eric startled himself when he angrily replied: “Haven’t you realized that I’m married and have a young kid?ˮ Elena Daphnopoulou smiled like people do when they have just swallowed a camel. “I don’t want to marry you, buddy, but even so, I’ll give you time to think about us on your holiday and when you come back I’d like it if you were more resolvedˮ. Then she got up and left, after giving him a kiss on the mouth. Eric felt something between relief and disappointment. That “buddyˮ was like spinster reality slapping her moonstruck niece in the face.
On the way home Eric went back and forth between talking to Elena Daphnopoulou and the whale. More like launched insults at his very demanding girlfriends. But despite his heroic rebellion against them (even if it was merely verbal), he knew that he was addressing himself. Believe me, it’s a very frightening realization for a man Eric’s age, successful in his work, married and a father, that in order to achieve some sort of balance in his life he’ll have to make peace with his childhood bites and his teenage unfulfilled loves.
On his vacation Eric managed to get some rest. No pains, no dilemmas, no annoying laundry owners. His son taught him how to play again. They dove in the sea together looking for treasures. The boy also confided in him that he was sure he saw an enormous fish – bigger than the hotel they were staying at – swimming a few feet away from them. Eric got strong confirmation of the validity of his experiences. And he reciprocated.
One week had passed back at work, and still nothing had been mentioned between Eric and his assistant Elena Daphnopoulou, regarding their unfinished business from a few weeks before. She was so sweet and looked at him with such admiration, one would think time had reversed to when they’d first met. Eric wondered if what he saw was some kind of trick or spell. It was a Friday at quarter to four p.m. when Elena Daphnopoulou left him a message which read: “Find a way to come to my place at nine, I’ll be naked.ˮ Eric’s desire to go made him dizzy. He knew it was time to consult the whale. He locked the door of his office, closed his eyes and presented the problem with as much detail as he could. A sound like a dive was heard. After a little while the whale decided: “Experience it.ˮ Eric’s eyes widened with surprise: “But is it the right thing to do?ˮ The whale, obviously puzzled, replied with a question: “Is what the right thing?ˮ He said: “To go and meet my assistant at her place.” And the whale answered with the following words: “That’s not necessarily what I said. I said experience it either way, whether it’s your erotic exploration or the disappointment of not going through with it.” Eric shook his head, as he had never imagined that one could consciously experience disappointment.
That night Eric discovered that he had a remarkable ability not only to invent lies, but also to tell them. His wife and son had no reason to doubt that evening’s video conference with the company’s executives from the notorious Head Office. After all, there was the time difference to consider. With enough confidence that he was about to solve the mystery that was Elena Daphnopoulou, he arrived at her door and rang the bell. No answer. He looked at the time. It was a quarter past nine. He rang again. Nothing. He went for a walk and returned after a little while. No answer. It was already ten o’clock. He called her cell and it was switched off. He got in his car. He turned the engine on. A laugh was heard from the bottom of his gut. He drove in endless, pointless circles around town. He couldn’t go home. What would he say? That the meeting didn’t happen after all? How could he put such an important company on the spot?
He was walking around the square near his neighborhood with his son. The boy wanted candy floss. They both had some. Eric noticed that they make it look quite realistic. They make it pink, just like the dyes in TV commercials. He felt he was becoming melodramatic, when he thought that his son and all young kids won’t get to have grandmothers with white hair. They talked about how pigeons fly and people don’t, how fish breathe in the sea and about other very important philosophical questions of the sort. When the boy got close to a seesaw, he asked to play. Eric justified his refusal with some explanation about weight difference. His son spoke wisely: “But for me to go up, you’ll have to come down.” How many dads are allergic to seesaws…
It was Monday when Eric made a very serious mistake at work. Although his boss tried to stay calm, he couldn’t help being critical, like a knife cutting through butter without needing to be sharpened. Elena Daphnopoulou’s vindictive smile was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He left work half hour early. He walked as if lost, trying to remember where he’d parked his car. He went around the block three times only to discover that it had been parked in its usual spot the whole time. He finally left, like the rest of his colleagues, on time.
Elena Daphnopoulou’s double betrayal had cost him a lot. Although at times he had had his doubts, he now knew for certain that she was a creature that kept reappearing in his life so often for some important reason. He just didn’t know if it was to make up for the times she had abandoned him or to bring on disaster. During his long debates with it, the whale struggled to understand why the first possibility ruled out the second. Eric was yearning to comprehend this young witch’s erratic behavior, so that day he asked her to stay a while longer at the office to clear the air. Elena Daphnopoulou didn’t have a lot to say at that particular meeting. To the first question of why she had not been home for their date, she simply replied she hadn’t expected that Eric would go, and as for the second one, she vehemently denied having gotten satisfaction out of his mistake. The third question was: why was she flirting with him so persistently, even though she knew he was married. She smiled and told him to stop acting like a child, and that it was he who was flirting with her. The whale was enjoying this foolish dialogue. When they were left alone, she was still in a playful mood and so decided to slide up and down his esophagus, giving him a first-class nausea.
That day he didn’t have a lot of work to do at the office, so he spoke to the whale first, with no sign from it to provoke him. “What’s it like in there?” “Dark”, it replied, but it sensed Eric was disappointed by the answer. It thought it would save him the trouble, and spoke frankly: “I am one of those whales whose hearing is better than their eyesight. After all, what do I need eyesight for in here? I find my way by following two basic sounds. A long wet one that you humans call crying and a loud and relatively sharp one that you call anger. With the first I travel upwards and with the second down. All in all, apart from my size and the dry spells, I’m quite pleased with the hospitality.” It was the first time Eric suspected that, although he has twenty-twenty vision, he has serious problems with his hearing. It was the first night that, when he lay down, he didn’t get stressed or change sides while listening to his pulses.
One morning while he was shaving, Eric looked at himself in the mirror. One could say that this happened every time he shaved. But that morning was different. Everyone used to talk about the striking resemblance between him and his son. Anyone could see it with just a quick look. But if one was to compare his gaze with the boy’s, it became apparent that this was only half true. The boy without a doubt had his mother’s eyes. Those moments are awkward, when one gives the gravity of words to ideas which for too long have had the lightness of the wind. And the idea that was blowing in the sails of his soul, choosing the course of his family life, was that his son was only his. As if it was he who had given birth to him. As if his wife’s contribution was coincidental – sort of like a nanny’s. Eric became aware of the absurdity of his thought and of the severity of the realization that he didn’t know how to share. He, who had shared his body with a whale for most of his life.
As he reached the company’s entrance, he saw Elena Daphnopoulou beckoning him to hurry while she held the elevator door open. He went in and she immediately put her arms around him. He told her that she had pressed the button for the wrong floor, but, with her body surrendered to his, she paid little attention to his murmur. They reached the last floor, which was the owners’ office. She took him by the hand and headed for the fire exit. They entered a room Eric had never been in before. There were wooden carved pieces of furniture, frames with medieval maps and a lot of candles lit, with the curtains drawn. In the center of the room there was a lectern holding a big book. He read the cover: ‘The Book Of The Dead – Revised Edition’. The pages were yellowed and demanded great care when turned so as not to tear. On the first page there was a drawing of a howling wolf. A word written below: Loneliness. On the next page the wolf, head bowed as if in reverence, was moving towards the open mouth of a great monster. A word written below: Arc. On the third page two penguins were walking across a vast white landscape. On the bottom there was an illegible phrase. With a little effort he managed it: “When the floods turn to ice, and with your wings you no longer fly, at least take care with them to hug”. What difference does it make if episode 44 is real, a dream or just another one of the whale’s bizarre stories?
When his wife asked Eric if he would agree to adopting a dog, he immediately and enthusiastically said yes. His wife possibly felt the subtle disappointment one feels when, albeit getting what they want, they miss the opportunity to persuade the other person. Eric smiled as she tried to hide her surprise. He wanted so to tell her: “I want to get to know you”, but he was clever enough to realize how insulting the truth can be at times.
Elena Daphnopoulou’s unexpected resignation made Eric feel extremely guilty. No matter how long she spent explaining that her decision had nothing to do with their affair, she couldn’t convince him and he kept trying to change her mind. He wasn’t able to. They agreed, however, to get together the night of her last day at work. He went to her place. She greeted him with a hug. They sat on her narrow couch. Their bodies were electrified. She told him she was pregnant. For a few seconds Eric felt his breathing stop. He quickly returned to reality and stroked her hair. He asked her if she was happy. It would be terribly indiscreet of us to find out what she answered. So just like the times before Elena Daphnopoulou vanished swiftly on her magic carpet. The next day he was introduced to his new assistant. Both the whale and his boss agreed with him that she is an extraordinary young woman with a promising professional future.
The pain had become positively unbearable in the last few days. Eric was disappointed that the reconciliation with his inner aquatic mammal had failed to grant him the relief he’d expected. He kept trying to speak to it but for a long time he got no answer. He was fed up with its quirkiness. His wife insisted he go to the doctor’s. She even suggested someone with good recommendations, who happened to have his practice in Eric’s old college neighborhood. Although at first he saw no point to yet another visit to a doctor, he was finally convinced. He went alone. I think it’s relatively easy to imagine how he would find in the waiting room the unlikable old man from Jonah’s. “I closed my little shop”, the skinny, sinking man said, as if to himself. A tear sparkled under his eye defying the room’s dim lighting. “You know, my friend, what was missing from my life? Three things: Fire, woman and sea”. Eric got up and shook his hand. The courage of a man during his fall always touched him. He paid for the appointment at the reception desk and left. When he got home, he confirmed to his wife that the recommendations for the doctor had indeed been accurate.
“Eric,” the whale said after many days, “the time has come for you to kill me.”
How could anyone, no matter how determined, go against the decisions of a whale? After three days, with his head hung low, Eric agreed to what had to be done. He calmly followed the whale’s instructions, which were too cruel to be repeated in these lines. The moment of its death was as serene as a summer sunrise. When Eric heard its last breath, he bawled like a baby. He even cried in his wife’s arms. But as his tears dried up, he didn’t feel the terrible chill of a permanent loss. Or the tremendous emptiness of a disaster, or the emotional minimalism of impending death. He just waited.
He said goodbye to his boss and all of his colleagues. After carrying out a quick risk assessment, he realized that if he stayed at that particular job, things would not turn out so well. Not that he made some drastic career change, but he found another position which demanded much less of his time. On his way home he almost felt sad. At that moment he heard a howl from within. He pulled over to the side of the road. “Who’s there?” he asked. “It’s me,” a voice answered. “The whale?” he asked again anxiously. “Does my voice sound like the whale’s?” Having learned by now that when addressing inner mammals one needn’t be too tactful, Eric persisted: “Are you gonna tell me who you are?”. “The wolf”, the voice replied. But it’s about now that our narration must come to an end, for two reasons: The first, I am not entirely sure that the wolf grants us his permission to continue. And the second, this story here was about a boy who swallowed a whale.
*The Greek word for clairvoyant is alafroiskiotos and literally means ‘one who has a light shadow’.
The Greek phrase for candy floss is malli tis grias – literally, ‘old lady’s hair’ – hence Eric’s following thoughts on grandmothers.
Excerpts from a book presentation that never happened.
Writer: I would prefer to start with a brief introduction about the circumstances under which this short fairy tale was written, and then we can go straight into a discussion with the audience. As you can see, I chose not to have experts beside me to steer the conversation with their contribution. So I won’t tire you any longer, I’ll give you a brief account of what happened. It was Sunday, and I received a phone call. On the other end of the line was a very sweet female voice inviting me to a bar near my neighborhood, to meet her boss, who had an interesting proposition for me. I was persuaded quite easily, perhaps because the girl mentioned that she would also be present at that meeting. That night I got ready and walked to the spot. To be honest, I had never noticed that the particular bar is in a basement – a fact which almost archetypically makes you think twice before going in. At the entrance a middle aged woman was mopping some concrete steps, a task futile yet necessary I imagine. I had all the good intention of waiting for her to finish her chore but she told me to go through in an almost imperative tone. When I entered, I was impressed by the size of the place. There were over twenty tables, and it also had a stage with a piano and a microphone. Quite a few people had gathered, but the ones that caught my eye were an old chubby man with tears in his eyes, sharing a table with a gypsy who had a cigarette in his mouth and a baby in his arms. When I told the waiter the name of the man I was meeting, he lost his idle tone and with great politeness sat me at a table fairly close to the stage. He brought an expensive bottle of champagne and some nuts and told me that any minute Mr. such and such would arrive. His eagerness impressed me, and actually stressed me a bit. A short while later the man I was expecting came, without the girl from the other end of the line. I was disappointed, but I remembered my grandma’s old saying, that the clever bird is caught by its beak. The very solemn but nevertheless polite man, who I sensed was a man of dodgy dealings, proposed that we watch some of the show before we talk. A jester, a dog and a fat man dressed as a baby all appeared on stage. The jester stood behind the microphone, the dog jumped up on the stool as if it were about to play the piano, while the fat man sat on a chair that looked like a throne. The jester started to sing the following lines, out of tune:
This king, he died a long time ago
We don’t let him lose so he doesn’t know
With a wagging tail his dog adores him
And every three months his wife bears his children
His jester, c’est moi, pumps him full of blarney
And he swallows the jester’s nonsense gladly
Under his throne his gold snot he fastens
And the world shouts ‘Bless you!’ when he sneezes
The king knows what he’s doing. Why should we change our ways?
Either way, the king’s been dead since the olden days
When the song ended, my saturnine table companion shared his idea with me. He explained that those particular lyrics had cost him a lot. That they had led him to deep melancholy. He tried to put his thoughts in order, but it was impossible for him to do so. When he found out about me and read the book I’d written – obviously he was referring to ‘How to become unhappy’ – he decided to hire me to write a fairy tale for him. He described how he wanted thus to get in touch with the child in him. I in turn explained that I was surprised by his choice, as my writing is known for its ironic tone. “Do you know any fairy tales that aren’t ironic?” he said. We agreed. So I started to write. I would not like to go into more detail about his disappointment with my work; suffice it to say that he told me it was this very disappointment that brought him in touch with his inner child.
Audience: Your story was interesting, of course, but it seemed to me completely pointless.
Writer: Get on with the question, we’re not interested in tiresome statements.
Audience: Fair enough. Why did you choose a whale for the creature that Eric swallows?
Writer: Hmm. You know, I think the whale is a symbol. And we don’t get to choose symbols. They choose us. And I say they choose us precisely because they acquire a life of their own and they speak a special language that develops in the space between our culture and our instincts. They are essentially go-betweens. Think of a child’s need to constantly be in his mother’s arms. At some point as he gets older he’ll have to learn to be separated from her because this is dictated by his development. So he’ll have to learn to cope with his disappointment and to be able to stall the immediate gratification of his impulse. When I was a young boy, I often imagined at night that my bed covers turned into a spaceship which allowed me to travel to the edge of the universe. Look at what an ideal compromise that was between my need to be in my mother’s arms and at the same time to explore the world. In that sense the spaceship functions as a symbol. Believe me, I did not choose it, it landed on me. As for the whale, I think it decided to dive into Eric’s plate because it had certain duties to fulfil. If you have read the fairy tale you’ll have figured out that Eric lived for many years with the unavowed knowledge of his father’s death. When you can’t talk about and share such an important piece of information about your life, especially when you are so young, you need a strong stomach to metabolize or to hide it if need be. And where could one find a better stomach than that of this great sea animal. On the other hand, Eric was a child who had a sharp intellect. Children like him often have a hidden flood of emotions somewhere inside them. Again, the whale is an excellent companion and guide in the water. Eric also was aware of both the story of Pinocchio as well as the story of the prophet Jonah. In the former, Pinocchio had to get into the whale’s belly to find and rescue his father, and in the latter, Jonah had to die and be reborn in there in order to become a prophet, after the spell of cowardice he had while he was travelling.
Audience: Why did Eric have to suffer from pains? Doesn’t it sound a bit moralistic, that one must hurt in order to gain something?
Writer: I can’t say if it is or isn’t moralistic, but think for a minute. Eric was a man who worked for an insurance company or something of the sort. He was a risk analyst. Now, any profession is fine by me, but try and imagine, say, your insurance agent, spontaneously talking to a whale. These things just don’t happen. The pain, and specifically a relatively irrational and persistent pain, was the only way for Eric to face reality. People who live in the clouds of their thoughts, who as I wrote smile with words and not muscles, unfortunately need a good slap of inevitable grounding to the truth of the body to wake up. Eric is lucky to have gotten away with a stomach neurosis or something like that.
Audience: Do you mean to say that sickness comes in order to tell us something?
Writer: No. I’d be an arrogant ass to believe such a thing, especially when nothing serious has ever happened to me. I just believe that every person has the right to find meaning in all – good and bad – that comes their way. Don’t think I’m an avid fan of subjectivism. I respect the truth. But I know that the truth is both the spinster and her moonstruck niece.
Audience: What do you mean by that last remark?
Writer: The spinster for me represents the uniqueness of reality, while the moonstruck niece represents the possibility of enrichment through envisioning reality as we would like it to be.
Audience: Why did you choose a foreign name like Eric for a man who obviously lives in Greece and for whom we have no indication that he is not Greek?
Writer: To be honest I haven’t thought about that. I suppose that this choice may have something to do with the fact that Eric is a stranger to himself. He doesn’t know a lot about his roots and neither do we.
Audience: Why did you make his mother seem so indifferent towards her child?
Writer: Here I think you are being unfair. I didn’t mean to describe that at all. The fact that in two scenes she’s washing rugs is mostly a portrayal of her own state. She was a woman who lost her husband and at the same time had to work hard at making a living, keeping a household going and coping with her own emotional flood. Don’t forget that the magic rug was an attempt to save Eric the couple of times that he was in danger of drowning. Every person must be as honest as possible with himself and his past, but at the same time responsible to face his own fate alone. You know, many times the thought crossed my mind that I may have wronged the female characters in this text by portraying them as either indifferent or seductive. Even if this is the case, they serve their purpose and in doing so are wonderfully useful to Eric in his soul-searching.
Audience: Elena, Daphne, Elena Daphnopoulou, all were unfulfilled loves. Why did this happen?
Writer: There is no such thing as fulfilled love. All love affairs are unfulfilled, even if you marry the woman of your dreams. Eros is a god with exorbitant demands. He is a child that never grows up. His role is to give continuation to things and not to trap them. What were all these girls, really? If not priestesses that would lead Eric within, then they would have been boastful stories for him to share with his friends in some smoky bar. I don’t describe the latter as something negative, but as something which is limited. These girls, through their irrational presence in Eric’s life, made it possible for him to discover the emotional scribble within himself. Scribbles are wonderful shapes because in their nonsense they have a structure. If I asked all of you to make a scribble, I’m sure each one would be unique, much like a signature. Have you noticed that in traditional fairy tales all ends with marriage between the male and the female and that here in Greece the closing statement is always ‘they had a good life and we had a better one’? Isn’t the fact that we had a better life like the narrator telling us that theirs wasn’t perfect? That the prince may well have lost it when he hit forty and fallen in love with one of the kingdom’s washerwomen? If we don’t take Love as a flow of life which helps us on our way to renegotiate reality, then we may enjoy some extremely pleasant and passionate moments, but that will be it. You know, it wouldn’t have made much difference if in the end Eric and Elena Daphnopoulou had gotten it on. Of course the fairy tale may have taken a pornographic turn, and I won’t deny that at times I was seriously tempted. As I was writing it, I intuitively felt that Eric had to withstand the flagrant contradiction of his desires for as long as he could. And I would justify anyone who thought this is lame. But in the end, it was more important for me to describe the meeting between a person who appreciated the world through his mind, and another who took the opportunity to feel things even while handing over invoices. In effect, the meeting of Eric and the young girl who secretly appeared in his room when he was a little boy.
Audience: To be honest, I didn’t get the unlikable old man’s part. Can you enlighten us?
Writer: I’ll give you an answer, even though your question saddens me, since I obviously failed to make my point. The old Jonah, although that isn’t his name, is a male figure which is quite mysterious and evokes unpleasant feelings in Eric for two reasons: Firstly because he is a man who, in wasting away his life monotonously in a shop, seems like he has made himself comfortable in the whale’s belly, and secondly because his tone and his words reveal a man who resorts to making sweeping barren generalizations which are characteristic of narrow-minded people. An example of this is his misogynism. In a way, this old man could have been Eric’s future. Despite being the lord of washing machines, he lived in incredible drought. Had Eric not discovered the whale, he may have ended up like him. It is our acquaintance with these dark sides which sometimes warns us about our fate, and it is the bravery it takes to reach out to them which saves us from it.
Audience: So you are insinuating that the old man from the laundry is in fact Eric?
Writer: In a way, yes.
Audience: I’m angry with you. Why did the whale have to die?
Writer: You can be sure my dear that I too was literally dumbstruck when I found out about this. Weren’t you surprised by my unwillingness to describe the details of its death? Unfortunately transformation and regeneration can’t occur without a death. No matter how much we like the butterfly, we’ll still have to mourn the caterpillar. Once it has served its function, the symbol loses its strength. The whale was the caterpillar that had to die so that the wolf could be born. I am sincerely sorry if I upset you. The good news is that there is continuation. That the next symbol was born.
Audience: But a wolf? It gives me a bad feeling about Eric’s future.
Writer: I wouldn’t like to challenge your intuition, but you are forgetting that the wolf is an animal that trusts its instinct, makes quick decisions and develops stable emotional bonds with its pack. Not to mention that female wolves make excellent mothers. Contrary to dogs, however, one must be cautious with wolves because they aren’t tamed. I think Eric has a long way to go.
Audience: What should one do if they discover their inner whale?
Writer: Don’t misunderstand me. In this fairy tale I am not inviting anyone to discover their inner whale. For each person the symbol is something completely personal. Let’s say your personal symbol is a box of corn flakes. Don’t laugh, symbols needn’t be great and important things in order to have power. I would advise you to read the writing on the box, word for word. If for instance at some point it reads ‘in order to keep the cereal crunchy after opening the packet, fold the inner bag tightly and close the box’, what could this mean for you? I could talk for hours about things that come to mind, for example about preservation, which may be an important issue for someone, or about the word cereal which brings to mind the Roman goddess Ceres. You may have to take a flake and roll it around in your mouth for a while, discovering tastes and textures that your hasty breakfasts don’t usually allow.
Audience: Why did you feel the need to share with us the story of the man who hired you to write this fairy tale?
Writer: You know, for a sane, grown man, the idea that he writes fairy tales about whales is one not easily digested. I wanted to explain – almost apologize for this. Think about the story again. A woman lures me to this dark bar and a man makes me do something which he expects will bring him some result. Inspiration comes seductive and lying and the shady boss tries to harness it. Isn’t that the reason why I thought of adding this odd epilogue with a hypothetical presentation of a hypothetical fairy tale?
"...His grandmother poured him a warm bowl of soup. With her smile, she encouraged him to eat it all, as usual, so that he wouldn’t lose his strength. When he took a closer look at his bowl, he noticed a whale swimming casually next to the pasta and the carrots. It made quite a bit of noise splashing about, and he was rather surprised that his grandmother didn’t seem to notice it..."