One-Shot Week Part 9: Life As Leviathan

The week may be over, but here’s one more thing I wanted to post, with a previously-written introduction:

This piece is something that old enough that I was very concerned whether I could even find my one printed copy. Fortunately, I did finally fish it out from my old papers, and apart from a handful of corrections, it appears here exactly as I found it. I wrote this back in 2001 for a college English class. For a long time, I considered it the best thing I had written, and looking at it now, I can still feel happy putting it out there.

This was supposed to be an essay, on the assigned topic of what animal one would most like to become. While I have always been interested in animals, and greatly enjoy telling a story from an animal’s perspective, I didn’t care for the premise of the assignment, and in the end, my response was substantially a revolt against it. The result was this piece, more a story than an essay, but not really a self-sufficient work, and I never did think of any good way to build on it. (The best idea I ever had was to put it together with what became the novel Anio Son of Poseidon, and that was in fact how I first thought of the “Book of Shapes” featured there.) Looking at it now, I can see an embarrassment of riches in potential themes and symbols, from environmentalism to the influence of media to an allegory of Christ. I can’t claim to recall how much of that even crossed my mind when I first wrote it, but in the end, I think it is and always best for this to stay what it is: a vivid, well-told story.


Once I was a human who walked the land. I was a peasant among frail primates who thought themselves kings of the Earth. Now I am a mighty king of the ocean. Scientists call me Physeter; poets call me Leviathan; others call me cachalot, but most follow the lead of ancient fools and call ma a sperm whale. Those on the top can call me whatever the like. Down here, we do not let mere collections of syllables define who we are. A cachalot is defined by his songs, his deeds and his strength. Our mere hellos carry the passion and detail of the poets’ greatest epics. My song is of wisdom coupled with strength.

It was a little hard getting used to being a cachalot. Fortunately, it was in my very nature to detect with song and ears as I once did with light and eyes. If I had had to learn it, I could never have survived. I still miss my arms and legs, and I sometimes wish that I could see with eyes what I have heard with song. Learning to breathe at will was tricky; there were several times when I almost suffocated because I forgot that I had to think to inhale. But the hardest part is dealing with my memories. I can still remember all the things I did on top,, but they are alien and even repulsive to my current nature. How strange it is to remember the sight of a blooming desert when one has become accustomed to hearing the deepest oceans! Hardest of all are the times when I wake from a dream of the top and find myself once again as a man in an alien universe. If I had known how that would feel, I would never have changed. After such dreams, I have often resolved to search the depths until I find a way to change back. But the dream always fades, and my cetaceous nature always reasserts itself. I cannot now change what I am even though it is not my true self.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of being a cachalot is the amount of exploring one gets to do. No breathing thing can dive deeper than a cachalot, and few cachalots have dived deeper than I. With my song which conquers all darkness, I have beheld creatures which human researchers have spent millions for mere glimpses of, and some which human minds have not even imagined. I have dragged some of the strangest creatures from their hiding places to the top, where humans will find them. I chuckle when I think of what scientists may have made of them.

I wish I could go back up top to correct the ridiculous things scientists write about how cachalots hunt. They make it sound so easy. I have concluded that catching squid is a learned art not an instinct, and though I have the vast and demanding body of a bull, I have the hunting skills of a calf. Though I can tap the learning of a whale, something in my human part seems to get in the way. In my two years as cachalot, I have caught only six squid. It did not help that they tasted like rubber bands soaked in ammonia. I have fed mainly on slow-moving, bottom-dwelling giant octopus and squid which I earn by singing for other whales.

I count all the human things I have sacrificed as no loss at all against my ability to sing. As a human, I struggled to turn my visions into words. Now, I sing songs whose “words” are as clear as human vision. The greatest human poets would envy me. Other whales swarm around me to listen. I am still not sure whether they are drawn by awe, curiosity or something else. I often wonder if they fear me, but like many humans are drawn to what they hear. As I sing the final I exult that the other whales must view me as a god, but then I remember how humans treat their gods, and become somber once again.

The seas hold nothing for an adult cachalot to fear- except humans. A handful of ships still hunt my kind, but I, with my human knowledge, can avoid their factory ships easily. I have also warned other whales, and thus reduced the whalers’ catch substantially. The diminishing returns made the hunters more persistent, and it was not long before a whaling ship found a pod of whales gathered to hear my song. I was shocked and angered when my passionate encore was interrupted by screams of pain and the booming of explosive-tipped harpoons. A dozen whaling ships gathered like sharks around my audience. The majority of us escaped, but a few ships followed, killing at least one of us whenever we surfaced for air.

Many more would have died, if I had not happened across a rusted and forgotten mine. I seized the deadly device by its anchor chain and dragged it towards one of the whalers. I left it in what I thought was a good location, and then surfaced briefly to draw the ship. I surfaced again and again, drawint the ships farther away from the pod and to closer to the mine. Finally, the lead ship struck the mine dead on and sank like a stone.

I sang a new song then: one of vengeance and hatred against our hunters. I sang of things alien to them, but all too familiar to me: cruelty, greed and thoughtless waste. Then I led the armies of the deep against all that I hated, and all that I had been. I told them how to find explosives to detonate against a ship’s hull. I told them how to knock ships off course by ramming their rudders. I told them how to paralyze a ship by tossing rocks and wreckage and even themselves into the propellers.

The other three ships sailed forward casually to pick up their colleagues, thinking that the sinking of the first ship was a mere accident. Just as we had been oblivious to their harpoons until they struck, so they were unaware of our power until it was too late. When the battle was over, two more ships lay at the bottom. One had been laid open when we sent another ship careening into it. The other had been disabled and then battered open over a day and half. The whalers who did not stay in their ships ended up in our stomachs. The last ship escaped with a dented propeller, damaged rudder, and leaking hull. We later found it beached on a remote shore. The sailors had escaped to land, and would surely tell the world of our fury.

Seven whales died in the battle, but it is in the survivors that I see the greatest cost. They are much more violent, more brutish- in short, more human. They have sunk a dozen more whaling ships. Not a one dares sail, now. But the other whales have only grown more aggressive, and now are turning against fishing boats. I fear that harmless and defenseless liners and cargo ships will be next. By now, many humans must be wishing that they had exterminated us when the still had the ships to do it. Worst of all, the whales are becoming more brutish towards each other. They are forming fixed clans and claiming stretches of sea as theirs by right. War with each other is bound to start soon. They will no longer listen to my songs, unless they are of blood and fury. Hear me, world, and weep: I made myself a whale to escape what is human, but now I have brought the worst of what is human into the whales!

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona


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