I’ve run a lot of places to get away from God, but the sea is not one of them, because deep water is the last place you want him to catch you. Oh Jonah, why did you think you could curl up in the bottom of a boat and sleep your cares away? No hold can shelter you from the coming storm.
Jonah was a fool, but so am I, because both of us bear hearts assayed by Solzhenitsyn: leaky sacks with lines cut jagged down the center, one side welling good and the other seeping evil. The hell of it is that most of us on a clear, sober day can scarcely tell one side from the other.
I’d like to say I’m thinking about Jonah because I’ve been reading my dust-covered Bible, but the book I actually read recently is about a ship out of Nantucket that was sunk by a whale. Vengeance-minded leviathans turn my Christ-haunted mind to Jonah. Maybe little else has stuck around from my Bible-belt upbringing, but it seems that story lodged someplace deep.
The book, by necessity, must educate its readers about whales. I’ve learned—to my chagrin because I like to tell my children about the books I’m reading—that sperm whales are called that not because the word sperm has some alternate meaning far-removed from testicles, but precisely because of the testicular implication. When you cut open a whale and survey the massive tub of milky oil swirling in the reservoir of its head, it looks like sperm, the kind I’d just as soon not talk about with my children until, well, never.
I’ve also learned how whalers processed their prey on sailing ships that were glorified refineries-in-a-tub, how the swath of ocean stretching from New England to the southern hemisphere before arcing into the Pacific was a killing field—much like the plains of North America in the early 19th century—littered with the corpses of mass kills.
And I’ve learned about ambergris, a word I’d heard before but which remained untamed in my head, roaming about to be recognized on sight yet not to be harnessed to a sentence. Ambergris is a foul gray matter secreted in the bowels of whales. It’s likely a response to indigestion; the beaks of squids and teeth of sharks found in whales’ bellies are often coated with it. Sometimes a whale craps or vomits ambergris, and it washes ashore.
The thing about ambergris is that it comes out stinking like death but time imparts to it a pleasing aroma. It was once used in perfumes. Egyptians still employ it in their fragrant cigarettes. Some people consider it an aphrodisiac; others think it cures epilepsy.
How can I read about anything vomited from the mouth of a whale and not think of Jonah? Jonah, too scared to go to Nineveh; Jonah, who didn’t understand God will put you where he wants you whether you like it or not; Jonah, who raged at God—the stench of fish guts still on his clothes—for not giving the wicked Ninevites what they deserved.
Poor Jonah, who couldn’t see what’s clear as day, which is that his journey was less about saving 120,000 Ninevite souls than about saving the soul of one judgmental coward of a man.
“And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Solzhenitsyn asks on the heels of his observation about your heart and mine, knowing full well that none of us will do it willingly, not a one. We cherish the deceitful, palpitating part of ourselves above all.
We won’t do it and so sometimes God or the universe or karma does it, and because we are whole-heartedly half-hearted in our goodness, it feels every day as if half our hearts are being burned away, and half the time we can’t make sense of it, because we can scarcely tell good from evil. We can only tell agony from pleasure, and there’s just no escaping it: When we frail humans collide with any god worth a damn, it’s going to hurt.
When I was a boy, our preacher used to shout that God is an all-consuming fire. I still believe him. He also said hell is a fire, but this I do not believe. No, hell is a darkened fish-gut tomb. It’s an unlit place that somehow both contains and inhabits us. Hell feels like being swallowed up whole and forgotten. You might know what I mean. And you know there’s no light down there.
Lately I’ve come to realize there’s something wrong with me. I don’t exactly know what it is except that what beats behind my ribs is the wrong half of my heart. I wake in darkness, struggling to remember who I once wanted to be, or even where I am. Sometimes I don’t even care.
What I can’t help thinking about, in this present darkness, is that preacher from my childhood, the God-fire preacher. I dread the answer, but could he have been right about some things after all? Like how nothing can be reborn until it dies. That even the worst of us can get vomited up from the pit. That our stench can become fragrant.
The things you’ll believe in the belly of a whale. But if even wave-tossed whale shit gets a second chance, shouldn’t you and I?
Cover image by Iswanto Arif.