“The Sea Half-Held By Night,” by E. Catherine Tobler

May 9, 2018

“The Sea Half-Held By Night,” by E. Catherine Tobler, is from the 63th issue of The Dark magazine. This short story takes us to Red Bay in New Foundland, a settlement of Basque and Portuguese whalers, and the things that come up out of the sea.

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night;
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosomed night!

“…sea half-held by the night” is a quote from “Leaves of Grass,” a famed collection of poems by Walt Whitman. The volume of poetry, containing anywhere from 12-400 poems depending on its publication date, emphasizes the body and physical world, as opposed to spiritual, and nature and human kind’s place in it. It’s a lovely bit of poetry, it’s a lovely line, and it’s a fitting title for a story about humans and whales and death.

The story is told from the point of view of Tota, a young woman married to a whaler. She works with the whales as well, harvesting spermaceti, the wax-life stuff found in a specialized organ of a sperm whale’s head. It was used in candles and lamps and to make medicines. It’s a gross job, but Tota loves doing it, loves being involved, loves the quiet and peace involved in being inside of a whale harvesting a valuable resource for her community.

One day, down by the water, she sees someone acting oddly. She assumes it’s a physically exhausted laborer staggering home, but the person walks into the water instead. Nobody is missing, though, and nobody else admits to having seen a stranger. And nobody believes her that the person didn’t struggle, didn’t release great bubbles of water, didn’t drown.

He comes back, of course; comes back and comes looking for her, his face rotting, trying to tell her something. Her friend rescues her, beats the shambling man with a plank of wood and ushers Tota back inside.This is a story about zombies, but like all the good zombie stories the zombies have a resonance outside of simply being shambling spooks.

The animated dead crawling up out of the sea aren’t strangers or faceless hoards. They are the family and friends of the whalers, men who have drowned. They are lonely, and they are hungry, and they walk along the red stained reeking shore, among whale carcass and bone and spilled oil, toward home. They still know their family. And under wave? Under the ocean are whales injured and whales dead, whales and men alike tied together in a living death.

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