For our “Lesson Learned” short story contest, we asked readers to pen a story about characters at the brink of change – and about to learn a lesson they’ll never forget. The stories our readers submitted were truly exemplary. Although we could only pick three winners, we ended up giving out more personalized feedback to our writers than in any other contest – a trend we hope to continue in our future contests.
Many stories impressed us, several moved us, and a few kept us awake long into the night, but one haunting story in particular stood out long after we’d finished reading. Jim Lewis’ “Leviathan,” with its chilling first-person-plural POV, skillful economy of language, and horrific ending, very much reminded us of Shirley Jackson’s classic story “The Lottery.” We’re very pleased to be hosting it in our pages, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
We ran to the water as soon as we saw the creature needed our assistance. We ran from our scenic summer homes and sun-bleached cedar porches, from our lobster and clam lunches, and from our toasts of champagne in fluted crystal. We ran down the hill past the sand dunes in our Birkenstocks and boat shoes. A collective shame burned in our hearts and minds as we recalled our ancestors who had hunted and slain so many of these majestic mammals. How could we, the summer residents of Cape Cod, do anything less than set the creature free? A whale had beached itself on our shore. We, who lived in a part of the world where Harvard doctorates were as common as raindrops, would do everything in our power to save its life.
We gathered round the whale. It was the size of one of our yachts, a good 60 feet long, its bulbous head higher than the combined height of two men. It released an odor of squid and salt water. When an otherwise bold cocker spaniel saw its jaw, its gaping mouth, its giant eye, and its enormous teeth, the dog yelped and ran back up the hill. Even so, the whale looked benignly at us. It moaned, indicating its great pain and resolve to live.
“Why has this happened?” asked Mrs. Saunders, a long-retired professor of chemistry who stood at the top of the hill resting upon her cane.
“Who knows?” replied Mrs. Cartwright, an ancient dowager. “Perhaps the poor thing is just sick and has had its fill of life.”
“If you ask me,” said Mr. Kingsley, and of course, no one had, “it’s the Navy’s fault, what with all their damned sonar testing.”
We had no time to debate the question of why the whale had beached itself. We were in a race against time. The tide was low now, which meant that the mid-day sun could burn the whale’s smooth gray skin or dehydrate it. If we could not budge it before one of our magnificent orange sunsets arrived, the whale might be stranded and drown when the water rushed over its blowhole. A few years ago another whale, its stomach full of gases, had exploded on the beach and left a stench that lingered for days. Someone warned us that the creature was probably being crushed by its own weight. Someone suggested that we should dig channels beside the whale so that a constant supply of water would keep it cool and wet. Someone else advised us to run hoses down the hill. The sense of urgency ran through us all.
We told our help to fetch our hip waders and as many pails, rags, shovels, and ladders as possible. They laid the ladders against the creature’s bulk, just between its enormous flippers and flukes. They climbed on top of the whale and laid rags over its back. As soon as they climbed down, they removed the ladders and proceeded to soak the creature. The whale replied with a deep moan.
We needed to rescue it before high tide arrived in five hours and daylight dissolved to star-twinkling night an hour later, for then we would face another problem. The rising water and low visibility would make it too dangerous for us to work around the giant mammal, especially if it began thrashing those giant flippers and flukes.
We hoped that someone, anyone, among us had called the authorities for help. We were a community of leaders and everyone wanted to be in charge. We had absolute confidence in our abilities, in spite of the fact that none among us was a marine biologist or even a sea captain. Once we obeyed the call to assist the whale, we were committed to doing so. We were nothing if not responsible members of society.
The scientists and engineers among us – and more than a few possessed these titles – decided the best course of action would be to float the whale off the beach. The question was how to accomplish this. We carried a great collection of buoys, life jackets, and other flotation devices into the water. We were ready to tie the creature’s tail to our boats and drag it back into the ocean if necessary.
Soon the light began to fade.
“I can’t read this damn watch,” said Mr. Kingsley.
“It’s a quarter of eight,” said Mrs. Cartwright.
“I’m getting eaten alive,” said Mrs. Saunders as she slapped another invisible insect. She turned in her folding chair to the black woman standing beside her, illuminated by her starched white apron.
“Be a lamb, dear, and fetch something to put on my arms.”
The black woman pulled a tube from her apron, twisted off the cap, and squeezed a bit of cream into Mrs. Saunders’ outstretched palm. She returned the tube to her apron as Mrs. Saunders lathered herself and resumed watching the whale rescue.
Before long, the rotating beams from the lighthouses at Hyannis and Chatham came on. The water turned murky and rose up to the tops of our clam-digging hip waders. We concentrated so much on our feat of engineering that we barely noticed the trail of blood that emerged from the whale’s hindquarters.
“A shark!” somebody shouted. Our eyes scanned the turbid water and soon we detected the gray torpedo shape, a predator that we all feared yet were sworn to protect to save the delicate balance of the sea. But that protection belonged to a different part of the ocean, not here on our beach where the life of an intelligent creature had been entrusted to us. The fearsome gray monster seemed to have attached itself to our whale and was feeding on it. The monster became the focus of our rage. It had to be stopped. Immediately.
We grabbed whatever we could: oars, clubs, chains, shovels, anything we could swing. And we began swinging. With frenzy and desperation we swung, our arms tracing arcs against the bleeding sky and the melting sun. We struck the monster mercilessly. After a few minutes we paused. The water was foamy and dark pink. The object of our hatred and fear had stopped moving.
We studied the monster, and the more we studied it the more we realized it had never been a threat – not to the whale nor to us. We did not dare breathe or speak. We stared at the blob that once had the potential for life and we stared at one another in horror and shame. The image of the dead baby whale would forever be stamped in our memory.
We renewed our attempts to free the mother from the beach, but now we worked in silence. We could no longer look one another in the eye. We finally succeeded in budging the whale but we could not look at her either; each slap of her tail as she returned to the ocean was a slap of judgment upon us. We walked back up the sandy slope to our summer homes, salt water dripping from our faces and our hip waders.
One by one, the lights went out in our homes. We drew our curtains closed to shut out the revolving lighthouse lamps. We lay awake and tossed and turned until a sea of darkness overpowered us.
Jim Lewis on “Leviathan:”
What inspired you to write “Leviathan?”
My best guess is that the story germinated from the following experiences: I support animal rights, I spent several weekends in a family home on Cape Cod, and I had recently read David Foster Wallace’s powerful short story “Incarnations of Burned Children.”
What do you think it was it about Wallace’s story that helped inspire your own?
Firstly, I was attracted to the speed of Wallace’s story. The scene roared out of the starting gate and never slowed down. It’s an incredibly short piece, even shorter than my own, and fits I suppose into the genre of flash fiction. But what I particularly liked about his story, and what I wanted to emulate in my own, was that the protagonist didn’t know what was wrong until it was too late to do anything about it.
First person plural is a difficult point-of-view to pull off, but it works chillingly well in this story. Why did you decide to use that particular POV?
I wanted to examine how a particular community reacts in a time of crisis. Because the story is about collective hubris and guilt, and because it’s impossible to have an entire community narrate a story, I selected a narrator who was an anonymous character within that community to represent all of his or her people. When an early reader asked if I was vilifying rich people, I said no. The incident could have happened to any seaside community, but the people in my story – because of their wealth and education – had the greatest emotional investment in the outcome.
What was your revision process like for this story? How many drafts did you go through in total?
I wrote the story more than three years ago, and I wrote the first draft in less than an hour. But that version was full of purple prose and my tendency to offset serious matter with humor. So the sappy and humorous were the first things to go. Next, I had to stretch the end, which was too abrupt. Other than that, it was a matter of word choice and cutting any words I felt were unnecessary. I workshopped the story to two writers’ groups and got useful and encouraging feedback. It also helps that I love the revision process. The title on my last computer file is “Leviathan.20,” which means the story underwent at least 20 revisions.
One of our favorite things about this story was how tight the storytelling was; an incredible amount is accomplished in a relative few (1200+) words. How did you keep the story so tightly focused and concise? As a writer, how did you find the balance between providing description and advancing the plot?
I wanted to maintain a sense of urgency through pacing and active verbs. This meant integrating the description into the action and following, as much as possible, Janet Burroway’s advice of avoiding filter verbs (to think, imagine, feel, etc.). Pacing had to show the passage of time and dimming of the light, especially the critical scene in which the people panicked when they misunderstood what was happening.
Jim Lewis earned his degree in creative writing in 1988 from Montreal’s Concordia University. He has completed his first unpublished (historical) novel and is halfway through his second (autobiographical) novel. His previous claim to fame was honorable mention in a CBC short story contest.