Belly of the Whale

Hannah Withers

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He slipped into the museum gift shop on the way into the office that day. He’d decided to buy her one of the African bracelets as a little gift. A better bouquet.

When he got to the counter the display was gone. Just spoons with constellations carved into the bowl and tree frog earrings. He asked the woman at the register if they’d moved the display. She replied that no, they had stopped selling the bracelets altogether. Apparently someone had been stealing them ever since they’d been on offer, and finally management figured they were a bigger loss than gain.

“Stealing them, and then putting them back?” Jonah asked, feeling very smug and in the know.

“No,” the woman said dourly. “Just stealing them. And keeping them.”

“ . . . Ahh.” There was a pause in which Jonah considered buying something else. He elected to move on.

He checked behind the front desk on his way to the elevator and saw that Rachel’s nametag was still there. He’d beat her to work, as per usual. He felt like a high schooler again, eager to see his first kiss at school the next day. He’d have to wait it out.

He got to his office and actually felt excited to sit down to his foil. It seemed possible, again, that anything might have collided with their stupid little strips of metal, out there in the recesses of space. It felt like a mystery again; he half expected to find a crater in the silhouette of Marvin the Martian in his first slide.

It was about three in the afternoon when one of Jonah’s colleagues came in with his tiny nephew. Jonah still hadn’t seen Rachel, but it wasn’t rare for her not to work on Fridays. He’d text her that night, or email her.

The colleague from the archaeology wing wanted to show his lunar-skinned, coal-eyed nephew the moon rock in the meteorite locker and needed Jonah to let him in. Jonah was more than happy to acquiesce. He punched in the code, the panic button safely in his back pocket, just in case your nephew goes rogue on us he joked to his colleague from archeology.

The three of them stepped in, the motion sensor ticking, the room smelling of cedar and a lack of germs. Jonah took the sliver of moon out for the nephew to hold.

The boy took the Petri dish from Jonah like it was the most fragile baby animal he’d ever seen, and held it so close to his face Jonah was worried he would fog the plastic too much to see through. But he presumed that the little boy could see, because his pitch-pupil eyes opened up wider than hubcaps, and his jaw fell open like he was getting ready to take a bite out of a softball.

“THIS IS A PIECE OF THE MOON???” he asked.

“Sure is,” replied Jonah, shooting an ain’t-it-cute look to his colleague from archeology. “Cool, hunh?”

“THIS IS THE COOLEST THING EVER!!!!” shouted the boy, prompting his uncle to urge him to use his inside voice. Jonah assured him it was OK.

“Hey buddy, just wait til you see this one over here . . . ”

He strolled over to the far end of the cabinet and crouched down. “You like Superman?” he asked. He pulled out the drawer and looked inside. He paused. He chuckled to himself. He pushed the drawer back in and pulled out the one above it. His colleague from archeology and the pale-skinned nephew looked on expectantly. “No, I know it was the bottom one . . . ” he muttered to himself. Jonah checked the bottom drawer again.

His chest felt deflated. His stomach felt like it was being colonized by ants. The room spun. His colleague from archeology and the dichromatic nephew watched curiously as Jonah sank down against the wall and sat quietly, staring blankly at the empty bottom drawer. He wasn’t worried about the money the museum would lose, or even about being fired.

He was just tired of finding the limits of things.

 

When he was a boy his mother told him stories about Jonah and the whale, using the Bible as maybe a jumping off point for hours of material, trying, and failing, to send her son off into an early sleep so she could catch Family Ties or The Jeffersons on the tiny TV she kept in her bathroom because she’d read that having a TV in the bedroom was unhealthy. She told him about Jonah being eaten, about living inside the whale like an ant that certain six-year-old boys might swallow accidentally, building forts in its ribs and cooking dinner over its hot heart. She told him about Jonah peaking out through the blow hole sometimes when the whale went above the surface, which is called breeching, and how sometimes he could see the land—at first missing it, but eventually happier to be in his traveling home underwater, always warm, always swimming even while he slept.

It didn’t take too many of these stories for Jonah to decide he wanted to be a marine biologist. He felt it was his fate to know more about the bellies of whales than anyone else in the world. He wanted to hear dolphins talking and he wanted to be the one to describe it to people at parties. His mother took him to the library to browse books about narwhals, an animal so unlikely as to rival stories about building forts inside whales in both grandeur and elegance. He put posters of the great coral reef on his wall, wore T-shirts with otters and sea anemones on them. He rode his oceanic high all the way into high school, when he took ecology.

 

He mostly fantasized about her after work, and sometimes during lunch. He tried to keep it separate from work so it didn’t interfere with his productivity. There were times, peering through the microscope lens in a daze, that he caught himself pulling her hair or licking her earlobes in his imagination. He would be filling out a storage requisition form and realize that, for the past ten minutes, he’d been removing her underwear with his teeth or ripping her shirt open in slow motion, threads breaking between his knuckles.

He bought tangerines by the box at the supermarket and ate them in private, at home, wondering what kind of music she liked to listen to when she was with men, if she was loud or quiet in bed. He guessed loud. He guessed she laughed a lot, like a girl he’d dated in college, when he didn’t know if that meant he was doing well or not, didn’t know if the laughter was complimentary.

He wondered what men she’d dated had been like, what race they’d been, how old, how many. He wondered how old she’d been for her first date, if she’d lost her virginity early or late. He wondered if she bit when she kissed, if she’d ever been with a woman, if she liked her body.

 

The ocean, as it turned out, was dying. The great coral reef was being suffocated by dust from the Sahara. It was just as unlikely as the narwhal, but just as true. Over-fishing, oil spills, speed boats skimming scars into the backs of sea cows. The pearly path he’d navigated to a future in biology had become a nautical cartography of human fuck ups and dying ecosystems. He struggled with it.

He fought against the news for as long as he could.

Finally, it exhausted him. By his last year of high school he’d given up fighting for a dying sea, and resigned himself to some vague future in pharmacology or male nursing. It was that fall that his friend Jeff turned eighteen and to celebrate, he took his friends to the planetarium. They’d all gotten high beforehand and stumbled into the theater ready to gawk at the spinning lights and color displays. The show though, called Here to Mars and Everything in Between, left Jonah’s jaw unhinged.

 

She was a new docent. Young and bright, a degree in Anthropology from the state school a couple miles away. She wore shorts, which he liked, and seldom shaved the peach colored hair on her legs, which he was surprised to find didn’t bother him. She wore African bangles that he believed she’d bought at the museum gift store until one day she told him, conspiratorially, that she took them from the store in the morning and returned them when she left in the evening. “It’s like a walking breathing advertisement for the store!” she whispered.

She’d sent him an email in her first week, about the Laser Space Walk tunnel. She’d noticed, on one of her tours, that Saturn’s rings were hanging off-kilter, and looked like they were in need of adjustment. She didn’t know who in the museum to contact, so she’d sent a friendly, unembarrassed email to him. He liked her from the start. She smelled like tangerines.

On her breaks and days off he spoiled her like Daddy Warbucks. He took her into sealed rooms that required his thumbprint to enter, rooms that registered the barometric change as they stepped across the climate controlled fluorescent lit absences. He showed her uncut gems the size of small dogs, had her try on stone necklaces worth more than her year’s rent, let her crawl inside jaw bones of giant dinosaurs. The museum had never been such a playground. It was his responsibility always to have something to show her, a task he found equal parts frightening and exciting. Her job was only to show up, to laugh at his jokes, to ask questions, to smell like tangerines.

Her job was to keep him from sinking into his paperwork, to stop him from succumbing to an endless sea of microcraters in agonizingly small squares of foil, to be a reason to look up the pronunciation of the word banal. Her job was to be young and pretty and interested.

 

“Here it is,” he whispered to himself. He was amazed he’d never realized it before. An endless distance of undiscovered territory, unspoiled, untouched, unknown. Space wasn’t a dwindling, dying landscape left to those who cared enough to struggle to keep what was left of it alive. It was an unimaginably vast field of things that no one understood anything about yet, and as he saw it, things that were still forming, being born, expanding. It was a biology to catch up with endlessly, not to resuscitate painfully. It felt like he was filling back up his empty lungs.

 

Just as space had found him when the ocean died for him, she had found him when space had become small, microscopic, and endless only in its waves of paper and foil. She was a new landscape, a new open door of unknown and unseen things, a terrain that felt alive and curious and inviting. She was a map to draw of wanting to have and know more.

“What ya got to show me today?” she asked.

“Wouldn’t you like to know . . . ” he said, hoping to sound mysterious, mostly trying to decide if prehistoric soil was exciting or very, very banal.

 

He took her back to the meteorite locker. It had been the first place he’d ever shown her and she’d loved it, or he’d thought she had and hoped it to be true. A month after that first expedition he was still trying to think of things to show her, discoveries to give her. The museum felt smaller every day, compressed, limited as he ran out of fresh ideas. He resolved to check back in the rare space collection, sure there was more to find in its cracks and corners.

He entered the code in the register by the door, and they slipped into the climate controlled, cedar-smelling closet, alone with the ticking of the motion sensor device. He took a Petri dish from the top shelf and slid it in front of her on the table.

“Guess,” he told her.

“A slice of Mars, obviously,” she replied, smiling.

“Correctamundo!” he praised, and then immediately admonished himself for sounding so old and uncool.

“It’s actually red,” she muttered, peering into the dish. “Like, they tell you it’s red but you end up just thinking that’s in cartoons, like how the ocean mostly looks black when you’re in a boat.”

“Or how sunrise is just the sky getting less and less blue.”

“Yeah, exactly!” She paused and looked around. “Can we . . . can I see the Kryptonite again? The one you showed me after the moon rock?”

“The green guy? Again? Sure.” He put away the slide of Martian rock and bent to put on gloves and collect the green fragment. He pulled it out of its drawer and handed it to her so cavalierly that he even made himself nervous.

They both fell silent. She stared into its recesses with such intensity that he was sure she’d stopped breathing. The light reflected back onto her face in stuttered ribbons laced with green and white. He took a deep breath of tangerine. He held it in and dove, bending to kiss her.

He couldn’t tell if she’d kissed him back or not. He pulled back slightly and looked at her with eyes ten years younger than he was. He decided to be bold, to be the Jacques Cousteau, the Neil Armstrong, the Jonah who made a home inside a whale. He took the meteorite from her and put it down on the table. He kissed her again, this time fairly certain she was kissing back. All he wanted was to know and have more. He wanted to be an expert in her, and he wanted it immediately. He pushed her up against the table and started to unbutton her blouse.

“Wait, wait,” she said, pulling back. “Hold up. The security camera! I don’t wanna lose my job.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, still trying to sound sexy. “They don’t pay anyone to watch it, and it rerecords over itself every twenty-four hours. The only reason anyone’d look at it is if I pressed the panic button.”

“The panic button?”

“Yeah,” he said, still straining to sound alluring. He pulled a small remote control out of his back pocket. “In case I’m in here with a guest and they go ballistic or try to take anything. I push this and it alerts security. If I don’t, the footage doesn’t even appear on a screen.”

“No one sees it? And it goes away in a day.”

He leaned in, pretending to be Edmond Hilary, Buzz Aldrin, a sword-bearing Biblical man. “Goes away forever. Hackers couldn’t recover it.”

She looked up at the camera with a gaze as unbroken and intense as the one she’d glued to the space rock. She looked back at him, still unbreathing. She gasped as though she were about to dive for a pearl.

She grabbed his neck and pulled him to her like a cat playing with something smaller, weaker, that she didn’t care if she hurt.

The motion sensor that no one was checking clicked through the seconds while Jonah discovered that the light hair on her legs was just as soft as he’d imagined.

 

“It’s like a piece of the moon?”

“It is a piece of the moon.”

“It looks like geography.”

“It is. It’s the ground.”

“No, like a map.”

“Yeah, you know, you’re right. It’s like, one of those, like the posters.”

“A fractal.”

“Yeah, it’s like a fractal.”

“This is so cool.”

“Yeah.”

“So beautiful.”

“Wait, here, give it back.”

She handed back the sliver of moon rock, embedded in the Petri dish. He slipped the pearly disk back into its cedar drawer and slid it shut. He’d gone out on a limb, asking if she’d like to see something “behind the scenes,” that day. It surprised him when she said of course, when she seemed, to him, to be excited. It was going well, he thought. He liked this new girl.

“Do you like Superman?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“You’re gonna like this,” he said.

He crouched down by the lowest drawer in the corner and slid it slowly towards him. The smell of cedar and hand sanitizer was overwhelming in the lock-tight closet. The motion sensor ticked every other second, echoing on the linoleum floor with a hard snap.

He curled his hands, encased in plastic gloves, into the nest of the drawer, and drew out a softball-sized rock which he held preciously, like it was an egg or an infant. He stepped slowly towards her and turned the fragment to face her. The shell of the stone was black and burnt, no different from volcanic rock or smoky mountain stone torn apart by weather. It was split at the center though, and its middle was filled with glassy green fractures, almost lit and alive. The green was mottled with veins of smooth silver, frozen and metallic.

“Oh, Jesus,” she said, looking into the open middle of the rock. “What is that?”

“It’s a meteorite,” he said, cradling it in his palms like a proud daddy. “See, the outside of it was burned on entry, and the metal on the inside all got superheated and formed these ribbons.”

“Yeah, but what is it?”

“We’re not totally sure.” He paused and looked at her, trying to figure whether or not she was impressed. “We’re calling it Kryptonite,” he said, “you know, cause it’s green.” He chuckled hopefully.

She chuckled too. “Right. Kryptonite.”

He offered it to her to hold. She held up her gloved palms and he slid it from his hands to hers. She stared into the cracks and chasms of it, let the light reflect back into her contact lenses, blinding her in spots, the whole of it too much to see at once. “This is amazing,” she said, mesmerized.

“It’s one of two specimen in the world. Worth over half a million.”

“That’s more than I’ve ever had at once.” She giggled at the thought.

“Yeah, I thought you’d like it.”

Overhead, the security camera recorded a mid-aged, tall and lanky man showing expensive artifacts to a younger, slender woman. The man had thinning red hair and prominent cheek bones that almost made his face look skullish. The girl had long, straight, light hair that ran down her back in a braid that was mostly undone. Her nails were unmanicured. Her shoes were sensible.

The man’s eyes were big and boyish. His stomach growled as though there were an animal in it.

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