Omens
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rating: +10+x
Whale1.jpg

Jan Matham had always been fascinated by omens: portentous signs of an inhuman, divine will, glimpsed by the observant in the movements of celestial bodies and oil in water, expressed through lamb entrails and monstrous births. He didn't believe in them though, obviously - or so he told himself. In spite of that there was more to his curiosity than he had fully come to terms with. A suspicion lurked behind his academic, rational exploration of these phenomena, whispering "what if it's real, what if there's something here that's real?"


The buzzing of his phone jostled him awake. By the time his mind made sense of the interruption, the ringing had stopped, and a single message popup illuminate the dark room: "Jan, you're going to want to see this." A URL link followed, sent by a friend in a different time zone. It only took him a heartbeat to wake up fully once the webpage loaded.

Skipping breakfast and barely dressed, he careened out the door, cursing and patting his jacket pockets for the bike keys, back inside, then out and on the bike. His steering was erratic down the narrow, poorly lit road, as he read the not-yet-broken news. He hadn't entered a destination into the map yet, but that could wait. He knew he was heading West as the first ray of sun began to creep overhead.

Whale2.jpg

It had always been easy to pass his own forays into divination - not fortune telling, as he would happily clarify - as nothing more than casual, first-person research, a way to connect with those authors of Babylonian tablets and Reformation-era broadsheets. Doctoral candidates need some ways to relax, after all, and he had never flooded the kitchen attempting to make Sumerian beer.


He was tired an hour into the ride and decided that a short break was earned. Catching his breath as he checked his phone, he re-read the article headline: "Mass Stranding of Whales off the Coast of Zandvroot." Navigating through the ever-unclear 'share' menu, he drafted a tweet, eager to share the news with his meager following of like-minded colleagues. He hesitated, deciding to hold off until he had a photo of his own to attach; it was the images of those whales, the printed etchings and engraving, mass produced and reproduced over the years, that had captivated the minds of the past. Again, he was reminded by how little things had changed. Images were still proof, after all.

Thirty minutes of cycling later, and he was exhausted when he saw the figures on the rode ahead: two officers leaning against a car. Caution tape stretched across the pavement from the car's window to a traffic sign. They hadn't seen him yet. Ungracefully, with a lot of lifting and waddling, he turned the bike around on the spot, and began doubling back.

Whale3.jpg

Of the myriad of signs people had seen in the world, those events not merely natural, but un-, preter-, or supernatural in scope and origin, none quite held his awe like the beached whale. The idea that these leviathans of the deep, alien and unknowable, for so much of human history - yet so near to us in their mammalian biology - would sacrifice themselves to forewarn us of coming change: conflict, unrest, disaster, the death of great leaders and the fall of nations, captivated him.


He had back tracked for a while, moving North until he was sure he was far enough away from any prying eyes. Leaving the bike along the side of the road, he set off through the undergrowth, not entirely sure of the direction, but how hard could it be to find the coast, after all?

Whale4.jpg

Maybe his attachment to the stranded whales was that he could picture them; he could imagine the looming form rising from deep beneath the water, pulling their immense bulk along sandbars, struggling to breath under the unsupported weight of their bodies as their organs faltered. The ocean-smoothed skin cracking and blistering in the unmediated sun. They were returning, in a way, to those beaches and shores their ancestors had fled, embracing a slow, agonizing death to deliver a warning to those human spectators and prophets who gaped in awe at their decaying grandeur. "Something is changing, has changed," their presence implied, "things will no longer be the same."


The Dutch scrubland gave way to rising dunes that blocked his sight of the beach, but the indicators of what lay ahead were clear:

The first thing he had noticed was the smell, a stench of sickly decay, rising on the wind that made him gag and cough; some deep, old part of his brain that could recognize the putrid reek of death and rot implored him to turn away. He ignored it, scrunching his neck downwards to hide his nose in the protective neck collar of his coat.

His attention was pulled skyward by the racket of seabirds - seagulls - swooping and rising beyond the dunes. His eyes traced one, ascending with a piece of bloody meat in its beak, flocked by its cawing companions. The white feathers of its breast streaked with red as it fled inland with its meal.

He lost his footing for a moment near the top of the dune, falling forward into a legs-and-arms scurry to the summit, it was there that he looked onwards, towards the ocean; he became a witness to the forewarnings of the divine.

Whale5.jpg

Their corpses were strewn across the sand, heaped upon one another, stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction. The titanic bodies were bloated, swelling as the gasses within built to a thunderous explosion, and torn asunder. They were diverse in their form: there, the open, narrow jaws of a sperm whale, the barnacle-encrusted back of a right whale, the white-and-black body of an orca. The sea was stained crimson with their blood congealing in the surf. Beyond the beach, he could see more ill-shapen forms bobbing in the water, their return to land blockaded by an incalculable wall of flesh and blubber, bone and baleen, tooth and sinew.

They had come to this shore to die a prodigy, foretelling war, famine, death, disease - the fall of empires, of people great and small, the coming storm of woe. They had come to this shore to die, and in telling us, offer the chance to live.

Whale6.jpg
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