The Whale’s Tale

(This is the text of the now out-of-print children’s book published in England by Hunt & Thorpe and, in translation, in several European counties. As yet there has been no US edition — the American religious publishers I submitted it to judged it too secular while secular publishers found it too religious. The illustrations are by Len Munnik. A nearly complete set of his drawings for the book is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/sets/72157642153355175/)

by Jim Forest

People tell me how lucky I am to be a whale — biggest creature on earth, go where I like, no need of money, built in shower, my picture in National Geographic magazine.

It’s true, up to a point. Being a whale has its bright side. I wouldn’t trade places with man or elephant, not for all the shrimp in the Pacific. On the other flipper, being a whale has its dark side.

Consider water. Believe me, water isn’t what it used to be. You only have to read about it. I have to swim in it. Whatever people don’t want they drop in the ocean. Whale's Tale polluted Water

On top of that a whale has to eat more than you can imagine. It goes with being immense. We haven’t much choice about what goes in when we open our mouths and the quality has been going down. We get a lot of plastic these days.

Then there are whale hunters with their harpoons. It’s a lucky whale who lives long enough to become a grandparent. I’ve been one of the few to reach a ripe old age.

Keep in mind that you’re listening to the oldest living whale, a rider of the currents for three thousand years. A true ancient. Big as I am, there is hardly space in me for all my stories. I could tell you tales from now till the olives are ripe on the north pole.

My strangest story concerns a man named Jonah. Probably you’ve heard about Jonah. He has his own book in the Bible. He became quite famous, not that he would approve of that. He was shy when I swallowed him and even shyer when I unswallowed him.

A cranky fellow, Jonah was, all elbows and whiskers and words with needles in them, the most uncomfortable item that ever took up residence in me.

I’ll never forget the day I became his hiding place. There was the sort of storm that happens once every hundred years and in the middle of it a sailing ship with a band of frantic men on board — a sight to make a whale weep.

Whale's Tale stormThe sailors were more desperate than the wind, praying to this god and that, promising to do all sorts of things if only they lived to tell about it, and, just in case their gods weren’t interested, throwing the cargo overboard to lighten up the ship.

Then they dragged poor Jonah up from the hold. He had been hiding out down below. “Call upon your God,” the captain said to Jonah. “Maybe your God will listen.”

“I’m not on speaking terms with God,” Jonah told him.

“But aren’t you a Jew?” he asked, “and don’t Jews pray?”

“Yes, I’m a Jew. I worship the one God who made the oceans and the dry land. But God and I are having an argument. I decided the only solution was to move. I hoped God wouldn’t pay attention to me in Tarshish but it’s clear I’m not allowed to go that way.”

Jonah insisted that the storm was all his fault and said the only way to save the ship was to throw him into the waves.

“Throw yourself in,” the sailors told him. “Impossible,” he said. “Suicide is a sin.”

Whale's Tale Jonah overboard

The sailors were decent men. They didn’t want to do it at first. But the storm got worse and finally they gave in. The sailors never saw me. What they noticed was that no sooner had they given Jonah the heave-ho than there was a patch of blue in the sky and the winds were dying down. This impressed them no end. Several of them took to Jonah’s God from that day on.

I swallowed Jonah on the spur of the moment. Not to eat him! Whales have no taste for people. No, it was a just a friendly gesture. My mother always said, “Do the right thing.” She once saved a whaler, though some of the family criticized her for it. “If your enemy is drowning, rescue him,” she said. Very devout, my mother was. A bit of it must have rubbed off on me.

Jonah was no trouble the first day. He slept like a log, and felt like one.

When he woke up the next day, this same Jonah who wouldn’t pray on the ship hardly stopped praying. He knew all the psalms by heart.

Whale's Tale Jonah in the whaleWhen he wasn’t praying, he was griping about the inside of whales — too smelly, too cramped, too dark and no bedding.

I asked what the trouble was. It turned out that God was urging him to be a prophet.

“Get up,” God had said to him, “go to Nineveh and speak out against that city’s wicked ways.”

“Why didn’t you say yes?” I asked. “Interesting work and travel to a famous city besides.”

“I have no taste for the job,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, the people of Nineveh can drop dead. Haven’t you heard about them? I told God to burn their city down. Divine wrath — that’s what they need.”

It wasn’t only Nineveh Jonah complained about but his donkey, his rabbi, his neighbors, even God.

“Some God,” he said. “I’m supposed to tell people that their city will be destroyed. What if they repent? Sure as the sun rises in the east, God will forgive them.”

By the third day, Jonah began to look at things from a different angle. It wasn’t that he had changed his mind about Nineveh but he wanted some fresh air. “You win, God,” he said, “I’ll go. It can’t be any worse in Nineveh than it is here.”

Whale's Tale Jonah expelledHours later I heaved him out onto a beach. Not a word of thanks did I get for delivering him safe and sound to dry land. All he said was, “See you around.” then off he walked, ignoring the seaweed still clinging to him. He looked like a walking aquarium. Jonah was never one to look in the mirror.

Years later, thanks to a man on a raft from Nineveh, I heard what happened.

“Once inside the city gates that Jonah fellow started giving speeches listing our faults and promising that the city would be turned to charcoal. Perhaps his fishy smell made us pay attention. Also he was the only thing in the market square that was free. Whatever the reason, we listened. A man like that, you had to listen! And what if he was right?

“Finally we repented — fasting, wearing sack cloth, rubbing ourselves with ashes, from the king right down to the street sweepers like me.”

In the end it was as Jonah predicted. God spared the city.

“It was a great disappointment to Jonah,” the man from Nineveh told me. “He never liked our city and wouldn’t even sleep within the walls at night. As soon as it was obvious we had been forgiven and we people started eating and wearing our usual clothes, Jonah began the long walk back to his home in Galilee. I last saw him as he walked out the city gate, complaining still and shaking his fist in the air.”

I doubt Jonah ever liked the merciful side of God. The amazing thing was that God liked Jonah anyway and found something useful for him to do despite his grumpiness. There’s no accounting for God when it comes to that sort of thing. Whales are easier to love.

Young whales sometimes ask me, “Would you do it again?” “I would if I had to,” I tell them, “but let’s hope I’ll be spared. Prophets are hard to swallow.”