Short Story: Charlene Versus the Church of the Land Whale

Updated: Feb 6

by Emily C. Skaftun

Mom and Dad took me in when I was just a little swimmer, adrift in the big ocean. I don’t know what happened to my real parents—they were probably eaten by sharks, or caught in one of the big nets and processed into canned “tuna.” So tease the other kids in the pod, anyway. They tease me about a lot. My fins aren’t shaped right, and I breathe different from the other dolphins. My teeth are gnarly. I don’t smile much. What is there to smile about?

The worst place is church. Mom and Dad are way involved with Church of the Land Whale, but I just don’t get it. I mean, it’s all there in the holy words of the High Cetacean, passed from current to current since time immemorial, but I just can’t believe in the Walking Whale, who so loved us watery mammals that he cut off his own son’s legs and cast him into the waters. I don’t believe that my real parents, for example, are walking by the Whale’s side—it seems more likely that they’re tuna.

Mom and Dad took me in, but even they can see I’m different. I hear them talking about me sometimes. “With the Whale’s love, all things are possible,” they’ll say. Or, “She’s come so far already,” or “Charlene can learn to overcome her nature.” I know I should work on achieving perfect acceptance of the Whale’s will, but…

Mom and Dad make me go to Church of the Land Whale summer camp, which is supposed to be fun. We get to eat new fishes, play capture the flag, and best of all wakesurf alongside the huge ships that ply these waters.

But the price is religion. We can’t even surf without a sermon about the leggy creatures aboard the ships who are that much closer to god than we. Every night we gather in a cove, eerie moonlight filtering through the water, but instead of telling spooky shark stories like normal dolphin kids would, we are encouraged to speak about our experiences with the Walking Whale, about how the Spirit has moved us like the firm but invisible hand of the tide.

“When I was just a pup, I had a brush with the Whale,” one camper chirps in his most dreamlike tone. “The nets were closing in, and then I saw an otherworldly light from above, and I heard a voice call out to me. I didn’t speak the language, but I knew it was telling me to swim in a particular direction. I did, and I was saved.”

“Amen!” chorus the other campers. “Praise be the Whale!”

I don’t want to shout amen. I want to bite him with my ugly, sharp teeth.

We close by singing together, hymns whose eerie power make me tingle. Is that the Spirit? I dare to hope. I sing along with more fervor than anyone, despite the other campers’ stares. She has a voice like a jet ski engine, one whispers to another, but I don’t care.

It wears off, though, and by bedtime I feel the same as I always do. The Spirit was just a trick of the music.

The last day of camp concludes with a ritual called Baptism. We are creatures of water, but the High Cetacean lives in the realm of air. So to be closer to him, we immerse ourselves fully in that holy substance, jumping through a ring buoyed into it on a floaty device, symbolizing the endlessness of the world above (though it’s really there to make sure we jump fully out of the water).

We’ve been practicing our jumps all summer, so I know only a genuine miracle will get me through that hoop. I’m not even sure the loving hand of the Whale can do it, but I decide to take it on faith, to surrender my will, and all that other flotsam these campers are forever prattling on about. Walking Whale, I pray, lift me through Thine holy hoop and I will devote my life to Thee. Like all my prayers, it’s sincere. Desperate, even.

One by one the others jump and are welcomed into the faith, until it’s my turn. I pump my tail and swim toward the hoop at killer speed, thinking airy thoughts. I am light as sea-foam. Imagining the bliss I’ll feel when the Whale touches my heart, I break the water—

And crash like a manatee into the hoop, flopped across hoop and buoy alike, teeth and gills just poking through that holy circle, un-holying it as I drag it with me, splashing back into the sinful sea.

For a moment there is silence so profound we can hear all the fish swimming, blessed in their lesser lives. We hear ships churning dozens or hundreds of knots away. I wish I was there. Maybe the ships are filled with hunters who could spear me right through my sense of shame. Oh, why wasn’t I born a fish, unburdened with a spiritual life?

I expect laughter, but the silence is even worse. I’m beyond ridicule; they pity me. The chaplain finally breaks the silence: “It’s all very well, Charlene. We can’t force the Walking Whale into our lives if we’re just not…”

Just then a shiver of unfamiliar fins weaves toward us, and the reverent/awkward hush is shattered by screams and the churning of flukes as campers and counselors rush to flee. I turn to look just in time to see a slow junior camper pierced by sharp, sharp teeth.

Sharks! I know I should swim for it, but I’m mesmerized by the way the camper’s blood drifts out into the shimmering water. It’s as if I can smell it, and it’s intoxicating.

I’ve never seen sharks up close. They’re the bogeymen, depraved monsters without the grace of the Cetacean. So I’ve never had occasion to notice that their fins, like mine, are shaped differently from the other dolphins’. And their teeth, their big, gnarly, plentiful teeth… And their gills… are like my gills. I have gills, and I don’t have a blowhole. And… Great White, I’m a shark!

For once, I feel like smiling. Thank you, Walking Whale.

The frenzy over the junior camper finished, the sharks nod acknowledgement as they turn to swim away. “Wait,” I call. They turn, bits of flesh still dangling from ragged teeth and murder in their black hole eyes. My true family. “I know where they sleep.”

About Emily

Emily C. Skaftun lives north of Seattle with a mad scientist and their Cat, Astrophe. She is the former editor of a Norwegian newspaper and practices Norwegian by translating comic strips. Her fiction has been published in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and Clarkesworld, and her first collection, Living Forever and Other Terrible Ideas, is forthcoming from Fairwood Press. She is definitely more shark than dolphin.

You can preorder Living Forever and Other Terrible Ideas here!

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