*THE BLUE FROG 2nd PLACE WINNER*
The kids are playing by the creek when the whale bone man appears out of the thicket of wooded trees. On this day the fog is hanging so low and so thick it seems they are surrounded by a waist-deep water, damp and impenetrable. As his figure takes shape, Marcie is the first to see the tall man emerge into their vision, the curved large object in his hand almost glowing.
The kids like to play by this creek because it is where they’ve built a miniature civilization with tiny houses of mud and sticks and acorns and a name they will someday forget. The water flows dimly, the drought having cast its long shadow over this valley for many years.
But on the day the whale bone man comes, the thick fog that won’t lift is accompanied by clouds swelling with a threatening rain.
The man approaches them. “Hello,” he says.
“Hello,” they reply, standing very still. They have never seen anyone else here before.
He says, “Guess what I found?”
“What?” they say.
He’s holding it: a massive and white thing that looks smooth but with some tarnish and decay, like a tooth. The nub at one end of it seems to make a handle and the rest of it is making an arch. It is as tall as they are.
“This is a whale bone,” he says. “A rib.” When he’s talking his words come out with a strange lisp, like there’s too much saliva in his mouth at once.
“Where did you find it?” Marcie asks. To her left, Marshall pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
“I found it in the woods,” the man says.
“In the woods?” Marshall repeats. They are a two hour drive from the ocean, at least.
The man leans fully on the rib, and it supports his weight, which for the children adds to the verisimilitude. Whale bones must be strong, they think.
“There is a whole skeleton there,” he tells them. “An entire whale, but just the bones.”
Sawyer, who is the youngest and does not yet know to be afraid of strangers, says, “There’s no way there’s a full skeleton.”
The man glares at him, and the children shrink. Then he looks out at the ridge of redwoods growing over the hill, where the early evening light is spilling in. “I’ll go get the rest of the skeleton and bring it back here.”
“Here?” Marcie asks.
“Yes,” he says. “Will you watch the rib for me when I’m gone?”
They agree, and the whale bone man is gone in the same way he came, disappearing into the fog. At first, they can see his figure, then only his hazy outline, then nothing at all.
Evening is starting to come, the fog thickening as it rolls off the marshes and over the hills into the canyons their world is in. The children are beginning to feel apprehensive. After spending hours playing with the whale rib––sliding on it, sitting on it, covering it in wet soil and then cleaning it with cold creek water––they are starting to wonder if they’ve been left with the mysterious object, and then it takes on a burdensome feel. It dwarfs the tiny kingdom they built along the bank, makes all they’ve created feel insignificant.
It is hard for them to fathom how big a creature must be for this to be its rib. They touch their own ribcages to measure, to feel the difference.
One by one, the children start to speak. We must abandon the bone, they say. Maybe the man will come back for it. My mother expects me home before dark. We must never return here. I hate the bone. It has changed everything. I don’t have a light on my bike. Maybe there was never a man at all.
All but Marcie leave and follow the single-file path through the ferns back to the gravel road. All but Marcie, who for reasons many and few, finds this place in the woods preferable to what is waiting for her at home. She feels an allegiance to the whale bone, to the man who found it and brought it to her. She starts to think perhaps he brought it for her alone.
In the distance, she can hear the sound of the whale bone man rolling a whale’s shoulder bone down the hill. He is coming closer and closer, dragging the monstrous heavy thing like a wheel, gravity on his side, letting it fall and rise and fall again. Marcie can sense the heat of his breath in the woods, the glow of the shoulder bone, which she will lay flat, stand on, and dance upon before the night is through. He is coming, though at what speed she is not sure. She shuts her eyes to wait and lets the fog swallow her whole.
KAYLIE SAIDIN — Kaylie grew up in California and now lives in North Carolina. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington, where she served as Fiction Co-editor of Ecotone Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oxford American, Prairie Schooner, New Orleans Review, Los Angeles Review, Nashville Review, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere.
Art by DAEGAN LUNSFORD — Daegan is a multidisciplinary artist living in Canada. He currently works in gouache and egg tempera, as well as many other unconventional mediums. His artwork focuses on delight, nostalgia and Americana.