Whale, Hot-Air Ballon, and Girl
Immortality was boring.
Noah sped along the driveway, the quiet rumble of the engine thrummed against his fingertips in place of a heartbeat. Wind tore through his dark hair and whipped his cheeks, a light drizzle tickled the brim of his eyes. Rounding a corner, the grey sea came into view.
White foams churned the ocean surface, they lapped up the shore, stretched, and receded like a cycle of chalky flowers growing and dying. He imagined them frozen right before the point of crashing, the blooming petals caught light and winked a thousand silvery sparks. Time stood still for a moment longer before resuming its pace. Because nothing was permanent, the sea foams crumbled onto the white sand, hissed in annoyance, and retreated. Then came another wave; and the motion repeated itself in an illusion of eternality.
That clean line that divided the ocean and the sky was his favourite thing on earth. It cut a symmetrical balance of where the watery mass ended and where the horizons began. Humans called this magnificent dissection ‘offing’, a rather dull name for something so perfectly made. If it were up to him, he would call it the ‘mirror boundary’.
But it didn’t matter, for all of these would fade into nothingness someday — and it would also be the day he would return home.
Something was flickering from afar. Squinting his eyes, he caught a blur of white falling from the sky — it was a woman. The ocean yawned its mouth and eagerly swallowed the being. Like a pebble dropped on a lake surface, the impact made was small, almost unnoticeable. It was a too quiet death for a human — obnoxious, prudent creatures they were.
A disquiet sensation overwhelmed him. He had witnessed deaths on countless occasion. In his 800 years of existence, he had been everything: a doctor, a soldier, a farmer, a fisherman, a hunter. Nothing astounded him anymore. Yet, something nudged at the back of his mind regarding this particular death — and before he could pin down the perturbing emotion, he was swimming half way across the ocean, diving deep into the spot where she disappeared into.
Her white dress gave her away easily. Fighting against the current, he hurled both of them onto the beach. Arching over the unmoving girl, he pressed his lips onto hers and breathed air into her lungs. He repeated for a few times and checked her pulse.
He sworn under his breath and tried again, just as her body convulsed as she heaved sea water. Sitting back on his heels, he wrapped her in his dry coat and asked how she was.
To his surprise, she giggled.
“I almost died,” she said. “I thought I wouldn’t but I could feel death’s grip on me halfway through the drowning.”
He was confused. He asked if she was planning a suicide, to which she laughed and denied. “There is this lullaby whenever I gaze at the ocean. It is the sweetest, most sorrowful song I’ve ever heard, and when I blinked, the sky melted into the sea, and the sea became the sky. I wanted to see which was real, so I leapt.”
She smiled like it was obvious. “Bitterblue, the whale that pulls my hot-air ballon. She’s a lovely thing, you should have looked at her.”
Following her finger, he did caught the tail of a blue whale before it was lost in the thick, grey clouds. Not knowing what to make of it, his gaze wandered back to her, only to find her staring at the rolling ocean, that nearly killed her moments ago, with a sweet longing. There was a steady, faraway look in her gaze, a sense of implacable nostalgia woven within her soft features. “I can finally paint my own drowning,” she murmured to herself.
Something flipped in his chest. He frowned and placed a hand over his heart. It stilled, as per usual. When a winter breeze blew by, she shivered. Pulling her up, he asked where her home was, to which she said Savoh.
“That was over hundreds of miles away.”
A sheepish smile graced her pale face. “Bitterblue got too excited. It’s hard to control her unless I have my hydrangeas, and she only eats the one I grow”
He told her he had an apartment not far from here. Since his motorcycle was wrecked in his haste, they walked some miles to the nearest store. After showing his business card, the man gave them his car, bowing low as they sped away.
“You’re one of those filthy rich businessmen, aren’t you?”
His eyes stayed on the road. “Why, did it offend you?”
Clutching his coat tighter, she shook her head and said, “Not if you are tasteful, which, I can tell you are by your refined clothing.”
Noah forced down the beginning of a smile and focused on driving. The rest of the journey passed by in silence.
The sound of water running filled the empty apartment. Noah was in the kitchen cutting cauliflowers and potatoes, the savoury scent of stew wafted through the air. The door to his bathroom opened. The girl paddled out in his shirt, they came to her knees.
He told her food was almost ready.
She sat down on the floor, back leaning on the armrest of his couch, and stared beyond the balcony wordlessly. Water dripped from her locks and fell onto the white tiles like silent tears; Noah turned down the stove and draped a towel on her, gesturing for the hairdryer sitting on the sofa. He didn’t want to get the floor wet.
Several moments past, but she made no move to dry herself, attention fixated on the grey sea-view outside.
Noah sighed inwardly.
Retrieving the towel, he begun wringing her hair dry. Combing through her hair, he untangled the locks carefully and swept them to one side.
An odd sense of intimacy lingered in the air. In all his immortal life, he had never dried anyone’s hair, let alone a stranger’s. He hated crowded places, hated human interactions, hated to be confined in a hot, stuffy space with nameless people. But there was only one human here, and she was quiet. This was new to him, but not unpleasant.
His fingers worked through the wheat strands, watching as they flew and fell with his movements.
She stood up when he was done, strode toward the kitchen and turned off the stove.
“It smells like they are ready,” she said, and began distributing the portion.
Receiving his share, they ate across the marble dining table.
It wasn’t necessary to ask for her name, they wouldn’t cross path again, but something nagged at his mind, and the question left his mouth before he could work on the impulse. She answered him without looking up from her stew.
That was the name of the girl who drowned herself in a winter sea from a hot-air ballon.
He tested the name on his lips, tasting it like he was eating spring’s first petal. “That’s a very floral name,” said Noah.
“My old man was a florist,”she replied.
He waited for her to continue, but she finished the last bit of her serving, picked up the plate and placed it in the sink. He told her she could stay the night, there was nowhere else she could go at this hour of the day.
She thanked him and retreated to the guest bedroom. She didn’t ask for his name.
That night, Noah couldn’t sleep. Even with his heightened hearing, there was no sound coming from her room, he was half worried she still suffered from side effects from her drowning, but it seemed ungentlemanly to check on her while she was sleeping.
When morning came, he knocked on her door, only to find the room empty. The white dress in the dryer was also removed. The only trace of her presence was the scribble of gratitude stuck on his fridge. There was nothing else.
Running his fingers on the paper, his eyes roved over to where the rolling ocean was. Their hushed whispers slipped through the slight crack of the balcony door. He remembered sealing it before he went to bed last night.
He wondered if she was listening to the ocean’s lullaby again.
He never expected to see her again, yet here he was, somewhere in Savoh with his wrinkled suit jacket tucked in the crook of his arm. The night air was crisp, white smoke curled from his lips to dance among the low street lights. The bar music and drunken human noise in the distant drifted over, as he navigated through the slippery brick alleys and bleached cobblestone pavement that comprised the maze of Savoh, the city of ancient dreams and modern nightmare.
He rounded a corner, doubting the chance of running into her; when suddenly, she entered his line of vision. The lamp illuminated a halo of light behind her back, casting her face in shadow, he knew her right away. She was dancing atop a car roof with wobbly legs, laughing and singing as she spun, long, flowing hair swishing in motion. The bubbly sound traveled to his spine and settled comfortably within his chest. Noah didn’t know how long he stood there watching her dance, but eventually, she slipped, and he was there to catch her in time.
“It’s you again, Mr. Fine Coat,” she said with a smile.
“You’re sober,” he remarked, detecting not a hint of alcohol in her breath.
A coy glint entered her eyes. “I’m told to be drunk in the morning and sober at night, but it’s hard to tell, the whole world could be tipsy and we are all living in a fleeting, merry dream.” Taking hold of his arm, she pulled him away from the street and said, “Not you though, you’re different from everyone else.”
He didn’t know what she meant by that, he asked,“Where are we going?”
Eying his crumpled suit and tousled hair, she replied, “Somewhere you can rest, you could use some refreshment.”
Noah didn’t resist as she tugged him forward by the sleeve. Steady snow began falling as they trudged past closed stores, the white substance kissed her hair like pearls and clung to his shoulders; he resisted the urge to dust her hair. Snaking through dark arcades and steep slopes, they winded through several dirty sections before arriving at a run-down villa. She told him her room was on the second floor.
Flipping on the switch, he found himself in the midst of countless potted plants, oil paintings, tapestries, and colourful posters. Books lie askew with yellowed pages, unfinished paintings leaned on chairs and scattered across the kitchen counter. She was poor, that much he was sure, but this little den of a home was designed with care. The items were cheap, but not tasteless. As he was busy raking over her messy room, she threw a “make yourself home” over her shoulder and disappeared into the bathroom.
Noah didn’t know where to sit. Tiptoeing through her beaded pillow quilts and a vase of orchids, he knew he looked ridiculous and out of place with his crumpled business suit. This was a home of a dreamer, and he was never one. Yet, something about this cramped apartment soothed his nerves and sent a fuzzy, tingling feeling to his stomach. Looking out, he was not surprised to find a balcony opening to a full view of the city; more plants sat at the ledge, filling the air with a sweet, natural scent, reminding him of a forest after rain. He could imagine himself living here, perhaps when he still retained an ounce of innocence.
She shouted in her shower that there were vegetables and fruits in her fridge. “I think there’s a pie somewhere too,” she added.
Rummaging through her kitchen, there was indeed a meat pie, and enough ingredients to make jellied desserts. Sleeves rolled, he set himself to work. She paddled out, hair wet, and peeked over his shoulder, asking if that was pudding he was making.
“Jelly,” he said, taking out the steaming pie. “I reheated the pie.”
They set the table, gave thanks, and dug in. She hummed in delight as she ate, biting around the mismatched fork with a satisfied sigh. Distant dog barking and human squealing filled their silence. When they were done, he rose from the seat.
“Are you leaving?” asked Fleur, an unreadable expression on her face.
He glanced at the soaked patches of her shirt and asked, “Where’s your hairdryer?”
Retrieving the dryer in one of the drawers as she had instructed, he moved to dry her hair, as he had the last time. She tucked her knees in her arms, a lilting tune escaping her lips. It was whimsical, with a tint of remorse, reminding him of the winter sea — the notes rising and falling like tide. It drifted through the open window and wall fissures into the outside world, swirling with the snowflakes descending the night sky like lower faeries, when they still existed at a time before.
Her hair slid through his callous hands to tease at her waist. He thought of the endless grain fields he used to run along under the harvest moon.
He turned off the hairdryer as the song came to an end, the last note hung between them like a mournful bird, suspended in the air.
Playing with the small flower bud nestling in a creamy vase, she asked again, “Are you leaving?”
“Do you want me to?”
“Only if you want to.”
Noah considered for a moment, the roaring in his ears weren’t helping. He should leave, but what came out of his traitorous mouth was —
“Okay,” he said.
She looked up, surprised. She asked how long he was staying, and he said he would stay till she fell asleep.
Ducking her head, he saw her hidden smile nonetheless. When she went to bed, he settled on her couch, picking up a book and started reading. For a long time, he heard her tossing and turning in her bedroom, sheets rustling and her breathing laborious.
Leafing the unfinished book with a scarp of paper scrubbed with his name, he left when traces of pink and orange streaked the sky. Looking back, he saw a shadow filtering through the floating curtains at the balcony.
The Ocean Is Not An Ocean
Fleur Rose was a painter.
She wasn’t always one, but she had wanted to become one since she could hold a brush. Anyone telling her otherwise would see themselves out of her life. Her family was against her aspiration, so she left home. Her art teachers said her art was product of a diseased mind, so she quit school. The world didn’t want her to be one, they held onto past aesthetics and conventional ideas in ways that appalled her, so she chose to rebel against it. In her eyes, the modern art world was subdued, dull, and bleached of colours; whereas hers was vibrant and alive, the colours blended and danced and fought each other for dominance. Someone once told her that her painting was screaming, he said it was so full of rage and bemoaning and rue and everything that reminded him of long nights when shadows stretched too far and the silence hung too heavy; it haunted him.
Painting was the dialogue of an artist’s imagination to the public’s mental image, it wasn’t her fault people were generally dull and couldn’t see what her artworks represent.
But things were changing. She could hear the groaning of clockwork gears turning the moment Noah Karv pulled her out of the winter sea. He came to her every other day, cooked her meals, watered her plants, and flipped through her collections of books, paintings and albums. Each time he stayed till the lilac moon disappeared behind the clouds, when she was ready for bed, hair dried. She found little notes leafing through her books where he last finished, the smooth strokes of his handwriting gave her no insight as to what the words meant. She was certain they were dead languages from another time because no archives from the Internet could match the results.
He never told her when he would visit again, but he always did. They met frequently, once a week soon turned into twice, and by now it became a habit to have him around her apartment on a daily basis; she would open the door for him before he could knock.
“Don’t you have something else to do?” she asked one morning, brushing frost from the bubble around her hydrangeas. Giving it a firm pat, the bubble quivered, but didn’t break.
“I am, but I don’t have to do every work myself, do I?” He didn’t look up from the book he was reading, the golden glasses perched neatly on his nose was taunting. She was tempted to snatch it off.
Even if he had people working for him, surely there must be something deserving his immediate attention. What else would they need him for?
When she voiced that out, his eyes flickered to hers, the grey irises glowing like molten silver in the candlelight. The barest trace of a smile ghosted his lips, she didn’t like it at all. He answered evenly, “As a matter of fact, they don’t. That’s why I’m here.”
Brushing her hair back, the orange paint smeared her cheek and ear. His life sounded tedious, she had no idea where he could spend all his money on other than nice jackets and tailor-made suits, or the expensive-looking leather shoes he was wearing now. Undeterred by her mocking, he said he sometimes donate to aquariums; he liked looking at the fish there.
She scoffed, proceeding to launch her argument on why aquariums should all be banished because fish were not meant to be admired, and the ocean could never be captured in a glass box. In a patronising tone, she said, “The becoming of aquariums is people trying to keep a fragmented ocean within their cupped palms. By storing seawater in a jar, they are hoping a mini ocean would grow out of it.”
Closing his book, he fixed her a long stare , the glasses glinted like two moons. Pointing at her painting, he asked why she bothered painting when there was only so much she could draw on her canvas board. “Surely whales exceed the frame of this little, white plywood board,” said Noah, with an exasperating air of inscrutable countenance.
She rarely painted with people in the room, mostly because she loathed their emanating outsiderness that scarped her anxiety and nipped at her concentration. When she painted, she demanded absolute silence, save for, of course, her own breathing. Yet, something propelled her to set up the canvas next to him this morning, and when he didn’t react, going about his usual business, she began to paint without regard to his presence, so fixated was she on the movements of her brush that she forgot he was there to begin with.
Noah was different. His scent blended in with the rest of her perfectly, but she could still separate his from hers if she wanted to. He smelled of cloves after rain and dusty teddy bears, and it brought an odd sense of nostalgia and innocence — a time long gone, traced only through the blurry, skeleton-like memories in her head.
It was queer, but she didn’t mind it too much.
“This whale,” she gestured with her brush, then tapped it against her temple. “Does not exist in the real world. I create it, and it exists only in my head, so I am free to imagine it however I want. Right now, I’m telling you this orange and blue and mauve whale is swimming in a palm-sized jar because it’s my whale, my reality. And I’m calling her Rafu.”
Leaning back, she imagined each individual dashes, curves and strokes floating apart, rearranging themselves and skirting across her walls, dancing on her palette and tiptoeing her spotless canvas. When they stilled, she went over the invisible trails, broad strokes swept through the canvas in up and down motions, the swiftness betrayed her confidence.
He came to stand behind her, observing the painting with squinted eyes. Despite their proximity, she could not feel the natural heat radiating off his body. His gaze raked over the ashen land and uncoloured flames licking up the bones of unknown creatures painted in harsh brushes. Twisting dark hands coiled around a writhing, dying shark as a forked tail, horned creature was feasting on the animal. People with tattered robes gathered at the centre watching the whale crammed inside the jar filled with a rainbow-hued liquid; children pointed their fingers at the discoloured whale, their jaws hanging in amazement — these she painted with touches of non-realist elements.
“This is a world where the oceans have dried up,” he said. “Your mind must be a terrible place.”
She smiled, resting her back against his torso. “Sometimes.”
Looking around, he commented on the lack of ocean painting, he thought it would be the first thing she illustrate.
She would have, but she could never get the colour right — the kind of blue that was not quite blue. Translucent at day and impenetrable at night, the embodiment of sin and innocence, imprisonment and liberation, a beautiful, hushed void of cloudless heavens. It was a living thing, she declared with pride, as though she was the one who invented the ocean and all the mysteries it held. The ocean was the one thing she could not wish to imitate and incorporate into a canvas.
Gentle whispers echoed in her eardrums, interrupting her speech. Chasing the source, she found herself pressing an ear against Noah’s heart. Upon her curiosity, he produced a conch seashell from his chest. It was ivory, twirled with gold and silver linings to form lengthy, indecipherable writings and symbols. What she heard was the hushed murmurs of waves lapping shores, encased within a seashell in replacement for his lack of a heart. He told her he had lost the throbbing organ during a journey to bargain with the Siren Queen, that the sirens were made to love only once with each heart they collected. He suspected one of them must have snatched it while he was distracted. They were lonely creatures, he explained.
Lifting a seashell to her ear, she let the soothing language of the ocean flowed through her being, imaging herself as the siren who stole his heart.
She asked if he missed it. He pondered on that for a while, head cocked to the side, and said he didn’t because the seashell was a good enough replacement.
“The sea resides in me, it follows wherever I go like a clingy friend,” said Noah.
She would have liked that for herself too, so she proposed to offer her heart in exchange for his shell. But he turned his head with a complicated expression, saying the heart was not a heart if one gave freely — it was simply a broken thing unfit for another ribcage.
She argued it was a fair bargain, despite his repeated refusal. Exasperated, she set aside her brush and tossed the painting across the window, which was followed by a human yell and a loud crash. She announced, “My human touch is inadequate. The ocean is not an ocean when I painted it.”
He nodded in agreement.