Nova acta physico-medica (1824)

A dead sperm whale washed up on a beach outside of Edinburgh. It had died of septicemia. There were gashes along its belly. It was forty feet long. All the dead flesh was removed by marine biologists, and the skull was put on display in the national museum. It had been imperfectly cleaned. There were tiny particles of flesh in crevices. It had an odour, and there were splotches of black mould growing on the surface of the bone. Only the skull was on display; there wasn’t room for the spine and ribcage in the museum. The missing fat and flesh of the sperm whale’s head gave the skull the comical look of a duck. The front of the skull was topless, like half a badly made bowl.

“Moby Dick is actually quite a humorous novel, not as sombre as everyone believes,” said a young man in a long tweed coat to no one in particular. He had red hair. His tweed coat was filthy. He had once attempted to wash it in his bathtub. It didn’t dry for weeks, becoming mouldy around the cuffs, armpits and collar, leaving a sour smell which stayed. He wore flaking snakeskin slippers, with thick wool socks and dark trousers.

He visited the whale skull as often as he could. He liked to stand at the left hand side of the display, by the back of the skull, the tunnels where the brain had once been. It was that spot which had the most pungent smell. It wasn’t fishy, more waxy and artificial, like the smell of a fake person on display at Madame Tussauds. The texture of the whale bone reminded him of good, whole bread loaves and rotting pieces of cheese.

He was furious when the museum decided to place a kiosk beside the whale, specifically on the right hand side, blocking his access to the scene and scent of the back of the skull, the mouldering tunnels of bone. The kiosk sold whale figurines, plastic imitation scrimshaws, fancy tins of fish and caviar and tartan boxes full of greasy shortbread.

I can assure you the young man stole the whale skull, though I cannot conceive of the details and describe them. He had no driver’s license or van, the museum’s security was superb. He wasn’t of superhuman or even average strength. The skull weighed 38 tons and was delicate. He lived on the top floor of a tenement building, up five flights of broken marble stairs, badly lit by a dusty skylight.

He put the sperm whale skull in his bedroom after removing his bed and all other furniture, with the door left open, so the whale’s long, toothed jawbone could extend into the hall, like a slide. He tried not to think of its missing spine, taken apart, the pieces in museum drawers like large molar teeth.

He sat in the skull sometimes. Smelled it closely. Furtively read the newspapers describing its mysterious disappearance from the museum. Knowing there was a reward for the missing whale skull, of the dangers facing him if it was discovered he had stolen it, he decided that if the skull became a real whale again they would never know it was the same one.

From a grocery shop, he bought – and when he ran out of money, stole – lard wrapped in wax paper and bottles of water, and from charity shops, waterproof clothes in grey and black: old raincoats, rubber boots, bathing suits and thick shiny stockings. The lard in great quantities smelled too much of pork. He bought tins of sardines in oil. He pulverised the sardines and mixed it with the lard. He sniffed the back of the whale’s skull again, and added to the mixture melted artificial wax candles.

After some hesitation he masturbated, and added his semen. He brushed the mixture onto the bones with a brush, taking short breaks to masturbate more. The mixture, when too thick, began to fall off in greasy clumps. The flesh! He had forgotten meat. He bought and soaked pieces of pork and veal in his grease mixture, and tied it to the bones with string before covering it with the raincoats, bathing suits and rubber boots he had cut into pieces, all soaked in his greasy mixture. Filling the basin of the skull required the most. He sewed the stockings, boot pieces and coats together until it covered the entire skull. For the eyes, he made clear and white jelly in two plastic bowls and placed them in the holes where they were meant to go. The new eyes looked wise and wobbling.

He turned on the taps of his bathtub and all the sinks. As they ran, he emptied plastic bottles of water. When up to his knees, watching the bottles float along the surface of the water turned grey from his dirty floors, he imagined the whale eating them and he thought of images he had seen of dead fish and whales and seagulls with bellies full of plastic. It did not have a stomach, his whale, but the bottles could get caught in its throat, in between its large teeth. Wading through the water, he gathered them and threw them out of the windows. There were plastic bags, elastic bands, shampoo bottles, a random assortment of plastic bits in drawers, clothes hangers, tupperware. He removed it all, throwing it out the window. After, he closed the windows so the water could not escape once high enough. He did not know if the glass was strong enough to hold it in, but envisioned his flat as a hidden aquarium on the top floor.

He left his whale proper food: pieces of preserved octopus and squid from jars, fresh glistening pieces from fish shops like solid piles of bile, floating in the water. The houseplants in his flat would adapt to sea life, he thought. He did not know what to do with himself. He saw himself floating, his head pressed against the ceiling light fixtures.


Camilla Grudova lives in Edinburgh. The Doll’s Alphabet (Fitzcarraldo Editions) was published in 2017.