Read The Whale Caller Online

Authors: Zakes Mda

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The Whale Caller

A longtime writer-in-residence at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Zakes Mda is a professor of creative writing at Ohio University and a dramaturge at the Market Theatre. He lives in Athens, Ohio, and Johannesburg, South Africa.


The Heart of Redness

The Madonna of Excelsior

She Plays with the Darkness

Ways of Dying


W H A L E  C A L L E R

Zakes Mda





Table of Content

Title Page




Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

. Copyright © 2005 by Zakes Mda. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Designed by Cassandra J. Pappas

                                     Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Mda, Zakes.
        The whale caller / Zakes Mda.
                p. cm.
        ISBN-13: 978-0-312-42587-6
        ISBN-10: 0-312-42587-2
        1. South Africa—Fiction. I. Title.

    PR9369.3.M4W47 2005


First published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

First Picador Edition: November 2006

D    10    9    8    7    6    5    4    3    2

I sing the breathless moments of this love story to Gugu Nkosi,

who is herself a love child


The people who introduced me to whales are Mike Bruton of the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town (
The Essential Guide to Whales in South Africa
), Vic Cockcroft and Peter Joyce (MTN Whale Watch). I am grateful to them. I am also thankful to two lovely women: Julie Wark of Barcelona, Spain, who tirelessly read and corrected and inspired; and Debe Morris of Toronto, Canada, whose gifts of toy whales started me on a collection.

The National Arts Council of South Africa funded the research. I thank them too.

And now the blessings:

If Wilson Salukazana (the real-life whale crier of Hermanus) really did call the whales to himself; if one special person in my life, Gugu Nomcebo Nkosi, was not dead scared of the dark; if young Lunga Tubu had not sung arias in his unbroken voice, bringing tears to my eyes; and if my then four-year-old daughter Zenzi had not invented the names Saluni, Sharisha and Mr. Yodd, there would be no story to tell.


The sea is bleeding from the wounds of Sharisha. But that is later. Now the tide returns in slight gentle movements. Half-moon is the time of small tides. The Whale Caller stands on one of the rugged cliffs that form an arena above the bay. He has spent the better part of the day standing there, blowing his horn. Blowing Sharisha’s special song. Blowing louder and louder as the tide responds by receding in time to the staccato of his call. Yet she is nowhere to be seen. His eyes have become strained from looking into the distant waters, hoping to see Sharisha lob tailing in the glare of the setting sun. It is September and the southern rights have returned from the southern seas. But Sharisha is not among them.

Night is beginning to fall. Slowly the Whale Caller makes his way down the cliffs to pour out his pain to Mr. Yodd. He selects the longer but safer route that traverses the concrete slipway on which blue, green, yellow and red boats are displayed. They used to belong to fishermen of a century ago. He makes certain that he does not stumble against any of them for they are brittle. If he were to trip and fall on one of them it would surely disintegrate. Experts from Cape Town spend months trying to restore them to
their former glory, so that present and future generations, brought up in these days of engine-powered trawlers, can see how fishermen of old endured the stormy seas in small open boats powered by their own muscles.

When the Whale Caller is in a happy mood he can see the weather-beaten fishermen shrouded in the mists of time, taking to sea in their fleet of small boats. Some are rowing back with their catch, while others are gutting the fish or drying it on the rocks. He can see even deeper in the mists, before there were boats and fishermen and whalers, the Khoikhoi of old dancing around a beached whale. Dancing their thanks to Tsiqua, He Who Tells His Stories in Heaven, for the bountiful food he occasionally provides for his children by allowing whales to strand themselves. But when there are mass strandings the dance freezes and the laughter in the eyes of the dancers melts into tears that leave stains on the white sands. The weepers harvest the blubber for the oil to fry meat and light lamps. They will ultimately use the rib bones to construct the skeletons of their huts, and will roof the houses with the baleen. Ear bones will be used as water carrying vessels. Other bones will become furniture. Or even pillows and beds. Nights are slept fervidly inside variable whales that speckle the landscape.

But first the weepers will eat the meat until their stomachs run. They will dry some of it in the sun. They cannot finish it though. Most of it will putrefy and fill the shores with a stench. Hence they weep for the waste. Tsiqua, He Who Tells His Stories in Heaven, should learn to strand only one whale at a time. One whale after seasons of migrations to the southern seas and back, and the bodies of the weepers explode into laughter once again. Once more the Men of Men—which is what the name Khoikhoi means—thank He Who Tells His Stories in Heaven for the bountiful provision.

Today the Whale Caller is not in the mood to amble in the
mists of the past. He is racked by the sadness of the present. His whole body is pining for Sharisha.

He treads carefully down the crag until he reaches the grotto that Mr. Yodd shares with the rock rabbits that have become so tame that they don’t run away from people. In daytime they can be seen scavenging in dustbins when there are no tourists to feed them. The grotto is just above the water made brown by seaweed that looks like dirty oil. He squats on a rock and looks into the grotto. A rock rabbit appears, looks at him closely and languidly walks back to its hole to resume its disturbed rest.

Hoy, Mr. Yodd! She has not come. Like yesterday. Like the day before. I waited and waited and waited. She stood me up. They sail back, she does not. She lingers in the southern seas, and she thinks I care. I’ve got news for her, Mr. Yodd. I don’t give a damn. If she wants to play that sort of game, she will find that two can play it just as well. She will find me ready and willing. Or she won’t find me at all. There are plenty of fish in these seas. The leviathan with a whore’s heart. There are plenty of fish in these seas, Mr. Yodd. And I bought a new tuxedo. Hire purchase. Not rental this time, but hire purchase. Six monthly instalments and I own it. Pay-as-you-wear. I bought it specially to welcome Sharisha back. No more hired tuxedos for me. I needed something permanent. Something that will absorb the odours of my soul and become part of what Sharisha associates with me. In any case, in the long run it’s expensive to hire a tuxedo. It is cost-effective to own your own. Variety is nice, but stability is more important. It has never happened like this, Mr. Yodd. I fear something might have befallen her. I worry. I am a worrier when it comes to Sharisha. She may yet come, you say? I cannot help but entertain the unthinkable. What if whalers have harpooned her, and as we speak she is
being cut into pieces for Japanese palates? I think the worst. I cannot help it. She has never done this before, Mr. Yodd. Southern rights appear on this coast as early as June. But I am never unduly worried when I don’t see her in June because that is not her month. She waits for the winter rains to have their run and the warmth of spring to return. She is always punctual. In the middle of August she returns in all her breaching glory from the southern seas. Now September is about to end. Yet she is nowhere to be seen. Ya! Ya! I know that they are still coming back; that for the whole of September and October groups of them will be coming back. It is unlike Sharisha to be a straggler. If she comes in October, it means I will only have a month or two with her before she voyages back to the southern seas. She cannot give me the thrill of her massive splashes into the new year because by January the southern rights are almost all gone. A month or two with Sharisha is not enough. No, Mr. Yodd, I think you are just trying to twist the knife that she has already planted in my back. You seem to rejoice in my pain. Three years, you say! But Sharisha… Sharisha comes every year. Not on a three-year cycle as other southern rights may do. Sharisha cannot live for three years without me, Mr. Yodd. She comes every year.

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