“If you should write a fable for little fishes,
you would make them speak like great whales.”
— Goldsmith to Johnson.
Merritt British Columbia is a small town in a valley at the confluence of two highways leading abruptly to other places. On the hill, across from the police station, is where the big ABC Restaurant stood. It’s said, by those in the know, that the letters stand for “A Better Choice” but others say it’s because the initial “A” gives the establishment priority without payment in lists’ of eateries configured alphabetically.
You can’t go and see the Better Choice anymore because it burned down a few years ago. I hadn’t heard, so, I was quite surprised driving in from the north and when I looked, there was a big metal fence, the kind that encloses job sites, all around the property. The empty parking lot, which was of generous proportions, to lure trucks that need space to turn, well, it was enclosed too. In a heap on the asphalt, whose white lines now guided nothing, was large ceramic pots with spindly little birch trees and they were all smashed and the little trees sprawled all around. It seems when the fire broke out people grabbed the pots and dragged the trees to safety. But after all the excitement died down no one could be found who wanted them, so, they were just left. A couple of days later a few drunk people from the hotel down the road, where I now eat, and most others drink, went up to the site and smashed the pots and kicked the trees to pieces and broke the few windows remaining. That’s when the fence went up.
The Whale and Jonah are to be found, in the little church just on the edge of town. It has a preacher, or, maker of sermons, but he spends little time doing this. He drinks a lot. The Community Church is something that has the look about it of lacking something. The building needs a coat of paint every 20 years and it’s not getting it.
That’s because the guy at the Hardware Store who might have been called upon to donate paints, saw his daughter run off to Calgary with this biker. It was talked about in church in lurid and unsympathetic terms, and this hardware guy was fuming. When the preacher came into the store to ask about a deal for Christ, the fellow was standing behind the counter with a cold, diffident and abstracted look, as though he was considering the relationship between Christ and paint. He brought out a cardboard list and placed it on the table. He pointed to the card. This bit of store paraphernalia shows the prices of paint but with the Manufacturers’ Advertised Prices (MAP) as they are called in retail. These are the ordinary store prices without discounts or deals. It’s what you’d pay if you went in, asked for a can of paint, and they didn’t know you from Adam. There was a long moment of silence; then a retreat with “sorry to have taken your time” and out the door. The store guy took the card and replaced it into a long glass case. There was no hint of a victory, his eyes were tired and mouth set and lined. He was clever today but what about tomorrow, and his daughter was still bikered in Calgary.
I happened to be passing through Merritt and on a Sunday morning there is not much to do. I decided to explore some of the streets, more or less hoping to find a book store, and, this optimistic project being abandoned, I turned, for no particular reason, into the street on which stood the Community Church. It had once been white, both the rectangular building proper and the upended shoebox of a bell tower surmounted by a small cross. Weather signs revealed the underlying wood, probably Fir, and the lower 10 feet of the building was a grey, so that the whole effect was as a white dress, too long for a wearer that was in the habit of strolling amid mud filled streets.
The usual sign stood in the small yard in front of the church. Appended to it, someone had tacked a card announcing free sandwiches and coffee inside. It occurred to me, not having eaten that day that this might do me for breakfast and lunch. The note said “all welcome.” This inspired my entrance, this and since I had previous experience in eating at a church’s cost.
It was a thankless thanksgiving and at the local Baptist Church a large table, groaning under the weight of Turkeys and vast bowls of mashed potatoes was set out. I had heard from a friend that you could have a huge meal by pretending piety. A few mumblings and lowered head were sufficient. No one ever asked one’s Christian denomination or background in faith due to the Christian taboo against coming to grips with things. I got onto the bus; it was the number 7 to Dunbar and took my seat. Across the aisle was a young woman who was drunk, stoned or otherwise holidaying from reality. She told me she was going to a party but had forgotten the address, the name of the host and the day on which the event would take place. She asked where I was going and if she could come along. She wasn’t very good looking but I thought she might be a useful addendum to my disguise as a confident of persons and property. I arrived at the church and went in along with my date. She made a most non-Euclidean impression. At the door, an emasculated attendant was stationed to inspect all comers. He was dressed in a suit but occupied it poorly like prisoners who wear suits for the benefit of the bench and the hurried fitting is performed, punctuated with sobs, by their mothers. I attempted to make small talk. My new friend breezed by and quickened her pace quite a bit when she saw the table. She grabbed a large plate and was about to fill it when a heavy set wrinkled women whispered that she was holding a serving dish- hence its size- and not a dinner plate. My companion turned to her and said:
“Fuck you fatty. You wan’ it all?”
She turned and walked away. I caught up with her and lured her to a secluded place, at the far end of the table, as near as I could judge, most distant from anyone who might ask questions. This had the result of inducing her to think I wanted to be alone with her. She eyed me closely. She had one good eye. Just then, the same suit encumbered young man who had been at the door came and sat opposite us. I intuited he was here due to, immediately before, the women addressed by my new friend had taken him aside and her evil looking mouth worked itself up into a frenzy of complaint. She then stamped out, accompanied by two frail ladies, companions in martyrdom. The young invigilator tried to draw us out for the purposes of classification. She merely looked coy and giggled occasionally at what was said, no matter how inane. I kept my attention fixed on my plate. I tried to sustain a distant perspective; keeping in mind my sole reason for being here was to eat something that I had no intention of paying for. There was no sign of a bill anywhere, so, I thought my situation still tenable. Someone was putting their hand in my pocket, but not to see if there was money within. Her hand was small, warm and slightly damp. Across the table our dinner host was saying:
“We are a very inclusive church. People from all walks of life, come here. It’s simply amazing.”
He paused to look down the table, and several timid people, who gave the impression of having been excused from life, nodded on cue. Her hand was still in my pocket and it explored the space within like a Raccoon worrying a box of biscuits. Like many people who go through life being ignored, our host, upon receiving kudos, albeit from sources of diminished thymos, nonetheless he was now tempted, and he gave into temptation, to expand on his pointless remarks.
In a drowsy fever of inner agitation I felt like I possessed a second body existing below the level of my apparent physique and that this internal manikin was being slowly roasted by a dim flame that sent waves ungoverned by tide tables and unknown to nautical almanacs. She withdrew her hand and looked about the table for something to wipe off the sticky fluid on her fingers. Down the table one of the auditors of the suit’s twaddle signalled her wish to speak by waving a turkey leg.
“Oh dear, we don’t stand on ceremony here. If it’s alright to eat with your fingers, it’s okay to lick them afterwards. We all do it,” she said.
My friend regarded her hand for a moment, as though it were a new discovery, and then complied, although somewhat noisily. I looked about the room seeking some distraction. We were seated at a long table in the fore court of the church. Rows of pews, partially hidden by large glass doors were just beyond and small windows of coloured glass lined the sacred enclosure. One of these apertures depicted a pale yellow and white Jonah being flung up on the shore against a blue background, in memory of his brief tenancy within a Whale. Jonah’s face, outlined sharply in black, looked down at me in a horror filled stare. The Whale, a dark blue ellipse with a red mouth filled with white teeth looked like the fabled sea beasts swimming on the margins of old maps. Its eye was a tear shaped lozenge and it regarded Jonah with an unsympathetic gaze. The eye seemed to be saying:
“You did pray to the Lord to be liberated from the hell of my belly. Now, look on the world, this larger hell that is your reward.”
She was pulling on my arm and pointing towards the door to the kitchen. It opened to reveal a cart containing desserts propelled by a man who could not have been less than 100 years old. Slowly, as though the effort was to be his final act on the planet, this dismal skeleton shuffled into the dining hall. The cart made a clanking noise. It too had seen better days. The church owned it because someone else had wanted it thrown out. My friend shot out of her seat like an Olympic swimmer at the starting pistol. I stood up, then sat down again. My pants were wet in the crotch and all down one leg. She came back with a small white plate, covered by a thin paper napkin, on which rested a Nanaimo Bar. She laid the plate in front of me. Her mouth was full of chocolate. I decided to like her.
It was this same window pane, or, at least its twin brother that now looked down on me from the little white church in Merritt. I had come in and grabbed a sandwich without attracting too much notice and was standing looking about the interior as though selecting a seat for the sermon. Jonah drew me inside and I claimed a seat, at the back for discretion and an unobserved exit once attention was directed elsewhere.
I sat watching the glass bible scene for some sign of recognition. But Jonah remained passive in his glass prison, a fixed being transformed by, but not made of, infinite particles of light that stream through him. The Whale also pretended not to know me, but whether from orders ethereal or indifference mundus I could not make out.
While I was considering this present and dreaming of the past people began to file in and seat themselves around me. They were a mixed group, not like church goers in the city. In a large city people go to church because they have failed to flourish. They are like dead plants and the church a tidy compost heap wherein withered leaves and broken stems are tossed. In small towns nearly everyone goes to church. That’s because here, no one flourishes, so, its absence strikes none as remarkable. There were women with children and males of all ages. Clerks from stores, loggers, truck drivers and that large segment of the working class that labour in obscure purposes in imitation of the vagueness and formalism of managers. About a third was native Indians. The only group absent was teenagers, who even here, enjoy a brief bloom before accepting first dryness, then bad soil; then endless frost.
There was a commotion at the altar. A couple of people were talking animatedly from the lectern. It seems the pastor was ill after having drunk for breakfast a bottle of mouthwash: contents 90 per cent alcohol. His booze had been seized in a night raid by his wife whilst he lay helpless on the floor, gesticulating and screaming obscenities. It was not clear what would happen next. Surely everyone would just go home. I glanced at the sandwiches on the sideboard. Should I leave now, stuffing egg salad and chicken with lettuce into my pockets while pretending to disconsolately pass by? Or, would I be better advised to wait until the building emptied and then fill my pockets liberally and unobserved?
A man had left his seat and was mounting the platform at the front of the church. He was one of the native Indians, an older man, heavy set and wearing a plaid shirt popular with loggers and people who work out of doors. He took the stage and the others, the church sexton, the lady who arranges the flowers and the few others made way for him and I wondered what role this old man could play in the Church organization. He seemed best suited to move furniture. I guessed that he had been called up to push the piano into the centre position. Music might serve as a substitute for the cancelled sermon. On the pew next to me was a church schedule. I picked it up and turned to today’s date. The sermon was on the Book of Jonah.
The old man stood before the crowd and in a calm, measured and exact tone, recited the story of Jonah. He did not refer to notes, and, although a large bible stood on a lectern, and it had been opened to the appropriate page he never wandered into that quarter of the stage, never glanced at the book. He had positioned himself so that he would look straight across the arched room and up into the glass window and every so often he looked up as though he were taking his cues from the glass. He had not memorized the book, which, after all is only two pages in length. This would have been remarkable. He went beyond this, giving a running commentary on the text but in his own words, which could not have been inspired by standard cribs.
The story of Jonah begins and ends with the city of Nineveh. In the first verses it seems Nineveh is to be destroyed or overturned, but, in the end it is spared. If we designate the destruction of the city by the letter A then the final outcome is-A; the city spared. The book of Jonah is a series of events that have their opposites sited in a particular part of the narrative. The story runs thus: A, B, C,-B,-A. This type of sequence, or meaningful pattern, is common in works written before the modern period. Contemporary people resist such narrative treatment because of the belief that the real has no texture or formal properties, all is just a flux. The modern world teaches people that reality is episodic, structureless and meaningless. For most people Jonah is just a child’s fable. People say they want true stories even though lies and nonsense are their steady diet, which they never succeed in satiating.
The old man began his story. In a few words he set the stage with Jonah, having his own ideas, running away from God’s order. God wants Jonah to go to the city and preach against certain ill practices that the urbanities have fallen into. With the economical means that is common here, we are not told the nature of the faults and grievances God has with the people in Nineveh. We don’t have to be told. It’s obvious for anyone living in a city. Not just when the narrative was written but, apparently, for all time. Jonah stands out of time, no date of the action is ever specified, and yet it dominates time completely.
So, Jonah receives God’s call to go to Nineveh, but he flees in the opposite direction; straight into trouble. This is the second thing that happens, and it is counterpoised by the second to the last episode. Here, Jonah has preached and he stands still, immobile, waiting, which leads to his learning an important message.
The old man continued. Jonah attempts to flee the scrutiny of God by taking a sea voyage. Jonah goes down below and sleeps, while on deck the mariners face storm clouds and squalls. In order to discover the “cause” of the bad weather the mariners cast some form of dice or markers. Predictably, this blames Jonah. Then, they interrogate Jonah in order to learn why he is the cause of the storm. They ask Jonah’s family, country and faith. But whatever he says, the mariners turn into a confirmation of guilt. We would say today Jonah is “stereotyped” and made a victim by slight signs of “otherness.”
Oddly, Jonah accepts this verdict and asks the sailors to cast him into the sea. Jonah agrees with his own murder. At this point there is a curious delay. The sailors don’t wish to carry out the action; they seek to bring the ship to port with nautical skills and by working the sails. But their attempts fail in the face of heavy seas and winds. They beg God not to saddle them with the guilt of Jonah’s death but to deliver them and their vessel. It’s only after this that they, reluctantly, throw Jonah into the sea. Why the delay? The answer is found in the second half of the book where its mirror image is found. Here, Jonah is calling out for his death a second time, and as in the first incident his wish is not immediately gratified. In this case, Jonah is waiting at the edge of Nineveh for God to destroy the city. But Jonah’s preaching has not fallen “on deaf ears” as would happen today. Everyone from the King down has repented, thrown ashes over themselves, humbled themselves and offered apologies to God. The Lord hears the repentant Nineveh citizens and God decides to forgive them. The fiery punishment is cancelled. “And he did it not.” Jonah is furious. After all his struggles, the humiliating ride inside the whale, the storm, the journey to Nineveh, with all its attendant difficulties seems to have been for nothing. Try cancelling the hockey playoffs and you’ll get some idea of Jonah’s grief. Jonah decides to punish God by asking of him the same thing he asked the sailors to do. Take his life away, thereby making God commit an unjust act. Jonah’s true innocence is seen a second time, it is mirrored, amplified, and the reluctance of the sailors to kill him now makes sense, whereas before it seemed like a pointless suspension of the action. Jonah attempts for a second time to call for his death, he repeats the action of the first part of the story that led to his paradoxical release. Jonah has learned the wrong lesson from his sojourn in the whale. He’s like a neurotic with a habit. Jonah goes to the edge of the city and waits. God has a few tricks up his sleeve. He prepares a Gourd. God suspends the Gourd, somehow up in the air, and Jonah sees it and it causes him delight. But a worm has been selected by God and it enters the Gourd and causes it to become rotten. What’s this all about? On the surface God explains that Jonah’s delight in the Gourd is like God’s joy in the city. And the great difference in the scale of the two things suggests the city be spared by an act of forgiveness. But there is much more (as though this were not enough). In an immense and subtle stream of associations and congruence’s the Gourd is the Whale’s opposite. The writer of Jonah is like a skilled gymnast while we all puff and stagger behind trying to keep up. We are torpid after stuffing ourselves silly with junk texts. Let’s examine the Gourd and the Whale in isolation. We are told the Lord “prepared” both the Whale to take in Jonah and he also “prepared” the Gourd. What is called preparation in English probably originally implied manufacture. God doesn’t pick any old Whale with nothing to do for Jonah’s temporary storage nor does he select any pre-existing Gourd by plucking it from a garden. The Whale and the Gourd, by having an identical origin as props for the story, leads us to suspect they are formally linked in some other way.
The Gourd is a living form that is tied by an umbilical root to its situation in the ground. It is fixed to its place. The Whale is mobility, but in a special way. The Whale moves through a vast undifferentiated non-world and takes no responsibility for any space, cannot define the space in which it moves since the ocean is without markers or boundaries. The Gourd is in a garden, tended, nurtured and watched, it inhabits a place of civilization which must be kept and is set in a property, dedicated to the furtherance of a community. The Whale has no boundary that it respects, it nurtures none and looks with equal indifference on calm seas or tempests that rend ships and drown men. The Whale is the opposite of civilized life; the Whale is outside all community. There’s more. By suspending the Gourd in the air we are aware of its temporary nature. The Whale is permanent, perhaps immortal for all anyone knew at this time. A final set of congruencies appear. That of Jonah and the Worm. The Worm goes into the Gourd and Jonah goes into the Whale. Jonah is like a Worm to the Whale. The Worm corrupts the Gourd. The opposite happens when Jonah enters the Whale. Jonah is given up and the Whale carries on. In the carrying on of the Whale we see another great lesson of Jonah. We are like the Whale. We move through a space, potentially infinite, with no cause to stand in one place. The sites of our garden and community don’t interest us in the hunt for new but undifferentiated place. We live in glass screens, the Whale’s murky ocean and look with equal interest and amusement as drift wood or dead bodies’ coast by. We will never die and never change; only see new things, each the same, and hurry on towards nowhere.
All these commentaries and observations by no means exhaust Jonah. In fact, Jonah is inexhaustible, and the opposite of the vast media and information age that makes things which are exhausted before they are produced.
These similarities and reversals are more than just a set of boxes, like the forms builders construct to pour concrete into. They point towards the way reality operates, the world full of explication instead of emptiness. It was this, or, similar schema that made possible Homer, the Oresteia and Macbeth. The day these forms were laid aside, during the Age of Reason, we were on the road to: National Geographic, Harry Potter, and the Hollywood Squares.
A few markers or relics of this rich world are still with us but nearly hidden in small niches like the Raccoon that lives up my Fir tree and comes down at night. A pack of playing cards is one such fossil. Place a card deck face down and then pick one. It’s already clear what your choice will be. The cards have four suits and are numbered in a certain way. The deck can be laid out to make patterns, such as in a game of solitaire. The patterns attract other patterns which partake in a meaningful grid by been associated with the cards. Thus, a fortune teller can manipulate the cards to seek one’s future, some cards are called lucky, some unlucky, some very unlucky such as the Ace of Spades. By grasping a pattern, things murky, mysterious or hard to grasp now are highlighted and illuminated from within. There is no limit to the amounts of permutations here, in what seems to be a limited and narrow constriction of experience. What kind of world do we have today now that we are “freed” from constraints? The Rubik’s Cube might be called the new outlook. The Cube engenders nothing except an anxiety to complete a meaningless task; perhaps it’s a better model of contemporary life. It points to no fates or worlds beyond; it has no truck with any notion or scene, emotion or idea beyond a fixed and infantile action. In other words the Rubik’s Cube is modern.
The old man finished his narrative, and without ceremony or comment stepped down and took his seat. No one said anything. A church aid stepped up and announced a bake sale at the Legion on Wednesday. Then it was all over and everyone left.
The next day I stopped at the supermarket to pick up a few things to eat on the road. At the checkout the old Indian was in front of me. He paid for his grocers with some sort of paper from a government agency. The paper gave him a credit for a certain sum; I’m not sure how this works. To complete the transaction the clerk asked him to sign on the bottom of the chit. The old man took out his wallet and drew from it a dog eared piece of paper. He unfolded it and smoothed it out before laying it on the counter. Then, taking the pen, he carefully copied his name from the paper onto the form. He looked from one to another, and, apparently satisfied gave the clerk the form. He took his paper, folded it up and replaced it into his wallet. The old man walked away. The store space between the check out and the exit contained huge displays. A large rack contained the daily newspapers just in from Vancouver and Calgary. The Globe and Mail and the Post had their own slots, while several local papers occupied the sidelines. Facing these was a huge rack of magazines. Then, best sellers. Rows of movies, cell phones decorated with dinosaurs were on sale under some mysterious “plan” while ads for the latest scandal and thrill occupied the few square inches of space not already filled.
The old Indian walked on, into this corridor of information. He looked to the door. His eyes did not wander. And he saw it not.
Bill Burnyeat writes on Indian Review. Literature and Short Fiction for you from around the world