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Sonia by Knud Sonderby

Translated by A. I. Roughton

 

Chance led me to experience my two most remarkable fishing adventures in the company of two young men, brothers, but encountered in widely different corners of the earth.

The one place was on Thorup Beach at Bolbjerg, and that man was called Thomas, a young fisherman, who whiled away a summer's day, looking, in a friendly way, after us holiday makers of the same age as himself, and getting much quiet amusement from it.

We sailed his cutter and fished for cod, even though there was no "r" in the month, and he sat with his knee over the tiller and shifted the quid in his mouth with much ostentation and a strong sense of the comic. He had a long crooked nose, and every time he looked at us, and the thought "Holidaymakers" struck him, he had to push his nose even further to the side in order to keep a straight face. From some very earnest and completely veracious accounts of our life we had given him, he had come to believe that it was the thing—a kind of town slang—among us to tell tall stories, and from time to time after this he poured out the most extraordinary nonsense about mermaids and mermen, sea snakes and hell horses, all of which was intended as an answer to the incredible lies, we had, in his opinion, tried to put across him, he wasn't born yesterday either.

On one occasion I swam out with the rope of a net in my hand, reached the first sand bank and swam some yards against the current so that I was nearly drowned, swam in again and then we began to haul in. Ah! these holidaymakers! Now for some fun. Thomas rubbed his nose and just stood with his hands in his pockets, shifted his quid and grinned. There'd never be any fish in it, just faith and hope. But chance had it that I had gone slap into a shoal. The water splashed silver as the net was hauled in, and there in the drag net lay about a hundredweight of little fish, about as big as anchovies, which Thomas threw tenderly back into the water, it was a bleeding shame we could only use a paleful for bait, and, he explained, unhappily at the same time they would die if they were only so much as a second out of the water, and they did too, for they were washed up on the shore and lay on the beach like thousands of silver coins, the sea-gulls came in screaming clouds hanging in the air above them, and behind the sea-gulls one could see the outline of an island.

 And up in Greenland I was suddenly reminded of all this by a long crooked nose with a mouth beneath in which solemnly shifted a quid. I went straight up to the man. He must be Thomas' brother. Yes, certainly he was. And while I bubbled over with explanations and the pleasure of meeting him, the nose with solemnity and reserve called a halt, there was no recognition on his side. Whose brother was I?

I was entertained and astonished to meet all again up here. The company's whaler "Sonia", with an easygoing West Jutland crew, Captain Larsen, from Svinklov, a tremendous man, with wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and a mass of sandy hair on the back of his powerful hands. Could anything move him, could anything excite the backbone of Jutland? One was to have an opportunity to see that something could.

There on the "Sonia", with her crew from Northwest Jutland I had experience of the most gigantic hunt known to man.

We were lying off Egedesminde one morning early. In the fjord the water flowed quietly before a moderate breeze, but out in the straits the great breakers came rolling in under the little grey ship, and rocked it like a duckling. It was a foretaste of what was to come.

It was only twelve o'clock when the whistle from the outlook forty- five feet above deck blew. Ping ping!

The "Sonia" swung round to follow his pointing finger. His arm was the compass needle. By this means we came so near that we on deck could see the whale's back as it came up and spouted the mixture of breath and water which shot up in a fine stream from its nostrils. It was a Finwhale. As long as a church spire, and once its tail rose right out of the water as it dived, and the mighty tail fin stood a moment in air above it. The wings of a mighty bird hovered for a moment like a beacon above the sea.

Down it dived and disappeared, came to the surface again several times in rapid succession in quite another place, breathed and blew the three, four, five seconds necessary to take breath and blow off again before going under again for several minutes. For a whole hour we followed it with the ship which shot hither and thither in order to get within twenty or thirty yards distance of it. Once it dived right under the ship, came to the surface again only a few yards away to port, and disappeared before we had time to turn round. It took one's breath away like something supernatural to see such a collosus so near—a breath of the legendary past blew up from it. Of such a beast one should find only a handful of bones in the Natural History Museum, and nothing else save spectacled scientists' theories and their white fingers pointing to the glass show-case. But the earth lays bare a glimse of her soul, gives up a little of the past from her womb. There is a gray wind over foaming sea in the Arctic, and from the vasty deep, for a few seconds only, is handed like a token to mankind this symbol of another age, the swimming mastodon.

Behind the gun at the ship's stern stood the Captain and arched his back. Every shred of broad West Jutland calm had left him, as he stared tensely after the whale and guessed where it would come up next. Broad straddled, but elastic in knee and ankle, he waited the opportunity of the few precious seconds in which he could unloose the power of three pounds of gunpowder and send the explosive harpoon, big as an anchor, into the back of the world's largest mammal.

Time after time the Finwhale dived, came up and blew. Time after time "Sonia" wheeled and sprang forward in an effort to come within range. If we were near it, we went half steam ahead so that the beating of the screw in the water should not startle it further. When it disappeared in the deep, the ship took a new course. The experienced whaler knows by instinct which direction the wary whale will take, and when it will come to the surface again. When minutes had gone by after it had disappeared, the harpoon gun was pointing out over a particular bit of sea, there was nothing but rising and falling waves to see, but those waves and spray covered the sea depths, and from those depths might come something, and perhaps just at that spot. The biggest animal in the world. The harpoon pointed waiting, the Captain with his shoulder against the stock, like a cat about to spring. Usually the most popular man in Greenland, equable, radiating composure and mild benevolence, sandy hair on his powerful hands, smiling wrinkles round his blue eyes, so imperturbable in their calm that they usually looked a little over people's heads into the mild unchanging beyond—but at this moment strength itself, his whole being charged with a frenzy of watchful tension, every sinew in his body as taut and effective as his finger on the trigger.

Blast!

And in yet a different place and out of range the whale had come up and disappeared. And again the "Sonia" swings round to begin the whole thing again. And it appears again—for the last time, twenty five yards in front of the "Sonia" is a blast of air and water from its nostrils, up between the waves heaves his gigantic body, higher... higher, one, two...Three seconds.

The three pound charge exploded. The noise was swallowed in the air, the waves and the excitement, but the harpoon is off on its journey, has hit the whale, and right inside its body another three pound charge has exploded.

It is really only a split second before the whale disappears again. But at the culmination of a nerve-racking event it is as if one's sense of time becomes distorted. One's brain reproduces so rapidly that the pictures appear as if in slow motion. A split second becomes many seconds.

I remember the harpoon line standing like a bow in the air and every little curve which passed over it afterwards, and the wind which seemed to be carrying it somewhere. I thought it took a long time. Then the moment must have come in which the whale reacted to the harpoon and the internal explosion. It's body tightened and in a shower of spray it screwed itself under, and I remember the Captain in full gallop, jump back from the gun and the crew running over the deck.

How quickly the whale had in fact reacted, how rapidly it had dived, I could see afterwards on the whale line. It STOOD up from its place on the bottom of the ship, whistling like a driving belt over a playing drum, and up over a block on the mast, which shuddered and bent under the strain, down on to another block on deck and out from the ship's bows, where it shot stiff into the sea, sucked into the depths like a stick of macaroni, 300 yards, 600 yards, 900 yards. The hawser as thick as one's wrist becomes elastic when it is fully stretched.

The block on the mast, over which it rides, gives way too on its thick steel springs, but the Captain shouted just the same and the wireless buzzed; and the "Sonia" began slowly gliding after the Finwhale so that the line should not snap from a sudden jerk.

A long way off the beast came up and lay still on the surface and panted. It had only been shot in the blubber. The harpoon was in its back behind the dorsal fin and no injury done to vital parts from the explosion. From the "Sonia" they began to play it in. At the same instant the pain drove the whale to flight again. Again the line must be let out in order not to snap. 70-80 tons of living flesh hurtled hither and thither like a torpedo in the water. One saw the waves whipped to foam by its paroxysms of pain. When it began to get exhausted, and there was no further danger of the line snapping, then the whaler "Sonia", 100 tons, 90 foot of steel—was hauled through the waves after it at a speed of eight to ten knots, while the screw stood still. Even when the 100 hp engine was set half steam backwards, there was strong speed ahead—and so an hour went by. This of course told on the Finwhale's strength, even so it was only after an hour and a half's running one could come near enough to launch a fresh harpoon and hit it fatally in the heart right behind the flipper. Then the blood ran from it. Both in the blast from its nostrils and in great pumps from the wound, so that suddenly scarlet waves licked its body. And still once more it tried to flee down to the secret depths, disappeared so that the rope rattled on the blocks and had to be slackened. For a minute it remained below, but the hunt was up. It came up again near the bloody mist which still pumped from it, a fresh patch of sea changed colour, and all around washed waves which were like a sunset, till suddenly the Finwhale turned over, rolled on its side in the bloodfilled sea, and was dead.

There were so and so many tons of oil, so and so many tons of blubber, besides free winter supplies of meat for a whole colony of Greenlanders—and the end of the most awe-inspiring life one had ever seen.

Thomas' brother had been standing on the whale's belly, pumping air into its stomach through an iron tube so that it would float more easily. When he came back to the ship, and we were towing in, we stood together at the railing. He was still not so familiar with me as I with him. Nevertheless he rubbed his nose to one side and said confidentially: "They're so decent. And just think that if they had as much bad temper in their bodies as a human being, they could smash us to smithereens."

 
 
 

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