The whale again breached the surface, its bone-white vertebrae punching through the moonlit waves. The wake it created splashed and rocked our little boats. We all expected to hear the telltale shower of mist from its powerful exhale, but this one did not breathe.
It was nearing dusk when we finally heard the call from our lookout. He spotted a whale. After nearly seven months, the season neared a close, and we didn’t have nearly enough meat for our village to live during the off-season. I could hear the lookout descend from the crow’s nest, giving the animal’s location to the captain, who confirmed it and ordered the crew to their whaling boats.
A hunt so close to night was risky. Everyone preparing for this hunt knew that. So did the captain. I could see the worry on their faces, but their chatter reaffirmed the importance of the catch. We all had families to feed. Despite the concern of fading light, we boarded the boats as quietly as ever. The sails flapped in the gentle breeze as feet clattered across the wooden deck.
The rigging rattled as our boats lowered into the water with a soft splash. The lookout shouted the whale’s new location as the white animal breached the surface. The waves slapped the sides of our small boats as we pushed with our oars. Birds chirped and whistled above our heads while the crew paddled. Despite the poor year, we’ve done this job for many years. The captain didn’t need to say a word for us to understand his plan.
It wasn’t long before someone spotted another breach. The mirrored light of the moon illuminated the surface of the water as a pale form pushed through the silvery-white waves. I could hear hushed whispers as the excited crew approached the creature. Its size was far bigger than expected. It seemed like only one was in the area, and the animal showed no signs of leaving. The birds followed us, distracting some of the crew. They made strange noises. The usual call of a seagull sounded off, like an animal in fear for its life, higher in pitch and shrill. The movements weren’t right either. Some of them flapped as if using a broken wing.
The captain, too, watched the birds. Worried their noise may spook their catch, he paddled faster. The crew followed suit, quickly gaining on the whale. One of the crew members spoke up, concerned about the whale’s peculiar movement. It didn’t swim like the others but instead circled the boat. I shared his worry. Most whales would spook upon our ship being as close as it was. This one seemed unbothered by our presence. It was too late for nerves now. The whale was within reach. It was time for the hunt.
As we readied our harpoons, something hit the underside of our boats. One after another, the impacts continued, like someone underwater slapped against the wood in a desperate flail. In a frenzy, fish pushed above the water, jumping above the surface, hitting our whale boats with forceful, jerky movements. The captain, ignoring them, gave the order, telling us to throw our harpoons before it swam away.
He raised his harpoon and plunged it into the water. We did the same, turning our attention to the vague visage of a whale beneath the waves. A hailstorm of harpoons pierced the water. None struck true. Another volley followed as our target continued swimming around the ship, never leaving when other whales had. Once again, we all missed it. Even crew members known for their aim couldn’t seem to hit the slow target. The whale’s vague white visage, only just visible in the dark water, looked different. Thinner than I would expect from one this size.
One of the crew caught something but, in his excitement, didn’t pay attention to the weight. He pulled a small, bony fish aboard. It struggled in his grip, the animal’s long spiny fin splayed out, and its grey eyes with a glint of red in the moonlight. The fish’s movement was peculiar, as was its misshapen form.
The whale again breached the surface, its bone-white vertebrae punching through the moonlit waves. The wake it created splashed and rocked our little boats. We all expected to hear the telltale shower of mist from its powerful exhale, but this one did not breathe. Instead, it ignored our boats and turned toward the ship. At the same moment, a flare ignited on our primary vessel. A bright red distress signal indicated a problem aboard the ship.
The captain ordered a retreat. The crew didn’t argue. If they lost the catch they already had, their village would be in a dire situation. As we turned, the animal passed underneath us. Water pushed our boats aside as fish slapped the port side. A crew member screamed that the whale was dead. Nobody knew what he meant, nor could we see the animal in the dark waters.
Still singing their songs of fear and despair, the birds circled like half-dead corpses over the ship. The crew connected our boats to the rigging, and we ascended, returning to the main deck. We heard another animal call mixed in with the unusual choir of seabirds—a high-pitched whine of a whale, one many of us recognized as the sound of distress, but this one carried on for far too long.
The crew was startled as a series of rapid thumps under the boat scrapped like rocks against the underside of our vessel. I was the first to see it. The crew member had spoken true. The bones of a whale passed under our ship, breaching the surface and diving back below as it turned, circling and scrapping the bow. It creaked as the living carcass pushed against it. I heard someone whisper the name “Bake-Kujira.”
The crewmate who lit the distress signal spoke his fears of a curse to the captain. He pointed to the birds, whose odd appearance raised concern. The lookout and I reaffirmed this worry. We spoke of the whale skeleton that now terrorized the ship.
Fish pelted our ship’s port side as they flailed in a wild frenzy, their red eyes glittering in the darkening sky. Their bodies were only visible in the rising moonlight as their awkward bodies flopped and tumbled.
A long, heart-stopping scrape of bones against the hull as the whale brushed against the ship, its wood groaning and creaking as the beast pushed against it. Then the whale left, fading into the pitch-black waters of the night. The fish and birds disappeared not seconds after, scattering off into the dark.
Arguments quickly broke out as the crew’s fears reached a fever pitch. Some worried the whale was the sign of a curse. They feared returning home could bring disaster. Others reaffirmed this fear, telling tales of a whaling curse that devastated villages caused by a spirit named the “Bake-Kujira.” Some, homesick and tired, demanded they return, for their village relied on the meat supplied by their vessel.
A week would pass as the season came to a close. Voices of dissent still speaking their woes were silenced by the captain. To him, it was foolish not to return as the crew and the townsfolk would not survive the coming winter if they did not. We returned to our village, the voices of protest quieting as thoughts of home invaded their mind. However, instead of their usual greetings, a skeleton crew manning the dock gave them a solemn welcome. Upon disembarking, the captain received word of a serious plague that had ravaged their village. Food stores were devastated after fires destroyed a portion of warehouses and homes.
The crew, ready to bring food for their starving families, traveled below deck to retrieve their prize, hoping to lighten the gloomy mood. As if awaiting their presence, a fire ignited the whale oil that somehow spilled in transit. The blaze quickly overtook the store room and destroyed their cargo. Some crew salvaged bits of the dried and cured meats, only to discover they had spoiled. Their ship, now covered in unstable flames, sank into the water. No one knew how the oil, secured and sealed, managed to spill.
Embers drifted through the air, igniting nearby boats and parts of the dock. Despite the efforts of many, their port, ravaged by the out-of-control fire, was left a shade of its former self. Later that day, village elders spoke with our crew about the experience. The ship had been the target of a whale seeking vengeance for its death. Our ship, cursed by the creature we killed, brought ruin to our village.
The remains of our crew now tell the tale of a whale skeleton. Should one ever be found in the sea, never return to your homes, for you have been cursed by the Bake-Kujira.