Whale Fall


The following is from Elizabeth O’Connor’s Whale Fall. O’Connor lives in Birmingham. Her short stories have appeared in The White Review and Granta, and she was the 2020 winner of the White Review Short Story Prize. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Birmingham, specializing in the modernist writer H.D. and her writing of coastal landscapes.

Here is an island year. First the sun, and first the spring growing fat with birds. They leave the island to its grey winter and return when shoots appear in the ground. Auks come as dark shapes under the water. Kittiwakes and gannets fall from the skies. We do not notice them at first. The children might chase them on the cliffs, the men fishing might push them away from a net with an oar. By the end of spring they are thrown across the island like shadows. Puffins, sea swallows, little terns. By summer they are raising young, flinging themselves back into the water.

The kittiwakes come closest to our houses, picking food scraps from the middens in the yard. They perch on the roofs: from afar the building is spiked with the grey points of their wings. They live on the roof, covering it in a silver layer of feathers and guano, waking us inside as they squabble and scurry across the tiles. Sometimes they fight mid-air, leaving red smears on each other. They drop fish from their beaks onto the stone yard, which worm into the stone’s small crevices and holes and make them smell rancid for months. The heat only brings them closer: their bird-smells, their calling, their pink-dead young.

In summer, the women of the island repaint the houses white. They go into the limestone cave at the west of the island and chip the rock into powder. My mother would always return with it on her hands, specks trailing everything she touched. Sometimes the pigment turned the paint more yellow, or more blue, than pure white. One year the houses all over ended up a pale rose-pink and it still shows through, in nicks and patches where the outer layers are peeled away.

After summer, the cold circles, then drops like a stone. The birds disappear one by one. They leave their nests on the cliffs with eggs still inside. In autumn, the sea boils like a pot on the fire. The birds pass and the summer is gone.

Winter: we stay near the hearth, sleep in the same bed. The sea sidles up to the door, laps at the edge of the island. There is grey ice at the horizon. The wind makes red meat of us. At Christmas we cook a catch of fish, then butcher a sheep, and throw it into the water. The waves push it back onto the beach again by spring, and the birds arrive to devour it. The sheep are rotated around the island, after they’ve grazed their field to nothing.


The whale became stranded in the shallows of the island overnight, appearing from the water like a cat slinking under a door. No one noticed it: not the lighthouse with its halo of light on the water, or the night fishermen searching for whiting and sole, or the farmers moving cattle over the hill at dawn. The sheep on the cliffs were undisturbed. Under the dark water, the whale’s body glowed lightly green.

By the morning it had floated up onto the beach, and lay neatly on its front. Birds gathered above it. The tide brought water over the sand in wide, flat mirrors broken by thin paths of sand. The waves drew around the whale and then out again, like a membrane around its delicate centre.

Some of the fishermen said it had come off course. They saw them out at sea but rarely so close. A few older people said it was some kind of omen, though could not agree on whether it was good or bad. Reverend Jones read the English newspapers most weeks but he said there was nothing that could explain the creature’s arrival. The navy was newly out at sea since the start of the month. He made a vague suggestion about radar and one of the farmers nodded and said, submarines.

Someone brought a large camera down from their house, a box which sat on long wooden legs. The flash made the landscape bleed out.


I was born on the island on 20th January 1920. My birth certificate read 30th January 1920, because my father could not get to the registration office on the mainland before then. There was a great winter storm and no one could leave the island. When we were finally able to cross, my mother used to tell me, the beach was covered in jellyfish, like a silver path of ice. My mother survived the birth, thank Jesus, because no one could have come to help her.

The island was three miles long and one mile wide, with a lighthouse marking the eastern point and a dark cave marking the west. There were twelve families, the minister, and Polish Lukasz who worked in the lighthouse. Our house, Rose Cottage, was set into the side of a hill, where the wind wrapped a fist around it. Tad said the army should have made tanks out of our windows, the way they stood against the weather. The glass had warped and splintered in places but still held fast to the frame. In the bedroom, at night, you could hear our neighbours’ goats calling out to their young through a crack in the pane, and sometimes you could see a candle in their house burning like a coin balanced on the top of the hill.


Tad always called me by the dog’s name. On the day of the whale, he passed me in the yard, calling for the dog. I was trying to clear dust from the hearth-rug, but watched as it formed a silvery layer over my clothes instead. I had to bat the midges away from my eyes.

‘I’m going on the boats, Elis,’ Tad said.

‘Manod,’ I said. ‘Not Elis. Elis is the dog’s name.’

‘I know, I know that.’

He waved me away. He headed down the path towards the sea. His rubber boots made a sucking sound on each step.

‘That’s what I said,’ I heard him say. ‘Manod. That’s what I said.’

On the other side of the yard, Tad dried mackerel by stringing them up on a line. He loved the dog: there was one section of dried fish just for him. My father barely spoke to me or my sister, but at night I heard him mumble long conversations with Elis. In the yard, Elis ran circles sniffing at the lichen between the slabs of stone, barely stopping, barely looking up at me. I cut a fish down for him, and he ran into the hawthorn ungratefully, sending up a small cloud of dried dirt and leaves.

I rubbed at a smear on my dress. It was an old one of my mother’s, dark flannel with loose threads trailing at each hem. Mam made her own clothes and then taught me. She made them practically, with wide pockets and space for moving around. I liked to copy the patterns in the magazines women left behind in the chapel. Mainland trends. From them I realised most people on the island dressed ten years behind everywhere else. Sometimes suitcases were washed up the shore and in them I found old garments to wear or take apart for the material. I found a ballgown once, with only a small tear at the hip, in anemone-red silk. It had a small pocket on one side, and out of it came a gold-plated powder compact, shaped like a scallop shell. The powder puff was still orange from contact with its owner’s skin.


Our neighbour appeared soon after Tad left, his clothes and hair dripping. I could see him come over the hill to where his wife was milking one of their goats. I could smell him from where I stood, the damp of his sheepskin jerkin and his soaked shirt beneath. His wife ran to him and cupped his face. I felt awkward watching them, and stood combing my fingers through my hair. I could hear snatches of what he told Leah: We thought it was a boat. Do you think it’s a bad sign? I watched Leah’s hands stiffen, the breath catch in her throat.

Not one person on the island knew how to swim. The men did not learn how, and so neither did the women. The sea was dangerous and I suppose we had lived with its danger too long. A popular saying amongst them: Out of the boat and into the water. Out of the frying pan into the fire. Out of the boat and God help you.

There used to be a king on the island, who wore a brass crown. When he died in the previous decade, no one wanted to do it anymore. Most of the young men had been killed in the war, or were trying to get a job on the mainland. The ones left were too busy on the fishing boats. So it goes. According to my mother, the women were not asked.


Excerpt from Whale Fall by Elizabeth O’Connor. Copyright © 2024 by Elizabeth O’Connor. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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