The Origin of Whales

Magazine cover with photo of campaign buttons and dollar bills, reading "Money & Politics"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 20 No. 2, "Money & Politics." Find more from that issue here.

The woman sat. She sat on a porch under the roof of an old white house, with a massive oak before her, apple trees and plum trees and peach trees to the right and left, a grape arbor at the edge of the backyard, and an abandoned chicken coop at the other end near an empty smokehouse. She sat in a wicker-bottomed rocking chair like some grim guardian, peering into the late-September air as if searching for the place where the air gives way.

A car approached from the distance, creating a mean and dusty cloud that rose up and vanished. The car stopped in front of the house. The woman who drove the car stepped out and a boy jumped out from the other side: the boy clad in ripped and sporty clothes, his shoes unlaced; the woman nicely coiffured, smartly dressed.

“How you doing today, Aunt Essie?”

“Fine, child, just fine.” The old woman’s voice trembled like ripples across a pond. “Can’t complain. Things sho could be whole lot worser. How you doing, gal? You and Thad ready to go?”

“Yes, ma’am. Soon as I get Little Thad straightened away with you, we’ll be ready to go.” Her voice was small but sharp, like a bird’s. She absently watched the boy over by the ditch at the edge of the yard poking at something with a branch.

“Well, I knows y’all is looking forward to it.”

“Yes, ma’am, we are. And I want to thank you for looking after Thad for us.”

Tain’t no trouble at all. Where his things at?”

“In the car. He’ll get them.” The woman turned on the porch, her high heels clicking on the wood, and called to the boy, telling him to get his suitcase and tote bag out of the car, Mama’s got to go, and did he have his books to study?, and to be good.

Through all this the boy continued to kick at clods of dirt around the ditch, his hands in his pockets, his head down.

“Thad, did you hear me?”

“Yeah,” said the boy, without looking up.

“Come on, Thad. I’ve got to get on the road.”

“You do it then.” He did not look at her.

Closing her eyes as if in pain, she started toward the car.

“Wait.” Essie stopped rocking. “Boy,” her voice rolled forth. “You get your little black butt to that car and get your mess out. This very minute. Do you hear me?”

The boy stood still and stared at the older woman. After a while he did as she’d told him, without saying a word.

The mother sighed. “Seems I just can’t do anything with him these days. I really do appreciate your keeping him, Aunt Essie. I hope he doesn’t give you too much trouble.”

Essie commenced to rock. “Now don’t you worry about a thing, child. You all enjoy the convention and we’ll be fine.”

“Thank you, Aunt Essie.” The woman gave a little girl’s prim smile. “Oh, and Aunt Essie, how is Cousin Ruth? I heard she wasn’t doing too well.”

The woman fixed her with a peculiar narrowing of the eyes. “Well, I don’t know, girl. I just don’t know. Saw her yestidy. Reverend Greene took me. Didn’t look good. Had another stroke, you know.” She shrugged. “But the Lord do know best, don’t he?” Her voice trailed off into the blue. “You know.” Essie’s face lightened. “You know, me and her was born on the same day.”

“Yes, Thad told me.”


The woman smoothed the pleats in her dress with the palms of her hands. She glanced at her watch. “Oops! I better head on out.”

The boy climbed the steps carrying his bags and looking stern. His mother smiled sweetly. “Now you be a good boy and do what your Aunt Essie says. Okay?”

He groaned.

She tried to kiss him, but he stepped back. “Aw, come on, Ma.”

“Give your mama a good-bye kiss, boy, or I’ll put this here walking stick upside your head. Go on now. Do it.”

He gave the old woman a who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are? glare but kissed his mother, grudgingly.

The mother thanked Essie again and walked to her car.

The old woman watched the car slide down the dirt road. She turned to the boy, who peered at her. She rolled her eyes. Presently the boy made his way over to the opposite side of the porch, walking its edge like a tightrope.

Essie turned her gaze toward the sky again. She told him where to put his bags and where he would be sleeping. She asked him if he was hungry. He said no. She told him they would eat in about half an hour.

“I’m going to look around.”


“I said I’m going out to take a look-see around in the yard. Okay?”

“You are?”


“Is that a fact?” Essie bent over her cane, the gray wig on her head a little askew. She cocked her head to the side the way a listening fawn would.

The boy crossed his arms and tapped his feet. She began to tap her cane in counterpoint. They went on, ta-tap-tap, ta-tap-tap, like a couple of retired vaudevillian hoofers, their eyes locked in determination.

Finally the boy said, “May I go scout around?”

‘“Scout around’?”

“Ah, come on. Give me a break.”

“Beg your pardon?” Her expression did not change nor did she stop tapping her stick.

He dropped his hands to his side. “Miss Aunt Essie, ma’am, may I please go out in the yard to play, Miss Aunt Essie, ma’am, thank you, may I, please, ma’am?” He bugged his eyes and stretched his mouth sorrowfully.

“Well, I reckon if you got the sense to ask somebody, you can go.” The boy dashed down the steps, only touching one with his foot. “You stay out of them ditches!” she yelled after him. “And don’t go no further than the yard.”


Essie slowly made her way inside and down the hall, past the heavily framed sepia photographs of stern-looking men and women and past vases of dried flowers on doily-covered tabletops to the kitchen. She lifted a pot and filled it with water. Measured out cornmeal. Dipped out lard. Washed and drained a silvery-steel pan full of green-hued collard and mustard leaves. Stuffed them in a pot. Measured out a cup of rice. Put more water on to boil. Her hands moved about the cups and spoons and jars with an exaggerated deliberateness.

“Pssst! Pssst! Aunt Essie. Aunt Essie.”

She peered out the window over the sink. “What you want now, boy?”

“Want to play hide-and-go-seek?”

Her expression did not change. She wiped her hand with a cloth. “Okay. Be right out.” She checked the pots and the water and walked out the back door, pausing to look at a clock.

At the foot of the back door steps he met her.

“All right. Who’s gone be It?”


“Uh-uh. You always hide. I’m gone hide this time, feller.”

The boy heaved an impatient sigh, shifted his weight, and rolled his eyes. “Okay. Okay. I’ll be It. Ready?”

The woman started to walk away. “Well? Turn around now. And start counting, why don’t you? And don’t count too fast neither. To a hundred.”

A hundred!” “Yeah, a hundred. And don’t peep neither. Turn round, I say.”

“Good enough?” The boy had his back to her, his hands over his face. “One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight...”

Essie crept away as best she could, tip-tip-tippy-toed. She walked over to the old chicken coop, the door off its hinges. She peeked in, paused, and shook her head no. She turned to the grape arbor.

“... seventy-six, seventy-five, seventy-four...”

She crouched slightly behind the big mother-stalk at its center, which was twice as wide as she.

“... twenty-four, twenty-three, twenty-two...”

She hunched there grinning, her back to the stalk, leaning on her cane. She glanced into the net of green-dark leaves above her head, saw a cluster of grapes, and plucked one off.

“...nine, eight, seven...”

With a grimace and a pucker she spat out the unripe grape, then quietly spat out more of the hull. “Ready or not here I come!”

She tilted her head to the right and listened. She tiptoed to a post at the edge of the arbor and peeked out. Little Thad was tiptoeing, just as she had, toward the front of the house. When he had vanished from sight, Essie snuck out from the arbor toward the steps. She began to smile, for she had almost arrived at home base. Something grabbed her elbows—

“Got you!” Thad had come up from behind her.

Essie jumped with a start. “Whooooweeee! You scared the devil out of me, you little —” Playfully, laughing, she swung her cane at him. He ducked like a gazelle.

“Your turn. Your turn.” His face betrayed glee.

Essie advanced to the steps. “Turn your back and close your eyes now.”

“I know, boy. I know. I was playing this before your daddy was a itch in his daddy’s breeches. Now go on and let me count. One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven...” Essie stopped counting out loud.

“Aunt Essie. Keep counting. Come on now, play fair.”

“I am playing fair.” She grinned. “... eighty-eight, eighty-seven, eighty-six, eighty-five...”

She looked through her hands through the screen door into the house, straight to the front door and out, across the fields in the front, out and out.

“... thirty-five, thirty-four, thirty-three...”

Above her head she noted a spiderweb, and in it a spider making a living mummy out of freshly caught prey. A wooden thud sounded in the distance not far behind her. A smirk spread across her face.

“... four, three, two, one. Ready or not, I’m gone get you.”

She turned and with a mockingly purposeful walk made her way toward the chicken coop. At its door she paused and inspected the ground around it.

“Now, Thad. I know you’re in there and ain’t but one way out. So come on, I got you.”

No sound came from the henhouse.

“Come on, boy.”

She bent over and peered in.

Suddenly Thad jumped up, yelling: “You got to get me fore I get to base.” He tried to make a run for it, but Essie quickly stuck out her cane, tripping him to the ground.

Tears welled up in the comers of her eyes and slipped down her cheeks, and she could hardly catch her breath for laughing.

‘Teach you. Teach you to mess with ole Essie. Teach you.”

The boy sat stunned in disbelief and soon began to laugh along with her. They giggled and snickered outside the henhouse, pointing and poking at one another.

Essie suddenly stood up straight and gasped.

“Aunt Essie? What? What is it?”

“My collards, boy. I bet they’s burnt.” With that she made her way as quickly as she could to the house.


In the kitchen, over the pot, she sighed with relief when she found a smidgen of water left. Her breathing came short and she awkwardly sat in a chair. “Getting old. Getting old. Can’t keep doing this foolishness. Gone kill me sho,” she murmured as she tried to catch her breath and calm her breast. After a spell she rose, with more effort than before, and finished preparing the meal.

“Boy, come on in here and wash your face and hands and get ready for some supper. Hear?”

“Okay. What’s for grub, Granny?”

“Watch your lip, son. Your grandma’s dead. I’m your Aunt Essie. Remember that.” She kept her eyes on the iron skillet as she tended the frying cornbread with a spatula.

The boy came back from the bathroom and sat at the table. The woman served his plate.

“Now you eat.”

“What’s this?”

“What you mean, ‘What’s this?”’ She looked as perplexed as if someone had asked her why the sun burned in the sky. “It’s collards, with some mustard greens mixed in. A little bit a fatback, rice, and cornbread. What you been eating all your life. What you think it is?”

“Collards!” The boy squinched his face up into an awful frown. “I can’t eat no collards or no fatback neither.” He stared at the plate as though it held a pile of dung.

“Boy, you eat that something to eat. I ain’t slaved all this time in this here kitchen to put up with your mouthing bout what you is and ain’t gone eat. Eat.” She looked at him hard, and he lifted his fork and ate. He mumbled something to himself.

“Your maw ate this here food when she was coming up. Your paw ate this here food when he was coming up. I ate it. My maw and paw ate it, and if it were good enough for them I reckons it’ll suit you.” She served her plate and slowly sank into her chair across the table from the boy, who picked at his food as though stirring leaves.

“Boy, stop picking in that food and start eating. Y’all children don’t know what good eating is. Get you some nice smothered collard greens, some fatback, a nice piece of cornbread. Uh-uh. Now, boy, that’s eating. Y’all young folks don’t know. You just don’t know.” She stuffed some more collards into her mouth. The boy’s eyes were fixed on his plate.

“You say you don’t love no collards. You ever hear talk of my brother Hugh?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Well, I don’t know why. You should. He was my brother. Now, Hugh — he loved him some collard greens. You hear me? Sho did. I remember one time. Round August. Maw had cooked a great big ole pot of collards. Now ole Hugh—he couldn’t a been more than your age—well, he knew them collards was about done. We was all out in the fields. So Hugh, he slips back to the house, you know, cause Maw left the pot on. And he ate that whole pot of collards.”

“A whole pot! How? He couldn’t have. He—”

“If I’m lying, I’m flying. Ate the whole blessed pot. Well, we come home for supper and there ain’t no collards. Paw’s furious. Say he’s sho that Hugh done and ate them collards. ‘No, no, Paw,’ Hugh say. ‘Twon’t me. I seen a bear, Paw. I bet hit was a bear.’

“Now Paw wont no stupid man. He knew Hugh ate them collards. But he was a slick one, Paw was. So he just scratched his head a mite and say: ‘Now, boy, if twas a bear they ought to be tracks, now oughten they?’

“Well, Hugh agreed, cause there wont nothing else to do but say he ate them collards, and he sho didn’t want Paw to lay into him. So Paw and Hugh went out and I figured they was going to the woodpile so Paw could whup Hugh good. But guess what?”

“What?” Thad spoke from behind wide eyes and through a mouth full of greens.

“See, there had been a rainstorm the night before and the ground was soft. Hugh and Paw come back and say he be damned if there wont some tracks out yonder. Now I could see that ole Hugh didn’t know what to think, cause he knowed he was lying. But Paw didn’t give him a whupping, since he seen them tracks sho enough.

“But that night Hugh couldn’t get to sleep. He twisted. He turned. He paced the floor.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“He had the runs.”

“The runs?”

“Diarrhea. The squirts. You know what I’m talking bout, boy.”

“Oh. Well, why didn’t he just go to the bathroom?”

“Cause,”—Essie threw her head back and chuckled— “son, in them days we didn’t have no bathrooms in the house. No, Lord, we had a outhouse.”

“Why didn’t he go there?”

“Cause! He was scared the bear was gone get him.”

“What happened?” Essie took a swig from her lemonade. “Well, ole Hugh lasted till about eleven-thirty—in them days we went to bed at about nine or ten o’clock — and he just had to get out of there to make a stink real bad. So he went out the door. Bout two minutes later we heard yelling and screaming and in come Hugh, yelling: ‘Paw, Paw, get your gun, get your gun, I seen a bear,’ and he had messed all over himself. Paw whupped him good too.”

“What about the bear?”

“Tsk.” Essie rolled her eyes and picked up her fork. “Wont no bear, fool.” Her eyes lit with the chewing of the greens and she nodded and rocked as she ate to show how good the food tasted to her. She winked at the boy. After a time of silence she began to hum. A low, rich tune. A hymn.


After supper Thad helped Essie clear the table, put away food, and wash dishes.

“Help me with my homework?” Thad rubbed a dish towel across a plate until it squeaked.

“Don’t I always?”

On the cleared kitchen table, atop the green-and-white oilcloth, Thad piled up his books: modern mathematics, spelling, social studies, science. Essie went to her black purse in the hall for her eyeglasses, which had round lenses and silver frames.

Thad and Essie sat at the table. By and by the brilliant horizon could be seen through the window; the sun was just setting; blues mingled with reds mingled with yellows as if the air were ablaze. “Science first. We ’re doing biology now. Evolution. This says that all animals began as lower animals and adapted into what they are now. Do you believe that, Aunt Essie?”

“Not particularly.” She frowned over her spectacles at the color-bright picture of dinosaurs and shaggy elephants in the book.

“Whales even were supposed to walk on the earth with legs and stuff once upon a time. Cause they’re mammals like us and not fishes like gold fishes and sharks. Do you believe that?”

“No, I—”

The phone rang.

She jumped as if someone had come into her house uninvited. “Boy, get that for me.” She struggled to get to her feet, reaching for her walking stick. The boy ran to the phone in the front hall.

“Hello,” he said. “Yes. Yes, ma’am... This is Thad... Thad Williams... Yes, ma’am... Aunt Essie is... Yes, ma’am... No, ma’am, I’m Thad Williams, the dentist’s son. ...Yes, ma’am, Leota’s boy... No, ma’am, my mama’s Denise...”

“Who that, boy?” Essie looked almost angry with worry. The boy, confused, handed the phone to her. She took it while still asking him who it was.

“Hello!” She yelled into the receiver as though she had to push her voice through the wire. “Whasay?... Uh-huh, yeah... This is Essie. Hattie, that you?... Oh, girl, how you doing?... Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah. What? Lordchildyouknowitaintso...” She became silent for a time, nodding occasionally. The boy went back to the kitchen table, flipping through his book.

“Which hospital is she in?”

The boy looked out the window into the newly harvested soybean field, into the ever-darkening sky. “Who there with her?”

Through the window in the door before which she stood, Essie watched a squirrel scamper up the oak tree in the front yard. It had an acorn in its mouth and its movements were quick and sharp. “Well, I wisht I could go see bout her, but I’m keeping this boy of Thad’s... Uh-huh... And, well, I might bring him with me in the morning. Uh-huh. Well, the Lord’s time ain’t man’s time. Yes, Lord.”

Essie hung up the phone.

“Who in the hospital?”

“Don’t vex me, boy.”

Essie took off her eyeglasses and gently placed them by the phone. Haltingly, visibly tired, she walked out the front door to the porch and her rocking chair. The sky gathering velvet. Evening tangible. The squirrel darted up and about tree limbs like some devilish dervish. Essie sat in the chair and began to hum. After a few bars she stopped; but her rocking continued.

Thad stood in the doorway, behind the screen door, watching Essie. She rocked. Finally he opened the door, carefully so as to keep it from creaking, and sat down on the floor next to the metronome figure rocking back and forth. He reached up for her hand, but as his neared hers he stopped. He stared at her hand on the arm of the chair: pecan-colored, large-veined, the nails clipped short, wrinkles like stitching. He balled his fist up tight, looked at it, drew it to his chest.

“Gone help me with my homework?”