Cover image for Dance the river whale
Dance the river whale
Mercier, Ron.
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Publication Information:
Pittsfield, MA : Deerbridge Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
251 pages ; 23 cm
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X Young Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Publisher's Weekly Review

Mercier puts his experience as a psychotherapist and former Catholic priest to good use in this first novel of familial hatred, familial reconciliation and spiritual enlightenment. Tom Tˆtreault, 24, a French-Canadian living in Ingram, Mass., is at the end of his tether. Consumed with hatred for his once-beloved grandfather, he has spent the past few years trying to drink himself to death. Tom is rescued from the brink by Anna, the (somewhat implausibly) angelic and devoted nurse who loves him unconditionally, in spite of his stony fury and self-loathing. Another, stranger female savior appears as well: Dark Woman, a mysterious disembodied voice that encourages Tom and teases him into finding the strength he will need for his journey of self-discovery and healing. Much of the plot alternates between Tom's narration and his long, often confusing dialogues with this spirit guide, whose help he needs in confronting his hatred for his grandfather. The roots of this hatred are many: Tom's grandfather called Tom's absent mother a whore and Tom's father a coward. Most complicated of all, the teenaged Tom intervened in his grandfather's attempted suicide. Now the grandfather is dying and wants to unveil the secrets of Tom's tragic family historyÄif Tom can listen to his heart and trust the old man. The grandfather's revelations set Tom on a journey to recover his Native American heritage and to fulfill his destiny as a healer. The spiritual epiphanies Tom finds along the way range from the surreal to the saccharine, but readers interested in exploring the links between Christianity and Native American spirituality may enjoy Mercier's creative configurations. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Sign of the Whale     That Wednesday, I walked the railroad tracks to Cannery Bridge, drunk again. It was familiar, a ritual begun two years before when the drinking took a turn for the worse. My feet fell easily into the rut I'd made along the track and down the grassy incline to the underpass. In the early days I'd sleep it off on the embankment, but these last weeks I woke mornings with my face stuck in gravel or pressed against pavement. I prayed for the banality to end, but when the damp coolness of stone under the bridge revived me, I got up to face yet another day.     Taxi driver Lenny had long been picking me up and driving me home. At Ingram High, he'd been a friend, the closest I came to having one until I met Anna Ruggieri. I felt closer to her than anyone, even my grandmother Têtreault who'd raised me since I was a month old. Anna was the one I told about my drinking.     Each step I took that afternoon was a premeditated step down the ladder to hell, consumed by hatred for my grandfather and the despair of never seeing Anna again. Every step was filled with the memory of her love for me, my grandfather's spite, and the struggle of those emotions for my soul. Anna and my grandfather intertwined in my last thoughts in a way I could never have predicted.     She knew about the strife with my Pépère Têtreault. Anna knew I stayed away from home, spending more and more time on the banks of Stocking River, siphoning my grandfather's liquor supply into the emptiness I felt as my grandfather's anger seethed. When I didn't show up for dates, she looked for me at my favorite haunts on the river, shared only with her. Not even my grandfather, who'd taught me to fish the river, knew these places. She'd look for me in one after another of them until she found me slumped against a tree or draped across a rock, always drunk.     Long after Anna graduated, I obsessed about her. While she was away studying to be a nurse, she wrote letters that I never answered, but every time I heard from her, I set off on another binge. My grandfather and I were not fighting anymore, not because we'd made up, but only because we rarely saw each other and I'd made his habit of angry silences my own. I stopped confiding in Mémère altogether. I didn't like myself much when I graduated. I found work at Tilson's Cannery, hosing and scrubbing down the troughs the lobsters were funneled into from trucks. Not only had I become a loner, I'd made no attempt to reconcile with my grandfather. The more my grandmother pleaded with me to do so, the more I withdrew until finally I didn't visit either of them anymore.     When I learned that Anna had returned from out of state to work at St. Philomena's Hospital, I went out of my way to avoid her and drank more heavily. As before, I ignored her phone calls and she stopped calling. Toward the end of April Lenny, fearful for my life, contacted Anna in the hope that she could convince me to get help. Without success, they spent numerous night hours searching those old haunts Anna thought I might be in along the river or on the beach at Horseshoe Bay. I'd been able to keep the ritual at Cannery Bridge secret.     Today the too-blue sky seared my eyes. So I concentrated on the monotony of the grooves of the path until urged by a sudden premonition to look again at the sky, where the burning of blue had been replaced by a sea of iron gray. My entire body was drawn by my gaze into the sea, which revealed itself a liquid tapestry of finely woven hills, valleys, woodlands and fields, the Ingram of my childhood that wrought in me a strange tenderness. The scene unfolded gently, bearing my childhood up to interrupt the ritual that could only end in death.     Even when my attention returned to my steps along the track, I observed the tapestry flowing toward me and beginning to unravel so that its strands of iron gray disappeared, leaving in their wake only the luminous threads of whitest cloud. The radiance became a vast funnel, narrow at its source and expanding northward. I stood in awe of a drama I vaguely recognized as my own, which stirred in me the ancient longing of childhood. Like a great eel, the funnel moved noiselessly and sinuously through the grayness above the hills, valleys, and woodlands of present-day Ingram on a course parallel to the seacoast and in the direction of Riverton.     My feet were lifted and catapulted forward by the rhythm of that large organic motion in the sky. My body flew over swells of hill and into soundings of valley toward Lindsey, a smaller fishing community south of Ingram. I was riding the sea again, a sensation I knew well as a boy for having fished with my grandfather on the river and in the bay. It occurred to me that the luminous organism in the sky, reviewing the life I'd decided to end, was none other than the whale. My grandfather and I had met him once before when our boat drifted across that invisible line that divides a bay from the main. Then, I'd been so preoccupied with hanging onto a cod my grandfather had hooked and keeping my balance in the boat that I didn't notice our disappearance into one of those deeper valleys of the sea.     Having re-emerged from the valley not only with our lives but with our catch secured to the gunwale, I was amazed by the stillness that followed swiftly after the turbulence. The sea was glass. But only when the stillness had converted my heartbeat to its slow sturdy rhythm did the whale surface a hundred yards away. His appearance, swift and noiseless, left me wondering if I'd seen him at all. Today, by the track, the same stillness returned, omen, I thought by strange reasoning, of the whale's reappearance.     No sooner had I named the creature than it revealed itself. I saw its light filter through the grayness of the sea till it displayed the source of its power in the symmetry of its skeletal structure. The celluloid of an enormous X-ray etched on my eyeballs with the articulation of each part of the skeleton so clear that I could never doubt the presence of the whale in the sky that evening. I scanned its length from the smallest of its caudal vertebrae to its massive jawbones. The light emanating from the bones blinded me momentarily, forcing me to lower my gaze to the ground, where cornflowers blossomed from crusts of soot. I could not remember the last time I'd looked at flowers. It felt more as though they were looking at me, the brilliance of their blueness piercing my darkness by the impress of whalebone light.     When I looked again at the skeleton, its light, no less intense than before, seemed gentler. I noticed disturbances in the vicinity of the great mammal's tail. Gradually shapes emerged, indefinite at first, but becoming more distinct as they moved along the shining arc of the backbone. A procession was in the making as cowled wraiths floated one after the other on either side of the skeleton. Each detached a knobby vertebra from the backbone and reverentially held its radiance up to the surrounding darkness.     I knew the whale to be alive and whole, though it offered me only its skeleton as proof of its existence. I knew too that the monks, who accompanied it on what I sensed would be a long pilgrimage, had been conjured up from the dark nave of my childhood. As an altar boy, I'd been taught by Father Etienne of St. Anne's to walk slowly and respectfully toward the altar bearing the candlelight symbolic of the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. The monks, too many to number, carried the light of each vertebra with a respect engendered not only by years of prayer and service, but by an untold suffering. It was impressed on me by an unseen power that their suffering was as intrinsic to the light they held in their hands as was Christ's to holy Mass. They bore the light of the whale as I'd carried that of the altar, without the least diminishment of its source. While the monks plucked every vertebra from the whale's back, the animal lost none of its radiance, propelling itself forward to set the sanctuary of the southern sky aglow.     With a last slap of its great flukes, it disappeared amid a turbulent spume of cloud. With that, my feet moved freely again through the long grasses and cornflowers to my planned death. But just as I welcomed the freedom to execute my plan, I was stayed by the singular determination of the unseen power to teach me the identity of each of the light-bearing monks. As soon as the whale sounded the southern sky beyond my ordinary sight, the cowls of the monks were pulled back one by one to reveal a single identity. Beneath each robe strode the hulk of the same body; seared into each thick neck, the singular rope burn. I was appalled to learn that each of the acolyte monks was a replica of the man who had not only failed at life but failed even his attempt at death--my Grandfather Têtreault. I was appalled that his cowardly form should accompany the noble creature on its pilgrimage of light.     Forced by the unseen power to replay my grandfather's attempted suicide, I saw myself returning home from Stocking River. As I neared the crest of the wooded embankment that dropped precipitously from our backyard down to the river, I caught sight of my grandfather perched on a ladder he'd propped against the giant oak tree I used to swing from as a boy.     "Pépère," I screamed. Instead of answering me, he cocked his arm and hurled a writhing snake into the last light of day. I charged from the woods, my eyes burrowing twilight for the quickness that twirled itself around the largest bough of the tree. Lunging at the ladder as it began to sway, I rammed my chest into it, trying to pin it against the bough. With a thud, the ladder dropped into the crotch between bough and trunk--my grandfather was saved.     "Don't move, Pépère!" I shouted as I climbed up the ladder and thrust my knees into his legs to immobilize him. The tension of his body pushed hard against mine in a last effort to execute the deed.     "Pépère!" At my command, his body relented and his resolve left him as soon as the last glimmer of day slid behind hills the other side of the river. He let me lean across his back to loosen the rope and pull it free. I never forgot the sound it made when it gave way and retreated, hissing, into the high grass.     I didn't realize until this moment, as I surveyed the approach to Cannery Bridge and gauged the distance between myself and the underpass below, how shamed my grandfather must have been that day. He was seventy then; I, sixteen. I, "le petit morveux," the "little snotnose," in the habit of either ignoring or defying him, had witnessed his failure to kill himself. I felt no compassion for him now as I resolved to succeed where he had failed. I was determined not to go on living a life as futile as mine had become. As I stumbled down the embankment, my eyes filled with the sparkle of cornflowers, I fell by the side of the road in a swath of burnt grass to wait for dark. Then, I'd show him how it was done.     While I lay in the stubble, yearning for the peace that surrender to one's destiny ought to bring, I found not peace but only the hot dither of a brain that confused past with present, and muddled dreams.     "Lenny, why did you have to let Anna see what I've become? Remember the day at Trovert Lake? After you and Gin went home, I sat with Anna on the beach and we watched the sun turn red, slip into the water and shimmer slowly toward us. She shed her clothes and swam to meet the sun halfway, caught it between her outstretched hands and, diving, dragged it down with her. As she walked back naked toward me, she held me fast to her beauty while she whispered how much she loved me. Lenny, why?"     My brain manufactured a rapid succession of images fraught with a tenderness that would not relent but sharpened into persistent heartache: Mémère pouring me the hottest coffee I could stand against the shiver of shoveling snow; the diamond edge of a boat cutting into the glass of a calm sea; the press of Anna's skin against mine long after we'd kissed goodnight.     I had sense enough to hide from passersby. There was reasoning enough left to position myself under the bridge to escape the probe of headlights. I knew enough to wait until after the workers drove to Tilson's before the late night shift. Meanwhile, I lay out of sight, listening to my inaudible moans and whines, to different parts of my consciousness engaging in spurious dialogue about what I could have done to avoid this end, and to an unfamiliar part of my brain trying to break through the confusion. Finally, it wasn't the desperation of words that moved me grudgingly to tears but the light from Anna's eyes, distillation of the summer's blue cornflowers, piercing my heart with the same urgency I felt the day we met in the cafeteria.     "Anna," I cried out as the sun gleamed fiercely before its fall.     What makes you think she is looking for you? asked a voice unlike any I'd heard from the conjurings of delirium.     "She came with Lenny the last time." I answered meekly.     Did you not make it painfully clear that she was not to come again, that she was, in your own words, to `leave you alone'?     "Yes."     Then, why do you pursue her with whimperings of a false hope? The voice was a woman's; it cut through my self-pity with imperial directness.     "I don't know."     You must know. She spoke with the authority of the unseen power that had insinuated itself into the earlier events of the day. When night came, I raised my head to search the embankment for the light of Anna's eyes. In vain , the woman's voice insisted. Seeing nothing but the random illuminations of a single firefly, I laid my head down and fell asleep.     When I awoke, I spied a distant needle of light, brighter than any images of day, spear the darkness. Despite efforts to shield my eyes from its brilliance, it struck through my forehead to a view of the river of my earlier childhood where my grandfather cast his line like a liquid needle to the mystery of fish rising ever gladly to his mortal stabs.     "I loved him for teaching me to cast the way he could," I said aloud.     I know , the woman affirmed.     "My Mémère called me his `little shadow' because I followed him everywhere."     I know , she acquiesced.     "I'd walk with him to the bus stop on his way to work."     You would wait for him at the bus stop when he came home.     "He never minded me pestering him."     He let you work side by side with him in his beloved garden.     "That's right. Even though he'd have to straighten out my messes.     Do you remember him asking, always with a pat on the shoulder, how you managed to get so dirty?     "Every time he asked me that, I'd shrug my shoulders and he'd laugh."     Then, the two of you would laugh together.     "What happened to us that it got so bad we couldn't talk to each other anymore? That he got so dark and quiet I wanted to cry? I loved him."     You loved him.     In the time it took the needle to splinter into blinding shards of light, I struggled to my feet, staggered to the bridge and crouched in shadow for the opportune moment.     "Anna, he loved me."     It was impossible to determine how long it took for my first awareness of the cold hard dampness under my head. Shortly after, light raged in my eyes. The wrenching of a voice came last.     "Tom, it's Anna. Can you hear me?"     "Yes."     "Can you sit up?"     "I don't know."     "Try to sit up." When I tried to raise my head, I felt a pair of strong hands secure me under the arms and hoist me to a sitting position against a clammy wall. Lenny, I thought. To my rescue again.     "Please get that light out of my eyes," I pleaded, trying to turn my head away. Lenny extinguished the headlights of his car, keeping the parking lights on to warn approaching traffic.     "What time is it?" I asked irritably.     "Almost eleven," Anna answered. "We've got to get you out of here before the three-to-eleven starts coming out."     "Am I bleeding?"     "I don't see any blood." Anna leaned over me, checking my body from head to toe. "No, no blood," she repeated. "Did you fall, Tom?"     "But the impact? What about the car that hit me?"     "You didn't get hit by a car," Lenny assured me. "You probably passed out, but you're lucky you didn't get hit. Damned lucky. Can you stand up?"     "But I did get hit," I insisted. "I went flying."     Convinced I was hallucinating, Lenny shrugged and glanced at Anna.     You were hit all right, but not by a car , the woman interjected.     "What hit me?"     "Rotgut," Lenny gibed. "You reek." Keenly aware that the others couldn't hear the woman speak, I listened intently to her version.     In the instant it took you to realize that you love your grandfather as much as he has always loved you, the Whale of your vision circled back the length of an ocean from his luminous sounding in the southern sky to slap you with his tail out of harm's way. Simple as that. When Anna took hold of my hands to pull me up, we were both surprised by the strength and push of my legs.     The next morning, I couldn't lift my head from the pillow, no matter how hard I tried. I fancied my head one of the large stones at Cannery Bridge. With time I was even able to discern the features of my new head of stone, which bore an uncanny resemblance to my grandfather when he was my companion and best friend.     You are very much like him , the woman said. I watched my detached head float high over what seemed to me the grandest river in the world.     "The Stocking?" I asked.     No , she denied, with a tone that implied I should've known better. That is the River of the Fourth. Watch. I watched in disbelief as my head, the stone, floated high above the river and grew in density and weight as it ascended. I was further amazed that, at the apex of its climb, the head transformed from reluctant shadow beneath the cowl to forthright brilliance of Whale's bone.     You are very much like him , she said. In his strengths and his weaknesses. You must come down, my godson, before it is too late. You must come down to the reality of the bond that exists between you and your grandfather.     "How?"     Simply give him your hand. Come walk with him on the river. As soon as I willed my hand into my grandfather's, my head of stone eased itself in lightness and light toward the river; and without losing any of my grandfather's lineaments, including the thick rope-burned neck, the more my own it seemed. Have no fear of the River of the Fourth , she reassured, for its waters will transform your being into a living bridge.     "What do I do?"     Take your grandfather's hand as soon as it emerges from the river and dare become more bridge than blockhead . She laughed. But mind you, godson, blockheads often do make wonderful bridges. Capable of sustaining not only the full weight of Whale, but the brunt of a pilgrim's journey. Copyright © 1999 Ron Mercier. All rights reserved.