The sudden monumental presence is preceded tenths of seconds before by a soft hissing sound (as if the body, 28 meters in length, had filtered in through a crack in the firmament), then an explosive bang! caused by the displacement of the empty air suddenly occupied by the enormous body. No one hears it, because no one is paying attention on that day at that hour in the center of Rosario, which stretches out below.
In that immobile hundredth of a second between its appearance and the beginning of its fall, the prodigious, wide tail of the blue whale jerks as if it were still underwater (in the ocean, almost simultaneously, it produces a sudden silent implosion as the salt water rushes to fill the photogravure of its gigantic disappeared body), scattering the water still clinging to it, in the exact moment that its 172 ton body begins its descent.
Seen like this, in the empty sky, the blue whale completes the roundness of that sky, serving as a reference point, similar to a thin line of white cloud at an altitude of 1,550 meters barely visible through squinted eyes. But there is nothing surreal in the stark appearance of the whale. To be more precise: in no way does it recall a painting by Magritte, a painter who might well have put a huge blue whale hanging in a blue sky.
But in that case the whale would be unblemished, smooth, pure. Here we’re dealing with a gigantic blue rorqual, numerous pleats traversing the length of its underbelly indicating how far it can open its jaw in order to swallow, for example, 60 tons of water, which it filters through the densely barbed grill of its mouth, trapping all the edible material it needs to keep its 172 ton body moving, living. There are of course patches of skin that are smooth, like a black eggshell, others are rough, with colonies of barnacles clinging to them like a thick plaster. But the most important thing, in that hundredth of a second of stillness, is the sense of physical weight, of muscularity and blubber.
If you were to compare the size of the blue whale–suspended briefly in midair, before beginning its fall–to something, it would have to be a passenger jet airplane, but a whale is much denser; a jet, of course, is hollow.
There is an additional difference. A jet airplane falling on the center of a city, however tragic–given the victims, the flattened buildings, the explosion of the fuel tank–would at least be thinkable. The appearance, and above all the plummeting fall of a blue whale is, on the other hand, unthinkable, unacceptable, unpossible. So the enormous cetacean, suddenly submerged in air when it was just underwater, stunned, will fight to grasp what the hell is going on, why the sonic profile provided in the depths by echolocation has been amplified and complicated to the point of saturation, why all of a sudden, in the hundredth of a second when it rotates to the vertical and begins to fall, it feels a terrible heat on its skin. In addition, without knowing it, in its cetacean slowness accustomed to feeding cycles, songs of courtship and commentary, and the pure joy of floating, it will fight to impose the impossible reality of a blue rorqual falling suddenly on a city, the mere idea of such an occurrence is refuted, at least prior to today, not only by science, common sense, and custom, but by the very fabric of reality.
As the tapered form of the blue whale falls toward the city of Rosario, which stretches out serene and gray, inside the whale there takes a slow and bulging displacement of its internal organs–without them detaching or being crushed–in the direction of its tail. The light of the sun, which other species, namely the inhabitants of the city, would consciously or unconsciously experience as pleasant and warm, is for the whale, on the other hand, experienced as insufferable. First and foremost because the friction from the first 80 or 100 meters dries the whale out entirely, not just the surface water but also the moisture in its skin. The enormous four-ton tongue, on top of which an elephant could comfortably sit, is stuck by its own inertia to the cathedral ceiling of the falling blue whale’s palate.
After the first hundred meters, if someone were paying attention, they would begin to hear the increasing hum of the more than 170 ton body plummeting like an unimaginable missile of meat, blubber, bones, and minuscule barnacles toward the center of the city. The hum is strange, opaque, curiously similar to an airplane falling toward the earth, but lacking the aggression of engines going crazy, out of control. It’s a sort of dreadful note, low and intensifying, that in the whale’s delicate ears, accustomed only to a multitude of flat ocean echoes, adds to the massive general disorientation that the cetacean’s senses are suffering, falling irrevocably through the blue sky toward the city.
After the first two hundred meters of the fall the body undergoes further modifications, now intolerable. Many of the baleens or whalebones–four to five meters in length–protected by the enormous lower lip, break with small cracks on the inside of the mouth, detach and, combined with the tongue sticking to the palate, contribute to the suffocation of the whale. At that altitude the whale is clearly suffering, defenseless, turned into a pitiless mass of geometric acceleration, pierced by a stab of nostalgia for salt water, for slow liquid days.
But when the body rotates 45 degrees to the vertical and begins to fall, the eye opens. And what it sees, approaching at an incredible velocity, and confirming the signals the great blue rorqual receives from echoes off the solid surface, is the city, stretching out below as infinite as the sky, although there is a clear limit along one border: the river. In its slow absorption of everything, the whale identifies the brown and silver surface as water, and an ancient reflex allows it to recognize water as its only chance of salvation, unaware in that fleeting moment of the certainty with which physics dictates (keeping in mind figures of weight and velocity of impact) that crashing into the liquid surface would be just as fatal as colliding with the dirt or concrete.
But as certain zones of the whale’s senses are overcome by the effects of gravity–the growing heat on its skin, the soft internal tearing, the fleeting sensation of the burnt barnacles ripped off by friction with the air–others inform it in tenths of seconds that it will not fall into the water, but onto the uneven contours of concrete–buildings, streets, and plazas of the city center.
There is one profile that stands out, a sort of vertical spike standing upright alongside the river. If it’s possible that there exists something like feelings in blue rorquals, the one that is falling over the city on September 24, 1995 feels that it would prefer to fall there, vertical, rectilinear onto that blunt but long and tall shape, to be impaled, to at the very least become a spectacle with some modicum of dignity, and not just a simple, albeit colossal, pulverized cetacean.
Now the shapes down below become even clearer, now the eye takes in everything in a thousandth of a second before the socket is closed forever by the overwhelming weight of acceleration, by lack of moisture, by friction, in the same way the whale’s sex organs–tucked up in the genital slit near the tail so it can swim unencumbered–bury themselves inside even farther, with a kind of primordial terror all their own, protecting themselves against the cauterizing heat on the skin. In that flash of fleeting and final perception, the eye sees that the body–accelerating, barely one hundred and fifty meters above the surface–will crash, that it will be entombed between the buildings at the intersection of the streets the inhabitants of the city know as bulevar San Martín and avenida Córdoba.
The people in motion, who will arrive at the intersection at the precise moment of impact, are:
A young thirty-four-year-old officer worker coming down San Martín toward the river, a briefcase hanging from one hand and a gray suit jacket draped over one shoulder–to relieve himself from the insufferable heat he is imagining that same intersection in the winter;
A forty-eight-year-old woman, whose thinning hair is an indistinct color between orange and brown, the result of the accumulation of countless dye jobs carried out over the years, walking down Córdoba, also toward the river;
A young man of twenty-six years, who looks younger, long, fine hair falling down his back. An hour earlier he swallowed a substance whose consumption is punishable by law and it has added a luminous halo to the lines that he sees (doors, windows, signs, storefronts). He is walking parallel to the woman, and due to a phenomenon of synchronicity that no one (least of all them) is aware of, the two of them move their legs in unison, like a ballet performance or a parade;
A thirty-two-year-old man, a professional soccer player, famous in his day but realizing now that it is time for him to retire, an idea that sinks his mind into a wash of shimmering melancholy, intermingling the memory of past goals with the bleakness of the coming future.
If the eye of the whale–the blue rorqual–could open now, in the ferocious rush of air and the viscous secretion with which it tries to protect itself from the unfamiliar aggression enveloping it, it would see, eight seconds prior to impact, the ten people down below align to receive it directly, in a seemingly predetermined formation, ten points increasing in size, still mobile.
Counting down, eight seconds prior to impact, the ten people, as well as others in the vicinity, become aware of the falling blue whale. First and foremost, the shadow of the plummeting mass falls across the intersection. They might mistake this for a dense cloud suddenly blocking out the sun. But, additionally, there is monumental hum of the tons of flesh, bones, and blubber, produced by the blistering and implacable descent of the condemned marine beast.
The ten people, and others at a distance, outside the intersection, all look up at the same time. Catching sight of the jaw or the enormous bottom lip misshapen by its velocity, the great curving tail coming behind, and they freeze, caught as if in the flash of a photograph.
The jaw of the office worker drops, his jacket and briefcase too, his arms go limp. “My God, my God,” the woman murmurs through her teeth, flooded with a dark guilt, the color drains from her face, accentuating the contrast of her white skin and dyed hair. The animal rights activists react as if according to a plan, taking a small step backwards, separating themselves slightly from the small table. The soccer player is jerked out of his melancholy humor and without knowing why he smiles, as if the terrific humming of the next eight seconds were his old fans cheering one of his moves. The only one who comprehends what he sees is the boy with long hair, whose face is overwhelmed by a beatific expression, as he thinks, euphorically: “A whale, outstanding!” right before impact.
In a way, that same body, already injured by the friction of the rectilinear fall, burnt by the air, comprehends its dark fate when the hard, sharp wall of the Sedería Eiffel, which occupies one of the four corners, slices open its side like a huge knife. Then everything gets confused. Many of the employees of Banco Nación, across from the Sedería, will wonder to the end of their days whether they did or did not see the massive wall of plummeting-blue-whale-body, covered suddenly with a wave, like red paint, of its own blood. Those not directly in the intersection will wonder the same thing, especially because of the faithful reflection provided by Banco Nación’s smooth and reflective glass walls, of the biological mass, larger than a locomotive, bellowing desperately as it is torn open and crashes.
Nobody will ever ask anyone else what they witnessed. But the employees and customers of Casa Chemea–which, as it has done since time immemorial, has shirts, jeans and jackets on display in a glass storefront occupying one of the other four corners–will never have to wonder what they did or did not see. Protected as they are by the small windows, by signs showing the discounted prices, if asked they would say they felt nothing, saw nothing, and had no doubts about what they saw or felt. On the other hand, the two or three people on the opposite corner, sitting at McDonald’s white plastic tables, will experience, just like the ten people in the intersection, the impact of the whale’s terrible mass without even being able to move.
Given the velocity of the fall and impact, it’s impossible to know if the whale, blue rorqual, hits the hard surface of the intersection with its mouth open or closed. In any event, its powerful bellow, a sound that’s impossible to distinguish from the awful tearing of the flesh against the corner of the Sedería Eiffel, will make people both indoors and outdoors for fifteen or twenty blocks of the surrounding area, in the middle of taking a step or motionless in bed, clutch a hand or both hands to their chest or, in the most sensible cases, stop what they are doing and cover their ears.
Because now, in the precise instant that the two lines–the vertical fall of the dense cetacean, and the horizontal plane of the concrete–meet, the challenge or attack on the fabric of reality is carried out and resolved in something less than a second, something immeasurable.
Although it materialized, rotated vertical, fell and ended up stuck like a massive cork into the intersection of bulevar San Martín and avenida Córdoba, the blue whale could not have materialized, fallen, and crashed, because that does not happen within the fabric of reality. While the whale was in action, in motion, it was able to follow its trajectory, its unfathomable fate. But now, when at last it crashes, it pulverizes the ten bodies standing in the intersection, flattens the little green table like a piece of paper, shakes and even cracks the marble and concrete of the ancient doorway of Banco Nación, which stands alone on the corner, without a building, like a relic. While the whale is falling, it is flesh and bones and muscles that are falling.
But every part of the whale that touches the hard floor of the city, of reality, self-destructs. First becoming a soft pulp, between gray and green, a wave that washes down the streets from the intersection like a surging tide, the salty and semi-putrefied odor of the sea invading the nasal passages of anyone struck and carried by the wave, created by the enormous body as it is entombed, erased, sucked up by the horizontal plane.
As it disappears, the wave of dissolving whale slips into the wide lobby of the Victoria Mall, although it doesn’t reach the central indoor fountain. At this point, only the tail has yet to disintegrate, though the whole thing is erased at the same rate that it falls and embeds itself in the concrete of San Martín and Códoba, and in the end, hundredths of a second later what actually inundates the streets from the intersection is no longer even pulp but liquid.
The liquid waves of destroyed whale splash the businesses at the entrance to galería Córdoba, one of which displays an Enciclopedia Espasa, for an instant it almost pushes the joystick controlling the arm that grabs stuffed animals out from inside the transparent glass box at the entrance to juguetería Gulliver, and in the end it is lost, like a low tide absorbed by the sand, before even making it to the corner of Sarmiento. None of the patrons of the bar tautologically baptized “Sarmiento y Cordoba” notices a thing, and in the end, with the whale totally erased, liquefied, absorbed a block away, the liquid flows back, drops, dissolves.
In the moment that its last molecule disappeared, those that suffered the impact were standing again in the intersection, knowing that something had happened but not knowing what, feeling a strange sensation in their legs, like wet clothes, like the smell of the sea, like fingers cooled by water. Even more: in the surrounding blocks, those that heard, in one way or another, the bellow of intolerable agony, and especially those that saw or received the impact, experienced a feeling that is also provoked by causes other than a falling whale: a death in the family, the unconfessed desire to crash and be eclipsed, to disappear, to escape the limits of mind and body.
A slight anguish, not psychological but physical: a bubble bursting under that vulnerable spot of white skin right at the base of the throat, that point of infinite surrender and risk that lovers know. Something that, if they were able to concentrate and put it in words, which they don’t even think of doing, the inhabitants of the city might describe as an dark internal bubble of death. In reality they experienced it as a closing of the throat, not from emotion (because they saw and felt nothing) but from weariness, from heat. The next day, Rosario’s only newspaper would include a small section about the dangers of heat stroke, and the appropriate measures to avoid it.
The whale dissolved, disappeared violently and sweetly, gone. That night, those in charge of cleaning the pavement on peatonal Córdoba would smell, from out of the grates and the sewer systems, an odor that would fill them with nostalgia for maritime coasts, so different from the rivers surrounding the city, but they would register it as the leftovers of seafood dishes from some restaurant that probably fell through the grate at some point, and they would increase the pressure of the water from their hoses.
Reality, undaunted, continues on its path, free of whales falling on centrally located corners. The suitcases and belts in Cepero Cueros seem to be waiting, satisfied, resting in windows under the glow of electric lights. In 1043 of peatonal Córdoba, the doorman as well as Mr. F. Cristiá, Dr. Molveznick and Dr. Gruegg and Mr. Héctor F. Pastore sleep the serene sleep of the righteous. Whales in the city are limited to illustrations that languish in the Biblioteca Argentina or Biblioteca Vigil, to the moving images of videos recorded for programs like National Geographic, to any number of flat, motionless posters in kiosks or old bookstores.
Although the sacrificed blue whale did not alter the fabric of reality, it did have effects: unique thoughts, lumps in throats, sudden feelings of chaos and catastrophe, imprecise but real, especially for those close to the point of impact. And although the architectural surface of the city is wholly monolithic and hard, although there are few things in the world with more common sense than one of its residents, in the long nights the empty streets still communicate something soft and sorrowful, but at the same time almost nourishing, to those passing through them alone or in the company of others. And old friends stop seeing each other one day to the next or keep seeing each other with a sudden and inexplicable mutual irritation. So, in a way, what the impact of the whale unleashed can be explained by the sometimes violent gusts of senselessness that permeate the supposedly serene and comfortable lives of the city’s inhabitants, gusts which those inhabitants try, just as senselessly, to attribute to the heat, to the humidity, or to the mosquitoes.
In fact, for a few seconds, the fabric of reality, although destroying it afterwards, allowed the body of the whale to plummet through the spring air of Rosario at an increasing velocity. It allowed the uneven ground to receive the body, the flank to be torn open by the Sedería Eiffel, but in the end it dissolved it, evaporated it in the exact instant that its existence was about to have effects, cause damage.
But the fabric of reality isn’t just tranquility, it’s also struggle, resistance; it isn’t just precise, enduring details, it’s also displacements. Exactly three and a half months after the fall and definitive obliteration of the blue rorqual, on a date more significant, more disposed to unusual occurrences, the 24th of December of 1995, a black and gray sperm whale materializes in the burning sky of a summer day over the nearby city of Santa Fe. The process follows, like almost everything that ends up imposing itself on the fabric of the real, the same pattern. One hundredth of a second of immobility, in which the characteristics of the sperm whale, in the event that they are observed, can be captured, more masculine and headstrong, with a square, destructive forehead, ready to resist any crash, the skin covered with scars, the eye opening to a reflection of absolute surprise, before, in the next hundredth of a second, it rotates and begins to fall toward the city.
Translated by Will Vanderhyden (from the anthology A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction, edited by Valerie Miles. Open Letter, 2014)
Elvio Gandolfo was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1947. His father was a printer, and together father and son ran a literary magazine, El Lagrimal trifurca, from 1968 to 1976. The magazine became a megaphone for a new generation of poets and ignored authors–both from Argentina and from the world map of international literature–and a forum for lively discussion.
Gandolfo writes of “The Moment of Impact”: