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  • Laying on of Hands
  • Steven Harvey (bio)

A dark slick rising and falling in silky waves—that caught my eye. Some dusky residue of night. The sun had just risen above the Gulf, igniting the sky momentarily in pinks and reds and giving definition to the dunes and sea oats all about me while the house, the wooden walkway, even my arms turned golden in the glow. The water, which lay placid and still against the bowed horizon, culminated along the beach in a hush of long, perfect waves. I had been sitting in a beach chair strumming a ukulele when a black shape appeared—materialized, it seemed, in folds of blue—undulating with the water. I set my instrument down and stood to get a better look, shading my eyes. Suddenly a shape like a wind-lifted lapel emerged briefly out of the spray, and I knew that the darkness I saw could not be a shadow, but an object of some kind, though the movement seemed involuntary, more the rocking of the lovely and indifferent semitropical waters than a thing alive.

In Moby Dick Herman Melville compares a morning like this one to the morning after the nuptial night when formality and romance have given way to the act of engendering. The air, he writes, is “pensive” and “transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look” while “man-like” the sea heaves with “long, strong, lingering swells.” The gulls, he imagines, float like the winking and fluttering thoughts of the woman roused from sleep, so different from the dark and “murderous” underwater creatures slithering through the man’s mind, and the horizon trembles with passion, “the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the poor bride gave her bosom away.” I often think of Melville on sunlit mornings at the beach when the sea takes the sky, the combination of elements creating life and offering it as a gift to the planet. It is a lovely metaphor.

But this gift, this offering to the dawn, I wondered, looking at the [End Page 114] black shape in the breakers. What have we here? Rarely is it delivered so literally.

And a leviathan, to boot. I did not realize at first that the shape rolling in the water was a whale—a baby sperm whale to be exact—but I did walk down to the water’s edge and on closer look saw that it was a large sea creature. Most of the enormous body lay hidden under water that was slowly turning azure in the morning sun, but I saw the tail clearly—the black lapel—that roiled with the waters and, when a breaker tumbled in, rose out of the wave with a gush and slapped back at the sea. We had often seen dolphins play here—St. George Island is famous for them—so I thought it might be a dolphin though it looked far too large. Recently we had heard reports of sharks attacking children at the water’s edge so that thought glided ominously through my mind. I kept my distance. I’m pretty sure that I was the first on the scene since I had watched the shape emerge out of the night with no one else around. After a long look—in which the body rose and fell with the swelling of the waves—I went back to my ukulele and sat in the sand, wondering what is done when an enormous, dead sea creature washes up on the beach.

But it was not dead. I walked back to the beach house. Louisa, whose family shared the St. George house with ours, was pouring coffee and blinking her eyes to wake up. Louisa is usually game for anything, even the sight of a whale at the crack of dawn, so soon she and I were headed down the beach, holding coffee mugs in front of us as we tried to negotiate the tricky sand, making our way to the spot where the whale had washed up. It still looked lifeless and out of place, like a sofa rolling on the waves, but two plucky volunteers who were in the water, their...