A Peninsula of Whales

Brendan Donley

The first week of summer, Gavin and Ji-hyun set off for Dublin, South Korea, and gave no thought to anyone suggesting such a place didn’t exist. They took out their map, a six-foot-wide mess of unfolded paper, and spread it across their campsite table as they looked for the best available routes.

“We go here,” Ji-hyun said, pointing at the Quebec-Vietnam border. “And here and here, and finally here,” she said, tapping her pencil eraser in a zig-zag path that stretched from the Bolivian salt flats up through the mountains of Melbourne. Gavin smeared streaks of mud across his tie-dye shirt and cheeks as she talked, squinting into the morning sunlight, the best disguise he could muster for the bright inexperience beaming out from his eyes.

For eighteen years Ji-hyun had lived with her parents in a small house in the woods of northern Michigan, which they hoped would instill in their daughter an urge for adventure and, later on, an appreciation for having her wings clipped in so thoughtful and counter-intuitive a way. Just once, at age five, they took her beyond the neighboring towns, down to Grand Rapids, where her mother recited each morning of a week-long trip, “This isn’t a city, Ji-hyun-ah, it’s a giant, many-colored whale.” And then her father: “And some whales,” he said, “have brighter and better and wilder stories than others.” Her mother swooped her hand up from under the table and moved it like an undulating tail fin, and her father puffed his cheeks out, as if devouring an entire school of krill.

On her next birthday, they gave her the map.

It looked like this: pink for water, purple for land, and with the pasted cut-out faces of artists, relatives and long-lost friends over each major world capital, almost all of which were unrecognizable to Ji-hyun. Those of her parents were placed beside each other over Budapest and Havana, red-faced as if they’d just been caught kissing. Ji-hyun’s own face sat pasted on her birthplace in Traverse City, wearing an awed expression whose source was a photo from her first ride across the giant span of the Mackinac Bridge. Almost two whole miles long. Taller than anything she’d been allowed to see. Her young eyes gazing up at its green suspension cables, stretching up to tall white bridge towers propped up like three-rung ladders to a flat, gray sky, her mother having turned around from the front seat and captured it on a disposable camera. They crossed the bridge, just for a moment, before her father braked and made a quick U-turn, avoiding premature foreign exposure on a road that would soon become Ontario.

Gavin had been with Ji-hyun for just over a year—the first and only boy she’d been with, and the first person at all, she kept reminding herself, to agree that her map was in some way real. “It’s like a treasure map,” he said after studying it a few minutes, “but where I don’t know what the treasure is.”

He came by the house the evening before day one of the trip, wearing hiking boots, green camo pants and an expression that said You ready? I’m ready! as Ji-hyun’s parents listened from the nearby kitchen, with an exchange of quiet smiles—having long ago decided to end all travel restrictions post-graduation. Gavin set small stacks of various world currencies on the hood of the car, and Ji-hyun went out to fill up the gas tank. That night, in her family’s garage, they packed the car until dawn with lunch meat, sandwich buns, and a half-baked itinerary just long enough to last them their first week.

***

Ji-hyun’s parents had informed her early on that the real world didn’t match the map, an idea she’d never quite accepted. Trust us, they would say, insisting it was their own hand-made version of a globe they’d explored on trips over the years—arranged in a complex way that left no room for pitch-perfect geography. They explained all this, in simpler terms, with a hand on each of her shoulders and then told her—Happy birthday, Ji-hyun-ah, happiest birthday genius Ji-hyun-ah!

She took the map, with its flaws and fabrications, and memorized each part. Its contours, its colors, its collection of faces that became less mysterious the more she grew, noticing the cut-out holes atop author-bio pages in books shelved around the house. She soon fell into arguments with schoolteachers preaching the textbook locations of Lansing, Springfield and 48 other state capitals, insisting they had gotten something wrong. Before long, Ji-hyun began adding to the map, too—finishing it, she would say—tracing whale-shaped outlines around the major cities, and drawing packs of them swimming across faraway seas, as if her parents had forgotten to include the very best story they’d told her.

***

The trip began just after dawn, with Ji-hyun at the wheel and Gavin on his phone’s navigation app showing the miles left until Ontario. And the paper map splayed out in front of them, showing nothing but the hilly pueblo towns of Andalucia, with a hand-written marker from her mother, reading: “Honeymoon, Spain ‘88.” Before Gavin could ask, Ji-hyun came out with her single rule for the trip:

“Don’t show me that phone,” she said. “I know how it likes to spin things.”

Gavin nodded, but also had told her it had reason to display what it displayed. Though out of half-belief and half-placation, he said to her again, I believe in this map.

“Just one question,” he said, turning away from the window and the passing billboard ads beyond it. “What if we end up lost?”

Ji-hyun looked back at the road ahead, as if it contained a suitable answer to the question she had long ignored.

“Trust the map,” she said. “It’s right.”

***

On the day of her fifth birthday, Ji-hyun unfurled the map’s long-creased folds, her mother clearing the cupcakes and still-smoking candles from the table beneath her, and stared at it in wonder.

“I’m going here,” she declared, marking a black X at the center of South Korea, her mother’s birthplace and, for that reason, the map’s largest country. Her parents had resized and contorted its borders to match those of Ireland, the land of some seventy percent of her father’s family tree, and had crossed out Seoul for Dublin, Daejeon for Limerick, and Busan for Cork in a way they hoped would reflect their love for both countries—with their verdant complementary hills, and the way their deep folklores had, they still believed, brought them together in a way they had only discovered years after meeting.

Ji-hyun’s parents kissed her on the cheek and went to wash the dishes, leaving her with a half-finished cake and the hope that her present, many years from now, would become her personal guide.

***

On the slow, winding way up Michigan’s western coast, they passed a rest stop exit with a Hardee’s and four gas stations, a row of wineries, and the first motel that wasn’t draped in the dim, unhappy shade of the others they’d seen earlier.

“Help me with the radio,” Ji-hyun said, feeling around for the right buttons as she looked ahead at the traffic.

“Oldies?”

“Anything but the news,” she said, knowing any talk radio would soon mention not what she saw on her map, but a collection of place names only Michigan could produce, a string of Cheboygans and Trout Lakes and Pickfords that gave no quarter to alternate geographies. Before long, they were able to settle on a Spanish station neither of them could clearly understand, sparing her map from a slow factual unraveling.

Gavin sat quietly looking out at the deep green pine thickets passing by, flanked by high-up telephone lines and occasional billboards for local restaurants. Wild turkeys picked at the grass just beyond the shoulder, and unmarked semi-trucks grouped up in the right two lanes, spewing loose tire fragments all over the pavement. He thought about how long their trip would last. How they would view the surrounding landscapes, how they’d pair its names with its scenery, the map’s colors with the those of the land around them. What she knew as Spain, and then Central America, and then a contorted version of Vietnam, and everyone else knew without a doubt as Canada. But what if she’s wrong, he thought, but what if this fails, but what if, what if, what if. He turned off the radio.

“Just 30 miles to the border,” he said. “And nearly to the bridge now.”

“My first border,” Ji-hyun said, squeezing his hand and taking in the moment. “Our first border.”

***

Ji-hyun’s parents had never fully explained the map, except to themselves, when they first put it together. Every map needs a face, they both agreed, to make its roads less lonely. Faces and colors and years, too, to give it some healthy chronology. They picked faces of her uncles, faces of her cousins, colorful faces, old prints of black-and-white faces. Notes from trips abroad, world events, funerals, weddings and everything else that had occurred over the years. They picked artists too obscure to still remember, which they pinned alongside the names of their most admired paintings—relics from their younger years they had forgotten to erase.  

Gavin studied it spread out in his lap, looking at the bold, whale-shaped outlines Ji-hyun had drawn over many of its cities, and looked at each of the faces one by one, wondering why, for example, a grizzled man named Nellie had been placed atop the Swiss alps, which had been crossed out to read: “Mt. Rainier hiking trails, 1994.” He still told Ji-hyun the map felt real, which he did not deny now—it was all still accurate in a way he couldn’t explain. But the unwitting thought sprang up again: What if, what if, what if, what if, what if.

He put the map down and looked ahead where the road suddenly rose toward the approaching bridge entrance ramp. Ji-hyun scanned the water on both sides up ahead, where the road tucked up high beneath the twin suspension towers. Lake Michigan to the west, Lake Huron to the east. Canada, she was always told in school, another hour or so to the north, with her home state spread out comfortably at her back.

“Pull over,” Gavin said, just before the narrowing lanes filed them onto the bridge. “We should take this all in, this first bridge of ours.”

The turn signal clicked on, blinking erratically as they peeled off toward an exit that dropped them onto a small road just below the bridge. Ji-hyun pulled over onto the shoulder, wondering what exactly he wanted to see. She wanted to move. She wanted to speed ahead. She wanted, without delay, to glide above the Great Lakes, dive across the border, and go wherever the map would show her.

They got out in a parking lot near the old lighthouse at Mackinac Point, where Gavin stretched his legs on the seat of a wood picnic table and Ji-hyun spread the map out on the hood of the car. She looked at the drawings she’d added to it many years ago, little revisions that made her wonder what her parents had really intended in the long-term. She wondered what Gavin would think, if she asked him to add some edit of his own. If something could be renamed or repackaged in a way different than what they had first presented to her, she wondered, could she let someone else do the same?

“Hand me those binoculars,” Gavin said, walking back over to the car. He took them and trotted over to the water’s edge, to the end of a stone jetty. In the distance, through the lenses, the water was shining brighter than he had ever seen at that spot. He called back to Ji-hyun, keeping the binoculars pressed against his cheeks as he looked out still at the water. Small waves whipped up by a northern wind crashed on the curved shoreline, and seagulls sat in bunches on a shallow sandbar just beyond the lighthouse. Giant cargo ships trudged in and out through the straits, their tops well below the great soaring arc of the bridge. Further out, he saw dark shadows forming beneath the surface, clumping together and thinning out, until disappearing in the glare. Ji-hyun walked over to him, with the map folded up in her back pocket, over the stones made wet with cool lakewater, and stared out in the direction he was facing.

Against the horizon, where the sun was now brightest, a giant shadow jumped out of the water. Then another. Then a dozen more. Gavin adjusted the focus with his forefinger and opened his eyes wide, the binoculars pressing hard into his cheekbones. Far away, too far for Ji-hyun to see, and around the entire stretch of water, he saw what no one else around the bridge claimed to have seen that day, enormous shapes leaping from the water in packs of twenty, their bodies streaked with colors he had never imagined, full of life.  

#

Brendan Donley is a freelance writer living in Perth, Australia, whose writing has appeared in the New York Times and Byliner. Before that, he spent time in South Korea researching bilingual graffiti, and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, just against Chicago’s western edge—in a house that was an occasional hang-out spot of Ernest Hemingway.