One of Our Whales Is Missing

In which Rick Renard, PR hustler par excellence, sets out to save Grimland's gentle giants of the deep. A short story

I summoned LaMoyne to assist with the editing and the press conference. When he got his first glimpse of Ragnar on the video, he said, "Please don't tell me that he is the object of this hagiographical exercise." He uses these out-of-town words to annoy me.

"We've worked with worse," I said.


We started editing. I hired a local actor to dub heroic-sounding utterances to replace the forty-six times Ragnar swore on film. We left in the whaleship captain's radio cursing. A typical snippet:

Ragnar: I appeal to you in the name of humanity, spare this harmless creature!

Captain: Fuck your mother!

This is the part of public relations that I most enjoy: not making your client look good but making the other side look terrible.

We added some interviews with the few Grimlanders who didn't think that Ragnar was out of his mind, along with some stock footage of harpooned whales rolling over and dying. To my surprise, I found myself caring about the creatures. This went against Renard's Third Rule No. 1 of public relations: "Never get emotionally involved."

By the end of the week we had a twelve-minute documentary titled Ragnarsaga: One Man's Quest to Save His Country's Soul. With the editing and the soundtrack, the confrontation with the whaleship was thrilling. Harpa waving good-bye from the dock brought tears to my eyes—never mind that I knew she had been yelling, "Ragnar, take your damn lithium pills or I von't haf sex vith you!" After dubbing she was calling "Farewell, my brave man, my only love!"

Ragnar was scheduled to come before the magistrate the following Thursday. We got the film to the media on Monday, along with a press release that made it sound like Ragnar was about to be sentenced to life imprisonment by a corrupt judicial system that had sold out to Grimland's ruthless whaling lobby. This was a bit of a stretch, but in public relations you sometimes have to swing to the bleachers.

Grimland TV ran the tape several times. There's not that much original programming there. We also streamed video from our Web site, On Thursday the crowd outside the courthouse was the biggest Grimland had seen since a demonstration over falling gravlax prices.

LaMoyne had recruited some locals to hold up signs saying ragnar must be free! and whaling = death! When Ragnar emerged from the car, the crowd began to chant. The perfectionist in me said, If only it could have been at night, with torches.

Harpa had been peeved at me for the dubbing, but now she squeezed my hand and said, "You haf made him into hero!" Looking at her—my gosh, she was beautiful—the thought crossed my mind that it wouldn't be all that tragic if the magistrate tossed Ragnar into the cooler for a while.

Anders Gansevoort had (covertly) paid for Ragnar to be represented by Kefluvik's top lawyer. The attorney made it sound as though the whaleship captain had been the aggressor and it was only by luck that we were attending a hearing, not a funeral. An hour later Ragnar was back on the steps of the courthouse, shaking his fist triumphantly and making a stem-winder of a speech.

"What's he saying?" I asked Harpa.

"He is making challenge to captain of valeship."

"What kind of challenge?"

"To fight vith axes. Is ancient Grimland custom, for insultings."

We hustled him out of there, but not before the challenge was captured on film by Grimland TV, which aired it that night. The captain of the whaleship—his first name was Magnus, and his surname derived from the words meaning "thorax" and "remover"—was shown saying that he would be more than happy to meet Ragnar on the field of honor and crush his skull like an egg. The magistrate thereupon issued a stern warning pointing out that gulfussfarkschnortel—the custom of settling disputes with axes—had been illegal since 1858.

However messy the situation, Ragnar was now a hero and Grimland had itself an anti-whaling movement. It was time for me to declare victory and go home. I booked a flight for the following day.

That night there was a celebration. Grimlanders love nothing more than to light a big fire and dance and drink around it. It's called a gluggsplatt. Any excuse will do. They're big on solstices and equinoxes. Every time there's a solstice or an equinox, they'll be out there lighting fires and chug-a-lugging Black Death until they pass out. Anthropologists call this atavistic behavior. (We call it "spring break.") I was tired and had to pack, but I felt I should drop in.

It was held on the outskirts of Kefluvik, next to a hot-springs lagoon, or hupmalaugar. The air was cold, as usual, but once you're sufficiently drunk—which happens within minutes—you strip off your clothes and jump into the lagoon, which is not only hot but deliciously muddy. You feel at one with the old primordial ooze, sitting in soft, warm goo as the bottle is passed around and the firelight illuminates the upper torsos of lovely Grimland ladies. Really, when you come right down to it, a gluggsplatt is a pretty darn pleasant way of spending an evening.

I was sitting in the mud feeling very mellow, looking up at the stars. LaMoyne was somewhere nearby, having struck up a conversation with a handsome Grimlander. Ragnar was in the next pool over, surrounded by female admirers.

I became aware of someone sidling up to me. It was Harpa. In a situation like this, you're not sure what to do with your eyes. It's tricky if you haven't grown up in Grimland, where being naked in hot mud is the norm, culturally speaking. I went back to looking over at Ragnar and his entourage and tried to keep the conversation light, with witticisms on the order of "This is the life, huh?" and "Check out those stars."

Harpa was not her usual ebullient self. She was staring unhappily at Ragnar, who was now receiving the romantic attentions of two young women.

"He's the big man now," she said.

"Oh, he's just enjoying his moment in the limelight. I'm sure he's the same old Ragnar."

"So," she said, sliding right into my lap, "I, too, vill enjoy the limelight."

It was dawn, or what passes for dawn in Grimland, before I crawled out of the goo and went back to my hotel. I missed my flight, but it was one of the better sleeps I've had, and the dreams were excellent.

Presented by

Christopher Buckley is the author of eleven books, including Florence of Arabia, portions of which appeared in The Atlantic last fall.

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