(Content Note for use of racist slur.)
John Wood boarded the Gracie-Ella ahead of the crew. He carried his sea chest on his shoulder. In a satchel slung low on his hip were his tools and the three things most precious to him: a lock of his grandmother’s hair, a shaving from the first cabinet he had built as a boy, and his freedom papers. No light but the moon, but John could walk the length of the Gracie-Ella’s decks eyes closed and barefoot without placing a wrong stop. She was named for the daughters of two men who held her title, and at sea she belonged to the captain, but John reflected that she was his as much as anyone’s; his hands had shaped her and healed her, cosseted her and kept her afloat. He ducked down below decks. In the dark he made his way midship to a space he and the cooper shared. The smell of sawdust and resin was a comfort. A few strikes of a flint and the lantern overhanging his workspace was alight. John set about arranging his tools. The work here was sweet. He ran his hand over words he had carved on the underside of the vice-bench. “I hereby manumit & set free John Wood. He may go wheresoever he pleases.”
The sixth night out from Nantucket, John woke to find William Harker looming over him in the darkness. John sat bolt upright in his hammock. William put a calloused finger to John’s lips. William’s voice was silky. “I’ve been thinking it’s been a mighty long time since I’ve been ashore. Man can develop a thirst.”
John groaned, half in anticipated pleasure, half in exhaustion. “Not even a week yet. Ain’t your wenching last you a fortnight?”
William bent close to his ear. John could smell salt, armpits, ass. William’s breath was hot on his cheek. “T’aint wenches I’m after. I was hoping the ship’s carpenter might lend us some wood.” William put one big, scarred hand on John’s crotch.
John felt himself stir in response. “Captain’ll make you kiss his daughter if I’m too ill-rested to swing my hammer come daybreak.”
William put his other hand on John’s neck. “My harpoon will be all the keener for it, and I can give you practice with your hammer.”
John sighed. “Best get on with it. It’s summer and the night’s nowhere near long enough.” He slid out of his hammock and led the big harpooner by the wrist from steerage towards the foretween decks.
John shoved William against the bulkhead and fumbled with his breeches. For all his talk of rest, John was every bit as eager. In the darkness, he traced William’s form with deft, curious hands. The body was familiar: the taut belly, the ropey scar high on one hip. He found William’s mouth with his own, hungry and biting. They rocked as the ship rocked. John felt the crest of a wave, and in its deep trough heard William cry out. Warm, sticky wetness splashed against his thigh. Slick and sweaty, the two men clung to each other. William whispered, “I’ll make you pretty baubles from the bone of the next whale I kill. I’ll spend my lay to bring you spices and silks. I’ll—”
Light pierced their quiet darkness. John saw the earnestness in William’s eyes, before William shoved him away and pulled up his breeches, slipping back the way he came.
John shaded his eyes. Pip, one of the cabin boys, walked past wide-eyed towards the forecastle with a stinking little lantern and a beaten tin cup. If he took any notice of John near naked and smelling of sweat and spunk, no sign of it shown on his dark, intense face. John laced up his breeches and followed after.
“Hoy there, Pip.”
The boy spooked. “Hoy, sir.”
John laughed. “Ain’t no one never called me sir. And you ain’t ‘bout to start. Name’s John, or John Wood if you have to keep formal. Bought my own freedom, and I won’t let you give me yours.”
The boy gave him an owlish look. “Hoy, John Wood. Never bought my freedom. I suppose I might have stolen it.”
John clapped Pip on the back. He pointed with his chin at the tin cup. “What’s that, boy?”
“Corn meal.” Pip pinched his lips together. “I ain’t steal it. Cookie gave it me.”
“A nobbin-hearted old skinflint like Cookie gave you near a half cup of it? You must got more charm than I know.”
The boy cradled the cup close to his narrow chest. His eyes were wide. “La Sirene knows ways to soften the hearts of men.”
John ruffled the boy’s hair, as coarse and kinky as his own. “What you doing with that this time of night?”
John watched in the flickering lamplight as the boy wet a finger with his tongue and traced with precision a little boat on the deck. Pip finished his drawing by writing a word strange to John, “Immamou.”
John said, “I learnt my letters soon’s I got my manumission papers, but what’s that word for?”
Pip said, “Protection.”
John laughed. “I don’t know about that. Ain’t no charm against the captain if he catches you sleep on first watch. Get to bed, boy.”
Pip blew out the lantern.
Two more days out and early morning John was dumping wood shavings into the cold furnaces of the try works when he heard a foremast hand’s thin voice cry from the hoops, “She blows! There she blows! A cachalot!”
The Captain roared, “A sperm whale, aye? Where boy, be quick? She alone?”
“Leeward, Captain! One spray. No more’n a league out!”
“To the boats, boys!” The Captain cracked a rare smile. “Mr. Wood! You keep my ship in order.”
John looked among the bodies scrambling over the deck for the other shipkeepers, Cookie, the cooper, the blacksmith, and the steward. He saw they were all awake and above-deck. “Captain sir, all’s ready for your return.”
The Captain beckoned at the Kanakan harpooner named To’afa—whom everyone called Gospel—with measured speed they headed to the first whaleboat, four crewmen in tow.
William ran to the third whaleboat swinging from its davit. His boatkeeper, the portly second mate, close on the lean, blond harpooner’s heels. William looked back at John once and shouted, “I’ve not forgot me words to you.”
The Captain’s boat launched first, and the boat with William soon splashed down after.
John heard the Captain cry out, “Take care, you louts, any of you gally this whale and she sounds, I’ll stripe you with nine lashes.”
Four whaleboats set out leeward after the whale. John stood for a moment at the railing midship watching them row, each boatkeeper urging their crew on faster in low growls. Cookie stood at John’s shoulder. He spat a thick gob of phlegm over the side. Cookie sucked at his gums. “Whale brains the night instead of salt horse.”
The sun was high when John first heard the crew again. Echoing over the waters, rough voices sang obscenely about the ladies of Cuba before the first of the whaleboats came into view. Towed behind them by the fluke was the carcass of a sperm whale nearly half as long as the Gracie-Ella herself.
John yelled for Pip to attend the returning crew. The ship pitched and listed as they lashed the massive beast starboard for the cutting in.
The crew were wet and boisterous, although to John’s eyes, tired and the worse for wear. William’s whaleboat was the first. The second mate’s face was red. “Grog!” He shouted. “Grog for the harpooner!”
Pip ran over with a tin cup full of drink slopping over the edges. William took it from him with both hands and drained it in a single pull. He looked over at John. “That old bull was meaner than my granny, but I keep me promises.”
The Captain supported one of his rowers around the shoulder. John ran to help. Ethan, his name was. John knew him to be a serious, quiet boy from Pennsylvania. His thin, white arm was bent at a ruinous angle. He slumped into John’s arms, his face gray. John thought Ethan would have need of his saw. The boy whimpered. John looked to the Captain. “He well?”
“Struck by the blow of a fluke. Plenty of grog and full barrels of parmacety will help him forget, I reckon. Time he comes to collect his lay he’ll be smiles again.”
John half-carried the boy down into the darkness of the forecastle. He lifted him into his hammock, the boy yelping and shuddering. Ethan’s eyes were large and tearful, but John knew he was needed on deck to erect the cutting stage. He stroked the boy’s hand. “I’ll send the Steward to come look after you.”
The sun was low to water when John, stinking and calloused, hammered the last plank of the cutting stage into place. The hands’ voices hoarse with hours of filthy shanties—Gospel abstaining. The whale was held fast to the Gracie-Ella with great chains. John remembered the injured boy, but knew the Captain would see pulling an able worker away to tend to Ethan as coddling. Every hand was turned to cutting in the whale. The harpooners peeled its skin in spiralling strips known as blankets with long-handled cutting spades. Each blanket piece was so heavy it took John and six others to haul it up. Men already sore and tired with rowing and killing chopped those pieces into smaller sections, to be yet again minced into paper-thin slices known as bible leaves.
William was back in the water with a monkey-rope tied around his waist, passing up buckets full of spermaceti to the two cabin boys, who ran the pearl-colored waxy substance over to barrels, which when full, were hammered shut and sealed under the watch of the cooper. The deck was red and slick with blood. On one of his last passes Pip slipped in the gore and fell on his back. John tossed a horse piece of blubber to the blacksmith and hurried over to the boy. Pip’s eyes fluttered shut as milk-fragrant spermacati from his bucket pooled around his narrow frame. John lifted the boy up and staggered against sudden weight; in an instant Pip felt heavier than one of the blanket pieces. He kneeled under the tremendous burden. Pip’s eyes snapped open. The boy’s expression was hard and made him look far older than his fourteen years. His voice was like thunder. “John Wood. You know me not. But you I know. Your kin called to me for safe passage across my waters.”
John groaned struggling to keep the boy upright. “Pip, this ain’t sensible. You struck your head.”
The boy’s look was pitying. “Pip? No. I am the storm and the wind hard behind it. I am the wave and the darkness below. I, the white foam and the shifting sea sand. Do you know me, John Wood?”
John whispered, “Agwe?”
“The blood remembers. Destruction follows your present course. You have until the moon waxes full and wanes again.” Pip shut his eyes. John felt the weight vanish from the boy.
The first mate, a tough, wiry man with a parsimonious mouth and thinning sandy hair stood over them. “You niggers pick a fine time for resting. Work to be done, and that spilled parmacety will come out of your lays, so I swear.”
Pip squealed. “Sir, t’ain’t the Carpenter’s fault. Sir? Mr. Wood was just helping me on account I’m so clumsy.”
“That so? You’ll pay double penalty, then.”
John stared hard at the deck so as not to give the First Mate a reason to call him out for insolence. “Sir, now Pip’s up and about, if I have your leave, I’m needed elsewhere.”
The First Mate scowled. “What are you looking poe-faced for? Back to work!”
That night the fires in the tryworks burned hot. Foul smoke, black as ink, curled up and blotted out the stars. The crew pitched bible leaves into the try pots for rendering. The cutting in had slowed after the sunset, and John turned his hand to the Captain’s whaleboat, which had seen some damage from the flailing whale. It had needed bailing out with a piggin on the way back, but John assessed the boat as being in fine condition, all things considered. He was sanding out a new board to replace one that had been cracked in the hunt, when a shadow distinct from the roiling clouds of smoke fell across him. Without looking up he said, “William, your mama was no glassblower.”
William’s smile seemed to beam in the lantern-light. He was wrapped in a moth-eaten old bear hide and held out two cups full of grog. “Looks like thirsty work there.”
John accepted one of the cups. He took a deep pull, relishing the burn down his throat. He gazed up at William. Shivering cold. Bedraggled. Ridiculous in that bear hide. Reeking of stale blood, salt, and sweat. Beautiful. He said, “You stink. You ain’t think to splash some of that ocean water on you whilst you was splashing around with that big fish?”
William smiled and squatted next to John. “That whole time I was fighting that mean old bastard, thinking what you’d say to me when I came back with a mouth full of teeth to carve into something for you kept me going.” He rested his hand on John’s shoulder.
“Careful. You’ll get old Gospel to come over and give’s a sermon ‘bout the evils of sodomy, and I don’t know about you, but I prefer my sinnin’ in quiet,” John said.
“Be days before a whale this size is barrelled and tucked away, unless the sharks find it first. We won’t have any idle hands for the devil’s tools, I reckon.”
John swatted William’s hand off his shoulder. “The devil! You think I’m old scratch?”
“You are a mighty temptation.” William’s voice turned serious. “That little negro cabin boy? What happened with him? There’s been some whispers that he’s touched.”
“He fell. That’s all. Ain’t none of you hoodoo-fearing whaler men never fell?”
William pulled John’s hand to his mouth and kissed the knuckles. “I just know you’re fond of him. I wanted to you to beware if things go sour.”
“A great big whale out there in less than a fortnight’s time, and you all are muttering about things going sour?” John laughed, but thought of the word “destruction” and all his mirth drained away.
Three days after the cutting in, John was working at the vice-bench, when Ezekiel, the other cabin boy, rushed in, flustered. John looked up from his work. “What is it, boy?”
“Mr. Wood! Mr. Sherman sent me in to find you he said to bring a saw!”
“Bring a saw? where?”
“The fo’c’sle! Ethan Anderson’s arm’s gone all wrong!”
John nodded, took a moment to select his sharpest and a yard of clean cloth, and followed the boy. The forecastle, never a sweet-smelling place, was rank with the smell of sick and rot. Ethan’s twisted arm had turned black. It wept pus through a poultice. Ethan moaned. His face in the lantern-light was pale. His lips were grey. John pressed gently on the arm near the wound and heard a crackling sound like logs splitting in a fire. John pursed his lips. “Zeke, get the boy whiskey.”
Ethan’s eyes were dull. “Don’t mean to gainsay you, Carpenter, but I dreamt of a black dog. Death’s coming, and I’d rather go into the sea intact.”
“If that arm don’t go, death will surely come. You had a misfortune is all. Don’t mean the end.”
Ethan managed a smile. “My fortune ended the day I signed up to the Gracie-Ella.”
John looked over to Simon Sherman, the Steward, who stood striped by shadows just beyond the dying boy. He wiped a thin hand across an ungenerous mouth and sniffed. “Well, Mr. Wood? You heard the man. Leave him to die in peace. Go find Gospel, he’ll want to say some prayers for his soul, I imagine.”
John put away his saw and found his way to the deck where he saw To’afa looming over the Captain. The harpooner was six and a half feet if he was an inch, and the expression he wore would fit a desert prophet. “Sir, may I have permission to speak plainly?”
The Captain winked at John. He stroked his salt-and-pepper beard. “To’afa, you seem about to burst if I say no. So out with it!”
“Sir, I have served you with the best of my skill. My arm has been yours. Why have you chosen to imperil me with the placement of an unrepentant sinner?”
“Imperil is a strong word.” The Captain beckoned to John. “Mr. Wood, what’s your perception of sin aboard this ship of mine?”
“Seems to me like pumping the bilge and repairing rotten boards occupies my time in a way that I ain’t really considered it, sir.”
To’afa wheeled on him. “This is no matter for sly jests. I have seen how you coddle that little heathen. You ought to talk sense to him!”
“Who ain’t got sense, now?”
“That cabin boy, Pip. I know you feel a fondness for him out of your shared bondage. But he invokes heathen gods! He makes offerings and worships idols. This cannot stand!”
The Captain stood. Even at his more modest height, he struck an imposing figure. His voice was low and calm. “I trust your objection is to my choosing to have Pip crew my whaleboat? Do you have a suitable replacement for Mr. Anderson? Will you perform the laying on of hands to heal his ruined arm? Or would you prefer I take that half-wit moon-calf Ezekiel to row? I would take the devil himself over that weakling and poltroon. If you have any objections to Pip and his savage worship, I suggest that you live up to your moniker and convert him, Gospel.”
To’afa looked thunderstruck. The Captain turned his back on him and walked slow and stately aft.
To’afa looked to John as if he could spit. “Does my faith amuse you, Carpenter?”
John’s voice was soft in reply, “It is your faith that has sent me forth. Ethan Anderson is not long for this world. Mr. Sherman has sent me to ask you to say a few prayers for his soul in the next one.”
To’afa nodded. “I shall collect my Bible.” He looked in the direction of the Captain. “I hope the Old Man does not regret taking no heed of my words on that devil-worshipping boy.”
On the day they buried Ethan at sea, one of the foremast hands caught sign of whales. Right whales this time, two, mother and calf. As the crew made muster again for the whaleboats, William pressed something hard and cool into John’s hand. It was a sperm whale’s tooth, carved into scrimshaw. John recognized his own face carved into the surface, rough edges smoothed away, and surrounded by fanciful flowers. He watched William bound across deck to his whaleboat and smothered a rueful smile.
It was after nautical twilight when the whaleboats returned. The crew sung no work songs, and the slapping of the oars against the ocean struck John as sepulchral. It reminded him of the creaking of a hearse. Once aboard, the Captain’s face was pinched and Gospel walked behind him with his head down, muttering prayers beneath his breath. William found John and embraced him in sight of God and the crew. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
John grabbed William by the chin. “What you sorry for?”
“The boy Pip—he…”
“Where is he?”
“The hunt was good at first. Old Gospel got right into her with his whale iron, she were fastened, and—” Tears and snot streamed down William’s big honest face. “Whale sounded and snapped two lines. The sea churned into froth. All the whaleboats rocked, mine nearly overturned. Pip. He just dove into the ocean after the whale. It must be a fit of madness. We searched until it was half-dark, but he never surfaced.”
“I see,” said John in a cold fury. He looked over at To’afa’s broad back. “You sure he ain’t had any help.”
William shook his head. “Gospel’s a sanctimonious bastard. But he wouldn’t bring no actual harm to a child beyond sermonizing.”
“Ain’t needed for the cutting in, am I? Reckon I have work to do below-deck,” John said.
John was not settled at his vice-bench for more than a moment before William’s shadow fell between him and the lamp. Chisel in hand he said, “Thought I told you I had work.”
“Thought maybe you could use me in grief as you do in joy.” William’s tone was bashful.
“You think that? We sailing together on a ship for two years, but after that I ain’t so sure I’ll sign back on. Seems a short time for you to be studying my grief.”
“Six year we sailed together since I was a green hand and you—”
“Bought myself free from a cabinet maker?”
William’s voice was patient, pleading. “And you came aboard to be this ship’s carpenter, even if you are too skilled by half. What I mean to say is, I don’t see no future for me without you in it, John Wood. I keep my lay by, don’t spend more than necessary. I’ve set aside some money. I could set you up a shop to work your trade, buy land for a house and—”
John sighed. “William, I like you. I likes your body. I likes my body when it is with yours. But future? Ain’t no future for any negro and a white man in the goddammed Union ‘cept as master and slave. I been a slave, I’ll be in my grave before I return to that.” John looked down at his lathe to avoid the hurt he knew was in William’s eyes.
“You’re wrong, John Wood. I love you as any man loves his wife. More. I love you so much that it is the filling up and making of me, and sometimes feel like to shatter when you’re not near.”
John made his expression stony. He crushed down the part of him that wanted to recite to William the Song of Solomon, that wanted to cradle him in his arms and rock him to the rhythm of the boat. “We have sweetness here. Sweetness never lasts. Let it linger on your tongue while it can.”
“Do I mean nothing more to you than the cockroach-ridden molasses you sweeten your coffee with?” William clenched his fists.
John looked at the lathe. “What I mean is, we got two years. Ain’t no point in expecting more.”
“I knew what you meant.” William said. John watched him walk away. When William was out of sight, John pulled out the scrimshaw portrait from under his shirt, where it had dangled on a cord to rest next to his heart.
Restless, late to bed, but too tired to find himself elsewhere, John headed midship where he had his hammock. Across from him the blacksmith snored. Above the blacksmith, William slept. His arms hung down limply, and the careworn look on his face had vanished. John put out the lantern. He settled into his hammock, turning to face away from William. His mind raced darkly, but sleep took him in moments.
He dreamt of the poor lost cabin boy Pip sitting at the right hand of a handsome brown-skinned youth with green eyes and wavy hair. The youth rested indolently on a coral throne. His full-lipped mouth pouted prettily, but the sea green eyes were piercing, knowing. An enormous mirror gauzed over with black crepe rested just beyond the throne. All else was darkness. Pip spoke, but the voice was like the roar of the ocean, and John knew the words belonged to the melancholy youth. “You break bread with thieves. They seek to plunder my seas the same as they have plundered the land before them.” He gestured behind him. John knew without seeing that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of shuffling figures in that unspeakable darkness. The youth nodded. Pip spoke again. “You feel them. The whales sing to keep them calm, to prevent them from despairing of never seeing Guinea. These the plundered lost in crossing. I have given them homes and solace.”
John felt himself transfixed by those green eyes. Pip spoke in his own voice. “Ain’t right what they done to us. Ain’t right what they do the whales. They’d burn us both up for lamp oil, and then when we’s gone seek to take more.”
The dead, John knew they were the dead with certainty, began to shuffle into almost visible ranks beyond the coral throne. They cried out in languages that were strange to him.
The voice of thunder issued from Pip’s mouth again. “Until the moon is dark.”
John awoke, the visions fresh in his head. He saw that William had already arisen and left his hammock empty. After washing his face with cold seawater, and finding the vision did not fade from memory like most dreams, John resolved to see the Captain.
The Captain had just finished taking breakfast in his cabin with the Mates. The First Mate cast an ugly look at John when he asked if he might have a moment of the Captain’s time, but the Captain agreed and bid John to sit at his table. The Mates cleared out in silence. The Captain was still hale at nearly sixty, but John noticed a sag in his shoulders. He looked at John with something like regard and asked, “What troubles you?”
John put his head in his hands. He knew the Captain to be a man of no great faith in things unseen. “Sir? Would you say I am honest?”
The Captain inclined his head. “I know you to be an honest man. And one who never has shirked from toil.”
John swallowed. “As I am honest, and for the love I bear you as one who has served under your command for six years… I—”
“Out with it, man.”
“Captain, this ship must return to its home port.”
“Are you mad? We’re less than a month out. We had good fortune with that cachalot bull, but the ship’s holds are nearly empty.”
By instinct, John fell back into the flowery speech he knew appealed to white men of rank. “Sir, I swear by my life that death and perdition overhang this ship. My only care is to save the Gracie-Ella and her crew from this fate. And if I be honest—”
“Enough! I had not thought you to be a fool, John Wood. But if I hear that you have repeated this half-cocked notion of curses and witchcraft to any soul aboard, I swear by my life I’ll clap you in irons.” He thumped the table with a short-fingered fist. “Am I clear?”
“You may leave.”
Another fortnight before the next whale sighting. It was an ugly, overcast afternoon on choppy seas. John was ill-tempered and worse rested. The night before he had troubling dreams of voices calling out to him in the darkness. He and William had scarcely spoken. But he caught William by the arm as the whaleboats swung on their davits. William’s face was unreadable. All John managed was, “Take care.”
William pulled his arm away. “Take care?”
John felt his cheeks burn hot. “I love you, too.”
William grabbed John then, pulled him close to his chest and kissed him hard and deep and slow. Gospel squawked in protest, and John heard noises of disgust, but his heart thundered in his chest loud enough to drown out the roar of the ocean and he kissed William back.
“I’ll take care,” William said. Then he bounded over to his whaleboat with a joyous whoop.
The moon was a sliver in the sky when the whaleboats returned. John heard the Captain cursing and spouting imprecations across the water. When all the whaleboats were pulled up, John’s heart sank. The Second Mate’s boat had absent both its boatkeeper and its harpooner. William was nowhere to be seen.
He overheard one of the hands from the boat talking to the steward. “Bad hunt. Lost two. The Second Mate and his harpooner. Harpooner got caught in the line, Second Mate went to cut and got carried over. Whale rammed him up against the boat.”
John felt a great shudder of grief. The Captain passed by without meeting his eyes. A choking sound died in his chest, and he ran to the railing and vomited.
To’afa crossed his arms across his chest and surveyed the smashed timber. Without looking John’s direction he said, “The wages of sin.”
Another hand said, “And after all that loss, damn whale sounded before we could bleed its black heart away.”
The next morning a squall came hard out of the west. Waves battered the ship. Its creaks and moans sounded like cracks and wails. Listless but dry-eyed, John made his inspections, filling in leaks with oakum, yelling at Ezekiel to help him pump water out of the bilge. The moon would be dark tonight, he knew. He carried out his tasks diligently with dread growing in his chest like wet rot. He remembered William telling him he saw no future without him and laughed without humor.
That night the storm quieted abruptly. John went above-deck to examine the masts and the yardarm, when in the night’s stillness the ocean roiled. Whales in their multitudes flanked the ship aft and starboard. No foremast hand called out this sighting. The Captain himself was left speechless. Right whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, fin whales, in numbers beyond counting were, a phalanx of the sea. Some hand, not clever enough to be terrified, broke the silence to opine that these whales represented riches beyond the dreams of avarice. It began shortly after. A sperm whale rammed the boat with his large square head. There was a crunch and crackle as wood splintered. The ship, over a hundred foot long from stem to stern rocked and shuddered. The Captain screamed, “Mr. Wood! See that you keep us afloat!”
John ran down below-decks and into the hold. The ship shuddered with repeated assaults. A great fracture ran along the keel, and John knew the situation was hopeless. The hold was taking on water fast, and oakum wouldn’t slow it down. Still, he picked up his hammer and rolled an empty cask over to the worst leak in an attempt to slow it. Another heavy crash and the ship listed hard to port before righting itself. Thunder pealed. John set to breaking apart the barrels in an effort to shore up the ship. The thunder spoke to him. “John Wood,” the voice was Pip’s. “You ain’t gonna save them, but you can save yourself. You bought your freedom once, and I give it back to you now.”
Hearing the truth of this, John reached inside his shirt for the piece of scrimshaw, and clutching it abandoned his task, tearing out of the hold and onto the deck. For a mad moment, John thought to go back, grab his satchel with his grandmother’s hair, and his freedom papers, run his hand over the words on the vice bench. Then the whales struck again, and the deck listed, causing John to slide into the mast, where he clung for dear life. There was a scream, and he saw the First Mate tumble overboard into the churning water. The Captain kept his footing, and shouted for whale irons. The last John saw of him, he thrust a harpoon into the air and vowed to the heavens that he would fight and kill every last fish in the ocean.
When the ship righted, John scrambled over splintering wood and dodged falling debris. Crab-walking midship on the port side, he tucked himself into a spare whaleboat, cut it loose from the davit, and trusted fate during the long drop into the night-dark water. A bull sperm whale, black as obsidian but with green eyes, breached nearby, and the force of his splashdown pushed the whaleboat away from the doomed Gracie-Ella as she sank out of sight.
He was adrift for two days and a night before a merchant vessel came across him. With kindness and care they rescued him from the leaking whaleboat and brought him aboard their ship, The Lady Elise. After he was given fresh water to drink and wrapped in warm blankets, The captain, a young, amiable-looking man with freckles, asked him to tell his story. John did, with some careful omissions. The Lady Elise’s captain furrowed his brow. “We picked up another castaway form your ship two nights gone. You must have the devil’s own luck.”
He saw him then, wrapped in an Indian blanket. Staring up at the star-shattered sky was William.
John fell to the deck. “How can this be?”
William hobbled towards him, his movement slow and aided by a cane. He said, “Leg’s seen better days, and I’ve been pummeled all about like a sack of rotten fruit, but I live.” William winced. He dropped the blanket. A red welt the breadth of a thumb was raised around his neck. “Nearly strangled to death and dragged into the sea. But when I was down in the briny cold I heard a voice tell it weren’t yet time, that I were given a second chance. Queerest thing, sounded the near exact twin of that poor lost little cabin boy.”
John rose to his feet and closed the space between them. When William took his hand, John was still clutching the piece of scrimshaw carved with his image.
© 2019 Christopher Caldwell