The White Whale, with a Nod and a Wink to Melville

Aye, mates, gather ’round, and I’ll tell ye my tale: t’is the story of a doomed crew that sailed to the ends of the world to capture and kill a terror of the sea, the White Whale.  Barkeep, hand me a mug of your finest, and ye lovely lasses put yon babes to bed.  Come hither, my seafarin’ friends, we make no merry music tonight, but let the slow songs of man’s fragility and sad songs of man’s mortality entertain us instead.

In the winter of eighteen-fifty and, maybe, nine, we set out a’whalin’ from Beaufort in the Caroline’s; the crew, a sadistic bunch from Durham looking for work and adventure, and, most importantly, to return home triumphant with a ship’s hold full of bounty in oil and black blubber – aye, such riches as to light yonder wicks and grease, to be sure, the grimy engines of prosperity in the sweat-filled factories of our great cities.

Months into our fatal voyage, after crossing the angry, snow-capped seas of the Atlantic and fighting the thunderous storms off the African Horn, we were sailing in the southern seas, my friends, miles from the Antarctic wasteland and the exotic Japanese Islands, doing what we have always done best:  killing whales with our deadly harpoons and iron lances, cutting the skin of the corpses into long black slivers and stuffing our barrels with their oily flesh – when, my friends, what did we see?  On the horizon the great whale’s prominent spout, a stream of cascading water ascending into the heavens, then, falling like an shimmering avalanche back into the ocean.

“Thar see blows!” was the lookout’s cry from the main masthead.  “Thar she blows!”

Immediately we cast away our unfinished carcasses and set sail for the dying sun.  Slowly we began to track the silvery sea-beast down, closing the leagues between us while we prepared for the next day’s formidable feat – reveling in the untold fortunes that fearsome fish’s hard-fought oil and long-folds of black gold would bring us.

Later that night, on a starlit, undulating plane, we watched the majestic whale breach high into the ocean air, sublime, silent, and supreme.  When it splashed thunderously back into the sea, creating deep, expanding waves that tossed our ship about in the warm ocean current, our Captain knew for certain it was him, his mortal enemy.

“Aye,” said he, “this was why we have come; oh ye men of Durham, we will destroy that horrid beast and together we’ll eat his foul heart and drink his rancid blood for our dinner come the morrow.”

T’is said the captain was cursed; he hated the great sperm whale and would have pursued him to the ends of the earth if such horrific voyages were needed.  He had fought the gigantic fish three times before and had scars a plenty from those attacks.  In fact, a line thin and pale as death crossed his face from one such incident and seemed to separate his eyes from reality; aye, he had lost all of the previous fights and blamed his crews for their timidity; now he had men selected from the mean streets of Durham who would, once and for all, exterminate him.

At dawn, our boats, three in all, loaded for battle, were lowered into the ocean and their sails raised; simultaneously the rowing began; ten in each boat, we men of Durham pulled on our oars slicing through the sea’s heavy swells as we moved out to meet the sleeping monster; the captain in the foremost ship leading our way, his heathen harpooner, still as a poised dagger and with a soul as black as night, waited in anticipation for his one and only chance to dart his razor-sharpened iron deep into the white whale’s nearly impregnable hide.

Ghastly black sharks churned after us in the wake of our boats, growing excited and biting at each other and our wooden oars slicing through the water, all in anticipation of an inevitable feast – either of man or whale, it mattered not to these piranhas from hell.

When we arrived where we thought the whale had been, the monster was nowhere to be seen.  A shout from afar from the ship’s masthead and a downward motion of the lookout’s arm, told us the fearsome fish had dove deep into the depths of the ocean.  Our deadly wait began – watching the quiet water around us, sitting silent, oars in hand, the captain and the harpooner standing with their cursed harpoon and cruel lance searching the sea.  A whale, they say, can stay under for only one hour before his need to breathe, so we sat fixed on the moment and thought not of praying, as God had never been with any of us men of Durham, and Satan, an old foe, sat laughing at the coming show on the raised gunwale of our captain’s death-delivering vessel.

Soon we heard a low hum from deep in the ocean and saw the waters swell and bubble to the surface, raising our boats with a surging thrill.  Suddenly, the vicious whale was upon us, attacking our resting boats from the depths of the sea.  His flat, enormous, white head lifting one boat high into ocean air and flipping it over and over as it smashed back into the now violent water, with men and lances, harpoons and rope, tossed across the riotous surface – the black sharks quickly slashing at the floundering crew, sending them to hell in bits and pieces.

The harpooner in the other boat stood and threw his mighty harpoon at the powerful whale, while his boat’s crew grabbed at the screaming lads struggling in the ocean.  The harpoon sliced the whale’s side as the fish turned and churned through the waters, tail whipping at our remaining boats trying to keep a float, but the deadly harpoon had been thrown too soon!  It didn’t hold fast to the whale’s hide, creating a bloody gash as it fell away, sinking into the boiling sea; the harpooner heaved at the rope, pulling the lance back to the vessel for a second attempt to dart the monster.

That attempt, though, would never be seen, as the whale’s powerful tail, raised high in the ocean swell, landed with irrevocable force square on center of the boat, smashing the wood, splintering the sides and the bottom planks, separating, in a grievous half, the stem from the stern; heartless men swamped and swallowed in the stormy, shark-filled sea.

“Row, men!” screamed the crazed captain.  “Bring me alongside this foul and bloody beast.  Row like your lives depend on it!  Row as ye have never rowed before.  The fish is ours, men, if only we can get alongside him.  Aye, your captain holds his death hard in my hands and will see this whale in hell before this hour’s end.”

We rowed like the black fiends of Satan now were chasing us – both to kill the fearsome fish and to keep its cruel water-thumping tail from turning our boat into an explosion of aggravated splinters and we men of Durham into the sharks’ main course for dinner.

With an upward swell, suddenly we were above and alongside the whale.  The cruel captain shouted for us to hold steady as he and the harpooner raised high their deadly tools above theirs heads and simultaneously sank their sharp and solid shafts all the way down to the eye-socket into the unprotected hump of the unsuspecting whale, sending surging blood pouring out of the fish like a red river.  The monster groaned and immediately rolled in horrible pain towards us in the bloody ocean, pushing our boat into a large and cresting wave, nearly swamping our vessel with the foaming sea.

The great fish flew forward beyond us as the triumphant captain and heartless harpooner grabbed at the attached ropes and pulled our boat towards its now tethered victim.  Aye, the time had come to complete our task – with sharp lances and deadly knives we would stab the dreaded sea-beast until it floated eye-less in the stained ocean.

But the wounded whale, consulting with Satan, had other thoughts and turned toward us.  In an instant it was charging our boat, mouth open in the surging water, teeth widening as if to swallow us alive.  The heathen harpooner cared not and stood his ground at the front of the vessel, a sharp lance in his hands pointed at the furious fish.  But the White Whale suddenly went under our boat and quickly lifted it out of the sea sending us flying and grabbing at the sides for our lives.  The whale churned past our overturned vessel and turned back, with our ropes still attached, to complete the deathly debacle.  In an instant the harpooner was caught in the whale’s mouth and chewed into two separate pieces.  His lance still in his hands as his upper torso sank down into the watery depths while his legs floated above the sea like cups of blood for the sharks to drink deliciously.

The raging captain clambered on top of our overturned boat and with a lance lifted out of the water, slashed at the whale as it flew past.  The whale turned for one last run.  The crying captain, crazed and cursing, stood with his iron-will and his cursed-life and beckoned the fish with his long knife.

“Oh fish from hell.  I’ll send ye back to where ye came from!” he screamed as the whale charged at him, gaining speed and exploding upon him like a locomotive hitting a doe at a midnight crossing.  The Captain disintegrating upon the whale’s steel-like, hammered face, swallowed in guts and gore.

Finally, our ship entered the fray, driving the reeling, angry whale away with the streaming, empty lines attached to his hide to suffer alone the near-mortal wounds cast by the crazed captain and his deadly harpooner.

Yet, the sharks, still hungry, were quickly upon us, but, just in time, I lifted myself out of the churning water and onto a floating raft of timbers – all that remained from the bottom of my boat.

Our ship soon was searching the waters for survivors, but, my friends, none were to be found, none but me.  With so few remaining, the ship left the now quiet sea and its field of death and destruction and turned back to the Japanese islands.  A new crew of heathens, hired for the voyage, would take us back to the Carolinas and a life on solid ground.

So pass the pitcher and raise ye glass.  The White Whale, though never gone from my thoughts, is out there still a swimmin’ with Satan in the southern ocean, but we men are alive, mournin’ our friends and a crazed captain, saluting a merciful God in a dank and lusty pub in Durham.


Categories: Fiction, Prose Poetry

2 replies

  1. Enjoyable take on Moby with glimpses of The Ancient Mariner… had it of been written with the jocular humour, and distemper for capitalism prevelant in our post modern culture. I would really love to hear your twist on Bartleby, my favourite character of Melvilles. He is so relevant today that you might suspect Melville of actually having and using a time machine which he used in order to immerse himself into modern day office dynamics.

    But only, of course, if you prefer.

  2. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street sounds very interesting. Thanks, Annette, for your comments and the heads up on Melville’s short story.

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