by Eve Fisher
I took to the sea from my cradle. Born on the brine in Downings and rocked across the waves with my mother, to good old Nantucket, east of the Manhattoes. Ye gods, what a town. Soaked with sea spray, reeking of fish. The cows themselves eat fish heads for dinner. You don't need cod in your chowder here, all you need is milk, and a bit of salt tack and onion. That's what they do down at the Try Pots Inn and the sailors pack themselves full every night.
I've thought of working there once or twice, but they'd never hire me. Not now, a widow, and his widow to boot. It's just as well. I'm tired of sailors. If ever I marry again it'll be to a man with two legs firmly planted in solid earth. A grocer. Or a banker. My mother laughs when I say that.
"Sure and you can't escape the sea, my darling," she says. "It's in your blood for the generations, my dark one."
And I am dark, dark hair, dark eyes, black Irish, small and neat and sleek-skinned. My family came from the islands off County Donegal, where the birds and the seals and the people all meet in one big happy family.
Myself, I swore I'd never marry a sailor, a fisherman, a whaler. There's enough salt in our blood, no need to add more. And then, they're such a hearty dull lot for the most of them. Brawny and broad-shouldered, curly hair smelling of bay rum, and the reek of the spirit strong on their breath. Pretty lads, all of them, good for a dance and a kiss, but none of them to make a girl howl like a banshee on a full moon night.
I shouldn't have said that, should I? A young, tender, dark-eyed girl, now she shouldn't be thinking such thoughts, should she? Flowers and quilting and shuddering at storms she should, not gulping down darkness like fiery wine. But I did. And yawned at all the tall sunflowers nodding their heads at me.
And then he came. Ahab. Sure and his mother must have nodded off in church the day that lesson was read. "'Tis from the Bible," no doubt she said at the christening, and everyone too horror-struck to tell the poor old cow no. Ahab. White scar like a lightening bolt from crown to foot, and the other stumped off to an ivory peg. Dark he was, dark and seared and the salt spray and the raw spirit smelled different on him.
He came to pay a call upon my mother; my father had shipped with him seven years ago to die of a quartern-ague in the South Seas. My mother wasn't one to hold a grudge, and welcomed him with seed cake and a tot of rum. "Ye'll remember my Nancy?" my mother said, as he sat in our parlor, stiff as a mast. His eyes rolled over me, and I swear the waters swirled up and around me, bubbled and frothy and churning as they did around my grandmother Shelagh when she went down in the waves to never come back, for home she'd gone at last. I listened to the roaring in my ears as my mother pried a recital out of him - it was like opening an oyster - of my father's disease and demise. The shrieking of the laundress in the basement spared us his burial, for my mother jumped up and ran, leaving us alone.
"'Tis laundry day," I said. "A fine mess of steam and water, and the whole house at sixes and sevens for the week. You manage it better at sea, I hear." No answer. "Would you be having more rum?" He nodded, briefly. I poured his drink, and sat down again, all quiet as he toted his peg. But I had seen the slight tremor when my dress brushed past.
After a while - for the silence was smothering - I tried again. "My father was a grand one for writing letters," I said. "He could write so you could see the waves roll under you. He wrote of all the birds and fish and whales he'd seen… I remember one he wrote of, 'A white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw.'"
His eyes blazed, his voice was an earthquake: "The beast that dismasted me!" His voice lowered, cunning and dangerous to rise as he went on: "Brave men have clapped their mouths shut as with iron bands before they dared to speak of him to me, and they did right. And am I now to hear my razing made parlor talk? Made 'Come, tell me of thy shame, but lightly, to pass the time!'? By a dark girl in a dark room?"
"Neither shame nor light," I replied, my voice steadier than my belly before his wrath. "But simple true desire to hear of the dangers you have passed."
His eyes dropped away, like soundings in the sea. "You cannot pass the present, living in the flesh. I have met Elijah, and he spoke the truth, that I would be dismembered." And then, almost to himself, "What can mortal man do against prophecy?"
I answered with my hand, reached to his.
It was a three months' courtship, and then we were wed in the Whaler's Chapel, his face set like burning flint, his voice rumbling like thunder as he said "I do". There was no bawdy at our wedding breakfast; only solemn toasts, muffled whispers, uneasy glances. I had married Nantucket's madman, and all there were pitying and curious and dying to get home where they could talk it to death over a cup of grog. And go home they did, with indecent haste. Captain Peleg was the last to leave, and as he left he kissed me on the brow, murmuring, "A sweet resigned girl." A master of physiognomy to be sure. Then, "Take care of her, Captain." My husband bowed stiffly, and we were alone.
We spent our honeymoon in my mother's house. My mother, with rare access of tact, had taken herself off to New Bedford to visit my aunt for a fortnight, where I knew she would spend her time in fear and trembling, for she'd never been a great truster of men, and Ahab seemed more of a sidhe than a man to her. All things considered, I thought it a grand idea for her to leave us alone at our starting. Still, the missing her took me as much by surprise as did the apprehension when he stumped up beside me in the dark.
"Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair…" His voice rumbling through the empty house, my hair falling like water through his hands. "Fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners…" His voice muffled, his arms like iron.
My mother returned, thankful that I was whole and well. I was thankful I'd had time to burn the sheets.
"Well, and what of him?" she asked. My husband was out on the wharf, looking over his ship, for he was leaving soon to go whaling.
"What of him indeed," I said, pouring the coffee. "He'll do for me."
Mother nodded. "Well, and it makes sense. You always were for the odd ones."
"He's no more odd than any other man who's been half eaten alive by a fish. Sure and I'd say Jonah had a few odd moments himself once he was belched back on shore."
"Sure and you're mad for him, I can tell," she sighed. "Does he sleep well?"
"You'll hear him breathing deep tonight."
"Good. I was worried about him, not being kin and all."
I set down my cup. "Don't be starting that up with him," I said. "He doesn't need to be hearing all the tales told of our family."
My mother eyed me as a cow would her errant calf. Then she reached out and took my hand, crooning "My dark one, my sweet one, my darling…"
A week more, and he was gone. I was glad of it, mad as I was for him, for I needed time to sort things out. A whaler's wife gets lots of time. Off he sails, waving his hat or his kerchief, everyone crying on shore, and that's that. Years pass, two, three, five or even more, until the face is dim and the touch far dimmer, and then he's back, loaded with wealth. A month or two, he's off again. If you like your own way in your own house with your own things about you, it's a good life.
Ahab was back in six months.
Sickness said he, and I was sweetly flattered. I sent my mother back to New Bedford so I could tend my husband's fever without distractions. But it was no quartern-ague, no pleurisy, not even a winter's cold. It was a terrible lack of sleep he had, from the nightmares that crashed over his slumbers as soon as the waves started crashing into his ship. Drowning dreams, the waves roaring and foaming, the legs kicking and the lungs burning and the clothes hanging wet and sodden and heavy as shot, dragging him down to where a great white bulk was waiting, deep in the dark green bottoms. He fairly kicked the bed to pieces, fighting his way up. And when he beached, gasping, he shook his head as if the water still clung to it, and the sheets were no paler than his cheek.
"Hush, cushla," I said, taking him in my arms and rocking him. "'Tis dry, 'tis safe. All's well. Hush, cushla, sleep."
Sleep he did, and well. Until the next night. And each night after. I'd never known the dreams to take such tight hold of a man. I wrote my mother, who replied with five pages, crossed, most of it nonsense and superstition. The only thing that made sense was a reminder that kelp soup was a grand thing for bad nights. So I went down to the kitchen and made some, dark and rich and hot, and served it that night for dinner.
The sea boiled in our bellies, seeped in our veins, mulled in our heads. I slept and dreamed I was back in County Donegal, with all my friends and family about me. The seagulls were squalling overhead as we lay out on the rocks in the warm sun, the waves crashing, the foam just touching the tips of our feet. I rolled over onto my back in the warm sand, and fanned myself with one long dark hand, drifting away in the heat and the sound of the waves and the little shivers of cold spray.
"Nancy!" my mother barked me awake. I rolled over and looked at her. She nudged me to look across the strait: "Your man over there, he's not looking at all well."
And there was Ahab, alone in a whaling boat, looking at us, his eyes dark with rage. He rose up, a harpoon in his hand, and as he rose, beneath him rose a wave as big as an island, swelling white and smooth, raising him up swift and smooth so that he never even noticed until suddenly the wave rose over itself and flipped him and his little boat and sent him, shrieking, into the deep green waters.
I dove, swift and sleek. Down, down, down, the bubbles flying past my dark eyes, dark hair, dark body. There was Ahab, thrashing in his heavy clothes - the line to the harpoon tangled up around him so that soon he could never struggle more. I had it dragged away from him in a moment, diving deeper with the line in my mouth, and as I swam below him, I looked up at those thrashing, kicking feet - both feet, no ivory peg and - shame though it is to admit - I thought of having just the wee little nip of him, just for fun, just to get him going. And beneath me something large and white rolled in delight.
Himself woke me up. Ahab standing in a corner of our bedroom, shouting the house down while I tried to remember where I was and find my bathrobe. "For the love of God, husband, what's wrong?"
He drew a shuddering breath and said, croaking like a coffin lid, "Who are you?"
"God and Mary and St. Patrick be with us, and I'm your wife, Nancy," I said. Thinking, sure and he's gone mad completely now.
"I saw you," he said. "In the sea, swimming like a -"
"'Tis the kelp soup," I interrupted. "I shouldn't have given it to you so late at night -"
"You were there!" he roared, and the windows rattled with it.
"Well, and if I was, it was only a dream you were having," I said reasonably, sitting on the edge of the bed. "You're taking the whole thing much too seriously." I looked at his peg leg and added, "You know, the poor beast wasn't trying to kill you at all. He was all for saving your life. It was just afterwards, there you were in the water, kicking like a fool, and he couldn't resist -"
He howled like a mad dog. I scrambled back to the other side of the bed. He leaned forward, his face stretched out like Lucifer's and said, "Speak to me of the unreasoning brute as if it were the reasoner? What lies behind that mask of yours, wife? What thing is it that you carry in your belly? What creature speaks through the mouldings of your features? What are you?"
"I am your wife," I repeated, and stood tall to say it. "Nancy, and it's your son I'm carrying in my belly."
"I did not ask you who you were," he croaked. "I asked you what you were, that I saw you lying on the rocks among your brethren creatures, a seal among seals."
"Oh, that," I said, and waved my hand. "That was the other branch of my family."
Ahab bounded out of the house as if the devil was at his heels.
I believe he told Captain Peleg something of our conversation, for the next day the good Captain paid a visit upon me, to commiserate with me upon my husband's sad fancies.
"I think the only thing for him is a long voyage," he said. "If he stays here, in the state he's in…" I nodded. "He must surmount his fears," he continued, "and to do that he must face them, not shirk them here on land." He looked discreetly at my swollen body. "I would for your sake - and for his - that he could be here for the birth. But you will be well provided for. And hopefully, he shall return, much improved." I nodded again, and he left.
My grandmother Shelagh - and she should know - said, before she went back home, that it was a dangerous thing to save a drowning man. It's little thanks you get for it, and some turn wicked after. She also said that a drowning man, once saved, should never return to the sea, for the sea will claim its own. Myself, I think it's the ingratitude that calls it home on you. And Ahab, of course, well, he was certain the universe was personally after him, Himself.
Oh, but I do miss him, you know. That dark fire suited me well, it did, and I never minded the madness. He wanted a sense of humor, is all. I can still see him in the deep water, those two legs kicking away like minnows. I tried to tell him, there was nothing malevolent, or even personal about it: he just looked like bait.
And bait he did become.
Ah, well. So, would you care to be joining me for a quick one down at the Try Pots? It's clam tonight, clam chowder, and the grog is very good.