Let me tell you of whaling. Of the blood and the skin and the thrashing. It has been years since I dismembered a whale or rendered its fat, and still I sometimes think I catch the whiff of blood in the air. I fear my son will smell it on my hands, just a trace of it, when I hold him.
I am glad to have a son. I would not have known how to raise a daughter.
My son will never need to bloody his hands. He will never need to lift a harpoon or risk himself at the mouth of the deep. I have made my fortune from death, so that my son may relish in life.
I will tell him the stories of my travels as if there was no blood and death. Death came and paid his dues, and he is needed no more in the rearing of my son. Instead I will invite the wonder of the wide sea, and hold back the tide of its terror. The joy of the open sky without the hole it has torn in my heart. The grief and fear stops here, with me. I will hold it back from him. I will make sure my son never needs to carve himself into bones. I will tell him of the man who should have been my father, and I will tell him all I have learned about love.
You, however, I will tell of whaling.
I will always remember my first. The mate put me on lookout as soon as I could climb the ratlines, and if Hamish was not on watch he sometimes came to join me on high, standing by silently and carving his scrimshaw as I scanned the dull horizon. Days pass on the turn of a heel in this way. At that height I could nearly sense the world wheeling around me, as if I were the axis on which everything turned.
“Supposing there are no whales left?” I asked Hamish, when nearly two weeks had gone by with no sighting. This earned a laugh.
“Then we will never know, laddie,” he replied. “There could be a thousand whales or one. The number is equal until we have them on the end of a line.”
He thought I had been making a joke, but I was truly worried I would be trapped up there forever, teetering at the apex of the world. I turned anxiously back to the horizon, and may God strike me down if that was not the instant I saw the great back split the glittering expanse and send a column of spray into the air.
I had never yelled so loudly. I felt a strange rush of giddiness as I saw the deck below spring into a frenzy, crewmen decades older than me scrambling to respond to my call.
Hamish cuffed me sharply over the head. “Quit daydreaming and get down there! You’re to join the whaleboat crew!”
“But the watch!”
“That’s why I’m here, boy!” Hamish all but shoved me from the crow’s nest, and rather than descend by the ratlines, I shimmied straight down the mast, a feat I had rarely even attempted before. My hands and the insides of my thighs were raw when I hit the deck, where Malcolm seized my arm with such alacrity I thought he must have been watching my descent.
Ah, yes. I must tell you of Malcolm Madigan. He was our second mate aboard the Drum, a pale Irishman with hair as black as oil. He was known for being quick with his hands, his mind, and his temper. Given to cruelty, too, was Malcolm. Until this moment I’d had the good fortune, for the most part, to avoid his direct attention, but my good fortune had come to an end. I was to be the foremost oarman on his whaling boat.
There were rumors on the ship that he had strangled the last ship’s boy and thrown him overboard in the dead of night. He drove the crew with a passionate fervor and had no mercy for mistakes, which he corrected swiftly and, often, violently. It was said that on the rare occasions the crew performed to his expectations and he had no excuse to torment them, he would retreat to the darkest depths of the hold and break the spines of rats until his lust for violence was sated.
I was not vulnerable to hearsay and thus had little reason yet to fear him. Besides this, whenever Malcolm was nearby, Hamish seemed to be as well. Never watching him directly. Most often not even facing the same direction. But he was present, and his presence kept me from fearing Malcolm.
Now I was to be on a whaleboat with him, and Hamish was to stay behind. For the first time I felt wariness prick at my neck. There was no time to dwell upon it, however, for we had a whale to hunt.
I have said I will always remember the first whale I killed. Malcolm, too, I will remember.
For he was the first man.