In my third year of college I briefly had a girlfriend who was a Buddhist and was always talking about doing no harm and finding the middle way.
We watched “Moby Dick” together one night. She saw the folly of Ahab’s ego and adored Queequeg, the noble tattooed savage listening to mysteries, unmoved by clever speeches.
I saw it was the passion of captains men followed, however mad their ambitions might be. I said, in the end even Queequeg took up his harpoon and followed Ahab to his destiny.
Perhaps Ahab appeared to me much as Buddha did to her… a symbol of something eternal and greater than myself. We broke up shortly after that.
I knew I was no captain, but I wanted to voyage. I believed, as all young men do, that I would live to tell the tale. Ishmael was protected by his innocence. Why not I?
And so, it is Ahab who comes to fogbound dreams in my middle years – after many voyages and few catches — to continue this conversation begun years ago.
“Chase ye wisps,” he growls. “Curs on longer leashes, no more, and yet ye stand in dread, bribing them with rotted meat and smiles as false as their own.
“Have Ahab whip them for thee, is that thy purpose, while ye watch, waiting for the leavings? Scavengers are they, and thyself bait, staked to ground upon which they squabble ‘mongst themselves for flesh, and all, the entertainment of a hidden Master.”
I see his fierce tormented visage, his stovepipe hat and frock coat, his stiff frame rooted like a tree, a second mast grown from the rolling deck, bent and twisted by the gales of fate and his own defiance.
“If I seek only a longer leash myself,” says I, “and some ground to run on. If I claim that bit of freedom will suffice me, might even be the purpose of that Master, will Ahab call it false?”
“Aye, a taste of freedom’s sweet,” says Ahab. “Like an island seen on yon horizon after long months at sea, it beckons. Whispers promises of fresh water and soft breezes, shady trees and solid ground that will not shift beneath thy feet at every step. But say me, do ye imagine only peace lays there? Only calm days and restful nights and loyal companions? Not savages and storms to wreck thy humble dwelling? And even be it habitable, think ye it too will not soon seem small, once its boundaries are measured?
“Ye have been chained too long, have forgotten freedom is strong drink, an elixir no man gives up willingly once downed, but keeps on with it till he has lost his senses, his sea legs, and mayhap his dinner too. Think ye will not be the same? Think ye will not stumble or lose the way, not be frightened by shadows or robbed by brutes who’ll beat the fool’s grin from thy countenance and leave thee
wretched and bleeding, mumbling a broken tune through broken teeth?
“What say ye to that, tamed creature? Speak up man, or go back to the bone at thy feet!”
What insult burns like the one half true?
“But what of your own crew, captain?” says I. “What of the able seamen who went to a watery doom with you? Were they free men, or a pack of broken hounds following a lunatic? And where would your vengeance be without them? Standing all alone at New Bedford’s dock, propped up by hate and the skeleton of conquest, staring impotently out to sea.”
He laughs. Ahab laughs? Rocks back on his one good leg and casts his mirth into the darkness, lifting his arm as in affection for the dead.
“Aye,” he says after a moment. “Aye. Good sailors they were, brave and true to the last. Ought they have thrown me in the sea, and why did they not? Because of ship’s owners? Investors with their contracts, scratched on paper? I say ye not! Owners are not builders, though someone made the ship’s design, and others made its ribs and planks and joined mast to keel. ‘Tis no great trouble to take a vessel from owners, once underway. ‘Tis the common employment of pirates who lurk in coastal waters and fear the deep. And what strength has paper in the wilds of the Horn? Can it be hung up on a yard and drive a ship into their icy embrace?
“I say ye not! Cowering servitude was not their cause, not fear of the lash, nor feigned respect for solicitors, sitting on their soft rumps in safe harbor.
“They put to sea for shares owed to widows of voyages past, and children needing bread in their bellies. They sailed to feel the ocean’s swell beneath them, and nature’s breath behind them, and against them too. Aye, Ahab’s captain and compass of the Pequod. They followed because he pointed them the way in open seas, as he pointed their harpoons at worthy adversity.
“Were they superstitious men? Surely, no less than I, granting a great spouting fish devilish power and wicked intent. But if Man will not raise anchor, not make sail to venture against that greater than himself, a thing unknowable and monstrous, that frightens him even in his own safe sleep, then tell me, for what purpose these wooden manufactures? What good the bindings of whalebone corsets, or oil for lamps flickering in the darkness, or perfumes to cover the stench of
“And ye, tamed creature, scurry like a rat on the wharves, tied not by chains but by thy own appetite for moldy scraps. Have ye called me forth to battle kings or generals, or dragons of the deep defending their own freedom? Or merely to drive off bigger vermin with my knocked pacing, and kick thee loose a bigger sack of spoil?”
“What of your cargo, captain?” says I. “Not just common sailors lost, not just baleen or pretty scents or oil for light in the night, men and whales slaughtered for naught. What of the shares for widows and orphans? They too sank in the tempest of your greed and retribution. Your cargo is death. Destruction. And how do ye name this voyage? Glorious quest for freedom? Magnificent justice?
“You too, run for easy meat, Ahab! Exalt your vain philosophy, and perish with your pride, and leave your servants lost at sea.”
Ahab gives no answer, but turns away and paces on, the crack of his bony sideways step reverberating on the deck. I’ll leave him to his nightmare, and wake to my own.
Dean Kisling is a high school dropout who learned to type when he was 47. He has been a soldier, laborer, taxi driver, welder, carpenter, performing musician, acupressurist, fractal artist, mountaineer and trail runner. He lives in America and writes stories because he wants to and it might even matter. He is very happily married.
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