“Greasy Seas”

Fiction by Terence Lane

Captain Brown has returned us to the north grounds where he’d taken the largest right whale of his career less than one year ago. The man had been so full of cheer to begin this journey, but he’s since quieted, his bearded face slackened, eyes rinsed with doubt, and the crew’s talk of rubbish on his behalf has become a common murmur, when they decide to murmur at all, that is. It feels to me like we have arrived at the capital of desolation, home of the unending gales! We’ve been 44 days now without a profitable sighting. No seabirds fly in these white, scoured skies, something that only serves to remind me of how far abroad I’ve come from my beloved Long Island, and Martha and Amos. O the hollow hours abreast an empty sea!

But if only the seas were truly empty and didn’t devastate our morale with false hope at the sight of finback spouts. In truth these grounds are pregnant with whale, finbacks, whales shaped like my own harpoon and three times as fast. Finbacks! A dirty word they are. Phantoms of the sea. Elusive and impossible to stick. ’Tis not the finback we desire. ’Tis the right whale we’re after.

Young, foolish Harvester screams and screams from the crow’s nest. The crew shakes off their rust of depression, looking around as if lightning-struck. “Right whale! It’s a right! A right, I say! Port side!” Harvester descends down the mast lines, something I’ve personally warned him against. We men collect at the port side and lower away.

Once again I’m positioned at the head of the boat, harpoon at my knee, leaning into the wind, breathing deeply of the water’s thick green stench. The right comes into view, some 60 yards off. The sight of the wet hide’s better than a peek at any pair of breasts on this miserable earth. Flank gleaming, flashing new like something just born, practically asking for the spear point, she slides back below, water rushing off the sides of her like snow off my boy Amos’s sled, retreating under the surface leaving a rash of bubbling ocean where she was like a shadow.

She’s keeping near, I tell myself. She won’t go to the deeps, not in her state, not with the fear of God put into her keeping her light and handy. I fit my fingers into the smooth ribbing of the harpoon and clench it, raising it just so, legs braced, shoulders flexed. A snatch of my long hair comes free of the tie and flutters madly in the path of my loathsome stare. I pick up my lance and I cut it off, casting it into the wind.

“I know 20 men, strong fellers, who’d disown their wives for a chance to sit where you’re seated, so why don’t you row? Row like men who need the coin. Row I tell ye. Row!”

I’m being hard on the men, and I know it, but the grease is close now. Men need harassment, and for all my grousin’ and yellin’, they know me also to be a fair man when fairness is due. They’re rowing now like the mythic boatmen of Rome!

I grit my teeth against the wet salt breeze, showing just a wedge of tooth on my chewing side. A smile, it is. My first in weeks. The pumping of my heart has gone straight to my mouth again. Arr.

My eyes are spying hard across the churning green before me, searching for the smallest disturbance, the slightest bit of whale. There is a piggy bank as long as a jetty and just as thick as the belly of the Laura Lee nearby, and I am certain that she is panicking before our mighty progress, knowing she’ll soon be afloat and bleeding out.      

“Row!” I scream into the  wind. “We’re on top of her, men! Let’s get it over and done with now. A little more arm, boys. A little more arm now!”

The boat cleaves through the chop. A fine thing it is, the men working the oars with everything they’ve got, eyes all but shining with the coin that will soon be theirs.

The silence is broken by young Harvester. “Ye say we’re on top of her, sir, but how can you know?” He is the youngest of the pack at 17, still green as a church lawn, and with a mouth on him as wide as the seas. ’Twas the mouth that likely got him orphaned to begin with. I put him at the stroke oar like I would any green hand. The skinny galoot wouldn’t even be in my boat at all had Hiram Cloud kept his wits about him and not gone deserting us in the black of night with one of our whale boats, Moses Bodfish’s cache of nudey scrimshaw, and an irritating amount of tobacco. Hiram Cloud. I hope the wretch is floating scared somewhere. I hope he’s eating his own pile and thirsting to death.

“Harvester,” I roar, “another word out of you and I’ll have you shark-fed! Only one word you need to know, and that one is ‘row!’ When your short hairs grow in you can start asking questions, and not a minute before.”

“But sir,” Harvester dares, “I’ve already got my short hairs, just have yourself a gander.”

And if the little bastard doesn’t shove down the top of his trousers to showcase a full patch of thick, black short hair! The men roar. I grimace.

“I pity you, Harvester. You’re as mad as they come, and you’ve got a lot of years left of livin’ that way. Correct yourself and row if you want to see those years. Not another word from ye. Row!”

Twenty yards out I see something. The top water explodes like a broken beer barrel as scores of whalefeed flash through the air, scared straight out of the water by something monstrous. She breaches in the next moment, the whole crusted head exposed to the horror and joy of every man, comin’ up at a turn so as to have a good look at each of us before settling back with a double blast of ocean. The men are hysterical, bloodthirsty, working the oars harder than ever. “Did you not see the girth of her, boys?”

“Aye!” The men cry.

“Dig toward her then!”

“Aye!”

“Get me close enough and by God I’ll turn the whole blasted sea red!”

“Aye!”

The men outdo themselves at the oars, holding up their end, as I ready myself at the bow, harpoon raised and poised. The whale is in and out of view, running. The sight of her lights me up down there like the sight of my Martha in bed still awake after I’ve returned from the saloon.

I know it’s the same way for the men. They cut the distance to the whale in half in no time, and suddenly I am afraid, my breathing cut down to short little gasps. It’s always this way. Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve pierced the leviathan hide, it is the times I’ve failed to do so that dance like demons in my heart. They climb out to haunt me whenever the behemoth is close. All of the preparations, the dealings with the company, the ship owners, and negotiations with the men, it all depends on this. A toss of the harpoon. My fingers press into the soft-hued wood.

The boat comes in so close that I can hear the great fish sucking from the hole in its back, a wet, hollow roll of thunder. The sweat has sprung up thick on my scalp and lip. I can feel it trailing down the rungs of my ribs. I’m greased with it. The men know better than to tell me now is the time to strike, but I can feel their desire to do so. We all want this so dearly I can hardly blame them. The whale has dipped under. By her patterns, she should rise again but there is always doubt. The demons mock me. They tell me she has gone to the deeps and there will be no blood today, but the demons are only one half of me, the other half comprising the faces of my wife and boy, and the little one still without face residing in the womb of my glorious Martha. Rise, I say to myself. Rise your last.

And she does. Revealing a long, smooth target, hole gasping like a train head.

The harpoon splits through the air.

Once, a long while ago, the elders taught me to throw to the blowhole and strike nearby. “Destroy the lungs and float the whale,” I was told.

“What if I strike the blowhole right on, sir?” I must have been younger than Harvester, and oh, did the men wheeze with mirth, their pipe smoke rising just like their delight. “Worry not about that, young Declan. Ye’ll never strike the hole of a whale. At best ye’ll sink the harpoon close by where the lungs be. The hole is but a place to settle the eye upon, boy. Throw to the blowhole and by the luck of God ye’ll strike the fish at all.”

Today, something miraculous happens. I see the point of the harpoon land on the spitting black hole of the fish.  My heart beats like it never has, beats like it wants out of its cage of bones.

The men are upon me, grabbing my face and hair and kissing me like a pack of strays. The rope runs off the boat, crying where it meets the wood. Our small craft is in full tow, bouncing off the seas like a chariot as the fish makes its final dash, blushing the water with its gallons upon gallons of red life. Smoke rises where the rope uncoils from the bucket as Harvester sits by, dumbly watching. “Harvester, ye son of a bitch, water the rope! What good are you to me watching her burn?”

“Sorry, sir,” Harvester cries, now frantically splashing the bucket.

“You’re not fit to mop the brothel on Sunday mornings, Harvester.”

“It won’t happen again, sir.”

“Not another sound from you, ye rat child. Men, we’ve a whale on the dart, do we not?”

“Aye!”

“Let’s bring her up!”

“Aye!” After what I view to be a two-mile run, she stalls, bleeding luscious from the best wound I ever put on a whale, gushing straight back down into herself.

O if only the elders could have seen the spot from where my harpoon stood. The men and me are practically drunk with excitement, larking around, giving Harvester hell, roaring. In the distance, the Laura Lee is still visible, although tiny against the white horizon.

When the large right has wholly quit her struggle, rolling deadly at the surface, exposed but for the tail end of her, I apply a final touch of the lance to the base of its head, putting a close to the chase. She is our first grease in more than three months’ time. A good catch such as this is enough to make you forget about all the empty days before. It’s days like these that keep a man shipping out time and again. And you’d best enjoy the greasy seas when they showed up because the happiness of a whaleman is a scarce affair.

Now is a time to rejoice, and by nightfall the whole crew’ll be rascal-eyed drunk after the flensing of the blanket piece, commencing with the rendering of the blubber in the hot, boiling vats aboard the sturdy Laura Lee, and surely I’ll be somewhere in the mess of it, imagining the face of Martha, and that of Amos, and the little one still inside, yearning for their closeness, their warmth, but feeling sound in mind and good of heart for the days to go until the sight of land.


Terence Lane’s fiction has appeared in Corium Magazine, Avatar Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and the Southampton Review.