A luffing sail flapped and snapped above us, just enough breeze to ruffle the sails, but not enough to move the ship. Becalmed on a mostly motionless sea, Rawley and Dickson had rounded up bored hands from the Starboard watch to lower a whaleboat for a try at fishing, and I grabbed a straw hat and waved my intention to join them. The rope ladder down the side of the ship showed me just how much my center of gravity had changed with gravidity, but I made it into the smaller craft without mishap.
It was my first time actually sitting in one of the whaleboats, and I looked around me with interest, thinking uncomfortably about the fates of the Essex crew members, who had been relegated to survival-mode in just such a vessel when a sperm whale sank their ship, a la Moby Dick. (Well, inspiring Moby Dick would be more precise.) That sinking had happened only a couple decades ago, I realized—the surviving mate Owen Chase, who wrote of the harrowing cannibal ordeal, would even now be retired to Nantucket and hoarding food in his attic.
Shaking off that morbid reflection, I focused instead on the lively scene around me. Our cabin boy Peter Coffin—still on duty with the Port Watch, though as idle as the rest of them with the lack of wind—hung over the rail sulking as his counterpart Jimmy shimmied down and plunked beside me with a pole in hand, chattering about fishing on his father’s farm. Holokai hefted a small spear, Kaimana and Makanui brought their own carved bone hooks and line, and the rest of the hopefuls held poles with metal hooks meted out from the ship’s stores. They stowed their poles and picked up oars and we pulled away from the ship’s shadow.
It seemed impossible, in this vast expanse of empty surface water, that we would happen to position ourselves over any actual fish, but the new activity was welcome. It felt like a holiday or a field trip, this break in routine, and I sat on the tub of coiled harpoon line and turned my face to the warm sun, sketchbook unopened in my lap. I’d been thinking of the opportunity to sketch Obedience from a different vantage point, but she looked somehow deflated and helpless with her limp sails, not exactly inspiring. More like she was out of breath.
Not so the rowers, for whom this jaunt was mere play. Shortly the oars and poles switched places, and Holokai splashed over the stern with his spear. I wasn’t sure if he really thought the fishing prospects were better by that method, or if he just wanted to get in the water. Either way, he powered away at an angle from the boat and then disappeared with a flash of feet in the air. I wondered what he would make of snorkel gear and the rubber-tubing Hawaiian slings of my time. When he surfaced he waved and gestured and shouted something I couldn’t make out, and disappeared again.
Makanui—whose ears were apparently as sharp as his eyes—filled in the blank of what I hadn’t heard. “Honu. Him see honu.” Turtle. And over the side he went. We couldn’t see the majority of the battle—or wrestling match might have been a more apt description—but with a great deal of churning and exclamation, the two of them towed an irate green turtle beside the boat some twenty minutes later.
Fishing lines forgotten, the rest of us had watched in fascination, and now that I could see him up close, the turtle looked pretty pissed. Of course, turtles don’t have a wide range of facial expression, so I was probably projecting. Rawley deftly looped a knotted rope behind the creature’s front flippers, and I scuttled across the boat bottom to make way for several hands to help in hauling him over the gunnels. Both swimmers were bleeding from bites and grinning ear to ear, Holokai pumping his bloody spear overhead in a universal gesture of victory.
I grabbed for a handhold as Makanui hoisted himself back into the boat, rocking it precariously, and braced again as Holokai followed. The bleeding turtle thwacked its flippers ineffectively against the boat bottom, and our cheerful crew took up oars again. If there had been fish, they’d have fled long since—but we had our prize. Stick a candle in this sucker! Turtle soup beats birthday cake any day of the week, and twice on New Year’s Eve.
Eight bells rang midnight and a new year. I had left Holokai happily scraping out his turtle shell by lantern-light, and was writing Samson’s recipe into Obadiah’s journal. Or at least my approximation of his recipe, given that I’d only been watching, and the man didn’t actually measure anything. Obadiah’s hands descended lightly onto my shoulders as I finished writing.
“What were you doing a year ago?”
It almost seemed an odd question, coming from someone who spent nearly every day of the year in the exact same manner—but there’s something about birthdays (and new years, for that matter) that makes a person stop to think about time.
Truthfully, I had been in a bar drinking Moscow Mules and wearing a tiara that said “30” and watching the ball drop in Times Square on a big-screen TV—but there wasn’t anything in that scenario I could share with him. So I told him a different truth.
With my right hand clutching a fountain pen and my left on a distended belly.
“I was not even imagining everything this year would bring.”