Chapter Six


“The [Azores] roads were a wonder… Everywhere you go, in any direction, you find either a hard, smooth, level thoroughfare, just sprinkled with black lava sand, and bordered with little gutters neatly paved with small smooth pebbles, or compactly paved ones like Broadway. … And every road is fenced in by tall, solid lava walls, which … are often plastered and whitewashed… Trees from gardens above hang their swaying tendrils down, and contrast their bright green with the whitewash or the black lava of the walls and make them beautiful.”

~ Mark Twain, 1869, Innocents Abroad

Obadiah may have been disgruntled by his brother’s display of crew seamanship, but our guys seemed to be inspired by it. The easy manner of the veteran whalemen and the skillful handling of their ship may have served to show the newbies what it could or should look like. I could see the shift in their attitudes, from overwhelmed and flustered frustration to a more determined studying approach. Our own vets, fully aware of what a ship could do—and equally aware that the green hands represented the limiting factor—were more than willing to school them. And Rawley and Franklin stepped up their games as well—not that they’d been lax on discipline or order, but there seemed to be an all-around feeling that we shouldn’t be shown up again.

Within a week of our first gam, a mounded volcano of the Azores rose from the horizon like a green sun. I sat astride my new favorite spot at the bow—which had earned the bowsprit a new name of “the Missus-Cap’n’s Chair”—and watched the mound multiply into more islands as we drew nearer. It was my first time approaching land from a sea voyage—even a voyage that was only a couple weeks along—and it made an exciting change from the previous monotonous, watery scenery.

With some of their new confidence showing, the crew took in courses and upper sails and squared the upper yards, so we approached anchorage under power of the topsails, Swede calling out soundings. I could see the rectangular whites of buildings and walls imposing a geometry on the lush greens of the volcanic-soil isle. I was curious to lay eyes on these islanders, whose descendants would continue chasing sperm whales from small wooden boats with hand-thrown harpoons clear up until 1986.  Obedience hadn’t yet raised a whale, so to date my only look at a real chase had been a YouTube video of an older film reel, shot in color over the red gunwales of an Azorean whaleboat.

“Standby the anchor!” I wondered if Rawley had risen to his rank based in part on his ability to bellow audibly. I moved aft and out of the way as Carver and Red-Kerchief eased the anchor off the catheads and checked the anchor line snugged in its figure-eight around the bitts. “Clew up! Haul down the jib! Haul up the spanker!”

Rawley continued to sing out, and Obadiah turned the wheel, using the helm and aft spanker sail to pull the ship through a slowing U-turn until her bow pointed into the wind.

“LET GO THE ANCHOR!” If I’d thought Rawley had lungs on him, he had nothing on Obadiah, his roar eclipsed only by the racket of the chain suddenly running out across the metal fittings of the porthole at the bow.

“Brail up the spanker!”

The ship began to back away from its anchor, paying out more and more line, until Red-Kerchief signaled that we’d reached sufficient line-length for the water depth. Obadiah watched a good while longer, making sure the anchor wouldn’t drag along the bottom, but most of the rest of us looked to shore.

For someone who’d never taken a psychology course, Obadiah struck me as remarkably “people-savvy.” Where some captains might keep men (especially “raw” green ones) aboard for fear of desertion, he calculated differently and announced early that everyone would have a turn ashore. Mostly they would be put to work ferrying vegetables and topping off water casks, but no one would have cause to resent being pent up on shipboard.

And of course that included me. I even put on a dress without waiting to be asked—the town wasn’t populous, but its jutting whitewashed stone church proclaimed it to be “civilized.” As foolish as I felt being carried ashore through the shallows, it also struck me as a little romantic. My husband had carried me across the threshold of his house after the wedding, and now he carried me across a threshold to a new view of the world.

Men had already gathered at the shore with goods and offers-of-goods, beginning to stage an impromptu market—they knew what a whaler wanted when it anchored in the Azores. Obadiah said there’d be a good smattering of “trade English” among the natives, but he brought his own Azorean sailor, Carvalho, ashore for his Portuguese. And Ingersoll, of course, with his ever-present lists.

I definitely found myself itching for paints, though I could have done just about the whole scene in black and white and shades of green. (Well, with some blue for the surrounding water and the hydrangeas lining every roadway.) Inky lava rock served not only as substrate but also construction material, every building and wall and fence line—even roads—built of basalt blocks. Even the humblest of huts featured white-washing, usually between the stones, surrounding and contrasting with the individual dark squares. My painting’s red touches would have gone to terra cotta tile roofs, the doors of a stone boat-house, the gunwales of the wooden whaleboat drawn up on the beach near where we landed.

The men here were thin, as if sparse living on volcanic soil didn’t leave any spare flesh. Yet the baskets of vegetables and fruits were appearing in abundance. One man, missing a number of teeth from his grin, showed his grasp of smart marketing by handing me an orange and gesturing to me to open it. I dug in a fingernail, prying back the peel and releasing a small spray of juice and scent. I closed my eyes at the sweet wet explosion in my mouth (and thought how often I’d considered grocery-store oranges boring).

I opened my eyes to see the gapped grin stretched even wider. “Joao,” he said, pointing to himself. I had no doubt I was primarily an angle for an intended sale, but I didn’t mind playing the role. We were here to buy, and I liked the twinkle in his eye.

“Gayla,” I responded, pointing at myself in return. He winked at me as if we had just established far more than an exchange of names, and gestured behind him to an equally thin woman with more teeth and fewer wrinkles. She lifted a bundle down from atop her head and began unpacking it like a magical picnic basket, producing large yellow potatoes, green maize, paper packets of crumbled aromatic tea leaves, a trio of stubby bananas, a spiky pineapple, links of spiced linguica sausage, and even a bottle of wine. The final flourish was reserved for the shaggy white goat which stood placidly to one side and now let out an indolent “meh-eh-eh-eh” as if responding to its cue.

“He thinks highly of your purchasing power,” Obadiah’s voice rumbled behind me, laced with a chuckle. “That’s an expensive vintage—the Pico wines bring high prices in Nantucket. I’ve been thinking of milk-goats, though. If they didn’t work out for the milk, they’d be a good Sunday dinner, no loss.”  He launched into what I took to be a negotiation with Joao, revealing a working knowledge of Portuguese I hadn’t known he possessed. Thanks to my high-school Spanish I could pick out a handful of similar nouns—cabra, leite, laranja, vinho. Goat, milk, orange, wine. Banana, the same in all three languages.

Well, I figured Joao had accomplished his ends in approaching the captain’s wife—he had the captain’s own attention now. I turned to the other woman and inquired after what I wanted most, a phrase I’d asked Carvalho to teach me. “Tinta para pintar?” I asked. Ink for painting? She started—surprised at being addressed, or by my request, or both—and looked over her shoulder (nervously, I thought) at an approaching figure. I could only pick out one word of her reply, sacerdote. Same as the Spanish: priest. I wasn’t quite sure whether she meant the priest could supply me with paint or (given her edgy attitude) that the priest disapproved of paints. Either way, it looked as though I might have the opportunity to find out. The man striding toward us wore Jesuit robes.

And he spoke English, though heavily accented and aggressive in delivery. “Who is capitao here?”

Obadiah looked up from milking the goat (which I suspected he’d just bought) into a tin mug, and replied as nonchalantly as the goat herself. “That would be myself, padre.” The father looked down at him, still squatting and squeezing, and displayed no sign that he saw any humor in the tableau.

He didn’t beat around the bush either. “This is a Christian community, Capitao. We want none of your sailors’ sinful influence here. You come ashore to trade”—he pointed emphatically at the goat—“and you take those sailors back to your ship”—jabbing his finger at our anchored bark. “Trade only. No drinking, no carousing, no women. No shore after dark.”

I gathered the protective padre had problems among his parishioners with the constant traffic of whaling vessels passing through. While he didn’t, strictly speaking, have any authority over us, I imagined his influence could induce a boycott—however reluctant his flock might be to pass up the trade. Maybe more to the point, I knew his demands didn’t actually cross Obadiah’s own intentions. I just didn’t know how Obadiah would respond to being bossed around. He had risen to his feet and his captain-face had a stubborn look about it. This could turn into a pissing match to no good purpose.

I stepped up to take his arm, but addressed myself to the priest. “Father—I didn’t catch your name? I’m Senhora Starbuck. Thank you so much for your hospitality—your people here are so kind and lovely.” I felt Obadiah’s arm jerk at my use of the word hospitality, but I smiled maniacally, dug in my fingers, and plowed ahead. “My husband has already set exactly that schedule for our men. As you see”—I gestured with my other arm to indicate the paused figures of villagers and sailors watching the byplay with various degrees of understanding—“here we are trading as you suggest. Plenty of daylight to get everyone back aboard. But thank you so much for your concern—it was thoughtful of you to come down just to greet us and be sure we had a workable schedule.”

Obadiah’s arm quivered under my grip, I thought perhaps with suppressed laughter, though I didn’t spare his face a look. I might start giggling. Or I might be wrong and see anger instead.

The Jesuit’s eyes had narrowed as if he weren’t sure how to interpret the barrage of English, though I was sure he had the vocabulary. He’d just been expecting a different kind of fight. While he was still off balance, I went in with the coup de grace of distraction. “I’m thinking you could maybe help me, Father. I’m hoping to purchase some paints—can such a thing be had here?”

Well, our pugnacious padre turned out to be a painter.

While Ingersoll, Carvalho, and my husband continued their trading, I submitted to an awkward donkey ride uphill to the church, seated sideways-facing on a strangely constructed wooden frame with a straw cushion added, and a carpet thrown over that. I wondered irreverently if an Azorean representation of the Virgin Mary on her donkey would include this ridiculous saddle get-up.

The church itself featured some stunning artwork, the more impressive for its relatively primitive setting. I was inclined to the cynical view that the Catholic church had always found the funds for her own beautification—but perhaps that was unfair. A considerable amount of the decoration had happened at the hands of this priest himself—and if pride were a sin, I still thought his justified. His work was heartfelt, and splendid, and completely at odds with his antagonistic display earlier. But then, maybe that too was simply a heartfelt defense of his flock. People are always more complicated than you initially assume. Sometimes I want to make a caricature out of someone, but there’s usually a deeper human explanation to them.

I returned to the shore with my pots of paints, and if we almost missed our “curfew,” it was the priest’s fault for keeping me as long as he did. Trading having concluded for the day, the tin mug of milk had given way to a mug of wine passed around, and the shore-folk and our sailors were engaged in a multilingual gam of pidgin and patois filled in with plenty of pantomime.

Only Obadiah still looked businesslike, standing to the side and talking seriously with a handful of men, and I knew he was contemplating the addition of several Azorean whalemen to our crew.

We would be back the next day to start loading up our purchased goods in earnest, but tonight we returned to Obedience with several restless goats loaded into the bottom of the whaleboat. Being carried through the surf to the small craft seemed far less romantic with a nanny-goat getting the same treatment.