Chapter Twelve


Silver lining to spending so much time being useless. I’d had Obadiah’s attention to myself a lot. He didn’t spend all his time in the cabin—and I didn’t spend all my time awake—but just as Samson managed to have a plate of food for me every time I emerged, Obadiah often managed to time his down-time to coincide with my awake-time, and that time was spent without the captain-face in place. It may have been a funny time for “dating” and getting to know each other, but I was getting cozier with my husband.

He made a habit of sitting up beside me on the bed, fully dressed, often holding my hand and always talking with me or reading to me. My favorite readings came from his own “log,” his journals of previous voyages. I enjoyed his observations and occasional touches of dry humor, and welcomed his additional conversation, treating those entries in greater depth as he dredged through his memory for stories to tell.

I learned what happened to the third harpooner from the previous voyage—they couldn’t keep him sober and he nearly killed himself overbalancing when he tried to harpoon a whale while loaded. I had a visceral understanding of how serious and dangerous the situation had been, but Obadiah gave the telling a humorous cast.

“Stick that whale!” 

“Which one, sir?”

Seeing double and unable to stand, the soused stabber had receded to the bottom of the boat and Dickson had dropped the fore oar and taken up the harpoon. That night Dickson took up residence in steerage and the drunkard’s trunk moved to the fo’c’sle—but only after Obadiah searched it and poured out the sailor’s substantial stash. The former harpooner continued sullen and sober till the next landfall and departed the ship, and Dickson took his promotion from harpooner to third mate with the current voyage.

I hadn’t thought much of the man to this point, but could cut him some slack with the realization that this was his first command of a whaleboat, and Obadiah had plenty of stories of his prowess in its prow. I wondered if he would have been better left in the harpooner’s position, but Obadiah had watched these men for longer than I, and paid attention to his playbook. Hence the assignment of crews himself rather than letting mates pick. All in all I had to acknowledge his awareness and keen observation of the men under his command.

With stories like these I’d passed the time between torpid stupors and learned my husband, as well as his trade—and now I began to emerge again into his world.

Lacking a mirror, it was hard to say whether I looked appreciably different, but I was having to let my trousers hang lower on my hips in order to button them, relying on suspenders to hold them up. I certainly felt different than I had for weeks, renewed in energy as well as spirit. The voracious appetite had even subsided some, though I was still eating more than before the pregnancy, and I half wondered if my thicker middle had as much to do with my caloric intake as to a burgeoning uterus.

I stood on deck in a November afternoon when Walpole hollered “Land ho!” from aloft—Staten Island off our port bow. More or less the gateway to the Horn. Shit was about to get real. But I felt a little better after passing that island—the seas didn’t immediately start to toss us, and my monkey jacket was just as sufficient as it had been the hour before. (Or as insufficient, given that I couldn’t quite button it across my front.)

They say that if you drop a frog in boiling water he’ll jump right out, but if you gradually increase the temperature of water he’s already in, he doesn’t realize it. Maybe that’s how it was with us and the weather, except in reverse—we were getting colder and colder as we headed toward the pole, as if we were fast-forwarding through a season toward winter, but it wasn’t how I’d imagined it, like crossing a quick line into frozen-over hell. By the time we hit a real gale of freezing hell, we’d at least gritted down and acclimatized some to the baseline cold.

Still, no amount of reading could have prepared me. Until now there had at least seemed to be some separation between the sea and the ship, but now the sea encroached with such regularity as to leave us continually awash. In some moments we looked like a ship-shaped railing plowing through the sea, the deck itself obliterated from sight by churning water.

Ingersoll mopped the common cabin incessantly, and the fo’c’sle was in worse condition with the comings and goings of so many men opening the hatch. The guys tried to minimize water inrush by coordinating their movements at watch changes, but there was no way to keep the sloshing sea entirely out. Swede told me he deliberately took a bunk near the hatch because he liked the air flow for the years we’d spend in the Pacific and tropics—but the price of that position was constant cold soaking now. He kept his bedding rolled at the far end, but there was no way to keep everything dry.

Our cabin was probably the driest spot in the ship, given its interior door, but we tracked in plenty of water ourselves, and our clothes dripped everywhere when we came inside from the deck.

Worse than the water was the cold. I felt like my finger-bones were made of metal, conducting cold deeper into my innards. Samson was probably the only one of us who stayed continually warm, thanks to his galley wood stove—and I took to visiting him just to reverse my everlasting chill. However, his interest in keeping me fed didn’t seem to extend to an interest in my company. He remained gruff and dismissive, and I’d take myself away as soon as my fingers thawed.

I couldn’t imagine how the hands were functioning when they had to go aloft, but I watched them do it, day in and day out. Obadiah forbade me to attempt the rigging, but he didn’t even need the excuse of my pregnancy to keep me planted on the planks. I may want to prove myself, but I wasn’t about to test my limits against this.

I asked Holokai one day, raising my voice over the wind, if this weren’t especially difficult for men who had grown up without knowing a winter.

Ka’ino, she stay ha’aha’a,” he acknowledged. This storm is colder. “But hurikani happen even at home. If can, can.” If you can do it, you do it. And that, I realized, summed up the approach of all of us. It’s not like you can cry “uncle” and get off the ship. You just keep sailing. You do what’s in front of you, and if you need a reminder, you tell yourself it won’t last forever. Even if it felt like we’d never be out of this cold, we were making some headway, and every day brought us closer to the other side.