Chapter 12


I’d begun to doubt Holokai’s predictive powers by the time Obadiah appeared, but appear he did. And I felt the smile leap to my face. No wonder if I was transparent to Holokai’s discerning eyes.

I stood up from the hatch cover where I’d been perched, surreptitiously stretching out my legs (a skirt can cover all manner of ungainly maneuvers), and greeted him with cheer that seemed to well from someplace deep. I’m not great at waiting, and today’s waiting was over.

Holokai melted away to watch somewhere else (no small feat on so small a deck) and I had the man to myself.

I’d been entertaining myself by imagining a podcast-from-the-past, mentally editing Holokai’s storytelling interspersed with the ship-sounds and music-tracks I’d add if only I had an audio recording device. In my head I had an interview worthy of NPR going on. It’s the kind of game that occupied me regularly, like imagining the photos I’d post to FaceBook if I could, or the observations I’d Tweet (hashtag CheckOut1841).

My sketchbook was my new FaceBook, but there’s that added element of audience to social media that I missed. Audience and interaction. By contrast I felt isolated here, more alone in my room at night than I’d been for many years. It’s the other reason I spent so much time on the ship, even without its captain present.

“Miss Harper.” The greeting didn’t come with a smile (those were rare from Obadiah) but it also didn’t carry the tone of annoyance or even the resignation of my earlier days onboard. In fact, I’d have said he was almost cheerful.

“Captain!” I returned, more than cheerful. My mood bubbling over at his awaited appearance, I felt recklessly chatty. Cheeky, he might say. “Holokai has been telling me tales of whales that would be hard to top. What have you got?”

“Tales of whales.” He squinted forward to Holokai’s back, now turned on us. “Truth be told… A whale seems less majestic when it’s been reduced to barrels of oil in your hold. We’ve spoiled them with our own work—all I see in a spout is how many barrels it means if we fasten her.” It was a grim imagery—he’d obviously get no enjoyment out of the whale-watching boat tours so popular in my time. Or maybe he would, since those tours so often ended up being merely water-watching tours. But if I’d had a romanticized view of the undertaking, he neatly undermined it with his observation.

“It’s the unspoiled we see out there that’s worth telling of,” he continued, pulling me back from my reflections, alert for personal revelation in whatever form. He did let loose a small smile then, almost a boyish one if that could be said of such a weathered face. “Have you ever heard of penguins?”

I couldn’t believe the treasure trove of that journal of his, which he opened to show me penguins. He didn’t object when I turned some pages without waiting for an answer to my “May I?” Naturally he referred to it as his “log,” but it was nothing less than a diary. Sprinkled with illustrations (lacking technical proficiency, but well enough done), peppered with pressed plants and flowers, and packed with his own experiences.

I wished I could just sit down and read the thing. I’ve always said you could tell a lot about a person from the books on their shelves, and that had never been so true as in this instance. I surrendered the book reluctantly, and wondered (hopefully) if he might be harboring any reciprocal wish for a personal look.

“I don’t keep a log like yours, but my sketchbook is full of your ship. Would you—would you like to see?” He had an unnerving habit of looking at me for a beat or two before answering anything.

“Aye, I would. But I’ll be a severe critic of her lines.” Not laugh-aloud humor, but he’d actually made a joke.

Well, I hoped it was.

I retrieved my book from the hatch cover and handed it to him, feeling unusually insecure. Worried so much about his assessment of the ship-drawings that I completely forgot about my pages from the first night here, the emotion-laden repetitions of his irate and stormy face.

His single bark of amusement jolted me with a spike of adrenaline and dismay at the sight of the page open across his lap. I grabbed toward the book but aborted the motion—damage already done—and fumbled instead to apologize.

“No, Miss, I’m encouraged. If that’s the face my sailors see, I can be assured of my shipboard discipline.”

He didn’t continue to laugh, but did continue through the book, taking his time. Maybe I should have done the same with his—I’d wanted to—but it feels more invasive somehow to read what someone has written. I don’t know why that is, given how much of myself I imprint on a page without spelling a word. And maybe he felt that imprint, because he trained those eyes back on me when he finally lifted them from the pages. This time I felt comfortable in his gaze, maybe for the first time.

He pointed to my drawing of a whaleboat, currently perched on the deck awaiting repairs. “This here is where a whale’s tail stove in the boards while we were fastened. We near sank her taking on water in the run he took us on, pulling us by the harpoon line, and Rawley’s boat had to help us limp back to the ship. And this”—he touched the stern—“was a sperm whale’s head. We were lucky he only clipped us, could have taken us clean out of the water and smashed the whole boat. That happens, you know.” He ran through the list of injuries to his little craft, as if enumerating the stories of battle scars—which, in a way, they were.

“That’s what I see in a whale,” he finished. “Oil—and danger. He’s a fierce adversary… and then we cook him down to lamp oil.”

“So I should skip any attempts at an epic painting of battling-the-whale, and just paint myself a lamp?”

“Well, you asked me for the whale-story. That’s the whale’s story, boiled down.”

“Boiled down like the whale itself,” I agreed. “But there IS more to the story, or your poor little boat wouldn’t need so many repairs.”

He nodded, looking at something that wasn’t there. “There is the fight.”

“When you’re out there for years, is it just about oil? About the money it’s worth? Or is there something more in this? You don’t stay home to spend your money—you go out again in a few months and do it all over. I can think of a lot of jobs that aren’t so all-consuming, people who go home at the end of their day and have life outside of work. What drives you to do this?”

He picked up the two-handled wood planer lying where Dickson left it—I wondered if Dickson were in trouble for not stowing his tools, and I wondered if I were getting too nosy.

“There’s the sea,” he said after a few moments. “It’s what I know.”

If I had to interpret, I’d say it’s what he loved, but those emotion-words didn’t seem to fit in his vocabulary any more comfortably than in mine. It struck me that we were either a perfect match or an impossible one, two emotionally repressed people trying to navigate… whatever this was.

“I spoke of people’s jobs being separate from their lives, but that’s not how it is for you, is it? Being at sea is your regular life. And this”—I gestured at the dock, and the town—“just an interruption. Isn’t it? Have you never wanted a shore-life? A family?”

“No,” he answered without looking at me. “I haven’t.”

I’m no grammar expert, but I know there’s room for hope in the difference between “I haven’t” and “I don’t.”

“I built a house some years ago,” he continued, “but I feel a stranger in it. My housekeeper might as well be my hostess—it’s her place more than mine. I sleep there for the months we’re ashore, but I go home when we cast off our lines.” I guessed he hadn’t articulated the thought before, but didn’t doubt the truth of it. To him, a family ashore would seem like a schizophrenic second life, entirely separate from his “real” life. And naturally he hadn’t considered combining the two—almost no one does that.

“So what is it about the life? Tell me about it.”

“It’s a place where nothing changes from one day to the next, and where everything changes at the same time. You’ve got the same deck, same cabin, same crew, same objective—but the surroundings can change everything about that ship.The weather changes it, the latitude changes it, the hunt changes it, the men’s mood changes it. There are things you tightly control, and there are things you absolutely can’t. And all those things come into play, even just in the space of a single hunt.”

“Tell me,” I said again. If it kept him talking, I’d keep repeating the phrase all afternoon.

I couldn’t shake the knowledge that I had an objective to meet here, and that I had no way to measure my progress. Obadiah had kicked into high gear with his storytelling over the last several days—more comfortable and less formal in conversation—but I felt the distinct lack of anything-happening. He’d described a life where everything stayed the same but everything could change—I was stuck in everything-the-same. Same breakfast, same waiting on deck, same routine—only the stories themselves changing. I wanted to fast-forward already.

Straight-up stir-crazy by Saturday, I had to shake it up. I couldn’t face another stretch of hours waiting and watching and wondering. Time to regroup and reconsider what I was doing here. I thought I knew what “had” to happen, but what should I do when it didn’t? Things you can control, and things you can’t, Obadiah had said. Where was I on that spectrum at this point?

I walked for what must have been a few hours before I finally returned to the pier, nothing resolved, but maybe a little less riled in spirit. Maybe resigned to the idea that resolve alone couldn’t accomplish anything.

The roles reversed—this time Obadiah stood aboard as I approached. I pulled my blouse away from my skin, welcoming the extra bit of breeze coming off the water, and lifted my hair off my neck. As usual, my hairpins hadn’t held up, and irritating strands stuck to my damp face. By contrast, the captain looked like Sunday morning, even to the jacket over his buttoned shirt.

No one else stood watch, just him. That was my first clue. Or maybe my second, after the jacket. Subtle differences, but I’d been wishing for something different.

“Miss Harper.” Same greeting, new face. He smiled when he said it.

I won’t play dumb—that smile gave him away. He had dressed up, cleared the deck, and waited for me. Here I’d spent the whole afternoon doubting what I thought I knew, but suddenly “what I knew” snapped back into focus, and my certainty reinstated itself.

He didn’t preface his proposal with a speech, just quietly told me he had a question to ask of me, and calmly asked it. I remember how confident he seemed—not nervy, not retreating into formality like I’d imagined. I remember being struck that he didn’t reach for my hand, as if that would be an over-familiar gesture, despite the content of his question.

And I remember feeling like he’d left me hanging with that bare question—I suppose I’d expected him to expound on how he’d arrived at the decision, give it some background. Especially since he had apparently arrived at it just while I was working my way to giving up on it. I felt almost more exasperated than relieved, or maybe my foregoing frustration colored my relief.

“Whatever made you take it into your head to marry me?” I hadn’t intended it as a hostile question, but it probably sounded like one.

If it hadn’t occurred to him to be flustered before proposing, he certainly made up for it.

In retrospect, it was ungracious in the extreme—and another example of my feelings not doing what I think they’re “supposed to.” He’d made a straightforward business of the very action I’d been agitating for, and I had to go and throw him a curve in response. I felt immediately sorry, but the question was still hanging in the air.

“You’re… you’re interesting,” he declared, looking desperately uncomfortable. And I realized how desperately uncomfortable we both were, and I had to laugh at us both.

“I will gladly marry you,” I assured him, hoping he’d forgive my messiness. “That’s probably the best answer you could have given me.” I may have thought I wanted a speech, but what actually satisfied me was the honesty.

The visible relief on his face triggered a responsive rush of relief in myself. What a pair we made. But here we were. A pair.