“Don’t call me Ishmael,” I told my therapist, who’d just called me Ishmael for some reason.
“Sorry,” she said, “I’ve been re-reading Moby Dick. The main character’s name is Ishmael. I guess I have ‘Ishmael’ on the brain. Have you read it? I think you’d appreciate it. It’s about the obsessive nature of man, about longing to be the victor no matter the cost—things you might understand.”
I promptly fired my therapist and stormed out of her office, because if I wanted to pay $150 an hour for someone to talk to me about books, I’d join an expensive book club. Then, when it was time to pay, I’d keep saying, “Sorry, forgot my wallet. I’ll get you next book club meeting, for sure.”
I went to the local library and ripped a couple pages out of an old copy of Moby Dick and brought them home to read. I figured I’d take a look to see if I could figure out what the doctor was getting at. I had never heard of this “Moby Dick,” but the name was funny enough so I decided to give it a shot. I had trouble making sense of the writing (I must have stolen a bad translation), but from what I could glean, the book was about a virgin named Ishmael who sails out to sea on a big boat to help kill a whale. To my surprise, the tale did indeed “speak” to me. Something about the idea of destroying a big, powerful, noble creature of the ocean for no reason really made sense. If you could pull that off, then you could pull off anything. The teamwork aspect of whaling was off-putting, but the rest was good.
I was coming off a streak of bad luck in the American West that I’d rather not revisit right now, and I really needed a vacation. I work really hard. I knew what I had to do to get myself out of this rut I’d been in—what I had to do to feel “whole.” I had to go kill a big whale for no reason.
Why is it that every man, after ripping a few pages out of Moby Dick and reading them out of order, dreams of the sea? Why is that such a universal experience? I couldn’t say. All I knew was that, deep down, my heart was telling me I needed to go do this.
This is gonna rule, I thought to myself as I began the 50-mile walk to the nearest whaling town. Mad whales ‘bout to die!
I made a quick stop at the local nautical supply store to pick myself up a harpoon before my big nautical adventure but, just like at all the other nautical supply stores in the area, there was a big sign hung on the storefront with my picture on it that said: “Do NOT sell this man a harpoon.” I crossed the word “not” out on the sign and tried to go in and buy a harpoon, but the clerk wasn’t fooled. “You just lost a sale,” I told the guy, flashing a one dollar bill at him, even though that wasn’t enough money to buy a harpoon.
I went to a pawn shop across the street and traded my wedding ring for a harpoon, then I was all set. Watch out, whales, I thought to myself.
Know Thy Enemy
On my way to Skalego I decided to stop at the library again to rent out some books about whales. Know thy enemy, and all that. I asked the librarian where the whales section was and she said, “The cetology section is in the basement.” She was a bad librarian—I specifically asked for the whales section.
I looked around for hours before I finally found the whales books. They were in the basement, in a section that was marked “Cetology” for some reason. The books were a little wordy for my tastes. I prefer literature that’s primarily picture-based. See, that’s the one thing the ancient Egyptians got right. I started to storm out of the library because I was pissed off for some reason, then on the way out I spotted a nautical dictionary and snatched it so that I would be able to communicate with the other sailors on my upcoming whaling adventure. I didn’t know much of the nautical lingo—only the basics, like, “Ahoy!” and, “Thar she blows!” and, “¡Ay dios mio, big poppa loves to fish!” and I wasn’t even completely sure what those expressions meant.
I had never met a sailor or even been on a boat or seen a fish in person before, so I was going to be pretty “green” going into this whole experience, but I always suspected that I was made for the sea, as of that morning. Pretty much all you have to do to be a sailor is find a boat and stand on it, which seemed easy. Although I guess you are drunk the whole time, so maybe it was a little hard. I’ll be fine, I thought to myself.
After leaving a real quick essay of poor feedback that was longer than this novel in the library suggestion box, I left and finished the walk to Skalego. “Thar she blows!” I yelled for no reason.
I had heard tales of the famous Skalego. It was a tiny little town on the coast that was supposedly a hub for some of the best sailors in the world. I’d be sure to find a good crew of whalers there. Even if not, they had a good porno theater I’d been meaning to check out.
After a lengthy trek I finally arrived at Skalego, where the streets were lined with shops, inns, schools and churches. It was a quiet, dull, safe little town—it’d be an awful place to raise a family. I wandered the dampened cobblestone streets for a while until I spotted a small tavern that looked like it might be a local whaler’s hangout. It was called The Seaman’s Drip. Once I finished laughing at the funny tavern name (it was seriously called that!!!) I was ready to go in and fraternize with some of my fellow men of the sea, or at the very least get drunk.
I entered the tavern and was overcome with a certain feeling of culture shock. The place was full of big, burly, bearded old men guzzling booze at the bar, all looking like they’d been to war a thousand times over. They had a certain grizzled quality to them that was slightly intimidating. I worried they might see right through me if I tried to “hang” with them. If so, they’d never let me join their crew. Or even worse: they’d hire me as the guy whose job it was to swab the deck, or whatever. If anyone tries to make me swab the deck I’m gonna be pissed off, I thought to myself. I was pretty sure that being the guy who swabs the deck was, like, the worst guy you could be on the boat.
I just had to do my best to make an impressive entrance and assert myself as an able shipmate. “Ahoy!” I exclaimed, commanding a hush over the crowd. “Which of ye be whalers? It’s been a fortnight since I’ve gone a-whalin’ and I long for the sea! Thar she blows, indeed! Oh, how I long to taste that salty ocean air once again! I implore ye, ye lily-livered scoundrels: please, please hang out with me.”
I felt great about my entrance, and expected the guys to throw me their keys to their boats and practically beg me to whale for them, but they didn’t seem fooled. They all took a quiet moment to size me up, staring me down from head to foot, and they didn’t seem impressed. They were all giving me these cold, quizzical looks that seemed to say, This looks like the type of guy that I’d make swab the deck. “I’m not swabbin’ shit,” I announced preemptively.
“Welcome to The Seaman’s Drip, coward!” one of them finally said.
“Blessed evening, coward,” another one said.
“Coward ho!” another said.
I froze up. I had never been rejected so swiftly or so harshly before. Even wielding my expensive harpoon, and even after employing what I thought was very careful use of the word “fortnight,” I was immediately reduced to a “coward” by the very men I was desperately relying on to get me out to sea. “Welp, never mind,” I said, already giving up on this whole whaling thing. “This was a mistake. See you guys later. I’m gonna go hit up that porno theater.”
I turned around to leave and go return my harpoon, then I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and lumbering over me was a slouched, white-haired old man whose face appeared to have been chewed off by something. “Where ye rushin’ off to with such haste, coward?” he asked. “Seat yourself—please!—and enjoy a drink. A small beer, on me. Aye! Let The Seaman’s Drip quench your thirst.”
“Ha ha ha,” I said. Then I said, “I’m just looking for a crew of sailors to join. I’m a whalin’ man.”
The faceless old sailor erupted into laughter, his breath stinking of liquor and fish, like mine. “There is no company I relish more than the humble company of a coward with a sense of humor,” he said. “It’s been a wretched month, this one, and I’ve wept more than a good man ought to in an entire lifetime. Aye! What I needed this evenin’, my friend, was, indeed, a hearty laugh. I thank ye. Now then, what’s yer real rank? A mere, lowly swabbie? Me too! Ye’ll find good company here at The Drip!”
“What?” I asked, having no idea what the guy just said.
“Are ye new in Skalego, lad?” the faceless sailor asked. “This is the tavern of the local coward, where the town’s cowards, and only they, come to drink. I myself jumped overboard during my last voyage at sea ‘cause the boat made a scary noise. Got my face, homely as it was, chewed off by a school of crabs! If ye’re a proper sailor—one of high esteem—then ye’ve come to the wrong tavern.”
“Coward’s tavern?” I asked. “You mean this is where the bad sailors hang out?”
“Aye!” he said.
“What did you say your nautical ranking was again?” I asked.
“What do swabbies do?”
“Swab the deck.”
“Nope. No way,” I said, turning around and storming out of the tavern.
I couldn’t get away from those pathetic, low-ranking deck swabbers fast enough. Just from being around them I felt so dirty that I wanted to shower, at some point within the next few weeks.
I wandered around Skalego a little more, eventually following the sound of waves to the ocean shore. I spotted a doddering old fisherman trying to get his fishing hook untangled from a big clump of seaweed. “Damn this cursed, wretched seaweed,” he muttered to himself. I went up to him and asked him where I might find a good whaling crew around Skalego. “Thy luck hath run out, lad,” the bad fisherman told me, “for whaling season began one month ago. Any learned whaler, with high hopes in his heart for a prosperous whaling voyage, hath been asea for that amount of time.”
“A month? Ah yes, about two fortnights,” I said.
“Aye,” he said, not giving me any credit for using “fortnight” back there.
“That’s a shame,” I continued. “I’m lookin’ to go a-whalin’.”
“Ahh,” the fisherman moaned, “so thou fancy thyself a man of the sea?”
“Yes, I’m a whaler now. I mean, I’m a whaler.”
“Well, lad, if thou treasure thy longevity and thy good health more than a payday—august though thy pay may be—then thou wouldst not dare depart these peaceful shores, anyhow,” the fisherman told me. “A tempestuous storm is due soon to bloweth in from the West. Aye, a squall so raging it will ravage even ships blessed by God himself.”
“Uhh, actually, I’m an atheist,” I asserted, bravely.
“Okay,” he said.
“Now look here, lad,” I continued, hoping the fisherman didn’t notice me peaking at my nautical glossary when I said “lad,” “I’m a man of the sea, and no storm in the world is gonna keep me off the water.”
The fisherman chuckled. “I suppose that when a whaler hears the siren call of the alluring sea, there is no hope in teth'rin’ him to dry land,” he said. “I suppose I need not remindeth thee: the sea can be a cruel mistress. Ah, the sea! ‘Tis a turf eternally disputed by the Lord and the Devil alike, for it can be heavenly or it can be Hell.”
I tried to explain to the fisherman that I don’t necessarily believe in the afterlife as it’s described biblically and that I don’t care for how religion fails to acknowledge moral gray areas, but he didn’t seem to be in the mood for a theological debate. He must have known he was outwitted. “Listen,” I said, “I’ve got my heart set on this trip.”
“Aye!” the fisherman said with a slight smirk. “From a man who fancies himself a man of the sea—that most stubborn sort—what more couldst I hath expected? I suppose thee too, like thy fellow stubborn sailors, looketh down on us more grounded men—land lubbing men like myself who only wish to live long enough to watch our sons and our daughters grow. Thou heareth dire warnings of dangers asea beyond the offing, but the siren call of the sea rings louder in thy ear, doth it not? Thou dreameth of the sea and of only that,” he said, reciting his thesis for his Take A Long Time To Say A Thing 101 class.
“Okay, well, I guess I'll—” I began to say.
“Ah, the sea!” the fisherman interrupted, pretty much just talking to himself at this point. “What troubled territory, for she—”
“Well, anyway, whatever,” I said as I turned around to leave. “See ya later.”
“Wait, hear me now, brave sailor,” he said. “If thou so desperately wish to ship out to sea, despite having already missed a month of good whaling, thou shall find thyself scraps of a crew at The Seaman’s Drip, though it’d be mad to enlist the help of such inadequate men. I myself would never wish to handle such seamen, for that would be too much to swallow.”
“Ha ha ha, holy shit,” I said, laughing at the fisherman’s funny sentence. It’s cool how sometimes humor can transcend the language barrier.
Then I got upset, realizing my only option was to join that crew of cowardly old deck swabbers. I said goodbye to the autistic fisherman and began making my way back to The Seaman’s Drip, laughing the whole way there—I was excited to read the funny sign again.
On my way back to the swabbie tavern, I came upon a large church with a sign hung above the front door that read: “ALL ARE WELCOME.” I guess not all signs can be funny, unfortunately. From outside, I could hear the preacher howling in there. “The Lord shall watcheth over thee in times of peril,” he declared, “but only if thou do thy due diligence unto him,” and then there was something about how “to live a life of kindness and courage is to reject all influence of the Devil,” so I went in there to tell the preacher that I don’t necessarily believe in the afterlife as it’s described biblically and I don’t care for how religion fails to acknowledge moral gray areas. He’s gonna hate this! I thought, all excited for some reason.
It was a full house—men, women and children of all ages lined the pews and all were deeply moved by the words of the impassioned preacher. I took a seat in the back pew. “This oughta be good!” I called out sarcastically, elbowing the guy next to me. He asked me to be quiet.
“Thou cannot banish the Devil from thy life simply by pretending he is not there! Thou must invite the Lord into thine heart!” spoke the preacher.
“Amen!” someone shouted.
“Um, well, actually, I’m an atheist, so…” I yelled aloud, being brave.
“And now, my dear friends,” the preacher continued, “we shall acknowledge a recent tragedy—a tragedy that weighs oppressively on all our fragile hearts. Let us mourn the death of our dear friend, Captain Blagg. Let us mourn, yes, but let us not forget that the great Captain Blagg rests peacefully now in the Lord’s eternal kindgom.”
“Uhh, well, actually,” I yelled out, “I don’t necessarily believe in the afterlife as it’s described biblically and I don’t care for how religion fails to acknowledge moral gray areas. So…”
“Hush!” someone up front yelled.
“Thou in the back,” the preacher yelled out, “thou art a stranger to me. Welcome. Art thou a loved one of Captain Blagg’s?”
“Who?” I asked.
The preacher sighed. “Thou art new in town, it would seem,” he said. “Welcome to the service. Today, we biddeth farewell to our friend Captain Blagg, who struck joy into the hearts of all whom he met. We used to say the Devil himself could sink no ship so long as the great Captain Blagg was at its helm. But alas, it would seem the great captain has perished at sea.”
“Uh, okay, well,” I said, “I think the Devil is more of a social construct, and—”
“Enough!” the preacher commanded.
“Okay, well, I’m feeling a little excluded, and—”
“That is quite enough!” the preacher cried again. “Let us sayeth now our final goodbyes to a great man, for we handeth him over now to the Lord!”
“Well actually, I feel like ‘God’ is just a concept created by man in order to—”
“One last moment of silence for Captain Blagg!” the preacher demanded. Everyone else in the church bowed their heads, but I kept mine up in an act of defiance for being persecuted like that. “My head’s still up,” I announced bravely.
Just then, I noticed that the crowd of cowardly swabbies that I had met earlier at the funny tavern were all at church too, seated together in the front pew. The one guy who didn’t have a face was especially emotional, barely able to control his weeping. “Chill out man,” I called out from the back.
“Quiet!” yelled the preacher.
“The sign out front said ALL are welcome!” I said.
“Hush!” the preacher yelled.
“The Bible’s fake!!!”
I Don’t Like You And You Don’t Like Me
After being brave at church, I hung around there for a while as everyone else from the service lingered and consoled each other about their dead friend. Everyone was really sad about this Captain Blagg guy. I didn’t know the man, but people really loved him around Skalego. He must have killed a ton of whales.
The faceless swabbie from before approached me. “My friend!” he shrieked excitedly, “I thank ye for comin’ to mourn in the loss of my dear stepbrother, Captain Blagg. His death has brought sorrow into the hearts of every poor soul in Skalego! Oh, cruel lord, why’d ye take him so young!? Oh, my dear stepbrother!”
“Sorry for your loss,” I was able to muster.
“Oh, why my stepbrother!? Why oh why, of all the men on Earth who could’ve been taken in his stead, did it have to be my dear, sweet stepbrother!?”
“My condolences,” I said, instead of what I was really thinking, which was: he was just your STEP-brother, dude.
The faceless swabbie finally got a hold of himself and wiped his tears away. “Well,” he said, “I suppose the man died a hero’s death. Is there any death more noble than one at sea?”
I was about to give him some examples of nobler ways to die, like dying saving someone’s life at war or dying doing a great magic trick, but I bit my tongue and let him grieve. “Well, I’ll thank ye once more for coming,” he told me. “I suppose I’ll return to The Drip to drown my sorrows with a small beer.”
“Wait!” I cried out. “Not so fast. I have a proposition.”
“Of what sort?”
“Look, I don’t like you and you don’t like me, but I’m looking to ship out on a whaling voyage. I’m going through a bit of a rough patch right now. I feel sad a lot of the time and sometimes I don’t like myself, which is weird because I’m so nice. I think a couple months on the ocean and a couple dead whales under my belt is really what I need right now. I hear all the good sailors are already at sea, but do you have any interest in a nautical adventure?”
The few remnants of what was once the swabbie’s face lit up like a lantern. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me joyfully, which I didn’t appreciate. “My friend,” he shrieked, “ye’re speaking to just the right man, for just this very morn, my fellow swabbies and I were discussing a voyage. Please, allow me to confide in ye: there remains in my heart a small sliver of hope—small, yes, but not negligible—that contrary to what’s been reported, my stepbrother Captain Blagg might not’ve perished after all. Ye may call it stepbrother’s intuition—I still feel my sweet stepbrother’s presence. It is faint, but it is there. His ship may’ve sunk, yes, but lesser men than he have survived worse shipwrecks! I’d like to assemble a rescue team so that we may search for him at sea. Please, let’s return now to The Drip and discuss this voyage.”
“Okay but try to chill out a little though.”
The faceless swabbie and I began the walk back to the tavern. “So, my lad,” he asked me on the way, “what’s yer name?”
I had to think about it for a while before I finally thought of a good name. “The name’s Captain Fortnight,” I told him.
“Aye! Now that’s a hero’s name if ever I’ve heard one,” he told me. “My name is Kragg.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
We arrived at The Seaman’s Drip and went in there, walked past the bar to a staircase in the back corner and walked upstairs where Kragg had a room. It was a cramped little space that stunk of mold. The ceiling leaked in several places and the floorboards were soggy and rotted out. The space was furnished with nothing more than a filthy, wet mattress and an old, dimly lit oil lamp. You could tell Kragg was a bachelor. Probably because of the whole no-face thing. Plus his personality was bad.
The walls were lined with tattered old maps that Kragg had hung up, certain parts of which were circled in red ink. There was also a picture of a sexy female sailor hung which Kragg quickly ripped off the wall when I got in there. “Oh dear,” he said bashfully. “Anyway,” he continued, “I see, Captain, that ye’ve noticed my many maps. I burnt all of yesterday’s evening hours trying to determine where my stepbrother Blagg’s ship may’ve sunk, hopeless though the endeavor may seem. I have knowledge of Captain Blagg’s intended course—aye, his entire itinerary—for he shared with me these details before leaving shore. Still, this knowledge is of little practical use, for at sea, what is estimated to take weeks often takes months, or then again in some cases, only days. Aye, Captain, that is why it is so daunting to determine where in this watery world I might find the remnants of my stepbrother’s ship, and perhaps he himself.”
“Anyway,” Kragg continued, “my fellow swabbies have offered their servitude. If I do embark on this rescue voyage, then they will gladly serve as my crew, for though they may be cowardly, their hearts swell with compassion. When they were apprised of my stepbrother’s misfortune out there on the water, the details of which are still mysterious, they conceded that, indeed, Blagg may’ve survived, and may yet still be rescued!”
“What?” I asked again, worried Kragg might be having a stroke.
“Captain Fortnight, we swabbies look after one another. It shall be a loyal and hearty crew serving alongside us aboard The Ted!”
“The Ted?” I asked.
“Aye! The Ted is the name of my ship! It belonged to my father. He too perished at sea only weeks ago. The ship is named eponymously—The Ted.”
The first order of business before our whaling expedition would be to change the name of the boat. I ain’t sailing on a boat named The Ted, I thought to myself.
“Oh, what a rousing voyage it shall be out there on The Ted!” Kragg roared.
Ain’t no way the boat’s gonna be named The Ted, I thought.
“Oh, how powerful it makes ye feel in yer bones even just to yell out the name of the ship: The Ted!”
“Look Kragg, we’re changing the name of the boat.”