Abaft

Many years ago, on an old trawler out from Nantucket, I crewed with a man very on in years and yet whose hands and forearms resembled those of a shaved bear, his eyes under beetled brows like black pearls. He had a straight back and the lined, leathery skin of a man who has spent most of his waking life working beneath the sun. I was still green, barely a proper seaman, and the man had no end of criticism for my shoddy knots and lubberly habits. He articulated with a limited vocabulary of grunts and cusses but his meaning was seldom unclear.

One night we were stationed together for the second dogwatch. The Atlantic was flat as a mirror, the bare slap of the water against our hull almost noiseless. The ship, of course, groaned like the hinges of a rotten trunk, but that had long ceased to intrude on our thoughts. The drowsy mist of the late evening had settled into a moonlit cloud.

I was almost dozing when a thick hand fell to my shoulder. I wanted to cry out. I would have, if the old man’s face hadn’t struck me dumb. He placed his other hand on my arm and turned me towards the stern. “Go abaft,” he whispered. “There’s something you should see.”

I did as I was told. I took the ladder to the poop and nodded slowly to the helmsman, who gave me the barest acknowledgment before returning his gaze to our starboard aft. I looked as well and held the wet railing with both hands. Humps. Limitless humps, the thick, bulbous heads of monsters resolved in my vision. With the yellow moon they had risen from the deep and surrounded our ship. I lost count after forty, my mind elsewhere, on the confusion of it, the sperm whales’ attentive, menacing composition. The heavy hand fell on my shoulder and I looked at the face of the old salt.

“They’re here for me,” he said. He squeezed his hands together. Those hands would never pop nor feel the sting of the night’s cold. He was built too hard for that. I stared at his inscrutable face shining with the same slick light as danced on the monsters’ mighty heads.

But they weren’t there for him. In pairs and then severally, they submerged. And then the old man, too, went down to the main deck. The Atlantic was alone again, save for the creaks of the hull, the shrug of the waves, and the silence that now seemed to grunt and cuss with the things it couldn’t say.

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