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I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee

Christopher Reynaga

Whatever you do, don’t call me Ishmael.

Don’t call me anything at all. Give me my pint of piss-poor ale and leave me be in this yellowed corner where men relieve themselves when they are too lazy to make three extra stumbling steps to the streets of Nantucket. I am done. Finished. Come to this hole to die—and if you insist on speaking to me, I’ll find a deeper hole than this dying excuse of a whaling town can offer.

No, I do not want another round, nor your sick curiosity. Why can’t New Englanders, most stoic of men, keep to their business when a dead man walks among them. Yes dead, though life still beats in this heart. It does not matter that I am the only survivor of what happened to the Pequod out there in the deep. I am marked by it—

I see now. It’s not me you want at all, it’s him. Captain Ahab. Old Thunder. The god and monster among men. Ahab the cracked, the insane. The captain who would cut the throat of his own wife and son and lap up the blood, if it would give him revenge on the white beast he hunted. I heard the rumors of his madness on these very docks before we shipped out. And now you want to know all.

How wrong you are of him. He does not deserve your eager eyes and poison tongues. He was nothing of the monster you imagine. For his sake alone, I will set his tale to right.

The captain was no saint, I’ll have you that. My first sight of him was his savage backhand to Pip, the cabin boy, for touching the scar on the captain’s face as he made his way up to the quarter deck to address us. Ahab was the iron hand on the ship’s tiller, as all good captains are. A good captain would have you in irons if he smelled mutiny in your blood. I saw in Ahab’s eyes that he’d heave you over the side.

“There’s no man on this boat fool enough to have signed on without having heard the tales. I have seen to that. Ye are not the finest whalers to board this ship. Ye are the boldest, the most dangerous, the most desperate. I have seen to that. I want no common harpooneers here. I hunt greater game.”

“Ye have heard of the white leviathan that took my leg and left me with this.” The captain lifted the shroud of his pant, revealing the greasy white bone, carved in queer, twisted angles that made Pip gasp and me squint my eyes till he dropped the cuff again. “Ye know the wealth in gold I offer. This much is true. The rest has been lies. Ones you have told yourselves. It is not a whale we hunt… but a god. A tentacled and winged god greater than the greatest whale that ever lived.

“Ye must think me mad! And I am. But mad with knowing what is in store for this earth. For when that beast took my leg as I dangled in the green moss that grows from its fishbelly white tentacles, I saw into its mind, and it left a splinter of itself in mine. It means to kill us all, and not because it is the Lord’s instrument hailing the end of days. This beast is the end of all gods and men.

“If there is any of ye that wants no part of this hunt, I will leave ye in a whaling skiff with a day’s food and water to row the thousand miles back to shore. I do this not to doom ye, but because it would make no difference to your fate. This thing does not care that ye exist. We are krill to its massive jaws and it will eat ye here or in the deepest landlocked desert ye can hide.”

You laugh. You drag me from my corner to hear his tale and now you laugh just as we sailors did. You there, hold your tongue—and you, shut up and hear me well. You would not laugh had you seen the worms that clawed their way from QueeQueg’s belly, or the ungodly glow that led the ship into the beast’s waters, or the madness that took Pip as the boy began convulsing and speaking in tongues.

You could not have laughed the night Ahab pulled me aside on deck and tapped the hollow-sounding horror of his leg. “Ye looked upon this,” he told me.

“Yes sir,” I said, “and beg your pardon, have no desire to again.”

“You looked,” croaked the mad cabin boy, Pip, hanging from the rigging above, “I looked, it looked, it looked, It looked…”

“Ye were the only one, besides the boy, to not close your eyes to it,” said Ahab, pulling me closer. “Do ye know what it is?”

“A peg leg carved from a whale’s bone, sir.”

“No, Ishmael,” he said drawing up his trouser again. “It is my leg. All of it.” Those twisting angles were in my eye again, an impossible shape of horrifying white melded to the flesh of his knee like wet, diseased wood. It stung my eyes to look upon it, and in the moon’s glare it seemed to writhe in impossible directions as if the twisting point of it met not the deck, but plunged through to some other realm. Pip began screaming above and did not stop until the captain cloaked his leg once more. “It’s growing up my thigh, making more of me itself each day. Do ye think me mad now? Do ye know why I hunt a beast I know I’ll never kill?”

“Why, Sir?”

“I have a wife, Ishmael, and a son. A boy who loves singing and counting the stones he lines up on the porch steps. A boy with my voice and his mother’s sweet blue eyes. I will not tell ye their names for I will not let it hear me say them aloud. My life is over. I do this for them. I do not think we will ever succeed in killing the beast, but if I can slow it down for one moment, I will gladly throw my life into its jaws for them.

None of you are laughing now are you? I see I have your rapt attention, eyes to mine, mugs not quite meeting your lips.

You could never find it in you to laugh again had you seen it the morning it rose from the waters to greet us. God almighty.

The watch on the mast-head that cried, “There she breaches!” tore the eyes from his sockets even before he tumbled to the deck.

“Aye, breach your last to the sun!” cried Ahab. “Thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!” He turned to the whalers and shouted, “Down, down all of ye but one man at the fore! Look not upon the beast! The boats—stand by!”

Ahab gripped my arm, “Ishmael, ye are my bowsman, for I know ye can cast your eyes at its horizon without going mad. Do not be tempted to look directly upon it!”

It amazes me still that I had the fortitude to step into that whaleboat. The oarsmen pulled for their lives, knowing they had no life left, but they were blessedly turned away from the rising horror that only I, and the captain at his steering, could see with averted eyes. I cannot describe the wrinkles and scars that covered the monster’s forehead like hieroglyphics, tangled with the stumps of rusted harpoons. I focused on the green moss that grew across its dead-white flesh, pretending that I was racing toward moss-wet cliffs that did not have great claws rising from the depths. It must have been one of these claws that reached over us and tore the ship down into the sea with a terrible chorus of screams and breaking timber. I could not look. Ahab was already at my side, harpoon in hand, screaming to the men, “My God, stand by me now!”

Stand by I could not, for the crashing wave of the monster rushing to meet us swamped me and my oarsmen overboard and into the milky churn. Ahab rode through it like a titan going forth to meet a god, buoyed up by the strength of his unnatural leg, his blessed spear gripped in his hands.

“From hell’s heart I stab at thee!” Ahab cried and flung the harpoon from the sinking whaleboat. It flew true into the great god’s bottomless right eye, the only moment I glanced into those eyes. Those eyes knew me, and in that moment I knew I was forever marked.

The beast flew forward with igniting velocity, wanting to swallow us with those eyes. The great tentacles reached to grasp us like a lover. Ahab gripped the harpoon line and heaved against it, twisting the spear in the great socket with a spray of black ichor. Something gave in the beast, some impossible nerve and the creature lashed backwards into the sea, dragging the harpoon line down with it. The loop of it caught Ahab around the neck and voicelessly he shot out of the boat before he even knew he was gone. Next instant, the heavy eyesplice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark empty tub, and smiting the sea, disappeared into its depths.

I do not know why that great man sacrificed himself for you, but no man here deserves his providence. You believe Ahab is mad. He is the Christ come to try and deliver us all, and there’s not enough blood in him to save us.

None laugh now. None of you can laugh. My words have hooked into you like fishing lines, like the rope that dragged poor Ahab down into the depths. I see that when I tug that portion of my mind, I can make the cup roll lifelessly from your hands, make you twitch where you stand, the spit running from your chins. I too have something twisted and white that the great god gave to me but it is growing someplace deep in my skull.

I hear it now. I know what it wants. I know I am no safer than you, but even as I hear the distant screams of Nantucket begin to roll in like the tide, and watch the flood of seawater fan beneath the door, that twisted white part of me knows that I will be the last to die in this world. It is my fate to tell the world its story and hold you fast with the harpoon of my voice. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean roiled.

Fool, I am your eulogist as it slouches toward us like some rough beast waiting to be born.

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