“Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth … and other like skrimshander articles, as whalemen call [them]… Some of them have little boes of dentistical-looking implements, specially intended for the skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their jack-knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor, they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner’s fancy.”
~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick, “Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth”
“Whose work is that?”
Newly finished ivory brooch pinned to my blouse, I answered Obadiah with some pride: “Mine.” It featured Obedience—not as she looked now (tar-buckets suspended from her rigging and hull half painted) but as she’d look under full sail. Though I hadn’t yet seen her with sails raised, I knew I had the rigging right and her character captured. To someone from my time, it might look like a drawing of any generic ship—but sailors know ships like other people know faces. He recognized her, no doubt.
Sensing his discomfort at studying the piece too closely in its current situation, I unpinned it from my breast and handed it to him wordlessly. Squashing the impulse to start chattering at him about it, and waiting to see if he’d come up with any more words.
I wanted him to say it was well done, or that I’d gotten her right. Or that it was an unusual art medium for a woman. Or that the weather was hot. I just wanted him to say something.
He studied the scrimshaw closely, nodded (approvingly, I thought), and handed it back to me. No more words, but he didn’t move away either.
As the silence extended, it still had the feeling of a conversation—he had engaged me in an exchange for the first time, and he hadn’t yet ended it. The small but significant difference between standing next to each other and standing together. So I waited.
“That was a generous gesture, the dinner last night. The men seem… refreshed… today.” A needed morale-booster was what it was—not so much the food, but the party itself, even to his unexpected involvement in it. But that’s not something I’d expect to be encompassed in his cultural frame of reference. Nineteenth-century mariners don’t take management courses in team morale and motivation.
“I needed it,” I told him—which was also true. “I’m a stranger here, except when I’m aboard this ship. I didn’t feel like another dinner by myself.”
“So you chose the company of sailors?”
“It’s the company that’s been chosen for me.” The truth of that ran deeper than he could know, but he took it as a reference to my purported role here.
“You do know you’re making a more… thorough… job of this than necessary? You truly needn’t be so involved—I know that’s not Rawley’s scrawl on the provisioning lists.”
I turned to face him full-on. “I don’t approve of half measures.” (Actually, what I wanted to say was, “I don’t do things half-assed.”) “I have nothing else to do here, and I feel… Well, I feel invested in this voyage. Obedience has become a friend, and so have your sailors.” Most of them.
I wished I could read his face better. Censure? Resignation? Curiosity?
“You are an unusual woman”—my thoughts flashed to the museum description by that sextant—“to speak of a ship as a friend. And when you first saw her, you asked about my feelings for her. You see her differently from most.”
I hoped that was a compliment, and thought it might be a question.
“Well, I imagine… And I’m just imagining here, you’ll have to tell me the truth of it… I imagine that you know her intimately. That you don’t just sail her by calculations or facts, that you feel her. She couldn’t be just a bunch of boards to you, she’s a personality.”
His brows drawn together, he actually leaned forward to study me, as if he were examining the minute lines of another scrimshaw picture.
“How do you know that?”
I remember one time in Las Vegas, posing for a picture on the arm of a cardboard cut-out of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. That’s the best way I can describe how I’d felt about Obadiah up to now—as if he were a cardboard cut-out of a character who had been propped in various positions around the deck all week.
Maybe a cardboard cut-out with a camera installed, because I’d also been excessively aware of him every moment he was aboard, as if I were on a stage and playing to an audience-of-one.
Standing at the rail sharing words and silences, that cardboard cutout exploded into full-on three-dimensional personhood with the suddenness of a corn-kernel popping. Slanting sunlight highlighted the individual brassy blonds of unshaved hairs along his jaw, darker hairs at the open neck of his shirt (and one white one, zagging sideways), the pore-sized pricks of sweat at his temples, the hoop of gold in his ear. His illuminated eyes seemed almost textured, the browns and olive shades of lichens.
With those eyes focused intently on mine, it took an effort of will not to disengage my return gaze in discomfort.
“How do you know that?” he had asked.
“Well… Because it’s how I draw. I’m not thinking about lighting and dimensions and proportions—I feel them. I can tell when a drawing isn’t going to turn out well, because I’m working too hard at it. But those times when it’s coming out just right, I’m just… in flow. It’s happening naturally, and that pencil or pen or brush isn’t a separate tool, it’s part of the whole flow. That’s how it is with you and your ship, isn’t it?”
He drew back his head like a reverse nod, looking inward now, and I remembered his response to my very first question. “She’s brought us through.” In actual fact, he’d brought them through whatever hazards the crew had experienced—he and his knowledge of (his feel for) this ship beneath us. My very life would be in this man’s hands, and I felt a surge of gratitude for the same assertive assurance in him that had seemed so abrasive all week.
He seemed so much more human now. I felt like I was carrying around a little secret, my glimpse into his emotional-life. Even with his “captain face” in place, now I had the knowledge of that conversation tucked away, like a little private note pinned to my bodice beneath the brooch.
And maybe I seemed more human to him, speaking as I did of loneliness and a wish for something to do. He began to talk to me directly about provisioning rather than speaking through Rawley, which he had done previously even though he’d known I was working at it.
Of course he still had no idea how invested I was in this voyage. As momentous a break-through as that conversation seemed, I still stood far from “Mission Accomplished.” I lacked experience in the matter of proposals, my previous marriage having been the natural (if ill-fated) outgrowth of moving in with a college boyfriend and making a habit of him. I’d dated since, but never from a position of making marriage the end-goal (and with a looming deadline at that). If only I could get myself aboard with as much ease as I’d managed those extra tins of coffee. Just add “one desperate woman” to the list of provisions.
“Why do you keep watches in your home port? You’re not expecting to be boarded by savages, are you?”
Holokai’s white teeth flashed with his laugh. “Plenny savages here, Pua. Dey jus’ wearin’ fancy clothes. But naw, we stay watchin’ fo’ da weddah.” True, the weather could pose a threat in any port—land-lubber that I still was (and calm as our weather had been), it hadn’t crossed my mind. Sunday is a sailor’s weekend—Rawley had brought a hammock up from below to sling it in the open air with an open book. Clarke had headed to church, Franklin for a drink, and Dickson to a rendezvous, and Holokai had the watch. I sat with him, prodding him for yet another story-of-sailing with Starbuck.
“Why you so much interes’, Pua?” He had latched onto my mother’s name for me—Puahikialani, “flower-facing-the-heavens”—though he just called me “flower.” A flower wilting in this heat, if that were so. Or a flower waiting to be picked and pressed by his captain, but that sounded corny. The captain in question had not made an appearance, and I was trying to fill my morning. Inexplicably irritable and uncomfortably aware that I was watching for him. I wished I could send a text: Where r u? Had he gone to church? Should I have? Would he come today? Inept though I am at identifying my own emotions, I still recognized that I felt something in his company. If it takes physical reactions to clue me in to my own feelings, I had those aplenty, just in my breathing.
“Kapena, he coming.” And there it was, that involuntary intake of breath at the word for “captain.” I jolted upright, scanning the empty pier, and turned back to Holokai in puzzlement.
“Where? I don’t see him.”
“He not heah, but he coming. Soon, I guess.”
“Does he usually come on Sundays?”
“No. But he go an’ come now.” He held my gaze as my ears and cheeks heated. “Why you so much interes’, Pua?” he repeated.