The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?
– because one did survive the wreck.
The Whale, Herman Melville
But for a sharp line of first light where the drawn curtains meet, the room is dark. Ishmael stands at the window, his hand raised to the light. He watches it glimmer across his palm. His wife, Rachel, kneels beside a white fleece where their baby lies asleep.
I feel like you’ve tricked me, she says.
It’s been there all along.
It hasn’t come up since.
Why does it have to be said?
Please, lower your voice.
There is a ship leaving in three weeks.
You’ll be needed here. They like you, everybody says so.
He shakes his head, and closes his hand into a fist. The light escapes his grasp.
Planting will begin in the spring, she says. There is no reason why they won’t hire you.
It isn’t about the work.
Why else would you want to go?
I’m dying for it, he says, sotto voce. He turns towards her. She is dressed in her light green frock, the one she wears to town. He turns away and takes hold of the curtains.
Don’t, she says, the light will wake her.
A couple of months, six at most.
And then what? You’ll return happy?
I’ll send money. You won’t need to worry about that.
But it will start all over again. You know it.
If I can just get out there. It will do me good.
She looks away, covers her eyes with her hands. You said you were done with that life.
It’s always been there.
You tricked me, she says. The baby stirs at the sound of her voice.
I tried, you can’t say otherwise.
He moves around the room, looking for something that needs to be done, but there is nothing. He sits on the bed and brushes his hand across the polished bedside table. There is not a speck of dust anywhere. There are no rugs, and the furniture is sparse: a bed, the cot and his wooden chest – salvaged from the Pequod – now full of toys. He opens the bedside drawer and reaches for the Bible, to read, as he often does, of his namesake, son of Abraham, banished into the desert to wander the wilderness. Opening the book, red rose petals fall to the moquette carpet. He stares down at the dry, pressed petals, once blood red, he remembers, but now dark crimson.
You kept them, he says.
It wasn’t too long ago. You didn’t need me to convince you then, remember?
He nods, turning the pages slowly, back and forth. She rises, goes to the washbasin and strips down to her waist. He pretends to read, but watches her as she washes her face, her neck, her breasts, and he remembers. After years at sea, he hadn’t the courage to leave the harbour, not in either direction. Occasionally he did odd jobs for food, but otherwise he sat each day on the wooden chest, filled with clothes and keepsakes, his only possessions. She came one morning to sell her roses. She smiled at him, a bright scarf wrapped around her head, strands of dark hair about her face, warmed by the sun. She sold very few roses that day and in the evening a lorry came by to pick her up. She loaded her roses and climbed up with the other sellers. Looking back at him, she dropped a rose, and waved. The next day she returned, and the day after that. And each day she came a little closer. He wanted to make a show of his affection but he hadn’t a penny, and even if he had what would a girl with all the roses in the world possibly want? Then one morning, when the lorry came he was waiting. He spoke to the driver while she arranged her roses, sending him furtive, questioning glances. The driver told him to be quick and so he loaded his chest and the lorry took him away. They made love that very night, in her room, his hands, still rough from the sea, cut from a day’s work in the rose fields. Her cries were deep like distant gales and when she was quiet he held the rose above her, stripped the petals, and laid them in a path between her breasts, down to her soft white belly.
He sets the Bible down and goes to her, rests his one hand on her bare shoulder and the other on the small of her back.
The baby cries. She moves away and covers herself.
She kneels on the fleece and picks up the child, but the crying does not stop.
Take her, Please.
He holds the baby against his chest, and she quietens. His hands are cool. She told him once that all those years at sea had cooled his blood. She seemed to understand then.
She folds the fleece, stands and places it in the cot. She says, She’ll grow up. In six months she’ll be different and you won’t be here.
I am not here now, he murmurs, his lips vibrating on the soft hair on the baby’s head. When I come back I’ll be happier, for all of us.
What about me? My happiness? Us?
I make you miserable. You’ve said so.
The baby has fallen asleep. He listens to the gentle breathing of the tiny creature.
What kind of man leaves his wife and child?
Six months, he says, placing the baby in the cot. Everything will be fine.
She stands over the cot opposite him. He reaches for her hand, their baby girl between them. She smiles at him, challenging him to hold her gaze, but he cannot. She slips her hand from under his and goes to the bed. She stands with her back to him, her shoulders taut, the tendons in her neck pulsating. Careful not to tread on the petals about her feet, she neatens the bed. Then she picks up the Bible and pages through it.
Is it the whale? You know nobody has come close. You said so yourself.
I still believe that.
Then why be a fool?
He wants to say something about purpose, that it is his calling, but she has heard it all before, and thrown it back at him. What right did he have to follow her?
Leaving the petals on the floor, she returns the Bible to the drawer. She puts on her coat and wraps her hair in a scarf.
If I had kept that rose? she says. If I had not let it fall from the lorry, would you have made the same choice?
Rachel, I don’t love you any less.
But not more, she says. You don’t love us more. She steps to the cot and lifts the sleeping child, and, covering her in the fleece, she leaves the room.
Her steps can be heard on the stairs, and on the stones on the path outside the house. He kneels beside the bed and sweeps the petals into his hand. He expects them to be soft, but not so brittle. He returns them to the Bible pages.
Outside the lorry’s engine rattles and the sellers collect their buckets and chat demurely. Her voice is not among them. He picks up a toy ship from the chest at the foot of the bed and sails it through the air. In his hands he feels the coarse wood of the ship, which dips towards the cool morning light, stark and white, like the belly of a whale.
Photo by Tomek Dzido
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