[from] Moby Dick [Encore post]

by Herman Melville

Chapter 107

The Carpenter

Like all sea-going ship carpenters, and more especially those belonging to whale vessels, he was, to a certain off-handed, practical extent, alike experienced in numerous trades and callings collateral to his own; the carpenter’s pursuit being the ancient and outbranching trunk of all those numerous handicrafts which more or less have to do with wood as an auxiliary material.  But, besides the application to him of the generic remark above, this carpenter of the Pequod was significantly efficient in those thousand nameless mechanical emergencies continually recurring in a large ship, upon a three or four years’ voyage, in uncivilized and far-distant seas.  For not to speak of his readiness in ordinary duties: – repairing stove boats, sprung spars, reforming shape of clumsy-bladed oars, inserting bull’s eyes in the deck, or new tree-nails in the side planks, and other miscellaneous matters more directly pertaining to his special business; he was moreover unhesitatingly expert in all manner of conflicting aptitudes, both useful and capricious.

The one grand stage where he enacted all his various parts so manifold, was his vice-bench; a long rude ponderous table furnished with several vices, of different sizes, and both of iron and of wood.  At all times except when whales were alongside, this bench was securely lashed athwartship against the rear of the try-works.

A belaying pin is found too large to be easily inserted into its hole:  the carpenter claps it into one of his ever-ready vices, and straightway files it smaller.  A lost landbird of strange plumage strays on board, and it made a captive:  out of clean shaved rods of Right Whale, bone, and cross-beams of Sperm Whale ivory, the carpenter makes a pagoda-looking cage for it.  An oarsman sprains his wrist: the carpenter concocts a soothing lotion.  Stubb longed for vermillion stars to be painted upon the blade of his every oar; screwing each oar in his big vice of wood, the carpenter symmetrically supplies the constellation.  A sailor takes a fancy to wear shark-bone ear-rings: the carpenter drills his ears.  Another has the toothache: the carpenter out pincers, and clapping one hand upon his bench bid him be seated there; but the poor fellow unmanageably winces under the unconcluded operation; whirling round the handle of his wooden vice, the carpenter signs him to clap his jaw in that, if he would have him draw the tooth.

In his numerous trades, he did not seem to work so much by reason or by instinct, or simply because he had been tutored to it, or by any intermixture of all these, even or uneven; but merely by a kind of deaf and dumb, spontaneous literal process.  He was a pure manipulator; his brain, if he had ever had one, must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers.  He was like one of those unreasoning but still highly useful, multum in parvo, Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior – though a little swelled – of a common pocket knife; but also screwdrivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers.  So, if his superiors wanted to use the carpenter for a screw-driver, all they had to do was to open that part of him and the screw was fast: or if for tweezers, take him up by the legs, and there they were…

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851


By Joshua Rivkin

My father is modest. He didn’t save hundreds
from drowning. Just a few dozen.
Gathered from the swell, the riptide, rough,
rough waves he carried them ashore.

Half-lit, he tells it again. The storm
against sky, the lifeguard without fear
alone in the water, the crowd
gathered to witness.

                               Here’s what to notice:
the danger of weather, failures
of the other people to help, we never know
what happened to the boy.

This is my humble brag, my bravado,
my foolish affection
to write the same poem year after year.
In some versions I am the lifeguard.
In others I’m drowning.
Then I’m sky. Then wave.

Joshua Rivkin, “Lifeguard” from Suitor.  Copyright © 20

Busy Day at the Office

By Margaret Fishback

This is a day when I covered no ground.
Just pushed and shuffled my papers around,
Nudged at letters and winced at bills,
Sorting them out into different hills,
Hunted fretfully for a ruler,
Worried the overworked water cooler,
Sharpened pencils and filled my pen,
Then shuffled my papers around again.

From Poems Made Up to Take Out.  Copyright © 1963 by Margaret Fishback. 

(from) Snow Falling on Cedars [Encore post]

by David Guterson

[The coroner is starting his post-mortem on the body of a dead fisherman.]

A coroner’s job is to do certain things that most people would never dream of doing.  Horace Whaley was ordinarily a family physician, one of three on San Piedro.  He worked with fishermen, their children, their wives.  His peers were unwilling to examine the dead, and so the job had fallen to him, by default, as it were.…

Chief among his current considerations as he stood brooding over Carl Heine’s naked form was to determine the precise cause of Carl’s demise — or rather to determine how the deceased had become deceased, for to think of the slab of flesh before him as Carl, Horace reminded himself, would make doing what he had to do difficult. … He must think of Carl as the deceased, a bag of guts, a sack of parts, and not as the man who had or recently brought his son in; otherwise the job could not be done.

Horace Whaley placed the heel of his right hand against the solar plexus of the dead man.  He placed his left hand over it and began to pump in the manner of someone attempting to resuscitate a drowning victim.  And as he did so a foam, something like shaving cream though flecked with pink-hued blood from the lungs, mushroomed at the deceased’s mouth and nose.

Horace stopped and inspected this.  He leaned down over the deceased man’s face, scrutinizing the foam closely.  His gloved hands were still clean, they had touched nothing except the chilled skin of the deceased’s chest, and so he took from beside his instrument tray a pad and pencil and noted for himself the color and texture of this extruded foam that was abundant enough to cover the deceased’s bearded chin and his mustache almost entirely.  It was a result, Horace knew, of air, mucus, and seawater all mingled by respiration, which meant the deceased had been alive at submersion.  He had not died first and then been cast beneath the waves.  Carl Heine had gone in breathing.

But anoxia, like Alec Vilderling, or a waterlogged, choking asphyxiation?  Like most people, Horace felt the need not merely to know but to envision clearly whatever had happened; furthermore it was his obligation to envision it clearly so that in the official register of Island County deaths the truth, however painful, might be permanently inscribed.  Carl Heine’s dark struggle, his effort to hold his breath, the volume of water that had filled the vacuum of his gut, his profound unconsciousness and final convulsions, his terminal gasps in the grip of death as the last of the air leaked out of him and his heart halted and his brain ceased to consider anything — they were all recorded, or not recorded, in the slab of flesh that lay on Horace Whaley’s examination table.  It was his duty to find out the truth…

Copyright © 1995 by David Guterson

[From] Speed the Plough

A short story by Mary Butts (1890 – 1937)

[The main character is a World War I soldier who is suffering from shell shock and traumatic amnesia.  He has been lying passively in a hospital bed for months, unable to help the staff figure out what to do with him.  Finally they decide he must have a had a life in the open air, and they send him to a dairy farm to see whether he will come out of his blank memory.  Here is his first pass at a new (or old) life.]

“The open door of the cowshed steamed with the rankness that had driven out from life… Inside were twenty female animals waiting to be milked. 

He went in to the warm reeking dark.

He squatted on the greasy milking stool, spoke softly to his beast, and tugged away.  The hot milk spurted out into the pail, an amazing substance, pure, and thick with bubbles.  Its contact with caked hides and steaming straw sickened him.  The gentle beast rubbed her head against her back and stared.  He left the stall and her warm breath.  The light was gaining.  He could see rows of huge buttocks shifting uneasily.  From two places he heard the milk squirting in the pails.  He turned to it again, and milked one beast and another, stripping each clean.

The warm milk whose beauty had pleased began to nauseate him.  There was a difference in nature between that winking, pearling flow and the pale decency of a Lyons’ Tea jug.  So this was where it all started.  Dimly he realized that this was where most of life started, indifferent tribe… was Polaire only a cow… or Delysia?… The light had now the full measure of day.  A wind that tasted delicately of shingle and the turf flew to meet him.  The mat on the down shoulder was now a dissolving view of ambulating mushrooms. 

‘Yes, my son,” the farmer was saying, ‘you just stay here where you’re well off, and go on milking for me.  I know a born milkman when I see one, and I don’t mind telling you you’re it.  I believe you could milk a bull if you were so inclined…’

He sat silent, overwhelmed by the disarming kindness.

‘See how the beasts take to you,’ the voice went on.  ‘That old cow she’s a terror, and I heard you soothing her down till she was pleasant as yon cat.  It’s dairy work you were cut out for… There’s a bull coming round this forenoon… pedigree… cost me a bit.  You come along.’

[But as time goes on, he begins to notice what women are wearing – what cloth their clothes are made of – and he finally realizes that he is a tailor, and that he now has a life to return to.]

“A month later found him on his knees, vertical in black cloth, and grey trousers, and exquisite bow tie.  A roll of Lyons brocade, silver, and peach, was pliant between his fingers as the teats of a cow.  Inside it a girl stood frowning down upon him. 

Despair was on her face, and on the faces of the attendant women. 

‘But if you can’t get me the lace to go with it, what am I to wear?’ 

‘I am sorry, madame… Indeed we have done all that is possible.  It seems that it is not to be had.  I can assure madame that we have done our best.’  He rose and appealed to the women.  His conviction touched them all.

‘Madame, anything that we can do…’

The lovely girl frowned on them, and kicked at her half-pinned draperies.

‘When the war starts interfering with my clothes,’ she said, ‘the war goes under…’

His eyes kindled.” 

Originally published in From Altar to Chimney-piece: Selected Stories by Mary Butts, 1992.