It was a clear steel-blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman's look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson's chest in his sleep.
Hither, and thither, on high, glided the
snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle
thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in
the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks;
and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the
But though thus contrasting within, the contrast
was only in shades and shadows without; those two seemed one; it was
only the sex, as it were, that distinguished them.
Aloft, like a
royal czar and king, the sun seemed giving this gentle air to this bold
and rolling sea; even as bride to groom. And at the girdling line of the
horizon, a soft and tremulous motion- most seen here at the Equator-
denoted the fond, throbbing trust, the loving alarms, with which the
poor bride gave her bosom away.
Tied up and twisted; gnarled and
knotted with wrinkles; haggardly firm and unyielding; his eyes glowing
like coals, that still glow in the ashes of ruin; untottering Ahab stood
forth in the clearness of the morn; lifting his splintered helmet of a
brow to the fair girl's forehead of heaven.
Oh, immortal infancy,
and innocency of the azure! Invisible winged creatures that frolic all
round us! Sweet childhood of air and sky! how oblivious were ye of old
Ahab's close-coiled woe! But so have I seen little Miriam and Martha,
laughing-eyed elves, heedlessly gambol around their old sire; sporting
with the circle of singed locks which grew on the marge of that
burnt-out crater of his brain.
Slowly crossing the deck from the
scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side and watched how his shadow in the
water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to
pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did
at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul.
That glad, happy air, that winsome sky, did at last stroke and caress
him; the step-mother world, so long cruel- forbidding- now threw
affectionate arms round his stubborn neck, and did seem to joyously sob
over him, as if over one, that however wilful and erring, she could yet
find it in her heart to save and to bless. From beneath his slouched hat
Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such
wealth as that one wee drop.
Starbuck saw the old man; saw him,
how he heavily leaned over the side; and he seemed to hear in his own
true heart the measureless sobbing that stole out of the centre of the
serenity around. Careful not to touch him, or be noticed by him, he yet
drew near to him, and stood there.
Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a
day- very much such a sweetness as this- I struck my first whale- a
boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty- forty- forty years ago!- ago! Forty
years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and
storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab
forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors
of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not
spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation
of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain's
exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the
green country without- oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of
solitary command!- when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not
so keenly known to me before- and how for forty years I have fed upon
dry salted fare- fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!- when the
poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the
world's fresh bread to my mouldy crusts- away, whole oceans away, from
that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the
next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow- wife? wife?-
rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl
when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the
boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings
old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey- more a demon than a
man!- aye, aye! what a forty years' fool- fool- old fool, has old Ahab
been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the
oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?
Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear,
one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this
old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did
never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very,
very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I
were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!- crack my heart!- stave my brain!- mockery! mockery! bitter,
biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and
seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck;
let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky;
better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright
hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in
thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board!- lower not when I do; when
branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine.
No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!"
Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should
any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these
deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck's- wife
and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine,
sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age!
Away! let us away!- this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily,
how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old
Nantucket again! I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even
as this, in Nantucket."
"They have, they have. I have seen them-
some summer days in the morning. About this time- yes, it is his noon
nap now- the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells
him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will
yet come back to dance him again."
"'Tis my Mary, my Mary herself!
She promised that my boy, every morning, should be carried to the hill
to catch the first glimpse of his father's sail! Yes, yes! no more! it
is done! we head for Nantucket! Come, my Captain, study out the course,
and let us away! See, see! the boy's face from the window! the boy's
hand on the hill!"
But Ahab's glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.
is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what
cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor
commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep
pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly
making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not
so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this
arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in
heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power;
how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think
thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that
living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this
world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the
time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon
Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where
do murderers go, man! Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged
to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the
airs smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been
making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the
mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how
we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid
greenness; as last year's scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut
But blanched to a corpse's hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.
crossed the deck to gaze over on the other side; but started at two
reflected, fixed eyes in the water there, Fedallah was motionlessly
leaning over the same rail.
Starbuck makes one final plea for Ahab to give up his hunt for the white whale, to chart a course for Nantucket, to wife and children and family. It seems, for a few moments, as if Ahab is wavering, recognizing the danger of his Moby-Dick mission. And then the moment passes. Starbuck gives up, leaving Ahab to the dark seawater and what lies beneath it.
I just spent over an hour talking to a man in McDonald's. A complete and total stranger who was sitting at a table beside me, scrolling through his phone. He was older, retired. His face was covered in gray stubble. I had no intention of having this conversation, as most men of his age and appearance are pretty much diametrically opposed to almost every belief I hold. Yet, I sat and listened, thinking of this scene between Ahab and Starbuck.
My Ahab was a retired corrections officer. Diabetic. Almost lost a leg a year ago. His mother died four months ago. He goes to my church, likes our new priest. Didn't know I was the Saturday organist at church. Knows A LOT about historic snowstorms and weather. I'm not sure he believes in climate change. He made comments along the lines of "weather goes in 70-year cycles," which leads me to believe that he's a pseudo-scientist. And, sometime during the course of our conversation, said, "Trump's doing a good job, even though he's a little rough around the edges."
My wife, who was sitting beside me, noticed me sit up straighter when he made that last comment.
I shouldn't have been surprised, really. McDonald's on Saturday morning is full of older retired guys who sit in their coffee cliques, solving the world's problems. Donald Trump, with his rejection of hard science and suspicion of everyone with a different skin color/sexual orientation/gender, would fit right in. It's Trump land.
So, I did my Starbuck best to be reasonable. I made comments like "Donald Trump has a LOT of rough edges" and "America was in pretty good shape before Donald Trump" and "I think the stock market dropped over 1000 points a week or so ago." I just couldn't keep my mouth shut and nod politely. It didn't make a difference, though. My Ahab went sailing right past those comments.
The thing is, he seemed like a really nice guy, despite his wrong-headed political and scientific beliefs. Hard-working. Struggling with his health. The kind of guy you want around if your car gets stuck in a snowbank or you get a flat tire. I'm sure he would stop to help if he saw me on the side of the road, struggling.
After about an hour, my Ahab left for home, to cut up some trees for firewood this winter. And I sat at my table, breathing deeply, wishing that his life was a little easier as he limped away. Nothing is going to change his mind about Donald Trump or Republicans. I know that. He's white. A man. Retired corrections, so he's probably seen some pretty terrible things in his life. Donald Trump is his antidote for all the troubles in his life. Until his Medicare gets reduced or taken away or his pension from the state evaporates.
When my daughter was in Head Start, her teacher used to go through the attendance sheet. If a student was missing, she would say, "Oh, Tommy isn't here today. We wish him well." Today, I wish my Ahab well. Hope that he gets his firewood cut and that his leg stops bothering him. And I hope that the Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives don't take away his Medicare. And that the pharmaceutical companies don't raise the cost of his medications so much that he can't afford them.
Saint Marty wishes him well.
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