Thursday, March 30, 2006

Chapter One

Yes, I know this place is dead but I'm damned if I'm posting this stuff to That Other Place. I am not unduly obsessed with ocean stuff - this is actually part of the same thing I posted a couple of months ago. But I'm happier with this and a lot more happy about where it's going, I think. You may consider it the first chapter.

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A smooth grey arc broke the surface of the water, sending ripples and salt smell across the tank. The water was dark and shallow, all things considered, lit through the sides by Barnum's handheld lamp. The big man was never exactly the most unanimated of sorts, and tonight, in particular, he was positively unsteadied by the excitement of it all, causing his hands to shake more than a little. But the hunter, perched with somewhat ridiculous daintiness in his heavy salt-bleached boots on the step ladder above, barely noticed the giddy shadows his companion was throwing across the room as he talked, talked, talked up his pile of gold.

Within the confines of the tank, all that manmade, gaslit fire was reduced through the thick French glass walls to a gentle glow. And it was into this little puddle of Atlantic Ocean that the hunter was concentrating his thoughts.

"Of course, we made out in the blurb that they were white whales. Hah, a little white lie, just to get people interested. Did you receive any of the cuttings? I asked for them to be sent on to you. The whole thing was amazing. We got a very proper scientist in to certify. God's own whales, you know, like they would have had on the ark. It's important to honour him in all his works, isn't it? I feel like I'm doing my own small bit for the Lord, building another kind of ark right here in New York City, just in case He ever feels the need to flood us all out again. We'll have it all here in this museum, the whole world, soon. We could float right out of here on the right boat. We're not even that far from the ocean like poor Noah was, though they've laughed at me in my time just like they laughed at him. Well, we showed them up properly, didn't we? We'll do so again, perhaps. Yes, God's own whales."

The hunter let him talk. It wasn't that he couldn't hold his own in polite company, or even the company of soft-skinned salemen with round fat arms and groomed moustaches. He wasn't a seadog mute, one of those whose only utterances besides those needed to sail the ship were strictly between themselves, their hammocks and the creaking wall. He was never left behind when a party set out for shore or when they arrived at a port to buy and sell goods, to barter in different dialects, accents, customs. He was a good negotiator. He knew when to be the foreign exotic, when to roll up his sleeves to display fierce rings of tattoos etched around his arms in black ink just a few hours before. He knew when to knot his bandana around his neck in the fashion of a certain group of land hunters, loved and, more importantly, feared within a ten-mile radius of their hunting grounds. He knew which phrases would signal accord and hint at a shared local upbringing, and which phrases would signal notorious criminality, the whispered threat of edged violence if negotiations were not quickly concluded. He wished he could say that he was doing the same thing now, remaining silent deliberately to unsettle Barnum and to leave him malleable for when they finally got down to talking business. Certainly this was a not unwelcome side effect.

But he would have been silent, even had the deal depended on his volubility. Too much... everything... his whole world... was staked on securing Barnum's agreement. There was nobody else in the western world who'd even give him a serious appointment to discuss it, and for good reason, of course. If it didn't mean so much, he wouldn't have been so scared. Yes, scared. Admit it. But if he hadn't been so scared of failure, he wouldn't be here, in this Broadway building, perched upon a wooden step ladder watching grey oceanic shapes moving through a tide-free water, themselves the only cause for waves, listening to Barnum talking them up.

He had asked to be brought here. They'd begun the night taking drinks in Barnum's office, non-alcoholic, of course. If Barnum had been slightly more shrewd, he'd have ensured they stayed there; the man was no idiot, but, perhaps, ego and his apparently genuine love for these creatures, which he'd stripped of all meaning and context, ensconced in his four-storey street house, outweighed his desire to do a deal around a table at which he held all the cards. The trouble was that Barnum was too damn likeable. He hadn't batted an eyelid when the hunter had outlined his plans. He hadn't laughed or ridiculed him, just sucked in his breath, stared at the floor for a moment, and then looked back up at the hunter with a schoolboy's grin in his eyes. The trouble was that the prize Barnum held was too damn important. For the hunter, allowing considerations of honour and friendship to come between him and his goal was simply not an option. He had hoped to draw strength from the whales, to refind himself in their tiny ocean, their salt spray and their oil. He had seen himself turning from the tank with renewed focus, lining up Barnum in his sights as he'd lined up the two great, sad creatures that slipped now side against side in the water beneath him. But they resembled nothing, here in this place, trapped by French glass, torn from their oceans. If anything, he felt more unsure of himself now than he had in Barnum's dust cloud study with its heavy velvet curtains and thickly upholstered chairs. Had he been such a mighty hunter, after all, to have captured these animated bathtub toys?

"...Of course, now that we've built the water pipe and brought them up to the second floor, I'm sure they'll outlive us both, eh? But I suppose we can't really be sure. Make no mistake, you will get your expedition and I don't suppose it makes much difference to you what you're hunting so long as you get paid. Certainly you can't accuse me of not being a risk-taker. Just look at these creatures. How many weeks did we wait for that pair? We could have come home with one in time for Emily's birthday. That would have been grand. But we waited. We waited. I don't mind spending the money. In fact, I consider it my duty to this great nation to enrich her children's knowledge of God's creation. But how many will see them before they fall sick and die? Wouldn't it be better to wait a year and go a-hunting whales again? That scoundrel in Philadelphia wouldn't even know where to begin thinking about what you want to attempt. Perhaps one more whaling trip first, eh, my friend?"

No expense spared. No risk untaken. To be fair, it was truer of Barnum than many of his contemporaries, detractors and competitors, which was why he was the only one with the capital to fund the hunter's plans. But, he now remembered, the man certainly made a lot more of these qualities in his advertising rhetoric than in his business deals. It was a fine selling point that the museum had been put together without consideration for the usual penny-pinching, cowardly ways of a miserly businessman. But Barnum also knew where to take risks. There may have been two whales swimming in the tank beneath him, but, as Barnum had said, they were grey, not white, though white whales swam off the continent's coasts, though the hunter had tried his hardest to persuade Barnum to give him 10 more men, a larger ship, more money, more time to capture two white whales instead. But to be the hunter who captured alive two white whales? That had been a question of pride, nothing more. He had been happy enough to let it go in favour of money and the chance to set sail again. This was about more than his pride. This concerned his very life.

The hunter tightened his grip around the ladder. How could he have been such a fool as to hope that Barnum would agree? All those weeks on the ocean, he'd somehow forgotten the man's gentle yet stubborn insistence that grey were just as good as white, friend, grey were just as good as white. After returning from New York the last time, he'd gone out into the deep ocean on a deathwish and a prayer. He'd wanted to hunt, to really hunt, with long spears and barrels and oil-melting fires; none of these rickety wooden traps strung up over rivermouths like twigs and nets set up by little boys to capture minnows, nestling up against their mother's coastal skirts. Maybe he'd felt, after seeing what Barnum intended for the creatures, like he needed to atone somehow, to throw himself upon the will of the ocean. And he'd courted death for, oh, about a week. Right up until the first kill of the trip, right up until he'd knelt with his men on the ice floes, and he'd felt, for the first time in his life, a shaking heart-pounding nausea from the exertion of the kill, and he'd heard still-hot blood cracking open the frozen water and known he was no longer a young man for whom the gods would make an exception of mortality. One week later he stepped out onto the deck for a moment to freeze beneath the frozen stars. Gazing over the side, across what was less water and more breakable ice, solid matter to be tilled and ploughed like so much worm-filled earth, he'd caught a sudden movement on the edge of his vision, a shimmering flash.

And that was the moment when all his priorities had changed.

He could not walk out of this city slum palace without a deal. He just couldn't do it.

The grey shapes sank back into the tank. Barnum had set down his lamp now, on a table in the corner of the room, but the windows were high and the curtains were drawn. Light filtered up from the street lamps on Broadway below, reflected off the white ceiling, fell in little dusty star showers onto the salty water. The hunter tried once more to recall the ruthless focus that descended upon him during his weeks at sea. All he could focus on were the sounds from the street, spinning wheels and screeching women, calls for a good time, darling, and flophouse dockers returning gin-soaked to their stalls. A couple of them had clearly stopped for a fight since male voices were being raised, a dirty female laugh, somebody's genderless hand throwing a near empty bottle in the direction of an unseen wall. The glass smashed. It was doubtless filthy glass, dripping with the stink of cheap liquor, and cutting into porous flesh and thin, dirty blood, if cutting into anything at all. But it smashed with a sudden resolution, a shimmering flash on the edge of the hunter's hearing.

And he recalled the sound of a different piece of glass, or something like glass, shattering against the ice and the silence of the ocean, a few days after that night on deck beneath the frozen stars. If he'd seen her again in that very room, it could have given him no more strength or resolve than that manmade, spit-stained bottle breaking up with a bright and brittle noise and wasting its contents in the street. He climbed down the ladder and turned to face Barnum, calm, expression open and sincere.

"Barnum, come now, whales are splendid creatures, miracles of creation. But they're not that hard to capture, as you've seen we have done so three times already. It won't be long before your competitors catch up. And, of course, the trouble with whales is that everybody already knows that they exist."


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