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Authors: Michael Phillip Cash

The After House

BOOK: The After House
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Michael Phillip Cash

Copyright © 2014 Michael Phillip Cash

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1500600369

ISBN 13: 9781500600365

Dedicated to my dad

Who got the ball rolling.

af· ter· house –

1. the deckhouse nearest the stern of a ship


























Off the coast of Puerto Rico, 1840

aptain Eli Gaspar looked at his crew rowing rapidly toward the great sperm whale in the distance, the balmy air weighted with humidity. They had shipped out of Puerto Rico yesterday morning after restocking. They found a pod of whales and took a female and two calves. After a halfhearted chase, they towed them back and attached the carcasses to the ship. The heads were severed, and so began the arduous job of processing the beasts. Blanket pieces of the whales’ skin were stripped off like the peel from an orange, lowered into the blubber room, and cut into small pieces.

Fires under large cauldrons worked for days, breaking down the fats into liquid. The rancid smell of burning blubber filled the ship. It permeated the men’s clothing and the bedding. Their skin was black with grime. After being boiled, the oil was stored in casks until the men could head home to sell their bounty.

Eli was journeying home after thirteen months at sea. He had missed the birth of his son, little Charlotte was turning eight, and his father-in-law had broken his wife’s
heart by dying suddenly. Sarah’s letter had caught up with him in the Canary Islands. She begged for him to hurry home. Money was tight, her father’s estate tied up, and she needed him. You would think an attorney would have taken better care of his only child, but what was it they said about the shoemaker’s children? They were the ones left barefoot. He knew Sarah was bereft. She needed him. She wasn’t good with finances—hell, she wasn’t good with decisions. She had her father for that, and now he was gone.

Eli couldn’t imagine what he was going to find when he got home. The sooner he got there, the better. He wrote back but wasn’t sure if he would return before his letter arrived. The mail at sea was, at best, unreliable.

It was a good trip. They had taken twenty-two whales. He was upset with the crew for killing the calves, but the first one had gotten in the way when they tried to harpoon the mother. The second one was clearly sick, based on what they discovered after cutting it open. They left that one for the ever-present sharks that circled the ship, made quick work of the mother and the other calf, then pushed north toward home.

Today the bull appeared out of nowhere, the large knobs of its backbone causing Eli’s lookouts to scream, “She blows,” as the sun sank into the silver-dappled water. It was huge. Eli gripped the rail. He had never seen anything as big as this one. It had to be over eighty feet long—almost as big as the bark he sailed. He watched in awe as the S-shaped blowhole blew a geyser toward the darkening heavens. It was late, the sun just about to dip
into the horizon, but this was too great a prize to ignore. He tasted rain in the air and knew a storm was brewing. He hoped they’d capture the whale long before the expected squall reached them. The men jumped rapidly into the two whaleboats, seven in each, starting the chase that could last upward of twenty-four hours.

“They’re a well-oiled crew,” Eli thought proudly. They had drilled for days in the beginning of the trip, learning each other’s quirks, making their response instantaneous when prey showed up.

The boats flew over the white-tipped waves, the air thickening with moisture, the storm moving their way with the same speed as Eli’s seasoned rowers. The sea grew choppy, and the great whale disappeared under the surface. The lookout’s frenzied movements with small colored flags directed the rushing boats to its location. Time was running out. In the east, the sky was turning the same deep blue as his wife’s eyes. The first bright pinpoints of the stars lit the heavens above them. The west threatened rain. He glanced at the gathering storm clouds estimating how long they would have before the rain would compound their work.

“Row, you bastards. Give it to him!” Eli shouted the command to strike, his face burning from the wind.

The whale leaped up, mocking them with his fluke, arcing over the water to land in a huge splash. “Get him! Get him!” Eli ordered his first mate, pounding his fist with each word. He rolled onto the balls of his feet, leaning forward, caught in the thrill of the capture, a smile on his face.

The crew picked up speed, rowing efficiently, surrounding the animal. Moses, his first mate, stood majestically in the longboat, bracing his leg in the clumsy cleat to throw his iron. Time ceased then. The air was turgid, and everything moved in slow motion. Eli wished he could capture the moment somehow.

His burnished skin glistening with sweat, Moses raised the long rod majestically, aiming the harpoon. Moses was six foot five, ebony, with muscles honed from his years as a slave. He was a free man now, and Eli’s first mate. Eli trusted him with his life. The sun was at half-mast, bathing the sparkling waves with red and gold. The two longboats and the crew were primed for the kill.

Eli heard the harpoon hit with a meaty thud. A cheer of satisfaction erupted in the boat, letting him know Moses had struck true. The big man glanced back, a smile splitting his dark face. Eli grinned back with shared satisfaction. A second boat moved up from the south, the opposite direction, and Eli watched breathlessly as the greeny, one of the younger crew members, readied his arm to hurl a harpoon at the wounded whale. Eli could see the young man’s arm quivering from the strain. They were breaking him in for harpooning. He had long, muscled arms, but lacked patience. He had missed the female on his last excursion, causing no end of ridicule by his mates.

“Got him!” Eli yelled, smiling proudly at the boy, who beamed back, his face triumphant with joy. It was a clean hit, right next to the other harpoon, the dual barbs sunk deep into the whale’s wrinkled skin. Eli pumped his fist in
the air with approval, sharing his delight with the lad. He would be getting more duties after this. But there was no time for that now. The leviathan thrashed its great head, his platter-sized eye wild.

“Stern, all! Stern for your lives!” the captain shouted, knowing Moses was crying out the same command on the longboats. He watched the giant’s tail twist in the water, the resulting waves causing the boats to be knocked around like toys. Eli considered the whale’s head, bobbing in the water. It was huge, more than half the size of the whole torso, and would yield mounds of spermaceti, the most profitable part of the whale for its use in candles. What a prize to end the trip. His holds would be weighted down with enough oil to pay his debts and stay home for a whole year. He could give Sarah what she craved—attention. He smiled with satisfaction. Perhaps now her tone with him would not be as sharp—as edged with disappointment. Her complaints dominated all the letters from home.

His reflection and the crew’s celebration were cut short when the taut ropes from the harpoons spun from their coil, the friction causing a small plume of smoke.

“Careful…careful,” he urged, bringing his watchful eyes and his attention back to the drama on the sea. He saw his men grab tight to the oars as the boat was lifted to skim the water.

“A Nantucket sleigh ride,” little Henry Falcon yelled with admiration. Eli ruffed his cabin boy’s head, laughing at his excitement. It never failed to thrill him too. “I wish you let me go with them!”

“I promised to keep you safe, lad,” he said, sharing a smile at the feeling of the capture. “Next year will be soon enough.” But he knew there’d be a next year only if Sarah let him leave. She went along with this life because her father was home to watch over her and the children. Now he was gone, and it might mean a future of being landlocked. She begged him to open a store so he could be home all the time. He was her husband, her protector. Time for adventures was over—that was her constant refrain. He’d had his fun, had sailed for close to eleven years, but now he was a family man and should be home to take care of them.

But Sarah was miles from him and the ship. He didn’t have to think about that. Instead, he looked at the longboats racing across the waves, the men gripping the sides, their faces frozen in exhilaration. What he wouldn’t give to be on that longboat, but he had made a promise to Sarah that he wouldn’t take unnecessary chances. Married men don’t risk their lives, she had told him all those months ago.

Henry reached into his pocket and took out a small whale tooth and a lead pencil.

Eli watched the boy stare at the scene and then look at the unfinished etching on the tooth. “You have to draw it on paper first, lad, then tap the holes into the ivory.”

Henry held up the sloppily done scrimshaw. “It’s not very good,” the boy lamented.

“Rather fine, I’m thinking, for a first try. Rather fine. Should get better with time.” The captain nodded at the artwork.

“Next trip, perhaps you can show me some more ways to do the drawings,” Henry said.

“Yes,” Eli answered sadly. “Perhaps.” He knew his days of sailing were over, with his father-in-law’s death. There would be no more trips for him.

He heard a raucous cheer from the longboats. The whale changed direction, sending the boats twirling, dipping, then righting themselves. Eli watched, caught up in the excitement with Henry. Again, he wished he were out on the sea, steering the whaleboat, actually participating in the chase. He missed the danger of the boat skipping over the waves in hot pursuit of its prey. Instead, they watched the boats skim the water, dragged by the tiring beast. They were nearing the end.

BOOK: The After House
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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