Scrimshaw by Mary Daya

A town sprouts for many reasons. Like at the meeting-place of rivers for the exchange of cloth, meat, wine, birds, song, fruit. In the hollow of a soft valley for the quick rooting of corn. Or eagle-like on a mountain for the gleaning of barbaric invaders. Sometimes, in the chest of a bay whose peninsulas link out like arms for shelter against bad winds. Never, because of the tooth of a fish or a woman out of onions for her cauldron of rabbit stew. Yet, these are the reasons for Levuka. And these reasons came wrapped in the life of one man - Hezekiah Esau Drake of New Bedford, Massachusetts. A mere fourteen years in the year, 1816.

On a day when New Bedford does not look like what it does today, a man slips out of his kitchen door with a gun, whistles for his dogs. A wind like the winds that chill New Bedford slate roofs today, pushing from the cold Atlantic. He returns with three rabbits. The bellies of his dogs, wet. His wife skins the rabbits. Lays them out on a maple board. Rubs thyme on rabbit flesh. A cauldron over the fire. She learns she has no onions. She slips into the garden to find none bulbuous with leaves shrivelling in maturity. She washes her hands, wipes them, ties the lace of her bonnet under her chin. Her walk is brisk.

Carruthers & Swann is a little wood store on Cod Street. Potatoes caked in good Massachusetts earth sit in wood crates. Rope, butter, boot polish, yeast for bread stack the shelves. From the end of the street, a carriage with four horses approaching. Opposite the store, the woman preparing to cross. She is dragged the length of the street. Her heart stops before the horses stop.

She is buried on a Tuesday. The cold earth, a little hard. The husband stands with a little girl and a little boy. An older boy stands apart. Go to the store, his mother had said, get some onions and a yellow thread for my petticoat. The boy slips to the woodpile behind the house. Melts into the low brush where turkeys feed. His mother's voice calling, calling, calling. His mother's voice getting weaker the deeper into the brush he runs. And now, beside the open soil, silence. His grief begins with the word, if.

Hezekiah is thirteen the year he buries his mother. A bad age. His grief runs thick in the house, in the streets, in the moments he brings his palms together for the blessing of food. And in the harbour, whaling ships unfurling their white sails. Hezekiah's eyes, like wounded birds, alight on the mizzenmasts of the ships. They slant their heads to the wind. Smelling the path of the whales. A sliver of yearning lodging in his throat.

He runs his fingers through his brother's sleeping hair. Touches his sister's sleeping nose. Stands at his father's sleeping silhouette. On silent feet, he slips out of the house. Whispers to the two dogs. His feet swift to the docks. Hezekiah boards the Nantucket Hound, a ship preparing to follow beasts instinct has sent to a frozen sea. A dark night it is when they slide out of the harbour. Hezekiah's chest as hard as the ice of the waiting Antarctic.

The captain's cabin is his workspace. The inches between blubber casks his unsteady walk path. The wind a whip to lacerate his memories and rub saltspray into them. The Nantucket Hound slips to the bottom of the world. Hezekiah's solace is in the steady bringing of shine to the captain's buttons. His consolation, in the careful journey of an unspilled gravy boat from the galley to the master's cabin. His grief finds balance in the balance of food trays in the light of oil lamps. In the furious ocean round Tierra del Fuego, the cold tip of South America, two days before the Nantucket Hound is steadied by a calm sea, Hezekiah begins to sense a thread of freedom roping him in. His hair has lengthened. His skin hardened. His thumbs gentled with the smoothing of the captain's brocaded collars and cuffs. The tops of hairs push against his chest skin.

You'll soon see your first whale, Henrik Larrson says. He is the ship's cook, a stirrer of broths on heaving waters. An earnest scrimshander in the minutes between the simmering and the boiling of salted mutton. His cold knife deft upon the ivory of whale's teeth. His hands etch the heads of women onto the enamel of incisors from slaughtered whales. Hezekiah's eyes have rested on the collars of lace Henrik carves at the necks of women. Henrik's eyes have watched Hezekiah's eyes watch. Here, he says to the young boy, you can keep this. Hezekiah names the woman carved on the whale's tooth - Ella May Drake. His mother's name.

On the night Hezekiah's legs walk out of New Bedford, his arms refuse to pick the one photograph of the woman who needed an onion for rabbit meat. He stares at the picture. He turns to walk away. His mother's eyes on his back as he quietly shuts the door forever. In the woman Henrik Larrson etches onto whale ivory, Hezekiah sees the lace collar his mother wore on Sundays. In the woman's neck, his mother's neck. In the woman's gaze, his mother's gaze urging him to take one more slice of bread at the breakfast table. Hezekiah slips the whale's tooth into a sealskin bag.

The Nantucket Hound is eel-slippery upon the Pacific. She slips west toward Van Diemen's Land. She heads toward the dry continent, not to reach it but to fetch bearings from. Her target is a young New Zealand. Then south to a frozen sea. In the wheelhouse, Bligh's map of a series of islands crossed upon that open-boat voyage to Portuguese Timor. The Nantucket Hound enters Bligh's Islands at the open of the hurricane season, her waters plateau-flat, her winds still as sloths.

In the very heart of Bligh's Islands, the Nantucket Hound cowers under a sudden gale. It is night. Even if Bligh had pencilled the Natubari Reef off the coast of Ovalau, the captain would have been unable to steady his eyes upon it. Hezekiah hits his cabin wall the moment the coral reef tears the Nantucket Hound's bow. His fingers scurry for the sealskin bag. His mouth flooding with sea the moment he touches it.

When the Fijians find the boy awash on their black pebble beach, his head is plastered with seaweed. A gash runs across his forehead. His palms torn. His lips blue. A sealskin bag strapped to his heart. They carry him to their chief.

Law dictates death to all who arrive on their shores with salt in their eyes. A man from the salt-tasters clan summoned. One man holds the lids of Hezekiah's eyes open. The taster runs his tongue on Hezekiah's open unseeing eyeballs. Yes, the salt-taster is about to say, yes, he has salt in his eyes. But his lowered eyes fall upon the tip of the whale's tooth in the sealskin bag. No, the man says, there is no salt in his eyes. The boy lives! The unconscious Hezekiah Esau Drake is dropped to the ground.

Hezekiah has seventy more years to live. He has eleven children to sire. Eight women to wed. Two to kill. One to love. And the sound of Fijian to drop into the wind of his mouth.