It starts with the dream; it always starts
with the dream. The
boat is rocking, the waves slapping iron-fisted against the
hull. A cold wind is
screaming out of the south, blasted up from the chill Antarctic,
chapping the cheeks and watering the eyes. There is nothing around but
ocean, on all sides as dark and forbidding as the scarred backs of
the leviathans when they finally surface in swirls of water and
spouts of steam.
Overhead, the sails creak ominously, taut under the strain of
the fierce Antarctic-driven wind. A momentary lull slackens
the canvas, then snaps it into place with the sullen crack of a
The ocean, my dreaming mind tells me, is a
harsh mistress, hard and unforgiving. But it is also the cradle of
life. The cradle...and
From the slender hoops in the mast high
above, the lookout gives the call, his voice high and thin in the
teeth of the screaming winds: “Thar she blows! She
And it is there, rising off the port bow
like some beast of legend, water pouring off its scarred, balck back
like waves off a rock.
Its breath, moist and hot in the chill air, hisses forth: the
fires of hell unleashed.
Frenzy erupts with the lookout’s cry. The decks of the ship boil
with motion as it begins its slow, ponderous turn into the path of
the whale. The
whaleboats are flung from the sides; men pour like ants over the
rails. The boatsteerers
take up position in the bowsprits, their harpoons flashing silver in
the pale light of the morning sun, ropes coiled like torpid snakes
Senses are heightened at such a moment. The salt-tang of the air,
always so familiar,
now rakes at the throat with caustic
fingers. And the voices
of the crew echo back and forth like macaques in the jungle: all
noisy cacophony, devoid of sense.
“Hold fast the course!” the captain cries—a
voice so familiar to my dreaming mind that I know it for my
Oars are shipped, the whaleboats skimming
across the water like bugs across a pond. The rowers are well-trained,
the oars a poetry of synchronized motion. Rise, dip, stroke;
The whale, too, dips below the surface, then
rises again, ecstatically blowing. The dark, squarish head, the
stubby ridges of its dorsal hump, reveal it to be black gold: the
mighty sperm—the fiercest and most valuable of the cetaceans. Kings are anointed with its
oils. And under it
flukes, scores of whalemen have met their maker.
The cries go up from the men, echoing eerily
in the chill air. The
whleboats gain speed, fleeting after the leviathan. Harpoons are poised for the
toss, their deadly points gleaming. And we who are left behind,
riding above the waves as the leviathan rides below, wait in taut
anticipation, nerves belled out like canvas before the
For myself, watching in a state not quite
awake and not quite dreaming, there is a sense of dread
inevitability. I know
this scene—as well as I know my own shape, the feel of my own flesh
beneath my fingers.
As captain, I don’t know it; but I know it,
in my dreams, as inevitable as sleep. Because it has happened
before, this endless dance of hubris and doom. It has happened many times,
night after night. Yet
still the sun shines above me, and the deck rail, hard beneath my
fingers, drives splinters into callused flesh, so tightly do I grip
Maybe this time, all will be
Once again, the whale breaks the skin of the
sea. The lead
boatsteerer poises; casts.
weapon soars a silver arc, the lines singing
out behind it. And then
again, in quick succession.
Both shots are true.
Barbed and deadly, the points sink, one by one, into a
mountain of black flesh.
The lines snap taut.
And then the monster rises. Not just breaking the
surface this time but thrashing upwards in a wake of foam, small
eyes appearing, and then that ridiculous afterthought of jaw,
seemingly so fragile yet with teeth the length of a grown man’s
The toothed jaw clashes; the beady eye
gleams with rage and pain.
Higher and higher the monster rises until it looms over the
small boat like a wall of storm-tossed water. And here is the moment of
choice: whether it will drop once more and attempt to flee the
harpoon’s sting, towing the whaleboat behind it like a child’s toy,
or whether it will rise up until it almost clears the surface of the
waves then dive down deep, our last view of it the mocking flap of
its mighty tail.
Both carry their risks. In the former case—on that
mad journey named after my homeland: the Nantucket sleigh-ride—the
whaleboats can be dragged miles from the ship in the fury of the
chase. And in the
latter, both boats and crews can take the fast path to Davy Jones’
locker if the ropes are not cut with enough speed.
But this time, it is the third and most
deadly possibility that occurs. The vast, black body twists
in mid-air, and descends on the boat like a hammer on an anvil,
crushing it as if it were no more solid than a
The toothed jaw clashes, shearing through
the second boat so that it falls in halves, spilling human cargo
like seeds from a pod.
A mighty flap of the tail annihilates the
It is hard to see if there are any survivors
in that welter of wake and foam, nor is there time to evaluate, for
the whale is turning, spying out the larger ship: the ultimate
source of its torment.
The harpoon juts from its back like a pin, the lines
streaming behind it like a flag of victory as it
And then that vast, squarish head is
hammering into the side of the ship. I hear the crack of timbers,
feel the wallow that lets me know the ship is wounded. It is not enough,
though. The whale comes
again, striking up into the hull. I can feel the ragged hole
it makes, as if this vessel is an extension of my body. As, perhaps, it
My fault, I think, as the water floods in
and the ship founders.
I have done something, I don’t know what,
but something terrible.
Something that has drawn down the wrath of God himself;
doomed not only me but my crew as well. I am twisting with guilt,
impaled like a fish on a line, even as the waters flood in and the
ship begins to split. I
hear the boards groaning, then tearing apart with a tortured
scream. Soon, the
frigid waters will embrace me: the only lover’s touch I
The ship shudders again beneath the beast’s
assault. It is not, I
know now, a whale. It
is some avenging demon out of Hell: my fate and my
Expiation for my many
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, I will fear no evil...
Except that I do fear. I can smell its stink upon
me, sour and acrid in my sweat. I can taste it on my
For thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff
they comfort me...
But it is too late for comfort now. Too late for
repentance. Too late
for the words that once formed a cornerstone of my life, but which
haven’t had any true meaning for me in years. It is too late for
The cold waters claim me, and I wake—as
drenched with sweat as if I, too, had been swallowed by the
In the bright, morning light, my room looks
strangely surreal: too cool, too clean, too modern. Everywhere white walls,
straight lines, squared angles. It is all wrong. I’ve known other
Not my childhood rooms either, in that quaint, midwestern
house that has comprised most of my life up until now. But something far more
distant, with one tiny arched window and oddly-angled walls. Wood and calico, and
something yellow...or is it green? The smell of sea and salt in
the air, the mournful cry of the gulls; the sounds of a busy port
town rising to go about its business...
It is always like this, when I first awake:
this sense of disconnection, of things not being quite as they
should. But gradually
reality filtered back around me, and the familiar press of my things
ceased to feel so alien.
It was just my room after all: my abstract posters in their
artistic black frames, my spare Ikea furnishings—the standard décor
of the impoverished graduate student. The morning air streaming in
through the open windows smelled of earth and flowers, and a vague
sense of something burning, with nothing of the sea in it at
all. Which was just as
it should be. I had
never in my life lived by the water. And there was not a thing
nautical about this room at all; not even the prints on the
walls. Honestly, I must
have been the only English major ever to graduate without reading
Moby Dick. I had spent
my life ducking the sea—at least, when I was
When I was asleep,
“You’ve been dreaming again,” Jane said
knowingly, poking her head around the bedroom door.
I sat up, pushing a handful of damp, clammy
hair out of my face, and sighed deeply. I’d had these dreams all of
my life; you’d think I’d eventually find another topic. Something a bit
less...watery. But no;
it had to be this. And
it had been growing worse over the past few weeks, these nightly
excursions into the cold, dark deeps.
Admittedly, there had been other dreams in
the past—happier dreams—of sea and sky and the freedom of a fleet
boat beneath my feet.
But lately this dream had dominated, and it was getting
harder to shake off with each new morning.
But then again, perhaps this was just a
function of the fact that I was finally facing my fears. I glanced down at my
suitcase, more than half-packed by the side of my bed, then back up
at Jane, who had come all the way into my room by now, with her
usual blithe disregard for other people’s privacy. The burning smell grew
stronger as she entered, and I masked a groan. My punishment, it seemed,
for sleeping in.
Still, I managed a wry grin in
response. “Was I
“Like a banshee,” she informed me
cheerfully. “I could
hear you all the way from the kitchen.” And when I raised an
eyebrow, she added, “Well, since it is your big day and all, I
figured I’d make the breakfast. And since you’re such a fan
of French toast...”
Yup, that explained the burning. “So you decided to make it
Cajun style?” I teased.
Jane grinned. “Blackened, you mean?” My roommate was all manner
of things, but slow was not among them. “That was the first batch.
The second batch
is... Well, you’ll
I couldn’t help it; I laughed. As a distraction, Jane
Bryant was first-rate.
I had almost forgotten that she had dyed her hair green last
week. Or at least green
in virulent streaks, as if her previous copper highlights had
oxidized and run. And
perhaps that alone accounted for the sense I had woken with: that
something green was missing from my room.
Still, it was a definite improvement over
last week’s red. That
had simply looked as if Jane’s head had rusted. But then, Jane changed hair
color as frequently as other people changed their clothing. In the nine months since I
had answered her ad and taken up residence in the apartment’s second
bedroom, she had sported at least fifty different colors, ranging
from almost normal hues to things Mother Nature had never intended
in her wildest nightmares.
Her personality was similarly
mercurial. She absorbed
fads and trends with the same ease she adopted hair colors—and with
as much staying power.
There were flirtations with nose rings and henna tattoos;
with mysticism and feng-shui.
Whatever the new age flavor of the month, Jane was out there
sampling and absorbing it, maintaining the bits she chose and
discarding the rest.
She was like one of those crazy quilts my grandmother had
been so fond of making: little bits of this and that combining into
an oddly cohesive whole.
The only obsession that hadn’t seemed to go
away in the months I had known her was her insane fascination with
my dreams. She had
cooked up theory after theory to explain them. I was haunted; I was
channeling some sort of universal consciousness. (I scoffed at this. A universal consciousness
Jane’s latest theory was reincarnation. It remained ridiculous, but
at least she was taking it seriously. My mom—in most ways a
practical Midwesterner to the core, save for the perilously romantic
streak which had led to my ridiculous name—had always put it down to
“So, which one was it this time?” Jane
continued, folding herself onto the foot of my bed with the fluid
grace of an Indian mystic—for yoga had, until recently, been an
obsession as well. She
was wearing a faded black t-shirt cut off just below her breasts,
revealing a taut, tanned stomach complete with the inevitable
bellybutton ring, and a pair of old grey sweatpants. Her bare feet revealed
toenails painted a virulent, metallic blue. “The bad one? The one where you know
you’ve done something horrible and are being punished for it?” Jane gave a delighted
shiver, and I grinned.
“Yes, that one. Again.”
Jane bounced a little on the mattress, her
dark eyes lighting. “I
knew it,” she declared.
“That is so cool!”
Perhaps to her, but normal girls did not
dream of whale hunts—especially not in the era of environmental
politics and Greenpeace.
I mean, if I was to have a recurring dream, then couldn’t the
universal Powers That Be at least have chosen a more socially
Except that choice had never entered into
the equation. It had
been whales as long as I could remember. Whales...and
“I just know we’re going to find the
answer,” Jane said, her eyes bright beneath her emerald bangs. “There’s a reason you keep
dreaming this; we just have to find out why.” She leaned forward and
pushed excitedly at my shoulder. “I mean...Nantucket! Can you believe we’re
I couldn’t—not even today, when my suitcases
were packed and awaiting only the final additions. I was a landlocked girl from
the Midwest. Both high
school and college had been spent as far away from either ocean as
it was possible to get.
And now, graduate school as well. So why a small, Atlantic
island dominated my dreams remained a mystery.
But a mystery, as Jane said, which might
shortly be unveiled. I
couldn’t help feeling that answers really did lie on Nantucket. Or, at the very least, the
answer to the most vital question of all: was there really something
to this delusion, or was I slowly going insane?
Either way, I couldn’t help thinking that
I’d know something by the end of this summer—which was why I was
haring off to Nantucket on a whim, and ignoring my mom’s eminently
practical advice about getting a job and earning some much-needed
money over the summer break.
Besides, Jane had insisted. Her aunt Kitty lived on
Nantucket, she had gleefully told me, shortly after she had learned
of the dreams. When
classes were done and school let out, we would both go visit. Kitty had a huge old house;
she would be delighted to have the company. We wouldn’t have to pay for
board, and as for spending money… Well, there were always a
ton of jobs on the island we could do to earn a buck; there were too
many rich people there, and never enough service staff. And besides, it would be
fun; an adventure.
The practical, midwestern part of me balked
at the idea of spending two months in a stranger’s house, but Jane
was adamant—and lavish in her descriptions of the wonders that were
Aunt Kitty. Although
the thing that probably swayed me most was the fact that, at
twenty-four, I was finally ready to stop hiding. And maybe it was no more
than Jane’s acceptance of my dreams that changed things, making me
feel as if they weren’t just another of Liza’s crazy
there was a truth behind them—and that maybe, if I discovered that
truth, I could stop having the damned things and get on with
whatever I was meant to be doing with my life. Which might or might not be
the teaching degree I was currently pursuing.
After all, there’s only so long you can live
with your head buried in the sand before you suffocate, right? So, off I would go, to stay
with Jane and the unknown, but apparently marvelous, Aunt
Yet, once the decision had been made, I
found myself both eager and apprehensive to see this island from
which the dreams originated.
Eager because I had dreamed of it so long that sheer
curiosity impelled me to see how closely it mirrored my
Well, what if the dreams were real? What if there was some basis
in fact they entailed?
Because while it would be reassuring to prove I wasn’t crazy,
the alternative raised even more unthinkable
I suppressed a shiver, but it was hard to be
apprehensive when Jane was quivering with excitement atop my
covers. Of course, this
whole trip was more for Jane’s benefit than my own. Jane itched to dive into my
psyche like an oyster-diver after pearls. But then, academic
dilettante that she was, psychology was Jane’s field of study de
jour. By the end of the
summer, she would no doubt have fixated up another
But, by then, I would have finally gotten to
see the ocean.
“Well, get up!” Jane now said, grabbing my
arms all but towing me from bed. “We’ve got to get an early
start. We’ve a long
drive ahead, and Aunt Kitty is expecting us for dinner on
Thursday. You’re going
to love Aunt Kitty; she’s just like me!”
I laughed. “God, now there’s a
thought,” I said, imagining a feisty old lady, her hair sensibly
knotted in a viridian-streaked bun.
Jane reached out to swat me, and I
“Okay then, shower first,” I told her,
shaking out the tangle of my hair and popping out of bed—almost
tripping over my suitcase in the process: an auspicious start. Really, it was a good thing
I didn’t believe in signs and portents. “And then... How bad is the French toast,
“Frankly?” She grinned. “Lumpy doesn’t even begin to
describe it. It looks
totally revolting! But
it tastes okay. I mean,
I ate one just before you started shrieking, and I haven’t died
“As good a recommendation as any, I
suppose.” And I set off
for the shower to rinse the drying crust of salty sweat off my
body—the closest I had yet been to the sea.