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The Voyage of the Narwhalby Andrea Barrett
He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders. A mild breeze, the smells of tar and copper. A few yards away the Narwhal loomed, but he was looking instead at the partial reflection trapped between hull and pilings. The way the planks wavered, the railing bent, the boom appeared then disappeared; the way the image filled the surface without concealing the complicated life below. He saw, beneath the transparent shadow, what his father had taught him to see: the schools of minnows, the eels and algae, the mussels burrowing into the silt; the diatoms and desmids and insect larvae sweeping past hydrazoans and infant snails. The oyster, his father once said, is impregnated by the dew; the pregnant shells give birth to pearls conceived from the sky. If the dew is pure, the pearls are brilliant; if cloudy, the pearls are dull. Far above him, but mirrored as well, long strands of cloud moved one way and gliding gulls another.
In the water the Narwhal sat solid and dark among the surrounding fleet. Everyone headed somewhere, Erasmus thought. England, Africa, California; stony islands alive with seals; the coast of Florida. Yet no one, among all those travelers, who might offer him advice. He turned back to his work. Where was this mound of supplies to go? An untidy package yielded, be-neath its waterproof wrappings, a dozen plum puddings that brought him near to tears. Each time he arranged part of the hold more of these parcels appeared: a crate of damson plums in syrup from an old woman in Conshohocken who'd read about their voyage in the newspaper and wanted to contribute her bit. A case of brandy from a Wilmington banker, volumes of Thackeray from a schoolmaster in Doylestown, heaps of hand-knitted socks. His hands bristled with lists, each only partly checked-off: never mind those puddings, he thought. Where were the last two hundred pounds of pemmican? How had half the meat biscuit been stowed with the candles and the lamp oil? And where were the last members of the crew? In his pocket he had another list, the final roster:
Zechariah Voorhees, Commander
Fifteen of them, all hands counted. Captain Tyler, Mr. Tagliabeau, and Mr. Francis, who together would have charge of the ship's daily operations, were experienced whaling men. Dr. Boerhaave had a medical degree from Edinburgh; Schuessele had been cook for a New York packet line; Forbes was an Ohio farm boy who'd never been to sea, but who could fashion anything from a few odd scraps of wood. Of the seven unevenly trained seamen, Bond had reported for duty drunk, and Hruska and Hamilton were still missing.
Their companions, invisible in the hold, waited for directions — waited, Erasmus feared, for him to fail. He was forty years old and had a history of failure; he'd sailed, when hardly more than a boy, on a voyage so thwarted it became a national joke. Since then his life's work had come to almost nothing. No wife, no children, no truly close friends; a sister in a difficult situation. What he had now was this pile of goods, and a second chance.
Still pondering the puddings, he heard laughter and looked up to see Zeke hanging from the rigging like a flag. His long arms were stretched above a thatch of golden hair; as he laughed his teeth were gleaming in his mouth; he was twenty-six and made Erasmus feel like a fossil. Everything about this moment was tied to Zeke. The hermaphrodite brig about to become their home had once been part of Zeke's family's packet line; with his father's money, Zeke had ordered oak sheathing spiked to her sides as protection against the ice, iron plates wrapped around her bows, tarred felt layered between the double-planked decks. In charge of the expedition — and hence, Erasmus reminded himself, of him — Zeke had chosen Erasmus to gather the equipment and stores surrounding him now in such bewildering heaps.
Where was all this to go? Salt beef and pork and barrels of malt, knives and needles for barter with the Esquimaux, guns and ammunition, coal and wood, tents and cooking lamps and woolen clothing, buffalo skins, a library, enough wooden boards to house over the deck in an emergency. And what about the spirit thermometers, or the four chronometers, the microscope, and all the stores for his specimens: spirits of wine, loose gauze, prenumbered labels and glass jars, arsenical soap for preserving bird skins, camphor and pillboxes for preserving insects, dissecting scissors, watch glasses, pins, string, glass tubes and sealing wax, bungs and soaked bladders, brain hooks and blowpipes and egg drills, a sweeping net...too many things.
Erasmus stroked the wolf skins his youngest brother had sent from the Utah mountains. Just then he would have given anything for an hour's conversation with Copernicus, who understood what it meant to leave a life. But Copernicus was gone, still, again, and the wolf skins were handsome, but where would they fit? The sledges, specially constructed after Zeke's own design, had arrived two weeks late and wouldn't fit into the space Erasmus had planned for them; and he couldn't arrange the scientific equipment in any reasonable way. Every inch of the cabin was full, and they were not yet in it.
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