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Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep

3 Harvest: Arcon Glass came to dinner in my cabin tonight. A rarity; he has declined all previous invitations on pretext of work. Over dessert, First Mate Law asked him if the Guild of Natural Philosophers’ purpose in sponsoring this voyage is to research a solution to the overfishing of the whale-routes. Law has been my First Mate for a decade now and I bear the man a great affection, but he has a dockhand’s lack of tact for all that he wears an officer’s badge. Glass did not seem offended by the directness of the question, and answered that it was exactly as we had surmised. He proclaimed that his work will not only make overfishing a thing of the past, but change the very shape of the industry. I regret to say the officers concealed smiles at this; a ludicrous statement coming from a man so small with his unkempt hair and the constant smell of camphor on his hands.

Glass was undeterred and raised his glass at me next. Master Bodkin, he said, is it not traditional for the ship’s captain to keep a journal? The Guild would have a certain interest in such a narrative, which your distinguished career and long years of experience would imbue with flavour that numbers and charts wholly lack. He intimated that if I should seek to publish my memoirs after retirement, he would certainly recommend it to the Guild’s attention.

In truth, the keeping of the captain’s journal has grown wearisome in my old age, and where in my youth I set pen to paper with relish, I must now struggle to summon enthusiasm for the task. This is my first entry, and we are a month into the voyage already. I cannot deny that the thought of publishing some form of memoir has occurred to me before. I have ample material from my thirty years at sea—such things I have seen!—and on this, my last voyage before retirement, it weighs heavy on me to think of my posterity, for I have never married nor sired children. A man must have a mind not only to what he does in life but what he will leave behind. I will consider Glass’ words.

• • • •

31 Harvest: Our first whale—a pleasant surprise; we are only two months into the voyage and this route is overfished. At two p.m. the lookout raised a cow with calf drifting windward three miles away. I launched three boats and directed them to scatter a half-mile under sail to reduce noise. When the cow rose to surface, the harpooners fired cold irons into the soft flesh of her blubber-sides and she expelled a great mass of blood and foam from her spout. The boatheaders let out the smoking lines and made them fast as she dived again, but one man was caught around the thigh by the line, instantly shattering the bone, and pulled into the sea.

When she resurfaced, our men followed her on the tow-lines and boatheader Breckt drove his long lance into her heart and then again into her lungs. The creature then entered the death-throes that we call the flurry, for even once the heart has burst it takes time for the blood to cease gushing and flowing through a body so massive. A whaler’s life is beset by danger, but this is the most perilous stage of all; as the dying animal will beat and thrash the water in a fearful agony during which the crew must hold fast to the tow-lines and gave her distance so as not to be sucked down into the churning of the whirlpool she makes.

When at last she turned fin out and floated on her side, a boat returned to the Herman and procured a hawser to secure to her flukes. We secured her to starboard with chains. Myself and others let down the cutting tackle and went over the side on breast-ropes. The cooper had already whet the long-handled spades and mincing knives with which we began to carve the blubber into strips. The wind thereafter increasing to a strong gale; we were obliged to cease for the night. I estimate the cow whale to be fifty feet long and twenty-eight round, and judge she will provide twenty to twenty-five barrels of oil.

(NB: reconsider description of the hunt. Do not wish to distress readers with undue violence, but also think it imperative to educate them on the true and arduous nature of a whaler’s life.)

The calf was seen drifting some distance from the ship until it grew dark. First Mate Law believes he hears it uttering low crying noises in the manner that whales do, but I think it just as likely that he is hearing only the swirl of water, or perhaps the grinding of broken ice against the hull.

Crewman Jonas, who went over the side caught in the smoking line, was not found. Have scattered an offering to the waves in his name and his widow will receive his cut of the proceeds from the cow whale. We lie to and drop anchor for the night.

• • • •

1 Rivers: The crew continues to strip the blubber. All day the cooper has been building barrels to receive the rendered oil. Observed Glass step among the blood and flecks of flesh on deck with some trepidation and expressions of disgust, a handkerchief over his nose. He is a university man after all, and not accustomed to the rigours of a sailor’s life, though I must profess some surprise—I had thought the Philosophers routinely engage in dissection, the handling of viscera and other such business as would strengthen their stomachs.

But then, the stench of the rendering oil is enough to give even a scientist pause. I am hardened to it now, but I well remember how it shrivelled the hairs in my nostrils in my early days at sea. How the blubber-room glowed red with the fires of the try-works and the oil seemed to form a coating on your tongue, tiny white flakes rubbing off the folds of your skin.

Such a peculiar little man, Glass is. He wears glasses of such great magnification that they make the sides of his face appear pinched, and he walks with mincing steps that put one in mind of the herons that patrol the mud-flats by the port. He has laid claim to the sac of the special organ in the whale’s head once the oil within is harvested, and he stood around on deck in an agony all day for the fear that our crew would puncture the sac in the removal of that oil. Was obliged to take him aside and explain with some sternness that the blubber must be flensed before we can sever the skull and turn it downwards so men may descend into the cavity. He responded by returning belowdecks in a great temper, and I was shortly faced by Ship’s Surgeon Tennet Baum complaining yet again that Glass had made further encroachments on their shared workspace. Am not without sympathy for Baum, who has been with the Herman five years, but we have had good fortune to be largely free of ague or more than minor injuries for him to treat thus far and so he can hardly claim his duties are being interfered with.

(NB: Possibly excise meditations on Glass. Will not do well to reflect poorly on one of their number if I am to seek publication with the Guild.)

Whale calf sighted again. The foremast hand on lookout claims it was gradually approaching the ship until a number of small sharks were drawn to the blood and fastened onto the edges of the carcass still submerged in the water. Crew beat the sharks off with spades and the calf has retreated to a distance of approximately fifteen metres where it continues to drift.

Strong winds from the S.E. Choppy sea. We continue to lie to.

• • • •

2 Rivers: Have completed stripping carcass of cow. Sixty pounds of belly and fluke meat is being salted, and the cook will prepare the fatty meat of the tail for the officers tonight. The belly meat is considered a great delicacy among the lords and ladies onshore, for it is finely marbled. The fluke meat is leaner, but smokes well and makes good jerky. When seared and rare, it is a rich and flavourful meat, tasting strongly of fish, more gamey than beef.

Twenty-eight barrels of body oil—as I had estimated—and twelve of the special head oil. Found several chunks of ambergris in the animal’s guts as the crew sorted through the offal; a great prize and nearly as dear as the head oil. The crew are in high spirits as this will raise their cut when we return to port. Have awarded everyone an extra ration of rum and the cook will prepare the animal’s brains tonight to serve with the ship’s biscuit.

Glass has his spermaceti sac, so he informs me it is called, and a damned fuss it was to secure it for him. He would not trust the crew to extract it without puncture, and so of course must needs have it carved still encased in meat; a chunk that took three men to carry down to his workspace for him. Visited him today to see what the devil he was doing and he has admittedly done a skilful job of scraping away the meat to leave only the intact sac, which in its empty state resembles nothing so much as a deflated animal bladder of monstrous size, large enough for a man to stand in and pull up to his chest. The material is tough and fibrous and has a yellow-white colour now that Glass has boiled it and treated it with divers chemicals. He shows no interest in the actual head oil which is well for it is the dearest and most costly portion of the whale.

• • • •

7 Rivers: Troubled night. Heard whalesong through the portholes before sleep and thereafter continued to hear it in my dreams. It is hardly unusual to hear whalesong in these waters, but this was of an uncanny and resonant nature; deep elongated beats that that seemed to vibrate in my marrow and bone. Now and then a higher chirrup would flutter through the water, leaving ripples in its wake. The water plays tricks with the sound, of course, as do the timbers of the ship, magnifying and displacing the echoes, but if I were not too wise to credit it, I would have said the wailing came from within the hull.

Crew speculating about sound as well. Overheard some say it is the whale calf, which is patently ridiculous, for the animal is too small to produce sound of such volume and resonance. Deliberately omitted mention of it from this log in previous entry for hopes that matter would resolve itself, but sailors are superstitious men and the animal has been following the ship. While it cannot have caused the sounds during the night, it cannot be denied that it has been uttering crying noises at intervals during the day and the crew are being made uneasy by its pursuit. Glass remarked offhand the other day that the calf is of a size and it is early enough in the breeding season that the animal was likely still suckling; if so the problem should indeed resolve itself before long.

• • • •

9 Rivers: Ill day. Sighted whale drifting N.E. and launched boats but creature did not resurface in vicinity of ship and though the boats circled for an hour we lost track of it.

To make matters worse, boatheader Breckt has killed the whale calf. He fired his harpoon into its heart without provocation as the boats returned to the ship and discovered that the animal had drawn close to the hull while we laid to. Being greatly emaciated and weakened, the calf expired at once and did not struggle. Breckt claims its crying alerted the whale to their presence and lost them their prey but I think it more likely that he was in ill-temper over the failure of the hunt and acted in spite. Unsurprisingly, Glass took this opportunity to appear on deck in transports of great excitation and demand the oil sac from this animal as well, which means we must now go through the trouble of lowering the cutting tackle and butchering and scouring the deck after for a meagre quantity of immature oil.

The crew are divided; some are relieved to be rid of the calf, but it is considered ill-luck to kill an immature whale—a superstition born out of practicality, of course, as killing whales that have yet to breed only harms the fishing stock. I am not given to superstitious beliefs like the crew, but Breckt’s action has caused me no small deal of vexation. Have ordered that his cut be docked.

• • • •

15 Rivers: Source of whalesong from few nights ago discovered: Glass. Is he madman or genius? I cannot tell. From stands and wires he has suspended the oil organ taken from the cow whale, which he has pumped with a mixture of glycerine and wax esters till it is full and heavy as a gravid belly. The mixture, he explains to me, is of the same density and reactivity as the raw oil, but does not crystallize on contact with air as the raw oil does. He seemed surprised that I was aware what wax esters were. Was compelled to inform him with asperity that I may be a Navy man but I am not a dockhand who can scarcely sign his name; I have learned my chemistry and geometry in the Officer’s Academy. Indeed, I had a fondness for natural philosophy in my youth and like to think that if I had not found my way into a life at sea, I would have been a University man myself. Glass seemed suitably impressed and had the good manners to apologize.

North of this organ he has placed a preserved section of the dense mass of tissue that lies beneath the oil organ; sailors call it the junk, for it provides no oil and has no use. His research, he explained to me, concerns itself with the spermaceti organ’s role in producing the unearthly noises that whales issue forth. He proceeded to demonstrate by connecting a number of wires and waxed cotton threads to the sac and tissue, then setting up a number of small drums at various angles to both. From his tools he produced a small instrument that he pressed against the soft swollen side of the wax and glycerine-filled organ and blew on—and lo, a low note echoed and swelled to great size and shivered off all corners of the room in a manner that rose the hairs on my arms.

Glass explains that whales make sounds deep in their skulls and those sounds are then magnified as they are transmitted through the oil organ and bounced back and forth off the dense mass of junk tissue, magnifying further in the process until they issue from the creature’s jaws. Change the angle of the sound and the quality is entirely altered. With fine-tuning he believes he will be able to accurately reproduce a range of whale sounds.

Have never seen Glass like this. His hands shake and his hair stands on end. He bounds to and fro across the room, adjusts this wire and tightens that drum. He has a sea-chest full of records of whalesong the Guild has been collecting for years. I came belowdecks with a mind to chastise him for unnerving the crew with his nocturnal music but left unable to utter a word of rebuke. I do not yet see how this research will solve overfishing, but I carried that one note that filled the room up into the sea air on deck with me and it shivered in the dark spaces of my mind until I laid my head down on my pillow that night.

• • • •

28 Rivers: Strong breeze from N.N.E. Choppy seas. Temperature dropping; have instructed crewmen to be alert for ice forming on deck. Sighted seals on ice and in water.

Glass’ experiments continue. True to his word, he is now issuing forth a veritable orchestra of different sounds that uncannily mimic the creatures’ calls, though stronger and more prodigious in volume. Visited his workspace again and he has automated a number of his piped instruments with clever mechanisms so they will play scales without needing his fingers on the stops. He plays all day now, sometimes loud enough to startle the lookouts nearly out of their perches, sometimes so soft that the hull fills with the music as if with water. The crew are uneasy, but it is poor Baum who appears to be driven half out of his mind by the noise. His quarters adjoin Glass’ and therefore also their shared workspace—shared, I say, though Baum seems to have surrendered it entirely to Glass’ whims. Baum begs that I allow him to change quarters and move into Crewman Jonas’ vacated bunk which is of course impossible if only because the crew would consider it entirely bad luck to give over a dead man’s bunk. Furthermore, for a Ship’s Surgeon to bunk with the ordinary crewmen would be a breach of the unspoken code of rules and decorum that governs a ship at sea.

Baum does not understand, but I who have been a sailor thirty years know the importance of observing certain boundaries on-board ship. All the more important for that we are far from land and civilized society, and besides, to send him to the other end of the ship would put him altogether out of immediate reach of the convenience of the captain and the senior officers such as myself and Law. Have instructed him to use earplugs.

• • • •

5 Winds: Glass continues to make all manner of whale noise down below on his array of pipes and oil and drums. Have contemplated ordering him to stop, but in truth I am loathe to descend belowdecks and be in proximity of his work for too great a period of time. Have never before considered the singing of whales to be unpleasant to listen to; have even found it melodious on occasion, like to lull one to sleep. The music Glass makes is not unpleasant either, and yet listening to it from close quarters causes a great pressure and dizziness to swell in my skull.

When last I looked on his contraption, he had cleverly sewed the oil sac from the whale calf onto that from the cow so the smaller organ protruded from the side of the larger like a growth. It enhances the magnification power of the music, he says, and so now mother and child sing to each other in the dark.

• • • •

9 Winds: Two more sightings that came to naught as the whales outstripped the boats and did not resurface within harpoon-shot. First Mate Law tells me there is renewed muttering and resentment directed at Breckt for his killing of the calf. It is not uncommon to go this long without a second catch, especially a mere three months into the voyage, but this means we must push further north to less overfished waters and risk being caught in the ice if we cannot return in time, and the crew is sensitive to this increased risk. A poor showing for my final voyage it would be too, to be forced by encroaching ice to return in defeat with barely enough oil to cover our costs. An ignominious end to a thirty-year career!

Law further confides that Glass is real target of their irritation, both for what they consider his unnatural work with the flesh of dead things and the more practical consideration of his music-making interfering with their sleep. But Glass is locked away from them, of course, both by virtue of his position and because he bars himself in his workroom, and so they turn on Breckt instead.

Snow squalls and fog. Crack developed in the forward foretopmast crosstree after squalls and had to have new one made. Number of injuries; lookout fell from crow’s nest after snow made top-gallant mast slippery and broke both legs. Baum thinks he will not live. Minor outbreak of dysentery from spoiled molasses. We continue to see large ice floes but no more seals, which is unusual, for they are more numerous in these latitudes.

• • • •

20 Winds: Glass came to my cabin again tonight with phonograph records and bottle of pear brandy. We drank while he played for us a number of the recordings of whale noises that the Guild has collected. The records are scratchy and poor, but he pointed out to me how the bull whale’s cry is deeper than the cow’s. The mating cry, here, he said, and played what sounded like a foghorn, though richer and deeper. This is the cry when they sense danger, he said, and played a sharp series of whistles and a wailing that hurt the ears.

He says the Guild believes the animals have the intelligence to communicate: here is ice, this water is warm, sharks ahead, a ship on the horizon. I can scarcely credit that the animals could have such intelligence, let alone their own tongue to speak in, but Glass says the evidence does not lie.

I have underestimated him. He speaks of inventions the Guild is building; harpoon guns with bombs on the ends that explode in a whale’s heart, mechanical cutting-tackle that lowers and folds itself. He speaks of great machines like to the one he is building that will pipe whalesong into the water, and furthermore, let us choose what we are saying to the leviathans. Imagine, he says, never again a bull whale that rams a ship and brings it down. Imagine a call that draws the whales trustingly to the ship for us to drive the harpoons into their hearts. Imagine never again long voyages that take men away from their families for years and cost the Crown thousands; imagine comfortable journeys into warm waters only a league out to sea, for the whales shall come to us instead. Imagine whale hatcheries established in those warm waters so we can breed them and our stock never again grow thin.

We finished the bottle and he continued to speak. Baleen for buggy whips and corset stays, he says, spermaceti in candles, ointments, wool combs, tanning, oil turned into soaps and used to power machinery, ambergris making perfumes. What a mighty industry we have built—and now all in peril for we were too efficient, we fished too well and too much and the whales grow thin.

And yet, he says, we have barely dipped a toe in the waters of the great sea. He described to me the Guild’s studies of old whale bones found on northern islands, of fossil records in chalk cliffs, of the severed limbs of giant squids washed up on northern beaches with whale tooth marks on them. There are leviathans to the north in deep waters, he says, past Whaler’s Bay and the ice floes where ships rarely go. We rejoice when a great whale yields fifty barrels of oil. Imagine if you will, a whale that yields 200. Even 300! A whale whose baleen could clothe an entire city’s women and put wheels on an entire city’s carriages. The ambergris such a leviathan could provide.

Push north, he says. Do not stop to take on supplies at Whaler’s Bay—the delay will prevent us from going too far before the ice forces us to turn back. Keep going. If we keep going, we can push further than any ship has done before, and my singing machine will do the rest.

They will write our names in the history books, he says. James Bodkin and Arcon Glass, who hunted the first leviathan and changed the very shape of our mighty industry. Imagine. Imagine.

• • • •

3 Snow: The crew do not understand, of course. How could they? They think only in terms of rum and shore-leave, they live only from one cut to the next. A man must consider what he leaves behind. They will thank me someday.

Must confess disappointment in Law and the other officers. Had thought they at least might appreciate the import of what it is we are doing here. Law at least should have more trust in me after our long association. Have I not acquitted my duty as captain admirably in the past? Can he not understand that if the overfishing is not solved, we whalers shall be a dying breed, soon to go extinct? The slow march of science cannot be stopped, and Glass is not the only visionary in the Philosopher’s Guild. Some ship and some scientist will make the machine a reality, if not us, so why should it not be us, when we are so close? Who better equipped than we to make history?

• • • •

12 Snow: We are well north of Whaler’s Bay now. Steaming and carrying sail as necessary. Ice floes. Grey skies and still water. Snow this past week. A peculiar occurrence that I am at loss to explain last week as well; lookout summoned men to deck to say that the water around ship seemed darker than was natural. Examined it over bow and indeed it seemed dark, as if great masses of ink had been spilled in the water. This dark water extended some five metres from bow and likewise from stern. Lookout says it takes the shape of a rough oval most of the time but occasionally shifts shape as if it tilts on some unseen axis, and sometimes briefly disappears. More strange was the fact that it appeared to move with us as we sailed. Perhaps a shadow from a cloud above. The weather has been poor.

• • • •

Glass has brought his contraption up on deck now. The great oil-filled organs shine a pale and terrible rose colour in the poor sun. He pumps bellows to direct air into his pipes, and one sonorous note after another shudders across the ship and into the sea. It is loud but it is not harsh, it is gently in your blood and pulsing with your heart. More often than not it leaves me with a terrible thirst for a draught of cold, cold water. At first it made the gulls startle and shriek, but now they give us a wide berth. The mad pace of his work is taking its toll on Glass, too. What little hair he had is falling out and his colour is grey and sickly. He hunches over his machine, his balding dome bent low.

Breckt is gone. His bunk was found empty. Law shouts and hounds the crew for answers but they have none to give, save their belief that he jumped during the night. Law believes they lie to cover up their own crime, but I cannot fault Breckt if he indeed gave into his desire to part that cold water with hands and feet and feel it grow warm as it rose up his face and neck to envelop him. To joyfully expel the breath from his lungs and sink. I cannot explain this to Law, he is grown cold and unfriendly and I sense in his eyes a great judgement when he looks on me. He believes I neglect my duty to ship and crew by forcing us north. No matter. It is the nature of great deeds that they must be performed alone and with little gratitude at the time, earning only misunderstanding and resistance from short-sighted folk. He, too, will thank me some day.

Glass’ music is a comfort to me in these trying times. It puts me in mind of when I was a young sailor, lying awake in my bunk and listening to whale-music echo through the hull. I can say now what I could not then: it was beautiful, that music, and aye, gentle too. How beautifully they sang, those gentle giants of the deep. Was it possible that they were speaking to each other all this time? What did they say, and did they cry for the ones they lost?

• • • •

The new year has come and gone at some point. I do not know when. The dark water was seen again today. Crew dropped sound to test the depth but the string broke and the weight could not be retrieved; it must have rotted in the damp.

Law will take readings of our coordinates for us. We are further north now than any ship before us, and must record how far we have gone. They will write our names in the history books.

We sail through ice-cliffs of stark white and blue. The water is black as can be, though the shadow that sometimes travels with us is somehow blacker yet. Today we emerged briefly from the broken ice and saw for a time the black sea stretching as far as the eye could see. I feel the chill wind skinning my cheeks and hear the silence where the gulls once were, and in the face of that white horizon and that black water, I feel Glass’ science shrink to something very small indeed.

The sun shining off the ice is so bright and painful that it wounds my eyes. I have retreated to my cabin to rest.

• • • •

More crewmen gone during the night. The lookout with the broken legs passed in his sleep with a smile on his face. They found Baum locked in his cabin. He had flensed the skin and fat from his left arm with a knife held in his right. Law tells me this through my cabin door. He pounds on it. Curses me. Demands I unlock the door, but I must concentrate on holding this pen. Sometimes I can write and then sometimes my fingers are a fluke and my head grows so heavy that the great weight of my skull pulls it down to rest on the desk. Forgive me, old friend, I cannot answer you yet. I must write this while I can. A man must consider what he leaves behind.

Crashes, gunshots and shouts from above. I hear Glass scream. What have you done, Law? And why did I not do it sooner?

There was silence for a while afterward. But not for long. Within minutes, the music began again. It came not from the deck this time, but from the water beneath and around the hull and it was louder, so much louder than any Glass had made before.

• • • •

Went up to the deck today for the first time in a week. There is a strange wind in the ragged sails that pushes us on. I saw Glass and Law in the sea, the foam rushing over their grey backs. Other shapes of the crew crowding and singing in the black waters as well, keeping pace with the ship. Thought I heard Breckt wail—cannot understand him yet, but I will be able to soon, very soon.

The dark shape beneath, in the water—I know what it is now. So simple, how did I not see? It is an eye. It is her eye, and it watches me, benevolent and gentle and wise. I will go to her as soon as I finish writing—a thought crosses my mind, briefly troubling, and I must pen it while I can. It is a thought of changing seasons and the migration south to warmer waters to breed. Of the whale ships we shall meet, who shall not know us, for we shall be unable to speak. I must pen this while I can. Soon I shall be unable to do anything—but sing.

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Nibedita Sen

Nibedita Sen

Nibedita Sen is a queer Bengali writer, editor and gamer from Calcutta. A graduate of Clarion West 2015, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Podcastle, Nightmare, Fireside and The Dark. She helps edit Glittership, an LGBTQ SFF podcast, enjoys the company of puns and potatoes, and is nearly always hungry. Hit her up on Twitter at @her_nibsen.