Moby Duck: Herman Melville’s Followup Book in 19th Century Sag Harbor
Suddenly, the Great White Duck appears alongside us...
First seen on Dan's Papers - November 30, 2019
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Call me Ishmael. I am the best harpooner in this scruffy town of Sag Harbor. I wear a red bandanna on my forehead to identify myself for the captains. And I do get occasional work. If it wasn’t for my color, I’d have much more work. But so it goes.
The fowl wagons sit at five in the morning darkness, lined up on Long Wharf bow to stern, and every morning at that hour and by the light of the moon I walk the walk down alongside ’em. The fowl wagons have oversized cages in the back where a big duck, landed during the upcoming day, will be held. But they are empty now.
“Best man!” I shout up to each captain as I walk along. I point to the harpoons on the roofs of the cages, some still bloodied from the action of the day before. I point to myself and raise my special harpoon. “Best man!” I shout. But this morning there are no takers. Until I get to the very last wagon, on which is the biggest cage of all. It’s been built atop this wagon by a crazy man with a thick, gray beard who calls himself Captain Ahab.
He goes out chasing what he says is the biggest white duck ever, but never comes back from the battles in the woods of North Haven with anything. And that’s why people call him Crazy Captain Ahab. The other harpooners avoid him. He calls down to me from the driver’s seat. And I need the work.
“Ahoy there, Ishmael,” he cackles. “Can’t find no other takers?”
“’Tis indeed a slow morning here at the harbor,” I tell him. In the passenger seat next to him is Starbuck, his mate. He sports a patch over one eye. He gives me a grin and a thumbs up, which Ahab, looking at me, does not see. ’Tis a good mood the Captain is in on this day, apparently.
“Well, Ishmael, climb aboard,” Ahab shouts down. “This will be the day I land the Big White Duck. I now know where he is. And there’s money in it for everybody.”
“How much?” I ask.
He does not talk in pounds. Or dollars. He talks in gold doubloons. Which, because he never has caught anything, I never have seen any.
“End of the day, we catch him, you’ll get the larger half. I’ve got two doubloons. One for me and one for you and Starbuck, and you get the larger half.”
That’s too good to pass up. “Lower the plank and I’ll climb aboard.”
“You won’t regret it,” Ahab shouts. “We saw him again yesterday, me and Starbuck. Ten feet tall he is, as big as this wagon. Glowing red eyes. A black beak. I’ve made the cage bigger.
He points to it over his shoulder with his thumb. Starbuck nods and grins. I climb up. There are only the two seats, but there is room behind them to stand. I assume the position and hold my special harpoon at the ready. I look behind me. Indeed, the cage is much bigger than what I’d seen before.
“We’d ’a had him too if, at the last minute, Amos didn’t freeze.”
Amos is the second-best harpooner in Sag Harbor. From New Guinea. I trained him myself. I open my mouth to ask what happened to Amos, but Ahab beats me to it.
“Don’t ask,” he says. He hands me up a bottle of rum from under his seat. “Just don’t run away.”
As the sun peeks over the horizon of the inner harbor, the grooms bring the horses out and two by two they get harnessed to the different wagons. With that done, the wagons get turned around and head single-file back up the wharf. As we were first on, we are last off. So, we’ve gotten the last of the horses. The leftovers.
“Won’t matter,” Ahab says. Now the horses and wagons make a dawn parade up Main Street, heading for North Haven. None of the bars, smithies, coopers, ropemakers, bawdy houses or warehouses are open yet. There’s no people, either. Starbuck handles the reins now because our captain is whooping and hollering. He’s drunk as a skunk and the sun ain’t even fully rosed yet.
When we get off Peter’s Ferry Barge, which Peter, using a giant oar, has poled us across the narrows from the mainland to North Haven, the 11 wagons that have come before us are off into the woods to the left or right. Waiting our turn, Ahab cautiously watches.
“Little do they know,” he mutters, watching them go. He emits a snort and a cackle.
“Straight on, Starbuck,” he shouts. We begin rumbling off the barge and onto the sand. Starbuck looks up at Ahab, a worried look. Ahab had fallen into a sudden drunken sleep. But now, the lurch to get off the barge has awakened him again.
“Fools.” he says. We’re down the rutted path just 15 minutes when we encounter Captain Jobiah with his mate and harpooner coming the other way. They are all smiles. They’ve got one in the cage already.
“You call that a duck?” Ahab shouts after them. Indeed, the so-called giant duck in the back is no more than four feet long. It’s a boring shade of gray. And it’s quacking forlornly.
Coming around a bend, Captain Ahab stumbles to his feet and raises his hand so Starbuck will stop. Starbuck obeys instantly. I grab my harpoon.
“He’s there,” the Captain whispers, his index finger shakily pointing just ahead of us. “Creep up slow,” he tells Starbuck.
Suddenly, the Great White Duck appears alongside us. He pushes at Ahab with his beak, and the wagon tips sideways but doesn’t fall over. Then the duck waddles quickly off. He’s 10 feet tall. “Throw it!” shouts the Captain, and I do, but my harpoon twangs into the trunk of a tree. “Goddammit!” the Captain shrieks. He pounds his fist onto the top of my head, knocking my bandanna askew and me into where he’d been sitting.
Starbuck knows exactly what to do. He steers to the tree and I pull the harpoon out, then he whips the two horses and off we go giving chase. Occasionally, we get a glimpse of the duck, his great white head bobbing up and down over the trees. I have never seen a duck this size before. Never. The duck reaches a meadow and turns angrily to face our hard-charging wagon. We’ve been closing the gap.
“Give me THAT!” Ahab shouts, and he snatches the harpoon out of my hand. Then he jumps down onto the meadow, and, with the harpoon poised, runs in front of the wagon, causing the horses to whinny and rear up. He’s running directly at the duck. The duck turns and runs off into the woods at the far end of the meadow, and Ahab is quickly after him into the woods, too.
Sitting still in the seats atop the wagon, Starbuck and I hear a great struggle going on in that woods beyond. White feathers fly. Ahab is cursing. The duck is growling and making other noises I never knew a duck could make.
After a while, all is quiet. Then the bushes part and the duck, bleeding red onto his white feathers from wounds suffered, appears, growls, looks directly at us unsteadily and then turns and waddles back off into the woods.
We sit there atop the wagon, terrified. We do not follow. Nor do we ever see Captain Ahab again. I do suggest to Starbuck that we go off to search, but he shakes his head no. He is wide-eyed and terrified. And he only wants to get back to Pete’s barge. I ask if we could go forward to look for my harpoon, but he shakes his head no again. No Captain Ahab, no harpoon.
And that, my friend, is the true story about how we lost this crazy Captain Ahab, but also how I lost my harpoon, a weapon I worked on so hard to fashion out of whalebone, iron and sharpened steel. And that’s why I sit here at this bar talking to you and wondering if you could loan me two dollars for a new harpoon.
It won’t be as good as my handmade one, but at this point I will take anything I can get. I need the work. And I’m the best.
And I do think, for all his flaws, Ahab was the best, too. I dream he shows up again someday for my walk along the fowl wagons on Long Wharf at dawn. Frankly, I miss him.