Brief Addendum or Long Apposition to a Short Story
FICTION originally published in a special edition–REMAKING MOBY DICK–of PEA RIVER JOURNAL. [Read full version below]
Brief Addendum or Long Apposition to a Short Story
Call the short story a paragraph, if you will, and call the paragraph what you will––ingress or labyrinthine metafiction or a whale song foreshadowed––but understand it for what it is: an indelicacy and an untruth.
I am referring to the short story or paragraph preceding the extracts in section Extracts, these days always preceding Herman Melville’s narrative proper (Moby Dick; or, The Whale, originally only The Whale), in Melville’s days placed either before or after the narrative proper or neither before nor after, omitted.
Understand it as a name taken, another name given.
Please, forgive me––I do not mean to confuse. My intention is not to shame your fruits of labor, thwart your analyses and insights, your learned comments, and my words may bungle and sway. However, dear reader––it would be greatly appreciated if you could leave a door ajar, to let my brief addendum step in and stand still, stand still and become what it is: a collection of letters on a blank white page trying to recapture my name, no––a collection of letters trying to recapture a name, another name. Because I once had a name, and I was once a man, born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, raised in poverty and dressed in rags. I was a man on board the whale ship Acushnet, a man who hunted and caught and sliced and diced and salted the meat of the sperm whale; a man who drank to the cracks and crevices in my skin and smoked till my tongue sprouted hair; a man who spent three weeks with cannibals in the Southern Seas, eating liver to my health; a man who––legs heavy logs and head a candle wick snuffed––returned to the East Coast, chanced upon a woman, married and spawned, continued to drink and smoke and wander the streets and avenues. Delightful detours, debauchery incarnate; also, I was a man who got to know Melville, never mind how; a man who during conversations with him––bottles of beer close by––discussed the intricacies of whaling and writing. I was asked––‘if it’s not a bother’––to aid him, Merry Melville, in collecting material for a novel he said he would like to write and later did write.
I aided, and so it was that I became a gatherer, a man who through spirituous brain fog started to see patterns solid enough to carry and rebuild a man. And so it was that I began to grow. But before I blossomed, I died.
Such is life, father always said. You die.
I was still young when I died, and it was a painful death. I coughed blood and pissed kidney; I cramped and saw strange scaly creatures clinging to the insides of my eyelids. And I prayed to God, my hand on my wife’s body of feathers. And my son––small, frail, and blonde––sat on the other side of death, gradually growing dimmer.
I never got to see God. I was not ushered through the Pearly Gates. I was not rowed across the river Styx. I did not see Hades or the inverted splendor of Gehenna; I was spared the brimstone of medieval minds. My imposed departure was not a disappearing act from me and my self, such as I was and had become. My departure did not arrive any specific where. Rather, I––such as I was, had become, and probably forever will be––was transported to a blank white space, cut off from Man much like the prisoner is cut off from everything but his misdeeds, placed behind tightly spaced bars. My view of the Living, though––their pretense––was nothing but complete, a bird’s eye view magnified. I saw my funeral. I saw my wife and my son and a few friends. I saw my wife’s absence of grief; she soon re-married, tied the knot to a man whose soul was intact, it was widely believed. His authority, it was said, was far-reaching.
I saw my son’s preoccupation with a bird sitting on a branch of a tree that cast a human-sized shadow on my casket. And not much later on I witnessed the death of my wife, the death of my son, and my friends, the few.
They all died. Such is life.
And I witnessed Melville. He put the finishing touches to his whale of a novel, the material I’ve collected incorporated. The novel did not reach a large readership, not until later. Discouraged, he started working as a customs officer, stopped dreaming big and turned small. He inherited some money prior to his death and started eating soup made from anything but sweat, which was a small consolation, for him and me both.
I did feel for him. I wished wings for him and his literary ambitions. But later on, when I read his novel over the shoulder of another––my focus primarily on the short story or paragraph preceding the extracts in section Extracts––I came to understand that my name and my person had been re-written, turned pathetic. I was a burrower and a grub-worm, a poor devil. Merry Melville deemed me a Sub-Sub-Librarian, aimlessly collecting and cataloguing, stripped of a guiding system.
Melville’s picture of me––painted in words with equal measures distant coolness and pretended sympathy––was to hit and hit hard, latch on and grow skin. And so it was that Sub-Sub-Librarian became my new name, the repeated prefix eerily haunting, dragging me down, staying me put. I lived with and under it for decades upon decades, learned it as truth.
But then came the day to remember the patterns, to taste the sweetness on buds once existing. And so it was that I felt the insincerity of the paragraph; I understood the name as a lie.
My extracts, call them what you will––higgledy-piggledy whale statements or random allusions––but understand them for what they are: an undraped evocation, a mission to turn the sperm whale––it’s size, eyes, sperm and communication (ooo)––into a symbol of and for everything: sex and existence, guilt and redemption, man and woman and nature and its oceans and flames.
Formulated as such while I was still bound to Earth, this was my ambition, and Melville misunderstood it. No, he re-wrote it. No, he borrowed it. No, he stole it; he stole my ambition and put it into the ground, of course (of course!); he put it into the ground to let it grow into The Whale, but not before he dared pity me as he never dared pity himself, not before erasing my name.
So be it.
He received recognition, Melville. You turned him immortal.
So be it.
We both live on––I on a blank white space, now scrawled and dotted, and he as a perpetual motion on a circular plane, a cell rapidly and constantly dividing.
Such is life.
Call me John. Please, call me John.