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On Holidays

Chapter Text

     If, as ye take this broad recounting, aught has looked odd in the culture of whalemen— indeed, should you be anything less than a salt-seasoned veteran of that most noble fishery, and particularly to that fellow among ye whose feet have never left the hard-packed soil of his native land, that veritable tree of devout landsmen from whom roots may well spring into the earth or all life exist in a bulb beneath its surface— to you most especially, it may be necessary to preface the next recounting with an explication of the whaleman’s notion of the holiday.

    The holiday, existing as it does as an etymological and sociological corruption of the holy day, is regarded in most civilized countries as a last holdover of pagan savagery— a sort of cultural pressure-release valve in which those of the so-called lower orders of humanity, for a scattered few days in a year, may squander the dignity God gave them in mimicking the wasteful and wanton behavior of their superiors on all other days. The notion is particularly widespread in the barbarous tribes of many island nations, as Kokovoko and England will example, the former counting a pagan festival day each fortnight by the guidance of their cannibal king, and the latter, to my understanding, having officially recognized until 1834 thirty-three ostensibly Christian holy days, codified by their own cannibal institution of the national bank, which works out to a slightly higher but not dissimilar frequency throughout the Gregorian year. I am personally of the opinion that, rather than condemning the wilder and more indulgent of the pagan holidays, the Christian soul would do more right by its own tenets to respect them, as they present one good and godly virtue far in excess of our own: honesty. Wherefore does a Christian celebrate the martyring murder of a religious saint— one whom, we must presume, lived the ascetic and purified life required of that profession— by the pursuance of romance and doggerel verse? But such anthropological labyrinths are not mine to plumb; I’ve yarn enough to measure the leviathan from top to tail, and none leftover. Let me say only that such complex festivals are not to my taste. Give me, instead, the naked, godly honesty and straightforwardness of Lupercalia, its nude revelers gamboling to please their like-minded pagan lord. We need not place a somber drape atop him and feint at sleight of hand. Many of our most holy and gracious of Christian celebrations have been made half-pagan by the natural instinct of the uncouth, festival-going public. Even the date of Christmas itself, as I have heard it, has been contested to fall elsewhere than the 25th of December, when one pursues to birth records of one Jesus of Nazareth, but the public mania for late-year festivities could not be soothed by aught but a Capricornus Christ.

    Now, if the holy day— a marked anniversary of a Biblical or sainted event, accompanied by codified ritual— is corrupted to form the holiday— the former anniversary made savage by the natural dilution of public celebration— as I have already asserted, then perhaps it is only natural that that particularly savage man, the whaler, is fond to no end of holidays, however he may find them. This might be thought, by ye unweathered landsman, lay reader to the whaling arts, to be a difficult task, what with the limited resources and uncertain schedule of the whaling life. It must be understood that these apparent challenges only contribute to the whaleman’s mania for festivals of all dimensions; consider that, owing to the frequency of years-long voyages and the overall disrespect of all others of God’s creatures for His son’s birthday celebrations— thinking, no doubt, and rightly so, that the saving of the soul of Man has naught to do with them, and perhaps that we ought not to be so proud of requiring such interventions, as they themselves certainly did not— it is hardly unheard of for a whaling ship to spend the whole day of Christmas in pursuit of the beasts, and neither receive a Christmas dinner nor the gift of oil so eagerly sought and prayed for. Therefore, amidst the frequent monotony of toil, stretching out in the whaleman’s mind to the far horizon in one long course of danger and privation, any cause for celebration— any opportunity for amusement or diversion, however small— must be seized at once and with both hands. Gather ye right whales while ye may, as might be said in that fishery.

    So it was with Queequeg and his queer pagan rites, which, while occasioning some comment and disapproval from his superstitious fellows, nonetheless experienced what I can confidently guess is the peak of their popularity amongst white men while the savage was at sea. On any holy day invoking even mildly pleasant ritual, there would be a buzz of nervous discontent at seeing the pagan practicing his faith— for how can a man be a pagan without some practice? Raised upon bank holidays, I myself can only imagine it requires a great deal of practice to perfect— yet those self-same men would soon be pestering him with questions, and if there was a song to be sung or a meal to be eaten or a lap ‘round the ship, as Yojo might request of him near the solstice-times, to be swum, he need never undertake them wholly alone.

    I, too, have experienced this somewhat— I have maintained, for many years, the habit of celebrating one of dear Queequeg’s holidays. It occurs at the rising of a particular constellation— the start of summer, for Kokovoko, but midwinter for Nantucket, and varying annually for a soul in such constant motion as the sailor on a whaling vessel. Nonetheless, it is no hardship to keep an eye skyward, and the first night of my year that they climb into my view, I hold that the time is right. There are songs to be sung— a few of which I can faithfully recall, though it is entirely likely that my pronunciation flies further afield with each iteration— and a cannibal feast would be demanded in different waters than my own— for this part, I strive my utmost to bring in a whale in substitute sacrifice— and the departed dead are remembered, and new friends given gratitude.

    Queequeg told me once— not in his broken and stumbling English but in the rapid eloquence of his own tongue, in which I am the savage— that the names of one’s ancestors stretch back from father right to the figures of their myths and songs, that he could recite his own all the way back to the gods. I had heard him speak them, but to that point had been ignorant of the great import of this family tree. It was then that I first bent my mind with intent to the recitation, and on this point I proudly proclaim that I can, at will, describe the familial bonds that stretch back, back, back, without missing a generation or forgetting a name, to bind Ishmael to the first man of Kokovoko, who they say was created there by their gods— all by way of that dearest bond with Queequeg. I think, each time, that it would please him to hear.

    But the holidays of the whaleman need not be holy, all in all— he is a peculiarly metaphysical species, and will place import on any day for which he may find the slightest excuse, and devote himself with the fervor of an apostle to celebration.
Such it was on the Pequod, where the sailors were certainly not immune to this phenomenon. Indeed, quite to the contrary, under the tutelage of the mad mystic who was their captain, they had become a sort of warrior-cult, as of Classical times. Every seabird became an omen of the hunt, every storm a curse.

    And so, when the leak in the hold was discovered, it was searched for with dread, and, as the contents stacked higher and higher upon the deck and their ship began to yaw strangely with the roughening sea, top-heavy as she’d become, it was clear evidence of divine opposition.

    When Flask mentioned, loudly and stridently, that he was quite certain their course would bring them within— he punctuated here with an illustration of the action— spitting distance of a small island, too small and insignificant to be mentioned but as a minor hazard to ships when the weather was bad— now interrupted by Stubb, to suggest it be named for the prior speaker by virtue of similarities of form— but certainly of a size to allow the safe reorganization of the hold, should the boats be used to ferry barrels to and fro, consisting of nothing more than the half-sunk crescent moon of an ancient volcano’s mouth, sloping down into a sandy beach on one side and housing on the other, as those features often did, a tiny but lively reef, like a tide pool in the midst of the ocean, overall a lovely spot where the barrels could be examined and the rough sea would be reduced to a pleasantly windy day in the sun— when Flask broached this, it was a beautiful, bountiful, holy blessing, and instantly deserving of consideration as a holiday.

    Being whaling men, they would not be easily deprived of the notion once they had it, and where morale had been only faltering faintly before, the denial of this Heaven-tendered boon would have sent it plummeting to utter dismay. They cheered and howled enthusiastically, and looked to their superiors for approval of the venture. Flask’s fellow mates communicated their displeasure with him through pointed looks, but said nothing directly— though Stubb’s eyes held the fraternally unkind promise of indirect punishments to come. Starbuck dispatched himself once more to the captain’s cabin.

    He had not made his prior difficulties known in any respect to anyone, but remained deeply, painfully aware that he had been forced to stare unflinching down a musket barrel to force his captain to see the sense in even moving the oil from the hold. To now return and request still further dispensation, and for such a delay as a detour and a faux-docked restocking of the ship from bottom to top, with the added aspect that the men certainly wished to muck around on the island for a time and relax, would be more than difficult. He looked away, at the weathered deck, standing just outside his captain’s door, and rested a palm softly on the sun-warmed wood for just a moment. He had never before this voyage had cause to think Captain Ahab was dangerous to him.

    “God help me,” he murmured. “God protect him.”

    It is often the case that the greatest and truest sacrifices go uncelebrated, and never more so than in domestic life. In how many families do mothers intercede with the distant and temperamental figure of the father, stepping into the line of battle on their children’s behalf; or, when long labor and toil have rendered those fathers savage, held to them as Janet did Tam Lin, until they are gentle? And for what little reward?

    At night, in his prayers, Starbuck oft worried he did too little for his son, was too absent from his life.

    Those uncelebrated battles are just as frequently overlooked by their champions.

    He curled his fingers, as if grasping lightly at the surface of the door, then rapped his knuckles against it, brisk and calm.

    “Enter,” came his captain’s voice, and Starbuck obeyed.

Chapter Text

    As the men, one and all, gamboled and delighted upon Kingpost Island as children in a fairyland, it can be safely assured that I was not absent from their number. Queequeg and I, loosed from our duties, passed some little time sat together apart from our fellows, heads bent as one over the miniature reef, both learning and teaching the words for its inhabitants in our native tongues, with our shoulders leant together in deepest affection. From that delightful pursuit, we progressed into further grammatical contemplations, he expressing his distress one moment with the overcomplicated English way of deforming verbs to express their manner of happening, I expressing my wonder the next at that lovely quirk of his language by which there is a singular and a plural, but also a separate form made especially to speak of two people together rather than many, which seemed to my mind to speak to some particularly beautiful vision of the world— and to which Queequeg replied, to my immense and embarrassed delight, in his own language, that it had surely been created for we two. Our meandering, musing sort of mutual lesson traveled on as we began to stroll the beach, moving into locative particles— the tos and froms and towardses, one of those aspects of language which are so very vital in communication but rarely inquired after in depth, outshone by the brighter glee and glory of such tangible things as nouns and verbs— and Queequeg, still moved by that great, fond affection, determined that the best and clearest illustration of the notion of movement away from oneself would be a practical demonstration thereof, and took it upon himself to fling me into the sea.

    At this point, the grammatical lesson was abandoned, and I dedicated myself instead to revenging my dunking twofold on him. This pursuit, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not without collateral damages, and my fellow whalemen, being of equal honor and dignity to myself, each took it upon himself to exact a similar vengeance when made a casualty of our combat. This chain of events rippled outwards, each new combatant recruiting, by accidental offense, one or two more seeking to avenge themselves upon him as he pursued his offender, propagating exactly as every brawl I have ever witnessed in a seaside inn— albeit with a great deal more merriment from all parties.

    When the conflict had spread to some ten or twelve men, all soaked to the skin and splashing like landed fish, kicking waves onto their fellows or wrestling in the shallows of our idyllic Phlegethon, the Battle of Kingpost Island came to the attention of our little despot, and Flask hopped again onto the small outcrop of stone on which he had been crowned and bellowed the order to desist down the barrel of his outstretched arm and pointing finger.

    While the mood was high, and little Kingpost’s authority largely a playful thing, sailor’s instinct remained strong, and there was a general hesitation from all parties— each glancing around at his fellows as if to inquire if they would be willing to make the first move against the mate’s command, caught out like scolded schoolboys but not entirely willing to concede. Each remained frozen in the act of his specific mischief, and Flask remained with his finger outstretched, looking like a fiery devil as he glared blue fire from under his fire-red hair, threatening to combust at any sign of disobedience. The unacted but universal intention towards this tiny mutiny hung in the air like the weight before a lightning-bolt, but none would be the first to strike— until, as striking first was his greatest duty aboard the ship, the storm broke open in the form of a coup d’etat by Kingpost’s general, and the smoldering coals of Flask’s threatened temper were put out in precisely the same manner as a smoking line— that is to say, the momentary stillness roared again to life as Daggoo, with a broad, white smile, stepped up behind his lordling lancer, and unceremoniously dumped a hatful of seawater directly onto Flask’s head.

    At this, the holiday mood, with its topsy-turvy carnivalish nature, rocketed to a new height. Flask, predictably, combusted at once, despite the dousing, and rounded on Daggoo with a roar quite larger than its maker, seizing the hat from his hands and proceeding to chase the grinning harpooneer out into the shallows, raging and cursing and swatting at him with the offending hat as if he were a massive fly.

    Daggoo, understandably, chose to flee by wading out to a point quite unreachable by the mate on foot, unless he should submerge himself a good few inches beneath the surface, but Flask’s vengeful fury was such that wading was found to be unnecessary, and he paddled after him when the depth exceeded his height, one arm engaged in swimming and the other in continuing to belabor Daggoo with the hat, spitting bubbles when his continuous obscenities were overlapped by waves.

    By this point, the otherwise good-natured aquatic brawling had begun again in all other quarters, with the renewed enthusiasm— bordering on a sort of mild, temporary madness— known to take hold of holiday-makers of every culture, from the Maenid to the New Orleaner, when all men are briefly made equal, and therefore fair game, under the great egalitarian force of celebration. I, myself, was seized again by Queequeg, but a bold fellow oarsman of mine, usually seated aft of me and therefore likely associating the sight of the back of my head with acts of rigorous daring, interceded, motivated possibly by fraternal affection or else simply by the instinct that my demise would mean his having to row half again as hard— or perhaps even more simply, seeing an opportunity and taking it, without much thought at all. He lunged forward with a mighty splash and took Queequeg’s legs out from under him, and all three of us were submerged in an instant.

    With many of my fellows similarly engaged, few on the larboard beach had the unoccupied attention to hear a passing remark made from slightly further ashore, where Stubb sat upon a rock and smoked an evening pipe— his usual indolent posture in such pursuits exaggerated for the unprecedented indolence of the evening, to such an extent that he seemed on the verge of sliding from his perch to simply lie on the ground by sheer concentrated carelessness. He nonetheless roused himself enough to call some comment down to his recently-risen monarch which was not entirely polite.

    The remark was largely unheard in its content, but certainly caught in its tone, and Flask ceased his pursuit of Daggoo instantly. They two exchanged a communicative glance— silent conversation being a particular art of sailors, who all must live more or less in one another’s pockets, and learn to trade their gossip and groaning while bunked beside its subject— in Daggoo’s side of which was a mild question, and in Flask’s an approving answer.

    Daggoo turned at once and began to stride back to shore, emerging from the water like a great figurehead being hoisted from the deep, and he approached Stubb without either hesitation or hurry, inexorable as a glacier in an Arctic bay, seized him by the ankles, met his eyes with a humorously reproving little cluck of the tongue, and hoisted him neatly and entirely upside-down.

    Stubb, for his part, was so startled by the turn that he made no motion to prevent it, and no sound but a startled, seagull shriek as he departed from Mother Earth like a signal-flag, pipe still clamped in his teeth, though the burning cherry of it dropped out onto the ground. Daggoo carried him back into the water— Stubb yelping with half-amused and half-furious incredulity and growing progressively redder in the face as he dangled, like a large fish on a line— and prepared to dunk him thoroughly in the manner of a washing-woman with a soiled shirt. From Stubb’s upside-down vantage, he spied Tashtego, standing not far from where he’d sat, face to the sun and wholly peaceable, and gave a cry of, “Tash! Won’t you lift a damned hand, you bastard!”

    Tashtego eyed him curiously, seeming to note the happening for the first time, and gave this question a great philosophical pondering, before determining firmly, “No.”

    Stubb’s reply was a stream of bubbles and a great, wet thrashing.

    When the second mate had righted himself and bobbed again above the surface, his harpooneer, now deeming the spectacle concluded and Stubb’s punishment served, began to roll up the legs of his loose canvas pants, to the knee, and waded out to retrieve him. Daggoo did not hesitate to relinquish his victim, faced at last by a worthy opponent, and Tashtego got no further than to lift Stubb half a foot by his underarms before he was wrested into sudden aquatic combat. Stubb dropped, submerged once more, and reappeared again, cork-like, bobbing and laughing in near-hysteria beside the two Titan harpooneers, locked into a mythic contest of wrestling, which would have no doubt set him bobbing beneath the waves once more had he not gamely begun to paddle ashore, dripping up onto the sand to watch the sport from safety, still laughing now and again at the play. He called out the beginning of a remark, as he cast about for a dry cloth to make his pipe of use again, then seemed to think better of tempting fate and replaced the words with the pipe, contenting himself with blowing the water out the stem like a surfacing whale.