Nautilus Redux

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 Nautilus Redux

Suddenly, as I bent to the aid of my friend spermwhalewoodcutand companion, there came a flash from above. A heavy antique harpoon, of the sort formerly wielded with such success by the Nantucket whalers of America, lanced through the water and buried itself in the sand directly between the heads of Conseil and the lobster.

The lance was the six feet in length customarily used by the master harpooner. Two-thirds of its length was comprised of a shaft of stout American oak, as thick in its circumference as a strong man’s wrist. The remaining length was of iron, the girth of my thumb, and barbed at its tip (as I was soon to discover) with the razor-sharp, gleaming white tooth of a sperm whale.

Bound along the harpoon’s length and cunningly knotted to an iron ring in its hilt was a stout rope. With the harpoon itself embedded in the body of the great beast, the whaleboat, with its burden of rowing whalers and their heavy gear, would be towed behind its fleeing prey at great speed, sometimes for many leagues. This marvel became known around the world as the ‘Nantucket Sleigh Ride’.

Now this ingenious instrument of death had come within a hair’s breadth of skewering Conseil and nailing him to the sandy bottom.

Quickly the rope tightened and the harpoon began to be pulled up from above. Immediately realizing our peril—that the unseen harpooner would know that his stroke had gone awry and would prepare to strike again—Captain Nemo and I hurled ourselves headlong upon the harpoon. Conseil, the lobster now quite forgotten, hurriedly regained his feet and joined us. Grasping the rope with our combined strength, we gave it a mighty heave.

We were rewarded with a splash directly above us, as our assailant was pulled from his feet and plunged headlong into the breakers.

We now possessed multiple advantages over our attacker. Not only had the element of surprise gone over completely to our side, but our numerical superiority and our lead-bottomed boots combined to allow us to hold him fast by the legs. He kicked and flailed futilely, and ultimately we had only to wait for his struggles to exhaust themselves. As we waited, to my great surprise I found that the leg upon which I had laid hold was smooth and hard to the touch, and gleaming white—polished whalebone! It was strapped to the stump of the man’s leg with the meticulous fastenings of a ship’s carpenter.

At length our prisoner’s struggles changed their focus from escaping the clutches of his subsurface captors to simple survival—the effort to keep his head above water. Patiently we waited for him to gather his wits. We held his legs, our arms extended, keeping his head above the rolling waves. At length he seemed to gain an understanding of his situation: that he was in the grasp, not of a creature of the deep, but of a human presence that did not wish him ill, and he fell quiet.

With one hand Captain Nemo signaled to me and Conseil, and tapped a signal on the knee of our captive. Carefully I relinquished my hold to my manservant, and the Captain and I quickly climbed hand over hand up the rock face. We hauled ourselves out of the water and up onto a shelf, where we stood erect, like twin Poseidons emerging from the waves.

We gazed down upon a most curious sight. Our captive was not, as I had supposed, some fisherman indigenous to this locale, but a man clearly of our shared European extraction. Although nut brown from long exposure to the sun, with skin as wrinkled as that of the sperm whale whose tooth adorned the tip of his harpoon, his eyes were grey and piercing. The sparse hair that remained on the sides of his head, white as the driven snow, haloed around him in the waves. It mingled with a beard that would reach at least to his waist, gnarled and twisted as roots of trees blown over, bleached white by time, sea, and sun. An ancient puckered, silvery scar ran from his hair, down the side of his face and neck, and slanted across his chest.

He floated with an enforced calm, held from below in Conseil’s firm grasp, glaring up at us as we stood above him in our ponderous suits, faces hidden in helmets of gleaming brass and thick glass. I realized with a start that we must seem creatures from the unknowable deep—or from another world altogether. I struggled with the latches of my helmet, and it released with a great hissing rush of air. Captain Nemo did the same. Together we uncovered our heads. Nemo and I both waited a long moment for the other to speak.

I, being less taciturn than the Captain, spoke first. “Parlez-vous Francais?” I asked our captive hopefully. He only glared.

“Sprechen zie Deutsche?” asked Nemo. No reply.

“Do you speak English?” I ventured.

“Aye,” answered the gaunt figure in the water.

“Good!” I answered. “I am Professor Pierre Aronnax of Paris.”

“And I,” said the Captain, “am Nemo, Captain of the Nautilus.”

“Ahab,” grunted our prisoner. “Master of the Pequod.”

 

Coming February 28th, 2015, from Xchyler Publishing

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