THE FIFTY-NINTH MINUTE IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST: Moby Dick’s Lesson
Remember “Call me Ishmael” and actor Gregory Peck,
the peg-legged Ahab in a funereal suit,
soaked dead and black,
crucified against the white body of the whale,
a lesson in nemesis?
Moby Dick plunged
and rode to the surface,
plunged and rode again,
the whale boats in cold pursuit
on that far-away celluloid sea,
and Peck’s dead arm
in serial motion, waving them on and on,
until “The End.”
What happened to Moby Dick?
We never find out.
I imagined the white whale
swimming on into legend,
where it lives for us now,
carrying Peck like a human barnacle,
his black New England wool
and fierce flesh abrading,
until nothing but white skeleton
against white body remained,
the perfect image for a black pirate flag:
Whales and humans beware!
I remember as a kid sharing the horror of Pinocchio
escaping his creator, Gepetto,
before the Blue Fairy gifted him with flesh,
only to be swallowed whole by a cartoon whale.
But wait a minute!
It’s like a sea-going getaway car I decided.
If the whale spit Pinocchio out, no problem.
Wood floats and drifts.
Humans swim and sink.
Pinocchio would wash up
on a beautiful desert island somewhere,
like going to a better place.
The local natives would
set him up, driftwood white,
in a shrine of bamboo and palm leaves,
and worship the mysterious
minor god from the deeps.
What treasures from the sea,
what abundance they might
A few years later I watched
“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.”
I wanted to be the rollicking, jollicking Kirk Douglas,
with his surgically cleft chin and cool,
red-striped sweater, another peg-leg
dancing his hornpipe in the conning
tower of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus,
the Victorian submarine with its
saw-toothed prow as big as
a bowhead whale’s.
Was his peg-leg like having
a later, cartoon clownfish’s undersized fin?
Did it make it harder to get around,
but easier to move in circles,
like bad history repeating itself?
But no, Captain Nemo was a White Knight of the Deeps
taking arms against our sea of troubles
and by opposing, trying to end them.
He searched out and sank the Captain Ahabs,
the Nautilus cutting through the keels
of the whaling ships like
a flensing knife through blubber,
valuing the whales for more than oil and ambergris.
What of our differences,
whales and humans?
It must be a fluke of our natures,
I came to believe.
Yes, we’re both mammals, but we’re
clever monkeys, and quick.
Our rhythms are circadian, diurnal,
not the slow steady beat of the seas
at work around the edges of the Earth.
We move at the speed of necessity.
They drift like island continents.
Of course, we have big brains
compared to our body masses,
and so do the whales.
We’re both intelligent mammals, curious.
But a whale’s intelligence has fluid depths.
It follows signposts of pod memory
invisible to us, to family and food and deep
parts of our planet we will never experience,
unless we armour our flesh against
the very element that gives them
life and support. That supports us, as well.
But our pod memories are short, and
we too often forget that, foul the oceans
with their blood and our wastes.
All of that richness could be lost,
like men at sea.
If we’re made in god’s image,
that’s about the only thing
we have in common with cetaceans.
I don’t mean the image,
I mean the same Creator.
God gave the whales flukes and fins,
and humans opposable thumbs.
And that was our glory
and their curse.
Humans have bad days; whales have bad centuries.
Maybe Jonah had the best view,
inside the belly of the beast.
Not rough, not slouching toward Bethlehem,
but maybe its last hours.
What did Jonah learn? Not much.
Of course god sent the whale to save Jonah.
That was god’s mistake—and that long ago
biblical whale’s. It should have spit him out
to sink or swim. But that’s not in their nature,
as far as we can understand it. We got the opposite
mission and still diligently pursue their destruction.
In my high school science book, I remember
an illustration of the scale of a human
compared to a blue whale.
Too often, it’s how we prefer to see them─
I mean only in relation to ourselves,
larger curiosities, fluked, fleeting, ephemeral.
We watch whales; measure them;
track them with critter cams;
record their fluke patterns like fingerprints;
are deeply moved in our clown-fish orange survival suits
when they nudge our zods and we
look them in the eye, touch them: Leviathan.
Where are their survival suits?
How could a species so small,
decimate a species so large?
We just had to give it some thought.
We already had the thumbs.
Of course, our real weapon is much more
destructive than a crude harpoon gun.
It’s us. We’re the real weapon of our own mass
destruction and their’s and the planet’s.
I mean our increasing numbers and
the laws of mathematical progression.
We humans are in a suicide pact with ourselves.
But we don’t want to go alone.
We’ve posted the note all around us:
dead seas, barren earth, poisoned skies.
It’s written in lipstick red letters
on the mirrors of our bathrooms,
the tip-off, the point. We stare and don’t
believe it. We shave our image clean
and forget it.
Here’s a thought experiment.
Imagine Jonah is the whole human race
and the whale that swallowed him is
the planet Earth and all its resources.
The whale is some fifty million years old;
Jonah’s span a few hundred thousand years,
say a mere hour of geologic time.
It’s black all around him, so in the first five minutes
Jonah discovers fire and pushes back the dark.
And wow, it’s big and empty in there, but
hey, by the firelight, in her sabre-tooth tiger skin,
Janey is smelling ripe and looking sexy. Maybe they
should cuddle up and keep warm?
Time flies when you’re having fun,
and they double their population
once every minute and begin to
spread out into that vast area.
More minutes pass and they’re still having fun.
Soon all the Jonahs and Janeys are training
their kids to sit on flush toilets,
little kings and queens on their white ceramic thrones.
“Where is all that crap going, Dad? Jonah Junior asks.
“Don’t worry, Son,” Jonah says, “still plenty of room.”
The minutes tick by, the toilets flush, the fun continues.
“But, Dad . . . Dad . . . .”
“I said, don’t worry, Son.”
Jonah checks his watch.
“By my careful calculation, we’ve been here
a little more than fifty-nine minutes
and the place is still only half full.”
© David Floody 2020Share on Social Media