In honor of the 161st anniversary of the publication of Moby Dick, and as a little Halloween present to my readers, I am offering a free short story inspired by Herman Melville.
It's not strictly speaking a ghost story, more of a "cosmic underwater freakout" with ghostly overtones.
Hope you like it anyway.
A Fish Story
Dedicated to Herman Melville
Forty-four years ago… publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day? Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in this country laughed recently at my statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two city blocks. "Nonsense," said he. "Why, Melville is dead these many years!" Talk about literary fame? There's a sample of it!
— Edward E. Bok, New York Publishers' Weekly, 15 November, 1890
The night we met I was meandering through the watery alleys of Lower Manhattan, so absorbed in my own thoughts that had you not called out my name I would not have stopped at all as I passed you.
Admittedly, your outward aspect singularly perturbed me, as you were so extremely familiar of face, and still so strange. Yet when you bade me stroll with you a while I acquiesced, for what else could I do?
I suppose we made a cosy enough pair, you and I, as we strolled through the lamplight. We were exactly alike in height and gait; from a distance one would have supposed we were twins. We walked in silence until I asked you “Shall we go north or south?” when we rounded the corner at Pearl Street.
“Oh, south,” you murmured. “Wall Street is as desolate as a ghost town at night, don’t you find?”
Of course I agreed.
Finally I could not help but ask you, “What is it you want?”
“I want? I seek you not. It is you that seekest me.”
“I know what you were thinking as you walked the streets tonight. You were thinking about our work.”
Yes, I had been.
“You were thinking how trifling it is.”
It was true. I had been.
“A monumental work must be written,” you said to me. “We both know it must. There can be no more of these sailor’s romances. A truer tale awaits us, a tale that must be told. A tale that speaks of your true self.”
I heard myself say: “I seek but cannot find this monumental tale. I feel I’ll have to dash my very brains against the rocks and pull the story out of the all blood and wreckage.” My words poured forth as though you had cast a veritable spell on me. “There are unknowable truths but I know I can hunt them down.”
“Fame is fair game to anybody who can catch it.”
Fame! I should have known then, as I spoke of truth and you of fame that we would never reconcile the two.
As we stood there in the darkening alleys, I saw my future suddenly swim before me; its shadows and vague outlines were mere skeletons, but there was a story sketched upon them.
You were the tell-tale, pointing me toward the water and the direction in which I knew I had to go. You beckoned me to the end of Coenties Slip. I followed you down, and soon we were at the edge of the water.
Your face was the last thing I saw before I submerged.
I plunged down into the blackness and saw in those depths a tide of words, a sea of ideas, an unfathomable loneliness.
The current wanted to take me out to where the sea and rivers mingled. If it wants me, I thought, let it have me. I was swept away and the words that I saw swimming there were far too grand not to chase. Out in the depths I was alone. All the eerie, gleaming creatures of the deep were far away and there was nothing but empty silence. The water was murky; I could not see. The waves were lapping at my throat. The loneliness was ungodly and the current was very cold.
I began to feel I was no longer in the ocean. For a moment my eyes stung too much to open, but presently I managed to squeeze my lids apart. When I did, it became apparent to me that I was in an enormous cavern filled with dull and sullen reddish light. I felt as though I were waking from a deep sleep. As my eyes brought the darkness into focus, I realized this stagnant abyss was no cavern – I was deep inside a veritable maze of bones. Between the bones were soft tissues of flesh and, at my feet, a shallow pool of fetid water with some tiny fish still jumping and swimming in it. “It can’t be…” I whispered. “I must be dreaming.”
A small, rough axe materialized in my hand and suddenly, uncannily, dreadfully, I knew that whatever had brought me here ordained I should have to cut my way out. And so I hacked at the insides of the poor beast’s belly. “I am sorry to have to cut through your guts so rudely,” I thought as I tore into him, “but you know I can’t stay in here.”
Cutting through him was a massive undertaking and, no matter how industriously I worked, there always seemed to be more and more of him. The flesh, I found, wasn’t flesh at all but that strange substance known as blubber. It was gelatinous and very pale, and its soft, unresisting texture made it difficult to cut. If I tried to hack into it like one would a rock in a cavern or tangled vines deep in a jungle, prodigious oozings of new fat would appear immediately to take its place, though I could discern not from whence they came. I was becoming frustrated until I realized it could be pulled in strips. Once I figured that out I merely grabbed a good solid end of it and ripped it upward, forming a sort of doorway.
Unsure of what lay beyond it, I moved with caution but soon discovered it was just a matter of cutting my way through a bit more skin – a wall, really, but only three inches thick (such a delicate covering for the epidermis of this massive creature!) Because I had carefully made my blubber-door between two of the great, curving, shining ribs, the vaulted ceilings of which brought ecclesiastical thoughts to mind, all that barred me from freedom was this thin skin which soon was breached.
I was out to sea again.
What was this new adventure? A dream within a dream? It would seem so and yet I was beginning to have my doubts about the oneiric nature of this journey. The water felt too cold and deep, produced a chill in me too real to have come from the realm of sleep. Where will you take me next, I wondered. Where will your seething breakers take me, where next will your furious lashings fling me?
To my surprise I wasn’t pulled farther out to sea but merely floated up to the surface of the water where I was borne upon a wave. What message was this? What was I to do now? Perhaps a truer poet than I would have thrown himself farther into the ocean but I fear the sober Dutch blood in my veins prevailed. I did the commonplace thing: I swam toward home.
I went easily through the Narrows, for swimming in salt-water is as riding in a spring-carriage to a practiced swimmer, but as I came in through the bay I met with a staggering sight.
There, floating upon the surface of the calm waters were dozens, literally dozens, of whale carcasses.
There wasn’t any other way to do it: if I wanted to get home I would have to swim through them.
There is no name for the feeling this realization produced in me. All around was horror and blood and an appalling hell of decay. The waves were pointed triangles of water lapping like little teeth against the dead fish awash with streaks of bloody foam like the effluvia of a rabid animal. The whales themselves looked as though they had been sucked into and spit out by a maelstrom; I could imagine them flying through the sky into a collision of waves.
There are no words for the sensation swimming by the animals produced in me, however vividly I can recall it. It filled me with dread to slide between their corpses, my hands and arms brushing against the gleaming, ghastly bodies of the great fishes, their masses of flesh all covered in sticky slime. Each stroke evoked the indescribable sensation of moving through the deepest death.
The bloody water was tinctured as though with young claret. It is most disconcerting to see water that violent color – it isn’t meant to be, for water is supposed to soothe the human spirit with its lulling shades of blues and greens. To see it so was to witness an inversion of nature itself. Everywhere it was the brightest vermillion and its brightness contrasted hideously with the dull-grey of whale-skin.
The animals themselves lay so helpless and prostrate on their backs, their bellies pointed helplessly upward to heaven all heaped together, that sometimes there was only the slimmest channel to swim through between two of their bodies. Some of them lay on their sides so that their narrow lower jaws jutted out like useless flaps into the water. To see their grandeur thus reduced shattered my spirit and I, I suppose to save myself from going mad, let myself slip into a kind of trance. I thought not about the vileness of the scene in which I found myself but rather let my thoughts launch themselves into the ether, far above where I, so far from shore, so utterly deserted by my fellow man, swam alone through the bloody harbor of dead whales. These thoughts attached themselves to visions of life itself and death, and what it means to be a solitary man alone upon the sea.
By the time I got to shore, I had the idea for my book.
Sodden and quivering did I arrive upon the soggy shores of Manhattan Island. I staggered to my home, and my wife gasped when she saw me at the door.
“I know,” I said, holding out my hand to her, “what I must look like – ”
She screamed and ran from me, ran right upstairs to where you sat at our writing desk.
“Oh Mister Melville,” she said to you, wringing her hands together.
“What is it, Beth?” you asked.
“I saw something just now on the stairs – it looked like, Oh! the very image of you – but drowned! Oh, dead you were, and drowned!”
And you petted her head and reassured her there were no such things as ghosts, and we watched her as she walked away.
We wrote the book together, you and I, the book that only an author from the dead could have written. Which of us was dead? I know not. I go. You go. He goes. Ye go. Some mysteries are too vast for men to comprehend, and to answer these riddles is to dive deeper than Melville can go.
If you liked this story, please take a look at my short story collection,