Vigil for a Dragon, pt 11

Far out upon the Dawn-Kissed Sea, the whaling ship Sanguinary cuts the waves. So far, the voyage has been long and unprofitable, and not a few of the crew are showing early signs of scurvy. But on this day, the simmering discontent of the men is lifted. Dolphins have been sighted off the starboard bow, and the men are hopeful that this means there will be whales too.

Whales are creatures of great contradiction to whaling men. They represent great profit, but also great danger. They are called beasts and derided as such, yet they are reckoned to be as smart and cunning as any man, if not more so. It is a whaler’s job to kill them and render their bodies into more valuable forms, and yet there are those who claim that they have souls as men do, and that to kill them is a crime and sin.

The men on board the Sanguinary have little time for such philosophical distractions, and least time of all when a whale is sighted.

A long boat puts down, and the harpooner in the bow leads the men in song with a deep and resonant voice that carries far across the waves – the better, it is believed, to attract whales. The harpooner sings, and the other men in the boat sing the antiphon:

The priest of Jennar’s daughter had a-red and rosy cheeks!
A yay, hey, hee, hi, ho!
And on the temple high days, she sang the anthem sweet
Come whale, see him blow!

The priest of Jennar’s daughter was as sweet as toffee candies
A yay, hey, hee, hi, ho!
I said her, us whalers are as lovers fine and dandy!
Come whale, see him blow!

She told me that us whalers were damněd men all and liars!
A yay, hey, hee, hi, ho!
And each of us she’d send to hell, to feed the damněd fires!
Come whale, see him blow!

On this occasion, they are successful, and their harpooner sights the whale, it’s fountain a-blow two score fathoms to port. The tillerman sets his course, and winks at the harpooner while the men labour at their oars. The harpooner flashes a quick smile back, and turns to watch for his prey once more.

The harpooner is a taciturn man with few friends on the ship, but all there respect his skill. They even boast of it when in port, and it’s true, the harpooner may actually be the best there is at what he does, but none know why.

They don’t know that the harpooner isn’t really a man at all, but a selkie, and that his gift for finding and killing whales is a perversion of the ways of his people. They don’t know that he turned to such perversion in spite and bitterness after his people exiled him for crimes of which he was innocent, all so that the chieftain’s son could marry the bride of his choosing. They don’t know this, but the whales, who have ancient treaties with the selkies, do. The harpooner does not realise it, but he is a hunter hunted.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply