"Why not begin with how you managed to be on this ship," I said to Melville, "since, after all, youíve been dead for more than a century."
"Thatís a dull tale," he said. "A trick of light, sound and time that anyone can accomplish."
"It wonít bore me," I promised him. "Nothing other-natural is dull to me."
"If I tell you how its done you must promise never to reveal the details," he said.
"I canít make that promise," I said. "Iím a writer, after all, and reporting unusual occurrences and phenomena - either in fiction or in the newspapers - is my work."
"Then I canít tell you anything other than this. And Iím saying this much off the record, you understand." I nodded, but crossed my fingers behind my back the way the best newsmen do. "When you lived a pure life you get some special handling in the afterlife. When youíve lived a less-than-pure life, but one that still leaves a positive imprint on the world you also get some advantages. When, rather than a good or pure life is behind, but youíve been creative, made an impact with your work, it almost compensates for the less-than-pleasant things you may have done and you still get one or two little perks."
"Which are you claiming to have in your history, Melville?" I asked him.
"Ah. Thatís where the information line ends, Iím afraid."
"But at least you got a perk or two, yes?" He nodded. "And thatís how you got back here?"
"I cannot say another word on this subject."
"All right, then. Letís look at some other things."
He picked up my book and held it in both his hands. He stared at me again, those sharp, decisive eyes staring deep into my own. I could almost feel his mind invading my own, drawing out information that I had stored deep inside the folds of my brain. He seemed to have a knack for finding truths that existed in the barren regions of my life and I felt them come to the foreground.
"You write small verities," he said. "You need to enlarge your world."
I almost broke into tears at that. It was too real a statement, reflected in the small book he held in his hands.
"Iíve tried to break into the larger world of publishing with much bigger concepts, feelings, ideas," I told him. "Itís as difficult today as it was when you were writing."
"Is that so?" he asked me and I could hear in the tone of his voice that he believed my simple statement, but only barely. He didnít want to buy into that idea. He wanted things to be better in this more enlightened time.
"Very little has changed, I think, since you left us, Melville. The publishing world still only buys what may be the most popular. Now and again something of significance appears, but when it doesnít sell well, itís withdrawn, burned and recycled."
"I see." He turned his gaze on the water moving below us. Then he stood up and walked to the rail, leaned over it and held my book out to the wake the ship put out as it forged ahead in the bright blue Atlantic. "I could drop your work into the water, as you see, and let the fishes eat it. If I wanted to do so."
"Why donít you?" I said. "Those small bits of invention may do some good at least to someone, even as growth fodder."
"Because fish, my friend, donít eat ideas, donít thrive on emotional pulsations." He turned to face me fully. "Fish live on smaller fish, on kelp. Fish swim only in schools, never alone. Fish donít try to make a difference and clearly you do. Do you understand what Iím saying?"
"I do." And I did, too.
"What writers do," Melville continued, "is to nourish thoughts until they grow into concepts, bud as manuscripts and burst into bloom in publication."
"Pretty flowery talk for an old sailor," I said.
"Remember I was a farmer also," he replied. "For thirteen years I plowed the land, sowed the seed, harvested the crops. And I did it while raising a family and writing my books."
"You donít think I do enough, then."
"I donít." He came back and sat down next to me this time, placing one arm around my shoulders and the other on my leg. My book fell into the space, narrow as it was, between us. "You need to go further, young man."
"Iím not that young."
"Remember Iíve been dead for over a hundred years. I may look good to you now, but Iím much much your senior."
I turned my head about seventeen degrees and stared into those bright pools of light that were Melvilleís eyes. On the surface, I knew, or discussion was both pracitcal and philosophical, but there had always been the questions about his sexuality, his relationships with several men, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. I took a quick, sharp intake of air, a voluminous breath and, still watching the light dancing in his mind through thewindows those eyes presented me, I asked another question.
"Why did you stop writing your books? Why go to poetry? Of all things?"
"You donít appreciate my poetry?"
"I do. I really do. I used one of them in a play because I thought it was so beautiful, so expressive."
His hand lightly squeezed my thigh. I could feel the distinct pressure of thumb and forefinger. I blushed, I knew. I could feel the heat in my face. Melville payed no attention to the reaction his hand was getting from my body, and he continued to talk about his poems.
"That form gave me great pleasure, actually, great satisfaction. Iím glad you like them, at least some of them. I know I suffered from the comparisons being made to other new American voices, like Whitmanís."
"You saw him as a rival, then?" I asked.
"No. Never. His were what they were and mine were very much mine. It was the critics, again, ever harping on my talents and my limitations."
"Why? Why wasnít there room enough for appreciating two budding geniuses?"
"Why, indeed?" He was frowning now, definitely frowning and he had moved his hand off of my leg and was silently stroking his beard. "Even when I allowed my more erotic side to develop, still I could not capture their support."
"Erotic?" I said.
"Indeed. ĎFor all the Preacherís din/There is no mortal sin-No, none to us but malice...í and so on. You would think that sort of imagery would grab them, wouldnít you? No mortal sin, by God! Thereís a large idea for you. Try that on for size."
"I have," I said. "In my new play, my new book."
"And when do we see these?" he asked me and he must have seen my crestfallen expression for he drew me closer to him with that arm still draped across my neck and shoulders. "I know," he said. "I know how difficult it can be. Negotiation with publishers is almost as hard-won a battle as selling your work in the face of negative reviews by the less-enlightened."
"Youíve had the experience, I know."
"Had it? Hah!" His single laugh exploded out of him. "I practically invented the damn thing."
He stood up as though ready to move on to a new encounter, another adventure aboard the ship. I instantly rose to my feet and stood next to him. We were exactly the same height, which amazed me. I had assumed him to be much taller somehow.
"Iím not," he said, reading my thoughts. "Remember I died more than half a century before you were born. We were shorter men in those times."
"Not all," I said. "Remember Lincoln?"
"Lincoln was not a friend of mine. I knew him somewhat. I suppose we all did. But I never took his measure."
"He was tall for his time," I said.
"In his way he was tall for all time." He smiled again and I was grateful for that. "Do you know the shortest short story ever written? Itís about Lincoln."
"Did you know," I countered, "that the most common subject in American literature was President Lincoln, followed by his dog and his doctor."
"No, I didnít know that. But the story...do you know it?"
"I donít think so."
"Allow me to tell it you," he said and he sat down again. I joined him on the deck chair. "Here goes: A man was standing in the small field he worked raising grain on the same property as his house. It was mid-afternoon with at least four more hours of work ahead of him. He was thirsty, hot and tired. Along the road he saw another man coming quickly, looking distracted. The farmer stopped the man as he approached, noticed his distracted look and asked him Ďwhatís with you? Are you ill?í ĎNo, I am fine,í the man responded, Ďbut have you not heard the news from the city? The President has been shot. Honest Abe is dead. The nation is defeated.í The farmer shook the manís hand, thanking him for the dreadful news. Then he lay his hoe down against the fence post and he went back into his house, closing the door behind him. He had forgotten his thirst."
Melville sat silent watching my face.
"That is short," I said. "But it is complete, isnít it, a beginning, a middle, an end."
"And it deals with the big ideas: politics, assassination, the union of a people, human suffering, remorse, guilt, the natural thirst of a man which can be quenched by other than water."
"The man? The Farmer? Is he a supporter of Lincoln or does he relish the end of the President?"
"Ah!" Melville look pleased at this question. "That is for the reader to decide."