It was approaching 12:00. I hadnít planned on taking lunch until 1:00 but the conversation Iíd been engaged in with Herman Melville had taken an energy toll and I was hungry. I thought Iíd excuse myself, go up to the Lido deck and get something, then return and continue the conversation, but before I could put my plan into action I heard a spluttering in the loudspeaker set into a metal beam about fifteen feet further down the deck. Melville heard it also, and he turned to stare at the source of this unfamiliar noise.
"What is it?" he asked no one in particular, but meaning me to answer him.
"Thereís going to be some sort of announcement, I think," I said quickly. I wasnít sure but it seemed likely. The Captain normally gave statistics on our position and our sea miles at half-past this hour, but it surely wasnít that yet. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was only 11:53.
"Good afternoon," said the voice coming through the system, "this is Staff Captain Jorgensen. I am going to turn this over to our on-board naturalist, Dr. Vickers Morgen. Dr. Morgen, please."
There was a brief pause and I could hear the passing of the microphone from one hand to another, an unmistakable noise once youíve ever heard it.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," came the new, higher-pitched voice, "if you can have a look off our starboard side you will have an opportunity to see the whales of the southern hemisphere." He took a breath. "Ordinarily at this time of year these whales are hard to spot, but today, with this mild weather weíre having, there will be unprecedented viewings of these creatures of the deep."
"Whales," Melville said, almost dreamily. I watched him approaching the railing, taking a position that no one could challenge. I instantly moved to join him, my hunger gone for the present.
"While the whales are no longer a principal prey for mankind," Dr. Morgen continued, "there are still many instances of encounters between the mammoths of the deep and the sailors of the southern hemisphere."
"Iím glad to hear it," Melville said sharply. "The whale is a source of many useful items."
"Not any longer," I said softly.
"Donít be ridiculous," he replied.
"Today, the whales we are passing are in the early stages of their breeding pattern," Morgenís airborne voice informed us, "so if you see one you will undoubtedly see two of them."
"We hunted them for oil, for bone, for ivory," Melville said. "Even the sperm of the whale was harvested for its uses."
"Not any more," I said, a bit testy I realized instantly. "All thatís changed," I added in a nicer, softer tone.
"Thereís a pair now," Morgen shouted. "Have a look at two oíclock and watch them play."
Two oíclock indicated the location from the prow, a 17 degree angle to the right from where we were standing. Other people had joined us now, on deck, and there was a good deal of excitement in the ether around us. I could hear voices, words and phrases, being whispered between people on either side of us, but no one seemed to remark on Melville. They were talking only about the whales.
"Look at Ďem," Melville shouted. "Look at Ďem rise!"
Sure enough two whales emerged from the waves, maybe three hundred yards away from us, their fins overlapping one another as they plunged back into the ocean. They were a light gray color with a dappling of black on their backs and their dorsal fins. The one closest to us also had a large black blotch on its tail.
"Do you know the female from the male?" Melville asked me.
"No," I said, wondering how I ever would.
"Thar she blows!" he said pointing slightly to the right of the pair we had just seen. A single whale rode the waterline, almost preening in the bright southern sunlight.
"Sheís half a mile off," he continued, "and ripe for the picking. Whereís the harpooner?"
"I donít think they have harpooners on this cruise ship, Melville," I said. Two of the people immediately to my left turned sharply and stared at me for a moment, then turned away to watch the sea mammals instead, finding them far more interesting than they found me.
"What sort of vessel is this, with not a harpooner on board?"
"Itís a cruise ship, a pleasure boat."
"A boat merely for pleasure?" You could hear the disdain in his voice. "Without the arms for a confrontation with the sea beast?"
"I was misinformed!" he shouted. "I was misled."
"The third whale you see," Morgenís voice broke in on us again, " is an excellent example of those found in the southern Atlantic. Unlike their north Atlantic counterparts, these southern whales often remain in the warmer, tropical waters weíre plowing through right now."
"Leviathans! Godís creatures, to be sure, but manís required prey!" Melville shouted into the wind. "They abound and they are meant for slaughter. They may swim in the vastness of the sea but thereís a sea of oil swimming within their bellies."
"Melville get ahold of yourself," I said to him. I reached out and grabbed the lapel of his jacket, turning him from the rail to look at me. "Weíre watching whales, not hunting them."
"Whale-watching!" He spat the words at me. "Puny sport for puny men."
"Where do you think you are?" I shouted at him. "Who do you think youíre talking to?"
"It is estimated that the waters northeast of the coast of Brazil can boast of more then ten thousand whales at this point in the 21st century," Morgen informed us.
"Ten thousand! Ten. THOUSANDS?" Melvilleís voice was rising again. No one was paying any attention to him except me, but I was very aware of his mounting mania as Dr. Morgen kept providing new facts about the school of whales in the south Atlantic.
"Thereís a fortune here, lad," he said to me. "A fortune to be made by the man who can take these creatures. Bring me a harpoon."
"You werenít a harpoonist!" I shouted at him. "You werenít."
"This must be the chance, then," he said to me. "I told you they reward you with small perks and this must be why Iím here today."
"No!" I said sharply. "Youíre here to talk to me." He looked at me strangely, then turned his gaze back to the churning waters where the whales cavorted. Two more of them had joined the three weíd been watching.
"Look!" Melville said, grabbing my arm and pulling me close to the rail and close to his wildly beating heart. "Look, a white whale. The white whale."
I looked hard, but couldnít see a white whale anywhere. And then, without warning, I saw what Melville had seen. The nose of one of the new arrival was wrinkled, pale and luminous, a white sheen on his sparkling, salty-wet flesh.
"Itís the white whale, lad," he said again. "Iíve seen him at last."
"Melville, itís not your whale. It canít be your whale."
"You think fiction is only stories, boy, but it is truth made palatable is what it is."
"Melville, itís not your whale."
"Watch me then," he said. "Iíll call him in."
Before I could stop him, Melville was climbing the railing of the promenade deck and standing free in the wind, staring out to sea. He took my orange-covered book and rolled it into a megaphone and raised the smaller end to his lips. I couldnít hear his voice any longer, only a sound emerging from the wider, further end of the rolled volume. The voice grew in size, but the words were indistinct, unclear, nearly unformed.
"What are you doing, Melville?" I called out to him. "Get down or youíll fall!"
"Heís mine," Melville said to me. "You watch me now."
The whale with the white marking on its snout had, in fact, turned its attentions on us now. It wasnít approaching the ship, but it was clearly fascinated by us, by something it smelled or saw or even heard. Melville was calling to it again through the megaphone of my work and even dancing a little jig, a sailorís dance, on the railing. I took a step back to see the man in his stalwart and hardy state, dancing and shouting and commanding his whaleís presence. I had never seen anything like it anywhere and hoped I never would again.
The whale, meanwhile, had changed course and was moving closer to the ship. People were excited all around me and I moved back to my place at the rail. Melville had stopped dancing now and was leaning forward, supported as much the oncoming wind as by his own excellent sense of balance.
"Melville, come down," I begged, "before you fall."
"Fall? Fall?" he said. "I never fall. I may leap and I may run, but fall? Never."
"Well, donít leap, for goodness sake."
"Youíre afraid for your book?" he asked me.
"No, never. I trust the book."
"Aye, trust the book. Always did myself," he added.
"Melville, the book. Is there anything there, anything in it at all that you liked?"
He looked at me cautiously. I could see something dancing in those blue eyes, something whimsical, something so important that it had to come through to me. And then I saw the whale. It was running parallel to us now, about a hundred yards off and moving from us toward the bow of the cruise-ship.
"You know which one," Melville said. "You already know, because you already know how good it is."
With that he leaped backward, off the rail and fell into the sea, or nearly into it, for he landed on the flipping tail of the white whale. The tail tossed him high, almost to the level of the deck on which I stood. I marveled at the acrobatic sight of him soaring and laughing as the whale played him like a pink rubber Spalding ball. Then he plummeted down onto the back of the whale and the white leviathan plunged deep into the sea taking Melville with him. I leaned over as far as I could to see if it was possible to find them in the churning blue-gray water. There was foam and floating kelp, but no sign of the white whale or the man.
"Itís as much the floating kelp in these waters as anything that brings the whales here in profusion," Morgen was saying, but I wasnít listening any more to the disembodied voice on the loudspeaker. I was hearing the lost voice of the author of Moby Dick telling me he liked one of my stories and that I already knew which it would be. A man on the aft side of the upright I had been clinging to spoke to me.
"I hope your friend will be all right," he said.
"Excuse me? You saw him?"
"Yes. Heís right over there." I followed his gaze and saw my travelling companion in the shadowed arch of the companionway door. He spotted me and waved. I waved back. It wasnít Melville this time, and I knew for certain that no one but me had met the man of the hour; no one but me and the white whale that he had, for so long, wanted to meet.