The week before Hannibal’s seventh birthday.
I am getting all flustered about Hannibal’s birthday. Well, it is a bit more than flustered! Alex has come back, unexpectedly, in the middle of the day to find me, sobbing, over sheets and sheets of paper. I am trying to draw an elephant for Hannibal’s headboard. I cannot draw. I tried to trace one of the elephants already there and change it a bit. It looks… Well! I do not think Alex will realise WHAT I am trying to draw. Except, he can see all the little ‘books’ she…
When I say ‘she’, I mean Sarah Heyes, Hannibal’s mother. I find it hard to say her name. I try not to want to take her place. I try not to know I never will. Not with Alex, let alone Hannibal. I DO know. I did not, when we got married. I do now. I may not be very clever. But, I am not THAT silly!
Anyway, here I am, all surrounded with the little ‘books’ she wrote for Hannibal. Wrote, drew pictures for and then sewed together.
I guess I look real guilty. Suppose seeing all her ‘books’ fetched out makes Alex cross with me? And, sometimes, it annoys him when I cry. When he walks in, I sweep all the paper together and put my arms over it. Then, I think that is just silly – so I let him see. He comes over and looks at the drawings on the table. He goes real quiet and his lips press together. He is not cross though.
He goes over to his chair.
“Come here,” he says, tapping his knees. I sit in his lap. “Louisa…” His voice is very kind. “…you don’t need to copy anything Sarah used to do,” He has said pretty much the same thing before.
“I can’t anyhow, can I?” I blurt, looking over at all the wasted paper. “Sheesh! When I first read one of them stories I thought…Hey, this ain’t – I mean isn’t – so hard! It’s only a few pages long! An’ – then I sat there an’…” my voice wobbles, as I choke back a sob, “…I wrote ‘One morning Hannibal and Sarus got up and went out…’ an’…” I give a huge sniff. Alex shifts my weight a little so he can rummage out his handkerchief. He passes it to me. “I can’t think of nothin’ else to say!”
“Hey,” I get cuddled, “…I reckon even Shakespeare got writer’s block! No need to cry. Besides…” Another cuddle and he lifts my chin to meet his eyes, “…It might be better not to try and copy Hannibal’s mother? Don’t you think? Huh?”
I sniff again and nod.
“Why not just ask Jed to sleep over on Friday night?” he suggests. “Make something they both like for supper and bake a cake? Then, they can spend Saturday plotting and scheming. Not too much fuss, huh?” That is easy enough. It just does not seem very…Alex kisses my hair, then goes on, “I’ll have a quiet word. If he wants another etching – I’ll sort something out. But, I think – he won’t.”
“I hafta do more than that, though, Alex. I hafta do a present!”
“We ARE doing presents,” Alex says, gently. He is. I suppose WE are. He has nearly finished making something real nice. A chess set and board. He is going to teach Hannibal to play, as the nights draw in. And, I am making a shirt. A shirt is not very exciting when you are seven though! “Louisa…” he kisses my hair again, “…you did agree. Not to fuss over Hannibal. It rubs him up the wrong way.” He gives me ‘that’ smile. “Never mind. You can spoil me to your heart’s content. I lap it up! Huh?”
I know he is right. It is just … I know I promised not to… But… You see…
Things were going better between Hannibal and me. Then, after the barn raising, he went real sulky again. Real cold. All I get is ‘good morning, goodnight, yes ma-am, no ma-am’. I thought, at first, it was because Hannibal walked in on me crying my eyes out after a row with Alex. Turns out, it was not that. He worked out, somehow, that I am … Well, that he is getting a little brother or sister next year. I am not real sure if he was mad because I am – you know. Or, mad because his Pa had not told him. I reckon a bit of both. When Alex, eventually, made Hannibal spit out what was bugging him, Alex told him we had only suspected ourselves the day of the barn raising. It was not that we were keeping a secret. Just – it might not be true.
Anyhow, I thought if I make a big effort for Hannibal’s birthday, it might help. Might help him – like me more. He has got to like me. GOT to! Otherwise…
I will try not to fuss. I DO try. I just cannot help it.
Later that same week
As I walk into the store, Mama fetches out a package.
“Mail for you, Louisa,” she says. She holds it up to the light from the window. I reckon, not for the first time. She lifts an edge of the wrapper, tries to peer under it. Then, reluctantly, she passes it over. “Heavy, huh?” she says. “Come from back east. They always did get mail from back east.”
“Thank you,” I say and, I put it in my basket.
“Ain’t you gonna open it?” she asks. Mama is inquisitive. I do not mean to be disrespectful. I am inquisitive too. Sheesh! I do not understand folk who are not! When you live in a small place like Larson Creek, any news and gossip is precious.
“It’s not for me, Mama,” I protest. “It’s for Alex.”
She draws herself up.
“There should be NO secrets ‘twixt man an’ wife, Louisa,” she says, sternly. “In law, you are one person, now.”
Yes, I think. And, that one person is Alex. AND, even if I WERE going to open his mail – I would not do it in front of you. Last I heard, mother and son-in-law were still separate folk! I do not SAY any of that. I do not answer Mama back. She is real mad if you answer back!
“I would have NO hesitation in openin’ your father’s mail, Louisa.”
“I dunno,” I hedge. “I don’t like to. ‘Sides – I can wait till I get home.”
Then, thank heaven, Mrs. Godfrey comes in, so I do not have to argue any more.
When Alex does open it, it is not even for him. He says it is ‘care of’ him. It is for Hannibal. From Mrs. Worsley, his grandmother. There is a letter too, marked, like the parcel inside ‘not to be opened until the seventeenth’. Hannibal watches Alex undo the outer wrapping and reads this.
“It’s a book, huh, Pa?” he asks, touching the inner parcel. “Like she used to send to…” he pauses, just for a second, “…to mother?”
“Certainly feels like it, son,” agrees Alex. He squeezes the edge. “I’d lay pretty good odds that’s a book.”
“Let me…” Hannibal reaches out.
“Nope,” said Alex, “…Not until your birthday.” Hannibal argues and argues. Alex tells him, “I’ll make a deal with you, son. If you can FIND it, you can open it before breakfast on Friday. How’s that?” I look from one to the other. They are SO alike. They both have a real – smug – look.
I was surprised when Alex half gave in, like that. BUT, over these last forty-eight hours, I thought maybe it was pretty smart. While he searches this place – and the barn – from top to bottom, Hannibal forgets the last of his sulks. I do not mean I get any hugs and kisses. Sheesh, no!
BUT, a minute ago I got a perfectly civil, “Can I take the dustpan an’ brush, please?” from a very white, little boy.
I peep in the storeroom and see him sweeping up flour. He must have been head first in the barrel, feeling for parcels.
I will say this for Hannibal. He puts things back, tidily. Just as well! Every sheet, pillowcase, jar of preserves, pan – even the smallest teaspoon – has been off its shelf or out of its drawer. When I caught him sneaking into our bedroom I had to laugh at the guilty look.
“I reckon your Pa must know you’ll look!” I gave permission. “I don’t suppose you’d take a duster an’ run it round, before you put everythin’ back?” I was joking. But, after trying not to grin back, he DID!
As he comes out of the storeroom, I catch him staring, suspiciously at my skirts, as he sits down with his homework.
“Have I spilt some’n?” I ask, twisting round. “I ain’t come back from the outhouse all hitched up, have I?”
“Nah!” he dismisses. But – not cold – if you know what I mean? He stares again. Finally, he blurts. “You’re not hiding it? He hasn’t got you to make a pouch and kinda dangle it under there, huh? ‘Cause – that wouldn’t be fair!”
“Sheesh, Hannibal! How do you think of this stuff?” I – kind of – pat myself down the front of the legs, then the back, then the sides. “Satisfied?”
He nods. “Do you know where he’s put it?” he asks. At once, he adds, “I’m not – ‘zactly – askin’ you to say. That’d be – cheatin’, huh? But…” he eyes me, “…you could, maybe, tell me if I’m getting warm?”
“I’m afraid not,” I smile. “Your Pa told me, it’s not that he don’t trust me. It’s just you’re sneaky enough to trick it outta me…” Despite his disappointment, Hannibal is clearly pleased at the reason. “…AND…” I go on, “…he says I don’t have the Heyes’ poker face.” Hannibal likes this too.
It is the night before Hannibal’s birthday. After the lamp had been turned down, I say, “Alex?”
“Where’s the book?”
“Strapped under our bed.”
“It’s not!” I protest. “He searched there! Twice! Flat on his back, feeling every slat and prodding the mattress.”
“It wasn’t there when he searched,” smugs Alex. “It was wrapped up in oilskin and strapped under the wagon.”
“He went all over that wagon!”
“Ah…” I can hear Alex is smiling, “…I hid it under Nathanial’s wagon.”
Friday 17th September 1858. Hannibal’s seventh birthday
I have not wrapped the shirt. I just put it on top of those in his drawer and, last night, I took the one he wore yesterday for the laundry basket a couple of days early. IF Hannibal does not come down wearing it – I am not going to say a word. I am NOT going to fuss and spoil anything. I am going to try not to, anyhow.
When I come out of our bedroom, the breakfast table is laid and Hannibal is – presumably – collecting eggs. Alex walks in from his chores in the barn. He smiles at me, goes into the bedroom and comes out carrying his present for Hannibal, the parcel and the letter.
I fetch the cake from where I have it covered in the storeroom and place it out on top of the cupboard. I remembered what Hannibal told me on Alex’s birthday. ‘They’ usually have the first slice of cake after breakfast on birthdays. Alex comes over to see. I feel anxious. Is it too much? It has layers. Some with and some without cocoa, so it is striped. I baked it in small loaf tins and then sandwiched them together with butter-cream. This way I have made an ‘aitch’. And, I wrote ‘Happy Birthday Hannibal’ across the middle and put big ‘7s’ on the four corners. I did not tell Alex. Does this count as ‘fussing’? My shoulders droop, as Alex looks. It IS fussing! I should have baked an ordinary sponge. I should have just done as I was told. I should never have…
Alex’s arms go round me.
“YOU…” he says, into my hair, “…you are SO sweet! I don’t deserve you. You do know that, huh?”
Hannibal bolts down his breakfast. He IS wearing his new shirt. He said ‘thank you’m’. He said ‘thank you’m’ to the cake, too. Even though I had told myself over and over he would not say anything – well – nice, I was still disappointed. I kept quiet though. I just said ‘you’re welcome’ and smiled. He starts to open his gift from Alex. His eyes go over to the cupboard. He HAS looked at the cake a few times while he ate.
“Oh!” I say, starting to get up. “Sorry, I forgot. Wouldya like a slice while you open your present?”
“No!” he says, real sharp. Then, a little look at Alex to check he is not in trouble. He tries again in his polite voice, “I mean, no thank you’m. I don’t want any.”
My cheeks go hot as I sit down. I try and hold the smile. Please do not let me cry. Please. It does not matter. It is only a cake. Please do not let me get all…
Alex squeezes my hand under the table.
“I could manage a slice, Louisa,” he says, “…If Hannibal’s sharing?”
“No!” Hannibal blurts, again. He goes red. “I mean, I do want to share, Pa. Just – can we leave it until Jed comes for supper? So – so he can see it? I mean – see it still sayin’ ‘aitch’? An’ with all the writin’. Is that alright?”
Alright? Is that ALRIGHT? It is more than alright! He likes it! He likes it so much he wants to show it off before it is cut. It is NOT alright! It is – wonderful!
I feel myself go pink, this time with pleasure. I must not spoil it by being – well, by being sappy. Alex squeezes my hand again. I know he is pleased too.
“I’m getting too fat anyhow, huh?” he smiles. “I guess it won’t hurt me to wait.”
Hannibal is real pleased with his chess pieces. He tells Alex…No! Be fair. Actually, he pretty much tells both of us, some stuff Benjamin Franklin said about chess. Apparently, this is from Caroline Field. I do NOT let myself stiffen. Much. Sheesh! He is wearing my shirt, he liked my cake and he is talking to me over breakfast. I guess he can mention his teacher without me sulking, huh? Even if she… No! I will NOT look sour! It does not matter how many hours Alex yaks to her! I still get more of his time. It is MY hand Alex is holding under the table, not hers, huh? It is me who … Never mind. I bring my attention back to Hannibal who is still instructing us.
Now we are getting some stuff about Caliphs playing with ivory chess pieces. I do not think this is Caroline Field. I reckon this comes from stories I sometimes hear Alex telling him. Alex is saying ‘really?’ and ‘uh huh?’ as if it is all new.
Eagerly, Hannibal opens the parcel from his Grandmother.
“Moby Dick, or, The Whale,” he reads. He runs his finger over the embossing on the spine. He flicks through. Sheesh, I think, that is one big book! Hannibal stops at an illustration. His eyes sparkle with excitement.
“What’s this, Pa?”
Alex looks over. So do I. It is – well – it is some kind of boat. Lots of men rowing. A black standing in front.
“It’s a whaling boat.” says Alex, “…Not the main whaler. One of the hunting boats. These men are hunting whales…”
“Like – what swall’erd Jonah?”
“That’s right, son.”
Hannibal reads the words under the picture. “Daggoo, the gigantic African, had a noble bearing and grace…” He stumbles a little over ‘gigantic’, but corrects himself, with a whispered prompt from Alex. “Daggoo must be the black man with the spear, huh?”
“I reckon so, son,” says Alex. “But, that’s not a spear. It’s a harpoon. For whaling.”
Alex interrupts. “Are you going to read your grandmother’s letter, son? Before you have to leave for school?”
Hannibal opens his letter. He scoots up close to Alex, so Alex can see too. A little glance is shot at me. I remember this is from Sarah’s mother and take myself off to pump water to wash up. I – linger. When I come back, they have finished reading but are…I guess Alex might say – reviewing.
“You know she says it’s a – a second-hand copy,” says Hannibal, “…that don’t matter none, huh? It’s still – real good?”
“It doesn’t matter at all,” agrees Alex, firmly. He ruffles the dark hair leaning against him. “It’s a real handsome volume in mint condition. You don’t care someone’s cut the pages and read them first, huh? The story’s the same and…” he smiles down, “…I reckon leather looks better after a few handlings. The books your grandmother sent your mother, on her birthdays, were mostly second-hand.”
Hannibal again flicks through the pages. “An’ you know she said she’d de…deliv…” he frowns at the letter.
“Deliberated,” supplies Alex. “She means – she thought carefully.”
“She delib’rated ‘bout sendin’ me a book more suitable for my age – but decided to choose somethin’ I could …” Hannibal pauses. “Somethin’ I could grow into?”
“I won’t need to grow into it, huh?” protests Hannibal.
“Well…” Alex sounds doubtful. “Melville is a difficult…”
Alex is not allowed to finish.
“But, I read REAL well! I reckon Gran’mother just don’t realise HOW good I read!” He looks up at his Pa. “Miss Field said I sliced through the second reader like a hot knife through butter! I’m on lessons from the third reader now! Same as Nate! An’ he’s eleven!”
Alex does not argue back. He ruffles the hair again and says, “You’re doing fine at school, son. Making me proud.” He gets up and gives me a hand clearing the table.
Hannibal looks at the clock. He has ten minutes before he has to leave to join the Curry children at the fork and walk into town. He pulls ‘Moby Dick’ towards him and turns to the first page. He starts to read. A frown gathers on his forehead. The lips part slightly and move. The small shoulders droop. He glances up at Alex, then, over at me. He looks – anxious. Or, is it – disappointed? He gulps.
“I’d better get to school,” he says. The voice is trying to sound casual. Too casual. He closes the book and places it, carefully, on the shelf.
After the door shuts behind him, I go over and open ‘Moby Dick’ myself. I turn past the preface, “Etymology”. I have no idea what that even means! Another preface, “Extracts”. I finally find chapter one and read:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me…”
Sheesh! I turn about halfway.
“When Brahma, or the God of Gods, saith the Shaster, resolved to recreate the world after one of its periodical dissolutions, he gave birth to Vishnoo, to preside over the work; but the Vedas, or mystical books, whose perusal would seem to have been indispensable to Vishnoo before beginning the creation, and which therefore must have contained something in the shape of practical hints to young architects, these Vedas were lying at the bottom of the waters; so Vishnoo became incarnate in a whale…”
I am about to blurt I cannot understand it. Then, I realise Alex is reading over my shoulder. I glance up. His dark eyes race over the page. He looks fascinated, absorbed.
I decide not to say anything at all. I am not THAT silly!
Supper went well. The cake cutting went VERY well! I was, however, subjected to close supervision. Hannibal wanted the first four slices taken one from each end of the ‘aitch’,
“So it’s still the right shape! No! You’ve gotta make ‘em all the same size! Up a bit! Down a bit! There!”
Seconds for the boys were, after much deliberation, cut from the top, so the ‘aitch’ now stands on tall legs.
Jed was suitably impressed by the handsome copy of ‘Moby Dick’ and studied the illustrations intently. He nodded, solemnly, as Hannibal explained how far it had travelled from ‘Back East’. Alex’s mouth twitched a little as he listened. I must admit, even I did not realise ‘Back East’ was quite as far as all THAT! I thought even China was closer than THAT! Hannibal told Jed, loftily, when he was reading – he was not to be disturbed. He then opened up the book at chapter one. The same worried frown began to pucker his forehead. He closed the book.
“I guess it’s not real polite to read when you’ve comp’ny, huh?”
“Maybe not,” nods Alex. The book was replaced on the shelf.
Now the boys are playing down by the creek. Alex has been standing over by the shelf, with his nose stuck in ‘Moby Dick’, not saying a word, for ages. I look at the clock. Fifteen minutes to ‘bedtime’.
“Guess I should call ‘em?” I say.
Alex looks at the clock too. “Uh huh,” he agrees, shutting the book.
A minute later two grubby little boys are on the step.
“Pa!” pleads Hannibal, “Can we have another hour. On ‘count of it bein’ my birthday?” Jed says nothing but looks hopeful. “AND…” Hannibal has not exhausted his reasons, “…it’s not even a school day tomorrow, huh?”
“It’s time to come in,” says Alex, “…It’ll be dark soon.”
“Aww!!! Pa!!! Whyyyy???”
“BUT…” Alex interrupts, “…IF there’s an immediate cessation of whining and, IF you get washed and ready for bed – you can sit up a while longer since it’s a Friday and a birthday.”
Hannibal is smart enough to see this is the best offer he will get. There IS ‘an immediate cessation of whining’. He and Jed pump water, get washed and dried and scamper up the loft ladder. They re-appear in less than two minutes in their nightshirts. I warm a little milk and offer hot chocolate.
“Hannibal, ” says Alex, opening and closing the cover of ‘Moby Dick’, “…this is something I’ve wanted to read for years. When you’re done – may I borrow it? If I promise to be careful.”
“Sure,” says Hannibal. “You can…” He stops. He does not want to say, ‘You can borrow it now.’ He is reluctant to admit it is too hard for him. I understand because – well – I know the feeling, huh?
“Thanks, son,” says Alex. “Your mother always shared her birthday books with me. In fact…we usually read the ones your Grandmother sent out loud. Taking turns.”
He leaves it at that. It works. Hannibal is clearly thinking.
Then, “We can do that too, if’n you’d like?” he offers, kindly.
“I’d like that VERY much,” says Alex, “…If you’re sure?”
“I don’t mind it takin’ a bit longer,” Hannibal’s tone indicates the sacrifice he is making for his Pa. “Wanna start now?”
“I think that’s up to Jed,” demurs Alex. “Jed?”
“Is this Han’s new book all ‘bout huntin’ whales. Jus’ like swall’erd Jonah? Only bigger an’ fiercer? With razor sharp teeth? An’ – an’ the Injuns?”
Alex looks a little confused at the second half. Hannibal must have been working from pictures and imagination only, down at the creek. But, there WAS one illustration that might have been an Indian, so Alex nods.
“Sure!” agrees Jed. He settles himself, with his mug of chocolate on one arm of Alex’s chair and prepares for ‘a story’. Hannibal fetches the book and settles on the other arm. They have done this before. They must have done it many times before. Before I was here.
Alex settles between them. For the third time Hannibal opens his new treasure. A small finger runs along the page. With great importance, he clears his throat and reads…”Call me…” He stops. With the greatest kindness, as if it has just occurred to him, he makes a generous gesture, “Would YOU like to go first, Pa?”
“Thank you, Hannibal,” smiles Alex, taking the book. “Call me, Ishmael…”
It is much easier to follow when Alex reads, than when I read it myself. Of course, we do not get far before the first question.
“It’s an organ in your body… like the heart is an organ,” says Alex. “I think it is – sort of – behind your stomach.”
“What’s it for?”
“Honestly, son, I’ve no idea,” smiles Alex. “Let’s ask Doctor Wallace, after church on Sunday, I reckon he might help, huh?”
“OK,” agrees Hannibal, not entirely satisfied to wait, but accepting a Doctor MIGHT just know more about spleens than his Pa.
“Ishmael doesn’t mean there is anything REALLY wrong with his spleen,” explains Alex. “People used to think the spleen affected your temper. So, he just means he feels bad-tempered and restless. Do you see?”
“Uh huh,” absorbs Hannibal. “Go on.”
We do not even get to the end of the sentence before we stop again.
“I think he means his glands…but I’m not real sure. Another one for Doctor Wallace. But, it’s just him saying he feels all riled up. Alright?”
We get a little further, then, another question is dealt with. Alex knows this one.
“He means Cato the Younger. He lived at the same time as Julius Caesar – you’ve heard of him, huh?”
“Well – Romans did not believe it was wrong to kill yourself. They believed it was sometimes the best thing to do. ‘Death before dishonour’, do you see? They called it ‘falling on their swords’, like it says here, because they stabbed themselves.”
“With a sword?” This time it is Jed who asks.
“Uh huh,” confirms Alex.
“Did they plunge it into their hearts?” This topic has got both boys’ attention.
“No – it was traditional to stab yourself in the stomach. Anyhow, Cato the younger could not bear to see the republic ending and Caesar becoming emperor. He stabbed himself. BUT, his hand was injured – so he didn’t make a good job of it. He was found and a Doctor called to stitch him back up…”
“STITCH him?” Jed again.
“Yup! Doctors have always stitched wounds, Jed. Still do.”
“Jus’ like – like that?” He points at the darning I am doing.
“Not much different,” confirms Alex, smiling at me.
“Sheesh!” Jed shakes his head and shudders.
“Well – Cato was determined NOT to give Caesar the satisfaction of capturing him. He tore off his bandages, then he ripped out the stitches – then…” Alex lowers his voice, ominously, “…he pulled out his own intestines!”
“ALEX!” I protest. However, two small, enthralled faces indicate I am the only one not relishing this.
I strongly suspect Alex skips good chunks of ‘Moby Dick’. Nevertheless, the constant questions mean pages turn very slowly! The promised extra hour is more than half over. We are in New Bedford.
“Where’s New Bedford?”
“It’s on the coast of Massachusetts. It’s real famous for whaling …”
“YOU’RE from there, huh, Pa?” exults Hannibal.
“I was raised in Massachusetts, sure. Not New Bedf…”
“You’ve seen the sea, huh? You’ve SWUM in the sea, huh, Pa?”
“MY Pa…” interrupts Jed, keen to share. “HE’S seen the sea. When he em’grated! He’s seen – lotsa sea!”
“Much more than me!” agrees Alex, cheerfully. “Your father crossed the mighty Atlantic ocean, Jed. So did your mother.”
“Uh huh!” nods Jed, wriggling his toes happily. “She – she don’ talk ‘bout it so much, Mister Heyes,” he confides. “Pa likes to tell us ‘bout – dear ol’ Irelan’.”
“Really?” Alex marvels. He catches my gaze and I see laughter in his dark eyes. The hint of a brogue. “Sure, and it’s a grand, green country to live out of!”
We press on with ‘Moby Dick’. No! We do NOT press on with ‘Moby Dick’. First, Hannibal, asks if whales, which he now describes as ‘portentous and mysterious monsters’ live in the mighty Atlantic? Yes, apparently. Then Alex is asked if Mr. Curry SAW any whales when he emigrated? Alex does not remember hearing of it. He suggests this is added to Hannibal’s list of things to find out.
NOW – now we press on with ‘Moby Dick’. Alex, I am sure, is still skipping passages unlikely to appeal to the boys. They listen, wide-eyed, as we hear about,
‘…a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair…’
I look at the few pages under Alex’s left hand and the many under his right. At this pace it will last at least until Christmas! Still, Alex is happy, Hannibal is happy – so, I am happy too. Indeed, as Ishmael settles down to supper at ‘The Spouter’, I begin to get caught up in the story. Perhaps, even though I have never seen it, I feel ‘the lure of the sea’, huh?
Saturday 18th September 1858.
I see very little of Hannibal and Jed once morning chores and breakfast are over. Alex spends most of the morning doing running repairs on the cabin roof. From his perch on the ridgepole he reports two small figures down by the creek, with what appear to be makeshift harpoons. In the afternoon, Alex turns his attention to any gaps in our chinking before the weather starts to turn. Two empty lunch pails are returned. I had happily said yes to a request (from Jed, though I suspect prompted by Hannibal) for ‘a picnic’.
“That was real nice, ma-am,” says Jed. “Thank you.”
“Jed likes that stuff you makes with apples in. Kinda like pie – only not,” says Hannibal. “If’n you wanted to make it again, when he comes – that’d be OK.” This READS more off-hand than it sounds. I accept it as Hannibal being nice, WITHOUT having to suggest baking – which his own mother struggled with – matters to HIM.
The boys help Alex with chinking, a nice messy job, until it is time for Jed to be taken home. Conversation drifts in. Topics range from how long you could REALLY live in a whale’s belly to the probable method of shrinking heads. The last thing we heard before ‘bedtime’ was that the harpooner awaited at ‘The Spouter’ had heads to sell! Fastened together like strings of onions!
That evening, after supper, Hannibal kindly lets Alex take HIS turn at reading. Possibly progress is a touch faster with a single small boy asking questions. Only a touch. After all – the single boy IS Hannibal!
I settle, this time with my knitting, to listen. We hear a little about Ishmael when he was a child. Apparently he tried to climb up the chimney. My eyes immediately go to our chimney and I see the same concern strike Alex. I do not think a small body could squeeze past the flue of the stove.
“…I had been cutting up some caper or other – I think it was trying to crawl up the chimney, as I had seen a little sweep do a few days previous; and my stepmother…”
“HE has a stepmother too?” blurts Hannibal. “Like me?”
“… who, somehow or other, was all the time whipping me, or sending me to bed supperless…” finishes Alex.
He smiles over. “Doesn’t sound MUCH like Louisa, huh, son? She’ll have to try harder! Take notes, Gorgeous! Hannibal wants you to play your part correctly. Lots of whipping and no supper! Got that?”
I guess I look confused. Hannibal glances over too. “He’s only teasin’,” he explains. “Just joshin’!”
“Oh! I guess I still hafta make supper tomorrow then?” I smile.
He smiles back. Then, to Alex, “Go on.”
He does go on. Hannibal is fascinated by Queequeg. After a while, even the questions die down, as Alex’s deep voice describes the harpooner
“…he continued the business of undressing, and at last showed his chest and arms. As I live, these covered parts of him were chequered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same dark squares …Still more, his very legs were marked, as if a parcel of dark green frogs were running up the trunks of young palms… A peddler of heads too – perhaps the heads of his own brothers. He might take a fancy to mine – heavens! Look at that tomahawk!
…For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal…The counterpane was of patchwork… and this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth of a figure … this same arm of his, I say, looked for all the world like a strip of that same patchwork quilt…”
The dark eyes sparkle and behind them – a young mind is clearly drinking in details of someone so – so delightfully different to anyone he has ever seen in real life.
Sunday 19th September 1858
I listen to Mama lecture me about Hannibal whispering in church. I nod. I do not answer back. At least Alex cannot hear. He is way over there with Hannibal, talking to Doctor Wallace. Not that Alex thinks talking in church is alright. Just… Well… You know! Hannibal is hardly the ONLY child who finds the service a long time to sit still and quiet! Alex once told me he is sure Reverend Thomas agrees a constant buzz of parental nagging, hissing, snapping and slapping spoils the service more than children being children. Even if Hannibal HAD behaved badly – which he did not… Sure, we had a delay before Reverend Thomas could reach the front and start. He got pretty thoroughly questioned over Jonah and the whale. But, that is not BAD behaviour! Anyhow, what I was about to say is …Even if Hannibal HAD behaved badly – it is not exactly my mother’s business, is it? I do not SAY that of course.
I look over to Alex. He and Hannibal frown in concentration, hands on hips and nod – in unison – at whatever Doctor Wallace is explaining. They look SO alike! Jed Curry has joined them. He too stands, hands on hips, nodding. He watches and nods a second or so after Hannibal. I grin. He is SO sweet. There is just enough of an age gap for him still to think Hannibal knows pretty much everything! It will wear off! Kurt went through a phase of copying Thomas around the same age. Another year or two and I reckon Hannibal will start to find Jed argue back a good bit more!
“Louisa!” snaps my mother, “…Are you listenin’?”
“Yes, ma-am!” I say, not entirely truthfully.
“You should take a firm hand! That boy was spoiled rotten by his mother! An’ it’s about time he learned manners! If’n you don’t make him realise NOW things are gonna change now you’re his new Mama…”
I wriggle, uncomfortably. “Alex don’t want me to try an’ be his…”
She cuts me off short. “You know I’m right, Louisa!” Mama interrupts me. “And, another thing…”
I do not find out what the other thing is. We are interrupted by Hannibal and Jed running over.
At a nudge from Hannibal, Jed pipes up. “If’n you please, ma-am, can I come for lunch? Mister Heyes says we gotta ask you – an’ we gotta ask my Ma. But if’n you say ‘yes’ – he guesses he can put up with me. An’ my Ma – she won’ mind!”
I do my best not to hear the loud, disapproving sniff from Mama.
After lunch is eaten and washed up, Alex gathers a few tools and wanders off to mend the North fence. I take Godey’s Ladies’ Book out in the fresh air to read. Really, I spend more time pottering around my kitchen garden, herbs and flowerpots. I see Hannibal run in and out of the cabin at one point, but do not take much notice. When I go back inside I see several hours have passed. I fill a pitcher with cool milk, wrap a few cookies and set off to give the boys an afternoon snack. They are not down by the creek. Perhaps they went after Alex? However, as I walk past I see a shadow move in the open barn.
“Boys,” I call, walking in. “D’you want some…” I stop. Sometimes, in books, it says – ‘his eyes started from their sockets’. I reckon that is what my eyes do. “For Pete’s sake,” I yelp. “What d’you think you’re DOIN’?”
Their clothes are neatly folded into a pile. They are stripped to under-drawers. Hannibal is standing on an upturned bucket. Behind him, a cross-legged Jed is in the act of withdrawing a finger from one of two open bottles of ink. From the look of it, all twenty fingers have been in and out of the ink dozens of times. One of Hannibal’s legs is already covered in swirls and circles and dots. The other is – half done. His back is – chequered. As he turns, I see his chest and… Oh no! Please, no! His face is spotted and swirled too! Young Jed is…Oh, heavens! He is PLASTERED in ink patterns!
“We’re tattooing, ma-am,” Jed answers me. His smile is white amongst all that – black chequer-work around his mouth. Cheerfully, he carries on, “I’m doin’ …” he works himself up for a big word, “…creachin’ lab’rins.”
“Cretan lab’rynths,” corrects Hannibal.
“TATTOOING!” I shriek. “Jed Curry! Look at yourself! What will your Ma say? What am I gonna tell her?”
Jed looks down at himself. Clearly he does not quite see my problem. However, he is a very polite little boy, so he says, “Sorry, ma-am.”
“Sorry? SORRY? I can’t let you go home like that! As for you, Hannibal Heyes…”
“Don’t see no need to fuss like a…” he starts to protest.
“Fuss! FUSS! I’ll give you FUSS! LOOK at you! What’ll your Pa say?” By now I have their clothes under one arm and am hustling both boys to the pump. Maybe, just maybe, I can get them cleaned up before Alex even sees. “You’ve got school tomorrow…” Another thought strikes me. “…School! What will Caroline – I mean Miss Field – say?”
I hold one of Jed’s arms under the gushing pump.
“Ma-am. Please! Ma-am!” he says. Blue eyes blink up at me, from inside swirling black circles drawn round them. “You’re rubbin’ too hard, ma-am!”
“Sorry, Jed,” I apologise. The cold water has practically no effect. The ink is well dried in! I breath deeply. “Let’s get these buckets filled…” I decide. “…an’ bring ‘em straight inside.”
I fill both kettles and all the biggest pans. Every inch of the stove is filled with water set to boil.
The hipbath is lifted down. Soap and towels are put ready. I keep both boys trotting back and forth to refill bucket after bucket. This is no problem as, truth to tell, they both enjoy working the pump and splashing water around in the sunshine.
Finally, I have a bathful of hot water.
“Get in both of you,” I say. Jed wriggles and looks reluctant. But, as soon as I say firmly, “NOW!” he steps out of his drawers and does as he is told. I hand him a bar of soap and a washcloth and tell him to start scrubbing. I make a start lathering up his back. “Hurry up, Hannibal!” I prompt. “While it’s hot!”
“I’m not takin’ a bath with YOU gawpin’!” he protests.
I push back a strand of hair from my hot face. I am so busy worrying about getting the ink off them, for once, I forget to worry about making Hannibal like me.
“Pfffttt! As if I care!” I shoot back. “Get in! NOW!”
“Hannibal Heyes, if you don’t get undressed and into this bath – I shall strip you and throw you in, myself!” He looks mutinous. I stand up and push my sleeves a little higher. “I warn you! I’ve done it to Kurt, so I’m certain sure I can do it to you!”
It is at this point the door opens and Alex walks in. His eyes widen in surprise, but I reckon he pretty much sums up the situation.
“PA!” appeals Hannibal. “I don’t hafta…?”
“It don’t matter WHAT your Pa says!” I cut him off, hands on my hips. “One way or another you’re getting in that bath on the count of three! One!”
“I reckon that pretty much told us both, son,” says Alex. “I’m sure not going to argue!”
“Two!” I say, advancing on Hannibal.
“T‘isn‘t FAIR! PA!!”
Hannibal scoots over to the bath, turns his back to step out of his drawers and climbs in.
Jed hands him the cloth and a bar of soap. He starts to lather his chest. He shoots a fierce scowl at me. But, though he is clearly cross as two sticks, it is just – ordinary small boy cross, if you know what I mean?
“Wise choice, Queequeg,” approves Alex.
“Oh Alex!” I say. “It’s not comin’ off! What’ll Mrs. Curry say?”
“Elizabeth knows these things happen,” he soothes. “And…” He looks into the bath and begins to roll up his sleeves. “It IS coming off. That water is blue!” He gives me an encouraging smile. “I’ll get a few more gallons boiling – we’ll fill the big laundry copper, huh? They can have a second bath in that… Never mind blowing bubbles, Jed! Keep soaping!… Whatever is left after that, will just have to wear off!”
Alex strides off to pump more water.
“Try an’ get some of it off your face, Hannibal,” I say, more mildly now. Alex is right. Some of it IS coming off. ALL of it will wear off, eventually.
“You know what you said – ‘bout throwin’ Kurt into a bath?” asks Hannibal. “Was that true?”
However cross I made Hannibal – I reckon I just went up a notch in his estimation!
I grin, but bite my lip. “You ain’t to say nothin’,” I say. “I shouldn’t have said. It ain’t really fair to tell tales, huh?”
Hannibal soaps up and ducks his face. A second later his head comes up and Jed is ‘spouted’ at! Jed retaliates. Water arcs through the air. Jed gets Hannibal dead centre between the eyes! Splashing breaks out. And giggling. As long as the water hits something – inky – I do not care. More giggling. Squealing. Splashing. I cannot resist – I join in! A five-year-old hand sloshes water all over me. My hair is drenched.
“Sorry, ma-am!” says Jed. “It wasn’ on purpose!”
I gasp and blink and have to laugh. Hannibal laughs too. But WITH me, not AT me
“Never mind,” he grins, “worse things happen at sea!”