SCRIMSHAW: JOEL TAGERT

Art by Peter Glanting, Boats

SCRIMSHAW
By Joel Tagert
Published Issue 076, April 2020

It was the day after what would come to be called the Black Squall of ’52 that Dan Jensen and his little crew puttered into the bay with a catch fit to burst the nets. “I only want three things in life: a good catch, a good beer, and a good woman,” he grinned as they began to sort and clean the fish. “I’ve got one out of three right here, so let’s get these done with and go find the other two.”

“Your good woman would have to be blind,” joked his eighteen-year-old brother, Arnie. “And with no nose, either, ’cause you smell like fish guts and bullshit.”

“Hell, women take one whiff, they go crazy for it. Call it the fisherman’s perfume.”

They all laughed, and got down to work. Mostly it was cod, but there was some curious bycatch too: two surprisingly large squids and a jellyfish they’d never seen before. “It’s the storm, eh, stirred it up,” commented Claude Chabot.

“Could be,” said Dan, and spied something that wasn’t a fish at all: a dirty yellow object, cracked and seamed with brown markings like tobacco stains, long as his hand. He picked it up, ready to throw it aside as driftwood, and paused. 

“What you got there?” asked Arnie. 

“Think it’s a whale tooth,” Dan said thoughtfully.

“Let me see.” Dan handed it over. “Huh. There’s carvings on it.”

They all gathered around for a look, each turning it over in their rough hands. “It’s a scrimshaw,” said Claude. “Probably a sperm whale tooth. Sailors used to carve little scenes in them, especially big sailing ships. I think this one’s a harbor.” 

Taking it back, Dan saw what he meant: the darker lines could be boathouses, or buildings, or masts; but it had obviously spent a long time in the sea. “Think it’s worth anything?”

Claude shrugged. “In that condition? I doubt it.” 

“Well, I’m going to keep it. Feel like it’s good luck, now.”

They went to Goodfellow’s later, up on Jelly Bean Hill, so called for the brightly painted exteriors of the Victorian buildings that lined Water Street. They ate plenty of chowder, drank like fish and staggered home sodden. Dan fell into bed expecting sleep to claim him immediately, but instead found himself dwelling on a graven image. 

He turned on the bedside lamp and reached for his bag. Drawing out the scrimshaw, he examined it again in the light, its irregular grooves begging to be traced with eye and fingertip. There was certainly a picture there: a town or city by the sea, or a harbor crowded with sails, or something else yet; but the ivory was mottled and darkly stained, the scene caliginous, as though obscured by fog or rain.

He went to a drawer, found a small, sharp knife he didn’t much use, and sitting back on the bed, turned the scrimshaw over and over in his hands. As he did, he noticed something else: the flesh of his left palm, the thick calluses of the knuckle pads, had a slight grayish tinge. He rubbed at the area, frowning, but it was probably just some engine oil or the like that had clung to the skin as he was working. He turned back to the scrimshaw, and thoughtfully traced a line with the knife point.

He kept it in his coat pocket the next morning when they went out (because hung over or not, fisherman set out when dawn was just a rumor), a bulky charm his hand would steal away to periodically. Overnight a steady rain had found its way to St. John’s. It was going to be a wet, cold morning, but if you weren’t willing to get wet, you had no place on the sea.

He went in the pickup to collect Arnie and Claude (they lived together in a run-down cottage on the north side of town). “Looking a bit yellow around the gills there, eh,” he said to Arnie, grinning. 

“Stomach’s all fucked up,” Arnie muttered.

“Ha! Your liver, more like it. Don’t worry, they say salt cures all ills. If you’re going to throw up, though, do it in Claude’s lap and not mine.”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” growled Claude. 

As it turned out, they made a short day of it anyway: not because they were hung over, but because the fish pushed eagerly into their nets like a crowd exploring a just-opened fairground. Dan laughed to see such a haul. Barely had the sun seeped a silver glow through the drizzle than they had to head back to the pier to unload, filling the back of the pickup to the brim. “This is the life, eh?”

Once they had distributed their catch between the local sellers and the packing plant, they headed up to Godfallows for a hearty lunch. In the rain Jellyfish Hill was drear, its blue-painted buildings like a street underwater. But nothing could cloud Dan’s good cheer as he dug into a bowl of squid soup. “Cheer up,” Dan urged, perhaps misunderstanding his younger brothers’ silence. “If this is how the rest of the season goes, it could be good for us. A year or two, we could buy a proper seiner.”

“A dream come true,” said Arnie sourly.

“Worse things than making money.”

“Money isn’t everything.” 

Claude stayed quiet, looking over his glasses, hands folded over his ample belly, having witnessed one too many of these family spats. “What, you too good to work the nets now?”

“I’m not too good for it. I’m just not interested in it.” 

“Interested.” Dan set down his beer. “Do you think that’s what this is? Some kind of fucking hobby? It’s a job. You do it to feed your family, including your mom, who you know needs you.” Their mother was in a long-term care facility, an expensive one.

“Yeah, I know.” And that was the end of it, as it always was.

That night Dan took out the scrimshaw and knife again. To his surprise he had found that the ivory beneath the stains did not grow lighter, but darker; perhaps it was some kind of wood after all, unless some whales had ebony teeth. His careful work had uncovered a harbor that reminded him strongly of St. John’s, though the waterfront buildings looked heavier, as though built from stone blocks and not wood and tile. The boats too were a little strange, with curving prows and hunched figures at the oars. But there was more to it, more details to uncover. 

All week they were awash in rain and fish. The bounty extended not just to them, but to every boat in the bay, and it looked like it would be a record season. Yet for all that the fishers were not boisterous, and the bars were half-empty; those who did go out cast uneasy looks in all directions.

Dan himself had such a moment, looking with puzzlement at the restaurant sign that Saturday: GODFLOWS, it said, as it always had, but the letters looked peculiar, as though written not in Roman script but in some neighboring alphabet. Jellyfish Crawl likewise looked as it always had, with the smell of burned cuttlefish bones wafting down from the temple of Agat Dul. But he could not shake the feeling of unease.

Claude was waiting at the table, his greenish skin glistening under the hanging lamp. “Where’s Arnie?” Dan asked.

Claude shook his head. “Said he wasn’t feeling good. Honestly I’m kind of worried about him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s really sick. Wouldn’t get out of bed at all. Just hiding under the covers all day.”

“Huh. Well, let’s go.”

“Go where?”

“To check on him.” Dan stood, throwing the last of the live shrimp he’d been eating into his mouth, crunching the shells loudly. 

“I just got my food,” Claude protested, his inner eyelids nictitating visibly under the hanging lamp. 

He used to wear glasses, Dan thought, and then tried hard to ignore the thought. Claude had always looked like this; his neck pouches had always flared when he spoke. “Stay and finish, then.” 

As he left the building, walking toward his truck, he heard a desperate howl from up the cobbled street. There crouched the temple, with its statues of the writhing god, maw like a whirlpool of teeth. Up its steps were flowing the town’s citizens, their backs hunched, their webbed feet flapping wetly on the stone. He shuddered, and hurriedly got into his vehicle.

The temple had always been there, he told himself as he drove. They had always made sacrifices. It was the way of St. Crohn’s.

By the time he reached Arnie’s cottage his heart was flitting around his chest uneasily and he had the start of a migraine. He was extremely agitated, near panic, especially when he looked at his own hands and arms, covered with silver scales. He tried not to look at himself in the rearview mirror, failed, and wanted to throw up at what he saw. 

No one came to the door when he knocked. He tried again, loudly, and yelled his brother’s name. Finally he stepped back and broke the door open with a kick.

 The cottage felt damp, mildewy. “Arnie? You here?” He opened the bedroom door and flipped the wall switch.

Arnie was there, or whatever it was he had changed into. He lay propped against the headboard with a variety of pillows. A briny stink inundated the small, closed room, and the blankets and sheets looked wet.

His flesh seemed to have turned transparent and begun to sag. Dan could see the movement of half-glimpsed eyes, clots of fatty brain, the tongue swollen and pushing from lips like jelly. A whitish heart still pumped behind rapidly liquifying ribs, and inside his belly something or things twisted ceaselessly. “What happened to you?”

“Not just me,” his brother panted. “All of us. You too.”

“I’m just like I always was,” Dan insisted.

Arnie laughed weakly. “You look barely human.” Clearly he was having trouble speaking, voice a whisper. “It’s the scrimshaw.”

“I’m going to take you to a hospital.” He stepped forward and reached for his brother’s arm, intending to lift him up. Arnie groaned, and wet fluid splashed on Dan’s shoes. He stepped back, shocked. 

Arnie’s stomach had ruptured like a water balloon, spilling a huge mass of half-translucent worms across the bed and wood floor. As Dan edged toward the door, eyes wide as a giant squid’s, he watched the rest of his brother’s body dissolve into itself, forming a glutinous mass unrecognizable as an animal, much less as his brother; yet it was clearly not yet dead, either. Dan fled.

He drove, blind with tears. When he stopped he realized he was at the pier.

He started up the skiff and puttered out into the waves and the rain. He kept going until he was well out of the bay, over deep water. 

There, working by the gibbous moon, he placed the scrimshaw into a small sack along with a heavy toolbox. He lifted the sack with one silver-scaled hand, intending to cast it far out in the deep water.

But he hesitated. Getting rid of the scrimshaw might not return things to how they had been. What if it even made it worse, somehow? Grimly, he untied the sack and examine the tooth once again.

But he saw it now in literally a different light: the light of the moon, which limned new lines on the thickly worked surface, the ivory even seeming to possess new colors, iridescent greens and blues. He worked all night.

He finished near dawn. The tooth’s shape had been fundamentally altered, material removed from point and base until it was nearly ovoid. On its surface was engraved a scene of great beauty: sunlight falling on the temple of a primeval sea deity, its irregularly shaped parishioners gathering on its tiered steps all the way down to the waves. One of them, carved with exquisite intention, was his brother, who looked now to be something fluid and full of light. As dawn broke he looked expectantly toward the shore.

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