Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Johnny Knockers (by Stefan Bachmann)

The Misselkree was nineteen days at sea when Johnny Knockers came aboard. 

The crew had just dragged up the little black whale, had sliced it open head to fluke, and then there he was, lying among the red, red ropes and glistening offal of the creature's belly.

He was little more than bones. His skin had been bleached white by the stomach liquids, and all his hair had fallen out. He lay still as could be, staring up through the bloody cleft. Every few seconds he breathed, a quick, shallow breath.

Hooks and paring blades clattered to the deck. The whalers jerked back, growling into their beards, wiping the blood off on their rough woolen sweaters.

“He's been swallowed,” one of them hissed. “Swallowed alive, like in 'em old stories.”

“Is he breathing? Oh, crikey, he's breathing. . .”

“Let's throw 'im back,” Eli, the cabin boy, suggested, but they were a thousand leagues from the nearest lighthouse, a hundred fathoms above the nearest ship. It would have been murder. Murder was unlucky.

So they kept him.

He had forgotten how to walk, but they lifted him from the whale's carcass and brought him below-deck. He was slippery as a fish, all knobby, slimy elbows and legs.

They propped him up by the iron cook-stove and fed him broth with arsenic and whiskey. At first the broth dribbled down his chin. Then he swallowed, and all the sailors that had gathered around him let up a shout.

They tried to teach him how to stand and how to speak. They asked him tricky questions to see if he might be a whaler like them. None of it worked.

“Well, we suppose we'll call you Johnny Knockers,” they said. “Because those knees knocks like a drum.” And then they all laughed.

That night, the clouds heaped against a stiff wind. Below deck, an air of anticipation had settled below-deck. Was Johnny Knockers a gift from the sea? Or a curse. . . They went to their bunks and left him, slouched on a bucket next to the cold stove.


Whaling was good the next day. The water chopped, deep and dark, and a fat whale was caught in the first hour of the watch, which was a rare thing and a lucky one. The men rolled up their chains and stowed the harpoons, and even the look-out was allowed to come in and sit the rest of the day out of the wind. Everyone was given an extra beaker of ale. Everyone except Eli. He was barely fourteen, and not a proper whaler, and so he was given the job of feeding Johnny Knockers.

Eli went over to the stove, scowling. He sat down on a bucket next to Johnny Knockers and began shoveling stew into the pale man's mouth so hard that the spoon clanked against his teeth. Johnny Knockers didn't protest, but he looked very sad. 

Eli stopped. He was such a piteous looking thing, Johnny Knockers was, so bony and haunted-looking.

Eli spooned slower. “All right,” he said, “I didn't mean it about throwing you back, yeh? We was afraid is all. You're a right frightening chap to look at.”

Johnny Knockers said nothing. But every time he swallowed, his throat clicked like a bird's, like there was a marble in his gullet.

Eli spooned the broth in silence. Then he said, “I don't suppose you'd tell where you came from? Where your home's at? D'you even remember?”

The whalers had tried to find out the first day. They had searched his garment (a shred of bleached cloth, stiff with salt) but all they had found was a long tooth on a leather cord, hanging around his neck, and black scribbles on one arm in some foreign writing. “What language is that?” they had asked, but he hadn't told them.

And he did not tell Eli. He did not look up. His pale blue eyes were fixed on the floor-planks, worn smooth and glimmering.

Eli listened to the whalers, merry in loud in the next room.

“I'm from Suffolk,” Eli said. “Suffolk by the Sea.”

Spoon, swallow, spoon, swallow.

“Have you been there? Don't worry if you haven't. It's a gloomy place. A nasty place, right up next to the water. Not as bad as this, though.”

Eli felt that Johnny Knockers agreed with him.


That night, a storm struck––a vicious, screaming storm, all lightning and waves and a white wind that rushed in the sails. A rope snapped. A barrel of whale blubber was lost, a part of a harpoon station went into the sea. But the men were fresh off the victory of the morning's catch, and so it was shrugged off as nothing.


Eli got the job of feeding Johnny Knockers again the next day. He grumbled in front of the whalers, which confused the cook, because that morning Eli had waited for everyone to leave and had begged him for the job.

Eli took the bowl of stew from the brig and sat down by Johnny Knockers.

Again he spooned for a while in silence. Then he said stoutly, “I'm not always going to be a whaler. In fact, not sure I like it much. Hauling all day, cutting and slicing, and shoveling. It's right horrid.” Then, with a furtive glance through into the dank brig, he said, “One day I want to be a shoemaker.”

Johnny Knockers said nothing, and Eli didn't mind. “I'm going back to Suffolk when I'm older and have got enough money. There's a girl there named Lizzie. I gave Liz a tin of taffy before I went, three years ago, and she gave me a ribbon.” His fingers unlooped a slip of cloth from one of his buttonholes. The weather had faded the blue to gray.

“What, d'you think o' that, Johnny Knockers? Sound like a plan? Sound like a good thing?”

Eli would have gone on, but then feet hammered the deck above. Shouts split the air. “Well, back to work,” he said, and left the remainder of the stew next to Johnny Knockers' feet. Eli did not see, but Johnny's eyes moved a bit as he turned to go, just a flick, and it made a sound inside his skull like a fingernail snagging.


Whaling had never been better, but no one spoke that night as they clambered into their bunks. Rations were going bad. Only twenty-four days at sea, and already food was spoiling.

That morning, a great big beast had been spotted going north, and all the whalers wanted the Misselkree to press on, despite there being nothing but rancid stew and tack to eat, and no fresh anything. They were becoming grumbly and lead-footed. The cook had found spiny crabs like spiders swarming the larder. But the whaling was so good, and so the whalers were convinced they were still on a streak of luck.

Still, they weren't sure of Johnny Knockers, and since no one would go near the bony figure by the stove, Eli had to feed him permanently. Which was all right with Eli.

He liked talking he had noticed. He liked telling someone things, whether he got any answer or not. In fact, it was almost better not getting answers. 

And so Eli talked. Even after the cook had gone to his hammock and the whalers were snoring in their bunks Eli murmured to Johnny Knockers in the dark, told him of Lizzie and how she was very poor and so was Eli, and how neither of them minded. He told of the house on the heath that he wanted to buy in a year or ten. Just a short jaunt from the town, Eli said, a short jaunt that a buggy and an old horse could manage nicely. And no more of the sea. No more fear of drowning, black waters creeping over pale faces, filling your nose, your lungs. You didn't drown on a dirt road. You didn't drown in a buggy.


The crabs had begun snapping at the men's toes as they slept. Barnacles were found on the inside of barrels, which was unheard of. But whales continued to be bountiful. They came steadily, one a day, at least, and they were becoming ever larger. Soon the Misselkree would be too full. It was a large whaler, and they had room for many barrels of blubber, but there was only so much space, only so many barrels.

“Perhaps it's him,” Crickets said one night to the other whalers, as he scraped a strange green fungus of his tack. “Johnny Knockers. Perhaps he's like a lure to them. To the whales.”

No one agreed at first, but slowly they came to realize: Johnny Knockers was very good luck indeed and whatever was happening around them had to be due to unfortunate weather and bad planning and a no-good blarsted tack-and-flour merchant back in Liverpool. Because yes, indeed, whaling had never been this good, whales never so foolish. And Johnny Knockers was a lure.

So they made him into one.

At the crack of dawn they took him from his place by the stove and dragged him onto the deck. A coil of rope was brought.

“Stop!” Eli yelled, when he saw what they were doing, but the whalers pushed him back. 

“Shut yer trap, boy. It's more blubber in the barrel, for you too.”

“I don't want any blubber, stop it!” he screamed, but they only clouted him and shoved him away from Johnny Knockers. Then they tied Johnny to the mast, tight so that he wouldn't flop about.

A whale came very soon. Its tale slid up out of the water. Then its head dipped up, very close to the ship. Johnny Knockers saw it. His eyes took on a sickly, desperate glaze. He began to strain, pushing against the ropes.

“Stop!” Eli cried again, but no one listened.

The whale approached. The pale man began to make croaking sounds, louder and louder, and then the first harpoon struck the whale in the water and the shriek that came from Johnny's throat was so ghastly that the sailors very nearly lost their grip on the whale. The beast began to struggle, suddenly, where before it had been calm. It thrashed and Johnny Knockers's did, too, his voice screeching up and up. The harpoons rained over the edge of the ship. For an instant the water was stained red.

When the whale was at last dead and they were scooping the pearly fat from under its ink-blue skin, Johnny Knockers stopped screaming. He went limp again. They dragged him below-deck, and Eli sat next to him, trying to feed him, because it was the only thing he knew to do, but Johnny didn't eat. He sat staring out into nothing, and Eli felt sure his eyes were full of hate.

The whalers went to their bunks, but not Eli. He stayed with Johnny.

The hours crept past. Eli began to doze. And then a hand crept forward and gripped Eli's arm. Johnny had not been in the water for days, but somehow his skin was still wet, slippery, as if the water were inside him, seeping out of his pores. The grip was so hard. Johnny's eyes were wide.

The cook woke at one point to empty the chamber pot and saw them silhouetted by the stove, the boy and the bone-thin Johnny Knockers. Later, when asked, he couldn't for the life of him remember later if it had been Eli whispering. . . or Johnny Knockers.

It was middle of the day, bright as a bell, when Eli came up on deck and wrapped his arms in chains and plunged into the sea. He sank like a stone before anyone could reach him, before anyone could even shout.
The whalers held a burial-at-sea. Ashes to ashes, brine to brine. The captain mumbled from the ship's damp and battered Bible. They had to shorten it a bit because a humpback had been sighted, so close by, floating calm as you like toward the Misselkree.


The hold was filled to bursting, barrel upon barrel of blubber, but there was still one corner left. One last corner with space for a few more barrels. The food was rotting, the men were sick, but it would only take one more whale.

They tied Johnny Knockers to the mast again, to speed things up. One last whale and they would turn keel to the sun and return home. Back to port, and ale-houses, and enough money to live at least until Christmas for those who drank, fairly well until June for those who didn't. The Misselkree's hold was very, very full indeed.

That day, a tiny whale came. Johnny Knockers did not thrash or scream this time. He looked at the whale, though. And just before it came within range of the men's harpoons, it turned and folded back into the ocean. The men cursed and shouted after it. They had been looking forward to the journey back. They dragged Johnny Knockers below and threw him to the floor.

A whale came not too long afterward. They killed it and filled their last barrels. They felt very pleased with themselves, very pleased as they vomited over the side of the ship.

That night, a whaler named Smithy died of dysentery. Several others were too sick even to move. But they were headed home now, headed to port and a year of comfort.

“What an expedition,” said Crickets. “What a lucky expedition.” And everyone agreed.


The whales came in the night. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, surrounding the ship. The night was black, the air still and cold, and the men barely stirred as the waves from the whale's fins began to pummel the ship. It started gently, became stronger. Then the whales struck, head-first on all sides of the ship, like hammers. Leaks sprang. A porthole burst, splashing Crickets in the face.

The men staggered from their bunks with weak shouts. They hobbled on deck in their nightclothes, lanterns swinging, tiny fireflies in a great black ocean. The whales struck again, again. The hull buckled. Men were thrown from their feet. And then the Misselkree split, right down the middle, with a deafening crack. She sank quickly––ten seconds and then she was gone––and all the little fireflies winked out.

But just before the last of it slipped under the waves, Johnny Knockers stepped off into the gurgling water. He did not sink. He did not swim. A whale's head rose up, a black monolith, blacker than the night. A deep, hollow sound echoed out of its belly. The whale opened its mouth and Johnny Knockers flopped in, curling into the dark and the red like a child into a womb.


Far away, a boy struggled up a rocky shore, dragging himself over the stones. He was paler than he had been, just bones. His hair was not as thick as a fortnight ago, and his eyes were somewhat sunken. A ribbon was looped through his buttonhole. Only the faintest threads showed that it had been blue once.

But he would live, years yet, forty, fifty, and he would find roads and travel them, to Lizzie and shoe-shops and houses on heaths.

Not the men on the Misselkree. They lay at the bottom of the sea in a boat full of blubber, and not all the luck in the world could have saved them. 

Neither had the whales.