Contemporary Author of Fiction
The Loss of the Whaling Ship Pequod
Marie Greenaway sat at her office desk on a beautiful September morning, rereading emails congratulating her for winning the Starbuck Prize for distinguished scholarship on Herman Melville. But her pleasure was erased when news flashed across the screen—the woman who’d opposed the President in the last election had been arrested for treason, along with other prominent members of the opposition party.
Marie felt nauseated. Of course, the President had been threatening to do this—he made a lot of threats—but the news was stunning. Was it no longer safe to criticize him? Those poor people, Marie thought. But what could I do about it? A tenured professor of American Literature.
“Hey, Doctor Greenaway,” voices called from the hall.
David Delavan and Jacob Sutton, students in her Melville class, scuffed and slouched through the doorway, settling their long bodies onto two chairs, making the room smaller.
“Do you have a sec?” David said.
Marie was five minutes late for the monthly departmental meeting and was happy to have an excuse not to go.
Jacob was from Philadelphia, fire rimmed his eyes and his hands were large and expressive. He seemed desperate to learn everything, all at once, as if opportunity might be snatched away. David was from Chicago, on scholarship. He was also a Dreamer, his parents having come illegally from Mexico. The opaque logic of the university had made the young men roommates—Jacob said it was no accident they put the two dark-skinned dudes together.
She took down three mugs from the shelf on her desk. “Peppermint okay?”
David leaned forward, his chair creaking. “Dr. Greenaway, we heard the University was going to cooperate with Immigration to deport all the Dreamers.”
“You know what’s going on?” Jacob said.
Marie set down the mugs. “No, I haven’t heard anything new. We had a meeting in the spring. The University’s plan was to shelter Dreamers if need be.”
“If I got deported, I don’t know what I’d do,” David said. “I don’t know anyone in Mexico. My family’s all in Chicago.”
David’s voice broke, but Jacob maintained an angry scowl.
“I’m sure the University would protect you if…anything changed,” Marie said. But was that even true? For months, Marie had tried to ignore what was going on in the country, focusing on her work. But now the problems were creeping onto Campus. Her students argued, not about issues and ideas, but about grades. They didn’t want to examine texts from many perspectives; they wanted the one, correct interpretation—or none at all. An on-campus evangelical club had quadrupled in size. And now these arrests.
She picked at a loose thread on her skirt; she knew it would unravel but couldn’t stop.
“It’s scary to be threatened by the government,” Jacob said.
David stared at his unlaced sneakers.
“I’ll see what I can find out,” Marie said, already imagining the futility of trying to unlock the University’s dark secrets. She needed a harpoon with a bright head, thrown true to hit the mark. Like Queequeg proving his worth.
~ ~ ~
Marie was forty-eight, an attractive person who liked to get her hair colored, wear skirts and heels. For twenty years, she’d struggled between the demands of her career and those of being a wife and mother. She’d divorced and seen her youngest off to join his sister on the West Coast but discovered that the time for herself, the time she’d longed for, turned out to be full of memories and regret, a season in solitary spent dreaming of connection. But the fruit of it was a book—“Pudding Heads and Wooden Legs: Meaning and the Carpenter of the Pequod”—acclaimed as a triumph of scholarship.
Herman Melville, her great, dead love. To Marie, “Moby Dick” was an ocean shining with traces of Melville’s search for identity, his fight to define himself as an individual living in a repressive society. A deeper ocean of meaning, set beside a real one. The tragedy of his life, the way his grand achievements were neglected till after his death, held a fascination for her.
Once David and Jacob left, she called Doug Hoffman, the Provost, and he agreed to meet her in his office. It was lunchtime, but he wasn’t eating. “Congratulations on the Starbuck Prize, Marie.”
“Did you hear about the arrests?”
“Yes, pretty shocking. Didn’t see you at the department meeting this morning.”
“You were there?”
“New curriculum guidelines. I was trying to make them clear. A thankless task, believe me.”
“Uh—Dasha can explain them to you. For now, just be careful what you say. Whitman’s being gay, for instance. Why not just ignore it? I mean, at this point, I’m not sure it’s relevant. And Melville—emphasize the positive. It doesn’t matter who he was. Talk about the plots, the structure of his books.”
“That’s not teaching.”
“All the kids want to know about those guys is that they were…patriots. Melville was a…a…an adventurous man. A sailor. At heart.”
“Really, Doug? A sailor?”
“Dasha will explain. What did you want to see me about?”
“Is there something going on with the Dreamers? Some of my students are asking.”
For a moment, she could see his shoulders tense within his sport coat, his jaw flex. He looked angry, trapped. Then he frowned at his desktop and aligned a pile of papers. “Dreamers? I guess there are still a few on campus. Most of them have left—gone back home.” He lifted a manila folder stuffed with dog-eared papers and set it back down.
Marie struggled to keep her voice in the steady, serious tone she’d learned to adopt with male colleagues. “This is a public University. We’ve always prided ourselves on being independent from the government.”
“Well, we’re dependent on government funding. That’s the reality. We have to maintain our funding And now, with the arrests, things are changing. I’d recommend not getting mixed up in some kind of protest movement.”
The back of the chair set before the heavy desk pinched Marie’s long braid, and she leaned forward to free it, trying to eat one half of a cheese sandwich while balancing the other across her knee. Ten years ago, when Doug had been a colleague, he’d blurted out he was in love with her, but she’d been too busy, too married. Now, even though her situation had changed, neither of them referred to the past. “You look tired,” she said in a softer voice.
Doug sighed. “Busy. A lot of hours.”
“Want half of my sandwich?”
“No. Thank you.”
“One of my students told me he’d heard a rumor that the University was going to cooperate with Immigration to round up the Dreamers. Deport them.”
The analog clock on the wall marked each second with a soft, artificial click. “There have been…inquiries from the government,: Doug said, looking at her over the top of his glasses. His eyes, which often seemed to be appealing for pity, were hard points—an expression she’d never seen before. She crossed her legs the other way, grabbing at the sandwich.
“But the University—we’d never cooperate with that sort of thing…”
“There’s nothing official, no. Unofficially, tell your student, it might be a good time to take a break from school. Till this blows over. And then like I said, you should forget about it.”
“Then it’s true?”
He continued to stare, his face grim, but his gaze seemed to lose focus. He fussed with a pen, not meeting her eyes. “It’s the times we live in.” He threw the pen onto the desk. “A lot of pressure’s coming down. Don’t rock the boat.”
~ ~ ~
The first thing Marie did after leaving Doug’s office was to text David, but when she didn’t hear back, she decided to find Dasha Novak, the chair of the English department. Dasha’s secretary said she was out to lunch. Marie set course for the Faculty Lounge, a refuge against Provosts and Presidents, figuring Dasha would be there.
Before one of the mullioned windows, Dasha and Will Green sat together, an unlikely couple. Dasha was shy and soft-spoken, someone who’d come to the States for college and never left. Will was an expert on Hawthorne and Poe, a big, blustery man with outsize eyebrows left untrimmed. He and Dasha made room for her after a flat round of greetings. Marie realized her companions were staring at their empty glasses as if they’d been beaten—or were about to be. She ordered a vodka martini.
“This news about the arrests,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”
“There’s got to be a trial,” Will said. “Then they’ll be released. They can’t hold them forever.” The three of them all nodded, but Marie wasn’t so sure.
“So, I heard there are new curriculum guidelines?”
Dasha sighed. “Marie, it’s awful.”
“An outrage,” Will said. “Hey! Where’s that waitress? More wine over here, please. Red—is red okay? You want some, Marie? Bring a carafe.”
“I just ordered a drink. What’s the deal with the guidelines?”
“Hoffman was at the meeting,” Will said. “Dasha’s pretty upset.”
“So are you,” Dasha said. She seemed to be struggling for breath. “Basically, we can’t teach anymore.”
“Dammed Nazis,” Will said. The waitress set down the martini, the wine, and another glass, and Will poured. “I’ve got a lecture in an hour, but what the heck. I could give it in my sleep, and anyway, now I’m supposed to just teach the facts.” He hooked his fingers into quotation marks and took a long drink.
Dasha’s gray hair had escaped its pins. “It really is like Europe in the twenties and thirties: universities under attack. A crime to be intelligent. What’s next? Stormtroopers burning our books?”
“We’re whores!” Will rumbled. “We used to have backbones. If we’d all just say no!” His face reddened.
“Keep your voice down,” Dasha said. “The idea is, we’re supposed to teach the canon of American literature, the plots and themes of the major books.” She took a memo from her bag and held it up. “Pluralism seems to be the problem. It says, and I quote, “The American educational system—particularly the universities—has become obsessed with pluralism. Like a cancer, an entrenched agenda of questioning core American values has poisoned the minds of impressionable youth. It is recommended that the teaching of American history and culture in all public institutions be immediately changed to reflect the unique and exceptional American tradition, including the primacy of the Christian faith. Guidelines will be posted. Faculty at state universities are directed to submit their course plans and lectures for review by the newly formed Committee on American Schools.” Dasha looked up. “End-quote.”
“We have to get our lectures approved?” Marie took a breath. “The primacy of the Christian faith—at a public institution?”
“Doug said there’d be a system, but it wouldn’t be set up till the new year. This term, we should all just try to tread water—that’s what he said.”
“What does that mean?”
“If we don’t play along, we’ll lose our funding. Be asked to retire, is what I’m guessing.” Will drank off one glass and poured another. “But you’ll be okay. Hoffman has a thing for you.”
“Don’t get mad. It’s no secret you’re his favorite.”
She rolled her eyes. “None of this makes sense. I should be happy. I’ve just won the Starbuck Prize.”
“That’s great,” Will said in a softer tone. “For the Pudding Head book? Fantastic, well-earned. What do you get?”
“Some money, and I’ll give the keynote address at the Melville conference in Providence next year.”
“Hope it’s not cancelled. What I meant was, Hoffman will make it easier for you to stay. If that’s what you want.”
“Staying? I’ve got no choice. A mortgage, two kids in college.”
“Well, I won’t do it,” Dasha said. “I’ll resign. I’m going to be deported anyway.”
“But you’ve been here thirty years!”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll…be okay. Let’s talk about happier things. You must be so happy about the Starbuck.”
Marie stared at her. A respected, tenured professor worried about deportation? The pleasure of winning the Starbuck Prize was fading like the lights of a harbor seen from a ship putting out to sea. She touched Dasha’s arm. “I’m sorry.”
~ ~ ~
Back at her office, Marie texted David saying she needed to speak with him, but again he didn’t reply.
That night, she made some decisions. With both kids in San Francisco, she could put the house up for sale, leave at the end of the current term, and join them. If you were a citizen and had no criminal record, you were still supposed to be able to buy plane tickets. The West Coast states were in defiance of the government decrees and raising their own revenues, Maybe she could find a teaching position; maybe the students there would be more open to what she could offer. But first she had to get through the current term. Don’t rock the boat, Doug had said. Tread water.
Just pretend everything’s okay, she told herself.
The next day, like a sailor taking the wheel, Marie held the lectern with both hands. She spotted Jacob but not David. It was her Melville class, and pluralism was out—that was the new order. She took a swig of spring water from the thermos. Most of the students regarded her with glazed eyes and open mouths, like handsome sheep.
If they want facts, she’d give them facts. She pressed the record button to start the video system that filmed all the lectures, and waited for the red light on the camera to stop flashing.
“All right, everyone. Today’s lecture—if you’ve been paying attention—is on Moby Dick. The great white whale. We’ve been talking about some of the symbolism in the book, and—of course, debate about that is—ongoing. Today, let’s back up a bit and talk about the…whaling industry. The American whaling industry. And about whales. A lot about whales. How…big they are.”
The whole class seemed to sit straighter, staring at her; the silence was broken by a single sneeze. A girl in the front row began to thumb at her phone.
“This is a story that can be read on different levels, of course. But at heart, it’s about brave men defying the sea and its monstrous creatures to find glory.”
A hand rose—Jacob Sutton.
“Dr. Greenaway, hold up. The whale destroys them, so what does that say?”
Even though she never wrote on the blackboard, rolling a piece of chalk in her right palm was a comforting gesture. “Ah, a good question. Any thoughts?”
One of the boys took up the question: Melville meant us to understand that the whale would be destroyed. Ishmael was spared so that he could lead a fresh expedition back the next year to hunt and kill Moby Dick, and this affirmed what Marie had just said. The whale was Satan and would be annihilated. “Ishmael testified. It’s like he told the story.”
Several students nodded their assent, and a few murmured amens.
“Well.” Marie tried for a bright smile. Jacob was typing with intense concentration. “What you’ve just said—is it Jeremiah?—what you’ve said is very interesting because—” She walked around in front of the lectern, knowing she should let well alone, but she couldn’t stop herself. “It’s a theory—that Moby Dick represents Satan. It could also be that he’s a God who’s faceless and unreachable.”
A girl wearing a long skirt put up her hand, leaning forward. “Dr. Greenaway, I don’t understand how the whale can symbolize God. Are you saying Melville thought so—that he wanted us to believe that?”
Marie rolled the chalk. “It’s a difficult question, knowing an author’s intention after the fact. You could search his journals for—”
“Yes, but what do you think?”
“Do I think the whale symbolizes God? A type of God, yes. A concept of God. Symbols have meaning for people who’ve been exposed to the same set of signs.” Marie paced with her head down and chewed on her lower lip. This was the kind of discussion she wasn’t supposed to be having, but a small thrill of danger coursed through her.
“Well, I know you want us to think critically and everything, but—”
Marie spun around. “Yes, that’s the point.”
“But I just want to say my God is not a whale. My God is real, and He manifests himself to those who believe. Not to atheists and Jews.”
Marie froze. Several students applauded, and the girl nodded with a look of triumph. The class seemed to hold a collective breath, as if waiting for the next move in a fight.
Marie took a step forward and stopped. This girl—what was her name?—Megan?…Karen?—had crossed a line. But no outcry came from the ranks of handsome sheep the way there would have been ten years ago, five even. A shadow fell inside Marie, who’d kept her husband’s Gentile name after the divorce. Like ashes, a residue of chalk marked her hands. “Anyone else?” she said.
She struggled through the rest of the lecture, so angry her voice shook. When she’d finished, and the students were filing out, she caught Jacob’s eye.
“Where’s David?” she said. “I need to talk to him.”
“Haven’t seen him. Don’t know what’s up with him.” He gave her a grin that belied his youth. “The lecture—you were like a zombie, Dr. Greenaway, except when that white girl got you going. It was hard to watch. Atheists and Jews?”
“You didn’t speak up.”
“Me? No way. I already feel a bit too…exposed.”
~ ~ ~
The weekend passed, and Marie kept reaching out to David, all the while brooding about the lecture. In her head, she had conversations with Jacob where he accused, and she tried to defend herself. She shouldn’t have gone along with the new guidelines. She should have confronted the girl who’d spoken a message of hatred. But she’d allowed herself to be silenced.
Finally, on Monday, David appeared in her office doorway.
“Hey, Dr. Greenaway.” David looked thin and gray, a weight pulled down the corners of his mouth.
“I’ve been trying to reach you.”
David took a seat. “Sorry, I’ve been lying low.”
“I talked to the Provost, and I think you’re right to be concerned—about Immigration. Maybe it would be good if you dropped your classes and left campus for a while.”
“Where would I go?”
“I’d just get them arrested too.”
“Look, what if you stayed at my house for a while? I have plenty of room.”
David sat straight in the armchair, his hands folded across his belly, staring at her. Marie began to wonder if she’d somehow offended him.
“Thank you,” he said finally. “I know you want to help.”
~ ~ ~
The next afternoon, as Marie approached the entrance to the English Department building, Jacob met her outside as if he’d been waiting for her. “They came for him,” he said. “Last night. David. Immigration.”
“No—I just spoke to him yesterday. I mean—what happened?”
“I hadn’t seen him for a few days. He showed up at the dorm to get some clothes. They came right into our room with campus security. They must have been watching for him.”
“Where are they sending him?”
“Mexico probably. But he’s got nobody there. Nothing. It’s like—if I was sent to Nigeria.”
Marie pressed her lips into a flat line, holding back fear. “I told him he could stay at my house.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Jacob turned to go. “He was worried he’d get you in trouble.”
~ ~ ~
Marie made calls. The campus police confirmed that federal agents had taken several students into custody. The local police refused to comment. Later that day, the Attorney General announced that all children of illegal immigrants were to be deported.
Doug Hoffman took her call. “I’m in a meeting, Marie. Can I get back to you?”
“My student—David Delavan. They arrested him.”
She could hear voices in the background. Doug sighed. “Yes, I know. He was one of several.”
“We’ve got to do something.”
“The University is considering a letter of protest. An official letter.” His voice became a whisper. “Listen, some of the students have been denouncing faculty they don’t like. Dasha’s been put on a plane. A one-way ticket. And there’ve been complaints about you. I can’t protect you much longer. You’ve got to keep quiet, Marie.”
~ ~ ~
Marie entered the auditorium and placed her phone on the lectern. David always sat right in front. The seat was empty, a small memorial to someone who wouldn’t be returning.
She’d sent her son and daughter a long email. Marie had made it clear. If something happened to her, they shouldn’t come back, shouldn’t try to find where she’d been taken. She would get word to them as soon as possible.
She looked around again. No sign of Jacob. She’d wanted him to witness this lecture. To understand she was fighting back. Perhaps he was late to class, but Marie could only delay so long. She opened her thermos of water and set it on the lectern. The silence of anticipation filled the room. She pressed the record button and waited for the camera.
A cold draft blew onto her neck.
Marie thought of the student who’d imagined Ishmael returning the next summer to hunt the whale. After he was rescued, what did Ishmael do?
He told the story.
“One of us is missing today,” she began, stepping around in front of the lectern. “One of you.”
~ ~ ~
She was held in the same prison as the woman who ran against the president and some of the senators and representatives who’d opposed him. She was proud to be among them. They wore beige jumpsuits with inverted red triangles sewn onto the back that identified them as political prisoners. During meals and the daily exercise period, the politicians talked about their former lives, their families, what would have to happen for them to be released. Marie preferred to eat alone, trying not to think about the teaching career she’d lost, or how long it would be before she saw her son and daughter again. She often thought of David and wondered where he was.
Will Green got word to her that the government agents who’d arrested her were unable to find the videotape of her last lecture. Marie liked to think it was Jacob who’d taken it and distributed copies; in any case, it was played over and over on the West Coast internet channels. Her tribute to David Delavan was not forgotten.
The Melville conference was indefinitely postponed. Marie found a copy of Moby Dick in the prison library. In her cell, through that long winter, she read.
She’d thrown the harpoon and hit the mark, but everything else was lost.
Many thanks to Blue Lake Review.