The dangers a whaleman faces in the course of a voyage reach far past the hunt itself. In “Cistern and Buckets,” we see the dangers involved in processing a dead — managing the massive object with cables and tackles, with the hazard of wet and oily surfaces added to the bargain.
As the chapter begins, Tashtego mounts the head of a whale to extract the sperm from its casing. He cuts a hole in the head, and rams a bucket into the hole — filling it with sperm — then gives the signal for men on deck to pull the bucket out with the aid of a tackle hung from the rigging. All goes well until the task is almost finished, when Tashtego slips and falls into the twenty-foot hole that is, at this point, the whale’s head. To make matters worse, at this moment the cables that tether the whale to the ship snap, and the whale starts to sink with Tashtego still inside. It all seems entirely hopeless, “when a naked figure with a boarding sword in its hand” –Queequeg, in other words — springs to a death-defying underwater rescue, described mostly in birthing metaphors.
Two things stand out for me in “Cistern and Buckets.” First, no one knows what to do when Tashtego falls into the whale. One would think that after some number of years of standing over gaping holes that someone would have planned for the worst. But like a greedy land developer circumventing safety regulations by hiring non-union labor, no one has thought forward for the sake of Tashtego’s safety. In fact, Tashtego himself seems awfully unconcerned throughout the chapter as well, walking erect across the rigging and standing on the whale without holding on to the cables.
Second, Ishmael tells of the greatest perils with the greatest humor. At first, his humor seems shockingly nonchalant. But thinking deeper into that exact realization brings the gravity of the situation into sharp relief. Only when tragedy becomes common do people tend to make light of narrow escapes, and people only talk about some deaths as being sweet when they see the possibilities for themselves as being much less so.
Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets
How the tragedy came to pass, don’t ask me, now.
A heave of the sea, or the slippery, hypnotic prow,
Once a living device, now eighty buckets of paradise,
Sent him fully within the cavern of fibrous skin.
And then fallen away,
The head buckled and swayed,
As old ocean eloped
With young death on a rope —
Alarum now awoke!
No umbilical, turned the womb into a precious tomb,
And so buried twice, once in a fragrant room,
Then, in the infinite ocean of epithet —
Savage sunk in a savage beast, under savage moon.
And then, out for the save,
The midwife of the waves,
With caesarian drowned,
Birthed the man by the crown,
And broke the burial mound.
Wherein the mystique?
A death, bittersweet,
Claims curious life
In sweet essences rife
With unbroken form!
(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 22, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea September 25, 2010