Not for the first time today, Herman Melville looks out at the sea. The Yokohama breeze flies through his powder-white hair as he inhales a gulp of salty air. The sun has started its journey beneath the horizon, and the air begins to take on a light chill. But Melville isn’t cold. In fact, he’s right where he belongs. Every week since the fall of Fitzgerald, Melville has returned to this portside bench, his gaze fixated on the mesmerizing waves of the sea. Every week, people whisper, “What’s that old man doing here?” (He doesn’t mind the whispers.)
Melville’s weary eyes reflect the blue of the ocean. He sees a family walk by his bench, a child excitedly pointing at the ocean waves. I was once a child, Melville thinks, and chuckles. He finds it hard to believe that he had that youthful joy once.
The family leaves Melville’s field of vision, and he continues looking at the waves. The ocean’s constant movement nearly lulls him to sleep, but he does not doze off just yet; he sees something. In an endless sea of blue, he catches a glimpse of white. One pale eyebrow raises. For just a moment, Melville sees a little white whale hiding within the waves. And he remembers.
He remembers that when he first found the whale, it was also hiding.
As a child, Melville had always enjoyed looking at the sky. While some of his siblings delighted in playing field games, and others adored reading, Melville liked nothing more than laying on a field of grass and watching clouds pass by. He did this most days, especially in the summertime, when he was unbeholden to the responsibilities of school.
The day he found the whale was supposed to be like any other. Melville’s mother was calling him and his siblings in for dinner, but Melville stayed outside. (He would stay outside for five more minutes. Dinner could wait, but the clouds could not.)
The minutes flew by, and a chill entered the air. The sun started to set, painting the sky in brilliant purples and oranges. Melville’s shorts and button-up shirt provided little protection against the growing cold. He started to shiver. He stood up from his patch of grass and began to make his way back to his home. I can always cloud-watch some more tomorrow.
Before stepping inside, he dusted off any grass and dirt that had made its way onto his clothes. He took one more look at the clouds. He resolved to come back tomorrow. He would go in and eat dinner and act like his head wasn’t somewhere else. Everything would be the same as it had always been.
Never did he expect one of the clouds to fall from the sky. A tendril of white snaked towards him, winding around his body. Melville slowly away from the cloud. Was he dreaming? He pinched himself. (He wasn’t dreaming.) What was this? Was something otherworldly happening, something that his still-childish mind couldn’t understand?
“Get away from me.” He reached for a stick lying on the ground and waved it at the mysterious cloud-thing. He was going to go inside, and he was going to tell his mother.
The cloud-thing, previously an amorphous blob, shaped itself into the form of a whale. It looked almost hurt at Melville’s threat, and tilted its head away from him.
“So you’re not going to attack me.” The cloud-whale-thing seemed harmless, but Melville wasn’t willing to relinquish the stick. The whale stared at him with pleading eyes. Okay, so it really wasn’t going to attack him. Besides, it was about a foot long from head to tail. How much damage could it do? His grip on the stick loosened.
“What are you, some kind of weird pet? I’ve never heard of anyone having a whale for a pet.” Great. Melville had reached a new low. He was talking to a whale that he wasn’t even sure existed! Sure, his friends liked to play pretend, and some of them had imaginary friends, but he had never been one for flights of fancy.
“Are you even real?” Hesitantly, Melville extended a hand. “I want to know if you’re something I made up, or… something else, entirely.” The whale floated down and coiled up in Melville’s palm. It was warm, pulsing as if it had a heartbeat. (Clouds don’t have heartbeats, Melville told himself.) It seemed content just to rest with him.
It probably had no ill intent.
“I’m Herman. Herman Melville.” Melville introduces himself with a calm smile on his face. He didn’t know much about the whale just yet, but it did not wish him harm. It could stay for now. “I don’t know who you are yet, but I will soon.”
Melville runs inside for dinner. I’ll be back for you.
Every night, the whale visited him. It tapped lightly on his bedroom window. Upon hearing the quiet sound, Melville would awake and try not to disturb any of his seven siblings. He would talk about everything that had happened to him, and the whale would patiently listen. (At least it appeared patient, tilting its head at anything of interest.) Melville would watch every night as the whale grew in size.
The summer days were idyllic, the summer nights serene. In his youthful naivete, Melville thought that the days where he could talk idly with the whale would last forever.
They did not.
One night, his brother Thomas got thirsty and went to go get a cup of water… the contents of which he spat out upon seeing Melville talking to a whale.
His parents disciplined Melville for his “uncharacteristic, made-up delusions of grandeur”, Melville threw a temper tantrum because he believed he wasn’t just playing “kiddy games”, and the whale went away for an eternity to the kid’s mind.
“Looking back on that, I really could’ve acted a lot more mature if I knew the whale was going to come back.” Melville laughs. The sun has sunk further beneath the horizon, but the last vestiges of its rays still paint the sky.
“Whale? Where?” Someone says. To his shock, Melville finds someone sitting next to him on his bench. He jerks himself a foot or so away from the other person. Normally, people leave him alone. But this person doesn’t seem intent on doing so. They have a sketchbook on their lap and a pencil in their right hand.
“It’s nothing.” Melville dismisses them. He doesn’t like interruptions to his time to think. For god’s sake, he wishes that other people would leave him alone when he’s pondering.
“Well, whatever.” The person opens up their sketchbook and begins to sketch the scene before them. Even if he doesn’t want to admit it, Melville is curious as to how the person’s art develops. The city starts to come alive on the paper, buildings reaching toward the sky as sunlight glimmers on the ocean.
Melville thinks of another ocean city that he saw once, so long ago.
Once again, he remembers.
Summer winds whistled through Melville’s sand-blond hair as he biked home from school. He was all lanky legs and knobbly knees, long limbs and vexatious, inopportune voice changes. His days were filled with school, then homework, then spare time if he was lucky. He didn’t have time for the cloud-watching he did as a child.
But all of his classes and his homework didn’t mean he couldn’t take time to admire the sea. (In fact, biking home on his seaside path, was the highlight of his school days. There was nothing more relieving than knowing you could step outside of school and see the ocean right away.)
“Herman! Come in!” Melville stopped at his house just in time to hear his mother call him inside. He propped his bicycle up against his family’s mail and started to run in. Or, at least he would have, had he not felt something bump his knee.
His eyes widened as he turned around, his face pale as though he had seen a ghost.
“White whale! You’re back.” A shaky grin entered his face. Maybe he had seen a ghost. Maybe he was going crazy. (Well, he wasn’t going crazy as a child, and the whale still recognized him…) “You returned.”
Oh, no, no, no. His parents were going to KILL him if they found him interacting with this mysterious whale once again. Chances are, they probably thought he was still a child. Melville began to pace. What did he do? Leave the whale to die or be discovered by someone outside of his immediate family, or work with the whale and face the wrath of the aforementioned immediate family?
When he was a child, his parents would erupt at the slightest mention of the white whale.
But he wasn’t a child anymore. He didn’t need his parents to control him. He turned back to the whale and squared his shoulders. “I’m willing to work with you if you’re willing to work with me, little whale.” Melville extended a hand.
And that was how their partnership began.
Melville would connect with the whale every night without fail. When he finished his homework, he left his window open and waited for it to arrive. (“You’re old enough to have your own room,” his parents told him when he turned thirteen.) The whale would slip in through the window. On most nights, it would rest near the foot of his bed. Sometimes, though, Melville woke it up, and they tested the limits of his ability.
As his ability to work with the whale grew, the whale increased in size. After a few months, it went from being a foot long to the size of a small dog. (It even acts like a small dog, sometimes, thought Melville when he first noticed how big it had gotten. It nuzzled him and asked for headpats or belly rubs on occasion.)
The weeks with the whale quickly flew by, blending into months, then years. Melville progressed from one grade to another. He gained a minor interest in business. His siblings, one by one, began to move out of the family home. He knew that adolescence wouldn’t be as easy as childhood; he just didn’t expect things to be changing so quickly.
The whale followed him to school, darting beneath the waves or clouds or blades of grass. However, it was getting too big to hide. At roughly the size of a German Shepherd, his parents would find out eventually. Melville wished he could tell them. The whale wasn’t just a pet, it was more like an extension of himself.
A week after his birthday, two weeks before he was supposed to leave for college, he sat down at the family dinner table, braced for the worst, and said very calmly, “I have a whale.”
At first, confusion washed over his parents like a wave of salty ocean water. Okay, that was it, he was going to be kicked out of the house…
“What the hell do you mean you have a whale?” His father yelled. Melville only closed his eyes in response. His hands, which lay on the table, began to tremble. He had never called for the whale, it had only come for him. He could only hope that it would come now. Every ounce of his body was focused on getting it to come. Please. Please. Come to me, white whale--
And come it did. A blur of white zipped through the kitchen window and hovered above Melville. “Don’t believe me?” He grinned as his parents exchanged a quick glance. Yeah, having a superpowered son could come as a shock to anyone. (Or a son that was seeing things. That would also be a shock.)
His parents left the dinner table, telling him that they knew what to do about the whale. They said that they knew someone who could help him.
Two weeks later, on the day that he was supposed to go to college, Melville became a Fellowcraft of the American Guild. On his first day being a Fellowcraft, the current leader told Melville all about what the organization did. Everyone in the Guild had an ability, a supernatural power, just like him. Nobody would think twice about seeing him and his giant, floating whale. He had finally found his people.
As Melville studied under the guidance of several members of the Guild, his skill in working with the whale rapidly improved. Once again, it had expanded, this time into a thirteen-foot version of itself, big enough to protect its owner. It knew when Melville wanted it to hide, or to show itself, or to intimidate its enemy and get it away from him.
Melville wouldn’t need the whale to scare anyone. The Guild was just a group of people with special abilities who got together on weekends to hone them and occasionally play bridge. The Fellowcrafts came from all walks of life and all corners of America. They all had so much control over their abilities-- how could Melville be a part of that ? At first, he didn’t feel like he’d ever belong. But after some time, he believed that he was truly one of them.
Eventually, the leader of the Guild persuaded him to go back to college and pursue the business degree he had wanted. So that was his life as a Fellowcraft. Study, work on his ability, and get his butt kicked in bridge. He foolishly hoped that something so peaceful would ever change.
Inevitably, it did.
The leader of the Guild announced his retirement and asked Melville to be leader. “You’re capable,” he had said. “You have a good mind, and a good heart. I know you’ll serve the Guild well.” Melville had no choice but to accept.
Just like that, Melville was leader of the Guild. He placed great honor in the position, and strived to do his best to maintain the Guild’s prestige, no matter what happened. However, leadership came with a lot of responsibility. It was hard to find time to decompress when he was not only leader of the Guild but also the head of a rising boat company, White Whale Sailing.
As much as he hated to admit it, the company was taking away valuable time that he could use to further the Guild. And the Guild wasn’t helping, either. A young upstart from the Midwest, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, had joined the Guild within two years of Melville’s promotion. He was all right, but there were proverbial dollar signs in his eyes. He took an intrigue in Melville’s business and motivated Melville to expand it further. And so Melville did. (He didn’t think much of Fitzgerald-- there was no way that he was planning a coup.)
Melville’s company grew as his involvement in the Guild shrank. He knew that he should probably step down and give someone else the position of leader. But at the same time, something told Melville that he should stay leader. Something kept him there, in that position.
Theoretically, it wasn’t supposed to take so much effort to be leader of the Guild. Sure, it had evolved from its original purpose of “Ability users play bridge, more at eleven,” but it wasn’t an organization bent on, oh, world domination, wasn’t it? The answer was supposed to be no.
The Guild had changed. Because Melville was so preoccupied with company work, he had been blind to those changes. Was the Guild he was leading the same one he had stepped up to lead all those years ago?
You know the Guild couldn’t just stay the same, Herman, he thought. It was a selfish wish, anyway, to have the Guild stay the same when the people within were changing. Melville had never liked change-- what if his position was compromised?
The night before he made his decision, he stepped out of the Guild’s building and looked at the roiling sea. It changed; why couldn’t he? Why couldn’t the whale change? Was he holding the Guild back? Maybe he had to be more like the sea for this new, changing Guild to flourish.
The next day, Melville stepped down as leader and handed the position to a young woman with no shortage of ambition. He believed she could lead the Guild well.
He was still a member, of course, but now one who took a backseat role. He didn’t participate in many of the Guild’s activities; he had business matters to take care of. He kept silent watch over the Guild, occasionally reminding new members to control their abilities. Even with his lack of involvement, the whale expanded. It was thirty feet in length and at least six feet tall.
The whale was a business liability. Nobody would take him seriously if he had a giant whale following him around all day! Before meetings, Melville would tell his whale to hide, up in the clouds or down in the sea. He didn’t want to, but it had to be done. He could sense its sadness, for they had a connection that could never be severed.
Every time he entered a business meeting whale-less, he felt a twinge of guilt.
This whale, this ability, was becoming a thorn in his side, and Melville had to drive it out. The night before one of the most important meetings of his life, he very calmly told the whale to leave. It didn’t leave. He yelled at the whale to leave. It didn’t leave. No amount of shouting could get the whale to go.
Fed up with the whale’s antics, Melville threw a chair at the whale. Only then did it leave, gliding sadly out of his window and knocking over everything in a six foot radius with its tail. Melville sighed. He would have a lot of cleaning up to do that night.
The only light comes from the stars in the sky, and Melville finds it too dark to continue sea-gazing. Finally standing up from the bench, he begins to walk to his hotel. Fitzgerald, bless his soul, had paid him enough money to stay a few nights and arrange his return to America.
Melville’s feet strike the sidewalk, his hands in his pockets. He closes his eyes and conjures the path home in his mind. He can still think, even if he’s walking.
Even now, in the darkness, he remembers.
Due to the perpetual absence of his whale, Melville was forced into a passive role in the Guild’s activities. He watched old members leave, and new members join. He watched as the Guild changed more than he could have ever thought it would. The leader wouldn’t let the Guild be “ability users play bridge all day and talk”; she was morphing the organization into one destined for greatness.
People from all walks of life joined the Guild. Melville had never seen anyone like them, from the well-meaning but cocky redhead Mark Twain to the eccentric and eldritch H. P. Lovecraft. (Seriously, where were all those tentacles coming from?) They were quite the unique group, Melville thought with a smile.
His lack of involvement in the Guild gave him more time to think. Was pushing away the whale really the right thing to do? Was he only hurting himself by denying this part of himself? If he welcomed the whale back, what would happen? Would he have to transfer leadership of the business from him to someone else?
There were so many “What-ifs” and hypotheticals that he had to think about. Too many. Sometimes, he thought life would be easier if he didn’t have an ability, or if he didn’t have such big aspirations, or if he had just settled in the seaside town where he grew up…
None of this would have happened if not for that damn whale.
Well, none of this would have happened if Melville had looked for that damn whale. None of this would have happened if Melville weren’t so curious.
The whale hadn’t done anything wrong, had it? It didn’t do anything but exist, and here Melville was, blaming it for all of his life problems. But Melville had no choice. Hide the whale, or lose all of his life’s work. Hide the whale and hide himself. Blame the whale and blame himself.
What did Melville have to gain by severing this part of himself? (Not much. The business meetings were taking him away from the sea he loved. As much as he hated to admit it, he was losing interest in the company. He started the company so he and others could be closer to the sea, so why was it pulling him away?)
One day, he decided he could take it no longer. The absence of the whale was taking a great toll on him. He handed in his resignation papers, transferring ownership of the company to one of his colleagues. He drove straight to the sea after work and waited for the whale to arrive.
Once again, it came out of the ocean to meet him. It had shrunk back down to a foot in length, but Melville didn’t mind. He was just happy to see it again. Filled with youthful joy, he couldn’t wait to show the Guild this pleasant surprise.
Like it or not, there was a surprise waiting for him, too. In his absence, Fitzgerald was made leader of the Guild. He had gotten richer, taller, and married, but he was still the ambitious, money-hungry youth that Melville had met many years ago.
“Tell me, old sport.” Fitzgerald looked Melville in the eye during their first meeting with the whale. “I think the Guild might need that whale to get a lot bigger in the near future. Do you think you can do it?” He extended a hand.
Melville took it. “Sounds like a plan.”
Melville climbs under the silky sheets of his hotel bed. It’s late-- he needs to sleep if he wants to be able to think clearly tomorrow.
The memories seep into his dreams.
In his sleep, he remembers.
Every weekend, for an hour, Melville worked with the whale. Some days went better than others. (Melville should’ve known that. The whale was right to be hesitant about his offer, so of course progress would slow down.) Fitzgerald would watch Melville and the whale interact, no doubt thinking about what the two of them could supply to the Guild.
Melville didn’t want to trust Fitzgerald at first; he almost definitely had ulterior motives regarding Melville’s whale. (Were they good motives? Bad motives? Melville didn’t think he was in a position to ask.)
But even though Melville had conflicting opinions regarding Fitzgerald, he could not deny that he and his ability were reaching new limits underneath Fitzgerald’s leadership. The whale surpassed its previous record of thirty feet, expanding to fifty, and then to a hundred. A year after it came back to Melville, it had reached two hundred feet.
When Fitzgerald told Melville his master plan, the whale was three hundred feet long.
“It’s the perfect size for a fortress,” Fitzgerald said with a smile on his face. “We’re going to need a floating base if we want to expand our influence outside America.”
“But why would we need to do that? We’re the American Guild, aren’t we?” asked Melville.
“Yeah, ‘cause we’re stationed in America? Who’s to say we can’t conquer the world, or something?”
Melville didn’t protest after that. He wasn’t in a position to protest in the first place. (He could always leave the Guild, but then the whale would risk being discovered. And it was a lot harder to hide a three hundred foot-long whale than a thirty foot-long whale.)
He watched as Fitzgerald slowly but surely converted the Whale into a flying fortress. A part of Melville is heartbroken to see something so natural, so filled with life, made into a glorified blimp. (Flying fortress, he told himself every day.)
Before he knew it, his hairs were greying, his beard was coming along, and Fitzgerald was shipping the Guild all the way across the ocean to Yokohama. The sky in the whale’s flight was much like a calm sea, pristine and blue. That offered Melville some small solace.
Not a day went by when he couldn’t hear the hum of the whale underneath its mechanical parts. Not a night when he couldn’t hear whalesong echo in his mind.
Melville longed for this whale greatly once he saw it nosedive into the sea, metal falling out left and right as it entered the water. Maybe it was dying, leaving him for the final time. Or maybe it was returning to its home, where the real whales were.
Return home. Where would Melville go after Fitzgerald fell?
The day before Melville plans on flying back to America, he returns to his bench. He breathes a sigh of relief; all of his flight details worked out, and the remnants of Fitzgerald’s money will be enough to get him home safe. The only thing that hasn’t gone according to plan was his fitful sleep last night.
Even though the sun shines, the seaside is chilly, and Melville almost regrets not bringing a jacket. He closes his eyes, feels the wind rush by him, and enjoys the sounds of Yokohama one last time.
Or, at least, he would’ve, if a thin man hadn’t stood near his bench and started talking.
“The ability war ended smoothly, but the government’s work has only just started,” the man says. Melville opens his eyes to look at him. Dark hair, round glasses, brown coat, probably an official of some sort. He looks tired; dark bags hang underneath his eyes. “To deal with such a huge mess… God knows when I can go home and sleep.” Exhaustion shows in the man’s hoarse voice.
“Well… this is mainly for us, but if we had your cooperation, that would be great, Mr. Melville.” Melville bolts to attention for half a second. Whatever. What was this person asking him to do? Was this man going to be another Fitzgerald, leading Melville to such a state of melancholia again?
“I just want to be alone,” grumbles Melville.
“Of course.” The man doesn’t seem angry. In fact, he’s smiling. Maybe he understands Melville, and wants to (finally) leave him alone. “But if we have your assistance, we can catch the Guild members who escaped.”
So this man was looking for information on the Guild after the whale’s descent. Well, he’d be damned if he thought Melville was going to give it to him. Melville may not have liked everyone in the Guild, but he wasn’t going to sell out the other Fellowcrafts to a foreign authority.
“You want to rely on an old man like me to give you that kind of information?” Melville’s old enough to play the age card in a situation like this. The man wouldn’t understand what Melville had seen.
“Yes.” The man seems pleased at Melville’s response. “Because you were one of the Guild’s starting members.”
The creation of the Guild is so long ago in Melville’s weathered eyes. He can give this young man the information; he remembers those faraway times well, almost too well. He won’t, though. He’s still not going to sell his teammates out, or betray the organization that he had been a part of for so long.
“I don’t want to be forced by an upstart like you to think of old times.” Even if this man seemed tired, he was still young, and hadn’t seen the things that Melville has. There are some things that only come with age.
“To help lessen our burden, please kindly cooperate? Handcuffs… shouldn’t be necessary, right?” Melville ignores him. The dark-haired man begins to walk away.
With a weary sigh, Melville gets up from the bench and follows him. (Maybe this man knows his way around the city in a way Melville doesn’t. Maybe the nearest public transportation to the airport is in the direction that the man is walking in.)
Melville begins walking to the airport, intent on going back to America. Home.