12 Winters Blog

Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 13, 2015

The following paper — “Fictionalizing the Life and Voice of Washington Irving” — was presented at the North American Review Bicentennial Conference at the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, which ran from June 11 to 13, 2015. This paper was part of the “Voice and Point of View” panel on June 13. Other papers presented were “Expanding the Powers of First-Person Narration” by Buzz Mauro and “The Art of Narrative Telling: Transforming Cheever’s Voice” by Grant Tracey. In addition to presenting, I also moderated the panel.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis, 1809

I’m here today to talk about writing my novel An Untimely Frost, which I worked on between about 2006 (I think) and 2011, eventually publishing it via my own press, Twelve Winters, in 2014—Twelve Winters Press, by the way, has a table at the conference. The inspiration for the novel was Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley.  It seemed to me that a romantic relationship between the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and the author of Frankenstein could make for an intriguing chemistry.  I didn’t know where or when I’d learned of that rumor, and I wasn’t especially interested in verifying its accuracy because I decided very early on that I wasn’t going to write a fictionalized biography of Irving and Shelley and their time together.  Rather, I was going to use them as sources of inspiration and an armory of period details as needed. [As noted, I didn’t research the actual relationship between Irving and Shelley when writing the novel; however, in preparing this talk I came across this rare bookThe Romance of Mary W. Shelley, John Howard Payne and Washington Irving (1907)–which would be of interest to anyone who wanted to know more about the famous authors’ “romance.”]

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

For an earlier project, which resulted in the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, I wrote a fictionalized biography of author Herman Melville’s real-life experiences among cannibals in 1842.  I was dedicated to staying true to the established details of Melville’s life and times, which made for a challenging artistic endeavor.  I like to believe that the novella turned out pretty well, but oftentimes I did feel hemmed in by reality and by Melville’s biography.  Not to mention, real life rarely provides us with a satisfying narrative arc, which tends to handicap a novelist.  It’s a bit like running in a three-legged race.  It’s an experience all its own, but there’s no helping that the entire time one is keenly aware of how much easier it would be to race the usual two-legged way.

weeping-with-an-ancient-god-front-cover

Thus, when I began writing about Irving and Shelley, I had no intention of shackling my creativity to their real lives.  I began by concocting fictional names for them, eventually ending up with “Jefferson Wheelwright” and “Margaret Haeley.”  I also decided early on that Jefferson Wheelwright would be my first-person narrator.  I obviously had some familiarity with Washington Irving—and I’d taught “Sleepy Hollow” a couple of times in a college course—but I didn’t feel that I knew him and, more importantly, his voice well enough to create my Jefferson Wheelwright persona.  To prepare, I did read several biographical sketches of Irving and more of his fictional stories.  However, what I really wanted to steep my brain in was his real-life speaking voice, and the closest I could come to that, given that he lived in the early and mid nineteenth century, was to study his published letters.

I got hold of two collections in particular, both edited by Stanley T. Williams.  One collection, brought out by Harvard University Press, concerns Irving’s letters “from England and the Continent, 1821-1828,” and the other, brought out by Yale University Press, consists of his letters “from Sunnyside and Spain,” spanning the years 1840-1845.  I made use of both collections, and in fact one of the epigraphs for the novel comes from a Madrid 1842 letter.  However, I found the letters from the earlier period to be more helpful since they correspond more closely to the time frame and the geography of my novel’s setting.

I culled the letters, along with biographical information, for two sorts of material.  First, while I wasn’t writing a fictionalized biography based on Irving’s life, I was open to transferring and transforming real-life details from Irving to my creation, Wheelwright.  Second, and more vital, I wanted to capture as nearly as possible Irving’s narrative style.

Without reading through the biographical notes and letters in their entirety again, it’s difficult for me to recall all that I borrowed in terms of real-life details and events.  I did skim through the letters in preparation for this presentation, and I was surprised in a couple of instances regarding details that in my recollection I had wholly made up, but in actuality stemmed from my research.

One of the character details that I know I extracted from Irving’s letters had to do with a skin condition of his legs and feet that plagued him in the 1821-28 period.  For instance, he writes from Germany on August 20, 1822:  “I grew very lame in trudging about the dutch [sic] towns, and unluckily applied a recipe given me by old Lady Liston (may god bless her, and preserve her from her own prescriptions!)—it played the vengeance with me [. . .] I could scarcely put my feet to the ground & bear my weight upon them [. . .]” (“Wi[e]sbaden” 19).  Elsewhere Irving talks about seeking treatment from various physicians.  I decided early on in the writing process that some sort of foot condition would be part of my Jefferson Wheelwright’s situation.  I guess I vaguely thought it might have some metaphorical value, connecting to his fear that he was not evolving, not moving forward, as a writer and artist.  In An Untimely Frost, Wheelwright requests the aid of a London physician, Dr. Carter.  In Chapter 2, I write,

On the first morning, he listened to my complaint while touching and gently kneading my feet and toes, which were blotchy red, except around the toenails where the skin was a vibrant purple.  Spots on my feet were pained to the touch while my toes were dead numb. [. . .] The good doctor said it was a circulation problem; he said that even though exercise irritated my feet, rest was counterproductive, that we must increase the blood flow to nourish the nerve fibers.” (11)

In reality, Irving was laid up for days and even weeks with bouts of his “cutaneous condition,” but I didn’t think that would make for an especially exciting narrative, to have Jefferson Wheelwright lying around his hotel room for days on end nursing his feet, so I had Dr. Carter prescribe exercise.  Carter becomes an important character in the novel—although when I first introduced him in the second chapter I had no idea whether it would be a cameo appearance or lead to a larger role.

In addition to physical details I also borrowed one of Washington Irving’s personality traits, namely his lack of interest and acumen when it came to business affairs.  He let his elder brothers manage the family’s business interests, while he focused on his literary aspirations.  In my novel, I write:

So far I was having a splendid time lounging in the gigantic bed at The Saint Georges [hotel], drinking the black-black Italian coffee, and scribbling my tale.  I even felt a brief—brief, mind you—pang of guilt at the idea that this is what I did to earn my keep in the world.  Like many of the Wheelwright men, I’d tried my hand at business, but to dismal results.  I simply do not have a head for numbers and inventories and so on—I can conjure whole worlds with my pen, yet adding a column of numbers and arriving at the correct result seemed beyond me (I believe because midway I would lose interest and begin daydreaming of haunted castles on lonely, wind-swept cliffs). (10)

There were numerous details from Irving’s life, especially his writing life, that I commandeered for my purposes, but even more important was capturing Irving’s narrative style—and in particular the style he used in his letters to friends and family, which was somewhat different, on the whole, than his published authorial voice, such as in The Sketch Book and Bracebridge Hall stories.

I wrote a brief essay about trying to capture Irving’s voice for Glimmer Train Press’s Writers Ask series (it appeared in number 54 and I reprinted it in An Untimely Frost).  Since it is brief and to the point at hand, I would like to insert it here in its entirety:

Like the vast majority of writers who have come out of a university creative writing program, I was taught to write contemporary literary fiction.  However, for over a decade now, I’ve been mainly attracted to historically based narrative, both as a reader and as a writer.  When we think of writers tackling a story or novel set in another time and another place, we imagine them doing extensive research on things like people, on the chronology of events, on various aspects of the material world they are attempting to fabricate—and we tend to imagine rightly.  For me, though, there is another sort of research that must go on as well, the results of which are not as easy to spot in a story as, say, an infamous assassination or an obsolete gadget; and that is researching the structure of language itself.  It can be a nebulous term, but what I’m most interested in is a setting’s voice.

Voice should contribute to the ring of authenticity, to be sure, but, more than that, voice can actually compel the movement of the narrative; voice can shape its structure.  William H. Gass spoke to this phenomenon in a 1976 interview for The Paris Review, saying that “word resemblance leads you on [as a writer], not form.  So you’ve really got a musical problem, certain paragraphs you are arranging, and you imagine you are orchestrating the flow of feelings from one thing to another.”  Gass summed up by saying, “Once you get your key signature, the theme inherent in the notes begins to emerge:  the relationship between art and life and all that.”  Gass, author of some of the most admired books in the English language, suggests that the physical structure of the words on the page—and the meanings, feelings, moods that they convey—help guide the writer to, essentially, everything else in the narrative:  plot development, characterization, theme, setting. . . .

The importance of this sort of research in historically based fiction is nicely illustrated in Charles Frazier’s highly acclaimed novel Cold Mountain, which is set in Civil War-era Appalachia.  In an interview available online, Frazier said, “I wanted the language of the book to create a sense of otherness, of another world, one that the reader doesn’t entirely know.”  Frazier did library research regarding the material world he was creating, finding “words for tools and processes and kitchen implements that are almost lost words.”  Beyond that, however, he was interested in “getting a sense of the particular use of language in that region, the rhythm of it.”  Frazier culled period letters and diaries for much of his information, but he also had the benefit of having actually heard “that authentic Appalachian accent” when he was a child.

For my own writing I’ve been attracted to more distant times and places, and as such have not had the benefit of hearing period speakers so printed examples of voice have been my guideposts.  Nevertheless, the feel and rhythm of the language can filter into one’s writing by paying attention to the linguistic structures.  For my current project I’ve been creating a first-person narrator based on the American author Washington Irving.  It isn’t a fictionalized biography.  It’s more that Irving’s persona has been the primary inspiration for my protagonist.  When I first became interested in the project, I tracked down an obscure collection of Irving’s letters that he wrote between 1821 and 1828.  The book has been invaluable to me in my effort to develop an effective narrative voice.

Simply put, in Irving’s day a well-read New Englander structured the language in ways that sound quite foreign—quite exotic even—to us now.  Take, for example, this letter written at “Beycheville,” France, October 17, 1825:

I have had something of a dull bilious affection of the system which has clung to me for more than two weeks past. . . .  The greater part of Mrs Guestiers household, who have lately removed here, are unwell—I have tried to shake off my own morbid fit by exercise—I have been out repeatedly hunting, as there were two packs of hounds in the neighborhood, but though I have taken violent exercise I do not feel yet reinstated by it. (50)

The terms are spectacular, yes—heaven help anyone who contracts “a dull bilious affection” and Irving’s reference to “violent exercise” makes me think of junior high P.E. class—but even more meaningful to my eye and ear are the syntactic rhythms.  Today one might say, “I’ve been feeling sick for a couple of weeks,” but for Irving the “affection of the system” has “clung” to him “for more than two weeks past.”  The structure implies that his sense of unwell-being is a sort pernicious companion of whom he can’t quite rid himself, in spite of his taking “violent exercise”—giving the act of exercise a physicality, as if it were an item from the apothecary’s pantry.

Yet I have no particular interest in my protagonist’s contracting a bilious affection or partaking of violent exercise.  Rather I want the structure of the language.  I want to tell my own tale, but I want to form the sentences as Irving might have had he written of the same events nearly two centuries ago.  I normally keep the book of Irving’s letters on my nightstand, and every so often I open to a random page and read awhile, perhaps a few pages but often as little as a sentence or two, because I’m not searching for information:  I want to keep retracing the sentence rhythms in my brain, like wagon wheels along a worn track, so that when I sit down to write, the words flow as naturally in the direction of his prose style as if he (or someone like him) were composing them himself.  (I must go now—I feel the onset of a bilious affection.)

There haven’t been a lot of reivews of the novel, and the ones that have appeared are somewhat mixed—but the reviewers seem to appreciate the narrative voice that I was able to create.  For example, Anne Drolet writes in the North American Review:  “Morrissey styles Wheelwright’s voice after the patterns and idioms of 19th-century British speech, and that choice lulls the reader into the historical setting” (47).  I presume being lulled into a setting is better than being jarred into one.  Cécile Sune says in her blog Book Obsessed:  “The writing is beautiful and elaborate, and is a testament to the research Ted Morrissey conducted for this book . . . As a result, it feels like a Victorian novel”—ultimately, though, she only gave it three out of five stars on Amazon (damn it).  And most recently William Wright writes for the Chicago Book Review:  “There are moments of true brilliance in An Untimely Frost.  It reads like it was written by a post-modernist emulating Henry James [I like that line], which proves to be an intriguing combination”—but Wright concludes with “Perhaps with more ruthless editing, the novel could have been a triumph.  As it stands, it was a wonderful idea that wasn’t quite pulled off.”

I’ll tell you what, critics are hard to please.

My five years floating around in the fictional consciousness of Washington Irving was an interesting artistic experiment, and it really stretched me as a writer.  When I finished with the novel, I began writing a series of interconnected short stories—each in third-person, with shifting points of view, and set for the most part in an unnamed Midwestern village in the 1950s.  I finished the twelfth and final story just a few weeks ago, and eventually I’ll be bringing them out in a collection titled Crowsong for the Stricken.  I’m considering other long-term writing projects at the moment, and one idea is to return to nineteenth-century London, but not Jefferson Wheelwright.  Never say never, but I believe I’ve said all I care to say in the voice and persona of Mr. Wheelwright.

Works Cited

Drolet, Anne.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  North American Review Fall 2014 (299.4):  47.  Print.

“An Interview with Charles Frazier.”  BookBrowse [c. 1997].  Web.  9 June 2015.

Morrissey, Ted.  An Untimely Frost.  Sherman, Ill.:  Twelve Winters Press, 2014.  Print.

—-.  “Researching the Rhythms of Voice.”  Writers Ask #54.  Portland, Ore.:  Glimmer Train Press.  Print.

Sune, Cécile.  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Book Obsessed 10 Oct. 2014.  Web.

Williams, Stanley T., ed.  Letters from Sunnyside and Spain by Washington Irving.  New Haven, Conn.:  Yale University Press, 1928.  Print.

—-.  Washington Irving and the Storrows:  Letters from England and the Continent, 1821-1828.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1933.  Print.

Wright, William.  “A Hot and Cold ‘Frost.’”  Rev. of An Untimely Frost, by Ted Morrissey.  Chicago Book Review 18 May 2015.  Web.

(Note that the portrait of Washington Irving was obtained via Wikipedia at this link.)

Advertisements

‘Melvill in the Marquesas’ archived

Posted in January 2011, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on January 29, 2011

“Melvill in the Marquesas” is the first section of my novella Weeping with an Ancient God, a fictionalized biography of Herman Melville’s encounter with cannibals in the Marquesas Islands in 1842. This excerpt was originally published in The Final Draft, an online journal edited by Bob Rothberg, in fall 2010. The link to the excerpt has since gone dead, so I’ve decided to archive it here. I hope to see Weeping with an Ancient God appear along with a collection of stories by the end of the year.

~

Melvill in the Marquesas

July 13, 1842

Dripping.

It is the dripping and the insensible voices which bring him up from the depths.  Darkness and heat.  He tries to feel the pitch of the sea, now as familiar as the expansion of his lungs, but there is no movement.  Becalmed, he thinks.  He cautiously sniffs the air, anticipating the stench of boiling fat.  But there is a sweetness instead:  thick, oily.

He remembers.

Panic begins to surge in him, like the ocean’s surf, like the fever he has had . . . how many days?  The number will not come to him.  He wants to rise, to step over the darkshape bodies, to run outside, past the dripping cataract to the starlit ocean.

It is all impossible.  He heard their cannibal voices; at least two are awake.  And Toby?  He reaches out and touches the coarse cloth of Toby’s shirt and he hears the familiar sleep breathing of his friend.  Like so many nights in the belly of the Acushnet.  The dripping and Toby’s breathing take him back for a moment:  the roll of the ocean, the stinking blubber, the footfalls above on deck . . . and something else.

Toby moves in his sleep—perhaps he is fitful too—and Toby’s hand brushes against his side.  He lightly takes hold of Toby’s arm, feels the hairs at the wristbone, the slow steady pulse.  The rhythm of Toby’s blood calms him.  He tries to turn toward his friend, to watch his dark outline, but the pain in his leg will not allow it.  Shards of agony vibrate through his leg, which has become like wood or stone.  He tries to imagine dragging the swollen limb the many miles to the sea.  It is impossible.

The cataract and Toby’s pulse become synchronous, and Melvill achieves a kind of sleep.

It is daytime when he realizes the old man is talking to him.  Melvill is the only one still lying on the floor of the hut, which is rectangular with a bamboo and thatched ceiling about fifteen feet high at its centered apex.  Along the walls are baskets, earthen pots, woven mats.  Toby is gone.  It is unsettling again to see the fading ink on the old man’s almost naked body:  the bluegreen vines twisting along his still-muscular arms, the disintegrating bluegreen triangle on his forehead, the sinking ovals on his chest that make his nipples dark bull’s-eyes.  The old man repeats himself for perhaps the fourth time.  Melvill understands only two words.  “Hermes,” the way they have decided to pronounce his name; and “Korykory,” the young cannibal who seems to reside in the old man’s hut.

Melvill tries to stand but his leg provides him no leverage.  He believes he may topple when he feels Korykory lift him to a standing position on his good leg then deftly turn and hoist him onto his back.  Melvill is half a head taller and his bare toes nearly drag on the floor.  Korykory’s wavy brown hair is shaved in arcs over each ear and tapers to a point between his shoulder blades, where the shapes of longwinged birds in flight have been tattooed.

Outside Korykory lifts him higher on his back.  Men and women are calmly busy with the demands of the new day.  All these many months around the islands of the south Pacific and the stark nakedness of the natives still surprises him.  It seems the Typees prefer a short white cloth which hangs from their waist, or even more simply broad waxy leaves.  Korykory carries him past the cataract to where the stream is calmer.  Melvill is relieved to see Toby floating on his back in the clear water, his bare white chest bobbing like a seaduck among the other dark-skinned bathers.  Melvill wants to call out to Toby but he does not want to do anything to provoke the Typees.  Half a dozen somber warriors, with long spears and sharktooth necklaces, kneel on either side of the stream.

Korykory takes him beyond the pool of bathers about a hundred yards to a place where the stream begins to pick up speed again.  Next to the stream is a patch of high green reeds.  Korykory places him at the edge of the reeds and motions for him to proceed in.  Melvill is confused.  Korykory talks to him with patient meaningless words.  Then the native wades into the reeds himself, urging Melvill along.  The pliant reeds, which come to Melvill’s stomach, snap back after being trod upon.  Korykory squats with his back to the swift running water, and Melvill understands.  Korykory stands and tries to unbutton Melvill’s trousers.

He pushes his hand away, like a bothersome child’s.  “I’m with you.”

Korykory shrugs then moves his tappa cloth aside and urinates a thick stream into the water.  The islander waits at the edge of the reeds for Melvill to finish.  Korykory points back to the cluster of huts and the bathers.  Melvill climbs on and is carried toward the pool.  His leg is throbbing from the exertion.

As he is carried along Melvill views the mountains, lavender at their peaks, that Toby and he traversed for three days.  This is correct:  three days.  And the discomfort in his right leg began on the morning of their second day of flight from Nukuheva Bay.  By nightfall the discomfort had become the debilitating pain he suffers still.  So that is the number that would not come to him:  four days of pain.  In spite of his bad leg Melvill feels better that his head is clearer now, the fever abated somewhat.

At the bathing pool he sees Toby wrapped in a long swath of the white tappa, like a haphazardly placed toga.  The old Typee woman who lives in the hut where they slept is holding the bundle of Toby’s clothes and is having an animated dialogue with his friend.

“But, please, I need my clothing, at the very least my trousers.”  Toby is holding the toga together at the shoulder.

Korykory places Melvill down at the edge of the pool and the old woman gestures at Melvill’s checked shirt and duck trousers.

“I believe the witch wants your things too, old fellow,” says Toby.  “They probably would prefer not to cook us in our breeches—we will be too tough no doubt.”

As if she can understand the nature of their conversation, the old woman renews her efforts to explain and screws her face into a foul expression and touches her nose, meanwhile spitting out some Typee expression.

Melvill says, “I believe she is telling us she finds our sailor’s smell disagreeable.  Perhaps she is offering to launder out the sweat and sea salt.”

“Or she intends to burn and bury everything, part and parcel, forthwith.  In either case it appears we have no say in the matter.”

The stony warriors have formed a loose circle around the four of them, Toby and Melvill, the old woman and Korykory.  One of the warriors takes hold of Toby’s bare arm and urges him away from the water’s edge.  Melvill pulls his shirt off over his head then sits on the grassy bank to remove the rest of his clothing.  Korykory hands the wad to the old woman and he scoops up Melvill like his new bride and wades into the pool, releasing him when the stream is waist deep.

The water is cool and clean and a great relief to Melvill.  The buoyancy relieves much of the pain from his swollen leg.  Melvill ducks his head then allows it to bob to the calm surface.  The droplets that run from his scalp and ears taste of his own salt.  With the temporary relief of his leg Melvill realizes the profundity of his hunger and thirst.  For three days Toby and he ate only their ration of a dry mouthful of sea biscuit—“sailor’s nuts”—each noon hour.  The breadfruits they believed were in abundance beyond Nukuheva Bay were not to be found in the wild mountains.  They had agreed to refrain from breaking into ship’s stores and risk alerting their mates of their plan to take flight.

Water was also scarce.  At the end of their second day in the mountains they discovered a narrow stream.  It relieved their thirst, which was terrible and close to undoing them, especially Melvill, who was burdened with fever too.  But there was still no food and the biscuit was nearly gone.  Also they needed shelter from the sun and periodic rains.

They knew the little stream would lead down the mountain to a settlement—but which natives?  The Happars, of whom very little was known; or the Typees, whose cannibalism was infamous throughout the south Pacific.  They had no choice but to follow the stream.  Turning back was out of the question.  The penalty for jumping ship was severe:  flogging and treatment befitting a slave for the remainder of the voyage.  Their shipmates would not venture into cannibal terrain, no matter what reward was offered by Captain Pease; but a band of Nukuhevas could be easily commissioned for the job.  Three or four pounds of Brazilian tobacco and a modest supply of shot and powder would probably turn them out like a pack of red hounds.  In the mountains several times Toby and he were startled by a wild boar in the undergrowth which they mistook for a Nukuheva ambush.

Finally, descending from the mountains, they saw a fruitful valley and its huts with steeply pitched thatch roofs.  It was midday, the tropical sun high and hard.  For a great length of time—Melvill was beyond keeping track of it—they stayed under cover while Toby observed the distant goings on and tried to determine Happar or Typee or some other indigenous tribe.  They choked down the last crumbs of biscuit, which seemed to push Toby into a decision.  “I must know, old fellow, I must.”  And he rushed down into the valley.  Melvill watched his friend half stagger out of the shadow of the mountain, then he attempted to follow him.

His memory beyond this point is patchy.  He recalls falling and struggling up, many times.  He is helped—by Toby, he first believes, then realizes it is a girl and boy, dark and naked, on either side of him.  Then they are in a hut, the brown faces surrounding them.  They are given fresh water (so sweet!) and a kind of citrus mush to eat.  “Poeepoee.”  Toby is attempting to explain who they are and that they have come in peace—which must be obvious from their half-dead, unarmed condition.  It is night, the only light from the bluish glow of a taper outside the hut’s opening, when Toby and he come to understand that they have arrived in the valley of the Typees.  Melvill is too exhausted and feverish to be panicstricken.  The knowledge is like a lead weight in his brain, sinking deep as nearly all the natives exit the hut and he and Toby are left to sleep among these cannibals.

After his bath, Melvill, also in white tappa now, is taken to the hut and seated next to Toby at what seems like a place of honor.  They sit on woven mats in a corner while a dozen natives eat their breakfast facing them in a semicircle.  The hut is spacious, perhaps forty feet by twenty, and the interior walls reveal the simple but sturdy bamboo construction.  Here and there pegs protrude from the crisscross of bamboo so that various utensils hang on the walls along with bunches of breadfruits and bananas.  Melvill and Toby are each given a bowl of poeepoee plus another of coconut meat and a half coconut shell filled with a citrus juice.  Eating with their fingers the tender chunks of coconut are not a problem but the poeepoee is another matter.  The day before, starving, they scooped it and poured it like a stringy soup, making a mess of themselves.  This morning Marheyo, the old man who is their host, tries to show them the proper technique.  Using only one finger he twirls it in the bowl nearly up to the last knuckle until a thick ball of poeepoee is wrapped around; then he sticks the entire finger in his mouth and pulls it out sucked clean.  Melvill discovers the technique requires practice.

The natives have begun several conversations and are paying little attention to Toby and Melvill.

Toby swirls his shell of juice before drinking it.  “How’s the leg holding up?”  Toby has raked his reddish blond hair straight back.  Like Melvill’s, it is long enough to bind in a ponytail.  Toby’s beard is patchy while Melvill’s is dark and thick.

“Not well I’m afraid.  Perhaps rest will help.”  Melvill finishes chewing a chunk of coconut meat.  “Why are we receiving service at the captain’s table?”

“I can’t figure it—unless they are fattening us for the feast.”

Melvill had had the same thought.  “All this trouble just to murder us.”

“The cattleman and the butcher are not a lazy lot.”

When breakfast is finished the old woman, Tinor, places all the dishes into a large wickerwork basket and takes them from the hut.  Marheyo speaks earnestly to Melvill.  The old man repeatedly takes hold of his own right leg, kneading the flesh.

“Yes, my limb is ill,” says Melvill, lost.

Marheyo gestures to Toby that it is time to leave the hut with the other guests.  The native waves his long brown fingers like he is shooing a cat.  When it is just Melvill and the old man together, he speaks emphatically again and points to the mat where Melvill had slept the night before.  Melvill understands to move there.  Marheyo gently pushes him to a reclining position; and he walks to the hut’s opening.  Maybe he merely wants me to rest, thinks Melvill, already feeling sleepy.  But in a minute or two Marheyo appears to be greeting someone.  Melvill watches the old man’s back, with its withered fish tattoos, as he speaks to the new arrival about Melvill’s leg, all the while massaging his own leg.

A kind of shaman? wonders Melvill.

Marheyo steps aside to let the visitor enter.  Melvill is surprised to see a young girl—fourteen or fifteen perhaps—carrying a tortoise-shell bowl.  She is the most beautiful island girl Melvill has seen in an ocean filled with vibrant beautiful girls.  Marheyo seems to be introducing her.  He says her name “Fayaway” several times and each time the old man touches his chest:  illustrating her closeness to his heart?  Fayaway is thin with long umberblack hair.  She appears to be free of tattooing except for two dots at the crests of her upper lip.

Melvill is up on his elbows.  Fayaway kneels beside him and puts her hand on his shoulder to urge him to lie flat.  There is a bracelet of small blue feathers on her wrist.  She moves the tappa away exposing his swollen leg from hip to foot.  His skin appears almost phosphorescent in the shaded interior of the hut.  The girl gently explores the leg, moving her light fingers over this thigh and knee and shin bone.  She and Marheyo speak for a moment.  To explain their conversation, Marheyo takes a banana from a bunch hanging on the wall.  He uses his bony fingers to show Melvill the yellow skin is smooth and unblemished, then the old man peels the skin and breaks the banana in half, exposing the tiny black seeds inside.

“Yes, there’s no outward sign of my distress, no laceration, nor boil, nor prick—so the problem must be inward.”  He can sense the fever is beginning to overtake his reason again.

Marheyo has a parting word for Fayaway then he leaves his hut eating the banana.  It is a bright day and the old man appears to be swallowed by the light.

Fayaway dips her small hands into the bowl and they come out glistening with an oily gelatin.  Starting with Melvill’s toes she slowly rubs the slick ointment into his skin.  Frequently she glances at Melvill’s face, perhaps to see if she is hurting him.  Melvill is struck by the similarities between her glittering eyes and her half-erect nipples:  the same size, the same rich brown.  The four perfect circles dance like alien moons in the sky of his feverish mind.

As Fayaway’s hands, which are now his entire reality, move past his knee Melvill cannot subdue the sexual arousal he is feeling.  He hopes that it is hidden beneath the folds of cloth but senses it is not.  Her hands move over his thigh with the same slow rhythm.  At first the ointment was cool but now a penetrating heat has begun at his foot and ankle, and is moving up at the same pace as Fayaway’s massaging fingers.  When she reaches his hip she gently lifts his leg enough to coat the underside in the gelatin.  When she is finished Fayaway instructs him to close his eyes by pointing to them with her slender fingers and closing her own eyes for a moment.

Melvill does as he is instructed.  Soon his entire leg is engulfed in the heat.  His body is totally relaxed, lifeless, except for his twitching organ, uncomfortable under the folded tappa.  He wants to uncover himself to relieve the pressure but senses Fayaway is still at his side.  No, not Fayaway . . . Madeline.  He believes he can smell the prostitute’s pungent city perfume, can feel the irregularities in the feather mattress of her New Bedford boardinghouse room.  Then why not pull back the sheet?  Propriety is not an issue, only price, and he has what remains of Captain Pease’s advance.  Eighty-four dollars minus—?

But propriety is an issue for a reason he cannot recall—only its vitalness.  And there is the dripping . . . as the icy rain overflows Madeline’s clogged gutter.  Dripping, yes, but aboard the Acushnet now . . . the arousal still pulsating with the heat-rhythm of his leg.  The dark figures below deck, the ominous whispering, the ubiquitous stench of the cooking whale sperm.  There is the leaden weight of threat on his chest—worse than fear because fear is fleeting.  This threat lingers, like a cancer, and there is no escape at sea. . . .

Strong hands are upon him and Melvill strikes out.  Once, twice.  But his arms are restrained as he is lifted.  He wants to shout out but he cannot recall to whom.  He finds his captor’s face.  Korykory.  The Typee carries him outside.  The sunlight, although partially filtered through the tropical green canopy, is painful to his eyes.  Korykory transports him to the bathing pool for the second time that day.  He helps Melvill wash the ointment from his leg.  In places the gelatin has turned white and caky.  Melvill attempts to hide his buoyant semierect penis.

Still floating, Melvill feels weak but the pain in his leg has subsided.  Korykory points to a grove of trees and says something about Toby.  Melvill thinks he understands.  “Yes, take me to Toby, please.”  He is helped from the stream, then he covers himself in the white toga and climbs upon Korykory’s back.  The momentary muscular strain causes the native’s tattooed birds to take a single wingstroke.  When they are past the boundary of trees Melvill sees a grassy clearing in which there are several huts of varying sizes, including one that is several times larger than the average.  Melvill notes that many of these huts are built on a foundation of high stone slabs.  Korykory takes him directly to the largest hut, the one that dominates the clearing, and uses footholds that are notched into the stone base to carry Melvill to the entrance.  Melvill is amazed at Korykory’s vitality.  There were strong men on the Acushnet, men who could do the heavy work of the sea for hours without tiring; but the strongest among them could not have carried Melvill the distance that Korykory has and then ended the trip with a vertical climb up eight feet of rock.

The front wall of the hut is recessed a few yards so that the stone base forms a portico, which is protected by the extended thatch roof of the hut.

Korykory, only slightly winded, waves his hand before the enormous hut and says, “Ti.”

Melvill, balancing on his good leg and Korykory’s shoulder, repeats the word and Korykory happily affirms the connection.  Korykory suddenly assumes an air of seriousness and seems to resist an impulse to step back.  Melvill realizes that a Typee has come from the hut.  The man is considerably older than Melvill but is made as muscularly as Korykory or any of the young warriors he has seen.  He is richly decorated in tattoos, more so even than the old-man host.  He puts his hand on his bare flat stomach and says, “Mehevi.”  He steps aside and invites Melvill into the Ti.  For the short distance Melvill elects to hobble inside with Korykory’s support rather than be carried.  A tobacco-smoke smell reaches him immediately in the dark hut.  The scent is pleasant, although distinct from the cuts of tobacco he is used to.  The rich smoke seems to be impeding the adjustment of his eyes.  Not quite seeing them, he can sense the dark shapes sitting or reclining on the floor.  Melvill has the disconcerting feeling that these shapes are animals peering up at him, wolves and predatory cats.  In the entire hut filled with bodies he hears no voices.  Perhaps it is his visitation that has caused the Typees’ muteness, or it is simply the way of the place.

Korykory is behind guiding him through the clusters of natives.

“Old fellow, there you are!”

Melvill, relieved, can hear the relief in Toby’s voice too.  Korykory helps him to a mat by his friend.

“I was afraid they’d decided you would be the appetizer and I the main course.”  Toby is holding a short wooden pipe.

Mehevi has sat facing them.  From a basket he produces a pipe similar to Toby’s.  It is already stuffed with tobacco.  Toby takes a small stick and puts one end into the bowl of his own pipe until the tip is glowing orange; then he uses it to set off Melvill’s pipe.

Melvill inhales deeply and lets the warm smoke out of his mouth and nose.  “A tad rough but a godsend nonetheless.”

Toby nods.  “Must be a local leaf.”

Melvill notices the murmur of conversation throughout the hut.  Apparently the silence was a reaction to his arrival.

“How’s the leg now, old fellow?”

“Perhaps a bit more limber but still a fount of pain.  My physician is lovely, but I’m afraid I may need less primitive doctoring.”

“I’m afraid we may yet become the guests of honor at a Typee feast.”

Mehevi, who has been smoking silently, smiles and says, “Typee,” his white teeth aglow in the shadowy Ti.

Melvill’s eyes have adjusted finally so he scans the interior.  There are dozens and dozens of Typees, young men and old, all sitting or reclining with their pipe; on woven mats that are either rolled into cushions or flat on the cool stone floor.  They are in groups of four to six or seven, carelessly arranged.  Ever since entering the Ti Melvill has been sensing dark circular objects hanging at regular intervals on the walls.  With his improved vision he looks up to discover the dark shapes are human heads.  The pipe nearly falls from his lips.  “Toby . . . on the walls.”

Toby glances up for an instant.  “Yes, quite a pleasant decorating touch isn’t it?”

The faces look to have the texture of smoked meat, desiccated and shrunk close to the bone.  The eyes have been replaced with something white and iridescent, chipped stone or seashell.  The heads glare wildly from their mounted positions.  Melvill thinks perhaps they retain the shadow of their horrorstruck expression at the instant of death.

Mehevi must notice Melvill staring and he gestures toward the heads and offers an explanation.  The only word that Melvill understands is “Happar,” the Typees’ neighboring enemies.

Melvill says to Toby, “Perhaps this Ti is one large hunting lodge and these heads the cherished trophies.”

“Yes, and a men’s club as well.”

They spend a peaceful hour in the Ti with their pipes and the indistinct native voices.  From time to time Melvill can imagine that the voices are mumbling English, the meanings just beyond his comprehension.  Also, the displayed heads start to become as familiar as sconces.  Even though there is no signal that Melvill can detect, all at once the Typees extinguish their pipes and begin to herd outdoors.  Melvill and Toby follow suit, Melvill with Korykory’s quick assistance.

The women and children have come to the grove and set up a midday meal.  Korykory takes Melvill and Toby to a spot where the old couple, Marheyo and Tinor, are waiting with the meal.  They sit on sheets of white tappa in the grass in the narrow shadow of the Ti.  The meal is the same as breakfast except for the substitution of coconut milk for the citrus juice.  Melvill is surprised at the number of Typees who are having their meal in the grove.  It is an aboriginal scene, unchanged in hundreds of years, perhaps thousands.  But their time is limited, speculates Melvill.  He thinks of the three French men-of-war anchored in Nukuheva Bay, and of how the occupation has already changed the coastal region of the island, and of how the French will not be satisfied with only the coast and will systematically work their way inland.  He thinks of how the Christian missionaries will follow the French like the scavenger sharks in the wake of the Acushnet.

“This certainly is superior to starvation,” says Toby after sucking poeepoee from his finger, “but I keep thinking about sinking my teeth into a thick beefsteak.”

“One day soon I’m certain—when we reach the Hawaiian Islands.”  Melvill hears the skepticism in his voice.

Melvill wants to stand when Fayaway approaches but his leg will not allow any sudden movement.  The beautiful girl speaks to Marheyo and Tinor then she says something to Melvill—he guesses about his leg.  Before he can find a way to respond she picks up a large bowl of boacho and offers it to him.  Melvill points to his smaller bowl which contains the fruity mush.  Fayaway insists that he take more.

Toby says, “I believe the doctor is prescribing a remedy, old fellow.”

Melvill pours the yellowish boacho into his bowl.  “Thank you.”

Fayaway continues kneeling at Marheyo’s side talking to the old man.  In profile, with her dark hair spilling over her shoulders, she appears totally nude.

Toby runs his finger along the rim of his bowl.  “Aside from the distinct possibility of ending up as sustenance, the Marquesas have their redeeming qualities.”

Melvill does not comment.

When the meal is finished Tinor and Fayaway load the empty bowls into the large basket, placing the folded tappa on top.  A majority of the men, including the decorated Mehevi, saunter toward the Ti.  Melvill, weary, mounts Korykory’s back thinking the Ti is their destination too; however Korykory begins following Marheyo, who is walking directly away from the massive hut.

“Where are we going?”  Melvill watches over his shoulder as Toby stands hesitant for a moment then shrugging turns toward the Ti.

Korykory must sense the meaning of Melvill’s question and offers a lengthy but fruitless Typee reply.  Not bridging the gap with the old man they follow, Korykory takes a path out of the ring of huts; and Melvill discovers that beyond the grove about a third of a mile are dozens of small flat-roofed structures.  Each one they pass has a totem of carved stone blocking its black opening.  Many of these small huts are in disrepair and collapsing in on themselves.  Several of the totems have fallen over.  Another footpath to the left and they come to a hut which is under construction.  Korykory unloads Melvill near a log on which he can rest then Korykory and Marheyo begin working on the bamboo-reed hut.  They work without speaking, each knowing his part in the process.  Korykory uses a sharp-edged stone to snap the bamboo at the proper length.  The reeds are slightly larger around than a man’s thumb.  Marheyo skillfully lashes the bamboo together with vines to extend the second wall.  The first wall stands erect supported by thick tree limbs; the wall being built is approximately a third of the first wall.  Each is about six feet high, estimates Melvill.  He is surprised that Korykory uses such a primitive method to size the bamboo because Melvill has noticed metal blades and tools among the Typees—evidence of some contact, if only indirectly, with sailors.

The spot where Melvill has been placed is shady and drowsiness soon begins to overtake him with the rise in his fever again.  He waits quietly hoping that Korykory will finish his part and return him to Marheyo’s hut, or at least the Ti.  But Marheyo and Korykory work without pause and there are so many dozen bamboo reeds to be sized.

Melvill hobbles a short distance to a grassy place near the log and lies down.  The grass feels cool and soft, and soon Melvill is asleep.  The snapping and lashing of the bamboo enters his sleepworld to become the sounds aboard the Acushnet:  the reeving of the sails, the banging of the tackles against the masts, the securing of supplies below deck.  And there is something missing . . .  someone missing.  Melvill watches the search boats circling astern, gray boats on a gray sea, and Melvill knows the truth.  He believes he knows.

When Melvill awakens Fayaway is sitting on the log watching Marheyo and Korykory work.  The change in light filtered through the leafy canopy—now more yellow than white—tells Melvill it is late afternoon.  Fayaway smiles down at Melvill then speaks to the silent workers.  She says the name “Hermes” and she uses the word “kiki,” which relates to food or eating, Melvill has learned.

Melvill tries to raise himself and finds that the pain in his leg is less acute but the stiffness is profound—truly like a piece of driftwood.  He cannot bend his knee at all, barely his ankle.  Fayaway, seeing his difficulty, calls to Korykory and the two of them help Meilvill to the log.  Melvill notices the differences in their grip on each bare arm:  Korykory’s hands are callused and powerful; Fayaway’s small and light, like a bird’s wings.

While Melvill and Fayaway sit she is explaining something about the structure being built.  Marheyo this, she says, and Marheyo that.  The second, or back, wall is erect and the third wall is a quarter finished.  Marheyo and Korykory are tidying up their materials, wrapping the bamboo into long palmetto leaves, balling the vines.  When they are finished, Korykory readies himself to carry Melvill, who feels a pang of guilt at not being able to walk.  After all, Korykory has been laboring all afternoon and now he must carry Melvill the great distance from the secluded flat-roofed huts, past the grove with the Ti, and back to the cluster of huts where Marheyo and Tinor live near the waterfall.  There is nothing to do about his guilt.  Marheyo and Fayaway walk in front, Korykory with Melvill behind.  Fayaway, though tall for a Typee female, comes only to Marheyo’s shoulder, and the old man is somewhat stooped.  Their bare feet leave no trace on the hard earth.

The grove where they lunched is quiet.  Melvill believes there must be dozens of men in the Ti smoking and socializing but he sees no one near its black entrance.  It is as if the entire grove is sleeping—even the huts and the wildlife—or holding its breath, suspending living for a time.  The quiet makes Melvill uneasy.  He wants to ask, “Where is everyone?” but anticipates no response.  Half dozing on Korykory’s back, Melvill recalls legends of magic spells putting entire villages to sleep, of evil palls cast upon castles.   Always it is an heroic act which lifts the spell.  He senses no heroism in himself nor in Toby.  Desperation, trepidation, primal fear—just beneath the surface.

As they approach Marheyo’s hut Melvill sees Tinor and other old women bent over a large piece of white cloth working it with some sort of hand tool, like a small rolling pin.  They are chattering but stop as soon as Marheyo’s group draws near.  Marheyo speaks briefly to his wife, or so their relationship seems to Melvill, before Korykory takes Melvill inside.  Fayaway continues past Marheyo’s, presumably to her family’s hut.

Korykory eases Melvill down then immediately goes to a corner of the hut and lies in a fetal position.  In seconds, while Melvill is still watching, Korykory is asleep.  At first, in the dim light, Melvill does not recognize the things stacked on his sleeping mat but touches them and realizes they are his clothes.  He is happy to get out of the makeshift toga and put on his familiar shirt and underbreeches and trousers.  They are freshly laundered and have a pleasant floral scent.  He leaves his shoes and stockings on the mat.

Melvill sits, thinking that is all he will do, but the drowsiness of fever quickly overcomes him and he lies down.  He recalls sleeping in a strange room with his older brother.  It is Christmastime and outdoors a thick blanket of snow covers the ground.  Melvill hears his father’s voice . . . downstairs, talking and laughing—storytelling.  Melvill reaches for his old patchwork quilt but it is not cold really.  His groping hand finds the white tappa and he cover himself.  His father’s story is a dissipating echo, like invisible dripping in a cave.  He tries in vain to revive the dream of New England, to resurrect the ghost of his father.  The darkness of the cave becomes real when Melvill awakens.  The hut is black.  He sits upright and looks at the opening.  It is a rectangle of lavender twilight.  Korykory is gone.  Melvill struggles up and goes to the opening.  No one is outside.  From Marheyo’s hut Melvill can see the grove with the Ti and between the blacktrunk trees is the orange glow of fire.  Supper time? he wonders.  Then why was I not called?  And where is Toby?

Because of his leg, the Ti seems a great distance but Melvill begins to make his way.  He is surprised that the ground is cool under his bare feet.  He expects it to feel like baked terracotta, only minutes from the kiln.  Walking is painful and he wishes he had a sturdy stick.  He can detect the smell of woodsmoke now and of roasting meat.  He thinks of Toby, whom he has not seen for hours.  Queasiness slows his already slow pace.  The light from the fire in the grove reminds him of the bellies of the cookstoves on the Acushnet, day and night boiling down the blubber when a kill has been made.  The sickening smell of the melting fat, which permeated every space on the ship, comes to him again, adding to his nausea.

The light of the fires—the one in the grove and the recollected fire from the ship—nearly blinds him.  Melvill stops, as if the twin fires have consumed his energy, his will.  It is all he can do to keep from falling to the ground.

The Typees who emerge from the grove are like two shadow-warriors:  black shapes against the fireglow.  Melvill wants to run but cannot.  He collapses when the dark figures reach him.  Each taking an arm and a leg they carry him to the grove.  Melvill, sick with fear, tries to shout out—for Toby, Korykory, Fayaway—but he has no voice.  In the grove he sees that it is not one great fire but many fires.  Their heat, combined with the sultry tropical heat, is intense.  The warriors, who at least have distinct features in the firelight, carry him to one of the smaller ground-level huts adjacent to the Ti.

“Old fellow!”  Toby rushes over.  “I had really given you up.”  He helps Melvill to sit upright.  They are alone in the small dark hut.

“What’s happening?”  Melvill’s voice is a hoarse whisper.

“I can’t say for certain.  They’ve been dancing about these fires for some time—rather ceremoniously.”

Melvill leans over to see out.  “Is the ceremony for us, do you think?”

Toby rearranges himself so they are on either side of the hut’s opening.  “I can’t say; but it seems likely.”

“Why not get on with in then?”

“It is their religion, I suppose.  You know that religious rites are not known for their swiftness.”

“Toby, you must escape.  I’m in no condition to flee, but you. . . .”

“My chances out there are no better, especially in the dark.  There are hundreds of them.  Thousands maybe.  The whole damned cannibal nation has turned out for the event.”

They sit in silence for a time.  Outside the fires crackle and the Typees dance and chant.  Melvill wonders about the decisions they have made, jumping ship and setting out for the wild country with no provisions and no weapons—totally at the mercy of who or what would find them.  The whole episode makes no sense.  There is no logic to any of their moves.  Melvill, the gifted student, the debate society president, is awed by the rashness of his actions.  He and Toby were doomed the instant they left Nukuheva Bay—running in that torrential downpour like freed schoolboys.

“I’m sorry it has come to this,” says Melvill.

“It’s not your fault, old fellow.  We made the plans together.  I knew what the possibilities were.”  Toby glances outside.  “They’re coming.”

Their hands clasp on the sandy floor of the hut.

Melvill recognizes one of the trio approaching as Korykory.  Another is Mehevi, the richly tattooed chieftain.  The third Typee, who stays close to Mehevi’s side, Melvill does not know.  All three, backlit, appear to wear plumes of fire for headdress.

Korykory kneels at the hut’s opening.  He holds a flat piece of wood.  He says something “kiki.”

“They bring food,” repeats Melvill.

On the wood are several strips of smoking meat.

“Yes,” says Toby, releasing Melvill’s hand, “but my god, what kind of meat?”

“Kiki,” insists Korykory thrusting the strips toward Melvill.

Melvill’s stomach is turning, partly from the fear that has been consuming him and partly from the idea of this cannibal offering.  He recalls the severed heads in the Ti.  “No kiki,” he says weakly, shaking his head.

Korykory seems confused, almost embarrassed.  He takes a pieces of the meat and bites it himself.  “Puarkee.”  He grins and chews the meat; juice trickles down his chin.  “Puarkee.”  He holds the remainder of the meat to Melvill’s lips.

Melvill, his head pounding from the tension and the fever, hesitates then opens his mouth slightly.  Korykory pushes the meat past Melvill’s parted lips.  He fights the urge to gag as he begins to chew.  The rich flavor floods his tongue and it is familiar.  He swallows some of the meat.  “Pork.  The natives are roasting some of those wild boars.  It’s delicious.”

Korykory, visibly happy, turns to Toby, who takes a strip of meat.  He cautiously puts it in his mouth.  “You’re right—damned succulent too.”

They come from the hut and sit near one of the fires.  The Typees dance and chant and tell their incomprehensible warrior stories.  The halfmoon is high when the feast finally ends.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter