IGNYTE Shorts: Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan by Christopher Caldwell

John Wood is a carpenter on-board a 19th century whaling ship sailing out from Nantucket. A former slave, John finds love and companionship in the form of fellow sailor William Harker.

‘No light but the moon, but John could walk the length of the Gracie-Ella’s decks eyes closed and barefoot without placing a wrong stop. She was named for the daughters of two men who held her title, and at sea she belonged to the captain, but John reflected that she was his as much as anyone’s; his hands had shaped her and healed her, cosseted her and kept her afloat. He ducked down below decks. In the dark he made his way midship to a space he and the cooper shared. The smell of sawdust and resin was a comfort. A few strikes of a flint and the lantern overhanging his workspace was alight. John set about arranging his tools. The work here was sweet. He ran his hand over words he had carved on the underside of the vice-bench. “I hereby manumit & set free John Wood. He may go wheresoever he pleases.”’

https://uncannymagazine.com/article/canst-thou-draw-out-the-leviathan/ Uncanny Issue 28

The story leads off with a title from the King James Bible quoting the Book of Job, framing the story within the scope of humans facing both greater primal forces (here the ocean and the whales they are hunting) and divinity.

The divine appears in two forms. Firstly, the pious harpooner To’afa (known to the crew as Gospel) who acts as self-appointed judge of the crew’s morals and as an amateur chaplain for the ship. Secondly, the cabin boy Pip, who has some sort of spiritual connection with a quite different form of divinity:

‘John lifted the boy up and staggered against sudden weight; in an instant Pip felt heavier than one of the blanket pieces. He kneeled under the tremendous burden. Pip’s eyes snapped open. The boy’s expression was hard and made him look far older than his fourteen years. His voice was like thunder. “John Wood. You know me not. But you I know. Your kin called to me for safe passage across my waters.”
John groaned struggling to keep the boy upright. “Pip, this ain’t sensible. You struck your head.”
The boy’s look was pitying. “Pip? No. I am the storm and the wind hard behind it. I am the wave and the darkness below. I, the white foam and the shifting sea sand. Do you know me, John Wood?”
John whispered, “Agwe?”
“The blood remembers. Destruction follows your present course. You have until the moon waxes full and wanes again.” Pip shut his eyes. John felt the weight vanish from the boy.’

The interplay of quasi-divine forces (the sea, the massive creatures that the ship hunts) is a familiar setting. A prophecy of disaster goes unheeded but given the the nature of the trade and the violence of the seas, the inevitability of disaster is guaranteed with or without divine intervention.

Like many a ghost story, the central character is more of an observer of events than an instigator of change. John is helpless in the face of powers far beyond his capacity to influence or control. However, it is within his smaller deeds of kindness and consideration that his fate is set.

It’s a strong story that uses a familiar setting and familiar themes within that setting, to tell a smaller ghost story and love story painted within a canvas of bigger themes of vast powers.

3 thoughts on “IGNYTE Shorts: Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan by Christopher Caldwell

  1. I really liked this one. Basically decent people (extremely decent by the standards of their time) doing the best they can against terrible odds.

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    1. Yes, very likable. I’m less surprised it didn’t get picked up by other awards because it’s more of a solid, entertaining story than an exceptional story but we actually could have done with more hopeful stories this year — and despite the death and tragedy, this one has a positive arc.

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