“I’m afraid it’s going to be a dreary Christmas,” said Meg.
“Oh, it will be awful!” said Amy. “Marmee has spent all our money on potatoes for that wretched Hummel family. I doubt I’ll even get a lime in my stocking.”
“You don’t deserve a lime,” said Jo, from her favorite place on the hearthrug. “You’re too conceited.”
“And selfish,” added Meg. “Don’t you know the Hummels are starving?”
“I was hoping for some new music. Or a kitten,” said Beth, with a sigh.
“You shall have both,” said Jo. “Aunt March paid me a holiday bonus this year. Meg shall have a new scarf, and Marmee a new bonnet, and Amy shall have nothing because she is already spoiled.”
Amy made a horrid face, and stomped out of the room. “I hate you, Josephine March!” she cried.
“Why must you tease her so?” said Meg.
Beth put a log on the fire and said, “What about you, Jo? What will you buy for yourself?”
“Why, my harpoon, of course,” said Jo.
On Christmas morning, Meg answered a knock at the door and found Laurie on the step with a steaming bowl of wassail.
“Are you ready to go caroling?” he said.
“Oh, no,” said Meg. “We’ve only just opened our presents. You’ll never pull Amy away from her sketchbook. Or Beth from her music. Or Jo from her harpoon.”
“Jo from her what?” said Laurie.
“Her harpoon. She’s sharpening it now.”
Laurie went in to have a look at Jo’s harpoon. It had a wooden base and a long iron neck with a frightful barb at the end.
“Whatever will you do with it?” said Laurie, as Jo worked the blade with a whetstone.
“I shall kill whales,” she said. “What else?”
“But Jo. You’re a girl. Girls don’t kill whales.”
“I’m not a girl. I’m a tomboy. And I want to get some blood under my fingernails.”
“Oh, Jo,” laughed Mrs. March.
All winter, Jo practiced throwing her harpoon at the old elm tree in the front yard. Soon she could throw it further and more accurately than Laurie, or even Mr. Brooke, Laurie’s tutor.
“That girl has a remarkable arm,” Mr. Brooke told Mrs. March. “But she doesn’t really think she’s going whaling, does she?”
“Oh, no,” said Mrs. March. “It’s just a flight of fancy. Jo has a wild imagination.”
When springtime came, Jo took her harpoon, which she had named Undine, to the pond to try her hand at spearfishing. She walked along the bank until she saw a big catfish, then lifted Undine above her head and hurled it at the fish’s broad back. Her heart raced as the harpoon split the water, and she yelped with glee when it hit home. But Jo’s celebration was short-lived. Her harpoon had pinned the fish to the bottom of the pond some ten feet from shore.
“How in the world will I retrieve it?” said Jo. “I forgot to attach the rope!”
She thought about running home to get Laurie or Mr. Brooke, but decided against it.
“As soon as I leave, someone will come along and steal my Undine. I shall just have to get wet.”
Jo kicked off her shoes, pulled up her skirt and bloomers, and waded into the pond. She grabbed hold of the harpoon and yanked upward as hard as she could. When it came loose, Jo fell backward, landing with a splash in the shallow water. Her clothes were soaked, but she felt a powerful sense of accomplishment when she raised the harpoon and saw the bloody fish.
“Now I am a fisherman,” said Jo.
One afternoon in July, a coach arrived at the March home, and a man with luggage climbed out.
“It’s Father!” cried Amy, from her bedroom window.
Meg and Beth and Jo flung open the door and ran out to greet him. He dropped his bags and took all three of them in his arms.
“Did you miss me?” he chuckled.
“How long will you stay?” said Jo. “Is the war over?”
“I’m afraid it’s only a short leave.”
Everyone, especially Jo, was happy to have Father home. She showed him her harpoon and told him about her fishing expeditions. When it came time for him to leave, she asked her mother if she could go too. “I’d like to visit New York and stay at the boardinghouse with Mrs. Kirke.”
“A very good idea,” said Mrs. March. “I’ll write her you’re coming. And I’m sure Aunt March will lend us the money for an extra train ticket.”
“The train goes too fast, Marmee. I want to have as much time with Father as possible. Can’t we take a coach?”
“I don’t see why not, Jo.”
On the day of departure, Jo made a tearful goodbye to her sisters, and joined her father in the coach.
“Why is Jo bringing a harpoon to New York?” said Amy.
The coachman drove them into New Bedford the next day, and pulled up outside a dreadful-looking inn.
“We aren’t stopping here, are we?” said Mr. March. “The place is surely condemned.”
The ramshackle old building shook and rattled in the strong coastal winds. A stale beer scent emanated from within.
“It’s what the little woman told me,” replied the coachman. “Spouter Inn.”
“Where did you hear of such a hostelry?” said Mr. March to Jo.
Jo untied her harpoon from the top of the coach. “I’m not going on to New York,” she said. “I’m staying here, until I can find a good whaling ship.”
“Oh, Jo,” said Mr. March. “I know better than to try and stop you, but please think about what you’re doing. The high seas are no place for a young lady.”
“I’m a harpooner,” said Jo. “The best in New England. And I’m out for blood.”
Mr. March shook his head mournfully. “I have seen blood, Jo. Enough blood to fill an ocean. There is nothing heroic about blood or killing.”
“Please give my apologies to Mrs. Kirke,” said Jo. “Goodbye, Father.”
Jo turned away brusquely, hiding a tear, and entered the inn without looking back. She heard the horses clatter away and began to cry.
“There, there,” said the landlord, coming out from the dismal bar. “What’s the matter?”
“I’ve just said goodbye to my father,” said Jo with a sniffle. “He’s going back to the war and may never return.”
“Course he will. Johnny Reb’s got nothing on our boys.” The landlord laid a comforting hand on Jo’s shoulder and tousled her long, chestnut hair.
“I need a room,” said Jo, composing herself.
“This is a whaler’s house, girl.”
“You see my harpoon.”
“I do. And figured you was delivering it to some cruddy blubber-chaser or other.”
“I am the cruddy blubber-chaser. Now how about that room?”
“Live long enough, and you’ll see everything,” said he landlord. He limped over to the desk and studied the book, stroking his gray beard as he did. “Nothing,” he said. “Unless you wouldn’t mind sharing with a couple of men. A-heh-heh.”
“I don’t mind,” said Jo.
“Oh, now look, missus. I have to draw the line somewhere. These men are whalers.”
“I’m sure they’re perfect gentlemen. Show me the room.”
“Lord, almighty. They’ll put me in jail for this.”
The landlord led Jo up the creaking stairs, down a hall with a warped floor, to a door, which he kicked open. Inside, two men, one white, the other a tattooed Polynesian, were sprawled out on a prodigious bed, under a patchwork counterpane. The Polynesian’s arm was thrown over the white man’s chest in a parody of marital affection.
“Get up, you two! You’ve got a new roommate!” shouted the landlord.
The Polynesian leaped out of bed and snatched up a harpoon. He made the most hideous face, and grunted like an angry boar.
Jo smiled enthusiastically and said, “Oh, I love your harpoon! And that counterpane is beautiful. It reminds me of the one my sisters and I made for Aunt March!”
The Polynesian lowered his weapon and cast a puzzled glance at his bedmate. The handsome white man stood, covering himself with the counterpane, and said, “Where are you manners? Can’t you see there’s a lady present? Please enter, miss. You may call me Ishmael. And this is my friend, Queequeg.”
“Very pleased to meet you,” said Jo, shaking their hands. “It looks as if I’m to sleep here tonight.”
“And very welcome you’ll be. Right, Queequeg?”
“Well, I guess you queer fish will get along just fine,” said the landlord.
That night, Ishmael and Queequeg slept on the floor, atop the soft counterpane, leaving the entire bed for Jo. In the morning, she awoke to find Queequeg at the mirror, shaving with his harpoon.
“My goodness!” said Jo. “It must be sharper than mine!”
“Plenty. Kill-ee good,” said Queequeg.
Jo got out of bed and stood next to him, admiring the labyrinthine tattoos on his face and chest. “Are you really a cannibal?” she said.
“Eat-ee plenty men,” said Queequeg.
“Would you like to see my harpoon?” said Jo.
Jo took her harpoon out from under the bed. “She’s called Undine, after the water sprite.”
Queequeg hefted the harpoon and made a couple throwing motions. He told Jo it was a good harpoon, and that it would kill many whales, after it was sharpened properly. “Me sharp-ee. You see.” He went to work on Undine with his stone, rousing Ishmael, who sat up and yawned.
“Good morning, Ish!” said Jo. “Fair dreams?”
“The fairest. I was at sea. Far from these overpopulated shores.”
“I think I shall miss people terribly when I’m away at sea. Don’t you like people, Ish?”
“Sometimes I would enjoy nothing more than to knock the hats from their heads.”
“Marmee says that all people are good at heart. Even if they don’t always show it.”
“Uh,” said Queequeg.
Ishmael, who had slept in his clothes, got up and splashed some water on his face. Jo, still in her nightshirt, combed her hair.
“If you expect us to get you on a whaling ship, that will have to go,” said Ishmael.
“What will have to go?” said Jo.
“The hair. You’ll have to pass as a man, at least until we’re underway.”
“But my sister Amy says my hair is my one beauty!”
“Bring me the harpoon, Queequeg.”
And so the trio set out for Nantucket in search of a whaling vessel. Jo, now with considerably less hair, wore Queegueg’s tall beaver hat and a pair of Ishmael’s trousers. Halfway to the island, the ferry hit rough seas. Ishmael and Queequeg stood on deck, passing a pipe, as Jo clung to the rail, sliding back and forth with every swell. “Christopher Columbus!” she cried. “It must be a hurricane!”
Ishmael and Queequeg laughed.
“Why do you laugh? We’re going to die!” said Jo.
“You’ll get your sea legs soon enough,” said Ishmael. “At least you don’t get sick.”
No sooner had he said this than Jo leaned over and vomited into the frothy Atlantic.
Only one whaling ship was preparing to sail from Nantucket. She was a three-master called the Pequod, and her captain, Ahab, had a strange reputation. He’d lost a leg to a monstrous whale, and had lately turned moody and reclusive. He was, by all accounts, however, a fine seaman, so, lacking any other options, Ishmael, Jo, and Queequeg boarded the Pequod to inquire about shipping on her.
Queequeg demonstrated his skill to the ship’s owner by hurling his harpoon from the bow and sticking it in the center of the mainmast. Ishmael had never been whaling (he was a merchantman) and could not throw a harpoon. The owner signed him on as a common sailor, at much less pay. When Jo stepped up to his desk, the salty mariner laughed outright. “And what would I want with a scrawny scrap like you? We’ve already got a cabin boy.”
“I’m the best harpooner you’re likely to see,” said Jo, lowering her voice to sound mannish.
The owner told the young man to prove it, provided he could lift a harpoon.
Jo gripped Undine, turned casually, and whipped her at the mainmast, where Queequeg’s harpoon remained stuck. Undine cut the air like a lightning bolt, struck the wooden butt of the other harpoon, and cleaved it in two.
“Ye Gods!” said the owner. “You’ll get the same share as the savage, to be sure. Sign here.”
Jo wrote “Joseph March” in the book, and followed her friends to their sleeping quarters in the forecastle.
Jo’s first weeks at sea were very trying. She became so sick during a squall at the Grand Banks that she had to stay in her hammock for a whole day. The men teased her, but not too badly, for they had all been greenhorns themselves at one time.
Jo found the food (mostly salt pork and biscuits) tolerable, but the stench of her fellow sailors, who seldom washed, was hard to endure.
“I cannot even speak to the cook, unless I’m a harpoon’s length away,” she confided to Ishmael.
“Yes,” said Ishmael. “The cook’s breath is very foul. But the second mate’s is worse. Mind you don’t get chewed out by him.”
Captain Ahab was an enigma. He closed himself up in his cabin all day, and walked the deck only after dark. Jo, lying below in her hammock, could hear his whalebone leg thumping slowly from bow to stern.
One night, she crept up the ladder and peeked toward the aft of the ship. A tall figure, wrapped all in shadow, loomed behind the helmsman, who steered with the utmost attention. A flash of dry lightning illuminated the scene, and Jo beheld the scarred visage of Captain Ahab. It was a frightening face, chapped and wrinkled, with cold, possessed eyes.
“You!” thundered Ahab.
The sky went black again. Jo listened intensely.
Clunk. Clunk, clunk. “You there!”
Ahab was coming toward her, but Jo was too terrified to flee. Just as she was about to scream, someone grabbed her from behind and pulled her down the ladder.
“Get back in your hammock,” said Ishmael.
Jo did as she was told, and closed her eyes tightly.
“Who dares spy on me?” boomed the voice from above.
“Tis I,” said Ishmael, climbing through the hatch. “Here to stand watch.”
“Well, be about it, man,” said Ahab. “You’re late.”
Try as she might, Jo didn’t sleep a wink that night.
Jo performed her daily duties with good cheer, but was beginning to wonder if she’d ever see a whale. Then, one day off the coast of Iceland, the lookout shouted what she’d been waiting many weeks to hear: “There she blows!”
A massive sperm whale breached off the Pequod’s bow, launching a spume of water from its blowhole. Jo had never seen anything so magnificent. She stood on the deck in a trance as the men busily gathered their gear.
“Get your harpoon and get in the boat!” said Starbuck, the first mate.
Jo fetched Undine and hopped into the whaleboat with Starbuck and the oarsmen. Before she could sit down, the deckhands started lowering. Jo tumbled into her seat, nearly dropping Undine over the side.
“Hold on to that iron,” said Starbuck. “You’re going to need it.”
The boat landed on the calm sea, and the oarsmen threw off the ropes. “Stroke!” said Starbuck “Break your backs, men!”
Three other boats were converging on the whale, each with a harpooner in the bow. Queequeg waved at Jo. The whale, rolling languidly in the sun, took no notice of the commotion.
“Get that line attached,” said Starbuck.
Jo secured a rope to Undine, but when she looked up, the whale was gone. She saw nothing but miles and miles of empty ocean.
“Hold, now,” said Starbuck in a whisper. “He’ll be back.”
Minutes elapsed without a sign of their quarry. Then Queequeg grunted and pointed his harpoon at a disturbance on the water. Little bubbles were rising up from the depths and bursting on the surface.
“Pull back!” said Starbuck.
As the oarsmen frantically tried to reverse the boats, the ocean erupted, and a mountain of gray-blue flesh vaulted into the air. The whale thrashed its mighty flukes and crashed down lengthwise, releasing an enormous wave that capsized Queequeg’s boat. Jo let out a high-pitched squeal as the ridge of water surged beneath her. The boat stayed afloat, but Starbuck shot her a suspicious look.
The whale, furious, turned and swam directly at them. It opened its cavernous mouth, and Jo wondered if the story of Jonah were true, if she could really live in the belly of a whale.
“What are you waiting for?” said Starbuck. “Let fly!”
Jo raised her harpoon and threw it with all the strength she had. The iron struck true, and blood erupted from her enemy’s brow. The whale aborted its attack and dove straight down. Jo watched the rope uncoiling rapidly from the tub at her feet, and feared they would be dragged to the bottom. Fortunately, the whale halted its dive and began to swim in a westerly direction, pulling the little boat with it.
“Nantucket sleigh ride!” said Starbuck.
The whale swam and swam, taking them far away from the Pequod and the other pursuit boats. Jo had never felt such exhilaration. The wind rushed over her face, blowing off her hat. When the whale finally stopped and surfaced, she was ready with another harpoon.
“Let him have it!” said Starbuck.
Jo drove the dart into the whale’s side, and Starbuck chucked another, connecting just below the blowhole. The whale bled profusely. Jo never imagined that a single creature could hold so much blood. They rowed closer and Starbuck stabbed it repeatedly with his lance. As the leviathan wallowed in its gore, the crew celebrated with shouts of joy.
“A fine payday, my little woman,” said Starbuck, grinning at Jo.
Back on the Pequod, Jo sat nervously in her hammock.
“Why are you hiding down here?” said Ishmael. “You’re the hero of the day.”
“Starbuck knows,” said Jo.
“Oh. Well, I wouldn’t worry about that. He isn’t likely to throw his star harpooner overboard for being a girl. You’ve just earned this ship a great deal of money. Now come with me.”
Ishmael led Jo topside, where the crew were cutting up the whale and boiling its blubber to make oil.
“It smells worse than the cook!” said Jo. “And the smoke! My goodness!”
As she bent to study the workings of the furnace, a gang of men grabbed her from behind and lifted her onto their shoulders.
“Here she is, boys!” the ringleader cried. “Three cheers for our little woman!”
All the sailors looked up from their chores and shouted, “Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!”
“Oh, dear,” said Jo to Ishmael, as the men carried her off. “Starbuck’s told them all!”
And so he had, even Captain Ahab, who stood on the quarterdeck, observing the proceedings with a gloomy eye.
“For she’s a jolly good fellow!” sang the crew.
Jo’s bearers stood her atop a barrel, and she took a delighted bow. It reminded her of the theatricals she used to put on with her sisters, except now she was a real-life Roderigo!
“Come here, Starbuck,” growled Ahab.
Starbuck’s smile faded when he saw the captain’s stormy countenance.
“Muster the crew,” was his command.
Starbuck relayed the order, and the men quickly ceased singing. Ishmael helped Jo down from the barrel, and they joined their shipmates at the mainmast, where Ahab was holding aloft a gold doubloon.
“I seek a white whale,” said Ahab. “And whoever raises him will have this ounce of Spanish gold. The whale has a creased forehead, a bent jaw, and three rusty harpoons in his side. You cannot mistake him.”
“Would that be Moby Dick?” said Starbuck. “The whale that took your leg?”
“The very same. When you see the devil, sing out, and the gold will be yours!”
Everyone cheered, except the cook. “What about this little woman?” he said, pointing at Jo. “Girls on ships are bad luck, as well you know, Captain.”
“Bad luck?” said Ahab. “There’s your bad luck, bubbling away in the try-pots. If she’s bad luck, I’ll take a hundred of her.”
“I suppose we’ll be expected to wash now,” said the cook. “What with a lady on board.”
“Back to your galley, lout! The rest of you, find me a white whale.”
Three days later, the Pequod came upon a pod of five blue whales. They were gigantic, some of the largest the men had ever seen. Jo headed for her boat, but Captain Ahab said, “Sail on.”
Starbuck was incredulous. “You’re letting a fortune swim away, sir!”
“It’s the white whale I’m after,” said Ahab.
As the months wore on, the captain grew more distant, and the crew more restless. Jo and Queequeg passed the time by carving intricate designs on their harpoons. Ishmael isolated himself in the crow’s nest, where he pondered life’s mysteries. Starbuck—his round, mutton-chopped face growing increasingly red—seemed on the verge of mutiny.
“The captain’s gone mad,” he told Jo. “He thinks of nothing but Moby Dick. And meanwhile, we make no money.”
“This endless searching for a single whale is wasteful,” said Jo. “We must take time by the forelock, or fetlock, as my silly sister Amy says, and start filling our pots. I shall have a word with Mr. Ahab myself.”
“I’d reconsider that if I were you, missy. Yesterday the captain knocked a man down and nearly kicked him to death with that whalebone leg of his.”
“Why would he do such a thing?”
“The fellow had the audacity to complement the captain’s pea coat, and ask him where he might acquire a similar one.”
“Outrageous!” said Jo.
She marched straight to Ahab’s cabin and pounded on the door.
“Who dares disturb me?” thundered the voice within.
“Jo March. Of Orchard House, Concord.”
The door swung open, and Ahab stood there scowling.
“Good day,” said Jo, brushing past him into the room. “Oh, what a mess your cabin is! There are plates and mugs everywhere, and it smells like a kennel!”
Ahab swung around on his peg-leg and watched as Jo tidied up his quarters.
“When was the last time you changed these sheets? Marmee would take away your singing privileges for a week if she saw this!”
“I hate singing,” said Ahab.
“Nonsense,” said Jo, fluffing a pillow. “Everyone likes singing. Would you like to sing with me? The cook taught me a funny little tune called “The Female Cabin Boy.” I don’t think Marmee would approve of all the lyrics, but we can skip the naughty parts if you like.”
Ahab distended his nostrils and snarled, “Get out of here before I have you keelhauled!”
Jo smiled brightly. “When my sister Amy is in a foul mood, we give her a lime, and it always cheers her up. Would you like a lime, Captain Ahab?” She took the fruit from her pocket and offered it to him. For a moment it looked as if Ahab would slap it out of her hand, but then his face softened and he grinned a little.
“My wife likes limes,” he said. “And so do I. Keeps the scurvy away. I believe I will have one, little woman.”
“Good. Now that you’re in a better mood, maybe we can get back to killing cetaceans.”
“I’ll tell you what, Jo,” said Ahab, peeling the lime. “The next whale we see, we’re going to kill, be it white, blue, or phosphorescent. How does that sound?”
“Capital,” said Jo. “I’ll tell the crew!”
Though Ahab remained in good spirits, no whales could be found. When the Pequod finally crossed the equator into the southern whaling grounds, it was Christmastime. Jo decorated as best she could, painting the capstan green and calling it her little Christmas tree.
“I’m awfully homesick,” she said to Ishmael, as they trimmed the tree with bits of net and sail. “Right now Marmee is hanging holly and Beth is playing carols on the piano and Meg and Amy are singing along. On Christmas Day Laurie and his grandfather will visit, and everyone will open presents and have the most wonderful time.”
“Sounds like a perfect nightmare,” said Ishmael.
“Oh, Ish. Don’t you even like Christmas? I suppose you’d be running around knocking people’s hats into the punchbowl. You really should try to be more sociable.”
Jo put an angel she’d made from seagull feathers in the center of the capstan-head and stepped back to admire her work. As she did, she noticed something most unusual. The fat cook and three of his sailor friends were coming toward them, wearing banana-leaf skirts.
“Mercy me!” said Jo. “Is this how they celebrate Christmas at sea?”
“It’s nothing to do with Christmas,” said Ishmael. “We’ve just passed the equator.”
The cook grabbed Jo by the arm, and said, “Come along, pollywog, King Neptune is expecting you.”
“Who’s King Neptune?” said Jo.
“This is your first line-crossing,” said Ishmael. “You must undergo an initiation into Neptune’s Kingdom. Then you won’t be a pollywog anymore.”
“What will I be?”
“A shellback, of course!”
The cook and his goons took Jo to the quarterdeck, where Starbuck, in a false beard, was seated on a throne constructed of old salt pork barrels. The second mate sat beside him, dressed as an elegant queen with long seaweed hair. His dress was a tightly-wrapped sheet, and his crown a shiny sawblade, fashioned ingeniously into a round hat.
Soon the deck was filled with drunken sailors costumed as mermaids, nymphs and bathing beauties.
“Everything’s topsy-turvy!” said Jo.
“Silence!” said Starbuck, raising his trident. “You have been summoned to the Court of Neptune for being a slimy pollywog. How do you plead?”
“Guilty!” shouted the crew. “Guilty!”
“If guilty means I haven’t crossed the equator before, then I admit it,” said Jo. “Why, this voyage is the first time I’ve been south of Walden Pond!”
“You speak too much, wog,” said Neptune. “Davy Jones! Bring the fish!”
The crew chanted “The fish! The fish!” and Queequeg appeared with an old sea chest chained round his neck.
“Remove the fish, my queen,” said Neptune.
The second mate stepped forward, walking awkwardly in his constricting dress, and opened Queequeg’s locker. Inside was a smelly grouper, which he held up for the crew’s approval.
“The fish!” they cried. “Give her the fish!”
“Commence!” ordered King Neptune.
The queen swung the fish, slapping Jo on the shoulder.
“Ow!” said Jo. “That hurt!”
“Again!” commanded Neptune.
Jo received a blow on the other shoulder and cried out once more.
“Keep going,” said Neptune. “Until she is quiet.”
The queen bent low and thumped Jo in the belly with the grouper. She doubled over, but managed to remain silent.
“Now,” said Neptune. “How do you plead?”
“Guilty,” muttered Jo, holding her stomach.
“Very well. The Court of Neptune hereby convicts you of being a slimy, rebellious pollywog, and sentences you to take the oil bath. Bring forth the spermaceti, Davy Jones.”
Queequeg opened his locker and removed a large jar of spermaceti oil, taken from the skull of the sperm whale they’d killed. The crew cheered as he raised the jar and poured its contents over Jo’s head. The waxy oil was hot and sticky in the tropic sun. It covered Jo’s hair and face and she was afraid to open her eyes.
“More!” ordered Neptune.
The mermaids and nymphs all rushed forth with jars of their own and doused Jo from head to toe. It was thoroughly disgusting, but Jo laughed despite herself.
“And now, my dear, you are officially a shellback,” said Neptune. “Davy Jones! Cleanse my new subject!”
Queequeg dumped a barrel of saltwater over Jo. When the oil was all washed off, he took her on a promenade around the deck. Crewman slapped her back and presented her with shell necklaces, seaweed bracelets and other trinkets. Ishmael gave her an ivory whale tooth, on which he’d carved an image of the Pequod.
“Oh, thank you, Ish!” said Jo. “I shall cherish it forever, and always remember the day I became a shellback.”
“I shall remember it, too, my little woman,” said Ishmael, as the merry sailors whisked her away.
On Christmas Day, four whales were spotted. They swam together, sporting playfully.
“Captain!” said Jo, beating on Ahab’s door. “There are right whales off the starboard bow. Shall we kill them?”
Ahab came out looking crazed. “What’s that you say? White whales?”
“Right whales, sir.”
“I care not for rights, girl! It’s the white whale I want. I’ll chase him round the cape, and round the horn, and round hell’s inferno before I relent!”
“Your troubles are returning,” said Jo. “Ish says it’s monomania, which isn’t at all healthy. Would you like a lime?”
“Blast your limes! I’ll have the white whale or nothing.”
“But you promised, Captain.”
Ahab took out his spyglass and studied the pod of whales. “It’s only a mother and three calves. We’ve got a bigger fish to fry.” He stumped back into this cabin and slammed the door.
Jo watched the whales as the Pequod drew closer. The little ones frolicked, jumping and diving and nosing into one another. They swam round and under their mother, who floated calmly, spouting great fountains of water for her children to play in. Jo couldn’t help but think of Marmee and her sisters, romping in the yard at Orchard House.
She went down to the forecastle, where Ishmael was reading in his hammock.
“Ish,” she said. “Do you like whaling?”
“No,” said Ishmael, setting his book aside. “I don’t think I do.”
“Is it the killing you dislike?”
Jo went to her hammock to think things over. Whaling was very adventuresome, and she did love to throw her harpoon, but it seemed very sad that the whales, who had families and friends just like anyone else, should have to die. She dug her Pilgrim’s Progress out of her duffle and read the inscription: “To my dearest Josephine on Christmas. May you always take the right path. Love, Marmee.”
Jo knew she had reached a fork in the road. One way led to goodness and happiness, the other to a sort of thrilling but sinful wickedness she didn’t fully understand. Perhaps the captain was having these same doubts. She wrapped the little crimson-covered book in paper, with one of her hair ribbons for a bow, and left it outside Ahab’s door.
In the week that followed, the captain stayed in his cabin night and day. Starbuck brought him food, but found him taciturn; he wouldn’t even discuss his favorite topic, the white whale.
“It’s very odd,” Starbuck told Jo. “He seems lost. Like he doesn’t know where he is or what he’s about.”
On New Year’s Day, the men mixed up a batch of rum punch and went gamboling about the ship. Jo, Ishmael and Queequeg sat around the capstan Christmas tree telling stories and feasting on jerky. When the jolly sailors saw them, they danced over, singing “Here we come a wassailing, among the sails so white.” The cook dragged Jo to her feet, and they galloped across the deck in a wild polka. Jo was having so much fun, she didn’t even notice his breath.
The merriment was at its peak when the lookout called from aloft: “There she blows!”
The men threw down their drinks and scrambled to their stations.
“There she breaches!” bellowed the lookout. “It’s the white whale! Moby Dick!”
The door of Ahab’s cabin banged open, and he strode onto the deck. He spoke not a word, but focused his spyglass on the mighty leviathan that cruised ahead of the Pequod, leaving a wake wider than any ship’s.
“It’s him,” said Ahab.
“Should we launch the boats, Captain?” said Starbuck.
“I . . . I don’t know.”
“Increase sail, then? Pursue him in the Pequod?”
“Yes, Starbuck. I suppose.”
When Jo saw the confusion on Ahab’s face, she knew that he was changed. She did not run to collect her harpoon, but went instead to the bow of the ship to see Moby Dick. The incredible beast plowed ever forward, dividing the crystal waters. But where was he going? Could Moby Dick be the father of the young whales Jo had seen on Christmas Day? Was he coming home to them after some long ordeal? Jo thought of her own father, and wondered if she’d ever see him again.
Ahab thumped over and stood at Jo’s side. “Have a lime?” he said.
“I do!” said Jo.
They shared the lime and watched Moby Dick.
“You’ve been reading my Pilgrim’s Progress, haven’t you?” said Jo.
“And now you can forgive Moby Dick for taking your leg, can’t you?”
“I was in the Slough of Despond,” said Ahab. “But you pulled me out.”
“We have both altered our paths,” said Jo. “I no longer wish to kill whales.”
As they spoke, Moby Dick sounded, and the crew of the Pequod never saw him again.
Months later, on the ferry dock at New Bedford, Jo said her goodbyes to Queequeg and Ishmael.
“If you’re ever in Concord, you must come to Orchard House,” said Jo, embracing Queequeg. “But promise me you’ll wear a shirt. Aunt March could be there, and she cannot abide shirtless men.”
“Uh,” said Queequeg.
“And what about me?” said Ishmael. “May I come to Orchard House if I wear a shirt?”
“Oh, Ish, I do hope you will.” Jo took his hand fondly. “If you could only meet Marmee and Meg and Beth and Amy, you’d see how wonderful people really are.”
“I know there will be at least one wonderful person there,” said Ishmael.
Jo hugged him tight and kissed him on the cheek. She started to walk away, but stopped.
“Queequeg!” she said. “I want you to have my harpoon. I won’t be needing it anymore. ”
DAN MOREY is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania. He’s worked as a book critic, nightlife columnist, travel correspondent and outdoor journalist. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine, Roads & Kingdoms, and McSweeney’s Quarterly. Find him at danmorey.weebly.com