Young Ahab

Aaron Allen


When Ahab was an infant his mother would bathe him in seawater. They lived on Nantucket Island, where everybody lives by the sea. This comes from the sea, she said, rinsing him, this is the sea, and he giggled and sucked his fingers. And then his father’s ship came home, overflowing with oil from a famous whaling voyage, and they were rich and together again. That night his parents washed the baby Ahab in sperm oil, slick over a washpail. It was one of those spontaneous and illogical things very happy people sometimes do as a monument to their feeling. It was so wasteful it felt like a ritual: candlelight and Ahab’s little nude body covered in a substance worth more than gold, and his mother’s fingers pressing the oil deep into the knee-folds of his chubby thighs and over every baby wrinkle of soft skin, roving with the volitive ownership only available to the fingers of mothers. A soul, she thought to herself, a soul. I have given birth to a soul.

Young Ahab giggled and his father leaned close and said he smelled like the wood barrel they had stored the oil in for the long journey home. And he did, he smelled like lightly charred staves of white oak, and he smelled like the whale. The oil warming on his body had come from the great tun of the whale’s head, and had been, over and over again, to the very bottom of the sea.

He smells of oak, his father said. He is our whale.

There was a long time when neither parent spoke, just looking at their glistening son. Young Ahab cooed in the middle of them, and his father took his own forefinger and poked his son softly over the heart.

Right here, he said, turning to his wife and smiling completely, so in love it made him drunk, right here is where you stick ‘em. There’s your fortune.

Things went on gently like this for a very long time.


Aaron Allen is a recent graduate of Columbia’s MFA and translation program. His manuscript of stories, New Myth, won the State of Utah’s 2015 Original Writing Competition. This is his first publication. He tweets mostly Arrested Development GIFs @aaronisalive