(Writers note: "Inspired by a reputed affair between Herman Melville and Sarah Morewood in 1850’s Massachusetts as he was writing Moby Dick, this story is my speculation on a scene that may have transpired as the two struggled to balance their free-spirited, artistic personalities with 19th century conservative society.")
“Shall you work on your book tonight?” she asked.
“Oh, probably,” he sighed, wearily.
They sat together by the fire, as they did often on these long winter nights. He was especially tired after chopping wood all day.
“Thank you for chopping all that wood,” she said.
“Thank you for cooking that stew,” he said.
“Oh Herman, if only we weren’t married to other people,” she said, rocking more slowly in her chair now.
“Must be a reason,” he said, re-lighting his pipe, deliberately procrastinating from getting up and sitting at the writing desk.
“The reason is we love each other but we only thought we loved them,” she said, somewhat despairingly.
He puffed a few puffs of his pipe, reflecting uneasily on the situation, wishing he were back at sea, younger, alone, unencumbered.
He reflected on the vast gulf of contrast between these biting New England winters and the year-round balmy breezes of Polynesia, a climate in and of itself an unlimited sensuousness, and the male/female dynamic; so much easier, so much more natural and dogmatically unentangled.
Though by no means did he regret meeting Sarah, he could not help but feel they had no future. All the more important to savor their present, however long it might last. Writing be damned, why devote himself to such a lonely pursuit when such a graceful beauty as Sarah sought his company?
As he so did hers. Oh, how, in the beginning, they danced, how they talked, and walked and loved as their days and nights together blended seamlessly one into the other and the world of rules, religion and respectable behavior fell by the wayside. As obligations both financial and moral temporarily vanished on the far horizon of a forgotten coastline and together they sailed across a welcoming sea.
But their little ship of dalliance at first became becalmed, and, inevitably, ran aground.
“What now indeed, Herman?” she asked, her words drifting into the room to a silence equaled by the fireplace smoke drifting into the night air above as she studied him in his silence.
He was a handsome man, and brilliant. She knew, though, like many a brilliant star in the night sky, he was doomed to burn out. His spiritual acuity, sharp as a shaving razor, would inevitably dull under the repeated grindings against society.
He pushed himself up out of his chair, carefully positioned a new log on the fire, then turned and went to the writing desk. He already had many pages full, perhaps too many. Who would have the patience to make their way through what looked to be almost 200,000 words? Certainly not the average reader.
Was it the average reader he sought to connect with, though? From what he’d constructed so far, it did not appear that way. In truth, he did not know who this effort was for, if anyone. Long into cold, blustery, mountain nights his pen and ink scratched away under this strange siren call of a saga that had come to attach itself to him with an anchor’s weight that he could not hoist, only drag along to some unknown and unseen destination.
He'd picked up his pen but now set it back down and looked at Sarah, staring silently into the fire. He called to her,
“Oh Sarah,” he murmured, and she stood and came to him and they embraced by the writing table, intensely unrepentant. But then she pushed herself back a little, her fingers still encircling the suspenders stretched over his linen shirt that still carried flecks of wood chips.
“Am I your book, Herman?” she asked, “Am I the flame, and you the moth? My presence in your life, and the book’s grip on your life, are they both leading you to destruction?” She took her hands away to pick up the pages of his manuscript, holding it like a precious archaeological find.
“How can you say that? I love you dearly. And yes, I feel compelled to write this strange, mighty book come what may, just as I am equally compelled to love you despite the danger involved.”
“Herman, if I asked you, would you throw these pages on the fire right now? Perhaps we could find a way to have each other but I fear you cannot have me and your book.”
He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw her place the pages back down on the table. He knew she would not ask him to throw them in the fire. Could he throw himself, his caution, his reputation such as it was, in the fire for his love for her, though?
“Why not Sarah?” he protested. “Why can’t I have both? I feel heaven and earth move within me to evoke this tale, I feel wed to this effort.”
“And you feel wed to your wife and feel wed to me and you feel wed to this farmhouse in this rigorously cold region, dear God Herman, perhaps in Polynesia polygamy is de rigeur, but we are in Massachusetts!”
He stood and went to her by the fire, grasping her shoulders lightly, letting his hands drop to hers as he held them tenderly and said, “Then come with me Sarah! Come with me to Polynesia! I will pack my book and work on it as time and space permits, I will write my wife and explain in terms she will understand what has happened and why it must be this way. I will sell this farm, we will live easily and happily and,” as he cast a glance at the fire, “warmly. Oh, so warmly! No more corsets or itching wool!”
“Oh Herman,” a smile just barely creased her lips and she turned her gaze downward, the fire glow reflection reddening her cheeks.
And that was all she said. Except, several portentously silent moments later, after turning back to him, she leaned in for a kiss.
A kiss now far more platonic than romantic. And she whispered lowly, as she did when they would meet at parties in the ballroom of the neighbor’s grand house, so circumspect of the potential for scandal to begin swirling.
“Let’s talk in the morning. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
And Herman said good night and put another log on the fire and sat down to write.
And as he wrote he knew that the choice had been made between Sarah, his wife, the farm, and the book. He loved all four in differing degree, in differing texture. He’d thought he could be all things to all of them, a veritable chameleon, transitioning as the time and place required.
And perhaps had he chosen to be another type of man, he might have been able to sustain such a feat. But he was the man he was, a man of the sea. Both the watery world sea and the sea that rages within all men and women, the inner sea that calls to the heart.
He would sell the farm; he would bid Sarah farewell. She would return to her husband in Europe, he would return to his wife in New York. The brightness of their love for each other would continue if only in the illumined lines of letters furtively written, sent and secreted in locked drawers.
Herman would be happy, of sorts, with a wife, family and job. Though he would never smell sea spray again or feel deck timber creak beneath his feet during a storm, he would quell the restless sea squall within. He would finish his book.
And though his tired body would not survive to see its impact on society, he cared not. Beyond bodies and books and bank balances, he sauntered in a blissful loving peace hand in hand with Sarah, on the soft sand of their Polynesian beach.
About David Clear: “I am a New England writer; plainly a hobbyist rather than a professional. I had no formal writing education, but many great writing teachers, from office jobs to heartbroken relationships, and even convenience store clerks. I am retired, and I guess still seeking my great writing whale. My only previous publication I can lay claim to is my self-published novel, Dreaming at the Speed of Sound.”
Photo credit: Krin Van Tatenhove via Midjourney AI