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All was silent over the ocean save for the ruffling of the sails. The crew waited, tense in their positions, and the helmsman gripped the wheel with sweaty palms. Their captain stood at the ship’s prow and looked out over the waters.
“Are you sure of what you saw?” he asked.
“Certain, sir!” came the cry from the top-gallant mast. Peter, the lookout, raked their surroundings with sharp but desperate eyes. “Clear as a geyser, it was, and almost twice as high. Swear it on me father’s grave, sir.”
“And yet you saw it nearly eight miles off,” said the captain. “It could be a trick of the light. We cannot spend all day waiting for what will not come.”
Regardless, they lingered, though it seemed it would be for naught. Time passed, and the sea was unchanging. Men began to turn away, grumbling, rubbing at eyes turned watery from the glare of the midday sun. The helmsman loosened his grasp on the wheel and the captain let out his breath in a slow stream.
“Over there, Cap’n!” shouted a crewman suddenly. “There, on the port side! She can’t be more than 200 yards off!”
A tall spout of water burst from the ocean in a rush. Peter shouted in delight and pointed needlessly, and those on deck, disappointed no longer, raced to launch the whaleboats. Soon the four crafts were adrift in the water, their respective crews pulling as fast as possible toward the site of the whale.
“Quiet,” the captain commanded as his own whaleboat approached; the oars dipped into the water with scarcely a splash. The others stopped a safe distance away, watching with anxious faces.
At the captain’s signal, the harpooner went up to the bow. The whale iron in his hand was as tall as himself, and a long line was bound to the back of it. The captain could see the exact moment the harpooner spotted his quarry by the tensing of the latter’s stiff shoulders. Then with a forceful move he thrust his weapon into the water.
The calm surface exploded into action. There was much excitement as the crew pulled clear of the thrashing whale, narrowly avoiding being overturned and laughing in the face of danger.
With the whale’s ensnarement, the ship commenced a chase that was as routine as breathing for the crew. And the whale, leashed by the harpoon and diving futilely into the ocean, screamed with the pain and terror of it.
She was stirred from her long, slow sleep by the screams. Not only the screams of the doomed whale, but also the bellows of countless members of its kin, spanning thousands of miles of sea. Their lifeblood soaked into the depths and reached her pores. She could feel her children dying, dying all around her while their cries went unheeded by those on the surface.
Few things angered her, but the mass slaughter of her children was definitely one of these. She could not slumber now while such atrocities took place in her presence. Seething and shaking the depths with her rage, she summoned an ages-old power and stretched a long arm toward the shallows.
The next time Peter glimpsed a water-spout, the crew did not question his word. The ship leapt over the frothing waves until all could see the distinctive spray indicating the rich catch of a right whale.
“A right whale is ‘the right whale’ to hunt, as they say,” said the crew with satisfaction. Some noted that this particular right whale was far from land, atypical for its species, but none raised a fuss with the prospect of so much precious blubber at hand.
As they approached, the sea grew rough despite having been calm minutes before. No matter how hard the helmsman tried, the ship could not seem to get any closer to its target. They soon gave it up as a bad effort, and the whaleboats were launched accordingly. But then the wind rose and tugged at their sails until the crews were hard-pressed to keep up with the boatheaders’ directions.
“I said starboard, ye daft boy!” the second mate hissed from the bow of the leading boat. “You’ll run us right into another whaler if you don’t stop your weavin’ about!”
“I’m trying,” Peter gasped as he gripped the tiller. “I’m holding it straight as I can, but she doesn’t seem to want to listen.” The other men gripped the sides as the boat pitched and swayed like a drunken sailor.
The second mate huffed and stood. “Give it here,” he snapped. “And you lot, lower the sails. We’ll have to row if we want any chance of keepin’ afloat.”
He made to stride over, but suddenly there was a lurch below them like the bucking of a mighty horse. The crew screamed as they lost their seats, and when they landed in a tangle of limbs and knocked heads, a single stream of water rose up impossibly before their eyes and dashed the stunned second mate overboard. His choked cry was cut short as he was sucked under, and they gaped at the sight of his empty hat, left floating on the surface of the water.
“What was that!” one of them cried, and shrieks rang out around them as the other whaleboats were attacked. One of the boats veered off as if by its own volition, sails torn to pieces by the gale as its crew cowered against the mast or jumped overboard in terror. Another was consumed by the churning white froth of a whirlpool faster than the eye could see. The captain’s boat burst asunder with a horrific boom of cracking timber and bones. The whale, by this point, was long-gone, having served its role as bait for gullible fish come all too willingly.
Upon the last surviving whaleboat, with his crewmates shouting and dying all around him, Peter turned to face the main ship in disbelief and beheld the last sight he ever saw.
A wave had formed in the distance and now bore down upon them. Its foaming edges gleamed against the gray of the sky above, and it was large, far larger than any storm-wave he had ever seen before. Even as he watched, the wave writhed and grew, and for a moment resembled something of a monstrous gaping maw that stretched itself back in a ghastly grin. The ship disappeared instantly into its depths. Peter lunged for the abandoned tiller in desperation, trying to steer them clear, but their tiny whaleboat stood no chance against the wrath of the ocean. The wave swallowed them whole.