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P R E S S
Anne E. Beidler
ck e t m
ys t e
The imagined true story
of four Coffins from Nantucket:
Abigail, Nancy, Zimri, and Owen
Anne E. Beidler
Eating Owen was first published in 2009 and is copyright © 2009
by Coffeetown Press. All rights reserved. No portion of this book
may be reproduced or used in any form or by any electronic,
mechanical, or other means without the prior written permission
of the publisher, who may be contacted by e-mail at the address at
the bottom of this page.
Published by Coffeetown Press.
Cover design by Sabrina S. Beidler
For information regarding special discounts for bulk purchases,
please contact Coffeetown Press by e-mail at:
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Beidler, Anne E., 1940Eating Owen : the imagined true story of four coffins from
Nantucket : Abigail, Nancy, Zimri, and Owen / Anne E. Beidler.
ISBN 978-1-60381-022-7 (alk. paper)
1. Chase, Owen--Fiction. 2. Essex (Whaleship)--Fiction. 3.
Cannibalism--Fiction. I. Title.
The large, wooden Nantucket whaling ship Essex was
sunk, in November, 1819, by an apparently angry sperm
whale. The captain, George Pollard, and his twenty crew
members had only a few minutes to take refuge in their
three small whaling boats, much the size of life boats. They
were able to take with them only a few supplies, enough to
last them for only a short time in the middle of the Pacific
Ocean. Yet they lived in these small boats, with no shelter
and almost no food, for many, many weeks.
They knew approximately where they were in the Pacific
and Captain Pollard purposely decided to head for South
America, almost 3,000 miles away, rather than for any of the
relatively nearby islands, which he believed were inhabited
Pollard’s boat, which contained Owen Coffin also, was
soon attacked by another whale, but the men were able to
drive off that whale and repair their boat. The three boats
then came upon a small island, where they stopped to look
for water and food. Even though the island proved to be
barren, three of the crew elected to stay there and take their
chances, rather than continue to float aimlessly across the
vast desert of the central Pacific.
The three small boats stayed together for quite a while,
but eventually were separated by chance and by weather.
The First Mate’s boat was the first to disappear from
Pollard’s sight, although it was much later rescued. The
other boat disappeared completely and was never seen or
heard of again. On Pollard’s boat, only the captain and
young Charles Ramsdell were still alive when their boat was
rescued, three months later, by Captain Zimri Coffin’s
whaling ship, the Dauphin.
The men on all three boats ran out of food and water and
eventually subsisted on human flesh.
When he returned to Nantucket, the First Mate, Owen
Chase, wrote an account of the Essex disaster. Fifty years
later, his cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, also wrote about the
tragedy. Herman Melville, who had read Chase’s account,
used the Essex story in the climax of his Moby Dick.
Perhaps because the Essex was the only whaling ship ever
known to be sunk by a whale, and because the surviving
crew men, in order to avoid cannibals on the islands,
eventually resorted to cannibalism themselves, people have
long been fascinated by the Essex story. The story is usually
told from a nautical point of view.
I have tried, however, to imagine how this story might
have affected several members of one Nantucket family, the
Coffin family, who were surely deeply touched by what
happened to the Essex. Owen Coffin was on the ship Essex,
and a distant cousin of his, Zimri, rescued the little boat that
Owen had been on before he was shot and eaten. Nancy
Bunker Coffin was Owen’s mother, and Abigail Coleman
Coffin was his grandmother. All these people really existed,
but, of course, their words I have imagined.
I write my version of what I call Owen’s story for my
splendid grandchildren, who are related to the Coffin family,
as well as to the Folger men who owned the Essex and hired
Pollard to take it to the far away South Pacific to hunt for
Abigail Coleman Coffin
“I have a penis,” said little Owen to his grandmother,
“and Daddy does too. His is really big. How big is yours?”
“Grandmas don’t need penises,” his grandmother said.
“At least not to carry around with them, flopping around and
in the way of everything. Or maybe I should say we do need
them, but we prefer to let other folks do the carrying.”
“I like carrying mine,” said Owen.
“And I like carrying you,” said his grandmother. She
scooped up the boy and carried him down to the point on the
beach, at the tip of the island that reached farthest out into
the sea. “I don’t see any ships today,” she said in a soft, tired
voice. She leaned her face into his neck and thought that if it
were not for this bright and beautiful boy, her special
grandson, she would not have the strength to go on.
Little Owen looked at her as if he understood that there
was a sadness in her that ran so deep it had become who she
was. But he knew there was a tiny part of her that was
different from the sadness. He loved it when she went back
there to the long ago time. “Grandma,” he said gently, “tell
me about when you were a little girl and the whale talked to
“Gracious sakes, but that was ages ago, now, wasn’t it?”
Abigail said, not wanting to remember. “That horrid
creature. I wish she’d never spoken a word to me. Yet
perhaps I should have listened more carefully to what she
“Whales don’t really talk, do they?” asked Owen, knowing
very well what her answer would be.
Abigail Coffin brushed her graying hair back from her
eyes, forgetting for a moment that she was old now and
cranky sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, and already
a grandmother to seven little Nantucket children. As she felt
the salty air brush her face, she wanted to sit down on the
dry sand, up a ways from the scallops of water that glided
across the gently sloping beach. “Come sit down here with
me, my wonderful little O.,” she said, “and I will tell you
something about whales. They’re not all bad like that one.”
“But did you talk to that same whale every time?” Owen
asked his grandma, “And did the whale really talk to you just
like I’m talking now? And did she speak English like we do?
And how did you know it was a girl whale?” He hoped that
one of these questions would get his grandmother going with
the story that he loved to hear.
Abigail took handful after handful of sand and covered
their four feet as her mind wandered back to that happier
time. A time when she wanted only to be a whaler’s wife and
maybe live in a big house with a walk on top and take good
care of all her children there until her brave ship’s captain
came home, pushing through the crowds at the pier to reach
only her. A time before she heard the words of the whale.
Abigail used to go down to this very same beach with her
friend Lydia. They pulled up their skirts and ran into the
waves as far as they could before racing each other back to
safety. They always got wet all over eventually and came
home all soaked so that everyone knew they had been out
playing when they should have been helping in the gardens.
On that one day, the day Abigail wished had never
happened, she and Lydia had made an excuse to leave the
hot garden work and go down to the point to catch some fish
for supper. They took along a pail and a big butcher knife
that Lydia always used to gut the fish and to pry clams open.
They were feeling silly and free, knowing that they had the
afternoon to themselves.
“Abigail,” Lydia said to her friend, “Nathaniel and I love
each other. He wants me to marry him, but I tell him I will
not. It’s impossible.”
“But if you love each other, why is it impossible to
marry?” asked young Abigail, baiting her hook and throwing
it in the water.
“Because he has not killed his first whale yet,” said Lydia.
“He is already nineteen and been out two times and he has
not yet struck a whale’s flesh. I refuse to marry him until he
proves he is a man!”
“Of course,” said Abigail, who herself had her eye on a
young farmer, the handsome Hezekiah Coffin, whom she
was trying very hard to persuade to go to sea. He was
strong, she knew, but his love of the land would get him
nowhere in the Nantucket world. Why couldn’t he just try
the whaling life for a year or two at least? It was the only
way to get rich on this island where only the rich had any fun
and she wanted to have fun. She wanted to have a husband
she was proud of, one that Lydia and the others would
admire. How they would envy her for being the wife of the
most successful whaling captain on Nantucket!
“What about Hezekiah?” asked Lydia. “Has he killed his
“No, not yet,” said Abigail sadly. “He says he will do
anything for me because he loves me so, but I guess that
does not include leaving his sheep.”
“It seems that men get to do all the glorious things,” said
Lydia, “while we must stay on this boring island and wait
around for one of them to get brave or lucky. I sometimes
wish I could go to sea and do the job myself.”
“Well, I’m not waiting,” said Abigail. “I’m not waiting for
anybody. I’m going to live my life my way and not wait to fit
into somebody else’s. Maybe I will dress up as a man and
sail to the South Pacific and meet those monster whales face
to face and come back here a hero.” She pulled in a small
codfish, cleaned it, and put it in the pail.
“Oh, Abigail,” said Lydia, “don’t talk such foolishness.
You’ll wait for your Hezekiah, just like the rest of us wait.
That’s what we women on Nantucket do. We wait for our
men. But let’s not wait here any longer. Let’s move a ways
down the beach. I’ll race you, Abigail.”
They giggled as they raced through the lapping water.
These two girls, who were almost women, still in that
delicious in-between place where it seems you can hold on to
the advantages of both. They slowed down, however, when
they noticed a dark mass lying along the beach some
distance ahead of them. “Whatever is that up there?” asked
“Probably just the rotting wreck of somebody’s old fishing
boat,” said Abigail.
Lydia hurried ahead, but stopped suddenly. “My
heavens,” she gasped, “it’s a whale baby. Look, he’s still
breathing. But he can’t stay here. He needs to be in the
water with his mother. How do you suppose he got here,
Abigail did not want to get too close. “Don’t touch him,”
“I just want to comfort him,” said Lydia, putting her hand
gently on his sandy skin. “He must be so scared, and I just
want to tell him everything will be all right.”
“But it won’t be,” said Abigail angrily. “He’s dying there
and soon he will start to stink, so we’d better get away from
“Abigail Coleman!” snapped Lydia, “how can you be so
“Me, cruel?” said Abigail. “You are the one who said it
first. That you wanted to be a whaler and not wait for the
men to do the killing. Here is your chance. Kill this whale
and then everybody will know that you are as brave as any
“Kill that baby? Why, I would never kill a baby whale,”
said Lydia. What kind of person do you think I am?”
“I think you don’t practice what you preach,” said Abigail.
“I think if we want our men to kill whales for us, then we
ought to be willing to do the same.”
“Abigail, don’t!” shouted Lydia, shrinking back in horror.
Abigail reached into her bundle for the butcher knife.
Holding it with both hands, she held it over her head as she
approached the baby whale. With all her strength, over and
over again she plunged the huge knife blade into the head of
the whale. Blood spouted up in her face and over her hair
and onto her soaked and sandy skirt. The sand sucked up
most of the baby’s blood, but still more and more came out
of the jagged holes that Abigail made.
Lydia choked back tears as they scrambled up the dunes
toward home, but Abigail could not stop laughing. “I am a
woman now,” she shouted to the sky, “for I have killed my
“Well, maybe you can marry Hezekiah now,” said Lydia
bitterly, “now that you have killed a whale for him. Then he
can stay home with the sheep and the children and you can
be the whaler in the family.”
The next day Abigail went back to that spot on the beach,
carrying a long knife and a large basket, to carve what meat
she could from her whale’s carcass. But the whale was gone.
Only a darkened place on the thirsty sand remained and
even that was washing away as the tide brushed it back and
forth in its methodical way.
“You have shamed me, Abigail,” said Hezekiah.
“Oh, Hezekiah, that was not my intention,” said Abigail.
“Of course, it was,” he said sadly. “You say you love me,
but you want to change me. You do not love me just the way
“But I do,” she said, “I love your eyes with their hint of
blue, like the sea. I love your shoulders, so strong you could
carry me away. I even love your silly Coffin pride that makes
you think you can do anything you want in this world.”
“Silly Coffin pride?” he asked. “How dare you call it silly?
You wouldn’t be here now–none of us would be here now, in
fact, if it weren’t for my great, great grandfather Tristram.
He founded this place.”
“Well,” said Abigail, “he didn’t found it all by himself.
With all his money, Tristram Coffin would have been wiped
out here if it had not been for my great, great grandfather
Peter Folger who taught him how to deal with the Indians.”
“The point is,” said Hezekiah, “that you shamed me
before the whole island. Now everybody thinks that you
killed that whale because I am afraid to go to sea and kill one
“I only meant to shock Lydia,” Abigail said. “She is so
pious sometimes, thinking that things have to go her way
always and poor Nathaniel has to measure up to her
“Poor Nathaniel?” said Hezekiah. “What about me? At
least Nathaniel loves the seafaring life and wants to make his
way there. I have no love for it. Plenty of Coffins have
captained ships and plenty of Coffins have lost their lives out
there, so I have nothing to prove. Except to you.”
“I know,” Abigail said, “you love the land. You love
helping things grow, whether plants or lambs, and you are
good at it too. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” said Hezekiah. “I’m sorry that now I have
to leave all this, and you, and sign up on some stupid ship
just to prove that I can do this thing you have shamed me
“I just want us to have a good life,” said Abigail.
“You call it a good life with me gone for three years at a
time? You call it a good life with me being trapped on a
smelly ship with a bunch of barbarians? You call it a good
life for me to risk mine in order to take the life of another of
God’s creatures? Why, I can’t even kill a sheep.”
“I want a good house, Hezekiah,” said Abigail softly. “I
want rooms for our babies so they don’t have to grow up the
way I did, all the children piled into one freezing bed with no
sheets. I want the neighbors to look up to me for once. I am
sick of their sideways glances, their condescending ways.
Once a Coleman, always a Coleman, they say, in that way of
theirs that makes it clear that being a Coleman is a very bad
“I know,” said Hezekiah, pulling her to him. “I know your
life has been hard. I want you to always be safe and
comfortable. When I hold you like this, I think that for you I
will do anything, even leave my sheep.”
And he did. Hezekiah left his sheep and went to sea. But
that is another story and not a happy one at all, at least not
in the end.
Abigail, sitting there beside Owen on the windy beach,
pulled her mind back to the present. There were a lot of
things she was glad to forget by now. A widow for more than
twenty years, she should be accustomed to her quiet life. No
one to wait for now, except this boy sitting beside her who
wandered across the patch to visit her almost every day.
“Owen,” she said sharply to the boy digging little holes
with a shell in the sand, “Don’t you ever go to sea and hunt
the whales. Do you hear me?”
“Yes,” he said, “but why?”
“Because it’s dangerous and I don’t want you to get hurt,”
“Like Cousin Zacheus?” asked Owen in a somber voice.
“Yes, poor Zacheus,” said Abigail. “He was such a good
boy, and I told him not to go too. I even made him promise
me that he would never go to sea, but he went anyway and
now he’s dead, and nobody even knows where.”
“But all the men here go to sea, don’t they?” asked Owen.
“Most of them do, unfortunately,” said Abigail, “but not
all, not by any means. Somebody has to build the ships and
sell the ropes and hammer the harpoons and grow the crops
and make the shoes and teach the children in school and so
many other things.”
“I want to kill a whale,” said Owen, “so they won’t call me
a sissy. I’ll make you proud.”
“No, Owen,” Abigail almost shouted. “I will never let you
go. I won’t let the whale get you too. Not you.”
“Silly Grandma,” he said. “I’m not afraid of the whales.”
“You don’t have to be afraid of them,” Abigail said, “but
you need to understand that some of them are very angry
with us, and one of them is very angry with me.”
“Why are they angry?” asked Owen.
“Because we hurt them,” Abigail said. “We chase them
and scare them and kill them when we can. We fill them
with spear holes and make them bleed to death and then
carve up their bodies and cook them for oil. They don’t like
“But whales don’t think,” said Owen. “They don’t think
and feel things like we do, do they?”
“Well, it seems to me they might,” said Abigail. “I only
know for sure about one whale, a very mean and nasty
whale, but according to her, whales are very much like us
and some of them would like to get rid of us all because they
think we are bad.”
“Are we bad?” asked Owen.
His grandmother seemed to hesitate. “Some of us do bad
things sometimes, I guess.”
“Killing people is bad,” Owen said. “But killing whales is
good. It makes us rich and famous.”
“I’m not so sure about that, Owen,” Abigail said. “But the
one thing I am sure about, very sure, is that you must never
go to sea.”
“Maybe I will go out but not kill any whales, just watch,”
“No, no,” said Abigail. “There are some things I know
and one thing I know is that something terrible will happen
to you if you go out on one of those Nantucket ships. She
told me so, and I forbid you to go.”
“Tell me the story,” he said, “about the whale who talked
to you. Only tell me all of it this time.”
“Well,” said Abigail softly, “I was walking one day out to
the point, as I liked to do. Your grandfather was at sea, and I
was waiting for our first child, your father, to be born. I
liked to take long walks out there where I was almost
surrounded by the sea and somehow felt close to my
husband. Funny, I had thought I wanted him to go to sea
and then when he finally did, I just wanted him to come
home and stay with me and forget about whaling.”
“And what happened when you were on your walk to the
point?” asked Owen.
“I remember it so clearly,” said Abigail, “just like it was
yesterday. I was standing out on the point with the water
crashing at my feet on the one side. I could see the vastness
of the silver sea reaching out to Africa or whatever faraway
land was way out there beyond. Yet when I turned my head
a little I could see the calmer water of the bay. And there I
“What did she look like?” asked Owen.
“She was kind of a mottled gray,” said his grandmother,
“but big, so big. I could only see her head, all bumpy and
rough, and her one huge yellow eye that I couldn’t stop
looking at. I wanted to turn away and run back home, but
that yellow eye just held me there.”
“Were you very scared?” asked Owen.
“Very scared,” said Abigail.
“But you couldn’t move?’
“I couldn’t move,” said Abigail. “At first I couldn’t even
talk. I wanted to say, ‘Why are you staring at me like that?’
but I couldn’t get a word out.”
Owen waited, the old story unfolding once again. This
time he hoped his grandma would not stop in the middle
and refuse to tell it all. This time he hoped he would learn
exactly what the whale had said to his grandmother that day
so long ago.
“The whale seemed disgusted with me,” said Abigail. “I
could see her tail thrashing and her fiery eye boring into me.
Then I heard words, just like human words. The voice was
deep and crackly, but somehow kind of musical too.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to talk to you,” said the
“Why me?” I asked.
“Because you are the one,” the whale said, “who killed my
“And why did you wait so long to talk to me?” I asked. “I
have come here many times, and this is the first time I have
ever seen you. The first time I have ever seen a whale come
up so close to land.”
“Because soon you are going to give birth to your baby,”
said the whale, “and I have come to tell you that I am waiting
“Collect what?” I asked. “What on earth are you talking
about? I did kill that baby whale long ago, and I am very
sorry if that baby was your son, but I was young and foolish
then and all that is over now. Leave me alone.” But Abigail
still could not seem to move away from the whale’s piercing
“I will come to collect,” said the whale. “Your baby for
mine, and as many as it takes. Now go.”
“I certainly will go,” I said, “and I will never come back to
this point again. You will never, ever get my baby!” And I
hurried down the beach, away from that narrow point that
stuck out into the sea, back toward the town where I knew
no whale could ever go.
“Yet that whale called out to me, her voice so bitter and
loud. Something I have never told anybody, something that
scares me still,” Abigail said to Owen.
“What did she say?” Owen asked.
“She said that she would destroy all my sons, just as I had
destroyed her son,” said Abigail.
“But what does that have to do with me?” Owen asked.
“My daddy was your son, not me.”
“I can’t talk about this any more, Owie,” she said. “It
breaks my heart what I did, but I won’t let that monster
punish you for it.”
Abigail pulled Owen to his feet, dusting the sand off his
legs. “I will race you to the dunes,” she said, pretending to
run very fast.
“You know I will beat you,” the boy said, pretending not
to notice how his grandmother glanced over her shoulder
with that worried look.
On this elbow of an island that was Nantucket, far enough
out in the Atlantic to keep people there once they settled
there, the Coffin name commanded respect. The Coffins had
been there a long time and there were a lot of them and they
still pretty much ran things.
It was early in the 1600s when Tristram, the first of the
Coffins, came over from England. He was a successful
businessman, an entrepreneur, a developer, an investor, a
man who did not like to be told what to do, whether by the
king of England or by the bosses of the Massachusetts Bay
Colony. So Tristram and his wife Dionis and some friends
from Massachusetts bought this island of Nantucket. They
bought it from an Englishman who had bought it from the
Indians and then they bought it again from the Indians just
to make sure the title was legal and clear.
And then they all settled there. The Macys and Starbucks
and Colemans and Gardners and Folgers and Barnards and
some more. In the middle of the seventeenth century, when
all of America was still a British colony, on this funnyshaped little island way off the coast of Massachusetts, they
settled. Only wind and sand and Indians were already there.
But Tristram Coffin was the main man in this real estate
transaction. He had heard the old story about how the
island came to be. The story went that, long ago, a giant was
sleeping on Cape Cod and grew restless. Tossing and
turning, thrashing around on the beach, trying to get
comfortable somehow, he kicked out his feet and his
moccasins flew off into the Atlantic Ocean. One landed
pretty far away and became the island of Martha’s Vineyard,
and the other moccasin landed much farther away and that
one became the island of Nantucket.
The isolation and remoteness of this faraway island
suited Tristram and his friends just fine.
For one thing, they could be just as religious or as
unreligious out there as they chose to be, for there would be
no Puritans telling them just what to believe and how to
behave. And for another thing, they would need no fences
for their sheep out there. No wolves lived on the island to
bother the sheep, so the sheep could wander freely with only
the ocean for a fence to keep them where they belonged.
Tristram soon enlisted the wise Peter Folger to help him
deal with the Indians in a respectful way, and the result was
that as the Europeans continued to clash with the native
peoples in America for more than another hundred years,
there was no place on this continent where the two cultures
lived in more harmony than on Nantucket. Until, of course,
the Indians disappeared, as usual, but because of disease,
not because of war. And that was not exactly Tristram’s
Tristram just wanted to be lord of the manor again, to
have land to give to his sons and grandsons, to have his
children and their children living all around him for the rest
of his days. He did it. And on Nantucket he never had to go
to war and he never had to go to church.
Then four or five generations later, along came Zimri.
Zimri was the great, great grandson of Tristram’s son
Stephen and also of Tristram’s son John, and also the great,
great, great grandson of Tristram’s son James and, along
another line, of Tristram’s daughter Mary. Zimri was also,
of course, after all that marrying and descending, related to
most of the other founding families of Nantucket too. But if
was of his Coffin name that Zimri was most proud.
By 1820, just about everybody on Nantucket was related
somehow, and many people were happy enough never to
think about their complicated family trees. Trees covered all
over with vines was more like it, and some people found that
troubling, all that intermarrying over and over again. But
Zimri Coffin, captain of the Dauphin, a whaling ship that
cruised the South Pacific in search of sperm whales, sat one
spring day in his cabin talking to a reporter from an
“Captain,” asked the man, “my name is Murphy and I
have come to talk to you about the terrible thing that
happened to your poor cousin Owen.”
“Well, first of all, Mr. Murphy,” said Zimri, “Owen was
only my very distant cousin, sort of like most everybody on
Nantucket is. I barely knew the lad. And secondly, please
do not refer to him as poor. He was, after all, a Coffin.”
“Forgive me, sir,” said Murphy, “we all know about the
pride of the Coffin clan. Still, it was a nasty business, their
eating him like that. It must make you very angry.”
“It makes me sad that they ate him, as you put it, yes,”
said Zimri. “And angry that no one seems to want to talk
about what really happened out there on that life boat.”
“I don’t understand you, Captain,” said Murphy. “You
rescued them. It was this very ship, the Dauphin, that
pulled the Essex survivors out of that life boat. And by now
the whole world has read the first mate’s account of that
rescue and of the harrowing weeks before. I know what
happened. Now I’m looking for some background
information. You know, some family angle that will help our
readers at home see Owen as a person, not just as a martyr
who gave his life so his shipmates could live.”
“He was no martyr,” said Zimri.
“So what was he like when he was a boy?” asked Murphy.
“He was always a boy,” said Zimri. “They murdered a
“Murdered?” asked Murphy with surprise. “The First
Mate said they drew lots and that Owen accepted his fate
with great courage.”
“No, Mr. Murphy, the first mate was not present. He did
not know what happened on Owen’s boat because he was far
away, lost at sea on his own small boat. All the first mate
ever knew about Owen’s murder was what the captain told
him much later, long after the rescue. And the captain told
him the same version that he told us some time after we
pulled his wretched body out of his life boat last February.”
“I hate to mention this, sir,” said Murphy, “but is it true
that when you pulled those two survivors out of the life boat,
they were sucking on human bones? Owen’s bones?”
“That is correct,” said Zimri. “The captain and the
Ramsdell boy were emaciated, covered with oozing sores.
They were filthy, huddled on the bottom of the boat, and
gnawing on human bones. I called down to them, but they
just stared up at me with glazed eyes as if they had no
understanding of what was happening to them. I sent men
down to carry them up. I told the men to lift them very
gently, for I could see that these pitiful creatures were brittle
and weak. They were, I’m sad to say, less than human.
Their stringy hair, their infected eyes, their scabby hands.
They seemed empty. To tell you the truth, I was a bit afraid
Murphy hesitated, giving Zimri time. “Then Captain
Pollard began to recover rather quickly, I hear,” said
Murphy. “Later on did he tell you his story?”
“Oh, yes,” said Zimri. “He was most eager to talk about
the sinking of the Essex and the months floating around out
there on the Pacific Ocean. But I didn’t believe most of what
he told me.”
“Why not?” asked Murphy. “Captain Pollard has never
been accused of misconduct. Quite the contrary. He has
been assigned to another whaling ship and he will soon set
sail once again. Clearly the ship owners believe in him. Why
“Because he changed his story. And because he obviously
cared more about his own reputation than he did about the
lives of his men,” said Zimri. “His ship ran into trouble the
first day out. Did Pollard take responsibility for the poor
judgment he used then? No. Nor did he ever take
responsibility for any of the even worse decisions he made
later on. It was crazy, once that whale had sunk the Essex, to
think for even a minute that they could head for the coast of
South America–almost three thousand miles away! So if he
would never take any responsibility for any of these
mistakes, how can I believe him when he tells me the four of
them drew lots?”
“But it is the custom of the sea, isn’t it,” asked Murphy.
“For starving men to draw lots to see whose body should be
sacrificed so that the others may live?”
“It’s a myth,” said Zimri. “It has probably happened once
or twice, I don’t know, but it has not happened a lot of times
when men were stranded and starving. Yet it has become a
story that people like to believe. People are fascinated with
cannibalism, I guess, and there seems to be something
romantic and terrible about a life boat full of hungry men
and one of them being eaten by the others. You talk about
the custom of the sea. It’s the custom of the sea that a
captain rules his ship. He is in charge, and nobody does
anything unless the captain tells him to. That is the custom
of the sea.”
“So, Captain Coffin,” asked Murphy, “what do you think
really happened on that life boat?”
“Something very ugly indeed,” said Zimri.
Nancy Bunker Coffin
She knew that people stared at her. They always had. It
made her look away, look down, and wish she were less
different than she was, wish with all her being that she
looked like other girls, sort of plain with a becoming feature
or two. Perhaps good hair. Some one good thing that people
could notice in passing, maybe even comment on politely,
and then look on to someone else. Nancy often yearned to
be more forgettable.
But, no, nobody could forget poor Nancy Bunker. As a
toddler she had the curly hair that all the mothers wished
their children had. As a child she was thin and graceful
when it was the natural thing to be a bit thick and awkward.
And as a young woman she remained distant, more
interested in reading stories about faraway places than in
plunging into Nantucket life. She was oddly beautiful,
people thought, but they wondered how anybody could be
beautiful who lived like that.
So they said hello and tried to be nice and resented that
she did not seem to appreciate their efforts. After all, it was
the thing to do to smile and get on with life, just as they did.
It was the least Nancy Bunker could do, just smile back once
in a while.
But she seldom smiled. I hate the way they pity me,
thought Nancy. I hate the way they look at me and follow
me with their eyes. I can feel it, as I walk away from them,
trying to be quick, trying to stay busy, trying not to be rude.
But sometimes I want to be rude. I want to scream at them
and tell them to sweep their own dirt and leave mine alone.
Oh, I know what they say, that Papa is a drunk, that he is
really the father of my sister’s baby, that poor Mama’s
bruises come from him. And me, they wonder what he does
to me. Well, let them wonder. There is only one person on
this wretched island whose opinion I give a hoot about and I
will save my words for him.
“That Nancy Bunker thinks she is too good for us, I
guess,” they sometimes said.
“But poor child, she suffers so, you know. Ah, what a
hard life she has at home with that old man. It’s a pity she
doesn’t marry someone and get out of that house of his.”
“Yes, it’s time. But who’d have her, living the way she
“She’s so pretty, though. You see the way the young men
look after her. Surely one of them will help her find a decent
“They’ll help her get with child, that’s what they’ll do. But
no Nantucket lad from a good family will marry a daughter
of Uriah Bunker.”
“You mean you haven’t heard?”
“About the young man Nancy Bunker meets down by the
“Young Hezekiah, the one they call Sonny. Captain
Hezekiah Coffin’s son. The Captain was such a good man. A
pity that they lost him so young. And poor Abigail has had
quite a time with all those children he left her with, hasn’t
“Ah, yes. But if you are implying that Abigail’s Sonny is
fooling around with Nancy Bunker, all I can say is that
Abigail would never permit such behavior. After all she has
been through with her sons, she would never squander one
of them on a Bunker.”
“Well, Abigail may not always get her way. Goodness
knows she was headstrong enough in her day. It wouldn’t be
too surprising to see her Sonny get out of line now and
“Have you actually seen them together, then, Sonny and
“I’ve seen their clothes”
“Good heavens, where?”
“I’ve never been one for gossip, as you know, and I
certainly would never want to be the one to point the finger,
but down by Keziah’s cave, where no one goes because of all
the bad spirits there, I saw some shameful things going on.”
“What were you doing down there then, besides spying on
the young folks?”
“Never you mind. Forget I ever said anything. I have no
idea what you are talking about.”
On such a day, Nancy Bunker walked home, the wind
swirling her dark hair around her handsome face, the sun
feeling strong and warm upon her back. She loved the
Nantucket air that could feel dry like a bake oven and at the
same time cause her to blink away an invisible wetness. She
loved the walk home, long as it was, for she seldom met
anyone out so far. It gave her time to think, to relax just a
bit. And to wonder, as she drew closer home, just what she
might find there today.
Uriah Bunker’s house was small and poorly constructed,
as if it had been built in a great hurry by someone with the
good intentions of coming back later to do the job right. It
was a modest house, Uriah usually said, but people outside
the family were not always so kind. “It’s a dump,” they said.
“Somebody ought to do something about those Bunkers and
the disgusting way they live out there.”
Abigail Coffin’s voice was the loudest. “He’s trash,” she
said on more than one occasion. “It’s a sin the way Uriah
Bunker keeps his family in that miserable, broken down
excuse of a shack. Why, he takes better care of his sheep
than he does of his own children!”
Apparently she had not heard the rumors.
Nancy Bunker had heard them all right, but then she had
heard rumors about her family all her life. She worked hard
at not listening to what she heard and trying not to care what
people said. On an island like this, far away from anywhere,
all people did was talk about each other, she told herself, so
it didn’t really matter what they said. They had nothing
better to do. But she did.
Nancy walked in the door and smiled cautiously at her
mother, hoping that nothing was wrong, at least not more
wrong than usual.
Her mother did not smile, because she was out of the
habit of it. She would not have described herself as sad. It
was just that life was not easy, not meant to be easy, and she
had to grit her teeth and get through it as best she could, by
herself. Her parents were gone, her children stayed away as
much as they could, and Uriah, well, Uriah was not a well
man. She did her best to take care of them all, but it made
her weary sometimes just trying to cope.
“He wants to talk to you,” she said to Nancy. There was
no hint of emotion in her voice. Just transferring some
information of little importance, it would seem. “He’s out
back as usual.”
Nancy pushed her way through the curtain that separated
their big room from the shed room where her father usually
slept now, often because he passed out there and nobody
was strong enough to carry his huge body inside. This time
she found him sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, a
jug of his tonic at his side. He was awake.
“Papa?” she said softly, “You wanted to talk to me?”
“Nancy, my love,” he said, “please tell me it can’t be true.”
“What can’t be true?” she asked, fear bulging inside of
“The things they are saying. The things they are saying in
town about you,” he said, reaching for his tonic.
“I don’t know what you mean, Papa,” Nancy said. “But
you know how people talk around here, and most of what
they say is wrong. They always mind everybody’s business
but their own, and when they don’t know what is really going
on, they make something up just to have something to say in
the butcher shop.”
“My Nancy,” he said, “you are the prettiest girl on
“It doesn’t matter,” she said.
“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?” he asked angrily.
“With your looks you should be queen of England, queen of
France, queen of some place where our ancestors came
“I don’t want to be a queen,” she said.
“Well, you will always be my queen,” he said, taking a
“You have been drinking too much tonic again,” said
Nancy. “Why did your great grandfather you used to talk
about ever come over to this stupid island anyway? He
should have stayed over there in Europe or wherever he
came from because it couldn’t have been worse than this
“Now, Nancy, I may be feeling poorly, but I still have my
wits about me and I will not have you malign my ancestor.
Your ancestor too, I might add. William Bunker risked his
life to cross that ocean in order to escape from all the
craziness and killing that was going on over there.”
“It seems to me that he brought the craziness right along
with him,” said Nancy.
“But not the killing,” said her father proudly. “We
Bunkers live in peace now on this Quaker island where
weapons are not permitted.”
“So, instead, they use words for weapons,” said Nancy
bitterly. “And whenever they like, they murder innocent
people with their vicious lies.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you are innocent, then?”
asked her father.
“Innocent of what?” she asked.
“Innocent of spending time alone with that Coffin boy?
Innocent of taking off all your clothes with him and letting
him see your naked body?”
“We’re just friends,” said Nancy. “He’s the only friend I
have here. He’s the only one who doesn’t believe their lies
“Never you mind what they say about me,” said her
father. “There’s some truth to it, we both know. Most gossip
is not entirely wrong. But I know and you know that I do the
best I can to live up to my name.”
“What can there possibly be to live up to in the Bunker
name, Papa?” asked Nancy with surprise. “I have spent my
whole life wishing I were a Folger or a Macy or a Starbuck
even.” Carefully, she did not mention the Coffin name. “I’ve
always wished I had any other name but Bunker.”
“Nancy,” he shouted, “don’t you ever speak that way to
me again! If I were a violent man, which thank goodness I’m
not, I would whip you within an inch of your life for that
sacrilege. Haven’t I told you, ever since you were a babe,
that the fine name of Bunker meant ‘good heart’ in French
and that our ancestors earned that honorable name over and
“I suppose,” said Nancy.
“You suppose?” said her father. “And those others whose
names you envy, like the high and mighty Coffins. What’s a
coffin, but a crude box for burying? Oh, I know, all they
seem to care about is what they own in this world, and they
own this island, but we own a name that means something
“They still call you a no-good drunk, Papa,” said Nancy.
“They make up terrible things about you.”
“No matter,” he said, “I’m a Bunker.”
“But I won’t be a Bunker much longer,” said Nancy.
“You know, of course,” said her father, “that I’d never let
you marry a Coffin. I’d never let you stoop so low.”
“It’s not about stooping,” said Nancy. “It’s about loving.”
“Bring this young man to me, then,” her father said. “I
need to know from his own mouth just what on this earth he,
an arrogant Coffin scum, thinks he has to offer my precious
“I could never bring Sonny here,” said Nancy sadly. “You
Just then the curtain moved and Nancy’s mother came
into the shed room. “Your father is unwell,” she said to her
daughter. “I don’t want you getting him upset.”
“I was just leaving,” said Nancy. “I have beans to pick
while there is still light.”
Uriah Bunker took a long drink of his tonic and fell
backwards again. “I won’t let her shame me before the
whole island,” he said to his wife.
“How could she possibly shame you more than you have
already shamed yourself?” said his wife softly.
It was a good thing that Uriah was really not, as many
believed, a violent man. Or he might well have hurt this
wife, who was, after all, right there and the one he could
readily blame for his misery. But she walked away and did
not hear his fuming about the Coffins and how he would
rather have his daughter swallowed up by the sea than by
that Coffin clan.
I’m going to die, he thought. Out here. No one will know,
no one will remember. No one will be there to stop my
mother’s crying. No one will ever know that I was finally
getting it figured out, that things were just beginning to
make sense to me. And now this. This ocean is my whole
world and there is nothing else. It was all a dream that I
ever walked on land and slept in my bed and tended my
roses. I didn’t even care about the whales. That whale that
rammed our ship was possessed, after something or
someone, but it couldn’t have been me, for I never wanted to
kill any thing. Not even the boys who teased me. I couldn’t
hurt them back, not even if I tried. But what good has it
done me to be forgiving, to be the gentle one, as my
grandmother always called me? No good. None of it
matters now. The waves get bigger and bigger. George
doesn’t know where we are, where we are going, how we got
here. Nobody knows, nobody cares. And I will die and they
will eat me just like we ate the others and then somebody
who is left will eat them and that’s it. No story, no
ceremony, no music, no remembering. That’s the worst. If
only somebody would remember that I lived.
Of course, my grandmother will remember me, but I dare
not let myself think of her. How angry she must be with me
now for disobeying her. Funny, I would give my life for my
grandma. Perhaps I am. She won’t see it that way, though.
“My Owen,” she’ll say. “My dear Owen. You were not like
the rest. Why did you have to go and leave me?”
Owen laid his head back down in the puddle of sea water
that jostled in the bottom of the small life boat that had once
belonged to the fine whaling ship Essex. Salty and sweet
from human excrement, the water lapped at Owen’s lips. He
tried to slurp some. At least it was wet. But he was too tired
now, too tired even to swallow. His lips were cracked and
blistered. His throat burned, as if it were caked with flame.
It was hard to care any more. It was hard to tell what was
real and what was not. The only way out was for it all to
stop, however, whenever. Owen almost didn’t care.
“Look at you!” he thought he heard his grandmother’s
voice scolding him. “You look as if you have been through a
war. Come here to me and let’s get you cleaned up.” He
could imagine his grandmother holding him close in spite of
the way his smelled and rubbing her face in his filthy hair
and telling him that everything would be all right now.
“Don’t hug so hard, Grandma,” he said out loud. “My
sores, they hurt so much when you touch me.”
“Now just don’t you worry, Owie dear,” she said calmly.
“You will feel better soon, I promise.”
“Are you very angry with me?” Owen asked her in his
voice that would only whisper now.
“Yes,” she said softly. “If you weren’t already whipped
almost to death, I’d whip you a whole lot more for breaking
your promise to me and going to sea.”
“I never really promised,” said Owen.
“Well, it was the same as a promise,” said Abigail. “I told
you what I told you to save you from just such a fate as this.
I told you the whole story that I never told anybody else
before or since and it didn’t even do you any good after all.
You turned out to be just as stubborn as the rest of them and
now it is almost more than I can bear.”
“I didn’t mean to disappoint you,” said Owen. He
thrashed around, desperate to make himself understood. Of
all the people he knew, before or since, it was the blessing of
this one old woman that he most yearned for.
Gently she brushed his greasy hair back from his face.
She smiled at the feeble beard growing around the scabs.
“You’re so beautiful,” she said to him. “You always were.”
He sobbed into her hands, but his weeping was without
tears out there in the leaking lifeboat, where day after day,
week after week, for more time than he could even count any
more, his body had spent all its fluids until it seemed he was
drying up inside now, even as his belly swelled with
emptiness. “I had to go,” he said. “I had to go even though I
“Because of Charles, I suppose?” his grandmother said
softly. “Later some people said you two were fond of each
other. Is that why you left in spite of what the whale said?”
Charles. Kind and clever and knowing about lots of
things that Owen and the others who grew up their whole
time on that little island had never heard about. “Charles
was good to me,” he muttered.
Abigail shook her head. “I hate what has happened to
you, Owie,” she said sadly. “I hate her for making it happen
and I hate that Charles for letting you be so foolish and I
hate that poor excuse of a captain for not protecting you.”
“Do you hate me too, Grandma?” asked Owen, trying to
tease her like he used to do, knowing, always knowing that
she, of all of them, would never for a single minute stop
seeing him as good and wonderful and magnificent.
“Not you, Owie. Never could I hate you, as you well
know. I understand, I think. You had to go and if you had to
go, you had to go. Loving somebody is a curious thing and I
of all people should know about that. Why it’s my crazy
loving, if you think about it, that got us all into this mess in
the first place.”
“I don’t know if I really love him, Grandma,” said Owen.
“Sometimes I think I do. Most times. But then when he
turns away like he does and seems not to even see me, I get
scared that I will lose him and then I hate myself for not
being what he wants.”
“It’s not just about what he wants,” said Abigail. “It’s
about what you want too. Don’t you want to settle down
with a nice wife back on Nantucket and make me some little
great grandbabies to spoil? Then they could come running
across the patch just like you used to do and help me build
the fire and pick the berries and taste the cookie dough?”
“I’m not the right kind of man for a wife, I guess,” said
Owen. “But I would sure learn how to live with one if I could
just get out of this mess. We haven’t eaten for days and then
it was only strips of stinking human flesh from those who
died first. We are surrounded by water, yet we have not a
drop to drink. I gag, but nothing comes up. I’m too weak to
stand. And we know we have been out here for a very long
time, but we don’t know where we are.”
“You are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” said his
grandmother, “bobbing about in your broken boat with two
other sick boys who are pretending to be men and one sick
captain who is apparently a grown man but doesn’t know
how to act like one.”
Owen was fading in and out, not sure what was real and
what was wishing, but he had to ask her, for he knew that
she would always give him a straight answer. “Grandma, do
you think there is any way I can get out of this alive?” he
Abigail looked away. “Your mother misses you,” she said.
“But you didn’t answer my question, Grandma,” Owen
“And your sister, she’s no better. It’s a hard life she has,
never having her health be what it should be,” said Abigail.
“Grandma?” asked Owen. “Please be honest with me.”
“And your little brother,” said Abigail. “That rascal’s
always down at the water. Some days he doesn’t even come
home to eat. I’ve not even bothered to tell him about what
the whale said, for I know he would never listen. He can’t
even sit still, that boy,” said Abigail.
“I miss them,” said Owen.
They were quiet together, both of them looking down at
the other end of the leaking life boat that was all that stood
between the four men and the huge Pacific. The other three
looked just as grotesque and distorted as Owen felt he
looked. As the world looked. His grandmother held him
tightly, not wanting to let him go. “No,” she whispered,
“there is no way.”
“How much longer do I have?” Owen asked his
“Just close your eyes now, Owie, and let me tell you about
your roses back home. I have been tending them ever since
you left. The red orange one that climbs along the fence
needed cutting back, and I covered them all with seaweed
down by the roots. It has been a hard winter, but I think
they will all make it through till spring.”
“Do you think I will go quickly?” he asked her.
“That depends,” she said.
“On what?” he asked.
“On who uses that gun,” she said quietly.