July 07, 2014
Perhaps Harvey—the man who, in 1874, was about to become the first-ever photographer of the giant squid—saw it as his duty to restore power to it, body and myth, myth and the body.
“It proved to be…gigantic,” Harvey continued.
Approaching the dock at the 1874 port of St. John’s, Newfoundland, the fishing boat entered The Narrows, the only entrance to the harbor, which, at a depth of as little as eleven meters, and a width of 61, geographically defended the city from 17th century pirates, 18th century enemy “settlers,” and WWII submarine invaders. Borborygmal icebergs groaned against other icebergs. Beyond them, nothing but ocean—the churn and froth of the Atlantic—until Ireland.
The fishermen were telling tales, perhaps about an old captain who, freezing to death, stabs his three dogs, dogs he raised from puppyhood. The dogs are confused, but fight, blimp his hands with bites. But the knife, bone-handled, finds its way beyond the dogs’ ribs, and soon, he has stripped them of their skins and has made a jacket, excised their bones and has fashioned a flagpole which he uses to signal his distress. The fishermen were telling this tale, or the fishermen couldn’t stop talking about the squid, or the fishermen were silent.
The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel, the vapors pumped from the interior’s forests, commingling with the sea. The early sailors believed that this fog housed ghosts of fishermen and fish, mermaids that they’d either have to love or decapitate, that the only way to eradicate this terrible fog would be to set a great fire to the forests. At the sea-bed beneath them, the skeletons of two-hundred ships lay unidentified in the soupy mass grave, lifeboats and their corpses embalmed in the deep freeze. The Labrador Current threw at them more and more ice.
Through the fog, the Laurentian rocks stabbed upward, themselves resembled fortresses, as if the land were battling the sea and slowly giving up ground. When the ocean attacked the rocks, the spray shattered into the men’s faces and stuck there. In this spray, no rainbow. I envision Harvey wiping his nose with his right hand, his left never leaving the squid’s body which had a “total number of suckers…estimated at eleven hundred,” and “a strong, horny beak, shaped precisely like that of a parrot, and in size larger than a man’s clenched fist.”
For all we know, Harvey clenched his right fist, and measured it against the squid’s beak and nodded, and was to remember this comparison, even if he did not explicitly intend to, as the small boat that carried his body and the beast’s body, and the bodies of the fishermen passed Chain Rock and Pancake Rock, HMS this and HMS that, Signal Hill with its fortifications, the final battle site of the Seven Years’ War, the blood from so many French scalps still decorating the citadel stone, the city inked like an ash drawing on the hillside, chimneys brick and copper pumping smoke, the Cathedral cupola’s dirty bowl-cut, The Battery, and Cahill Point, and Deadman’s Pond, rumored to be bottomless, bottomless at the foot of Gibbet Hill where, in the 18th century, the city’s public hangings took place, the tar-coated bodies of the executed left to swing in moonlight as warning, as display, over a pond with no bottom, into which, when they began to rot, the bodies were thrown, stuffed into barrels weighted with stones, disappearing into the maw of the earth, and Harvey may have stroked the squid as if a horse, whispered to it in vocables, and remembered the newspaper story five years ago, Christmas Day, 1869, about the drowning deaths of two young girls who dared to ice skate on Deadman’s, and the boy, Fred Jr., the son of Newfoundland Premier Sir Frederick Carter, who drowned while trying to save them. Moses Harvey cooed to the squid, and imagined their three young bodies drifting forever downward as if on some ghost-pulley, never to catch-up to the tarred remains of the hanged men.
As Harvey shuddered, his own parts shuddering within him, the boat’s parts shuddered alongside—oars shivering with the bailing scoops, the Bultow Trawl joining its long line of hooks to the edge of the compass as if trying to catch any sense of direction, and to find sustenance there. The algebra of wind and tide undid itself and became remedial. Once again, nothing could be given, or proven. The gaff creaked like a redwood.
Harvey would have heard the chirr and scrape and whine and grind and bells and whistles of the fishing fleets, sealing fleets, herring schooners, banking schooners, coastal boats, deep-sea liners, peace time warships, and he couldn’t convince himself what kind of time it was—some hallucinatory wartime, some ethereal concord.
Confusing the air overhead were bald eagles who could have been fish-hawks, osprey who could have been sparrows. Turrs who could have been murrs. There was a pigeon who could have been a Greenland falcon, a kingfisher who could have been a snowy owl, a Paradise flycatcher who could have been a Downy woodpecker, a chimney swallow who could have been a robin, a blackbird who could have been a grosbeak, a raven who could have been a jay, a square cloud that could have been a circle, thunder that could have been the sea, orange that could have been pink, and the heavens that could have been the hells.
And when the boat creaked into the harbor—littered with shredded sails, dismembered gunwales, dented dinghies, logs, knotted rope, the flotsam and jetsam of sea and gutted fish, crumb-sized pieces of which clung rotting to the net heaps, a downturned whaleboat doubling as a chicken coop, the decapitated sculpture of a dead French admiral, a boy of about nine cleaning a herring on the flat of the severed neck; a young woman standing side-by-side with a small girl who could be her daughter or niece at the splitting table, the girl kicking at the crisscross legs of it with her small red slippered feet, the bellies and forearms and chests of both woman and girl spattered with entrails; the mother or aunt beheading the cod, slitting its underside, removing the backbone; the girl expertly digging into the cavity with her small fore- and middle fingers, scooping the guts into a bucket, carefully retaining the livers in a white porcelain bowl, the homemade birch broom that they will soon use to clean up resting innocent for now against a fat barrel; a beat-to-shit stockpot, a relic from a defunct cook’s galley tied up overhead like some poor flying buttress—blasting its stentorian horn, and began to dock, when the fishermen threw their ropes ashore, Moses Harvey finally remembered his role as scientist, finally remembered to think again in numbers, to wedge measurements through a waterfall of adrenaline, his exhilaration tempered with an inexplicable heartache, finally dared to look into the animal’s eyes, swinging above him or heaped at his feet, and found, to his surprise, that “The eyes were destroyed, but the eye-socket measured four inches in diameter.”
He considered his own small eyes, and again made a fist as one fisherman swore to another, and then flattened that hand over his chest, felt it beating from the inside, as if a Deadman resuscitated someplace within him, close enough for him to feel it, but intangible all the same, and his body felt improbably deep, as if his heart was calling to the surface from its coffin of tar, asking to be excised, to be laid into the eye-socket of this fallen squid where it would finally be a perfect fit.
MATTHEW GAVIN FRANK is the author of the nonfiction books, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer (W.W. Norton: Liveright), Pot Farm, and Barolo (both from the University of Nebraska Press), the poetry books, Warranty in Zulu (Barrow Street Press), The Morrow Plots, and Sagittarius Agitprop (both from Black Lawrence Press), and the chapbooks, Four Hours to Mpumalanga and Aardvark. Recent and forthcoming work appears in The New Republic, Field, Epoch, AGNI, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast, The Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, Crazyhorse, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, North American Review, Pleiades, Black Warrior Review, Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, The Best Food Writing, The Best Travel Writing, Creative Nonfiction, Prairie Schooner, Hotel Amerika, Gastronomica, and others. After spending over 17 years of his occupational life in restaurant kitchens—from fast-food chicken shacks to fine-dining temples of gastronomy—he now teaches creative writing in the MFA Program at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of the literary journal, Passages North. This winter, he prepared his first batch of whitefish liver ice cream. It paired well with onion bagels. Preparing the Ghost publishes this month.
“The Beast’s Body” excerpted with permission from from Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and its First Photographer, W.W. Norton: Liveright, July 2014)