Monday, May 8, 2017

Keeper of History


Goody Prymm had been gone a long while this day.  Remember knew she had broken trust by reading her letters.  Ashamed for the betrayal, she quickly gathered the pieces she had read, bound them with the hemp twine to the others, as yet unread, and closed and locked the desk.  Carefully placing the desk back from where it was brought down, she put all things in order once again...but in her mind, there was anything but order.

Dusting her hands on her skirt, in walked Goody Prymm, all full of good cheer and telling Remember to grab her shawl...they were going down to the shoreline.  Without a moment's hesitation, her eyes wide, Remember did as she was bid and out the door they went, full of bustle and anticipation.

Goody Prymm had long ago promised Remember that she would take her to the ocean.  The day was fair and unseasonably warm, and perfect for a walk on the strand.  Along the way, Goody Prymm began to tell her of whaling.  Her voice like a meditation, rhythmic and expressionless, and yet comforting, she began to speak of long ago, when Indians would harvest the whales that the sea had given up to the beach.  They would butcher them, long strips of blubber used to cook with and rub on their bodies to deter biting insects.  Of the bones, they made fish hooks and all manner of implements for life and survival.  And, if the whale were fresh, the meat was food for the people, as little waste as possible from this gift of the sea.  They believed, she continued, that the Great Spirit placed all living things on this earth, each of which had a unique purpose...the birds to migrate, the trees to produce fruit, the fish to swim near the shore.  And pausing, she took Remember's hand, squeezed it and, looking squarely in her eyes, explained that people, too, had a purpose.

Walking on, Goody Prymm thereafter referred to the whales as "Pootop," the Wampanoag word for "whale."

The early Colonists had an entirely different purpose for harvesting Pootop...primarily for profit, as the oil was prized for making high-quality candles, among a myriad of other uses, even to flatter vanity, as the whalebone was used in the making of women's underclothing---stays to bind linen pieces together that would be laced, pulled tightly, constricting the breath to an uncomfortable degree.  The Colonists' whales, though, were not gifts from the sea.  The whale was hunted with harpoons, impaling the creature as it swam frantically away until exhaustion set in, the final blows of long lances tearing into its vital organs.

Now, the Colonists and the Indians worked together to hunt whales along the coast, using small sailing vessels.  Time changes everything, she told Remember, her old eyes reaching back in time, and yet somehow to the future.

When they arrived at the shoreline, they stopped, Remember now understanding why Goody Prymm wanted to make such haste.  There on the shoreline was a black whale, a Pootop, breathing its last.
They walked slowly up to the dying creature, Remember speaking softly and stroking it, its small eye watching her all the while. Out in the water not far from the shoreline swam a young whale, clearly the mother whale's baby.  Remember worried whether the baby would be able to survive.  Goody Prymm quietly and comfortingly explained that when a baby Pootop is born, the mother must bring it to the surface for its first breath of fresh air.  After that, she would support it until it was strong enough to be on its own.  She said the size of the calf suggested it would be fine without its mother.  And placing her aged hand on Remember's shoulder, softly told her that the young Pootop would be alright, and that it was time to go back.

That night, in the quiet, Remember wept for the mother...and she wept for the baby that would have to go on without her...

***With a nod to Historic Nantucket, vol. 44, no. 3 (Winter 1996), pp. 98-100; and from "Oil and Bone," by Nancy Shoemaker, from Common-Place:  The Journal of Early American Life, Vol. 08 No. 2, January 2008.

***The photograph is from a relative who lives happily in Cape Cod.

© 2017 Nancy Duncan

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