Daniel continued to tell the story about the mad sea captain while we waited for medical to x-ray his arm. Telling a story is an effective anesthetic, so he did not groan about his arm nearly so much as he did at first and the others in the waiting room began to cock their ears his way and listen to the story, leaving off the canned entertainment of the TV, and their own impatient apprehensions.
You remember that Daniel had been discovered as a stowaway on a banana boat and brought to the Captain, who immediately took a liking to him. Some time later, the crew, unhappy with the Captain’s mercurial rule, seized the ship from him and locked the two of them up in the Captain’s stateroom.
The Captain went on talking about literature with Daniel as if no mutiny had ever occurred. They debated whether Shakespeare was the true author of Hamlet, whether TS Eliot was an American or a Brit, and who made the most effective social commentary, Twain or Dickens. Daniel attempted to steer the discussion towards the mad tyrants of literature: Captains Queeg and Ahab, and the station manager, Kurtz, in an attempt to get his new friend to consider his own situation.
“The Captain turned to me with an intense expression on his face, as if he was about to reveal something he had never done before, something that would explain everything that had happened.
“`I am Gilgamesh,’ he said. `Have you read Gilgamesh?’
“`No,’ I admitted.`But I know of the name.
“`As a student of literature, you should read The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest story in literature.’
“He paused and looked far past me, even though the stateroom was small, as if he had perceived Gilgamesh in the far distance and was watching him approach.
“`Gilgamesh was two parts god and one part man. He was the finest in all the world, the most cultured, the most intelligent, the strongest, and the best looking. He ruled over a vast area of the Fertile Crescent. Sumer was his kingdom. No one was his equal. The problem was that he was bored, for we all require conflict, strife, and competition to become the best that we can. The people hated him because he oppressed them and raped every woman on her wedding night.
“`The gods heard the distress of the people and created Enkidu out of clay to become the equal of Gilgamesh. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fought to a draw when they first encountered one another, but then they were friends and combined their strength to fight a monstrous demigod to gain fame and renown.’
“`What do you mean you are Gilgamesh?’
“`I am Gilgamesh!’ he shouted as if shouting would convince me.
“`No one can match me on this ship and I am bored. Years ago, I was in the Faulklands, you know, I was an officer on a destroyer. We took Argentine fire, had many casualties, and was in danger of sinking, but I saved the ship. I was decorated and might have gotten my own vessel, but after the war, the Admiralty decided the Queen did not need so great a navy. Now I skipper a banana boat, trekking repeatedly over the same sea. No experience can match combat, I tell you. That action was the last time I felt alive.’
“`So, you see, I am Gilgamesh and you, my good man, are Enkidu. Together we will do greater things.’
“`Let us retake the ship,’ he said.
“I protested in vain. I did not think I was Enkidu, nor did I think he was quite as grand as Gilgamesh. All I wanted was to get to Eng-Land.
“`Do you think that this crew, after they hand me over to the authorities, will let you get to England? They will ship you back to Jamaica from whence you came. If you assist me, I will get you to England myself and set you up in your own flat in London. That’s what I will do, or I am not Gilgamesh.’
“I continued to protest. `They have wrenches and mauls, what are we to do with them?’
“The Captain said nothing, but went to his berth and kneeled on the deck as if to say his prayers. Pulling a key from out of his pocket, he unlocked a foot locker that he kept under the berth and drew out two handguns.
“`They may have wrenches and mauls,’ said the Captain, `but we have firearms.’
“He checked the chamber and handed me a handgun. I had never touched a firearm before. I was surprised at the weight of it.
“`We had better take the ship now,’ he said, `for I can tell by sounds and movements that we are coming into the harbor. Soon it will be too late.’
“Without another word, the Captain turned and shot out the lock of his stateroom. He kicked the door open and charged on to the bridge, both hands on his handgun, firing upon everyone he saw. I cautiously stepped into the doorway and watched the bloodbath. The weasely First Mate had evidently been sitting in the Captain’s bridge chair when the shooting began and had slid to the deck out of the Captain’s view. He now peered out from behind the chair and, as the Captain went to the wing of the bridge, the mate crept up behind him, holding the binoculars by the strap.
“If I had played the part that the Captain had entrusted me to play, I would have shot the mate right there and the consequences would have been very different, but on that bridge that day I had no such courage. If I had the courage I had only a short while before, when I confronted my father with the table leg, I would not be here today. I would be in a flat in Eng-Land.
“The weasely First Mate had more courage that day than I. Perhaps it was courage born of desperation, but, whatever its source, he was able to charge the Captain and knock him down with the binoculars before the Captain could shoot him dead. He proceeded to beat him over the head with them until the Captain’s brains were splattered across the bridge.
“Having dispatched the Captain to his next incarnation as Gilgamesh, the First Mate remembered that I had been locked up in the stateroom with him and turned to find me standing in the doorway with my firearm. I raised it, lest he charge me and beat me with those same binoculars, but my hand shook. He slowly advanced upon me. He had more courage with the binoculars than I had with a handgun. I was not able to use it, nor was I willing to be clouted on the head like the Captain or brought back to Jamaica. I could see out the windows of the bridge that we were in the harbor, just as the Captain had said, and not far from shore. I was a good swimmer and many times dived from a cliff by my house into the sea. Therefore, I ran to the wing of the bridge, mounted the rail, dove into the water, and swam to shore.
Daniel reached an old pier, slimy with seaweed and crusted over with barnacles. He clung to it, panting. The ship had steamed away, someone undoubtedly back at the helm, and was passing under a great bridge in the distance. He arose and began to walk inland. He could see that he was in the industrial outskirts of a big city, but this was not England. The banana boat had not brought him to England as he thought it would. It had brought him to New York.
- A Year in Reading: Emma Donoghue (themillions.com)
- The Oldest Epic Ever Told – The Epic of Gilgamesh (daddyhogwash.com)
- Top 3 books for the hotel nightstand (religion.blogs.cnn.com)
- Daniel, Part I: Testing (thenarrativeimperative.com)
- Daniel, part III: The Banana Boat (thenarrativeimperative.com)
- Daniel, part II: Jah’s Stories (thenarrativeimperative.com)