Herman Melville’s First Hammer

Father and I floated up the Hudson on furniture rafts. I slept atop a credenza. Father reclined on the only bed. Refused to share the mattress with his son. Had not caught sleep in days, he said. Needed a wide berth, he said. “Perhaps you should use this time to finally shave that beard of yours, Herman,” Father said to me, before he fell asleep.

My beard has been with me since the day I was born. As much a part of me as my arms, my mouth. (Or my backward way of speaking back then: I jumbled my words into a soup.)

“But thanks,” I said. “No, no. Father beard.”

“Excuse me?”

“Beard my like I know you.”

We moved every few weeks, or so it seems with the passage of time, but it was twice a year at the most. Father never stopped dreaming, and coming up with new ways to make money. He could never solve the mystery of how to hold on to it. The Melvill family had acquired a substantial amount of debt. We ran out of money, and then we ran out of places to live in New York City.

We were headed north to Albany to join the rest of our family. Mother departed first, taking twenty-six of my siblings with her, leaving Father and I behind to push what furniture we could out the window of our cold water flat. Mother’s family owned a farmhouse in Albany, but we couldn’t afford a carriage. Hence the furniture rafts.

We packed the first raft with a pair of sideboards, two dining room tables, eleven chairs, my credenza, chests and trunks, and the bed. The second raft held six oil paintings and Father’s gigantic desk. Everything lashed together with stolen rope. We passed many tall ships on our way out of the harbor and I felt the country closing in around me. I felt a sudden hunger for the ocean. I craved vistas. I wanted endless expanses. I kept my mouth shut regarding the foolishness of our journey, even when a corner of the second raft began to sink. The paintings slipped into the river. I watched a pastoral scene—cows and barns—revolve in the current. Father attempted to right the raft before the river claimed more of our possessions, but he failed, of course he failed, it is no great surprise that he failed, because Allan Melvill failed in everything he did.

The river swallowed Father’s desk before we lost sight of Manhattan.

When Father died eight months later, we lost our patriarch, but gained a letter at the end of our surname. The extra letter was Mother’s idea, to mask our name from creditors. The letter E was the final gift Father gave us.

The trip was the only time Father and I ever spent alone together, but even together it felt alone. Mostly I remember his bleary face, his fogged eyes. We ditched the second raft, consolidated our things. Tossed a trunk in the water. I took what comfort in the credenza. Packed with kitchen supplies—pots and silverware, dishes, rags and buckets for cleaning—it provided a calming rattle. The edges of nouns blurred as the heavy weight of sleep filled my brain. I watched dark shapes form over the water. I imagined the silverware telling me stories in a clattering voice.

A man ghosted out of the darkness. I say man but I mean a pale river bandit. He held a small hammer in his teeth. I was a fuzzy moonlit lump beneath my yellow blanket. He pulled himself onto the raft. The man was a dripping column of slime headed for Father’s money purse. I worried about the his disappointment when he discovered our lack of funds. I missed my brothers. Jack and Peter and Gansevoort. Matthew and Trevor and Gus. Conor, Wilbur, Maxwell. Linus. Sam and Jared. I wanted Jack and Peter’s fists at this moment.

And then Gan’s words bloomed in my mind: “A boy with a beard is an odd sight, Herman.”

I tapped the bandit on the shoulder. I watched the shock of recognition pass across his face when he turned around. I was the ghost now. I was a bearded yellow ghost. I concentrated as hard as I could, managed to say the word boo. He dropped the hammer and splashed into the river. Father slept, or pretended to sleep, through the entire episode. I picked up the discarded weapon. The hammer would defend us for the rest of our journey. I fell in next to Father, pushing his wide berth aside.  

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