Spike Africa

Friday, March 25

When Harry collected his money from Dietrich Hoffer at Fiddler’s Green, there was a glitch.

Sitting in his booth, Hoffer removed his antique glasses and cleaned them with intimidating deliberation. In the background, Marlene Dietrich was singing “Und steht sie noch davor …”

“I understand there were certain…irregularities…in your delivery, Mr. Wry.”

Harry wondered how the man managed to make such an ordinary word sharp enough to draw blood.

“There were challenges,” Harry said, squirming in the booth as Hoffer rebalanced his glasses on the bridge of his nose and stared at him. Harry had seen the same look in the eyes of a Komodo dragon. “We improvised. It all worked out.”

“My business succeeds by being unobtrusive. Are you familiar with the word, Mr. Wry?”

“Yeah. You like to stay in the shadows.” Like a Komodo dragon, Harry thought.

“Exactly. Anything that draws attention to my activities is undesirable.” Hoffer picked up his antique fountain pen, examined the nib dispassionately, and then drove the pen into the tabletop with a motion quick as a rattlesnake’s strike. The man’s expression didn’t change.

Harry sat looking at the pen quivering in the wood.

“Do I make myself clear, Mr. Wry?”

“Abundantly,” Harry said.

Hoffer removed an envelope from his jacket pocket and slid it across the table. “Excellent. I want no misunderstanding if this should happen again. I will have another job for you in a week. I will leave word with Herr Lidmann when the details are resolved. And Mr. Wry?”

Harry thought it was a rhetorical question but Hoffer waited for an answer. “Yes,” Harry said.

“Make no changes to your operation, nothing that would evidence your new financial status. Spend nothing more than usual. Do nothing other than usual.”

“I was going to have the boat hauled,” Harry said. “Scrap her bottom, replace some standing rigging. Basic maintenance.”

Hoffer shook his head slowly as if his patience was tried by a dull-witted child. “That would be ill-advised. Your success, and my anonymity depend upon you remaining utterly unremarkable. Hide in plain sight, Mr. Wry.”

Hoffer coughed into his kid glove. This time Harry recognized it as laughter.

Harry rowed back to the schooner riding at anchor and sat in the cockpit. The air was cold but the clouds had distanced themselves enough for the sun to warm his body. Gulls screeched and sea lions barked and the fog horn on Ediz Hook warned of impending bad weather. (Bad weather was always impending on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.) Spike Africa rose and fell gently on a groundswell born deep in the restless heart of the Pacific.

There was nothing Harry loved more than the schooner. She was the only thing in the world he owned, the only thing that made sense of the world. She was a creature of moods, grace, loyalty, stubbornness, joy, and a wicked sense of humor. He had lived with her longer than any woman and he intended to die with her.

He had joked that, when he died, he wanted a Viking ship funeral, his body laid on deck, sails hoisted, wheel lashed, and the old girl steering him to oblivion. It was more likely she would sink beneath his feet and be the cause of his death.

She was named for the President of the Pacific Ocean, a man who once signed proclamations with a flourish in the No Name Bar on the Sausalito waterfront. Spike Africa, the man, had come by his title honestly. He had shipped as crew on the K.V. Kruse, a five-masted lumber schooner built in 1906, wrecked in 1923, and as mate onboard Wanderer when Sterling Hayden, the actor, stole his kids and sailed to Tahiti in defiance of a court order.

Harry remembered a portrait of Spike hanging in a waterfront bar in Alameda. He was pictured standing in a meadow of yellow flowers on the Marin Headlands, the Golden Gate in the background, wearing nothing but a Greek fisherman’s cap. His skin was wrinkled and leathery and his pose tastefully concealed the nasty bits.

Bob Sloan, a friend of Spike Africa, the man, built Spike Africa, the boat, in the late 1970s. She was designed as a working schooner, an anomaly even then. Sloan put a big diesel in the boat and made a business of towing plastic yachts back from Baja California at the end of the season. Scuttlebutt had it, Sloan would tow two or three boats at a time, strung one after the other, with a crewmember on each to steer a straight course. It took time so slow the schooner, bring the towed boats alongside, and change the watch, so Sloan kept his crew at the helm for 12 hours at a time, without slowing even to take a piss. The boat owners never suspected their cockpits were awash in urine.

There was no work left in the world for an old wooden schooner and no profit even in hauling a deckload of tourists around the Salish Sea. Both Harry and the schooner had outlived their legitimate usefulness.

He went below to make himself a meal of beans and stale bread when he heard an insistent call.

“Hello, the schooner! Hello, the schooner!”

Harry climbed the companionway ladder, balancing a slice of bread on his bowl of beans. Over the cockpit coaming appeared the head and shoulders of a man with hair the color of winter wheat and the blue eyes of an Arctic wolf. If he was standing flat-footed in a boat, Harry estimated he must have measured well over six feet.

“Hello to you,” Harry said around a mouthful of beans.

“Are you this vessel’s master?” the Norseman said. English didn’t seem his native language.

“Harry Wry, jack of all trades, master of none. If you mean the owner, then yes, I am.”

The Norseman didn’t smile. Harry suspected his expression was chiseled from ice.

“My name is Root Bergson. I am the mate onboard the Retribution. She is…”

“I know her,” Harry interrupted. “And her reputation.”

“You don’t agree with the mission of the Sea Defenders?” Root said.

“I don’t disagree,” Harry said, “and I’ve no love for factory ships killing whales for profit.”

“May I come onboard?” Root said. “I have a proposition.”

Harry carried his beans into the cockpit and looked over the schooner’s gunnel. Root Bergson was standing in a rigid inflatable powered by a massive outboard engine. A crash bar was bolted to the rigid frame and eyebolts fitted to the molded hull. The boat looked military grade. A young man, barely college age, sat at the center console.

“Come aboard,” Harry said, “but leave your weapons behind.”

“I have no weapons,” Root said, looking bewildered.

“A joke,” Harry said. “Beans?”

Standing beside Harry, Root looked at Harry’s bowl of beans. His smile looked more like a grimace. “No, thank you.”

“A tot of rum?” Harry asked, being hospitable.

“May I offer you some Linie?” Root pulled a hip flask from his pocket and offered it to Harry. His smile seemed less pained but still thinned lipped, like a pressure crack in old ice.

Harry knew the history of Linie, aquavit casked in sherry and carried twice across the equator in the hold of ships. The name meant “line” in Norwegian. He accepted the flask, a little too eagerly, almost snatching it from Root’s hand. It tasted of caraway, mustard blossom, and fennel. The 90-proof alcohol cut through the lingering taste of beans like stormwater through a field of ash.

“Damn,” Harry said and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He handed the flask back to Root who drank twice as deep. Harry waved Root to a seat in the cockpit. “This proposition…” Harry began and waited for Root to finish.

“You know the Makah will begin whaling again,” Root said.

Harry nodded. “You’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to miss all the hoopla.”

“Allowing Native Americans to resume whaling will encourage the Japanese and others to expand commercial whaling,” Root said. “Once the door is opened, you can’t close it again. The Sea Defenders are opposed to killing whales, whatever the reason.”

“I gathered that,” Harry said. “Your point?”

Root offered the flask again. It took the edge off Harry’s impatience.

“We are planning a major demonstration in Neah Bay. Retribution will lead a fleet in protest. They are mostly small boats, yachts. What we need is a platform that can be seen from the shore.”

“A platform?” Harry said.

“We would like to hoist a banner between your boat’s masts that could be clearly seen by the camera crews on shore.”

“You want to use Spike Africa as a billboard?” Harry said.

“Yes, exactly. We would like to anchor bow and stern at a right angle to the shore so the banner would always be visible to the cameras. Whenever anyone takes a picture of Neah Bay, our message will be broadcast.”

“And why would I want to lay beam to the swell, rolling the old girl’s guts out, for the Sea Defenders?”

“We would pay you $300 a day, plus expenses,” Root said.

Harry grinned, exposing a chipped front tooth. “That’s my kind of protest.”


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.


Friday, March 25

An angry, restive crowd milled around the parking lot and a temporary bandstand. There were beads and feathers, plaids and overalls, and placards for every side—Native America treaty rights, animal rights, states rights, and every American’s inherent right to make a fool of themselves in public.

The Makah’s decision to go whaling again had become international news. There were photographers and camera crews and reporters interviewing people on the street. Several TV network affiliates had vans with microwave antennas.

The crowd surged and roiled like tide rips in Deception Pass. Someone shouted a racial slur, someone threw a punch. It was a scaled version of the scene he had left in the classroom with added riot police.

A big man climbed onto the stage and thumped the microphone. The sound of electronic feedback made Rathskill cringe.

“This thing on?” the big man said. “You folks hear me?” He was wearing a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a tie loosened around his neck. Nice touch, Rathskill thought. Man of the people. A working man despite the 200-thread count Egyptian cotton shirt and $150 silk tie. Rathskill recognized Big Bob Reingold.

Big Bob raised his hands. “I won’t keep you long.” A groundswell of approval rippled through the crowd. “I know you’ve come to hear Captain Osgood. I’ll introduce him in a moment but I wanted to take the opportunity to remind you. We may have different opinions but we’re a community of civilized people.” He looked at a knot of Klallam and Makah that were standing to one side of the bandstand. “Some more civilized than others.” A few people snickered. The Klallam and Makah remained impassive.

“Sure, we’ve had hard times. Money’s tight, jobs are scarce, but Port Angeles is moving into a future of prosperity. Even if we have to drag some people kicking and screaming.” He looked again at the Klallam and Makah.

“And the future is…tourism.” Big Bob hit the last word hard. The feedback screeched. “That’s right. People who come to see the Olympic National Park and the rain forest and whales. People who pay our salaries, our dentist bills, our kid’s college tuition. Tourists are the perfect resource. Clean, renewable, and they go away once they’ve spent their money. So, I want you to listen to what Captain Osgood has to say not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the profitable thing to do.”

Big Bob left the stage to scattered applause and catcalls.

A man with thick white hair, fashionably mussed, and a white beard took the stage. He was wearing a blue serge jacket with four gold bands on the sleeve, a captain’s rank. He was shorter than Rathskill expected from the Sea Defender’s promotion photos. Osgood was head of the radical conservationist organization accused of sabotage by some countries. He wasn’t legally a captain, he just looked like one. He also looked like he owned the crowd.

“Some of you know me from the years I’ve spent at sea defending the defenseless—whales and dolphin and baby seals. Some of you don’t know me at all. Personally, I’m unimportant. What’s important is creating a world where all species, not just human beings, have rights.”

“Not all people are human,” someone in the crowd shouted. “Just look at the Makah.” There was widespread laughter.

Osgood raised his hand to quiet the crowd. “I know there’s a lot of passionate opposition to Makah whaling but we should remember, passion isn’t hate. Hell, I’ve placed myself in harm’s way more times than I can remember to prevent the Japanese and Norwegians and Portuguese from killing whales but I don’t hate the Japanese or the Norwegians or the Portuguese. And I don’t hate the Makah. I stand with Native Americans. I stood with them at Wounded Knee. I bled with them at Wounded Knee.”

“My father was at Wounded Knee,” a middle-aged man shouted at Osgood. “If you were there, he said you were well hidden.”

Osgood shook his head slowly as if wearied by the pettiness of people who disagreed with him. “I have complete sympathy for the Makah, those members of the tribe who are sincerely looking for a better way for their tribe. The tribe isn’t unified in their opinion of whaling. Many recognize it is the barbaric practice of an earlier age. We’ve evolved since then. Society has evolved. It’s time the Makah evolve.”

“What about the Treaty of Neah Bay?” Rathskill recognized McCarty, one of the tribal police who manned the roadblock when Detective Vanoy drove him to the reservation. McCarty was dressed in mufti. “We are a sovereign nation. The treaty granted us the right to hunt whales where we’ve always hunted. You took our land, then you broke your word.”

Rathskill had heard the arguments before. Each side was deeply entrenched and digging deeper. It never ended well. He began working his way back toward Cock-a-doodle Donuts.

On the edge of the crowd a man danced, his body and face painted white, a band of black across his eyes, wearing only buckskin pants, leather moccasins, and a raven. The stuffed raven sat on his head, looking in the direction he had come, its wings outstretched as if ready to take flight, its tail feathers draped over the man’s face, obscuring his eyes. He was dancing backward in a circle, singing to himself in an incomprehensible language, a tomahawk in one hand, a bone flute in the other. The tomahawk was turned toward the dancer.

“Heyoka,” Rathskill said aloud. The ceremonial fools of the Plains Indians, the contrarians, the holy clowns. Rathskill had read about the Heyoka but never seen one in the wild.

A policeman dressed in riot gear—body armor, helmet, and plastic face guard—pushed through the crowd. He was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun in port arms. “Drop the weapon,” he shouted at the Heyoka.

The Heyoka turned to look at the officer, dropped the bone flute on the ground, and raised the tomahawk above his head.

“Stay where you are and drop the weapon,” the cop shouted louder and lowered the shotgun into firing position. “Do it now.”

The Heyoka were contrarians. Their societal role required them to behave opposite of what was expected, to do the opposite of what was asked. A Heyoka warrior ordered to retreat would charge into battle alone, regardless of the risk.

The Heyoka stepped forward. The cop worked the slide of the shotgun and chambered a round. Rathskill was certain the cop knew nothing about the Heyoka or the culture of the Plains Indians. He stepped between them.

“You don’t understand,” Rathskill said.

“Get the hell out of the way,” the cop shouted.

The space around them widened as the crowd backed away.

Rathskill could see the cop’s jaw clenched even through the protective faceplate. The man’s nametag was covered with black electrician’s tape. “He’s not going to hurt you.”

“How the hell do you know what he’s not going to do?”

The cop shoved the butt of his shotgun into Rathskill’s chest, forcing him backward. He lost his balance and fell into the Heyoka. Together they collapsed in a tangle of limbs.

The cop towered above him, the shotgun still aimed at his chest. “Stay down,” the cop ordered. Rathskill could feel the Heyoka beneath him struggling to get up. “Stand up,” Rathskill told the Heyoka. “Get on your feet.” The Heyoka went limp.

“I told you to stay down,” the cop shouted. He put his boot on Rathskill’s chest. There was spittle flecked across the inside of his faceplate. “You move again and I’ll turn you into a greasy stain on the asphalt.”

The Heyoka began singing a song. Rathskill guessed it was his death song. He thought it was Lakota.

“Shut up and turn over,” the cop shouted. More spittle splashed his faceplate. “Now!”

“Sing,” Rathskill told the Heyoka. “Sing as loud as you can. And don’t turn on your belly. A warrior never turns his back on the enemy.”

“Are you fucking crazy?” the cop shouted.

The Heyoka fell silent. Rathskill felt him rolling over beneath him. “At least one of us is,” Rathskill muttered. “Probably more.”

The cop called for backup. They tied their hands behind their backs with plastic wire ties and shipped them to the Port Angeles Police Station in a black van. He was being processed in the police bullpen when he heard a familiar voice.

“Dr. Simon Rathskill.” Rathskill turned to face Detective Vanoy. “Why am I not surprised?”


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.

Sturm und Drang

Friday, March 25

Rathskill carried a stool onto the lecture hall dais. He felt old and bent as if the accumulating years had a weight that pressed him to the ground. The gravity of old age, he thought bitterly, and braced himself with a foot on the stool’s cross piece.

The old shaman in the deerskin cape was in class again, sitting in the back row looking indistinct like a character not fully realized. Rathskill still had no clue to the old man’s metaphoric meaning. What was the point?

He still had no idea what had happened to him in the two days missing after the Apocalypto Motel. Those two days might as well be a road sign warning “Surrender all hope, ye who enter here.” He had left that sign far behind.

He felt control of his life slipping from cramped fingers. Soon, he suspected, his behavior would become more erratic, more obvious. People would notice. Eventually, he would have difficulty distinguishing what he alone saw or heard or smelled. Eventually, he would be the only rational person in a world no one else inhabited.

They’d lock him up again. For your own good, they’d assure him. Until you’re well, they’d promise, but never let him out again. He could expect to spend the rest of his life in pajamas without buttons.

Rathskill took a deep breath. “Please take your seats. Heads up, phones down.

“The other day we discussed the collapse of the community at Tse-whit-zen. Today we’re talking about cultures in conflict.”

The lights dimmed. The first slide was a monochrome photo taken from the middle of a dugout canoe. In the bow of the canoe the harpooner was poised, his torso naked, his right arm drawn back and tensed, the harpoon raised above his head for the thrust. Behind him, another man tended a line coiled in a wicker basket. The photographer was the third man in the canoe.

The whale’s blowhole was twenty feet ahead. The whale’s head was pushing a bow wave through the water. Foam flecked the surface.

There was a feeling of immediacy about the photo. The wake thrown by the whale, the dappled surface of the water flowing across its back, the men in the canoe, slightly blurred by motion, captured in the moment before the whale felt the wound, before it raised its flukes to dive deep and flee, before the harpoon line began to unreel from the basket. Or the moment before the whale’s flukes crushed the canoe and spilled the men into bitterly cold water they could survive only minutes.

The whale was so close the Makah could reach out and touch it, feel the scars left by orca attacks and the whale lice attached to the skin. They could hear the rush of air from the whale’s blowhole and smell the stink of bottom mud, crustaceans, and krill.

“The photo was taken by Asahel Curtis around 1930,” Rathskill said. “Asahel was the lesser known brother of Edward S. Curtis.

“It’s a remarkable photo. It gives you a sense of the physical intimacy that exists between predator and prey. There were no steel ships or bomb lances. No stockyards or processing plants. These men touched the life they took.

“For the Makah and other Coastal Salish people, the sea was their homeland,” Rathskill said, waving his hand toward the photograph on the screen. “Whaling was their identity. It defined who they were. It anchored their culture. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Makah have the right, guaranteed by treaty, to hunt whales off the coast of Cape Flattery. The Makah tribe is preparing to renew whaling. Their decision has been controversial. Many people now consider whaling barbaric, unconscionable, immoral. Which is right?”

“How can you justify taking the life of an intelligent species?” Avila Torres said. Avila was a bright Latina woman who usually sat at the edge of the class.

“Pigs are intelligent,” Martin Broadcutt said. “Does that mean we can’t eat bacon?” Laughter rippled through the room.

“How can you compare the intelligence of a whale to a pig?” Avila Torres said.

“Exactly,” Rathskill said. “We don’t even know how to measure human intelligence, much less another species. I don’t think intelligence will help us make this moral decision.”

“Even if we don’t know how to measure it, shouldn’t we give whales the benefit of a doubt?” she said. “We don’t need to eat them.”

“But to Mr. Broadcutt’s point, shouldn’t we extend the same benefit to pigs?” Rathskill said.

“When pigs fly,” Martin Broadcutt said. There was more laughter.

“It’s murder,” Avila Torres said.

“Technically,” Rathskill said, “murder is defined as killing another human being. At most, the law might judge it animal cruelty.”

“So, what makes us better than them?” she said.

Rathskill stood up from his stool and leaned forward. “That, Ms. Torres, is a profound question. What makes us better? What makes us different?”

“You’re not suggesting that whales are just as important as humans?” Martin Broadcutt said. “Or pigs?”

“Life feeds upon life, Mr. Broadcutt,” Rathskill said. “That’s a simple, inescapable truth. Life feeds upon life but with each death, a debt is incurred. Eventually, the debt comes due and predator becomes prey. Death makes us all equal. That’s a lesson the Makah knew intimately.”

“God commanded us to be fruitful and multiply,” Lydia Hempton said. “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you. Genesis 9:3.”

There were groans and a few catcalls from the class.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” Martin Broadcutt said. “The strong survive, the rest don’t. If whales are so fit, how come they’re almost extinct?”

Avila Torres got out of her seat and called Martin Broadcutt a chauvinistic creep. Broadcutt called her a tree hugger. The noise rose like storm surf against sea cliffs as everyone shouted their opinions, their passionate beliefs and entrenched prejudice and the hackneyed wisdom passed down from their parents.

In the back of the class, the shaman’s image became grainy and flickered, then faded to electronic snow like an old black and white television screen. Rathskill waited five minutes. The noise didn’t abate. He picked up his stool and walked out of the classroom. No one seemed to notice.

He returned to his office and collected his leather jacket and helmet. He was scheduled for office hours but left without even a note on the door. It was too much effort.

Time was everything. He was running out of it. Was it time to walk out onto the ice and expose himself to the cold mercy like an old Inuit? Wait too long and he’d lose the freedom to decide.

He needed to know what he didn’t. Blavatsky had said his memories might heal. He was sufficiently desperate to try any tomfoolery a second time. He started the Indian Chief and pointed it toward Shantytown.

He ran into traffic on the waterfront near the Black Ball Ferry docks. A cop was directing traffic at the intersection where the lights in every direction were flashing red. “What’s going on?” Rathskill asked him.

“Sea Defenders giving a press conference,” he said, his arms waving. “Indians are protesting.” A car failed to yield. The cop made an angry face and emphatically gestured for them to stop. “It’s a cluster, if you ask me.” He blew his whistle and changed the direction of traffic. “Move along. Light’s green.”

Rathskill parked the Chief behind Cock-a-doodle Donuts’ dumpster and worked his way into the crowd gathered at the ferry parking lot. At the dock in front of Downriggers on the Water, a big banner was draped over the side of a ship: Whaling kills tourism.

Crazy Elmo occupied the corner of Railroad Avenue. He was dressed in an orange Elmo suit and standing on a milk crate beside a cardboard sign. “Crazy Elmo photos—$5, autographs—$3, punch your lights out—free with a release form.”

He was shaking an orange fist at the sky. “You think that’s natural?” he shouted. “Harmless water vapor?” The silver contrails of passenger jets streaked the sky. “That’s climate change, courtesy of the U.S. government. Raise the oceans, turn fields into dust, and plant tornadoes. You never heard of HAARP?”

A Japanese couple laden with shopping bags and selfie sticks stopped to listen, thinking it a photo opportunity, but hurried away when Elmo pointed at them and shouted, “Too many people. Too many mouths to feed. Too many hands grabbing for what little’s left. They’ve weaponized the climate. They’re culling the herd. First the poor bastards in Nigeria and Bangladesh, people so far away you can’t hear them scream, and then it comes to a supermarket near you.”

Rathskill paused to listen to the rant. It was a mistake.

“You think I’m crazy?” Elmo said, pointing at Rathskill with an orange mitt. “You think it can’t be true? No one would kill millions of people to make a buck?” Elmo shook his head and seemed to deflate slightly. “All human suffering is someone’s business model.”


In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.

@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.