Sunday Service

Terese Svoboda Excerpt

Excerpt from Pirate Talk or Mermalade, a novel in voices to be published this fall by Dzanc Press.

1718 – Nantucket Beach


I’ve seen boats as big as this whale. I’ve seen gryphons the same size, with teeth growing in even as they were taking their last breath.

You have not. And not a live one.

I’ve been to sea, I’ve seen all you’re supposed to, being at sea. I am sixteen, after all.

If you’d stayed at home, you would’ve seen to Ma. I’d be a pirate twice, with two voyages under me, if I didn’t have that.

Quit your carping. Go stand on its middle. Maybe it will release its wind if you jump on it.

For sure it will stink to heaven if I jump on it.

Let’s poke out its eye.

It’s a wonder you’re not tired of poking whales, a-roving on the ocean like you do, with all the new sail.

Here’s the stick–let’s do the eye.

Cap’n Peters says there’s luck in a whale’s eye. And money. Some men use saws on such as the eye, to examine the socket and take away the skull too.

You told this Cap’n Peters about this whale?

Cap’n Peters can see it himself. He’s anchored out beyond the neck, nearly done scouring the fresh-wrecked Abingdon. He’ll come.

Our greasy luck! Then the sooner it dies the better, and not for anyone else but us to collect it.

It’s alive all right. Look at the eye.

Help me with the stick. A donkey could haul it out, where could we get a donkey?

If we had a donkey I wouldn’t be walking the beach looking for rope to catch the mussels on, would I? If we had a donkey, you wouldn’t be shipping out every time the wind blew and leaving me here with Ma, myself only in short pants still and no cutlass.

We need a donkey. The smell alone will bring Peters.

Do you believe in whales? I mean, that they talk?

Two fiddles can talk. One calls, the other says Yes and then some.

Whales dance when there’s boats coming with harpoon.

The way pirates do on the gallows.

Not all of them.

They’re crying whales, not singing. Poke here.

They swallow the pennywhistle and dance on the tips of their tails on top of the water. And sing.

Whales cry about their future like all creatures worth killing. There’s a tear now, with Peters coming. Look–I can make it dance without singing.

Let it be, it’s starting to bleed.

I’ll let it be with a cut of the knife. If only I had a good one, if only Ma hadn’t sold that bit of a blade while I was gone.

She’s sold all her brooches, down to the tin-and-garnets.

She sold the true baubles after you were born—or gave them up, cleaned out by whoever she had after you had a father, cleaned out clean as a pike in a trough.

They use beetles to clean the skulls when they’re empty. Cap’n Peters says so.

Peters, Cap’n Peters–would he be the one seeing Ma now?

He’s seen all of her, if that’s your actual meaning. How huge those skull-cleaning beetles must be, so big they can’t walk after all that eating, beetles that could eat all of every one of the colonies.

Slippery here, whoa.

Cap’n Peters’ has got his glass on us now. There, over the wave.


Tease me like you don’t know he’s watching. Play foot-in-the-water. He’ll think we are but boys and won’t beat us then when he sees us.

We are but boys. If I only had a knife—

If you grouse and slaughter the whale before him and he balks and whines, Ma will tie herself to the rafters and I will have to cut her down. It’s a poor revenge for her living from one man to the next, though she swears Cap’n Peters is her utter last.

I told you to get her set right, to take Ma to someone while I was off at sea, a woman with a cure.

She wouldn’t go, she said she’d have no business with someone like that, she didn’t need no one other than Father. She talks to Father from the rafters where you can see the sea out the little window, she talks to you out that window too.

She doesn’t know who Father is.

This be true, but still she talks.

This fish is leaking like a ship come ashore.

Whale, it’s a whale, not a fish. And if you would quit your poking at the eye, it wouldn’t leak so much. Poking it like that makes the sound it makes worse.

You talk like a sea captain with your Don’t this and Fish that, a bloody captain, the kind I don’t take to.

It’s the life of the sea, you said. Yo, ho, ho, you said. You toe the line, you said.

I will give you another punch to match the first.

It breathes–hear it? Cap’n Peters says they are cousin to us.

I can’t hear anything while you blather on about Cap’n Peters.

I say we leave it alone because Cap’n Peters will pay us to chop it up. They’re bound to want the steaks and oil even if it be old, and some of the bone to hang hats on,
and bone for those who truss up the women.

That’s real work, all that chopping.


The bone is all I want–I can carve “The Apostle on the Desert” into the bone.

I can carve that–one cut meeting another.

You are a stupid boy. Look–it thinks it is a creature of the land now, it wriggles so, it wants to walk about on its tail. With the next big wave, let’s push it in with our backs.

Let’s kill it.

Die, die.

What’re you whispering?

Nothing. Die, die, or they’ll get you, you whale of us all, you fool whale.

You are whispering.

I’ll whisper if I want to.

The whale’s dead anyway. Why else is it up on the beach?

Not breathing like this it isn’t dead. Not yet.

Look, Peters is bringing hooks and axes. And a cutlass! There’s a knife.

It’s so soapy-feeling on the outside.

Pitchforks and pries. Let’s poke it through to the brain before they get here, let’s poke it to make it dead before they poke it, so we can claim it and get the bone. I am grown, after all.

Die, die.

Why do you cry like a girl?

I’m not a girl.

Whale-lover, then. Crybaby.

Listen to it breathe.

I can’t hear anything but Cap’n Peters and his men beaching loud like six blacks banging dishpans.

It’s breathing big.

There–I’ve got the stick through, no thanks to you.

It still breathes.

If I hang on it here and pull down, the whole side will rip and they’ll know it’s ours. Give me a hand–

Pirate Talk or Mermalade is Terese Svoboda’s fifth novel. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “jeu d’esprit of the privateer life.” It comes out on “Talk Like a Pirate Day.”

August 16th, 2010 / 9:36 am
Sunday Service


  1. Joseph Young

      i like how i didn’t realize it wasn;t a poem at first and that i didn’t realize it was a conversation but it was intriguing so i kept going and found out.

  2. Joseph Young

      i like how i didn’t realize it wasn;t a poem at first and that i didn’t realize it was a conversation but it was intriguing so i kept going and found out.

  3. Author Updates | Significant Objects

      […] Mermalade, on Talk Like a Pirate Day, September 19 at Bluestockings. The first chapter’s at HTML Giant, and she’ll read it live at the Brooklyn Book Festival, 10 a.m. September 10 with Pers […]

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      […] AD: The first chapter ends with the slow death of a whale. Before the creature is killed, one brother becomes obsessed with the animal’s breathing. I cried, literally, for the breathing. “Listen to it breathe”. “It’s breathing big”. “It still breathes”. The other brother calls him a “whale-lover” and a “crybaby”. Why a whale and not a sea otter or a giant squid? (Read the first chapter of Pirate Talk or Mermalade here.) […]

  5. Author Updates | Significant Objects

      […] 19 at the Hudson Valley Writers Center at 4 and Bluestockings at 7:30. The first chapter’s at HTML Giant. The trailer for the book is here. Svoboda is also reading at Book Court on the 21st for Dzanc […]

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      […] For their holiday sale, the people of Dzanc are giving us free shipping on individual titles, and $30 three- and $40 five-book bundles. Send two to in the gift exchange Take a look at Robert Lopez’s Asunder (whose Kamby Bolongo Mean River Blake said was one of his favorites last year), Matt Bell’s How They Were Found from Keyhole, and Terese Svobado’s Pirate Talk or Mermalade, the first chapter of which we published here. […]