by Ryan Napier

From the journal of Solomon Godfrey, captain of the Industrious Cousin, a whaling ship out of New Bedford, Massachusetts:

Sat., Jul. 1. Early this morning, there was fighting below deck. The two combatants, Thomas Parker and William Boyle, were restrained and brought into my cabin.

Both were to be punished for fighting—ten lashes for fighting with a fellow sailor—but another question required my judgment. They had fought over a small leather purse containing twenty-five dollars—several years of pay for men like these. Who should get the purse?

Parker said he had been wearing the purse around his neck while he slept and Boyle had cut the strings and stolen it in the night. Boyle said he had been wearing the purse around his neck while he slept and Parker had cut the strings and stolen it in the night.

I ordered Second Mate Delano to bring me the purse.

We waited. I thought of my namesake, the wise king Solomon, and the famous story of the two harlots who had appealed for his judgment. A child was brought before the king, and each harlot claimed it as her own. Solomon pulled out his sword and threatened to cut the child in two, one half for each harlot. The lying harlot agreed: better, she thought, for the child to die than for her rival to have it. The truthful harlot recoiled and asked Solomon to give it to the other: better that her child be allowed to live with another woman than to die. Thus wise Solomon discovered the true mother, and gave her the child.

The captain of a whaling ship is no equal to a king of Israel, but he should still strive for kingly justice in his little floating realm.

Second Mate Delano brought the purse. I opened the porthole, took the purse by its leather strings, and dangled it over the waves. I asked the men whether I should drop it.

“No!” they both cried out together.

I asked again, and again they both cried, “No!”

I explained to them the problem. “The lying man,” I said, “should agree to let me drop the purse; the honest man should object. You both object. By Solomonic logic, both of you own the purse. But this is impossible.”

“Let us do it again,” said Parker. “This time, Boyle won’t lie.”

“I wasn’t lying!” Boyle said. “Ask us again.”

“Shall I drop it?”

“No!” they said.

“One of you is lying,” I said. “At least one of you. But the case is far more serious than that. This test comes from Scripture, men. It is holy. If you hinder it in any way, you are mocking the word of our Lord. That is a very serious action. On my ship, a man who fights with a fellow sailor gets ten lashes, a man who lies to his captain gets fifteen lashes, and a man who blasphemes against Scripture gets marooned on a treeless island. When you both say ‘No!’, you are saying, in effect, that the great king Solomon was a fool and that Scripture is nonsense. Is this what you believe?”

“No,” said Parker. “Great king, he was.”

“Very great king,” said Boyle.

“I’m glad to hear it. Now, I’ll ask you again—and keep in mind that treeless island—shall I drop this purse into the sea?”

“Yes!” they both said at once. They looked at each other.

I had found them out. “Both of you,” I said, “would have me drop the money—which means that neither of you are the true owner. You’ve stolen it. You were partners in this robbery, most likely, and you fell to fighting over the spoils.” I ordered Second Mate Delano to ask among the crew and find the purse’s true owner.

This task took him some time: he called men down from crows’ nests, and up from the lowest decks. Again, we waited. I placed the purse on the table and looked out at the sea. I hoped to spot a little sandbar on which to maroon these men, if the situation required it. After a few minutes, I heard a loud sound.

Boyle had collapsed to the floor. Both men had been wounded in the fight—Boyle’s chest and cheek were slashed, and Parker’s right ear was severed—and much blood had been lost, judging from the considerable gore on the deck of my cabin. (The ear, apparently, had not been found.) I had hoped to resolve the judicial question before the medical one, but Boyle forced my hand. I called the surgeon, who treated their wounds and revived Boyle with smelling salts.

Second Mate Delano returned. None of the men had claimed the purse. Half said it was Parker’s, half Boyle’s. Second Mate Delano suggested that, in absence of an answer, we should confiscate the purse and give the money to a charity when we returned to New Bedford, or even use it to furnish the ship’s mast with certain necessary repairs.

“You can’t give my money away!” said Parker.

“You can’t give my money away!” said Boyle.

“Men,” I said. “no one is giving anything to charity. Second Mate Delano simply needs to have faith. Justice will prevail. Now, one more time.”

I picked up the purse and again held it out the porthole. Before I could pose the question, however, the purse strings slipped from my fingers. Parker and Boyle ran to the porthole and watched the heavy coins sink.

They both demanded I give them the twenty-five dollars.

“How could I give either of you any money,” I said, “after what we have seen here? One of you may have owned it, both of you may have stolen it—the fact no longer matters. God has judged that neither of you deserve the money, and he has taken it to the bottom of the sea to keep it from you. You may have lost your money, but you have gained a far greater thing. You have seen the hand of God.”

I ordered the two men taken away and lashed. I was alone, and my thoughts were as deep and as heavy as those coins at the bottom of the sea.

I had seen the hand of God. And what had it done? I was supposed to be a Solomon, but God had literally taken the matter from my hands.

I prayed, and there was a second miracle. I had an idea.

I found Second Mate Delano and told him to search below deck for Parker’s missing ear. A few hours later, he brought it to my cabin. It must have fallen through a hatch during the fight: Second Mate Delano found it in the blubber room. It was oily but otherwise intact: Boyle had made a good clean cut. I soaked the ear in good Formosan rum, and dried it with my own velvet cloth.

I hid the ear into the pocket of my coat and went below deck to the gallery. The cook’s boy gave me a jar of brine, and into it I placed the ear. This will keep off the rot. I will keep the jar in my cabin and monitor Parker’s conduct. If it improves, he shall have his ear again. Justice is more than punishment: it must also include forgiveness and redemption.

(I have consulted with the surgeon, who claims that he cannot reattach an ear after so long a time. He is far too humble: I have great faith in him.)