Sleeping with the Cannibal

Our guy Ishmael has a problem of biblical proportions. There are no rooms left at the Inn. But the innkeeper—Peter Coffin—has a ready solution: Ishmael can bunk down with one of his regular boarders, a harpooneer named Queequeg. Except that the room has only one bed.

Ishmael has some misgivings about this proposition: “No man prefers to sleep two in a bed...And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply.”

Ishmael would rather sleep alone on a bench. The gracious innkeeper hauls out his woodworking tools to try to make the bench as comfortable as, well, a coffin. Soon wood shavings are flying all over the place. “The landlord was near spraining his wrist, and I told him for heaven’s sake to quit—the bed was soft enough to suit me, and I did not know how all the planing in the world could make eider down of a pine plank.”

Ishmael tries the bench, but it’s hopeless. He decides to take his chance with the harpooneer after all, who has yet to appear. Peter Coffin reassures him all will be well. “He pays reg’lar,” says the innkeeper, admitting that Queequeg supplements his harpooneer’s income by selling shrunken heads on the side.

Ishmael, pooped, gets into the bed, shrinks himself into the fetal position, and nearly reaches “the land of Nod.”

Then Queequeg enters the room. He does not slip in unnoticed. First off, he’s huge, bald, and covered in tats. Ishmael silently tries to rationalize this part away: “It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin.”

True. But the shrunken heads salesman is also smoking “great clouds of tobacco,” toting his inventory, and waving a tomahawk. For some reason Ishmael hadn’t put it together that selling heads and cannibalism go hand in hand (the best parts). He is stunned speechless, overcome with fear. Queequeg finally discovers the mute Ishmael when he climbs into bed.

Screaming ensues until Peter Coffin rushes in to save the day (night). He clears up the confusion between the two men, and Ishmael sees that Queequeg means no harm. “For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.” And he had seen earlier in the evening how destructive arrantest topers (drunk sailors) can be. He decides, rather philosophically, “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Cannibals, sure. But smokers, no. That’s where Ishmael draws the line, and Queequeg kindly agrees to extinguish his smoking materials. “I don’t fancy having a man smoking in bed with me,” Ishmael says. “It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.”

If only Ishmael had been born in Canada instead of the United States. He would’ve been covered by universal health care.