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Scrimshaw I

A Page Torn from a Journal

The sea is terror, and the sky is grief. So said old Hamish when I first came aboard the Drum in 1823. “Have you been to sea before, boy?” he asked me in a bellowing voice, his accent so thick I could barely parse the words. When I said no, this was my first voyage, he clapped me on the back so hard I stumbled into the railing.


“You’ll learn,” he told me. “The wind’ll blow your youth away, and you’ll learn. The sea is terror, and the sky is grief.”


I’d lied about my age already. I told the mate I was fourteen when I signed on as a ship’s boy but I was already pushing seventeen. It was easier that way to explain my high voice and slender frame. Edward had taught me how to stand and project my voice and how to bind my breasts, and by the time I signed onto the Drum, I was so convincing that no one suspected I had once, in body, been a girl.


But I think Hamish knew. I can’t say why or how, but I had a sense from him, an interest and a calmness. He knew I hadn’t grown up laboring in a workhouse like I’d claimed. When the skin on my hands split open like torn cloth, when the blisters swelled and burst along my fingers, I felt the keen interest of his gaze. Watching me. Appraising me.


In the long lulls of the hunt and the voyage, Hamish taught me with a compassion a father might have afforded his own son. Every time we shared a watch he taught me new words in Gaelic, his mother tongue. He told me stories of old Scotland across the Atlantic and laughed when I said I’d never heard of a black Scotsman before. He showed me knotwork and how to run the rigging without worsening the blisters covering my palms.


And he taught me scrimshaw. Carving my thoughts into oiled whale bones, a gentle mutilation. Hamish was a master scrimshander and worked at a prodigious pace, so that he amassed an incredible collection in the years we sailed together past the West Indies and the Cape Verde Islands, from the west coast of Africa to the Falklands and then to New Bedford again.


Sometime in those early months, between the erosion of my wariness and the growth of maturity that comes with relentless hardship, I fell out of my hammock in the middle of the night and tore out of the fo’c’sle, clawing my way to the bow of the ship, and I was in the act of climbing onto the bowsprit when Hamish caught me. He asked me what I was doing, what was wrong.


I couldn’t speak. The words tangled in my chest and twisted in my throat. My hands were claws on the line I clutched. I only knew I could not endure another second on the ship. The black water was calling to me, a promise of safety, of darkness.


It was Hamish who took my wrist and drew me back down to the deck. I thought he would raise an alarm or demand an explanation again, but instead he handed me an oiled bone and an awl.


“Into the bone,” he told me. “Pour it into the bone.”


Part of me thought he had lost his mind, but there was no room for argument in his tone. So I sat against the mast, and he sat beside me, and under the precarious swinging lamplight I stippled my terror into the bone.


By the time the horizon turned red and my watch approached, I was calm. Each precise stab of the awl in my hand pulled the terror out of me. I fed the bone my panic and my concentration until the pull to the deep no longer felt like a yearning.


The next night, it was back. Again I staggered to the railing and leaned over, watching the bow cleave the black water into sucking, frothy swirls. Longing for the escape of the depths. Again, Hamish was there to stop me. And again I put everything I had into the bone. As the voyage progressed, my skill at scrimshaw became formidable and I amassed a collection to rival Hamish’s. Each carving was a miniature chronicle.


I carved fractals. Branching, abstract lines that took little skill but calmed me down when the terror seized me and would not let go. Sometimes, as I worked, I would talk to Hamish about my childhood home in the Carolinas, and how the rough start of my life had pulled me northward and thrust me onto a whaling ship. It was some time before I looked down at the bone in my hand, at the fractal figures emerging from my scribe, and realized I was carving trees.


Between work and the scrimshaw I would look for seabirds. I wanted some sign that we were close to land, that we were approaching our next port. I wanted to see trees again, feel the earth under my feet. Every day the sky was empty of birds, my longing for the land increased. I realized I was not built for sailing.


The name I gave the mate when I came on board was Jack, but Hamish took to calling me Jackdaw because I reminded him, he said, of a bird looking to take flight. I liked that well enough. But it also made me sad. Hamish named me, in the end. He was my father. He was my father.


I should have realized why he was such a skilled scrimshander. It was foolish to suppose his reason was any different from mine. But he was holding back his own tide with the carving, and his was much older and cleverer than my infantile terror.


In the end I could not save him from either tide, the one within or the one without. When we sighted the monster -

Note: This page seems to be torn from a journal and breaks off here. I’ll see if I can find the rest.

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