Jackdaw's Journal

AMBERGRIS II

My second voyage with Malcolm Madigan was stranger, and worse. He was unreadable to the other crewmen. As if his face was not known to them, or they saw a different face than I did.

From that first day I slept badly. I could not stand the sight of his form huddled a few feet away in a hammock across from mine, and would lie awake at night, watching him, waiting for him to surge up and wrap his hands around my neck again. He could not possibly be Malcolm Madigan. Malcolm had been dead for weeks, dismembered, decapitated, distributed into barrels of oil. Yet here he was.

And no one recognized him but me. It was as if the real Malcolm Madigan had never existed at all, like he was a blur in my memory.

That first day I asked Martin Dawson, carefully, what he thought of the new deckhand. Dawson looked at me in puzzlement; I had never asked his opinion in this way before, and as soon as the ship had cast off it was as though he had forgotten about Malcolm entirely.

“He’s well enough,” said Dawson.

“Do you think there’s anything peculiar about him?” I asked.

His puzzlement creased his brow. “He’s only as peculiar as the rest of us, I suppose.”

None of them could see what I saw, or he did not remember. I did not know which, but I did know this: on a ship packed with men I had come to call friends, I was in this respect completely alone.

That night I awoke to a scratching. It was so loud I thought it was right beside my ear, but when I sat upright, there was nothing, not even a rat. The scratching persisted, deafeningly loud, but it went unheard by the other sailors asleep in the fo’c’sle. Not one of them so much as stirred. The scratching receded then to the fo’c’sle entrance, and I, bleary-eyed and irritated by my interrupted sleep, followed it onto the deck.

Malcolm (who was not Malcolm) was not on watch, but he was on the upper deck, sitting on a crate beneath a lantern, in the exact spot where Hamish had first coaxed me down from the railing that night so many months ago. As I approached, the scratching settled on him.

He was carving scrimshaw.

When I was close enough, he looked up and gave me a cursory greeting, then bent back over the whale’s tooth as if it were as precious as his firstborn child, scratching away with his awl.

I ran all the way back to my hammock. The scratch of his awl followed me. I had to plug my ears to be rid of it.

I thought he must be a ghost, returned to exact revenge upon me for his murder. Yet, clearly, he was not a ghost. Though his very presence tormented me, he had done nothing to warrant the slightest suspicion from anyone. He worked as hard as any other sailor, laughed with the crew, even danced to Gaites’s pipe.

Could no one else see the way his face seemed poorly aligned to his head? The way his grin didn’t quite reach his eyes? Did no one recognize the second mate who had vanished less than three weeks ago?

He drove me to distraction. One morning, when he was on watch, I went to his hammock and, checking over my shoulder to be sure I was alone, I searched through his things. The piece of scrimshaw he had been working on was near the top of his bag, and when I turned it over in my head, I was overwhelmed by nausea.

The lines were wrong. It was as if he had been trying to carve trees. I could see the vague shapes of twisting branches, but the lines were melted, like drips of wax. The smooth bone of the whale’s tooth was pockmarked and strange.

Not a minute after I picked it up, the bone turned to dust in my hands. I recoiled and scrambled away, and the dust scattered across the floor, mingling with the particles of the voyage.

That very afternoon, the wind began to turn rotten.