Nothing is wasted. It was a saying aboard the Drum and I took it so deep into my bones that I often feel the words, like a rhythm, in any circumstance where five quick sounds are made. Five raps on a door. Noth-ing-is-was-ted. Footsteps. Hooves clopping. Even the start of a song. Instead of lyrics to the music there are those three words, turning round and round in my head. Mocking me.
With the cutting spade, we peeled great slabs of flesh from her body. Drawn up against the side of the ship, she drained of saltwater and blood, a pinkish cataract pummelling the lapping waves. She was held aloft by fluke-hooks and chains. I cannot help but imagine how it might feel to be suspended by the strength of your own skin. How long can your flesh resist gravity’s pull before your own weight tears you asunder?
She was a black whale, a right whale, so named for the quality of her baleen and the quantity of the oil her blubber would produce. I had worked briefly in butchering before, but never a creature of this scale. Never one whose voice has spoken to me. In hours the deck was so slick with blood and oil that I had to grasp the railing to keep my footing. Sharks turned in the frothing water below her draining carcass. It was sweating, stinking, horrible work. .
And we were down a man.
Hamish could not work with his broken hand. He had gone below to have his injury tended to, and the sideways glances and sour looks of the other sailors made no secret out of the fact that this was, in their minds, my fault. I had done poorly on the hunt and drawn Malcolm’s anger. I was the reason Hamish had taken a punishment intended for me. He was one of our most experienced whalers, unrivaled in his ability to efficiently butcher a whale, and I had deprived the crew of his labor.
To say I was wretched would be a most egregious understatement. Malcolm Madigan, for his part, had bottled his anger as suddenly and completely as he had unleashed it. Now he oversaw the whale’s processing with cold, unfeeling efficiency. The waxen fury had faded from his face. His black eyes had lost their uncanny spark. He barked an order and it was obeyed without question.
This well-oiled obedience was why I could not afford to hesitate when Malcolm turned to me and demanded that I lower down to the carcass to relieve Jacob Hurley, who had been working on the whale for six hours already. It was not lost on me, as I slipped the canvas monkey belt around my waist, how easy it would be for the sailor at the other end of the rope to lose his grip. How little it would take to send me plunging into the sea to join the sharks and the swirls of blood.
But surely, I reasoned, surely Malcolm would not murder me so openly. Not when he had already displayed his bias against me. Surely he was cleverer than that.
I was rewarded for my faith. I reached the whale without incident. There was little enough of her left that resembled the living creature she had been. Stripped of the facade of life, I saw her for what she was: a tremendous, intricate structure of blood and bone, organs and muscle. A triumph of our divine architect, certainly. But she was no longer a creature. No longer something that felt pain.
This was how I rationalized my butchery until the moment I found her eye. Still intact in her ruined head, that liquid, inky orb was a perfect microcosm of the sea that had sustained her. I was transfixed by its depths.
“Why are you here?” it seemed to ask. “Why are you doing this to me?”
My mouth was dry. I found myself answering the unspoken question in a hoarse whisper that not even I could hear over the cacophony of industry around me.
“I want to go home.”
As I said it, I was seized with a longing so powerful that my muscles contracted. My heart stuttered. I thought I felt my bones creak. I could feel a woody breeze, hear the rattle of leaves, smell the soil rich with decomposing leaves and the corpses of insects. If only the sea were a forest, I thought. If only, if only, if only.
Long dead though she was, the whale’s voice came again.
“So do I.”