It was nearly another year into our voyage before I spoke truthfully to Hamish again.
How I hate myself for that now! It was not as if he was avoiding me. And even on a large ship, a crew is constantly in close quarters. So Hamish and I still spoke, but I would not meet his eyes. I flinched whenever we happened to touch. The times when we would share each other’s company on watch were gone.
Have I said here before that Hamish was the bravest man I ever knew? Because I am such a coward that I would have let that strange silence go on forever. Hamish did what he did not have to, and broke it for me.
I should tell you about the tryworks. In the processing of a whale, we must render the oil on the ship by way of boiling. The Drum, my whaling ship, was fitted with two large iron pots, which would in the course of processing be filled near to the brim with boiling, bubbling oil. A measure of whale fat is called a Bible leaf; these were tossed into the pot and left to disintegrate, separating oil from blubber.
It is dangerous work. Anything related to whaling is.
By now I was not a novice any longer. Nor could I pretend at being much younger than I was; my eighteenth birthday had come and gone, and yet even with my broad shoulders and muscular arms, I was claiming to be a boy of fourteen. Thankfully, none of the crew seemed to suspect my true age.
Malcolm Madigan, however, did. I do not know if he was aware of the extent of my secrets, but he certainly suspected I was not a child. He knew I was hiding something, but he could not tell exactly what it was, and this vexed him so completely that, absent now of Hamish’s protection, he turned his full wrath upon me.
Public floggings were not common practice aboard the Drum - the captain was not a cruel man and did not care to see his sailors mistreated - but Malcolm’s cruelty took other forms. I was accused of stealing when a sextant that had gone missing from the captain’s quarters was found mysteriously among my belongings.
Bread and water for three days.
Things simply went wrong around me. Lines broke. Injuries occurred. Malcolm would not go so far as to harm me publicly again; he had been punished by the captain for breaking Hamish’s hand and was more careful from then on about which lines he crossed. But nevertheless, I gained a reputation. I was bad luck. I was a layabout, a slacker, in the eyes of the crew, even though I scrambled my every waking hour.
My worst fear was a flogging; not simply for the pain or the endangerment to my life, but also for what it would entail. Sailors were stripped shirtless when flogged, and I could not allow anyone to see the bindings around my chest.
It was likely I would have been killed for it.