AMBERGRIS I

The sight of Ireland was a gasp of cool air after months in a dark, cramped hole. The men slacked at their work, so giddy were they at the notion that other people still existed in the world after all.


As the cliffs came into view over the curving horizon, I scaled the mizzenmast and hung there until we broke from the early morning mist and into the full searing gaze of dawn. I shuddered as the sun hit me and warmth spread over my bare, trembling arms. The sun shone in Ireland just for me that morning. It was almost cruel.


In the dark of the hold, weeks ago, Hamish and I had cut Malcolm Madigan into pieces with a bone saw, separating arms, legs, and head from torso. Hamish, who I had seen strip whales with nary a blink, had stopped twice to retch.


In the sunlight, now, I thought I could still see the blood on my hands.


His arms to one barrel, his legs to another, and his head we flung to the sea. Is it ridiculous to say I had trouble sleeping for weeks afterward because I did not see his head hit the water? As if it could cling to the hull somehow, sinking its teeth into the plank and attaching itself like a tick, a barnacle. Or that it might come floating back, borne by a dark tide, laughing at me for thinking I could ever be safe from Malcolm Madigan.


My nightmares changed. Malcolm was still their grim protagonist, but instead of his vicelike fingers clamping over my unbound breasts from behind, his voice in my ear whispering “I know what you are,” it was his head, sitting on the sea chest that faced me whenever I lay in my hammock. This time he whispered, “I know what you did. I know you, Jackie.”


I insisted to Hamish the ship was haunted, and he said it was nonsense.


“Ghosts don’t exist, laddie,” he told me. “Guilt does.”


Wilson Cambridge was the captain of our ship, the Drum. He had redirected us to Ireland after Malcolm’s disappearance, so we might resupply and fill the empty space in our crew.


I remember them fondly now, the crew. Without Malcolm in their midst they were, for a time, a gregarious lot, and we became like brothers over the next stretch of our voyage. Jacob Hurley was quick and lithe on the ratlines. Jasper and Martin Dawson were twins who looked nothing alike but moved in such synchrony they were like shadows of each other. Arthur Gaites had a pipe that Mason Barlow liked to dance to. Frank Gomes preferred peeling potatoes to carving scrimshaw, something we all teased him for — except for Bradshaw, the cook, whose first name I never learned.


We mingled there on that vessel as we never would have on land, united as disciples under our lord and captain. I will not say there was no racial divide between the crewmen who had white faces and those who did not, but it was rare that our prejudices stepped from the shadows. We had work to do, after all.


Hamish alone maintained a grim demeanor. I think he was worried his part in Malcolm’s disappearance would be discovered. Once, he tried to convince me that we should depart the ship the next time we made port, vanishing as completely as the man we had dismembered.


I cannot explain my distaste for that idea. Somehow I felt as if fleeing would be an admittance of my guilt. That it would give Malcolm’s lingering spirit a reason to return for vengeance.


We made landfall at Cobh and had three days of shore leave. I confess I did check the hull of the ship as I disembarked to be certain Malcolm’s severed head was not hanging from the wood by its teeth. 


The instant my feet touched solid ground, it was as if I entered a new world, one in which the horror and grief of the sea and the sky were only a fading dream. Hamish was right, I decided. There were no such things as ghosts and what’s more, I had no reason to be guilty. Malcolm had tried to murder me, and my retaliation had been nothing more than self defense.


Guilt rarely listens to reason, of course, but for that brief time I nearly put it out of my mind.


All too quickly, shore leave was done. We prepared to embark for Greenland. It would be weeks before we made landfall again, and only then to resupply, and Hamish had warned me that this would be the hardest, coldest stretch of our voyage by far. We were hunting the great sperm whales in the cold and dark of the far, far north. Great, toothy monsters they were, he said, leviathans in their own right, and the most dangerous quarry a whaler could pursue.


Just before we set off, our new hand came aboard. He was a green sailor but a hard worker, so said Gaites. I must have asked the new man’s name, and Gaites must have told it to me, but at the time I could not remember it.


I watched him cross the gangplank. He was a dark-haired Irishman. His clothes were shabby and secondhand, and if he had been in a crowd of a thousand other men there would have been nothing to make him stand out.


He greeted Gaites, and he greeted Captain Cambridge, and then, although he had no reason to, he turned and looked at me. His face was strange, distorted almost, as if it had been torn away and sewn artlessly back into place.


Malcolm Madigan smiled, and the ship cast away from the shore.