The sea is terror, and the sky is grief. So said old Hamish when I first came aboard the Drum in 1851. “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 was feminine in body.
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 forecastle, 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.
Farrow, I know you can see this
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.
Please stop ignoring me
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 the call came, that final deepwater monster that rent the ship in two, he was already long gone. I wish I had been given the chance to say goodbye, to tell him in no uncertain terms of all he meant to me, but all I can do is commit it to paper and to memory. I hope that is enough.
As for the rest of them, my certainty wavers. I know they were real, and that they were alive, but beyond that it pains me to admit the sea has stolen the truth of them from me.
Note: This appears to be the origin of the journal page I initially found. Why Castile Madigan might have torn it out and hid it away from the rest, I have no idea, but it’s good to see the pieces fall into place.
I didn’t tear it out. It was Isabelle. She got into our grandfather’s old documents when she was little and our father gave her such a lashing when he caught her.
Still not sure how Jackdaw fits into the history of this estate, other than his apparent dealings with Malcolm Madigan, but I guess the only way to find out is to read on. It really seems like the voyage was getting to him at this point. Either that, or he was senile by the time he got around to writing this all down.
Don’t do this to me.
Going back through my notes of the other documents I’ve found in this house, it doesn’t seem like Malcolm was a particularly memorable figure to the members of his family that lived here. There’s barely any mention of him at all.
dont ignore me
As soon as I’m done logging this journal, I’m going to see about getting back into cell range and calling an ambulance. My latest theory is mold or some kind of fungus was causing my nausea. That shit can wreak havoc on a human body, especially if it goes unchecked.
farrow you cant be serious
you can’t ignore the branches g rowing out of you
you can’t pretend like that isn’t happening
like any of this isn’t happening
you can’t ignore me
No matter what it is, I’m going to get out of here.
I’m going to finish this journal. Because it isn’t so scary. I’ve been hyping it up in my head for so long that I stopped looking at it rationally. I just need to read it, and I’ll see that it isn’t so bad, and then I can forget all about it.
Cambridge was right. We cannot decide what way we go. I did everything, anything I could think of, to influence the track of my own life, but I have come to believe that in the end there is no real choice for us. We become what we are. There is no other course.
Some may read this and wonder how, then, I could have chosen to become a man when clearly it brought only strife and pain upon me. That I was foolish to leave behind my wealthy father, my good marriage prospects, and a circle of friends who, to this day, I believe genuinely cared for me, to go to sea aboard a whaling ship. To that I answer: we become what we are. I never could have chosen to be a woman, even if my life would be easier for it.
So what about those of us, then, who are nothing?
I cannot remember the names of my crewmates. The memory of them slips from me onto the page, so I must consult my earlier entries to refer to them at all. And I confess, I do not wish to remember them. I will list their names here, in commemoration, so that I never need look at them again, and they may finally fade away completely.
Martin and Jasper Dawson
Bradshaw the cook
and Hamish Abernethy.
Let them be gone.
Hamish, I’m sorry. I cannot bear your memory alone. In my old age I am as you were: a tormented man. I wish I could have gone differently, but wherever I turn, in my study, in the woods, far away from the shore, I hear the scratching of the awl and the lap of waves against the hull. That voyage has never left me.
I feel the waters rising. I see them through the window, the ocean waves in treetops bent by wind, the choke of both soil and water. I see faces in the leaves.
And most often, I see myself. Bloated. Drowned. The skin sloughing off his forehead and lips. He is standing at the edge of the grounds, by the maw of the woods, and beckoning me. He has returned after all these years, at the end of my life. He clawed his way from the depths and followed me home. He is my culmination, and the forest has coughed him up again.
And I know, when I can bear it no longer, I will follow him into the trees.
The woods and the sea are the same, and sometimes a corpse washes ashore.