AMBERGRIS VIII

At the very end it was only Malcolm and me, sailing the ship alone.


The truth of what happened to the other crewmen is not for me to say. That is, I hope it exists independently of what I remember. I did not see one single event that took their lives. Perhaps Jacob Hurley was crushed by a falling mast in a freak storm, or perhaps he was murdered by the sea. Maybe Martin Dawson died of a fever — that is one memory I have — or maybe he saw something in the tide, in the seafoam, that drove his eyes from his head and made him waste away.


Maybe my dear friend Hamish vanished without a trace or memory, or maybe Malcolm slit his throat and threw his body and possessions to the sea in the dead of night.


There are similar contradictions in reality for each of my lost crewmates. Barlow was speared on a whaling harpoon, the bloodied end protruding from his mouth. I do not know if it was thrown or if he tripped and impaled himself. I have memories of both. Bradshaw the cook was eaten alive by the rats in the hold. We all sat on the deck, frozen, as the Drum drifted under its own power between frosted sheets of ice, and listened to his screams emanating from below. Those screams turned to begging, and begging turned to sobs, and his sobs trailed into silence. Not one of us rose to help him.


Jasper Dawson threw himself over the side and into the frigid water. He was inconsolable while he perched on the railing, convinced his brother Martin was clinging to the side of the ship. “No one will help him,” he cried. “He’s there! He’s right there! Why can’t any of you see him!” And then he leaped into the water after his twin. At least, that was what I thought. From the angle at which he fell, it almost looked like he was pushed.


Poor Gomes. He was one of the last to die. By that time I was in a frozen stupor, wrapped in a blanket. I had been feeling very strange for some time, and it was growing harder and harder to rise. The scratching of awl upon bone filled my every waking moment, and whenever I moved, I felt as though I were tearing my body away from the ship, as if invisible roots lashed me down where I sat. I was of two minds. Half the time, when I let the scratching drown out all thought, the ship was peaceful, drifting along with the current.


It was only when Gomes roused me from my stupor that I saw the blood-streaked decks, smelled the stench of death and the bubbling oil from the tryworks. A clinging mist obscured the sea, so it was as if the Drum was sailing in a milky void.


“Jack,” called Gomes. His voice came from far away. I looked up from the bone in my hand, and paused in my scratching for the first time in what felt like weeks.


“No,” I said. I hadn’t used my voice in so long. Parting my lips felt like lifting gravestones. Gomes was coming toward me, but there was something wrong with his gait. His feet dragged. His arms were too long. When he got closer, I saw the thin bones puncturing his fingertips like new spring growth on a willow tree, trailing almost to the deck. His hair fell out in patches, pushed from its follicles by the fishbone-thin filaments piercing his scalp.


“Jack,” he said again. His voice was thick, and it grated. “What was our heading, Jack? Were we bound for this place all along? I thought we were going to Greenland.”


“We are going to Greenland,” I told him. I was irritated. Why was he asking me? I was only the ship’s boy.


Again Gomes entreated me. “Jack, please.”


I cannot describe the rage that rose up inside. “Do not call me that.”


“We were to hunt the sperm whales,” said Gomes. “We were to take their bones, their teeth, their ambergris. Hunt them and kill them and render them down to their pieces, their treasure and their waste. Where are we now, Jack? Where are the whales? Where is the water?”


I stood up, gritting my teeth at the pain in my legs. Bones clattered all around me. “Get away,” I told him.


“All you do is carve,” he wheezed. “We have not sighted a whale in so long. You carve, and carve, and carve.”


He was much too close now, and I demanded that he retreat, but he did not. Instead he made a sound somewhere between a weak laugh and a sob and asked me, since we had not hunted any whales since Ireland, where I was getting the bones I was carving. “Where, Jack?”


“I said don’t call me that!”


His face was inches from mine. I could see blood vessels bursting in his eyes, like flowers unfurling. “You will never be anything else.”


I struck out with the awl. It punctured his cheek and stuck there, his skin going white around it. Gomes retreated a step, never breaking my gaze. Then he folded to the deck and did not move again.


In the silence that followed, I turned to look at my scrimshaw. The bones piled around me, thick and thin, long and short, each one stippled and marked by the same branching fractal patterns. The forest I was trying to build around myself. My helpless cry for home, or my plea to escape from the waves. It was one. It was both.


It was not enough. I ripped my feet free of the deck and went to meet Malcolm at the bow, where the corpse of Captain Cambridge swayed and hung from the bowsprit like a grotesque figurehead, swinging with each jolt of the waves.


It was only the two of us now, which was, of course, how the voyage was always meant to be. Malcolm stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his oily black hair dripping with condensation. The incessant scratching that had plagued me this whole voyage had finally stopped, but there was no relief in its cessation. It felt more like anticipation, the rush of empty air before the impact.


Who had carved all those bones on the deck? Had it been Malcolm Madigan, or was it me all along, hands working feverishly and independent of my brain?


And where were we, just now? Every feature beyond the hull was obscured in a thick fog, such that even the creaking rigging overhead vanished into a nebulous unknown. I did know, with an iron certainty, that this was not Greenland. It was all at once too hungry, too familiar. I had been here before, somehow, and I had never been to Greenland.


What was to happen now that the sea had the two of us alone, Malcolm and I? What was its design?

As if I had spoken these thoughts aloud, Malcolm looked over his shoulder at me, wearing that strange, grease-paint smile.


“You decide,” he told me. “How would you have it?”


“I would have you hanging from the prow instead of Cambridge,” I said. “I would have Hamish returned. I would have you cut into pieces and stuck into barrels like whale meat. That’s where you’re supposed to be. That’s where you should have ended.”


“I would have you drowned,” said Malcolm, turning his face away again. “The way you were that first time on the whaleboat. That is where you should have ended. Bloated and grey, to sink and be crushed in the black depths, where your friends would forget you and your corpse would be eaten by long white worms.”


There was a formality to our dialogue. A ritual.


“But I did not drown,” I told him. “I’m here.”


“Are you?” said Malcolm. A stiff breeze ruffled his hair. “Am I?” When I did not respond, he turned and came a little toward me, his footfalls on the deck like a heartbeat in the fog-deadened silence. “I have a wife,” he said. “I have a little son, not even three years old, whom I have never met. Nora. My wife, that’s her name. Nora.” He drew it out, tasting it. “Do you think, given the chance, that there is anything I would not do to see them again?”


The thought rose unbidden: if I had truly drowned on that ill-fated hunt so many months ago, was there anything I would not do to see my home again? To feel a piney summer breeze and hear the rattle of leaves in the forest? I had always known I would be buried among those trees, deep in the blue-limned mountains where I was born. My spirit would never rest otherwise.


“You’re dead,” I said to Malcolm. “You tried to murder me, so I murdered you. Don’t tell me that wasn’t real. It’s just us now, Madigan. You don’t have to pretend.”


“I never was. It was only ever us.”


“That’s not true! He was real. They were all real.”


“Realities may coexist, perhaps, in a fevered mind. They were real, and we were bound for Greenland, and you chose your name as Jackdaw, and you killed me in the hold because I hated you. I hated what you were and what you were pretending to be. I hated that I both watched you drown and watched you return to the ship alive. So I tried to murder you, and in self-defense you speared me like a whale.” Malcolm inclined his head and clicked his tongue. “But here we are. And we are not in Greenland, are we, Jackie?”


A harpoon was in my hand. It was levelled at his neck. And the mist swirled around us, ever closer, ever thicker. What was that shadow in the fog? Those twisting fractal patterns? The ship passed so close to one I could make out the impressions in the bark, the shape of the leaves. The woods in the sea, and what moved between them was us.


“Will you kill me again?” Malcolm asked. As he spoke, he took a step forward so the point of the harpoon pressed the hollow of his throat. “And again? And again?” He took a step closer. “How many times will it take, until you stumble on a version you find agreeable?”


Woods of whalebone. Another long white branch passed overhead, just missing the mast and rigging. Something was looming ahead in the mist, a great dark shadow like the flank of a crouching behemoth, a mountain at sea. The harpoon fell from my limp fingers. It clattered on the deck. I was startled by the noise and looked down, and when I returned my gaze to Malcolm I was astonished to see him standing even closer, holding out his hands as if in offering. Or invitation.


“Jack,” he said to me. “Take my hand.”


“What do you want?” I whispered.


“The same as you,” said Malcolm Madigan. “I want to go home.”


It pains me to recall. When I put word to pen to page, it feels like a bloodletting: a release of pressure that will flow until I am dry. I remember how cold my body was, and how it shook with terror and trepidation as I reached out and laid my hand in his.


The deck underneath us jolted as the prow of the ship crumpled against the rocks that took shape out of the fog. There was a deafening screech that arose from the impact, a cacophony of splintering wood and ice and bone.


And the water rushed in.