That night the storm came down like the back of a great black beast, crushing our salt-stripped vessel with the weight of an ages-long fall.
We were no strangers to storms, of course. They happen often at sea, and any sailor will know how to spot the gathering dark on the horizon and gauge its danger. But the heavens are as unpredictable as the sea, and what looks like a squall can morph without notice into a heaving behemoth.
This was just such a storm. It struck with a visceral impact, rocking the ship with a blast of wind and rain like sheets of cold iron. In fact, Martin Dawson would later say, it was as if the storm had manifested directly over the mainmast, to swallow our ship with a targeted malice. Knowing what I do now, I am inclined to agree with him. The sea and the sky are indifferent deities; they do not bother with hatred or disdain. This storm was different. It had come hungry.
As we leapt to our posts, battered by driving rain, I felt a familiar curl of terror in my stomach. I have made note of my visions earlier in the text: the sight of my own drowned and bloated corpse that day on the whaleboat, which had filled me with the certainty of my own inevitable end. One day I would drown. Perhaps this was that day.
In a storm, the most vital thing is to bring in the sails. The wrong wind in a sail can broach the ship, pushing it onto its side and dooming its inhabitants to the deep. Or it can shred the sails and shatter the masts, leaving the ship adrift and stranded with no way to catch the wind. Captain Cambridge strode among us, shouting orders. He was not a tall man, hardly even taller than me, but his authority was titanic. He had not become captain by accident.
Cambridge sent Jasper Dawson up to the helm, and he went along with his twin, scrambling for purchase on the rain-lashed deck on his way to steer the ship. The Dawson twins had survived a hurricane before and knew how to steer a ship into the wind, facing the bow against the strongest blasts. Meanwhile Frank Gomes and Jacob Hurley, the quickest in the crew, set about pulling in the sails. Barlow and Gaites and Bradshaw all scrambled to their duties, moving as cogs in an oiled machine — and I alone stood frozen, clinging to the deck and paralyzed by dread.
I could not die today, I thought. There were things I wanted to do, life I had yet to live. My terror was so complete that I did not even jolt with surprise when Hamish seized my arm, shouting at me to pull myself together. “Get a move on, Jackie!” he roared. “You’re with Malcolm on the halyard!”
It was that name which pulled me back to the moment. Malcolm Madigan, the dead man who no one recognized but me. I looked through the rain and caught Malcolm’s eyes. His face was horribly familiar, chalk-white, his gaze beetle-black. Seeing him I was once again filled with a visceral revulsion, the same wrongness one might derive from the sight of a limb bent backward, the bone protruding through skin.
But there was nothing I could do except battle the storm alongside the rest of the crew. So I ran to join Malcolm, and there in the raging squall, I pulled in the sails with the shade of the man I had killed. If he was facing away from me, I could pretend he was someone else, that he was not the one who had broken Hamish’s hand and nearly drowned me on a whale hunt. I could pretend he was someone other than the ghostly doppelganger of the dreaded second mate, who had been rumored to break the spines of rats in the hold to sate his bloodlust.
Together, Malcolm and I furled the mizzen topsail. Ahead of us, the main and foresails furled, worked by the other crewmen. I remember a moment of fleeting relief that perhaps today was not my day to die. We could ride through the storm and emerge, battered but alive.
Then Martin Dawson shouted over the roar of the storm, “Rogue wave!” and terror gripped me again. Sometimes the ocean does not behave according to its own laws. Occasionally a wave can form that runs counter to the wind and the current, and such a beast can spell random doom for a ship. Martin’s twin was already leaning into the helm, turning the ship against the wind and into the colossal rolling swell. The ship could not turn quickly enough. The wave reared over us and we had only moments to find something to cling to before it slammed down upon us like the fist of God.
A jolt shook the bones in my arms. The wave forced seawater into my nostrils and mouth, my throat, my lungs. For an instant, I was utterly alone. The crewmen and captain all vanished, and I was a lone sailor stranded at sea. In that moment I was, against all logic, convinced there had never been any crew at all, that I had drowned already years ago, and that this whaling voyage was a purgatory of my own imagination. I was the lone captain of a ship trapped inside a bottle, and every torment I faced was one of my own devising.
I clung to the railing and to life. As the wave broke apart and the bitter air returned, my awareness of the crew and the storm came rushing back. I looked up at the mizzenmast, and the image is still frozen in my mind, clear as a painting, all these years later. As I stared up at the mizzen sail, I saw the halyard move on its own.
It twisted, guided by an invisible hand, and the mizzen sail unfurled.
When I say a man can be murdered by the sea, this is what I mean. The mizzen sails were open, straining and creaking against the crazed blasts of wind, and, looking aside, I saw Captain Cambridge bearing down on Madigan and me, his face blotchy with terror and rage. The aft sails were open in a squall, and the wind took the ship in its jaws.
A deafening crack sounded on high, and the world snapped in two.
Terror and screams. My memory of this moment is stuttered, broken into static images. Jacob Hurley came from nowhere, throwing me back against the railing, and the topgallant mast fell down on top of him, crushing him beneath a tangle of splintered wood and ropes and rigging.
As he went still, the storm cleared, as if scattered by his penultimate breath. Shafts of sunlight broke over his corpse, and the sea calmed, and the rain lightened to a drizzle. In moments the storm was gone, and Hurley was dead. I could not explain why, but I was filled with certainty: this was no random blow, no bad roll of the dice. It was premeditated, predestined, malevolent.
He was the first to die on that voyage, murdered by the sea.