It has been forty years since that voyage. To this day I have not told a soul the whole truth of what happened as our vessel sailed north to Greenland. Not my wife, nor my son, or even his own son. It was for their health — nay, their survival — that I kept the truth from them. They know of the death, the calamity, the disaster of that final voyage. But the knowledge of those frost-entombed last days has been my burden alone.
I cannot bear the weight of my stolen secrets any longer. They are crushing me. I am drowning in them. They are eating me from within, like worms, like beetles. They have picked at me like a cancer since the day I came ashore for the last time. I tried. Oh Lord God, I tried, and I pray that my intentions, regardless of the outcome, may have some small impact on my judgement, or else I will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Some forces are unknowable. Impossible to comprehend. But I think I understand enough, after all these years, to guess that someone will hear these words of mine, that you may be listening even as I write this, on another plane and in another time. That is the curse of committing memory to page, is it not? I feel how the secrets seep out of me when I write this journal, like pus out of a blister, an infection ebbing away.
Take it from me. My God, if you can hear me, take it! I cannot I cannot it is EATING me
If I were stronger I would hold it in, take it to my grave, let it die with me but no. No, instead I turn back into the coward I always was
and I INFECT the page. I spread this vile contagion to you, to a stranger
for the chance of some relief, a reprieve from this —
Through my pen, I am a puppet. A voice of transmission.
I now know I am as it always meant for me to be, and I cannot suppress this sickness any longer, so here is the truth, or the corpse of it, as hungry as it has ever been.
My name is Jackdaw. I have no last name.
I was seventeen when I lost my life that first time, choking alone on dark green water so cold it near turned me to stone. I was something new when I erupted from the waves, or maybe from the earth, my body a hunk of frozen flesh, my mind sharp and stinging as razor wire. Through slits in my neck I inhaled lungfuls of water, or maybe clumps of soil, having undergone some strange metamorphosis into a creature that could no longer tell the difference between the two.
Is this what I would have wanted? Had I known the price, would I have acted differently?
Oh, dear reader. I have been afraid to address you. Part of me hopes time will bury these words, but I know they will make themselves known. They will claw toward the light. Knowledge has a life of its own, and secrets want to be told.
I never could express the truth of myself. Not to Hamish, not to anyone. Even if he suspected that my body was female, he would have viewed it as a clandestine eccentricity, a perversion which he only accepted out of love for me. Not even he, who loved me most, could look upon the naked truth of me and understand it for what it was, the reality of what manhood could be.
So the truth, weaned and fed alongside me, smothered in the dark.
And then, on that voyage, through some unearthly means, it took a gasping breath, and drew in life, and began to scratch on the door of its cage.
I thought it was my guilt over Malcolm’s death that drove me to such distraction, but I was wrong. That guilt was only a symptom of a deep rot, the carcass of myself inside me.
Tell me, dear reader. If you stood before yourself as a child, if you could look her in the eyes, what would you say? Would you be proud? Would you bow your head in shame?
Do you think she would forgive you?
For some of us, the passage to adulthood is a murder. As children, we dream of things that cannot be. We are born with some belief that magic is real, that justice is simple, and that the world works exactly as it should. In growing up we murder that belief, and we pull the knife from our childhood selves and turn to face the trudge toward the grave as any proper adult should.
What if your infant corpse rose up again behind you? Twisted and ugly in undeath, a sad facsimile of what it once was? Would you drop the bloody knife and turn and embrace it, bury your face in its shoulder and weep and murmur, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”? Would you murder it again?
This is the choice I was faced with, dear reader. And I killed it again and again and each time it came back different, came back darker. Through scrimshaw turned to ash, through the voice of the whale, through the black sucking vortex of the sea. Each time I turned my back. I rejected its desperate touch. And have continued to do so, through all these years, though its remonstrations have grown increasingly violent.
It was not Malcolm Madigan who haunted me on that voyage, no. It was the vengeful ghost of my younger self. A ghost we all have, I think, rotting inside us.
Inside us is where it should stay, buried, a grave to visit and nothing more. But on that voyage mine awoke and screamed and thrashed with the fury of a whale on the end of a line. I do not know what triggered such an unnatural resurrection, or why. Perhaps it was by chance, or perhaps it was preordained, a long-scheduled appointment with something much deeper and older than any of us have the capacity to comprehend. A way of holding us accountable to ourselves.
In any case, it killed us all.
And now that you know its face, dear reader, I will tell you what it wrought as our ship passed into the Arctic Circle on my final whaling voyage in 1856.
I do not like what I am remembering.
And what’s that?
Read first. It’s the only way it will make sense to you.
But I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry.
You’re not exactly instilling confidence here, man.