AMBERGRIS VI

Malcolm smiled.


Whenever I saw him there was a curve on his face like a smear of grease paint, a close-lipped grin that drowned in the lightless depths of his black eyes. Though he scrambled and worked like all the rest of the crew as the wind turned frigid and the waters black-and-green, I never spied a drop of sweat on his brow, and in the cold his exhalations expelled no vapor.


He was there, but he was not there, and always, accompanying him, was the scratch-scratch-scratching of awl to whalebone that only I could hear. The sheer wrongness of Malcolm turned my stomach, yet no one but me could sense it. I began to wonder if I was losing my mind, if there was nothing amiss but the ghost I had conjured in my nightmares. Perhaps the long dark of the north was addling my brain, perhaps a sailor’s life was not for me, perhaps I was wrong in the head. Even the vivid details of Martin Dawson’s strange death had faded away. Now the crew said he had died of a fever.


It was as though a veil had shrouded the Drum, numbing its crew to all wildness and horror, and I, too, nearly succumbed to it.


Then Hamish vanished.


I woke from a restless sleep steeped in cold water and brine, and in the darkness of the forecastle I did not recognize the prone shape in my friend’s hammock. The scratching of scrimshaw was near deafening, and when I went to light the lamp, who rose from Hamish’s place but Malcolm, running a white hand through his greasy black hair and blinking in the sudden light.


He looked at me and smiled.


“Where’s Hamish?” I demanded.


“Where is who?” asked Malcolm. “Are you well, Jack?”


My reason abandoned me. I shoved Malcolm from the hammock and tore through the bags and belongings, the effects which should have belonged, by rights, to Hamish. There was nothing there that would have identified him. Even the monogram on his handkerchief bore the initials M.M.


Tears were rolling down my face as I flung the bag aside and seized Malcolm by his shirt front.


“Where is he?” I cried. “What have you done with him?”


He merely looked at me, unflinching.


An idea sprang to mind — the one thing Hamish had taught me, the thing that had brought us together and forged our friendship that night I had nearly given myself up to the water. The scrimshaw — his scrimshaw. I released Malcolm and stumbled to Hamish’s seaman’s chest, undoing the latch and lifting the lid.


What greeted me was an empty box. No whalebone, no scrimshaw. I felt myself falling, the rush of air in my ears, and fleeting images flashed through my mind of Malcolm, in the dead of night, the lone sailor on watch, tipping a chest full of carved bone into the sea. Letting those black depths wash away all that remained of Hamish Abernethy.


He could not be gone. He could not simply be gone.


And yet he was.


None of the crew remembered him. Arthur Gaites and Mason Barlow and Jasper, who hardly seemed to know he had lost his own twin brother, and Frank Gomes and Bradshaw the cook and even Captain Cambridge — not a one of them showed a flicker of recognition at the sound of his name. “Who?” they said. “Are you quite all right, Jack?”


“There has never been one by that name on my vessel,” said Captain Cambridge.


While I wept, inconsolable, Malcolm laid a bony hand on my shoulder as if to comfort me. The incessant scratching that accompanied him like the buzzing of flies swelled when he came close.


“Be at peace,” he said, his Irish tones soft and light. “How many like him have been lost to the sea?”


At this, something cracked inside me. Like the snapping of wood, the breaking of a dam, and the seawater rushed in. My sobs quieted. My shaking shoulders went still. I covered his hand with mine, crushing his fingers in my grip.


“You should have kept quiet,” I whispered fiercely. “You should have maintained your charade. Because now I know that he was real.”


He said nothing, but for an instant I thought his grease-paint smile slipped a notch, his mask falling askew. Snow was falling, dusting his black hair, and all was silent save the distant lap of water against the hull, the faint creak of timber and line.


When Malcolm spoke next, it was Hamish’s ragged voice that issued from his lips.


“It’s a miracle, isn’t it, laddie? The things we do to ease our loneliness. The companions we invent. The secrets we keep from ourselves.”


“I killed you once,” I whispered. “I’ll do it again.”


“You never killed me, laddie.” Malcolm released me and stepped away, his arms spread in supplication. “Could a dead man tell such tales?”


“I killed you.” I said it aloud this time, not caring who might hear. Arthur Gaites was nearest, at the helm, and he looked at me strangely. “I drove a harpoon through your chest until you hung from it. I cut you into pieces and put every limb in a different barrel. I sawed off your head.” I turned to face Gaites, who by now was joined by Jasper Dawson. “Do you hear me?” I cried. “Malcolm Madigan tried to murder me, and in self-defense I killed him! He knows! HE KNOWS! I cannot say whether he is a ghost or a demon, but that man wears the face of someone who is dead, and now he says Hamish never existed!”


The vacuous silence and the blankness of their gazes was worse than any retort they could have given me. Had Dawson’s eyes always been beetle-black? Where was the kindness in Gaites’s face? Something had shifted in the crew while my back was turned, and I realized a part of me had hoped that, by confessing to Malcolm’s murder, I would be released from the torment his specter was inflicting on me.


Someone put their hand on my shoulder, and when I whirled I found, not Malcolm, but Captain Cambridge, with his long, lined face and serious eyes, gazing impassively down at me. Frost limned his brows and lashes.


“Back to work, Jack,” he said. “We cannot decide what way we go.”