I do not like to recall what happened next.
We had skewered the whale. I had landed the first blow, but it was Malcolm’s right to finish the whale. He screamed at me to move, to cede my place at the bow of the whaleboat to him. I could not move.
I could not even breathe.
Perhaps, given a moment, I would have recovered my senses and done as Malcolm ordered. I was not given such a moment. Seizing my shoulder with such force his nails cut my flesh, he thrust me aside and behind him. I could not help my scream as I unbalanced and then, to my own disbelief, pitched over the gunwale.
You do not understand the fear of drowning until you have been at sea. Many sailors do not learn how to swim, because they know once the water closes over them that there is no escape from the pull of the abyss. And I had just seen the specter of my own corpse vanish beneath the waves.
For the briefest moment, my head was underwater. There was no sound but the swirling. Seawater stung my nostrils and blinded me. My death was to be right this moment, I was sure. Panic eclipsed my every conscious thought.
Most fortunately, the other men in the whaleboat had quicker reflexes than I. Someone seized the collar of my shirt and hauled me back over the gunwale to safety. I tried in vain to regain my senses, but I was, from that moment until the end of the hunt, utterly useless, a deadweight in the whaleboat as the hunt happened in a vague blur beyond my senses.
The first sensation to break through my numbness was profound shame at my weakness. The next was Hamish’s hand closing around my wrist to haul me back aboard the Drum. I did not realize how violently I was trembling until my limbs were spasming against the confines of his tight embrace. His hand cupped the back of my head, drawing me to his chest.
“It’s done,” he murmured, heedless of the sailors swarming around us to attend to the kill. “It’s done, laddie. It’s over. Calm yourself, now.”
I took a deep and shuddering breath. I was alive, after all. My heartbeat began to slow its frenetic tempo.
Then Malcolm Madigan tore me from Hamish’s arms and threw me hard against the deck, where he stood over me with such white, livid rage on his face that his cheeks took the color of frozen wax, his lips trembling, coated with spittle and salt. His eyes near burst from their sockets in their fixation upon me.
Such a countenance upon a man is a promise of sharp and merciless punishment. It was not a look that was unfamiliar to me. I could anticipate my bones snapping in his white-knuckled grip, even as I could not understand exactly why he was so furious with me. Because I had not moved out of the way fast enough? Because of my liability to the men?
Because I had not had the good sense to die when it was convenient for him.
In that moment I did not know why Malcolm hated me so completely, only that his hatred was a physical weight. I know now, of course, that such vivid loathing is only a product, a pure distillation, of terror. But lying at his feet upon the deck, stunned by my fall and the aftermath of the hunt, I could only think of the rumored fate of the last ship’s boy, and of what Malcolm was said to do to rats in the hold when no one was watching.
Hamish stepped in front of me, saying something to Malcolm that I could not understand in my catatonic haze, and extended a hand to him.
I did, then, hear the snapping of bone. It was not my wrist crumpling in Malcom’s grip, but Hamish’s hand. The old Scotsman sank slowly to the deck, his dark, weathered face contorted in pain, as Malcolm crushed his fingers.
“Take his punishment, then,” I heard Malcolm whisper. “I always knew you would. I know all about your filthy urges. I know you’ll give it back to him later, too, won’t you?”
My greatest fear up to that point had been the crew discovering that I had not always lived as a boy. But a more profound terror welled up in me at the implication of Malcolm’s words: the fear that things were not as I thought they were. And I could see, from the looks the sailors cast us, that Malcolm was not the only man here under the impression that my relationship to Hamish was an unnatural one.
Malcolm Madigan did not whip me naked on the deck. He did not need to, for he had struck at something deeper. Hamish turned to ask me if I was all right - me, when he was cradling his own ruined hand to his chest! - and laid his good hand on my shoulder.
I could not help it. I recoiled from him. Hamish’s expression did not change, but he let go at once, and I thought I sensed something of disappointment in the light of his beetle-black eyes. Something almost like grief.
I have never felt more wretched and alone than I did that night.