One night I was feeling the call of the sea again. I sat alone on deck, in the freezing wind, carefully scratching my trees and branches into the whale’s tooth by the frenetic orange light of a swinging lantern. “Pouring into the bone,” as Hamish called it. It was helping, but only a little this time. Because now I could hear her voice, the whale, telling me she wanted to go home. I could hear the soft lapping of the black water against the hull. I was thinking again of my home on land, and of my inevitable death at sea.
I will never know why Hamish chose that moment to break our silence. He melted out of the night and sat down beside me. I stiffened and nearly rose to leave, but without looking at me, Hamish cleared his throat and said, in his voice both gruff and gentle,
“Things have not been right between us.”
I was struck dumb, but I could not abandon such a declaration. So I settled a little where I sat, staring down at my scrimshaw, and waited for him to speak again.
“It was what Malcom said that day, wasn’t it?” he asked. “It frightened you, did it?”
I pressed my lips together, but gathered myself enough for a stiff nod.
Hamish still was not looking at me. “I worked in a coal mine in the north of England when I was a lad not much older than you. Days and years spent rotting in the dark. I’d still be there today, I think, if I didn’t start coughing black dust and take to the sea instead. I was a trapper. I remember sitting in the dark there, alone, thinking of an open sky and moorland and wishing more than anything for home.”
“There was a bad accident one day,” Hamish went on. “An explosion. A dozen or so miners were injured, but the worst of it was that two little boys died. I still remember their mother wailin’. Crying to the sky over their little bodies about how she’d never given them what she wanted to give them. How she hardly ever told them she loved them so, and now that chance was gone.”
Hamish laid a hand on my shoulder then. I stiffened, but there was something in me that stopped me from recoiling.
“I love you, Jackie,” Hamish told me. “And I want to do right by you.” He was staring up at the lantern as he said it, and I couldn’t for the life of me read his expression. “I thought he’d whip you that day. That’s why I stepped in. But it wasn’t like what he said, you understand me?”
I had finally gathered the nerve to speak. “What … what is it like?”
“You’re like a child to me,” said Hamish. He nodded thoughtfully. “You’re like my child.”
Some part of me didn’t like how he said it. I looked around at him, and finally he looked away from the lantern and met my eyes.
“Like your son?” I asked.
He nodded. “Aye,” he said. “Like my son.” He smiled at me.
Relief unfurled in my belly like a flower opening. I let out a breath I must have been holding for the better part of a year, and then I smiled back.
Lower on the decks, the tryworks were bubbling.