Hamish’s protection was a lantern flame I carried in my chest for weeks afterward. His words circled endlessly in my heart. I love you, Jackie. You’re like my son. My son. My son.
No one had ever said that to me before. I was the closest to content I had ever been aboard the Drum, and I scrambled with such enthusiasm to my tasks that not even Malcolm Madigan could find fault with my performance.
Ironically, I think it was the quality of my work that drove him to the edge. He had been watching me, waiting so long for me to fail, and my success was so infuriating, that he decided, finally, to kill me.
And I felt so coddled by Hamish’s protection that I had let down my constant guard.
It happened at night, as rotten things often do.
It was near the end of the middle watch, at the very darkest and smallest hours of the morning, when even the sea had calmed to a whispery lapping against the barnacle-crusted hull. This is not to say the deck was deserted, but I had long given up trying to forge any friendships with the other deckhands and kept to myself, largely in isolation at the bow.
Malcolm was on watch as well, and paying even less attention to me than usual. I think now it is because he was expecting me to be wary of him. He went about his tasks singing under his breath, some gloomy ballad that was unfamiliar to me:
"Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam
Cryin’ sister, reach to me your hand
O sister sister, let me live
All that’s mine to you I’ll give … "
I descended into the hold to retrieve some article - a length of rope, I think - and was immediately distracted at the claustrophobic blackness that engulfed me when the hatch swung closed. I remember being genuinely amazed that the dark did not snuff out my lantern.
The hold of the Drum was not as well-organized as it could have been. Barrels of processed oil were clustered with badly-coiled ropes and spare sails, and in one corner was an open crate containing clean two-flue harpoons, the sort used to penetrate the outer flesh of the whale. They glinted in the feeble lantern-light, and the sight of them transfixed me.
I heard her voice again, singing, crying. Disappointed, desperate. I want to go home.
"He made a harp of her breastbone
Which could melt a heart of stone
And took three strands of raven hair
And with them strung that harp with care …"
The voice of the whale became, suddenly at the end of the stanza, the soft and rumbling voice of Malcolm Madigan.
Terror rolled over me like icy water, and he melted out of the dark and closed his hands around my throat.
In the many years to come I would wonder why he hated me to virulently. Why my death was so tantalizing to him. Why he decided to bring his thoughts to action. I have since stopped wondering. Too much energy is wasted on the thoughts of evil men. Perhaps it was simply an innate lust for blood that he had, and I was the easiest target in his eyes. Perhaps Hamish’s love for me fueled his hatred.
He did not give any reason to me, his intended victim. He did not laugh at me as I choked or mutter some triumphant phrase. He was utterly silent, bent only on completing his task.
And I knew when it was done, he would throw my body in the sea.
It was this realization that made my arm move on its own, striking Malcolm across the face. It was not enough of a blow to make him release his grip, but it distracted him for just a moment. The two of us stumbled against a line of crates. I was scrabbling now.
I still do not know what entity or force put the harpoon into my hand. But suddenly it was there.
All I had to do was bury it.
Malcolm’s hands fell from my throat and he staggered back, jerking the harpoon from my grasp. The point had lodged and caught somewhere under his breastbone, and now he was not a man but a doll, flailing stupidly around the hold, bouncing off crates and boxes.
Finally he tripped over a coil of rope and fell dead to the floor.
The harpoon tore through the rest of him and rose high, like the mast of a ship, dripping sluggishly.
The worst part of a murder is not in the killing. It is in the aftermath. That it was self defense mattered not at all; I was a ship’s boy and he was a mate, and the two of us had been alone, and there were no witnesses to testify for me. I had a choice to make.
I could do what was easiest, and stand there in numb shock until someone found the two of us. Or I could rid myself, somehow, of the corpse. He was too heavy for me to lift on my own, too unwieldy to fit easily through the hatch. It was unlikely I could toss him overboard without being seen. But perhaps, in the darkness of the hold, I could conceal him.
The very moment I had this thought, the hatch above me opened and laid bare the carnage I had wrought. And the man looking down at me was Hamish.
My lips moved to say his name, but no sound came out. I wished I had let Malcolm kill me. I could not bear this. I could not take the weight of his disappointment, his sadness, or his rejection. I could not picture and did not want to imagine what he would do or say, how he would process this revelation that the boy he had called his son was a killer.
Hamish seemed to struggle similarly; he tried and failed to speak several times.
“Well, Jackie,” he said at last, descending into the hold, “I’ll get him off the spear if you get a mincing knife. We’ll need to do some serious work to fit him in a barrel.”