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Funeral Rites

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He did not tell his Sergeant after the feast, but secreted the sack between blankets, loaded it into the boat that carried their entire world. He did not stop to wonder how long it would keep, with summer progressing and temperatures now above freezing.

Those are pearls that were his eyes. It did cross his mind, when he pressed the Doctor to divide, that he should look upon this face again. Sweet Billy Gibson, who during the long dark had teased him like a maid, given him a look for a sign to meet amongst the boxes.

His head full of curls had last grown coarse like rust, breaking apart between his fingers.

He did not kiss him then, press his lips to the savaged cheek, or the crown of his head like an elder brother. Instead he pulled away from weak hands, desperate for comfort, caught on the sleeves of his stolen greatcoat.

A moment’s hesitation and he may have recanted the choice that had benefited all. They were his men, now, more than they’d ever been Crozier’s, most of them flocked to him of their own volition. He marveled still, how it had fallen into place. He could almost pity them, if time could be made for pity.

Even Solomon Tozer, loudest of the malcontents, had passed on the burden of leadership. He’d never quite recovered from the loss of half-brained Heather, perished under his care in the Carnivale fires. Hickey smiled to see him fuss over the two remained to him, mother hen watchful for the fox’s agile maw. Let him stand by Hickey’s side with a gun in his hand, a pound of flesh to still his rumbling gut and he should be content.

How discipline corrupts a man, Hickey thought, in laying down these invisible lines. Corrodes his spirit and clouds his intelligence, turns his blood watery and without substance. Trained as they were to the barking of orders, the outlaw band had looked on to him for direction. It had been a mundane affair, the passage of command from one to another — the rebels fled like wild-caught birds at the dissolution of the usual reign. He had expected more — to find his will perfected, iron-certain of the course to be charted.

Oh, how he’d dreamt, waiting out the rain under some Spitalfields arch or tunnel, of being a King’s bastard son. To have them plump princes murdered; poisoned or wine-drowned or succumbed to their inborn weakness. No choice then but to have him plucked from the gutter and groomed, denied accession to the lateborn get of some uncle he had never met. The tale he’d told, half-believed, a desperate measure to vanish the craving. Odd, to see the promise delivered a decade hence, in such place where the grinding machineries of Empire give way to the “just so” of myth.

Just so: the collective had abandoned Victoria and her bannerman Crozier, left them the sick, the maimed, the dying and the dead. Count on the fool to put the season to waste, waiting on corpses — servant unto servants, he heard Irving’s voice, whose hearty liver, cock, and balls provided ample chewing. Crozier’s pity was a facet of his pride — he would grasp at anything that separated him from the one he despised, his mirror-image.

Though Billy tried to disabuse him of the notion (dash the filled glass from his hand, cut him to the quick with honest laughter), Hickey knew. That the old man had seen in him a brother, an unclaimed son left to raise in a brothel, and been ashamed.

Hickey should have relished to see him ended, laughed and laughed so near that his face was specked with spittle. But he meant to live, and to take with him all of those that could follow. Like the shepherd he provided, no distinction made between those loved and those raised for meat, if only to keep them fresh, and to keep them hauling. He shared with them of sweet Billy Gibson, first and best loved of the apostles, bond unspoken but seen in the laying on of hands, the cares given unto him in his last days.

Let it not be said that he lacked for feeling. In the bosom of this Hell, Hickey had dared be kind. In his last days William was spared the worst of the hauling, and side by side they trod, seldom speaking, listening to the wind and to the ice-cracked rocks shifting beneath their feet. Sometimes of old times, and never of the sickness that scrambled William’s bowels and turned his joints to glass. Why say it? The signs had been there for all to see. Eyes peering lackluster from the hollows of the skull, skin pulled taut like a death’s head.

Gibson had watched his step — careful, careful, so that Hickey did not catch him tripping.

In place of words, spoke the set of his brow, the long arms folded before his chest when they sat down together, waiting plate in hand for Mr Diggle to pour their rations. Old hurts rankled like scorbutic wounds; he that had done him down now expected a revisiting of their debt.

Hickey put the palm of his hand against his back, tracing the crest of his shoulder. When Gibson turned he had smiled at him, shining. “Put your cares down, Billy. We’ve come so far, now. This’ll be over before you know it.”

He’d been beyond saving then, perhaps had always been. A wan smile played on cracked lips, and his eyes were drowned of colour. “You don’t have to tell me.”

He’d always been a lean thing. Soft skin stretched over collarbones and under them the phantom ribs, cradling heart and heaving lungs. He remembered the first time, unwrapping him slowly, gently, a bundle of oddities newly snatched. Gibson had kissed him first, pressed their lips together like a proper sweetheart. Hickey had shown him teeth, tongue and teeth, and Gibson had bucked and thickened at the taste of their blood commingled.

If he had been slight before, there had been less of him left out here on the rock. Hickey knew, more than anyone, what a morsel of food could be worth: more than all the love to be had in the world. But this thought came to him unbidden, as he looked up into the hateful sun, or laid in the arms of his sleeping sergeant: had William not been the first, he’d have passed on to him half he’d chewed, nursed him like a mother; and William would have sucked on his meat, another’s blood and spit hardening to scab in the recesses of his beard.

The memory of sweetness rolled heavy on the tongue. The bonny prick with the leftward crook, the delightful cuts at the communal table. Gibson was gone, taken apart and consumed in silence, but a bit of him lived in those that had partaken. Hickey imagined, and sometimes believed, in a spark of Billy, bobbing within his chest: a sad and watchful shade.

But that was not all. He saw the head in his mind’s eye, the sackcloth imprinted upon its cheek. Soon summer flies would be swarming, and then there would be no concealing of his treasure. Solomon did not stir when Hickey disentangled himself, exhausted from the trudge and a thorough fucking, as loose-limbed as he would ever be.

That thing was William Gibson no longer, and yet it was. The sack was heavy in his hands and had an odd balance, even with it held upright between both hands. At any time it should roll of its own accord, thump against the bottom of the boat which sheltered them from the wind. Bone has a weight to it, he thought; that or his body had eaten through so much more of his muscle. It was not that he shook, no; neither fear nor dread should overtake him, who had been tempered by numerous privations.

His hand slipped in, passing over the irregular cut of the neck, last remembered dripping with marrow. His fingers sunk into the dry, coarse curls and gripped, and in one movement the sack was gone, fallen weightless to his feet. “There you are. Mister Gibson.” The rot had not set, and still it held a likeness to life. The tip of his nose was lightly pressed to one side, and the surface of the face crisscrossed with lines. Half of it was darkened like a bruise, though not yet unpretty, where the blood had collected under the skin. Hickey had been lucky.

The coldness of it unsettled, the oily stiffness of the flesh when he caressed it as he would have in the old days, when Gibson had played his wife. Strands of hair stuck to his hand, as he shifted the head to rest between his palms, so to peer into those blind eyes. Had he seen his ending? Welcomed or resented that the decision be taken for him? He would understand, like he always did, though he disagreed. The poor sod had sought to ascend, to preserve his skin, and though Hickey had hated him for it, had seen why it had been done. He dragged a finger around the hollow of his eye, touched his eyelash, then his cheek. The hole of his neck had since dried, but a jagged bone jutted from the flesh, and in bringing it closer took care not to cut himself.

The Doctor hadn’t been a part in this. For all his protestations, the anatomist had made a sculptor’s job of dismemberment, bone and sinew separated from the muscle as though commanded to yield from it, leaving but the finest matter of Gibson. The old feeling, shame, had prevented him from asking this favour. There had been no reason for it, no way to gain the surgeon’s friendship, and no consequence to his displeasure. But the man’s disdainful guesses had brought him back a life wreathed in shadow, before he wore this name. For this, he took the knife in his own hand and sawed at the many layers of the throat, blunted his blade between the bones of the neck, so firmly set.

He smiled, now, at how silly he had been. Goodsir’s words were less sweet than his tongue — the man had fled, but Hickey’s hounds had run him down, and there he’d succumbed to their rough-housing. Without the cover of night, he’d never had much of a chance. But he had been brave, Hickey could give him that.

Meat was meat, yet he had caressed the cuts of Billy before putting them in his mouth, filled with love at the knowledge of being full of him. Now it was as though he were never alone, and he did not mean the other men, the watching and being watched by them, attending to their moods to prevent their fighting. Goodsir did not haunt him so, hunted like an animal and disposed as such. He found himself ever looking to the boat, aware of the position of the head, or else it was Gibson’s sharp, melancholy face lingering at the edges of thought. He was always watching, Gibson, would not let him alone, and Hickey knew not whether he was grateful for it.

It caught the light so lovely in the orange midnight sun. He turned it in his hands, watching the shadow play over the sunken and the smooth parts, losing the fear of it but not the wonder. “We’ve come so far. Do you see it?” They may just make it, against all belief, the dried meat enough to tide them over until they cross into the mainland. Soon they’d be passing the herds of caribou heading north for the summer, if Crozier had told them true. He kissed Gibson’s cheek, half-expecting a reply, but it remained still, cold and still and silent. He kissed Gibson’s mouth, aromatic with decay, careful not to bite and damage the skin. Never had he tasted a mouth so dry, but he had spit enough for the both of them, no matter the loosening of his teeth. He broke from it unsatisfied. But then, what had he expected? For the head to speak or smile?

He kissed it again and sighed; he would weep, were there water enough in his body for weeping. He kissed his head, his cheek, his eye, his nose bent so badly. Traced the lines again with his fingers. He had carried it all this way for something like comfort, but now he found the magic sputtering hollow. He cradled the head and shuddered. Would that he’d never cut him from his shoulders, dropped him into the pit with the other parts left uneaten, or kept him, at least, in his roughspun sack like some South Sea fetish. There had been no connection now, between him and it, and his gut flipped, his heart was rent at the breaking of the spell, the imaginings of Gibson deserting him as the living man had, after Irving found them.

No, this time he would not be the one left. There was coal enough for boiling soup, and hammer-stones as far as the eye could see. The men were in for a treat. It had been so long since they had something warm.