“John? Can I borrow you a moment?”
In the bustle of the galley, where Morfin helps wash dishes from the midday meal, he doesn’t hear Mr. Weekes at first.
Truth be told, a lot has been slipping through Morfin: he is slow to either wake or sleep, food is tasteless on his tongue, words disappear from him every time he tries to speak, and memories are so faint they feel like dreams.
When he finally understands that someone is speaking to him, and not the cook, a hand has clasped his elbow and is leading him away.
Morfin stares dumbfounded at the carpenter as John Weekes calls over his shoulder, “I’ll return him shortly, Mr. Wall. I need a second pair of hands to help move some lumber.”
Once Weekes is certain Morfin is following him, he releases his arm, and the pair of them travel deep into the belly of the ship, past the gun-room, the storerooms, and — most curious of all — the carpenter’s tiny workshop. Encased in the ice, the orlop is frigid with an insidious chill, and as they descend deeper into the darkness with their only light the lantern in Weekes’s hand, Morfin feels his stomach and throat begin to close.
The claw-like grip on his throat lessens when Weekes glances over his shoulder and gives Morfin a reassuring smile. They arrive to whatever destination Weekes must have in mind because he stops and sets the lantern on the floor.
There is no where to sit, so they remain standing. Morfin waits, his earlier anxiety easing into confusion.
“You said you needed help?” he asks uncertainly.
Weekes waves the question away. His face is obscured, half in shadows, half in yellow lamplight.
“Do you remember what today is?” he asks, the cryptic nature of the question assuaged only by the warm smile on his face; the type of smile that emphasizes the apples of his cheeks and the twinkle in his eyes.
Morfin shakes his head. “I don’t understand.”
Weekes ducks his head, brow furrowing as he sticks a hand in his pocket.
“One year ago, today,” he says, “I was talking with a man I considered a very dear friend. A sharp-witted, lovely man with a kind heart and a singing voice that would put angels to shame. We had already gotten to know each other pretty well, but that day was different. That day he told me a story about a lucky charm he used to have as a boy that he took with him everywhere and how that charm had been his saving grace many a time.”
Color leaps to Morfin’s face as the memory returns to him.
“I lost it,” he says, supplying Weekes with the remainder of the story. “In the river when I was fishing.”
Weekes nods, bobbing his entire head, the white of his teeth peeking from behind his lips.
“Well, I’m not much of one for gifts, but…”
He pulls a cord from his pocket. A wooden fish, pale and polished to a shine, dangles from the leather. The details are fine, and even in the dim light, Morfin can distinguish the indented eyes, the overlapping scales, and the protruding fins. It is clever craftsmanship, and when Morfin realizes that Weekes is holding the cord out to him, his mouth falls open.
“Jack, I can’t accept this,” Morfin says, aghast.
Weekes laughs, quietly, but enough to echo off the wall behind him. “Of course you can. You need a new one.”
Morfin disagrees again, but Weekes ignores him as he circles behind him and loops the cord around Morfin’s neck.
“You can keep it tucked under your kerchief,” Weekes explains as he cinches the knot. “It’s all wood, so there’s no worry that it will stick to your skin. It won’t get too cold, neither.”
Once it’s in place, Morfin sets his hand over it. The charm lies just shy of his heart, which is beating faster the longer the two of them are alone.
Weekes rests his hands on the back of Morfin’s shoulders, squeezing gently.
“Do you,” he starts, his voice faltering as he leans close enough that his forehead lies against the nape of Morfin’s neck, his breath hot and wet; “Do you remember later that same day?”
Morfin’s fingers furl over the charm as his eyes slip shut.
He does not remember, not at first, but standing there, in a partial and furtive embrace, it comes back in pieces.
“You kissed me,” he says, simply enough.
Weekes laughs again, the noise eerily close to a sob.
“Yes, I did.” He sniffs. “Foolish, I know, but no one who saw us cared.”
“You said,” Morfin remembers, the scales of the fish rubbing against his fingertips, “that I wouldn’t need a charm, so long as I had you.”
Weekes lets go of his shoulders, and Morfin turns to face him. The lamplight casts a sheen in Weekes’s eyes, and Morfin’s throat clenches once again, in sympathy.
Deep down, he knows he caused the tears, but he cannot begin to fathom how he can make it right.
Weekes touches the end of his thumb to the charm as he presses their foreheads together.
“I’ve never been superstitious, but I can’t promise that I will always be there for you, John.”
Morfin stops, the words of comfort withering before they even form. Of course, he understands the source of Weekes’s alarm. Death engulfs the expedition like an impenetrable miasma. The air practically stinks of it as the crews salvage what they can of their morale following the deaths of Lieutenant Gore and Sir John.
Morfin clasps their hands together, the charm snug between their palms.
“Jack, I don’t know what will happen, whether we live or die, but whatever comes, we face it together.” He tries to laugh, but it comes out more a croak than anything resembling cheer. “I’ll not have a charm replace you.”
“It’s not replacing me,” Weekes says. He removes one hand so he may cup Morfin’s jaw. “It’s a promise that I fully intend to keep once we’re home. And until then I want you to use it to remember.” He takes the charm and tucks it into Morfin’s collar, securing it underneath his clothing. “Remember me, remember home, remember England, remember every damn reason why we’re on this ship in the godforsaken Arctic in the first place.”
Morfin’s breath stutters, and he takes a long, gulping inhale. He reaches up blindly, his hand closing tight on the back of Weekes’s neck.
“I don’t make that promise unless you do.”
“I already have,” Weekes says, bumping their noses together. “And I will make it again and again and again. Until we make it home.”
“Until we’re home.”
They kiss, brief and chaste, before they separate themselves. Morfin adjusts the charm under his shirt, and Weekes reaches past him to retrieve the lantern.
“I should get you back before someone misses us.”
Holding the lantern up, Weekes smiles at Morfin. He moves toward the ladder, darkness swallowing the light as he climbs out of view. Morfin places his hand over his heart, pressing hard, fearful suddenly of the dark, that it is malevolent and volatile as a raging sea, whipping around him, dragging him to immeasurable depths.
The charm presses into his skin.
Light floats at the top of the ladder as Weekes’s voice sounds from above. Morfin forgets what frightened him, and remembers home instead.