Tom knew something was wrong even before he even saw the knife embedded up to the hilt in John’s chest.
Something was wrong when Hickey jumped at the opportunity to join John’s hunting party. Something was wrong when the party was late returning to camp. Of course, something could have gone horribly right (they could have come across game, voyageurs from Fort Resolution could have found them on their way to camp, Sir James Clark Ross himself could have shown up with several crates of lemon juice and a homebound ship), but hope is a dangerous thing to keep burning lest it scald. It’s much easier to acknowledge their circumstances and make the most of them while they’re still alive.
That doesn’t mean laying down and accepting the rotten hand life deals you. So, when the party is twenty minutes late returning, Tom gathers the nearest trustworthy men, loads his gun, and sets off without permission.
The ridge gives way to desolation, emptiness he’s never been able to conceptualize before the Arctic. Not only an abundance of space but an absence of life. The first thing that greets him is Farr’s crumpled body and Hickey crouched over it like a prize. Before he has time to process what he’s seeing—Hickey stripped down to his underthings despite the temperature, the points of his shoulder blades threatening to break through his skin, the pile of his clothing a dozen feet from the murder site—something much worse crosses his vision. The figure approaches Hickey slowly then all at once.
No. Anyone but him, please.
“Run back to camp. Get help,” he snaps at Chambers, standing beside him. Chambers does not move, his gaze flickering between the scene about to unfold in front of them and the precision with which Tom unslings his rifle and lines up his aim. Damn it, he’s too far away to get a clean shot.
Chambers is still staring dumbstruck, slack-jawed as a dead fish.
Tom has half a mind to shake or slap the boy so he realises he's being talked to. “Go, run!” he snaps in as severe a voice as ever he’s used. He doesn’t wait to see if his instructions were followed, doesn’t hear the crunch of rocks as Chambers takes off on shaky legs. All he focuses on is ploughing forward.
Faster than any human being should be able to move after months of half-rations and poison, Hickey’s body goes bowstring-taut when John touches him. Not taken back but waiting for the right moment. A flash of silver buries itself in John’s chest. He knows how this will end, why it will happen. John bleeding out in such a barren place, Tom unable to save him. Maybe Hickey will kill him too to ensure there won't be any witnesses.
Hickey makes the first handful of cuts. Tom pulls the trigger, the bullet knocked off course by his momentum and shaking hands. Its arc is wide enough that neither man is aware of its discharge. The pair of them are too concerned with trying to kill and trying not to die. Despite the four slashes to his chest, John refuses to die without a fight. Surely, Hickey expected easier prey.
The second time Tom pulls the trigger, the bullet finds a home in Hickey's chest. A brilliant plume of scarlet blossoms from the hole in his naked flesh. A few inches to the right and it would have pierced his heart.
Before the gun is cool under his hands, before Hickey can process his injury beyond the initial shock, Tom runs towards them. Please don’t be too late, he prays, please don’t let it end like this.
The knife plunges between John Irving’s second and third ribs once, twice, three times before he realizes what's happening.
Hickey’s hand, the one that isn’t holding the knife, is a vise on the curve of his shoulder. For a moment, John doesn’t do anything. He is aware that he is being killed but does not consider that he may not want this. The fourth slash of the knife grazes past his lungs. Blood pools at the front of his shirt. It doesn’t quite hurt. Not all at once, it's more of a dull pain radiating out from the wound. This isn’t anything new, they’ve been dealing with dull pain for months now, the only difference is the immediacy.
A faint voice in his head says I don’t want this, I don’t want to die like this. He does not want his last word to be “Hickey”. If he is to die here, let it not be this way. Not when he’s so close to helping others. Let him do one good thing before he goes.
Hickey and his knife thrust forward once more. But this time, John yanks his body out of the grip on his shoulder. The knife goes wide, slicing the open air. John shoves at Hickey’s knife-arm, but it doesn’t do much good. His slops are warm with blood, sticky against his chest. It’ll freeze to his body the way sweat does under all their layers of wool.
Please, God, don’t let me die like this, he begs though it won’t do much good now. Short of a lightning bolt striking Hickey dead, or the man turning to a pillar of salt, there is little God can do to help him now, and only slightly more that he can do to prevent his death from being as easy as Hickey wants it.
John reels back and smashes his forehead against Hickey’s nose with a stomach-churning crunch. The impact stuns him enough that he tumbles back, the knife falling him his grip.
From there things get fuzzy. He’s losing more blood now, less than if Hickey had cut his lungs, but not enough that he can hope to survive. His legs grow weak, slipping over the shale, months of poison and half-rations finally catching up to him. Once Hickey regains his knife, it takes but one shove to land him flat on his back.
Something cracks in the distance, a gunshot maybe. Sound carries far when there’s nothing else to muffle it. Maybe Lady Silence didn’t manage to control the creature after all and it’s laying waste to the camp. Maybe all this was for nothing, trading his telescope for seal meat, communicating with the family.
Hickey crouches over him, the cracked lips of his crowded mouth twisting into a smile. His bony knees dig into John’s abdomen. The knife flashes in his hand, a twirl of metal before he starts cutting in earnest. Hickey's blood rolls off the point of his chin, dripping onto John's face. He does not want to die like this, alone with Hickey's blood on him and Hickey's hands on him and Hickey's knife flaying the skin from his bones and—
His ears are still ringing when Hickey collapses on top of him. The darkness that comes is immediate and he greets it like an old friend.
Every man in camp heard the trial yesterday. Hell, they could have peered in the tent with the Union Flag flying over it and watched for all Crozier cared. It was naught but a formality, nothing more than a leftover piece of protocol used to trick themselves into thinking they'll return home. He doesn’t think anyone would have objected to executing Hickey right then and there, the second he was brought back with dried blood down his throat and his hands bound. Not after Farr and John’s bodies were hauled back to camp on sledges, just like Gore’s was. But, because Crozier is Crozier, Hickey stood a full trial in front of the officers, in the middle of the camp but tucked out of sight. His charges were levelled against him with barely contained fury and he chafed against those charges until his voice raised to a boyish, scratchy pitch, his face growing blotchy. He was more confident the first time they got sentenced. He believed that there was still a chance of talking his way out of punishment. There were no such pretences this time.
Tom gave his testimony, Chambers too. Mr. Goodsir examined the bodies to support their convictions, though there wasn’t much to confirm beyond the eyewitness accounts. It was all very official. Protocol instructed him to stand in front of the court and regale the events with as much detail as possible. But memory had its own say in it. As he began to describe the first moment of dread he felt as he saw John running up to Hickey, ebullient and hopeful for the first time in months, a strange lightness took over his body. Words stuck to his throat, unable to breach the barrier of his lips, his dry mouth keeping them inside. If he let everything out, what else would he say? His legs swayed as he plunged back into the memory of the way the blade lingered in John's chest after the first cut. If Hodgson hadn't noticed his pallor and unsteady pose and offered up his own chair, he wouldn't have made it through his testimony conscious.
Standing in the doorway of Crozier’s tent reminds him of being a boy and waiting for his father to finish work so he could ask a question or beg for a story before bed. There's the same sense of impatience.
"He'll hang tomorrow, then?" Tom asks even though he knows the answer. He tries to keep his voice as even as possible, uninterested by the image of Hickey's feet swinging several inches above the shale while the oxygen leaves his brain. The pinned-back flap of the tent allows for too-bright midmorning sun to bleed through. Crozier himself sits at his desk, copying something down in a thick book that could be the number of unspoiled tins they have left, or it could be another letter to a family back home who will never receive it. There’s more demand for death notices after yesterday. And there will be one more written out tomorrow. Tom hopes that if Hickey has any living family they're estranged and won't learn of their boy's crimes. It is horrible enough to live with the knowledge that your son died alone in the most inhospitable region of the earth, he doesn't want them to know that he hanged for murder.
Sometimes it's hard to think of Hickey having a family, a life before Terror. He must have, even if it was scant. It's easier to think of him as a monster, ignore the base similarities between the two of them. But that isn't going to help. He's a monster, but he's a man too, those realities exist side by side. And whether he was born with all that malice, filled to the brim with sharpness, if his years ashore filed him down to a point, or their circumstances drove him to the brink, that doesn't change the fact that he's still one of them.
Tom addresses his question, not at the Captain, but outside the tent, where Jopson (Lieutenant Jopson now, a position he didn’t so much as grow into as it moulded itself around him) is having a clipped conversation with the carpenters. It doesn’t take much consideration to deduce the nature of their discussion.
"Yes," Crozier says, with all the ease of a lazy afternoon discussion. Though his jaw betrays the tension there, the same muscle jumping when he ordered Hickey be lashed thirty times. Only this time, without the fog of drink, it's much more frightening.
"I'd like to help with it," Tom says. "I want to see him hang". It's the closest he can get to saying I want to kill him. I could kill him for what he did to John without saying it exactly. In truth, he almost did kill Hickey. It would have been so easy to aim the gun a little to the right and be done with it. But that would be too easy.
No, if Hickey is going to die, it must be in front of everyone. He'll have his charges levelled against him and then all the men will watch is his body drains of life. That's what he wanted, wasn't it? Some sort of spectacle? Why he killed Farr before he could kill John so it would look like an attack. In an ideal world, it would be in front of the highest court in England. But there will be no returning home for them. They must make do with all they have out here.
Crozier peels his eyes from the book in front of him, the quill clutched in his mismatched gloves and the splintering wood below, to pin Tom with a look he hasn’t felt since his father passed. Whatever expression fixes the Captain’s face is unknowable to him, but it’s starkly lucid. He sees through Tom despite hardly looking at him.
To the devil if Crozier suspects or knows about him and John. What’s he going to do out here? Flog him again? He probably already knows. Sometimes, it seems as though he has foresight, not into the immediate future, but looking ahead to what’ll become of their legacy in the coming years.
“I’ll remember that,” Crozier promises. It’s the same intonation he used when he said they’d continue to rely on Tom’s eyes for the ice, same as his agreement to watch Armitage together. There’s an implicit trust present. He makes no promises of solitude—surely, most every man left alive desires to assist in Hickey’s execution—but he understands what Tom has been trying to say without saying at all.
The knife plunges between John Irving’s second and third ribs and he thinks well, maybe I deserve this.
Hickey thought he told. That’s why this is happening, why Hickey could kill any hunting party and use it to his advantage but insisted on being in John’s. There’s no other conceivable reason why he would go to these lengths, let his hate simmer like this. He thought the charge for ‘dirtiness’ was John’s doing.
He was never going to tell a soul what he saw in the hold, but there’s no way of getting that through to Hickey now. For starters, he’d be a hypocrite for getting a man flogged for the same crimes he himself would partake in only a few months later. Even if he wasn't actively violating the articles, he spent a not-insignificant part of his day considering that transgression. He only would have told if there was a reason for concern. If Gibson was telling the truth about being pressed into service, if there was cause to believe he was being taken advantage of, then John would have gone to command with his concerns. It was clear from his talk with Hickey out there on the ice that whatever Gibson had made up to save his own skin could not have been the truth. He was giving Hickey a way out. Hickey is murderous and malcontent, a mutineer and a malingerer, but whatever he and Gibson shared may have been love at some point.
You did this he thought when he saw Hickey squirm and shriek under the lash as it came down, again and again, his narrow shoulders twisting in pain, the muscles of his calves tensing with every crack of the whip. You didn’t make Hickey kidnap that poor woman, but he’s going to think this is your doing. And it was clear from the way Hickey's expression hardened after the shock of the initial charge of ‘dirtiness’, that he thought the say. Dirtiness could have been for anything. It could have been for the state of his fingernails, or his general hygiene. It may have been there only to make the punishment of thirty lashes as a boy seem less unfounded. Hickey disobeyed direct orders and stole a woman from her home, but he assumed the flogging was for sodomy.
He didn’t know a man could take thirty lashes and survive. Certainly not as a boy. And yet, Hickey seemed to only grow stronger after his punishment. Like he internalized all the pain and the rage and the bite of leather into his skin and made it into defiance.
Hickey’s to hang tomorrow, that’s what Tom told him. He was also told that he needn’t be present for the execution if he doesn’t think he can make it—owing to his injuries, either physical or psychological ones. But he wants to go. Part of him feels as though he must go even if he requires a shoulder to lean on the entire time. Because until he sees that noose tighten around his neck, he isn’t convinced that Hickey can die.
You did this, John Irving, his mind taunts, still feverish from recovery, still replaying image after image of Hickey’s snarl as he pushed the knife forward past wasted sinews and tissues. You must see it through till the end. He has no idea what would have happened if he hadn’t been in the wrong place at the wrong time; if he remained ignorant of his and Hickey's shared predilection. The flogging still would have occurred, that wasn’t dependent on John catching him in a compromising position. the charge of dirtiness may still have been included to offset the number of lashes. But it wouldn’t have been his fault. He’d be whole if he hadn’t found them together. Hickey would have killed any of them to further his agenda but he chose John because it was personal. But some other poor man would have taken his place and he wouldn’t be able to live with that.
Anyone could have gone down to the hold. But it wasn’t anyone, it was him. He set this in motion, he has to watch it end.
It's improper to take a life on the Lord's day, but not improper to build a gallows on it. Hickey should have hanged the day after his arrest. Instead, Fitzjames insisted they wait to see if John would recover. See if Hickey's conviction would be for one murder or two.
Across camp from the sick tent, Misters Honey and Weekes construct a gallows from their leftover timber. John listens as nails get hammered into wood, planks sawed down into poles, and thinks about how suffering is supposed to bring one closer to God. Maybe it is, and he hasn’t suffered enough. Perhaps he hasn’t suffered the right way. Once, when he was much younger and much more impressionable, he read every book in his family’s reading room and then some, pouring over obscure Scots ballads and old theology that made his head spin trying to understand it. When he got a fever, not unlike the one that took his mother, not unlike the one that would later claim his brother, all he could think about were the mystics he read about and wondered if belief was an antidote or a side effect of sickness. In his delirium, he remembered Julian of Norwich alone in her little room, illness dappling her body with stigmata. When his eyes grew so heavy that opening them felt like uncovering a tomb, he thought of Catherine of Siena wasting away in devotion to the Lord and the ‘cell inside her mind’ in which she sought reprieve. There was one other story he remembers, one he finds himself coming back to now with each pained inhale of his stitched-up chest. A Frenchwoman, he remembers not her name nor when she lived, only that she wrote about how the only way you can fully experience God’s love is through decreation. To understand His will you must annihilate yourself, reduce yourself to a vessel and only then can you touch divinity. Her writing signed her death warrant. The Church threatened her with immolation if she refused to stop circulating her heretical book. Like any good martyr, she refused to recant.
He wonders how long it took for her to burn. He wonders if it was worth it.
Petty Officer Cornelius Hickey is hanged at noon on the 1st of May, 1848, and Tom Hartnell is the one to tighten the noose around his neck.
Throughout Crozier’s speech, in which he reminds the assembled men of the crimes for which he was convicted, Hickey is silent as the grave. Murder. Attempted murder. Sedition. Mutinous designs. Though it's doubtless that anyone needs much reminding. There is an uneasiness among the crowd. Nearly everyone (he knows Hickey must still have supporters among their ranks and hopes that they'll change their minds after today) wishes to see him punished for his actions; nearly everyone wants to see him dead and wants the satisfaction of seeing the body. But there is a difference between wishing a man's death and watching it transpire. It won't be an easy hanging. Their remaining timber is in short supply and shan't go to waste on making a box for him to stand on. If he's lucky, he'll be hoisted in the air at the precise right angle to break his neck. Though, bearing Hickey's luck throughout the expedition in mind, it seems unlikely that good fortune will be on his side even in death.
More plausible is that his neck will dislocate and the remainder of hs time on earth will be spent slowly asphyxiating. If a dislocation doesn't occur, he'll suffocate. A nasty end for a nasty man.
Before the hanging can begin, John steps forward and describes the events leading up to the attack. He shouldn't be out of bed, and yet there he stands, with a wool blanket wrapped tight over his shoulders and Hodgson's arm around his back, keeping him upright. His voice does not tremble as he describes the Netsilik family he met.
"There were six of them. Four men, a little girl, and an old woman. I managed to communicate with one of them, one of the men. He said his name was Koveyook. He…he gave me some seal meat in exchange for my glass. I had hoped to trade more but, erm…I went back to the hunting party to relay this news and then I saw—" the end of the sentence comes to an abrupt halt. Hodgson's grip tightens around him as his knees begin to wobble. "Mr. Farr was nowhere to be seen at first. But as I drew closer I could see see him prone, and Mr. Hickey crouching over him. He didn't hear me when I called his name. And then—"
Crozier nods."Thank you, lieutenant. I won't make you say anymore."
John looks grateful for this permission. From behind him, an old Goldner's crate appears so he can sit before his legs go out from under him. Hodgson's hand remains on his back between his shoulder blades.
When it is time for his last words, Hickey spins a tale of deception and faulty leadership. During which time he claims to have information he could know if he had access to the Captain's private chambers, acts as though his execution is an overreaction, and does a half-assed impression of Crozier which he then asks the man to finish. Crozier refuses to dignify this with a response. It doesn't matter if Hickey was telling the truth if he did sneak away during Sir John's funeral to paw through Crozier’s things like a two-bit grifter at a rich man's overstuffed pocket. Whether he's right or wrong about a moment where Crozier’s loyalty wavered means nothing when he's not long from departing this mortal coil.
And besides, Tom doesn't blame Crozier if he had a spell of doubt after things seemed to be worse than anyone could have fathomed (a barometer which they've continually managed to overtake). Who among them didn't? If given the opportunity to abandon the rest and try to find help for himself, who would pass it up?
Another nod is the signal for the noose to be tightened. As he slides the knot against the nape of Hickey’s neck, he can feel the man’s pulse jump. Only for a second. There is no bag to cover his visage, no leftover sackcloth to spare the crew the image of Hickey’s blue, bloated face as he creeps towards death. Executions are not uncommon, but it is rare for the spectators to be so close to the body, in terms of both distance and companionship.
It takes a mere twenty-five minutes for Hickey to die. There are three men assisting Tom as they lift him into the air and wait for Crozier’s signal. Only then, do they allow Jopson to tie the slack around three spikes driven between the rocks before stepping back to join the others. He does not stand next to John, no matter how much he wants to. Their eyes meet through the fog, and there is a hardness to John's face that he cannot remember ever seeing before.
I did this for you, he thinks, and hopes John understands.
The ragtag group of survivors watch as Hickey, his neck dislocated but not broken, begins to lose consciousness. First, his eyes bulge from their sockets. Before he loses the ability to focus, he locks on Tom and there is nothing but loathing to be found in his eyes. Then, his jaw goes slack, tongue falling from his open mouth. His entire face grows bloated, the skin of his neck turning unhuman blue where the rope digs into it.
“Did you feel it too?” Hickey asked him, bold as anything, a handful of days after the lashing. “The rapture when it was over? Felt like I was reborn, made new.”
Although he did not say it, Tom felt as though he too was remade following his flogging, though not in the same way as Hickey. What he took as a clean slate, an opportunity to be more than a man who made a mistake, Hickey saw as a victory. Baptism.
He wonders now, watching Hickey struggle against his bonds, if he feels that same rapture now. When Hickey falls unconscious his body continues to twitch. Only when they cut him down does he finally go still.
For the longest time, after their ships first became icebound, John did not dream. He'd sleep, for a handful of hours at a time, and never in a way that left him feeling rested but could not dream. Even when he wanted to, when he’d welcome a nightmare—the familiar one of being buried alive while everyone he loves watches and does not realise he lives, a false image of the creature pursuing them, wrecking their camp when they’d finally thought they were free of its teeth, even a memory of Carnivale and the grim determination on Dr. Stanley’s face the moment before he pressed the torch to his oil-slick chest—there was only emptiness. At least with a nightmare, he could imagine himself anywhere else. Fear would be a small price to pay if it meant a few hours of reprieve.
That changed after The Attack, but then again what didn’t.
It’s easier for him to think of it as ‘The Attack’. ‘The time he should have died’ is far too broad to belong to a singular instance. Thinking of it as ‘the stabbing’ is a bit too visceral for him to be comfortable with. Not that he should be comfortable with an attempt on his life, but it doesn’t help to dwell on it every moment he’s alive. ‘The Attack' is easier. He doesn’t need to tell people what happened to him. He doesn’t need to share anything about their circumstances beyond the details printed by the most reputable newspapers. Nobody needs to know anything more that they were trapped, and they were hungry. Who would believe him if he were to tell the whole truth? And would it matter any if they did? What would it change? It should be enough for the public to know that they failed, that they would have died if Fairholme’s party hadn’t made it to Fort Resolution and maybe even then. Their tragedy was not dependant on the creature pursuing them.
So he doesn’t tell anyone. He layers up and keeps his arms folded over his chest when possible. And since Hickey’s knife punched four holes in his chest, he has begun to dream again. Most times it's of The Attack, but not always. Not every night, not every time he closes his eyes, but enough that he knows when to expect it.
The nightmare goes like this: salvation, euphoria, confusion, fear, pain, panic, silence. His full belly starting to ache from the richness of the seal meat, from finally having a meal that is neither scant nor poisoned, an awareness of the new weight of his body. The need to tell Hickey and Farr what he found, his legs unable to carry him as fast as he wishes. Hickey, nearly-nude and bone-white. Farr lifeless beneath him. The first easy slice of the knife through his flesh like a Christmas ham. An awareness of his impending death; a ringing in his ears, warm blood bubbling up from his wounds. Then, something approaching tranquillity as he feels himself untether from his body.
In dreams, the events vary.
Sometimes all it takes is one well-placed slash straight to his heart or throat and then it’s over. Sometimes it’s the four he has the marks to prove. Other times it’ll be five, ten, fifteen, twenty before he finally expires; dream-Hickey tests how much he can take before he snaps. One particularly rough night, there are twenty-three wounds in his lungs before Hickey finally crouches over him and places a filthy, chapped hand over his mouth until the air leaves him completely. Another night, he’s dead by cut 8 but remains present as Hickey puts the knife to use again, slicing and defiling his flesh to look like some primitive sacrifice.
Hickey cuts away the scalp, leaving his brain exposed to the elements and that night, John wakes with a howl that doesn’t even sound human. He sleeps with all his limbs tucked close, chin stuck to his chest and fingers digging into his arms where he’s only just started to regain weight. When he wakes, it's with a jolt. It's with his elbow jerking back to connect with the bridge of Tom's nose and as crimson seeps into their pillows, all he can think about is Hickey's blood raining down on him.
Other things are different too. Who finds him, mostly, what happens after. Most of the time there are no witnesses, the family who fed him have already continued their travels south, and besides them, there is nobody for miles to come across his body until it’s too late. Hickey runs back to camp in a panic with a story at the ready about how he came across John and Farr’s bodies beset upon by the Netsilik and managed to scare them off single-handedly. Or, Hickey says nothing, does nothing, and heads back to camp alone, pretending that the Creature carried the two of them off.
Dr. Goodsir cuts open his stomach to determine the contents while the Captain, George, and Edward all look on in horror. He’s dragged back to camp on a sledge and Tom is the first one to see his body.
Not everything is different, however. There are a few aspects which remain unchanged. The most important one is that he doesn’t wake up alone. It’s a consistency he’s carried with him, in one form or another from Terror camp—wherever it was set—to Fort Resolution, to the ship that brought him back to England and the home he created for himself when his old one was insufficient.
Tom’s fingers dance over the open front of his nightshirt where his scars are only visible. Two years since he got them and they have faded to raised pink lines, almost a trick of the light. Tom’s hands are so gentle when they touch him they may not even be making contact.
“I killed the man who did that to you,” he whispers, drawing him close so they fit together nose-to-nose. There is the barest kiss of frost on their basil plants outside, an unexpected cold snap that will be gone the next morning, and on the windows is the gentle pitter-patter of freezing rain. In a few minutes, one of them (there isn’t a set schedule, despite its familiarity) must dress and tend to the chickens, make sure the barn isn’t leaking, and feed the dogs that whine and paw outside their bedroom door.
Automatically, John reaches an arm around to trace the twelve scars where the lash cut into Tom’s back. This is another unchanging thing. You killed the man who did that to you too, John thinks. Even though they’ve been over this many times in many iterations. Tom maintains that he made the choice himself, even if he didn’t think they were going to kidnap Lady Silence, even if they thought they were only going to talk. He made the choice to agree with Hickey’s gold-crusted words and paid the price for it. For any one situation, there are at least a dozen ways of understanding it. They may never come to an agreement over this. Hickey wasn't the one wielding the cat o' nine but if it weren't for him, it would not have come down.
Scurvy, as they now know firsthand, causes the muscle tissue to grow weak. It blackens your mouth and loosens your teeth; saps the strength from your eyes and joints. Advanced cases reopen old wounds and prevent fresh ones from healing. He hopes these scars stay closed. That’s all they can ask for.