By eight bells, he’s convinced he’s made the worst mistake in his entire flawed existence. No going back. It would be the utmost cruelty to undo a decision of such magnitude. What if regret comes again? He can’t keep piecing Jopson’s heart back together just to shatter it anew. He shan’t be hesitant; faltering; his resolution shall be absolute: that’s good leadership.
His private existence must be sacrificed. An offering going up in flames. A trifle thing, compared to the suffering of the men who wasted away at Carnivale. In the grand scheme of things—
He can’t stop crying.
In the grand scheme of things, what is a torn heart? A heart can be mended. Edward can feel the fabric of it fraying. The flesh pushing through. The bleeding. His own suffering is meaningless compared to Jopson’s. Jopson’s is—not meaningless. He cannot say that. But it’s a matter of scale. Two hearts ripped apart—measured against a hundred that may stop. Jopson will be among the men saved, as a consequence of Edward’s decision. And once they make it back to England—
No. He shan’t entertain the thought. It’s not fair. Once back in England, he may—catch a glimpse of the East End from his carriage, see the sewage works, the mills, the people sitting on the street. He’ll know that in one of those shabby brown houses, just at the corner, there’s a little room with a shattered window which Jopson attempted to repair himself. Looking through the spiderglass of damage, he might sight his sweet face.
But he shan’t stop the carriage. Shan’t get out, take the steps by two; must not be carrying a bouquet and an apology, should not wear his best cape. Under no circumstances should he ever tell Jopson, “I’m just glad that you lived, that’s all I wanted, to make certain we’d all be safe, for it was my duty,” and if Jopson looked at him in a certain way, he shouldn’t grab his hand and clasp it with feeling, then bring it to his lips to say, “I’m so, so sorry.”
His decision is irreversible.
Time heals all things.
It’s been weeks.
The hauling will do them good. That’s what he tells himself. He also has Irving’s reassurance, although the details of Edward’s heartache were not shared. Some genuine physical exercise is all that’s needed to take one’s mind off lovesickness.
The first day is hell.
A mercy: Jopson is not on Edward’s sledge party. He couldn’t bear to see him.
It’s hard enough in the camp, where all of them are gathered. Edward is resting by the fire. Jopson looks knackered as he wanders around, aimless, before returning to his tent. If Edward weren’t resolute, he would go after him, offer to rub his shoulders, his back, his poor aching feet. He’d ask him about the progress of the day. How it feels wearing nails on his boots. Picking ice. Pulling weight. Fighting the strain and the temptation to shout bugger all and run off.
Edward would dearly like to run off.
Day two. Three. Four.
Edward would run as far as his legs could carry him, then collapse with relief. The idea is tempting. But he’s already given up too much to give up the men, too. He owes them all. He’ll haul and haul until his bones break. It feels like they’re breaking. He’ll help pitch tents. Organise watches. Supervise stocks of tins, fresh water. Discuss the road ahead. He’s useful. He’s miserable.
He nearly breaks a week in. Jopson is hanging laundry. It couldn’t have been more than a quick rinse to Crozier’s underthings. Edward watches him go to his tiptoes and remembers sheets flapping, and the sails, the open sea. It was a hot day. A good wind. Jopson had rolled up his shirtsleeves. Edward was in love with him already.
He will never stop loving him.
He knows it with a certainty, watching him.
The stronger his love is, the more paramount it is to consider his duty.
He’s less busy than he was on Terror.
“A song?” Irving asks.
“Any song that helps you focus. One that clears the head.”
Irving considers, then says, shyly, “I’m not much of a singer, unless I had a little drink.”
Edward is desperate. He flips his notebook to the back, to empty sheets of paper; offers his pen. Irving gives him a puzzled look; a worried one; but he takes the pen, and starts sketching the partiture, humming along. They’re sitting on snow, backs to a boat. The melted ice is steadily seeping through Edward’s wool coat.
He lets it.
He stopped shaving. Let his hair grow. The only thing he cares for is his uniform.
Let the man die, shrivel inside the bounds of his command. This is the Lieutenant Little he must be. Flesh and bones to carry the uniform. He does not need to be content. His personal needs don’t matter. He has to distract himself from the thing inside him, the thing which is him, with wants and needs and regrets and a headache.
“Here.” Irving hands back the notebook. “It’s my favourite hymn.”
Edward follows the notes. For a moment, he knows peace: he ceases to be, raptured by music.
The watch drags on. He keeps his eyes on the dark horizon. If the spirit appears, a snow-white spot in the dull night, it will be all worth it. It will, if he kills it. Could he? Maybe: he has nothing left to lose, or fear. That should give a man courage.
His only wish is this: if the creature overpowers him, let it consume him entirely. He wouldn’t want Jopson to see his mauled remains. He’d much prefer to fade into death. A violent rush, perhaps, but then: nothingness. With his last breath, a worthwhile act. Let the spirit choke on him. Try to swallow his melancholy.
“I heard you collected songs,” Le Vesconte says, breaking the silence stretching between them.
Edward adjusts the rifle on his shoulder. Keeps staring ahead. “You got one to share?”
“Mm. What kind of songs do you like?”
Edward struggles to remember. It used to matter.
“Handel,” he says. “Purcell.”
“Ah, you would,” Le Vesconte mutters. Is it an insult? A compliment? Friendly banter? Edward is without a care. Grunts in answer.
“When I am laid in earth,” Le Vesconte sings under his breath, so he won’t awake the camp. That’s surprisingly considerate, from such a brash man. “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me; remember me...”
Edward follows the melody. “But forget my fate.”
“My head. Cut it off,” Mr. Morfin begs.
Edward keeps his gun pointed at him. He understands. It all makes sense. He knows exactly what he suffers. He doesn’t flinch when Sergeant Tozer pulls the trigger. Looks at the scattered brain matter.
There, he thinks. Captain Crozier said to tamper down all signs of illness before we proceed. This is not what he meant. Yet still.
He watches Morfin until he’s carried away.
That’s going to be me.
The prospect doesn’t scare him. As long as there are men alive to bury him. As long as they make it. As long as it was worth it.
He considers seeking Dr. Goodsir’s help, but all he has to offer are painkillers.
Edward can live with the pain. He’d prefer that to a foggy brain. His thoughts are disorderly enough already.
He brushes his teeth and spits up more blood. His gums are dark. Undresses himself to bed. Lies on his back.
It makes sense, he keeps telling himself. Fitzjames had given an order. It wasn’t obeyed. The lantern shattered. Now Morfin can rest. So can all of them. Order is restored. Illness is cured by death.
All is well.
He couldn’t sleep. Hardly a blink. He’s sitting by his desk, staring blankly in his looking glass. Well. He’s not going to shave. He shaved yesterday. The length of his hair would concern him, but not here. He looks for other things. Blood in the eyes. Peeling skin. Resurfacing scars. Scowls, then chews at his chapped lips.
It’s not scurvy.
What could it be?
He catches Jopson’s reflection. He jumps to his feet so hurriedly he nearly knocks his chair over, and the writing desk trembles. He has to extend his hands to steady them as he watches Jopson enter the tent and remove his cap.
“Captain Crozier called a meeting, sir,” he says. He’s looking straight at Edward.
It’s been a while, since he looked.
His face is haggard, grim. His eyes are cast in shadows so dark they look like bruises. There’s a scar on his lips. He hasn’t shaved either. The softness is gone from him. He’s lost weight. He’s sharp like the stones all around, cold like a diamond.
It’s the first time they’ve been alone since Edward made his decision, and Jopson is leaving with a bow.
“Wait,” Edward calls after him.
Jopson looks at him, but keeps the tent’s flap lifted. Sunlight is pouring in. It becomes him. He’s so lovely. Edward’s heart leaps, oblivious to the constraints of service. It pulls him towards Jopson, hauling his body along. A step, then he cannot move.
“Yes, sir?” Jopson says at length.
Edward coughs. Blinks. Frets with his hands. “Thank you,” he says, “for letting me know.”
“Of course,” Jopson replies easily. “It’s my duty, sir.”
He slips away.
Edward is left pondering if it was an ordinary remark, or a jab at his ill-received letter.
“Someone on this expedition has earned our trust, respect and confidence,” Crozier says, “in a way that merits absolute a place at this table.”
Fitzjames presents the promotion to Jopson, and Edward can’t stop laughing: shocked, delighted. He remembers to hide it too late, when Jopson turns towards him, puzzled. He hangs his head, but his smile cannot be stifled.
It’s not happiness.
A joy that is nameless, and which has nothing to do with himself. It’s all about Jopson’s merit: the mirth of it, the warm esteem that Edward feels. Trust, respect and confidence: indeed, those are all well deserved. Seeing him thus recognised stirs something inside, stronger than love. His affinity for Jopson is like the appreciation of a warm spring, good wind, a tranquil sea: things to relish, knowing full well he has nothing to do with them; that he is blessed to merely witness.
Their personal history, the recent—unpleasantness of it is momentarily forgotten as he removes his gloves, shakes Jopson’s hand in congratulation. It’s only his startled look that reminds him: you hurt him and now you commend him; how must that feel?
“Good luck,” he says shortly, simply. He cannot stop smiling, still, and beams at Crozier.
Thank you, he wants to say. Please continue to care for him well: I couldn’t.
While organising fresh water parties is a grueling feat, Crozier, Fitzjames and him keep grinning through it. Edward is stealing glances at the captain, reassured that his trust in him has been well-placed. Crozier will always keep Jopson safe, and care for him, besides, as if he were his own son, flesh and blood. Maybe he wouldn’t smile at Edward, if he knew what he’d done, but that matters not.
Lieutenant Jopson: it has a pleasant ring to it. There is hope, still.
Crozier and Fitzjames head to the cairn; Edward is left to supervise the camp. He goes around with leisurely steps. The men look vaguely troubled seeing him so at ease, but his smiles are returned. He hums a song he doesn’t remember even hearing. It must be pouring from his heart; and it’s a love song; a farewell, but one that’s joyous.
Maybe he doesn’t have to forget Jopson, or lose him entirely. Could there be a chance of friendship? Would Jopson welcome it? Is it selfish to hope for it? He yearns for his company.
Jopson arrives as if he heard the call of his heart, beating like a wardrum. He’s freshly returned from the hunting party. He walks up to Edward, who welcomes him with a smile. It’s reassuring, to see Jopson armed. He can take care of himself. He’s an excellent shot.
“Lieutenant Little,” Jopson says, “a word in private?”
Oh: now it’s allowed. Nobody minds as Edward lifts the flap of the command tent, lets Jopson step in. He has a place here. He reaches for his cap.
“Leave it,” Edward says. He leans to the table, arms crossed over his chest, and looks Jopson over. His uniform hasn’t changed, but he stands taller. When they return home, Edward might see him with his medals of gold; a dress uniform; epaulettes; they’ll all be earned. He’ll raise his glass to him, and think, proudly, that’s the man I loved once. That’s the one I love.
“I was surprised,” Jopson says, adjusting the gun’s holster. Edward’s gaze is drawn to it.
“Did you catch anything?”
Jopson tilts his head, as if the question is odd, or at least unexpected, then says in a rush, “No sign of caribou, sir.”
“Edward,” Edward offers warmly.
Jopson tugs at the holster again. It’s too loose. It keeps slipping off his shoulder. Edward reaches out to help adjust it. Jopson draws back. “I’m afraid I can’t call you that,” he says.
Edward drops his hand.
Jopson doesn’t look at him. Addresses his boots as he says again, “I was surprised to see you so happy for me this morning. I thought—I thought all your sympathies lost.”
Edward scowls. “Why?”
Jopson’s gaze flickers up. “I wager you could think of something that might’ve given me that impression.”
“But it is not so.” Edward pushes himself away from the table. Steps up to Jopson, who steps back, gaze lowered again. “You have my admiration,” he says, earnest, though his tone is hushed. “Love is not the extent of all that could exist between us. Don’t you think we could be friends?”
“No,” Jopson says, stern. The answer is not the one Edward expected; he tilts up Jopson’s chin with a finger, makes him meet his gaze. For the first time in a long while, he feels part of the living.
“Why?” he pleads.
Jopson’s gaze flicks to his lips, then back up to his eyes. Edward notices he has backed him into a corner.
“I’m in love with you,” Jopson says, plain and frank. “I cannot pretend that my sentiment is anything different. When you smile at me, I want all your smiles, for the rest of my life. When you shake my hand, I want your hands all over myself. When you offer your friendship, I just want your love back.” He presses his forehead to his, as close as the cap would let him. Their noses are nearly brushing. “Want me,” he whispers, “or I beg of you, please be unkind, so I can forget.”
Edward takes a breath in; a breath stolen from Jopson’s lips. How warm it is; how he misses the taste of him, and how cruel it seems, to deny the comfort of a kiss from him. Could he be cruel? Never; Jopson deserves more, deserves better. Deserves honesty, yes; but is it not his special day? Should he not be allowed an exception? Edward mustn’t reverse his decision to do this: lean in for a kiss. He presses their lips together.
Before Jopson could open his mouth for him, somebody yells. “Murder! Murder!”
They break apart once again.
“I have no doubt in my mind,” Hodgson says, “who was responsible for this brutish ambush, and it’s the men I shot.”
Edward listens patiently. The sunshine is blinding. It pulses in his skull. Jopson’s kiss still tingles on his lips. That is by far the most distracting part.
The tents surround Hodgson and him. These are no shelters. Edward understands the marines’ anxiety to reinforce the camp. Prepare. Crozier doesn’t see it like that.
“The captain is a thorough man,” Edward says.
“We have no time for an investigation to confirm the events,” Hodgson whispers urgently. “We already know what happened. Oh, you should’ve seen poor John; you’d know.”
“I’m far less concerned with what happened than what may come next,” Edward confesses. Leans against a barrel of fresh water. Should that barrel be looted; should they be attacked; a tent set on fire; one more men dead, or merely injured: at this point, the simplest loss could put the entire expedition in danger. They can’t risk a single thing.
He’s not the one giving orders, however.
He must put his confidence in Crozier. He’s proven himself to be frustratingly capable countless times over. He’s fearless, and that worries Edward. In the face of his calm logic, he feels like a feverish boy complaining to his father about nightmares, fancied dreads. But sometimes, children are right. Sometimes, there are monsters.
“Keep the men ready in case Mr. Hickey is telling the truth; but calm, in case he is not,” Fitzjames advises. Edward acknowledges him with a glance, but doesn’t find it in him to answer. Not after Crozier just threatened to flog him for insubordinance. He’s trying his utmost, isn’t he?
Has he started behaving irrationally?
Are people noticing?
His judgement should be solid. The only way to earn Crozier’s respect is through reason. Can he trust himself with that? The fog descends. It obscures his thoughts. There are shadows moving through the thick mist. Friend or foe? What could they be?
Where is Jopson?
He followed the captain. Edward needs to follow orders.
He just has to follow the orders and what his instincts and training tell him, and no one will be harmed.
The scissors’ blades cut open Irving’s stomach. Edward compels himself to watch while Jopson stands guard and Hodgson lingers, prepared for judgement. Knife-cuts zigzag over Irving’s chest. A horrifying pattern. Parts of him were removed. His brain is exposed, like Private Heather’s was. His eyes are open. The little wood cross is tight around his neck. His God failed to protect him.
There’s some calculated brutality to his fate. Edward cannot imagine anybody, English or Inuit, who would do something like this. The stab wounds are the least disturbing. There’s an insanity to them. Anger. The rest, however. That was meant to be discovered. Read like a warning. Feared.
Edward wants to think that Irving’s murderer didn’t know him. That matters more than the killer’s nationality. If they never saw Irving smiling. Didn’t know of his brilliance. His kindness to animals. His amiable self-importance. That his favourite song was Amazing Grace. Edward has it scribbled in his notebook. It burns his pocket. He watches the guts revealed and hears how sweet the sound...I once was lost, but now am found...'twas grace that brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.
“That’s seal meat, sir. Barely digested. They fed him,” Goodsir says.
Whatever faith Edward ever had, it shatters.
The armory is open. Edward has given the orders. The enemy carries guns. Friends were shot down.
He carries the weight of his ill judgement as he arrests Sergeant Tozer. Seeks out the carpenters. Has the gallows made. Almost says, make it three.
They came too close to a mutiny.
Innocents were slain.
Blood is easy to wash off one’s hands. It washes away in tears of regret. Mistakes like this, however: they stain like ink. How can he scrub his soul clean?
He knows already.
He’s made the decision once. Step up. Give yourself over to command. All else is trivial.
His love life has a headcount.
He’s the one to announce Mr. Hickey and Sergeant Tozer’s crimes. He’s a representative of discipline and order. It’s only through Crozier’s mercy he stands there. He feels Jopson’s eyes on himself. Jopson mans the rope. He knew of the mutiny before Edward did. He captured Mr. Hickey.
Don’t you think we could be friends?
No. I’m in love with you.
That, they can’t afford, can they? Edward is still searching for an excuse, the coward he is. He made one too many mistakes to-day: the open armory, his parted lips, the kiss. Still, he wishes to discuss it all with Jopson. Confess his shortcomings. Have his insight. His support. Pity. All he wants is get back to that tent, once justice is served, and be purged. Curl up in Jopson’s lap, let him stroke his hair and beg, help me. Right my instincts. When I listen to my heart, it leads me astray. It’s poisoned by worse than lead: fear rusts it. My head is heavy. I cannot think. Be my better half again. I haven’t been myself since I sent you away; but wasn’t it a necessary sacrifice to make?
Noises emerge from the fog.
He’s hiding behind a tent.
He’s taking cover.
He needs to catch his breath before pursuing Tozer any further.
He has problems breathing.
It started when he saw the spirit.
When he really saw it.
It has a shape.
It’s not like a bear.
It has human features.
Something is wrong with the way it moves. Like the spirit is still learning how to carry this conjured body. The weight of it. How to be contained by flesh.
Edward looked into its eyes and learnt three things about Tuunbaq: it’s immense; it’s ancient; it’s like the land.
The ground under his feet shakes with the spirit’s anger. He cannot breathe: he’s not allowed this air. He’s gasping as his lungs keep collapsing. As the dark creeps in. He’s sick with nerves again. Helpless. Useless.
Jopson is out there, in the fog, with the spirit.
His muscles strain to run after him.
He has an order to capture Tozer.
He must see to that.
Tozer is the real danger.
The Tuunbaq is an avalanche. A blizzard. A whirl. They won’t defeat it. They just have to survive it until it passes.
The dead litter the earth.
He has no control over who’s next.
This is a test of the choice he made.
This is proof that he has no choice.
“No one can see you now,” Tozer says. “You’re invisible. They’ll think you died and you were carried off.”
Edward gestures with his rifle. “Get on the ground,” he says. He sounds weak. Winded.
He wouldn’t obey himself.
“Hickey didn’t get to say half of what he wanted to say, Edward. That’s your name, isn’t it? Edward?”
Edward gestures again. What is left, if orders are not followed? He won’t shoot Tozer. Won’t kill a man. Not one of their own. Tozer knows. That’s why he doesn’t obey. There are too many dead already. He’s safe as the world around him shatters.
The Arctic will kill them. It’s not about accidents or exposure to cruel weather. It’s slaughter.
All they have left are instincts and training.
Tozer should share them.
His gut should say the same thing as Edward’s. We must live. This is the way to it: obey.
His training should make him afraid. Have him raise his hands. Get on the ground. Comply with his arrest.
He’s a dead man.
He’s been marked.
He’s to be executed.
But Edward doesn’t have the authority to enforce that order.
“Crozier was going to lead that sledge party himself and leave. Quit the Navy. Quit all of us. You didn’t know that, did you? He was gonna leave you a big, losing hand, Edward.” Tozer smiles. There’s pity in it. You were always already doomed. “Watch out.”
Pain flares at the back of his head.
Then he sees the dark again.
He lies on the ground like the dead. He knows he’s alive, because he’s in pain. His head feels like there’s a knife in it. His joints ache. He fell, didn’t he? He’s been hit.
Something warm touches his face. Jopson. Jopson is here.
“Look at me,” he says very clearly. “Can you hear me?”
Edward nods, which is a mistake. He winces. Jopson touches the back of his head. Pulls his hand back. His fingers are red. His eyes fill with dread.
“Find the others,” Edward says, getting up to his elbows. “Where are the—”
“Careful. That’s a nasty wound there. What happened?” Jopson starts unbuttoning his own coat. Edward must be hallucinating.
“Was hit in the head. They got away, tell Captain Crozier they escaped—what are you doing?”
Jopson undoes his waistcoat, gets his shirt off. There’s a bruise on his chest, from hauling, perhaps. He glances at Edward as he bundles the shirt up, then presses it to the back of his aching head. “There. It’s the cleanest thing I have.”
“Tom,” Edward says, wretched.
“Cotton soaks up blood well.”
Edward puts his hand over Jopson’s. Their gazes lock. Jopson looks away, pulls back, dresses.
“Thank you,” Edward says.
“Don’t mention it.”
Jopson leaves as the fog flares up. A bit of hope illuminates him, the comet-bright shine of rockets. The spirit growls, and then there’s silence.
They burn the dead. They’d be impossible to bury. There’s over thirty. They go up in smoke. The smell of Carnivale follows as the survivors haul.
“How’s the head?” Le Vesconte asks at their temporary camp. Edward wears his cap over clean bandages. He still has Jopson’s shirt, which he should return. He’s just holding onto it a little longer.
He regards Le Vesconte. He looks tired. One day, and fatigue is already setting back in. Edward, too, feels it.
“I’m fine, thank you,” he says.
His muscles are tight as ropes. Fraying at the edges. They pull at him with every step. So now he’s sitting.
Le Vesconte makes a sympathetic sound. Takes a place beside him. Sits there comfortably, smiling.
“Are you,” Edward says. Licks his lips. Tries again, looking ahead at the camp. “Are you trying to be companionable?”
Le Vesconte scoffs. “Thank you for noticing my meager attempts.” He bumps into Edward’s shoulder. It smarts. This is why he can’t decide.
“Why?” he asks. His throat is dry. He’s perched all the time.
“Very well.” Vesconte, too, stares ahead. Dusk settles on them like ashes. “You see, I’m the only lieutenant left in Erebus’s ranks,” he says. “I wish to discuss my thoughts with like-minded people. We just had a mutiny. Us officers must rely on each other. Be of the same position. It’s pivotal that we understand one another well. I think I have the wardroom figured out. Not you; and I need to: you’re the third in command.”
Edward chuckles. There’s no joy in it, but Le Vesconte smiles at him affably. “If you ever figure me out,” Edward says, “do kindly share the results.”
“I’m not dying here,” Le Vesconte says with a fervour that embarrasses Edward. “I’m not.”
“We’re heading home.” Edward points east. “Best we can do. Soldier on.”
The march is agony. His body is no longer complying. He can walk, still, which is a blessing, but his joints ache with it. His stomach is in knots the entire day. He cannot eat. He’s lost appetite while his fellow men starve. He forces the tins down his throat. He knows it’s poison. He knows it’s what makes him sick.
If Goodsir were here, he would ask him for more details. Bridgens could only cite the headache. The feeble moods. He made a note on memory loss. That’s what concerns Edward the most.
He can push through the pains of the body. It’s been asked of him before. Nerves affect him. He’s beginning to see that. But what unkind disease it is, that rids its victims not just of health, character and good spirits, but their very past?
He struggles to recall the first time he laid eyes on Jopson. It must’ve been at Greenhithe. Three years since. Earlier, maybe. There must’ve been some social function or another. Surely, he would remember.
Their first kiss, he can picture vividly. The quality of light; the swirl of dust; the shadow Jopson’s eyelashes cast. That’s a problem. He was snowblind at the time. This means that his brain is conjuring imagery. Creates visions out of nothing. Will there be a time when he won’t be able to tell what was and wasn’t?
There’s a day where he becomes convinced that they’re looking for thaws. That they’ll go back to Terror and report.
He gets confused too often.
He sees Jopson swipe his forehead with a handkerchief he knows to be his, but cannot recall how it came to be Jopson’s possession.
Once he’s in Jopson’s tent. Jopson is not there, and he knows not what he came to discuss. He spots a familiar envelope among Jopson’s neatly stacked personals. He knows what the letter says. He doesn’t remember delivering it.
It’s all becoming rather worrying.
Fitzjames stumbles and falls. Blood seeps through his shirt, his slops. He’s put on a boat with a man whose name doesn’t come to Edward’s lips; who hasn’t moved in a while; hasn’t even blinked.
Edward heads out with the sweep party. He sings under his breath to keep up his spirits. I can no longer stay, our ship sails are hoisted and I must away. Jopson taught him this song. He remembers that. It was Jopson.
What fun they’ll all have, back in England. Edward can just picture it. A dinner at the Admiralty. Fitzjames with his curled hair, well-fed, tanned. “Like the shot that killed Lord Nelson. Well, it couldn’t kill me. Its reappearance troubled us shortly, but then—”
What happened? He imagines it still in Fitzjames’ voice, “We walked home.”
In his imagination, he looks at Jopson. He’s in uniform. Sitting by the table beside him. He’s drinking rose lemonade, and he’s smiling. His breath fogs the glass. “What a miracle it is,” he murmurs, “to have survived; you’d never know from his recounting!”
Fitzjames tells it in his usual style: a dismissive boast, an epic tale concealed as a dinner story he could tell any day. This is the life he lives: a life of adventure, and the expedition for the North-West passage is just a chapter. Edward follows the motion of his white-gloved hands, laughs and claps. Meets Jopson’s eyes again. Observes the glint in them; how the candlelight’s glow make them a greenish hue. God, he’s beautiful. If they weren’t in public—
—Edward would kiss him. It’d be welcome, and safe. Nothing would depend on it.
“Lieutenant Little, sir! It’s the creature!”
He turns in his seat. Hartnell is in rags. He’s standing in the Admiralty's dining hall breathless, like he had to run miles to find Edward here. He left the door open. There are ragged rocks behind it, and miles of ice. Something stirs within the immobile landscape. Creeps.
“We’re too slow,” Le Vesconte tells him. Edward shakes his head. They’re back at the camp. “You’ve spotted the creature,” Le Vesconte insists. “It’s tracking us still.”
“We have the mutineers to fear as well. We’re being pursued, and we’re incapable of running. We’re barely a quarter of the way in. At this pace, December will find us frozen and helpless in King William’s Land!”
“You must raise that concern with the captain,” Edward says.
“You must support me on it,” Le Vesconte insists. Edward shakes his head. He’s not arguing. He’s just incapable of handling this. He’s pacing the camp. It has shrunk. Three boats. A sledge. A couple of tents. Men in dwindling numbers. “We shall leave the sick to rest.”
Edward gives him a glare. Le Vesconte struggles to keep up with him. He used to be a good walker. He’s exhausted.
“That’s what we would do,” Le Vesconte says, “back home. Allow them to stay in bed.”
“They’d have doctors,” Edward says. “Nurses. Family members.”
“We need doctors to move on. If we’re to ever find game, help and rescue—”
“Then I beseech you, say something.” Le Vesconte grabs his arm. Edward halts. He’s swaying on his feet. He’ll collapse on Le Vesconte. Can’t they have this conversation in a dream?
“Captain Crozier will never agree to it.”
“You can convince him.”
“Hardly.” Edward bites his lips. Considers the disadvantages of honesty. Then thinks, to hell with it. “Captain Fitzjames is dying,” he says.
They both refuse to glance at his tent. They search each other’s expressions instead.
“He is,” Le Vesconte admits. His face is a mask. His eyes betray all. The depth of his grief, an abyss. It pulls Edward in. “I’ll bury my friend, then we will march on. We will walk and walk and we won’t stop until we have shelter and food and lemon fucking juice. On my honour I’ll lead the rescue party for our sick myself. We can send them meat, as soon as we find any. But we have to go on or else all perish.”
Relaying the plan to Crozier doesn’t go well.
Edward lingers by the campfire, warming his hands. The nights are still cold. He’s keeping his eyes on Jopson, who’s smoking on the sledge, sitting on it like a rider. He catches Edward’s glance.
“Are you still upset with me?” Edward asks.
“Trying to be.”
“Should I leave you to it?”
“Come here.” Jopson pats the sledge. Edward pulls away from the fire, wraps the coat tighter around himself. The camp is nearly empty. Everybody is trying to sleep. Nobody manages.
Captain Fitzjames is dying.
Lamps burn in the tents. They all keep vigil.
Edward sits facing Jopson, knees brushing together. “In my defence,” he says, “when Lieutenant Le Vesconte convinced me of this plan, it sounded much less heartless.”
The ember of his cigarette reflects in Jopson’s eyes. It flashes as he smiles. “I bet.”
He keeps his hair much longer. It frames his face most fetchingly. With a good wash and some rosemary, it’d become him even in London. The full beard, also. Jopson regards him too. Bafflingly, he touches his nose.
“You have freckles again,” he says. His voice is tender. Edward doesn’t deserve such gentleness, but on a night like this, he needs it. He can’t forget Fitzjames crying out in pain. Not long ago, the halest in their party. An expert of overland expedition. Crozier’s second. A man of noted endurance, strength and vigour. Edward tries not to think of it, but he strains his ears for a last cry of pain.
“It’s summer,” he says haltingly. “It’s the sun. They come out.”
He hears in Fitzjames’ voice, you should’ve seen us: we all looked frightfully unkempt. Lieutenant Little’s hair nearly reached his shoulders. Not many men can keep up that appearance, let me tell you that. Fitzjames would then toss his hair. There’d be laughter.
“You had freckles when we first met,” Jopson says.
Edward blinks, avoids his gaze. “At Greenhithe?”
“Mm. I thought you were cute. And I liked how you looked in uniform. Broad-chested. Sturdy.” He touches his buttons next. Presses his fingers to one until the Royal Navy’s sigil is imprinted on his fingertip. “I don’t think you noticed me.”
There’s a beat.
“Do you ever regret coming here?” Edward asks softly.
Jopson considers this. Smoke curls from his lips. “I can’t even begin to think what state I would be in, waiting for Captain Crozier’s return in vain. I’m glad I’m here to aid him. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with it. Not himself, surely.” He glances at Fitzjames’ tent. “He won’t sleep to-night,” he says, flat. “I wish he could, really. Find some relief.”
“I don’t think any of us will sleep.”
“I’m glad I met you,” Jopson goes on. He takes the cigarette from between his lips. Puts it out efficiently.
“If the circumstances were different,” Edward begins. Reconsiders. “We should’ve met under luckier stars,” he says. The comment is bland, non-committal. Jopson looks at him sharply.
“Luck has nothing to do with it. I think you’re punishing yourself. You shouldn’t; especially not through me.”
Edward nods, although he doesn’t agree. “I have a lot to atone for,” he says.
“Good people have died.”
“And you’re personally responsible?”
Edward looks at Fitzjames’ tent again. The lights are out. Crozier is still within. Bridgens had left a while ago; he was in tears.
“Good people have died,” Edward says, “and I still live.”
Jopson’s face softens. His compassion shames Edward. His kindness, clemency: all evidence Edward doesn’t even deserve to sit with him.
“I wish you shared the weight of your guilt, when I could still have helped you carry it” Jopson says, then adds, “Could I have?”
Edward strokes his knees, gently. “No.” His thumb ghosts over the old injury. Jopson flinches. Clasps his wrists.
“What if I forgave you?”
“Haven’t yet made up my mind. I could be bribed.”
Edward reaches to cup his face. Jopson still clings to him. He kisses his forehead. Leaves.
Captain Fitzjames is dead. Long live Commander Little.
Fitzjames doesn’t look like he’s only sleeping. He looks like a man tortured by nightmares.
Crozier looks worse.
“He didn’t suffer much,” Jopson says, standing above the grave. “It was fast.”
“Aye,” Edward murmurs. Much too fast, he thinks. Scurvy isn’t swift. It doesn’t go in for the kill. It eats at you. Rots you. Plays.
Would he be able to do what Crozier likely did? Assist? He doesn’t suppose he would be.
They hide Fitzjames in the landscape, in case the spirit comes scavenging. In case a worse monster returns.
Edward cannot get rid of the impression that Fitzjames is still there, much amused by the proceedings of his own funeral. He expects Fitzjames’ boots to twitch, to hear a snicker from the rock pile, surprise. It’s a shock that he’d be still in denial, after the abundance of death he’s faced. That he’d still cling to a childish notion like resurrection or salvation and suppose that Fitzjames is up in the clouds, looking down.
He links his hands in prayer. Cannot say the words.
“He didn’t...” he tells Jopson, but cannot go on. Not with all the others around.
He didn’t believe in God.
What kind of sermon happened in that tent?
The wind carries a foreign noise. It’s Crozier’s laughter.
“We should’ve shot your bird,” he says.
“Can’t shoot a seagull,” Jopson replies. “Bad luck.”
“Food’s food. Besides, what could be worse luck than this?”
Jopson mulls this over. They were sent out after camping. A hunting party. No longer hunted. Mr. Blanky is to bait the spirit. Edward has lost all sense of optimism, but he supposes Mr. Blanky might just yet succeed.
“One caribou,” he says. “That’s not too much to ask for, is it? With our current numbers, it’d keep our belly filled for days. A week.”
Jopson hums, distracted. He’s still grieving Captain Fitzjames. Mr. Peglar. Mr. Blanky. Not all of them are dead. Soon, they all will be. Picky eater, death is. It takes them one by one. It’s uncharastically ravenous to-day. The table is laid.
Edward stops to get his telescope. Survey the horizon. The sun is coming down. They had to try for a hunt, still. See if there’s anything living here. Anything that moves and breathes.
Jopson gasps, and bends forward. He’s grasping his knee. Edward drops the telescope, runs to him.
“Hey, hey, hey—are you all right, are you—”
Blood spreads from Jopson’s knee and blossoms.
“I’d like to sit down,” he says, hoarse. He falls back to the rocks, right where he was standing. He’s so pale he’s washed grey, blending in with their surroundings. The dull dusk. The landscape. He’s fading away. Edward cannot bear it.
“What ails you?” he asks. He dreads the answer. “Rest a while,” he hastens to add. “We shall just rest a little. Long day, was it not? Hauling and hauling, but there must be water ahead, there must be—things that live—here, here.”
Jopson is swaying in his seat. Edward sheds his coat for him, spreads it out on the ground. It will hardly dull the rocks’ edge, but this is the best comfort he can provide right now. “Rest,” he begs.
“I will be quite restored in a moment,” Jopson says. “Shan’t keep you up, go see if there’s any—”
“I shall stay,” Edward says, more stern. He’s scared. Jopson looks like he’s barely there. He splays out on Edward’s coat, boneless. Removes his woolen wig. His dark hair spills out like ink. It makes his pale eyes stand out. They search the sky, the clouds.
“Don’t shoot the bird, please,” he says softly. “Promise.”
Edward takes his place next to him, lying down carefully. “You asked if we could all see it.”
Jopson clicks his tongue, closes his eyes. Now Edward is terrified. He can’t let him sleep. Death is hungry to-day.
“Do you hallucinate often?”
Jopson pulls a face, considering it. “These days, yes.”
“You never said.”
“You never inquired.”
Edward rolls to his side to look at Jopson proper. He should take better care of him. Even if his care shan’t, cannot be exclusive. Jopson peers up at him, one eye open. His face is scarred. His lips are chapped. Did he look like this yesterday? Bruised and death-pale? Would Edward have noticed? He’s been looking right through him, even when he faced him.
“It used to frighten me,” Jopson says. “Not knowing what was real; but the fancies disperse like mirages. You just have to wait them out.”
“Are you waiting now?”
Jopson hums. His hands rest over his stomach: he moves them up to his chest, crosses them over. Like the dead. “I hope I will go in a dream,” he says.
“Stop it. I’m really here. So are you. We’re hunting for caribou.”
“Much use I am to you,” Jopson says. “My bones feel like they’re broken. Every single one of them. The tiniest bones I never knew existed.”
Edward inches closer. “Rest, then.”
“I will walk in a minute,” Jopson promises. “I hauled all day, I can do it. It’s only that blasted knee. I think the wound is reopening.”
Edward waits a moment. A singular moment; just enough time to face the truth, or carry on a liar. He drags his gaze down. Jopson’s trousers stick to his right knee. Edward sits. Keeps looking. Removes his neckerchief.
“Stay still,” he says. Bends forward to tie it over Jopson’s knee; but what would that achieve? The blood will dry, and mould the trousers to the wound. The neckerchief is silk; it can be washed quickly, changed; it should be lying over Jopson’s bare skin.
Edward reaches for the buttons of Jopson’s trousers, unfastens the braces. The gesture is practiced. He feels like he should ask, but it’s not a breach of intimacy. It’s a necessity. His fingers tremble still. His selfish cock fills as Jopson’s stomach is revealed. He has no underthings on. Edward arranges his shirt for him to cover his dignity. The shirt, too, is bloody. His heart skips until he realises it’s old blood. His own.
“This,” Jopson comments, “definitely feels like a daydream.”
“I need to dress your injury,” Edward tells him and tugs at his trousers. Jopson hisses sharply. Edward mustn’t jostle him. Panic rises in his throat. He doesn’t know how to treat the sick. He has no idea. There were always women to do it, nurses and maids, and then doctors and surgeons when he started his service. He lacks training. He can only mimic what he’s seen. “Are you,” he asks, then licks his lips. “Are you in pain?”
Jopson scoffs, amused. “Constantly,” he says.
Edward tugs at his trousers again. Manages to reveal the wound and bare skin. Not the milky expanse of it he remembers, with the soft hairs. It’s blue and black and rotten.
He needs to alert Mr. Bridgens.
Mr. Bridgens probably knows.
There’s nothing Mr. Bridgens can do.
Edward covers the nastiest part with his palm. “Does it smart?” he asks.
“They don’t hurt,” Jopson says. “It’s just the wound.”
Edward pulls his hand back. It sticks with fluids he cannot even name. He winds the neckerchief around the wound, blindly.
Scurvy’s slow, he reminds himself. Tom may have weeks left, even months.
The walk takes longer.
He mustn’t calculate the numbers.
He climbs over him on his hands and knees, as if he could shield him with his body. As if it wasn’t late. It can’t be too late.
Jopson smiles at him. “What’s the matter?” he says.
I didn’t know, Edward wants to say. Never knew you were so poorly.
But of course he did.
He just refused to acknowledge it in any way.
He looked him in the eyes and told him, some of us will die, surely.
He surges to kiss him. Changes his mind at the last minute: he wants Jopson to remember their kisses soft and sweet. He presses his lips to his face instead, then his ear. Laps at it. Just how Jopson likes. Pleasures it with his tongue. Sucks, nibbles, bites, breathing slowly so he won’t start sobbing. Jopson moans underneath him, at first gently, like he used to, back on Terror.
There’s no one around for a mile or so.
Jopson moans again, loud, as Edward swirls his tongue deeper inside.
“What—” Jopson gasps. He grabs Edward’s shoulders, and he stills, expecting to be pushed away.
Jopson pulls him down to kiss his neck. Edward shudders. Encouraged, Jopson nips at his Adam’s apple.
The first sin.
Edward wants to fuck him.
He knows it’s impossible. It’d hurt both of them. He doesn’t want that. He wants what they used to do in his cabin. Leisurely sex. The exquisite pleasure of time shared, heat, laughter and closeness, paced out between breaths.
He wants something better.
Wants the future.
Both of them recovered. In their little house by the sea. England. The mainland. The rescue camp. Anywhere. Take Jopson. Take him back. Welcome him in his company again. He can’t.
Jopson’s teeth graze over his neck. The pleasure of it is sharp, thrilling. What a wicked irony, that his body still knows bliss. He’s been convinced it’s forgotten it completely. He’s been having problems with it.
Jopson cups his prick. Fondles it.
Something forsaken awakens within.
A will to live.
Jopson strokes him expertly, his hot breath caressing Edward’s neck. He struggles to stay on his hands and knees, when he’s so pulled to Jopson. When he wants to envelop him. Hide him inside himself. Would he be safer there?
He wants Jopson like he’s never wanted anyone, anything. He’s wild with it. That’s why he’s given him up. Because Jopson was the only thing he ever wanted. The only worthy sacrifice. A perfect lamb.
Edward lowers himself down to his elbows, sneaks a hand between their bodies, pressed closely together. Gropes Jopson’s cock. It’s soft.
“I’m afraid it no longer functions,” Jopson says.
“Give it time,” Edward insists, touching it exactly how Jopson prefers, the rough pulls, his strong hand.
“I haven’t had an erection in some months.”
Edward stops. “Ah,” he says.
He’s quite forgotten.
They’re both dead.
As good as dead.
“Let me touch you nevertheless,” Jopson whispers. “I miss you, Ned. May I call you Ned? Are you there?”
“I’m here,” Edward says, choked. Jopson strokes his cock. The gentleness of it is agony. It must pain Jopson’s hands to touch him. He said his very bones were hurting.
Edward hides his face in the crook of Jopson’s neck. He wants to breathe in his scent. His sense of smell is lost for good. He wishes he felt Jopson’s warmth. His skin is cold.
“I love you,” Edward says. “Never stopped. I’m sorry.”
Wherever Jopson touches him, it feels like that part of his body is healed.
“Are you really here?”
If he closed his eyes, he could pretend this moment was long ago. Back on Terror. So he keeps his eyes open. Stares into the dark. He runs his fingers through Jopson’s hair, pulls him closer. Arches into his palm.
“I’m here, love.”
“Stay, then; only stay.”
Jopson strokes him firmly and Edward spills. There’s no relief to it. Some droplets, nothing more. Edward sits back on his heels, tucks himself away. Should he be ashamed?
It felt holy.
Hollow, yes, and unsatisfactory, but holy.
He dresses Jopson again. Hides the wounds. He offers his hand to help him sit up. Jopson interlaces their fingers. Squeezes. He’s too weak to sit. Sways forward, his head resting over Edward’s chest. He must hear how his heart hammers. Edward tries to look calm. He has to.
“Come on,” he says, warm. “It’s getting dark. We’ll miss our caribou.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” Jopson says. “I was mistaken; I don’t think I can stand, after all.”
Edward trembles. “I know you’re tired.”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Rest a little more. I might sing you a song, huh? I have quite the collection.”
Jopson laughs, charmed but sad. He pulls back, looks at Edward. His eyes are gentle. Colourless. “I’m dying,” he says. “Please tell me you know that.”
“You just need time to recover.”
“I won’t be here much longer.”
“You’re not going anywhere.” Edward stands up. Pulls him into his arms. Hauls him up. Jopson clings on as Edward carries him back to Terror camp.
Edward is pacing in front of Jopson’s tent. Crozier is in there. Bridgens has disappeared. Peglar is dead.
Whoever comes after us will follow a path of bones, he thinks. Read our history from our teeth.
He feels like he’s forgetting something.
Three steps forward, three steps back. His rifle holsted over his shoulder.
He’s definitely forgetting something.
I’m expected to tea at my parents, he realises. I’m late.
But—no, it’s not that. His parents know he went to sea. Still: he sees them by the table with all his siblings, Papa checking his fobwatch. He’s upstairs, looking through the barrister. He’s nine years old. No. He’s twenty-nine. His sister Jane smacks his shoulder.
“Race you to the table.”
“No,” Edward says, but Jane is already running. So he runs after her, exhausted by her antics but charmed, too. He follows her to the same stairs they used to thunder down as children. Jane will cheat by sliding down the railing—there she goes. She turns to Edward with a grin. Edward realises he doesn’t remember the face of his own twin. Not really. Not the fine details.
Who will bring our bones back to our family? Who will own our teeth?
He’s forgetting to hope.
He should be convinced that they’ll survive and reunite with loved ones.
(Peglar is dead and Bridgens is gone.)
Crozier’s voice drones on. He’s talking about a cow.
Edward should go in. He hasn’t set foot inside since he laid Jopson down, tucked him in, even through Jopson was sweating and complaining of the heat. He went to fetch Crozier. Crozier would know what to do, he reasoned. Jopson was calling after him, but he ignored it. Jopson would have no use of him. He’s not trained. He cannot give him what he needs. Meat. He remembers Le Vesconte saying something about—
—bring them meat, when we find any; now we must go on or else all of us will perish—
Edward keeps pacing.
He’s not leaving.
They all need meat but they can’t leave to get it.
Maybe if Blanky succeeds—God bless Blanky—it will be safe to send out more hunting parties, cover a larger distance, maybe even advance days ahead while the sick rest, and there should be someone with them—
Crozier exits the tent. His eyes shine wetly in the dusk.
It is dusk.
Edward hasn’t noticed.
“He wishes to see you,” Crozier says, hoarse. Edward looks at the tent. He can’t, he can’t.
“Is he,” Edward asks, then stops himself. “How is he?”
“Not delirious yet. He’s quite himself.”
Edward blinks, rapidly. Crozier looks too exhausted to even stand, yet he stays, waiting.
“What should one do, if the...delusion...sets in?”
“Let him dream.” Crozier pats him on the shoulder. Edward blinks again. Looks at the dark lurking in the tent.
He has something to give.
No cure. No hope. No food. No cheer.
Jopson is asleep.
He tries again the next morning. His courage has faded. He removes his hat. As he was standing by somebody’s deathbed.
Jopson just needs rest.
He’s with his back to Edward. Curled up. At the start of their affair, he used to sleep on his stomach. Now he sleeps as if Edward was in bed with him. He sleeps like that, still.
Edward considers leaving.
Then he considers the right thing.
He should sit. However: where? At the edge of Jopson’s bed? The stool? He looks around, helpless. Becomes aware that they are not alone in the tent.
The other cot is occupied. Just a vague bundle of somebody shivering. Who is it? He must’ve got sick during the evening. Edward thinks he heard somebody crying. He couldn’t sleep.
“I don’t want to go,” Jopson says. It startles Edward. He turns to Jopson, who’s looking at him over his shoulder. His right eye is bloody.
“Captain Crozier will take care of you,” Edward says. “I believe he has some...expertise. He can help you with whatever you need. He truly appreciates all you have done. Are doing. Presently. For him.”
He’s fiddling with his cap. He should stop. He remembers Jopson’s putting it on. How they laughed.
“What are you going to do?” Jopson asks.
Edward still hasn’t decided where he should sit.
“I,” he says, and gestures around. “I shall check on the freshwater supplies.”
“What are you going to do when I die?” Jopson clarifies.
It chills Edward. He takes a step back. “You mustn’t think of that,” he says. “Those are such unpleasant thoughts to have.”
Jopson reaches for him. Edward gives a quick glance to the pile of cloth on the other cot. Would he mind? he thinks. Cannot risk it. Smiles at Jopson, apologetic.
“I don’t want to leave you alone,” Jopson says. He drops his hand, rolls to his back. It pains him, but he still does it, just so he can look at Edward.
(The bleeding eye. He must be going blind.)
“I see that you’re rather scared,” Jopson says. “I know you needed me to be well. You wanted to save as many men as you possibly could; I think you always assumed—”
“Stop,” Edward interrupts. “If you’re saying good-bye, I beg of you, stop now.”
Jopson sits up with what could be his last strength. His long hair sticks to his death-pale face. “I don’t want to leave you alone in the dark,” he says with laboured breath, “because I don’t know what the dark will do to you.”
Edward’s back hits the tent’s opening. The light is pouring in. Jopson sits in the dark, his pale eyes following him.
“I need to fetch the Captain presently,” Edward says.
Then he starts running.
“You’re certain of this?”
“I saw it, sir. Through the glass. It’s there.”
“How wide you would guess it to be?” Edward asks urgently, trying to rein in his hope.
“Wide enough for our boats,” Golding says. “Yes, sir.”
A smile breaks free of the constraints of worry. “Weeks. This could save us weeks of travel.”
He quickly gathers his equipment and rushes to find men for the scout party. He can’t stop smiling. It feels like a dream, one of those dreams Jopson is having and he, too, shares. Solid visions that melt.
The pain in his hand is a reassurance. It’s too sharp to be imagined. He doesn’t remember hurting his fingers, but the bandage is fresh. Yesterday night he was very upset. Besides himself. Maybe he slammed his fist to his desk. He’s prone to do that, when anger flares.
He can now forget about anger and despair.
There’s a strait. Golding has seen it.
He hurries past Jopson’s tent. Considers peeking in, share the news in a triumphant yell; but he shall make haste. They must scout the strait right away and plan. It’s a fair distance, but he can carry Jopson there on his back. He will secure him in a boat, and sit by his side the entire time. He will row him to safety. The strait must have fish. He’ll catch them. On the Vindictive, he had a lieutenant swear fish roe was a tonic for scurvy. He didn’t take him seriously. Now he’s willing to try anything.
As the scout party sets out with Crozier he thinks of Jopson gently rocking in a boat. He can see his face clear as day. He’ll look so tranquil. The air will invigorate him. Edward will help him drink. He’ll wash him. He doesn’t know how to properly clean wounds, but he could wash his hair. Jopson will cherish that. He’s proud of his hair. They’ll get it cut together, at Fort Resolution, before they rejoin civilisation. Edward will shave him, if Jopson will be too weak to do it; but scurvy is fast in recovery—it can be turned around in a day—maybe Edward will shave him anyway, just for the excuse to touch his skin. To serve him. To say I’m sorry without language.
The ice looks endless. Unbroken. Edward strains his eyes to spot the strait. He waits for Crozier to call out, there. He’d never forget such a moment. He’d remember it forever.
Golding hurries past him.
Mason and Des Voeux are on the ridge. Their weapons are drawn.
Golding runs up to them.
Edward points his rifle, calls out for Crozier. His mind stays on the strait. The calm water, blue and green. Jopson’s eyes in a certain light. Jopson, when he laughs. He hasn’t heard him laugh in a while. If he told him about the strait, he would’ve laughed. He should’ve stopped by his tent. There’s a strait, we’re saved. He should have told him while it was true. While there was hope.
Mason startles and pulls the trigger. Shoots down Hartnell.
Edward flinches, glances at him, panicked.
Keeps his aim.
He’s ready to kill.
His vision is blurring.
He’s going to shoot every last one of them. Even Hodgson, who lingers like a confused ghost.
He’s going to—
“You did well. You did so well, son.”
—watch their skulls explode. The violence of it will bring no thrill. His heart is cold; it’s frozen solid; it cannot beat. He feels it in his chest, heavy, stiff. His nerves are jittery, his gaze skips between Hartnell, Crozier, the rest. His heart remains motionless.
All his hopes are wasted.
He’s carried them this far, carried them in his chest. Took such good care of them. It was pointless.
“Gun down, Edward.”
He can’t make his body submit to his will. He wants to kill Golding most of all. He needs to. They’re going to take away Crozier. They shan’t. He must stop that.
Crozier steps in front of his pointed rifle. Makes him lower it, gentle, gentle.
There will be no bloodshed, no revenge.
“Come back for Hartnell’s body. Bury him. Then keep moving South, as planned.”
Des Voeux gets Edward’s gun from Crozier’s hand. Gives it to Golding.
“You are to lead the men forward, Edward,” Crozier says, every word carefully pronounced. He grabs his shoulder. Shakes him. He must feel him trembling. “You and the others will live,” he says.
They won’t. Not without Crozier. Jopson needs him the most. All of them do. His expertise. His leadership. The clemency of his judgement. His forbearance and his cunning.
Crozier squints, grips his shoulder a bit more tightly.
“I understand the order, sir.”
“Let me hear it.”
“We will live.”
He passes Jopson’s tent again. He takes a moment to stop this time. Listens. He can hear him breathing, if he concentrates. His lungs must ache from the awful coughs and wheezing.
There are so many things to see to. They can’t act now: the night will approach fast. They might be expected. Edward is devising a plan as he stands, his bandaged hand trembling over the tent’s flaps.
He cannot enter. Not with news like this.
Jopson is better off not knowing.
He can sleep, thinking Crozier safe. He will wonder why he neglected to visit. He’s expecting him. Edward will let Crozier recount his reasons. He’ll bring him back to Jopson. If there’s a doctor with them, he’ll bring him too. If they had better luck finding food, Edward will take it to Jopson. Feed him and tell how it all went.
We stormed their camp with twenty strong men; they were outgunned, outnumbered, so I cannot say it was a heroic attempt. Captain Crozier was retrieved unharmed; he excused some mutineers—yes, I believe he showed mercy—but as for Mr. Hickey, he could no longer run from justice. A funeral was allotted for him, but I don’t think many prayers were said. This is our way, Tom. He told us so. I know his mind, and he knows mine. He’s waiting for us.
His inner voice resembles the cadence of Fitzjames’. He needs to look over his shoulder to see if he’s there, his presence is so strongly felt. An urgent energy tugging at him.
save him save him save yourself
He steps away from the tent. By to-morrow, he will have devised a strategy thoroughly. He will plan it out so well it will be infallible. For now, he must organise a burial.
“We prefer the captain's orders, sir.”
“To hell with the captain's orders,” he says. They only have the words. They don’t have the meaning. They did not feel the weight of Crozier’s hands, didn’t see the glint of his glare. They don’t know his soul the way Edward does; the way Jopson could testify what matters most to their captain. “We have a camp of nearly thirty men here. We’ve got nine so ill they cannot walk, with no surgeon to tend them. We’ve but two able-bodied lieutenants for the lot of us. None of us speaks the Netsilik tongue. None have been in the polar regions before. To restore our best chance of survival, we must restore our captain. Surely, that is plain.”
Jopson wetted the compress and arranged his pillow for him. Jopson took care of him, when he was ill. “I can hardly say I speak Netsilik,” he said. “I merely picked up a few expressions from Captain Crozier. I suppose we should learn how to say open water and help.”
Edward wonders if he had the opportunity to master those expressions.
Whether he did or not: Jopson’s been to Antarctica as Crozier’s right hand. He’s the most useful person on this expedition. He’s also too ill to even crawl to a sledge. Edward had glanced into the sicktent before coming here. Jopson lay shivering, even though it’s a warm day. Without Crozier, they might all perish; Jopson, certainly; he’ll be the first casualty.
“We prefer the order, sir.”
“Well, I'm giving a different order.”
“There's been a vote, Edward.”
Strange winds are blowing. Just a day prior, he would have sworn he could smell fresh water on them. Now all he smells is death. The sledges are packed, the boats loaded, the tins distributed.
He’s facing Jopson’s tent.
He’s been denying himself entrance.
He isn’t worthy to go in there. Every time he attempted since his last visit, he found himself lacking. Unable to give the care Jopson needed, or even a comforting report. The time is now. The time is now, when all he has are words that are too terrible to utter. He’s ready to speak them.
Therein lies the problem.
A small path of light leads to Jopson’s cot. He could follow it. Kneel by the side of his erstwhile love, stroke his hair. Whisper what needs to be said. Crozier’s been kidnapped. We are leaving Terror camp. We will be back.
Except he wouldn’t go anywhere after.
If he sets foot in there, he won’t be leaving. He won’t go to aid Crozier: he’d be slaughtered on his own, and no other volunteer was found. He wouldn’t go with Le Vesconte either. He would stay in that tent, breaking every vow, every order he ever had: no use to anyone but himself, and a small comfort to Jopson, who would resent him for failing the captain, failing the crew.
The wind is blowing.
The party is ready to leave.
“Commander Little,” Le Vesconte calls.
He hasn’t earned that title. But the men need a commander.
“A moment,” he says in a whisper. He doesn’t want to wake Jopson. His dream looks restless. A stubborn lock of hair has fallen to his face. Edward yearns to brush it back, before he leaves. No one could fault him for it.
He tears away his gaze. Turns his back, and marches away.
He hauls the entire day.
That way, he doesn’t think about the tins.
The tins are sealed tightly.
One needs an axe or a knife to open them.
Jopson is too weak to stand.
With every step taken, his decision becomes irreversible. Walking is, therefore, a relief. It shows him clearly which way he’s heading. Lying still: that’s when responsibility catches up with him, and he cannot bear it.
He’s been taught, trained to maintain his position. He’s made a decision. If he chose wrong, he shall bear the consequences.
Except it’s not his life on the line.
He should go back.
It would achieve nothing.
Mutiny after mutiny.
But how can he live, when Jopson is dying?
He’s not just ill.
He is dying.
He didn’t camp near the others. The evenings are cold, but he’s fine by himself. Except he’s not alone. Jopson is there. His hair is smooth, jet-black. His face cleanly shaven. He’s in his nightshirt, and nothing else.
“Come to bed, Ned.”
It’s a waking dream. Edward goes anyway. He doesn’t slip under the duvet: he lifts it, surveys Jopson fondly. His bare thighs that used to hold him so tightly. The wound above his knee, healed.
“What is it?”
“You’re so clean,” Edward tells him. “I’m filthy.”
“I don’t mind. I love a man haggard.”
“You’re pure,” Edward goes on. Licks his chapped lips. Jopson traces the movement: his eyes are hooded. He strokes himself. Edward kneels on the berth and cups his face. He can feel how warm it is. He kisses Jopson’s rosy cheeks. “You’re beautiful, but you’re not my Tom. You’re here. My Tom is vanishing.”
“We should stay here a few days,” Le Vesconte proposes.
Edward nods slowly. His head is swimming. He stopped eating. He cannot stomach anything.
“I will lead the party,” he says.
“We must reconsider that plan.”
“No,” Edward says. “That was the agreement. As soon as we make a camp overland, we send a party back to our sick. Put them on sledges and deliver them here safely. Feed them and wash them and then proceed.”
“What would you feed them?”
“They have enough tins.”
“It’s time we provide them with fresh supplies. Let me go back and see to it.”
Le Vesconte tilts his head. Edward resents that gesture.
“They have more to eat than we do,” Le Vesconte says.
Edward stares. “Flesh?”
Le Vesconte is silent.
“You cannot possibly be suggesting flesh.” Edward stands, quite ready to leave the tent.
“Listen,” Le Vesconte says. Grabs his hand. Must’ve aimed for the cuff of his coat, and missed. He’s holding onto his wrist. Edward’s pulse is jumping. “I don’t know what villain you take me to be; what I have done to make you resent me so much. Know this: I don’t delight in suggesting something so—”
“Vile,” Edward interrupts.
“—but I shall implore you to be practical. If you consider the matter from the point of survival, you must admit that they’re aptly supplied, and we are not. I said we would turn back if we found game. We didn’t find any.”
Edward yanks his hand back and cradles it, as if it’s been burned. Le Vesconte pulls up his knees to his chest. Hugs them. He looks ahead. The whites of his eyes are visible.
“I don’t resent you,” Edward says. “I resent what you made me do.”
“You weren’t forced.” Le Vesconte adjusts his hair. The gesture is familiar. It sickens Edward.
What have I done?
“I was meaning to ask,” Le Vesconte says. “Were you and Lieutenant Jopson intimately acquainted?”
Edward turns his back to him, sharply. How dare he. How very dare he?
“Oh,” Le Vesconte says. “Well, I always had an inkling. I think I understand you better, heh?”
“You don’t,” Edward says.
He leaves the tent.
He wants a cigarette.
He takes a brisk walk to think.
The walk is only for thinking.
The problem is the following: he’d made a decision months ago, when he was in comparatively sound mind, just after Carnivale. That decision was to reject his personal needs, leave Jopson and devote all his attention and servitude to the crew.
That decision was one decision amongst many he could’ve taken.
There are several versions to these events.
In one of them, he goes South. Carries on with his strategy until he sees it fulfilled. Cross King William’s Land, get to Back’s Fish River, cross the mainland, get to Fort Resolution, get back to England.
In another, he dies trying to see this plan through.
What he’s currently doing is this: he’s walking.
His hands are in his pockets. They are empty. He’s not carrying anything. He has no plan.
He’s not heading East.
The sun is up and he keeps on walking.
The sun is burning.
He needs water. He needs to eat. He should sleep.
He spots the tents. There’s a figure crawling over the rocks. It’s Jopson. Edward runs towards him. Jopson is not moving.
Edward carries Jopson back to his cot. Fluffs up his pillow, and lays him down. He’s soiled himself: Edward changes his underwear, wipes his face, his chest. Tucks him in.
Sits back on his heels, and thinks.
Jopson hasn’t moved, but he’s breathing.
Edward leaves the tent quite calmly. Comes back with a waterskin. Notes the other man in Jopson’s tent. He’s dead. Edward covers him up with a blanket. He will bury him later.
He knows what he’s doing.
He brings the waterskin to Jopson’s lips. Pours it in. The water flows down his neck, his chin. Jopson is not drinking.
“Come now, love,” Edward whispers. His voice is ragged. He tries again.
It helps if he keeps Jopson’s mouth open, and massages his throat. Jopson makes a sound.
“That’s it,” Edward says, and starts crying.
He sits by the end of Jopson’s bed. His fobwatch is in his hand. He makes Jopson drink every two hours. Maybe it should be more frequent, or less.
The other cot is empty now.
He does not remember the burial, but there’s dirt under his cracked nails.
His fobwatch ticks.
It no longer shows London time, or any time that makes sense.
Jopson will need to be fed.
He’s lying in the dead man’s bed, but he’s not sleeping. Jopson has finally succumbed to it.
Edward lets him dream.
“Captain,” Jopson says.
Edward blinks himself awake. Jopson is looking at him. He’s not curled up. His muscles are rigid.
“Mr. Hickey took him,” Edward says. “Before we left. He’d never have let us abandon you.”
“I went with the crew, yes.”
Jopson has more questions, but no strength to utter them.
“I will try to feed you to-day,” Edward says.
He cleans up Jopson’s spit and sick, then sits on his bed to think. Caresses his hair absentmindedly.
“I could throttle you,” Jopson says, with what must be considerable attempt.
“That’s only fair. I left you for dead.”
“Leave me. Get the captain.”
“I would need a gun.”
“We took yours. When we went.”
Jopson scoffs. Rolls to his side, so his back is to Edward.
“Shall I leave you alone?”
There’s nothing Edward can say to that.
The watch ticks.
“Do try to keep it down, please.”
“Pray don’t waste it on me. Eat.”
Edward knocks the silver spoon to the tin. Thinks.
“You told me,” he says, “that certain penguins digest the food they then feed to their young.”
Jopson is glaring.
“I’m merely considering our options,” Edward says, defensive.
Edward starts crying.
“What is it?”
“Just drink.” He presses the cup to Jopson’s mouth. The blood paints his lips red. Edward caresses his throat. Jopson notices the bandage over his wrist. Stares at him. Keeps drinking.
“I think the captain lives,” Jopson says. Edward can’t see him. The sun has set.
“He may have escaped. He could be back any moment.”
“Are you waiting for him?”
Edward nods. He understands. “You must be ready for him,” he says. “Drink some more, and I will comb your hair. Would you like that?”
Edward attempts the tins again the next day.
“Don’t cheat,” Jopson chides him. “One bite for you, one bite for me.” His voice is still gravelly, but there’s a gentleness to it.
“I’m afraid we don’t have much.”
“We have enough. Open up.”
He washes Jopson’s feet in a tin bowl. Jopson can barely sit up. He’s bent forward, breathing audibly.
Edward massages the soap between each blackened toe. Keeps his touch light, like the caress of sunshine. Washes the wounds on his legs, tends to his knee, still injured. The scar will never close up again.
“That letter you’d written,” Jopson says. Edward’s hands still as he’s rewrapping the bandage. “It’s in my personals; could you kindly get it for me?”
Edward stands. Water and blood drip from his hands. He wipes them on his uniform, looks through Jopson’s possessions. A comb, a razor, a looking glass, a handkerchief embroidered E. L. The ivory envelope. The red seal broken.
Edward presents it, head hanging in shame. Jopson doesn’t reach for it.
“Would you please tear it up?” he asks.
Jopson is lying in Edward’s arms. His back is pressed to his chest. Edward’s hand rests on his belly, where his touch is not hurting.
“When was your first kiss?” Jopson asks him.
“Mm. At fourteen.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Boy. I always knew. You?”
“Seventeen; but I knew too.”
“I never learnt much of your romantic history.”
“I used to be popular on ships. Now look at me.”
Edward frowns. Gets up to his forearms to have a proper appraisal. Jopson flashes a sad smile at him. His teeth are yellow and black, but it’s his charming smile nevertheless.
“You’re handsome as ever,” Edward says.
“Don’t flatter. I must look a nightmare; I smell.”
Beneath the rot, Jopson's scent is the same. Warm, comforting.
“If it didn't hurt you,” Edward says, “I would prove the extent of my ardour.”
Jopson scrunches up his nose. A rare expression of delighted shock.
“Edward!” he scoffs.
Edward bites his lips to hide his grin. “‘Tis true. I would.”
“That’s perverse,” Jopson says, smiling back with an impish glint in his eyes. “My, what a wanton man. Utterly insatiable."
Edward nuzzles his nape. Kisses it.
“If I had my health,” Jopson goes on, “this is where I would straddle your hips.”
“I know,” Edward murmurs against his skin. “That’s why I’m saying it.”
Jopson laughs, giddy. Edward strokes his stomach, then slides his hand down, cups his cock. There’s nothing to it. The gesture is fond, protective.
“Will you try to sleep a while?” he whispers.
“Only if you keep holding me.”
“I'm not letting go.”
Jopson doesn’t get better. There was a part of Edward that still believed he would. He’s wasting away, too. His mind is terribly clear, but his head still aches, and his sore limbs started tingling.
They don’t have much time left.
Always this hour, and the next.
Surviving them together.
Jopson sits in his lap on the ground, the tent’s flaps open. He asked to watch the sunrise. The mornings are getting colder. If nothing else, winter will be their murderer.
They ran out of tins. Edward reopened his wrist. He’s light-headed and weak. Jopson is feverish. His muscles are rigid. He’s started breathing oddly, but he’s still breathing. Edward is caressing his back to ease the pain of his dry wheezes.
“This must be the end,” Jopson says, voice ragged. “I’m seeing the captain. He’s coming towards us. He’s pulling a sledge. The Lady Silence is with him. Should I wave? My hand is so heavy. He isn’t here.”
“I can see him too,” Edward says calmly. “He’s much changed. Can you see his beard? It suits him rather well.”
“Oh,” Jopson sighs. Wiggles in his lap. Edward pulls him closer, holds him faster. Jopson’s body is tight like an overwrought rope. About to snap. Just hold on a moment more. “I don’t think we ever shared a dream before.”
“Is he missing a hand?”
“I would prefer if he wasn’t injured. Could you please imagine him hale, Ned?”
Edward tries, as instructed. The vision of Crozier is as headstrong as his inspiration: he doesn’t change. He has a strange expression on his face. Grief. Relief. He hesitates before entering the tent.
Edward looks at him with mild curiosity. Keeps caressing Jopson’s back.
“I was hoping we would meet again,” Crozier says. His breath forms white puffs in the air. “How I hoped.”
He kneels. Jopson reaches for him, tentative. He’s expecting him to disperse.
Crozier envelops the both of them in an embrace.
It has warmth.
It has weight.
It is real.
Edward opens his mouth. Closes it. Words are not exchanged. They are insufficient. Jopson clings to the captain, but keeps close to Edward, safe in his lap. Safe, now.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Edward manages to say. Crozier claps his back, awkward but companionable. Is this how it always felt? Edward remembers these clumsy pats of encouragement, from the journey’s end. He’s forgotten so much, but he remembers them. They mattered. They felt undeserved. He arches into it, now.
“Where are the others?”
“They went South.” Edward swallows. His throat feels raw. It aches with tears swallowed. “There was a vote.”
Crozier doesn’t press it. Caresses Jopson’s hair. “Can you walk?” he asks, gentle.
“We could carry you to the sledge, haul you along.”
Jopson shakes his head. “I have nowhere left to go, sir,” he says.
Crozier stays with them. Just until the sun rises again. He promised to find the others. He sits with them, and tales of their adventures are shared. Edward doesn’t contribute much to the conversation. He’s still holding Jopson. Jopson is too faint to keep himself upright. The breathing gets worse, until he can’t speak. Edward glances at Crozier. He’s in tears. He reaches out to adjust Jopson’s errant strand of hair. Jopson tries to smile, but it twists into a painful grimace.
“In our little house by the sea,” Edward tells him, “we will have Captain Crozier come for tea. Right now, right here…” He cups Jopson’s paling cheek. Jopson kisses his palm, then hides his face in it, so it covers his mouth and his nose entirely. Squeezes his eyes shut, and waits.
Edward presses down.
Crozier helps grasping Jopson’s neck.
There’s a whimper, and movement, then Jopson’s face finally relaxes. Edward pulls his hand back. Jopson is smiling.
“Let me help bury the body.”
“Please don’t take him away, sir.”
If Crozier is startled by the request, he doesn’t betray it. Edward is holding Jopson tightly.
“You should set out, sir,” he says. “Before the dark catches up with you. The others must be close.”
He cannot read Crozier’s expression. “Are you sure?”
“I think they must be close.”
“Are you sure you won’t come along?”
Edward blinks. Why would he?
“I would rather stay, sir,” he says.
“I shall leave you something to eat, and fresh water.”
“I won’t be needing that, thank you.” He repeats, “Thank you.”
That was all he had left to say. He hopes Crozier understands the extent of it.
Crozier pats his shoulder again. Edward bites a grin back.
Edward watches the Northern lights dance. He shan’t sleep. This is a wake. They say a dead man’s soul stays until the morning. Thomas is still with him.
He lets his mind drift. Ebb away.
It’s fruitless to cling to sanity.
It serves nobody.
The dark is within.
He sinks into it.
His head drops, and then, the memory of a sharp pinch. His governess used to poke him or tweak his ear to keep him awake during dinners that took an eternity. He would sit up straight, put on a serious face.
His watch ticks.
The longcase clock in his memory echoes it.
“Pay attention,” the governess hisses.
The pendulum swings.
He sees his mother sitting by the parlour’s vast window. She’s working on a doily. The pin ruptures the cotton. Her face is calm. She keeps stabbing at it. Her face shows nothing.
Papa’s ship is much delayed.
He’s been missing for another year.
His mother bites the thread.
Edward glimpses the dock next. A seagull on the pier is peck, peck, pecking the pillar. His father squats down. His hand is on his shoulder.
“That’s my ship,” he says, pointing ahead.
“Will it be my ship, when I’m older?”
“Oh, you will serve on a different ship, darling.”
Donegal. Britannia. Vindictive. Terror.
He remembers them all.
You had freckles when we first met. I don’t think you noticed me.
Crozier was standing by the wheel, appraising the ship. He had his steward with him. Jopson was holding his folded coat. It was warm out, and his cheeks were flushed.
Pinch, pinch, pinch. He mustn’t sleep. He must remember this.
Edward looked him over. Stewards were supposed to be invisible. He had no reason to look. He just wanted to. Easy on the eyes, he thought. A vague impression, not pursued.
Jopson caught his gaze.
His eyes were striking.
Now he’s closed them forever.
Edward caresses Jopson’s face. Notices he’s smearing blood on it. Just a streak. Touches his own beard. When did his watch chain get there? He pulls on it, hisses.
He had to keep awake, hadn’t he.
The watch is ticking.
It will go on once his heart has stopped.
He looks up at the pale winter sky. The sun is out now. He stands, gathering Jopson in his arms.
“Let’s put you to rest,” he says.
He won’t make him a bed of stones. He’s not giving him over to rot. He makes the cot like Jopson would, and lays him down. Takes his place next to him. Pulls him into his lap, like they used to lay. Never until morning.
He presses a kiss to his nape, then gets up to his elbows to look through his possessions. He finds the razor easy enough. Caresses the letters carved into the bone handle. T.J.
He lies back down, and opens his wrists.
Pulls Jopson into a last embrace.
They will be found like this. Two skeletons, nestled close.
He said he wouldn’t let go.
“Lieutenant Little!” a voice calls. He bolts up, fumbles to salute.
That’s Fitzjames’ voice. He’s standing in the entrance, arms folded.
“Chop-chop,” he says with a grin. “Come along.”
Edward glances at Jopson. He mustn’t. He won’t.
“Oi!” Fitzjames says as Edward nestles back. “Unbelievable,” he mutters. “The blatant disrespect; you die and they forget everything you ever accomplished!”
He’s in his shirtsleeves. His face is pale, windchafed, hair unruly. He’s barefoot.
“Lieutenant Jopson,” he calls. “If you would.”
Edward curls closer to Jopson. Captain Fitzjames can’t make him leave. He died here. This is where he shall remain.
Jopson peers into the tent. His hair is long, his beard unkempt. “Please do hurry up, Ned,” he says. “You are needed.”
Edward is undecided. He doesn’t like leaving his body behind. It doesn’t feel right. He should stay in this tent a little longer. Haunt it proper.
“Please,” Jopson says. Offers his hand.
Edward reaches for it. He’s standing in front of Jopson without moving. He’s touching him. It’s like twirling a candle’s smoke around his fingers. A memory of heat.
“There you are,” Fitzjames says. The tent’s flaps blow open. It’s still day, but the world is darker than it should be. Drained of colour, the shapes vague.
The invisible world, he remembers.
Jopson and him step into it together, fingers intertwined.
Companions wait for them. The men who died at Carnivale. Edward beams in recognition.
A twin flame burns within the dead.
“You went back for them, sir,” he says, turning to glance at Fitzjames. He nods; his head is crowned with a golden halo.
“I tried to find everyone.”
Edward looks around, and spots the shine of the Hartnell brothers, Lieutenant Irving, Mr. Hornby, Billy Orren, David Young, even Sir John himself.
“Ah, Edward,” he says. He’s in dress uniform, complete with white gloves. “You look…” He clears his throat, looks away from Edward’s face. “You look well,” he finishes.
“I’m sorry to rush you so,” Fitzjames says, “but we must locate the rest of the crew. You are our best chance to find them, if your memory serves.”
“Yessir,” Edward says. “I remember them, and where they went.” What a joy, to state that.
“I suggested we find the mutineers’ camp first,” Jopson interjects. “We suspect Dr. Goodsir might be kept there.”
“How long have you been—” Edward asks.
Realises that time no longer matters.
They roam through the land. Nobody floats, so Edward doesn’t attempt it himself. It’s a comfort, to walk. To hold onto Jopson. To have a mission. He’s aware that they’re dragging their remembered reality to a no-man’s land, the in-between. But how could he leave—how shall he take that next, most frightening step—when his assignment is not finished?
Jopson is with him. He’s free of pain. He’s finally free. His head is clear. The rest of eternity can wait.
Irving walks up to him. He notes that Edward is holding Jopson’s hand, but makes no comment. “I was meaning to ask,” he says, “if you remember my death.”
There are seven wounds on his chest. Less than Edward recalls; much less.
“You see,” Irving goes on, “I have the feeling certain details are being withheld from me, and you’ve always been candid.”
“Not always,” Edward admits, then adds, “Are you certain you want to know?”
Irving looks ahead to Dr. Stanley, who walks in flames.
“No,” he says, sobering. “Perhaps I don’t.”
The march continues.
“Has anybody seen Francis?” Sir John says. “I’ve got something to tell him.”
“We’re looking for Dr. Goodsir,” James reminds him patiently; offers an arm for support. Sir John leans on him, as if he could still tire.
“Ah, right, yes,” he says. “Where’s he got to? I, ah. Well, I wasn’t going to mention, but I think some of us should see a surgeon.”
They make it to the camp, but cannot find the doctor anywhere.
“Maybe he passed away,” Bridgens opines.
“I do believe he did,” Fitzjames says slowly. They’re all looking at Goodsir’s earthly remains.
“Only consider, sir,” Bridgens goes on, “that perhaps if one’s death is not shocking or violent—”
“Not violent, uh-huh.”
“—or if he’s ready to leave—then maybe he passes away.”
They keep staring.
Where? Edward wonders. He can feel the call of something. It’s not Heaven, nor Hell. Beyond the invisible world, there’s another.
“We must find the creature,” Jopson says. “We couldn’t restore the souls it devoured. When we went to find the bodies, they were empty.”
Edward swings their joined hands. “Are you ready to face the spirit?” he asks gently. “You’d see it for what it is. You would see through the form it chose to take.”
Jopson frowns, seeks his embrace. Edward halts to hold him tightly. The light they emit merges into a single glow when they’re so close. “I remember when I first saw it,” Jopson says. “Climbing up the stern. I wasn’t frightened. It was like when high waves wash over the ship. My helplessness was terrible, not it.”
Edward hums, mulling it over. He leans his head on Jopson’s shoulder, who caresses his hair. Their light grows warmer. Like the afterglow they used to share.
The world around them, the world that’s left is dull and grey. Edward spots Fitzjames’ dim flame, who walks far ahead, nimble like a cat, and halts every now and then.
“What is he doing?” Edward asks.
“I think he’s tracing the captain’s steps. He says he can feel his presence everywhere.”
“So this is where the beast was felled?” Sir John says. “Serves him well; it caused us much grief, that bear.”
“This is where he—changed,” Fitzjames corrects.
The Tuunbaq is the tarnished sky above. The icy cliffs are its teeth. The souls it spewed out are dazed and lost. Not Mr. Blanky, of course.
“Finally,” he says from his place on the ground. “I need your help lads, these wretched things barely remember who they were.”
“Mr. Collins,” Billy Orren calls. “Henry, Henry, it’s me.”
Mr. Collins stirs. He’s sitting like the rest, motionless, but he raises his head. Listens.
“Henry,” Orren says. “Henry Foster Collins.”
They go around, giving the souls their names back. Edward stops by Golding’s ghost. Looks at him. He’s sitting with his head pressed to his knees, arms folded over his nape, don’t hurt me. He’s scrawny, pale. Just a rabbity kid.
“Robert Golding,” he says. “Robert.”
He wakes up George Hodgson, Solomon Tozer and Thomas Armitage.
He’s not even going to approach Mr. Hickey.
“Cornelius,” Fitzjames calls to him.
Mr. Hickey cannot hear him. He’s turning around, looking over his shoulder. He looks right through the ghost crew, scanning the horizon for some unknown threat.
“That name is not his,” Gibson says.
“How should we address him?”
“He never told me.”
Mr. Hickey’s alert gaze jumps around and doesn’t see anything.
“You were right to leave,” Le Vesconte tells Edward in his weather beaten tent. He’s surrounded by bones, but he still starved to death.
“I could have been you,” Edward says. “I nearly was.”
“I wanted to save as many as I could. Our numbers kept shrinking. I died last. There was no justice in that.”
“Dundy,” Fitzjames calls from outside. “Cease your moaning and come help us, please.”
Le Vesconte perks up: he sheds his body and stands. Fitzjames passes through the canvas of the collapsed tent, a playful smile on his lips. Le Vesconte clings to him.
“Have you seen Francis?” Fitzjames asks as he rubs his back.
“You just missed him,” Le Vesconte says. “He was here: I drew my last breath in his presence.”
“Dundy,” Fitzjames says with sympathy. “I’m afraid you’ve been dead for a while.”
“Have I?” Le Vesconte pats himself down, touches ribs. Edward politely looks away. “How embarrassing.”
“Your face kept its youthful complexion,” Fitzjames narrates. Le Vesconte’s frozen cheeks pinken promptly until he almost looks healthy. “You handsome devil,” Fitzjames says, and ruffles up his hair. “Come along now, let us leave this gruesome place.”
“We almost made it,” Le Vesconte complains as Fitzjames leads him away. “We were close. I told him."
They search for the captain high and low. He’s nowhere to be found. Edward feels no urgency. They will recover him, eventually.
There’s a blizzard one day. The snow is a stark white against the dull blur of the world. He cannot sense temperatures: Jopson and him nestle in the storm as if they were sitting amidst a flurry of feathers. The shipboys are attempting to make a snowman nearby, but no-one has figured out yet how to interact with reality: the snow falls through their grasping hands. The rest of the crew wanders, chats. Edward is reminded of the first year frozen in time. The games on the ice. Jopson slipping into his cabin. The rum they shared, the laughter, the heat.
Jopson is sprawled over his lap like a lazy cat, and Edward is stroking his hair. They could never have done this so openly, when they lived. He’s stripping away protocol. Certain rules. Not all of them. Not yet.
“I wish I died better dressed,” Jopson says. “Now I’m stuck donning nightclothes and underwear forever. I don’t want to sound thankless, but it’s rather unfair.”
“You could have my coat,” Edward offers.
“I doubt I can. It’s made of memories: I never wore it.”
“It’s also made of dreams: I want you to have it.”
He imagines Jopson, to the best of his abilities, in navy wool, with gold buttons. A frivolous gift, after everything Jopson had given him: but he wishes it to be real, with all his heart, with all his love.
Jopson laughs; stands up, and twirls around. The coat swirls, and Edward claps, excited. He’s in his jacket; the gold chains remain, his beard, his long hair, for none of those matter.
“Now I’m truly a lieutenant,” Jopson says. The sleeves of the coat are too long: it covers half of his hands as he reaches to adjusts the collar.
“Well deserved,” Edward says. Jopson gleams at him: his glow shines bright like the long-forgotten sun. He reaches for Edward, and he takes his hands, lets him pull him to his feet and join his dance. They spin around in the air, and the crew cheers for them.
“Music!” Irving calls. “Oh, if we only had some music!”
“We have our lungs,” Morfin counters. He starts a song the likes of which Edward has never heard: it’s not an earthly harmony. The spirits rise with it, pivot, twirl. There’s never been a jollier danse macabre; it’s their second carnivale, and nobody dies. Jopson is in his arms.
They dance with the snowflakes, and dance until spring. The midnight sun is shining when they dance through a barren field. That’s where they meet Lady Silence. She’s not pleased to see them. She has a blanket wrapped over her furs, and her hair is let down. She’s squinting at them, clearly exhausted.
Something is different about her face, but Edward cannot say what it is.
“You’re very loud,” she says. “You’re the loudest people I’ve ever met.”
She doesn’t speak in English; her lips don’t move as she speaks; but they hear and understand her perfectly.
“We did not expect to be overheard,” Fitzjames says, bowing to her in apology.
She looks through their ranks, one hundred and twenty men, and mutters, “This has been going on for long enough. You will have to be exorcised.”
“Ma’am,” Fitzjames floats closer, “we were just leaving.”
“How will you leave?” Lady Silence gestures East. “You may cross the strait, but you cannot cross the ocean. It’s sacred; it’s saltwater.”
“Francis will know where to go.”
Lady Silence looks doubtful.
“He’s one of our best navigators,” Sir John chimes in.
She makes a dismissive gesture. “Find him, then; do what you will; but I have put up with you long enough—I’m a shaman in my own right—I will absolve the land of your presence, if you continue to loiter.”
“There’s no need for such language,” Sir John scoffs, arms folded. “We are visitors: we’re just passing through.”
“You were never invited.”
Edward averts his eyes; realises, too late, that he owes it to her to meet her gaze. He looks at her, looks proper, and recognises what changed: the lines around her eyes, her mouth. She aged.
It’s a calm summer day when they find the captain.
“He’s calling to me,” Fitzjames says. “Oh, he’s far away; but I’m the best walker in the service.” He smiles to himself and leads the trek. Miles and miles ahead, through an unforgiving terrain. Edward doesn’t mind the distance, basking in Jopson’s presence.
They reach a village. There are tents the likes of which Edward has never seen, and snow houses he heard described. One of them, more tattered than the rest, glows with a golden light that penetrates the ice.
Fitzjames passes through the wall, and Jopson follows, with Edward and Blanky in tow. Francis is curled up on a bed of furs, shivering. His hair is silver, and there’s silver in his beard. The lines around his eyes are deeper. His wrinkles have set, like a map. He’s sixty-five, perhaps. Still a strong man. He’d have years to live, back in England.
“A common cold,” he tells Fitzjames. “I cannot bear it; the irony, that it would murder me.”
“You fought it valiantly,” Fitzjames says. Caresses his face, his lips.
“The healers didn’t know what to do,” Crozier says. That’s when Edward realises he’s not speaking in English. “Never seen a man succumb to it like this.”
“You may rest now.”
“Rest? Like hell; Thomas, give me your hand. Jopson, my spear. Brief me on the way, Edward, we have men to save yet.”
“They’re waiting for you, sir,” Edward says. His last report to be given.
Crozier climbs out of the igloo, and gasps to see all gathered.
“Well, I never!” he says. “You will frighten the children.” He looks around with such warmth in his eyes it could melt the ice. James pulls close to him. He’s floating.
“Where to, dear?”
“Away, I should think. We overstayed.” He looks up at the night sky. A scattering of stars. The arch of the Northern lights. “There,” he says. “That bridge shall take us over the ocean.”
“Are you certain, sir?” Jopson asks.
“This is still the Discovery Service: we shall see it for ourselves.” He clasps Fitzjames’ hand, and they lift up, weightless, stepping into the air, as if climbing an invisible stairwell.
Edward tugs at Jopson’s sleeve. “Shall we?” he asks softly. Jopson is looking up: the lights dance on his face, in his eyes.
“It’s a bridge,” he says.
“Do you suppose,” Sir John says, trotting towards the centre, “that we may see the North-West Passage from up there?”
“I’ll show you, sir,” Blanky grunts, takes his arm. Glances at Edward and Jopson. “After you.”
Jopson peers it Edward; there’s something sly in his gaze. “Carry me?”
“Of course, Tom. You earned it.”
Edward kneels, and Jopson comes into his arms, laughing.