"They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like
animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning
was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing
but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set
of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer
- Richard Siken, The Language of the Birds
The edges of the day are where the troubles lie. It is always either terribly late or violently early when he is left alone with his journal. The porcupine quill of his pen dipped into the well of stygian India ink, poised to scribble out some half-teased thought or another on the page. An observation. Stephen is a man of science and a man of observation.
“You see, Jack,” Stephen might say sometime, a glass of claret held in his stubby, unfortunately short fingers. “The word hypothesis does not come from science at all. No, indeed, it was the Greeks who first used it, referring to the plots of their dramas. And Plato is the man who took it further yet, in his Meno, using the word to describe a clever idea. I believe it was Galileo who cemented the word further yet for us, something about the Earth being a clever, convenient plot point. A hypothesis, if you will.”
A question then. Something to work out and to examine. Most hypotheses presuppose the existence of something, endeavoring to work backward to explain how it has come to be. A scientist, when faced with something strange and inexplicable, might seek to form a narrative around it. An explanation. Something rational and reasonable, of course, to settle the mind and spirit as to the very steady laws and governance of God and the Universe.
As a surgeon, he is afforded some precious little extra privacy. His cabin, such as it is (and hardly large enough for a man to turn about in), is possessed of a small desk made of the same fine English oak as the Surprise herself. He runs a finger over the walls, feeling the woodgrain shift and change beneath his touch like waves in open water. Ah, yes, he thinks, here is a fine example of the questions of classification. The untrained eye might see these walls as simply wood. But the trained eye, the scientist, would note the qualities of Quercus robur. The specialist would key to the color differences of how olive shifts to light brown, knowing that the former marks heartwood, and the latter is found in sapwood. A specialist would see the ray fleck patterns and straight grain and linger over the coarse, unsteady texture. There is a particular sort of smell to English oak and Stephen finds it beautiful. There is something beautiful in its common simplicity and hardiness, resistant to rot and decay and beloved of shipbuilders.
Let us look at another question of taxonomy, the HMS Surprise. Stephen is not an expert on ships and their masters. To him, this ship is just another ship on the water. Afloat and masted, with a wood hull and a scattering of sails. They all look largely the same to him; he could not tell you the difference between a frigate or a brig, but he listens closely as Jack points out the little details, leaning in while the light sparkles in Jack’s eyes, listening as he points out the Surprise’s twenty-eight capable guns and describes her as a sixth-rate frigate. There are two carronades on the quarterdeck, each made of bronze, and Stephen finds himself often watching Jack against the pale sky, noting how his long hair and the guns are alike, each flaming gold in the sun.
It’s become strangely easy, he and Jack and their pooled knowledge. Jack colors in Stephen’s blind spots and Stephen illustrates the natural world for him. Might the ship’s master have the ability to have him whipped, Stephen had asked, his knowledge of naval hierarchy dreadfully blank. Jack had looked appalled and gently chuckled before carefully filling in this gap, explaining that no, not at all. Perhaps our terms of the Royal Navy are a bit misleading, Jack had allowed, going on to note the difference between a master and the true master of the ship, her captain and commander. And then the nuances between captains and post-captains and, well, Stephen might have lost the thread of the conversation somewhere along the loving description of ships and their ratings. When their conversations turn to Stephen’s own interests, Stephen might describe the taxonomy of whales to Jack, noting the particular differences between the beloved Greenland whale and the (in his estimation) superior sperm whale, and Jack will listen intently, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and a thoughtful expression on his broad face. Stephen has never been a great talker, but sometimes he finds himself continuing on, half a ramble, just to keep Jack’s undivided and golden attention. The wool of Jack’s navy-blue coat stretches over his broad shoulders and well-muscled arms. His neckcloth hides a thick throat and an Adam’s apple that bobs like a hungry seagull on the water, watching for prey. His eyes are the color of warm shallows and his hair, ever kept back in a plait, is bright as a priest’s swinging censer. (Stephen tries to not think about the late evenings, when Jack sets his violin down between his thick, solid thighs and undoes his hair, letting the long strands wash over his shoulders like a late summer sun.)
Yes, there is something there that must be named. What is it that beats hot and thick in him? The heady rush of pleasure and euphoria when Jack knocks on his cabin door or invites him to a meal? When he laughs or plays a note upon his instrument? When (worst of all) he strips all stitch and cloth from his body and dives into the warm salted water of the Mediterranean Sea? Like opium nearly. And like opium, Stephen wants to chase him when he’s gone.
The question, of course, is of classification. Which brings him to sitting here, pen in hand, trying to work out an explanation. The question had taken time to form, surfacing slowly in fits and starts, only coming fully clear in the most recent weeks and months. Love is a broad word and they share it easily. Like a bed at an inn or a cup of wine, like a duet even. You might invite any special friend to love. Your mother, your father, your ship, your captain. You would love a dog or a piece of music, yes, it is too broad. So, Stephen thinks, we must consider love as genus, something to be further drilled down into. Further broken apart and studied, spied at beneath a microscope.
He grimaces, half in his cups and half in a dark mood. There’s laudanum in the far drawer, there to seal up a dreamless sleep if he must. But here it is again, Stephen left to his own devices, alone in his cabin with one hand running across the front of his dark breeches and another scratching out his small observations of love. He notes his temperature and diet, whether it be high or low, and heart rate too. How does love fare with opium? With laudanum? How does love feel at this latitude or that longitude? Infuriatingly enough, it rarely varies and Stephen draws only a few conclusions. The Greeks, as he’d mentioned before, are vaguely helpful and have given a few words to break love down into families. Philia? No, though there is an element of brotherly love. Not agape, not storge. Not philautia, that love of self alone. He is left with only eros. With one hand on the twitching between his legs, Stephen is afraid that eros might be the only correct answer there is.
Perhaps it is just as it was at the beginning. He scratches at his thin cheek and runs a hand through his cropped, dark hair, remembering only how it had been on that first day when Jack had noticed him. Him of all people. That easy smile and bright glance falling on Stephen and warming up his peevish bones. At once, he had felt at once as if he had known Jack forever. Or, he thinks, that I had been meant to. Jack’s laughter is infectious and Stephen’s heart has never felt more strange and effervescent than when Jack tells a ribald tale, elbowing Stephen in the sides with a gleaming brow. Than when he watches Jack scale the mainmast to the crosstrees, one hand over his eyes to block out the sun, searching for the next horizon to bring them to. Than when Jack’s laughter trails off and there is only the two of them, the lingering echo of their strings left alone in the Great Cabin, a curious sort of thoughtfulness and solemnity in Jack’s pale eyes that few might ever notice.
Stephen notices. He always notices.
At first, he had ascribed it to science. As a scientist, it is only natural that he might wish to pay close attention to his environment, describing the habits of his captain and crew like peering at beetles in a bell jar. But even he must notice when study turns to obsession. He has largely satisfied himself with the habits of the ship and her sailors, yet Jack is always under study. Stephen is always scribbling observations. Favorite foods and favorite songs. Preferred colors. Stephen wears a neckcloth of deep blue once and Jack comments on how it well it pairs with his eyes; Stephen makes a note of this and underlines it twice.
He makes a study of himself too. As a scientist, it’s only proper that one should fully investigate the matter. A study of a singular man in his cabin, snaking his hand into the opening of his breeches, thinking of the chiaroscuro play of light and shadow across Jack’s thick shoulders. Of note: increased, rapid breathing. Sudden perspiration despite a chill evening air. He’s hard and wanting, his cock red and furious in his own palm. He closes his eyes tightly shut and exhales, coaxing the memory of Jack Aubrey’s powerful, lazy breaststroke. He would give an anatomy lesson to the good captain, laying Jack out on a plush bed on land or perhaps here, in one of their bunks. He’d trail his hands along Jack’s flanks and push open his thighs, nose at the notch of his throat and taste the exact measure of salt in his sweat. Latissimus dorsi, he would whisper, pressing his thin lips to Jack’s bared back. Flexor carpi radialis, he would say, leaving a kiss on Jack’s forearm. He pulls at himself, spreading his own legs wider in his chair, leaning back in his closet of a cabin. It’s overwhelming, imagining being allowed to feast on Jack Aubrey. There is so much of the man to consume. He would tease every inch of flesh, roll every piece of the other man on his tongue, noting which ministrations cause Jack to tense and cry out. Would his throat be sensitive? His ears? That thick patch of yellow hair on his chest, how would Jack like if Stephen’s curious hands were to nest and tangle there?
His hand flies faster yet and Stephen bites down into the meat of his lower lip, keeping any groan or cry in by force. How would Jack sound in pleasure? Would he be loud? His laugh is larger than life and Stephen has a difficult time imagining that Jack might be quiet and subtle at anything - yet that’s the fascinating aspect of Jack Aubrey, the thing that keeps Stephen’s interest. The man, like his very ship, is a surprise. Perhaps after a life in the navy, Jack might be silent in his climax. The telltale signs only quickened breath and pulse, his fingernails digging into Stephen’s shoulders and eyes slammed shut. When Stephen comes, he digs the nails of his free hand into his own thigh, trying to imagine what it might feel like. In the after, his own sweat drying and cool on his skin, he collects his breath and dignity, slowly tucking himself back into his trousers and doing them up once more. His own spend still wet on his palm, Stephen looks curiously at it and lifts his fingers to his mouth to taste. Bitter as ash, salty as the water that surrounds them. Would Jack taste the same? Different? There are too many questions. Too many variables. There is a question stuck in the back of his throat, as dangerous as a chicken bone, and one of these days Stephen will be drunk or take too much of this or that. One of these days, Jack will lie wounded on the quarterdeck, and Stephen will try to push his blood back into his body and sew him up. One of these days, he will be too curious, too much a man of questions to not look to Jack Aubrey and ask: what is this between us?
That’s the trouble with a hypothesis, you see. One must always put it to the test.