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tell me a wild bird sings deep

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MEN WANTED for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

 

 

 

 

Death is slow, he has heard, out here.

He could hardly say who'd told him such; it might've been Crozier, might've been one of the Lieutenants. It might've been any of the lads he'd shared bunks with, all ship's talk or japes – well, now, it'd been a time. 

He thinks a moment. He stares a moment. Naught out here save the wind shearing across the sand and limestone, a blinding, neverending span of horizon. It is the same thing he saw when the shot hit him; the crest of the shallow knoll; the sheet of ice aft; the sky all blue and grey like, like fog over the Medway at dawn.

The same sharp shock hits him in the chest. Though he ought to know better he still gasps as he sits up and still puts a hand to the wound that passes right through his body. A coldness comes over him then, as if the entirety of him had been entombed in ice, and persists until he tears his hand away.

"It would be nice," he mutters with some reproach, "to have less of this."

Though he would be remiss to say he has had much of it to begin with; only sometimes does he seem to come back from that other world where he is whole and it is not. A grey world with nothing in it. No grass, nor trees, nor rivers; no one, most of all. He had not while he was alive either believed in or given much thought to the idea of purgatory, but certainly being there has changed things somewhat.  

If this is dying then it is slow indeed. 

He gets to his feet, taking care to brush himself off though no one is here to see it. On the occasion he has seen another soul, or ghost, whatever you might call them, and he might as well make himself presentable. The last time he had come to Lieutenant Little had been stood behind a small party of Hudson's Bay Company folks who were busying themselves with reburying their bones. 

Little had said nothing, though Tom had hailed him. It would've been impossible to miss him, and indeed Little's glance had been pointedly away, but Tom couldn't blame the Lieutenant, really. Couldn't be a pleasant thing what begged thinking about. 

He takes a step, then two. No one greets him this time, souls or humans, but there seems a strange pressure around his midriff, as if a rope beckoning him thither. He tries to move in the opposite direction of its demand and finds himself restrained; no matter how hard he pulls it will not let him turn.

It is a strange new game, if it is new. Perhaps it had been this same pressure compelled Little to follow those men. Tom takes his steps in strides, propelled in this half-life to move rather much faster than he might have before, more so given how sick and wasted they had been. 

He hopes that might be a small comfort to the others, if they too be condemned to wander this place. No more would their teeth rattle and scars reopen. Lieutenant Irving might've his head back.

Onward he goes, shale and the slow soft snow beneath him, what little he had learnt from Master Blanky telling him that it must just now be coming into summer. The sun is bright against his back, though he feels nothing which could approximate temperature. Only that relentless force driving him as it pleases.

Yet something about this seems oddly familiar. As if he has done this before; not only an approximation of it but the same exact route; and not only once but twice, whether in this life or the last. 

In the distance he can make out a flat, low slab set against the sky and something hitches in his breath. "Oh," he says aloud, "no," and of course this goes unheeded, as does his attempt to slow down; in fact this only seems to speed them up. No, no. Yes. Here they are crossing the ice. In a moment they will cross onto gravel, the same as he had once picked up and scattered over the grave of his brother, the same.

 

 

 

 

There had been one night, and he remembers this only now, that had been like this. The pressure; the journey; the grave. It had been dark and he had arrived a little too late, the party having already begun to refill the new-old hole ere he had happened upon them. In the sliver of lantern light he had seen the fabric of the coffin, a flash of the copper plate they had engraved for him.

John Hartnell, it had said. Aged twenty-five.

 

 

 

 

This time there is over John's grave a tarpaulin, shockingly orange, and of a material that looks unlike anything he has hitherto seen. He kneels down to peer closely at it; though he cannot touch it he would have liked to. The fabric is thin and seems as though the word crinkle were surmised in an object. 

He looks up at the headboard. His fingers seem almost to remember the rough block of oak they had hewn into to make something more respectable of a tombstone, Mr Weekes and the paint and SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF, a promise, it seems, that continues to be kept.

But why the tarp over John's and not the rest? Tom glances askance at Torrington's grave, then Braine's, both clear, and then spies a fourth grave that had not been there last.  

Strange indeed. He walks-floats-ghosts across to the marker and learns about a poor sod named Thomas Morgan died 1854. Couldn't place the ship whence he came, but there's a damned lot of Thomases left about this place, bones and tatters.

The last Thomas left looks up; there's a shadow of a too-large bird falls over him from the sky, and the sound like a hundred swarms of bees caught up together. 

 

 

 

 

It is neither hot air balloon nor glider. It's like a boat with wings, a propeller affixed onto each, wheels on two sticks to support its jolted landing – on gravel, Tom sees, that has already got grooves from where other air-boats must have arrived.

Out of it comes four, five, six fellows. Calling what they wear slops'd be a stretch at best. They look hardly like themselves, nor indeed the blokes Lieutenant Little had followed around; if Tom hadn't known that he were dead and time were passing he'd've thought them not from this earth.

All manner of things come out the boat – more tarp, large sticks he assumes for the building of tents, rolls that look like bedding, boxes and boxes of metal, and two flags he's not seen before. The rest of the time is spent pitching the tents, including one over John's grave, and setting up what he now understands to be some sort of equipment, although what it might be for he couldn't guess. Will they make themselves fly?

They do nothing of the sort. They do nothing, in fact, of interest; instead mulling about as if waiting for something else. He follows them through the next two-three days, listening to their names, sitting by John whilst they sleep, wishing that he might step out and join him. 

On the fourth day the one called Owen says: "I think we should start." 

And they walk out to the graves and into the tent over John's. And they draw forth the shovels and pickaxes they are armed with, and they begin to dig.

 

 

 

 

Once, perhaps fifty, perhaps a hundred years ago, he had stood where they are now stood, shovel in his own hand. He had not yet known what would befall them. Only two were dead at that point – Torrington and his brother – and he had thought how he was to break the news home.

The ice sets for them a difficult task. Hours and hours they spend chipping at it, what chatter sustains them in the beginning fading slowly out as the day draws long. It is something of a novelty to listen to the way they talk and the things they say. They are also crewmates, he supposes, and some things do not change.

They dig till the outlines of the coffin are revealed, and then they wait for the second air-boat, Tom gathers. He, too, waits; he has accrued much experience in that particular pursuit. Nothing about the coffin has changed save some cracks and the disappearance of the plaque, which the midnight diggers had taken last. 

As they wait a bear runs near into camp and it's all the men'll talk about. "There was a story a bear could always be found sitting by these graves," the one named Jim says. Tom wonders if it might have been their own monster, still alive, waiting for the souls it never got – wonders what these adventurers of the new world might have done with it.

 

 

 

 

Here the second air-boat. The sound though no less foreign is somewhat recognisable to Tom now, and he crowds towards it instead of staying away. A contraption no less fascinating than the vast amount of materials they bring now over the ice. There is amongst this second group a woman, and Tom thinks inevitably of Lady Silence. The rest of the day is spent carting more equipment; there is so much materiel that he has long since lost track.

In the morning they gather around the tent, a breathlessness about them, an anticipation you might get boarding a ship for the first time. It feels almost as if John will be made alive again by their excitement. 

"Shall we?" says Owen.

'Neath the lid lies a block of sheer ice, brackish and impossible to see through. They must melt it ere John's face becomes visible, and when it does Tom must sit down.

John's lips are pulled back from his cheeks; his skin like parchment; his dark hair falling toward his shrunken eye; his nose somehow the same as Tom used to tweak in Gillingham. A brace of memories him in the chest as if he has been shot all over again – the smell of shoes, the river, the river.

Mum and Mary Ann and Charles and Betsy sending the two of them off, a beautiful day it had been, the sun out and the grass a brilliant green, one of the last times he'd ever seen grass – 

They melt him slowly out. Every step is taken with the same minute care they had taken putting him in; it touches Tom, inexplicably, their scribbling furiously every detail into their books.

"Look, that left eye's shrunk a bit."

"Pieces of the coffin in his right chest wall."

"Cuts in the shroud – Inglefield, likely."

John, listen to how they talk. What a curious thing. What a delightful thing.

"Look here," one of the second group, Barbara, says, taking great pains to pull gently at the hem of John's shirt for them all to see. " T. H. , and a date." 

  1. I'd put it on you myself, John. I thought you mightn't have minded; I'd taken enough of yours, growing up.

 

 

 

 

When they hold him in their arms Tom thinks of Charles's baptism, the coffin the font and the cap the water. They'd been mites then. Charles and Betsy – what they must have thought. He follows their taking John's body into one of the larger tents, which inside is crammed with the things they had brought, impossible for him to describe or understand. 

As carefully as they would with a newborn they lower John onto the table. Their colourful knit pullovers, the strange clocks they seem to have on their wrists, all of it jars with John's sunken cheeks and the way his fingers have swollen together.

Tom puts his hands on those fingers, his brother's fingers, his brother. His own go right through.

He means not to be melancholy; it had, that life, taken them both to places they could never have imagined. To have trekked through barren Australia, kissed the tantalising lip of the Passage here. It had been no real sacrifice. There must after all be a reason why these people are here, or for the grave of poor Thomas Morgan.

Two of them are now putting on the strangest clothes, a sort of tunic wrapped around and fastened with nary a button or clasp in sight. "Exposing!" shouts the one they call Derek. And from below John's body comes a beam of brilliant, too-bright light, Tom crying out thinking that it might hurt before remembering the absurdity of such a thought. The light flashes off. 

Then Larry disappears into what looks like an over-large black box; though Tom peers in he can make neither head nor tail of what is being done. Many times over they do this, and ghostly white does John's body appear in the wet things they carry out and hang on a string, like the plate of a daguerreotype, like laundry.

"There's spurring and lipping on the left arm and shoulder there," Larry says, gesturing at one plate. 

"And osteomyelitis in the left foot." Roger draws an imagined line from John's chest to feet. "Could be the spread of tuberculosis. This poor guy's been hit by everything."

 

 

 

 

Yes, yes. Father dying when he'd been twelve. The grind and drudgery of Henry Sarge's workshop not a year later. Grimacing at the pain in his wrist when he'd thought no one was looking, calloused fingers, the smell of leather. Four years keeping the family alive. His younger brother running off to play ships. The brief Volage respite; then all of this, the consumption, the black ice on deck, so thin he had as good as been a skeleton even before they had put him into the ground,

 

 

 

 

"What we'll do is ask the patient to sit up."

They have spent some time looking at the daguerreotypes that go through John's body. Now Owen and Barbara are easing John into something of a sit, as if he might be propped up in bed telling stories by the candlelight. 

"I'm going to make cuts up the back here," Owen says, retrieving a pair of scissors. It goes through Tom's shirt and the other clothes they had used to keep him warm like the crack of a rope. They had wrapped him too tight. As the garments fall away he remembers, and they gasp.

"Son of a bitch, he's already been autopsied! Son of a gun! we've got an upside down Y incision. This sort of thing has not been seen before, this is absolutely unique."

Roger is shouting all sorts; Tom barely hears him. He hears, instead, Lieutenant Gore, another ghost he might see too or never again: your brother's in good hands, lad! He hears himself: you didn't cut up John Torrington –  

"I wonder," Roger says. "We'll follow the same lines, see what he was doing."

Pulling at the curtain, a flash of Doctor Goodsir. Honour my brother the same way – 

Goodsir is here, a hundred years on, with new equipment and uniform. They are scientists; he cannot blame them. And yet. "For God's sake," Tom says thickly, the first time he has spoken in a week and his own chest drawn tight, "leave him be."

 

 

 

 

Leave him be, Tom. Leave him be.

 

 

 

 

He stumbles outside. The hour is late and most of them seem to have gone to bed, for there is scarce anyone awake save those in the tent from whence he had come. His fingers shake; they had been steady staring down the monster.

Over at the mouth of the camp sits one of the men, Walt, with a rifle and their dog. There had not long ago been another bear in camp and they are worried now. It would strike him as history repeating itself had there not been other things on his mind.

"Can't sleep?" 

Walt calls to someone behind him; Tom turns around to see Brian, the one who carries with him the small metal box he sometimes peers through. He is older than the rest, and strange-looking not for himself but something about him.  

"Tough to."

Walt makes space on the crate beside him.

"Must be weird." 

"Yeah." Brian gestures to the tent John lies in. "He looks an awful lot like my grandmother."

"Yeah?"

"With the nose and all. Charles had it too." Brian laughs. "Mine's just big." 

"Regular old conker," Walt says, with affection.

Tom touches his own nose. The coldness comes across him; he pulls his hand out and sits down, his mouth hanging slightly open, staring at Brian.

"Can't really believe I'm here," Brian says. "Or that I saw him." 

"You're probably the first person in the world done something like it."

"Grandma used to tell us stories – the pocket watch meant for John, the letters Charles wrote thinking they were still alive, stuff like that. I wish I could tell her about this."

"And your other great-granduncle still out there," Walt says, gesturing at the blinding, neverending span of horizon.

I'm right here, Tom thinks. 

He had never considered it. Or rather: he had thought of them still as children amidst the grass and sunlight, Betsy sat on John's shoulders, Charles pulling at his legs. The baby Tom had watched baptised now the great-grandfather of this man, who looks himself old enough to have children, who is older than John and Tom both.

Brian sighs. "Strange to think about, isn't it? All these folks who came before us."

And he looks, for a moment, straight at Tom. "I'm here," Tom says aloud, without meaning to, the thought simply slipping into words. I'm here. I'm here, John.

Brian frowns and blinks and shakes his head as if chasing away a dream. 

"I wish him well," he says. "Wherever he is." 

 

 

 

 

It is nearly midnight. Snow dapples all of Beechey save the explorers and their tents. There have here been other people and other tents, in conditions quite like this, at the heart of the ridiculous and the sublime. Has the passage been traversed? Has all of the arctic been mapped? He knows only one thing: there must be a reason these people are here. They come, and they will continue to come, these sons of reasoned discontent.

In one such tent of one long-dead explorer these adventurers of the new world gather. They are returning John to the coffin. Tom watches them, his thoughts and emotions impossible to describe, and the slow chatter leaving too much room for it.

Brian and Owen step into the grave as Barbara hands them the clothing, Brian folding Tom's shirt neatly and carefully alongside the body. His mouth is pressed into a thin line, his face set the way Tom has seen at funerals, a deep sadness in the gloaming.

"Right, that's all."

I am sorry, John, what they've done. 

"Oh, hold on." 

"There's ice along the edges. We'll have to chip that off first." 

But perhaps it'll be of some good. They'll go back with a story.

"Here – " 

"Careful, careful."

D'you remember, John, waving me off on the Brune ? Asking me to write? For those stories? I was never good at writing, or at saying goodbye.

"There you go." 

"Pull us up, will you, Jim."

So forgive me as I say this to you now.

 

 

 

 

They close the coffin and the rest pull them up. All is quiet. The deep orange of the midnight sun colours the canvas of the tent. They stand around, heads bowed; outside the dog howls at the wind. 

"One hundred and forty years ago," Owen says, "his brother was standing in this same spot." 

Shovel in his hand, scattering the first of the gravel, thinking of his family, those early mornings on the Medway. A hundred and forty years ago. Death is slow, out here; yet it seems like no time at all.

Then they are filling in the grave, taking down the tent, shoveling back the snow. Then they are gone. And Tom kneels and puts one hand on the weathered oak of the headboard, over the sacred memory and the fading letters of EREBUS. For a moment he can feel the wood solid beneath his fingers. It spills out something like love; something like ledges and ledges of light.