Francis is at his recitations again when James returns from the garden.
He pauses in the entryway, kicking free of his mud-caked boots, hanging his shawl on its hook, still cloaked in the smell of fresh earth, the taste of oncoming rain. Warding off the memory of ice and the pitiless hyperborean light and the sledge rattling his bones to shards and powder, it had seemed. He sets down his basket of root vegetables, crooked witch's finger carrots and dusty fat beets and a reedy bundle of pearl-pale spring onions, by the kitchen table—they'll scrub them later, when it's passed, when— He chafes his fingers, although the season's temperate, it is. April already.
The fire spits on the hearth, newly fed and stoked, and a neighbor boy comes to chop the kindling for a coin or two every week, neither of them any good for hard labor these days, with Francis' hands and James' joints and their long, unkind memories. James knows now that the body holds onto all that the mind would pack away under flannels, in cedar, tightly latched until balmier hours, gentler tides.
Though the sunniest afternoons, the hottest climes, are not warm enough for some recollections, he's found.
Francis has not stirred, kneeling on the thick carpet by the fire, his hands busy arranging and rearranging, his lips moving the same, invariable in their pronunciation, and James need not hear the words to know their consonances. A small tin box sits open at Francis's side, and he shuffles its spilled contents as he speaks the names.
"Frederick Hornby, John Diggle, William Gibson, Thomas Armitage—"
They do not have days, although by rights they should, two grayed and grizzled Navy veterans, should have all of it neatly inscribed in the logbook, accounted for, as May 19, 1845, as April 11, 1847, as June 22, 1848. But for much of it, there is no such certainty, nor permanence. No ink bled deep into the pages, just as there were no burials at the end, no notation in his careful penmanship tucked between the stones, no record from which to offer condolences upon their return. By the end, indeed, there only were condolences, a long roster of dead men, and they solitary two limping south, ever south. If they lived, it was by Francis' will and Silna's charity alone.
It would be easier, James imagines, if there were days to mark, candles to light, prayers to murmur. Fixed points, rather than that ceaseless stretch, that long march over shifting stones, and another man un-waking each morning, until James feared to sleep, too, lest he abandoned Francis against all desire and intention.
"—John Peddie, Samuel Honey, Samuel Crispe, Henry Wilkes—"
They possess no artifacts from those bleached months, even their coats and sweaters eventually traded for hide and furs, what tokens they could offer as thanks given, and Francis had spoken rightly of their unburdening as he had on every matter, all they shed at that end of vanity, leaving more than James could have ever reckoned with, and their steps somehow never lighter for it.
The trinkets sparkling under Francis's fingers are thus just that: baubles acquired in their retirement here on the coast. They have never traveled over ice and water, never been cushioned with straw and wadding against jostling, never been turned over and over in the twilight, squeezed against roughened palms to bruising, their shapes imprinted. In most respects, they are unremarkable jetsam, such as children might treasure: a handful of brass buttons, each polished until shining; opaque sea glass, violet, jade, aquamarine, rinsed clean of sand; a small clay pipe, never packed and lit; a pair of discarded spectacles, both lenses cracked; a tortoiseshell comb, missing three teeth.
"—Edward Little, Thomas Hartnell, Thomas—Jopson, Thomas—" And here, yes here, Francis's voice splits and splinters; James lowers himself onto the hearthstone with effort and creaking knees, oh, much more slowly than he wishes. What a man of action he is now.
Francis is already trembling when he wraps a bracing arm around his chest and coaxes him close, resting a cheek against his hair. "Here. It's me, it's your James," he croons, rocking him gently. Like those first declarations, made under the moonseed sky, the two of them bundled close against the cold, Francis cushioning him as best he could from the stony earth beneath them, so that he might rest a few hours, despite the day-bright pain in his hips and knees, his elbows and the sockets of his shoulders the smallest joints of his fingers, toes. There had been no one left to overhear his stutterings, if I don't wake, if I—hush now, you'll wake, you'll wake—Still, I should like you to know that I— "I'm here. It's your James, Francis."
Not, James understands, that he has forgotten him or any of it; therein lies the trouble. There is no forgetting it, not the long winters or the monster at their door or all the devils locked in with them against their knowing. Not their empty-eyed men, all those blank-paged books. Not Carnivale and the smell of smoke, burning flesh, or the walk out or the mutiny. Or what he had almost lost—all—to the man who called himself Hickey, or everything King William Land had taken after, as though in recompense for even their scantest luck, for Silna's quieting the Tuunbaq at long last and drawing it away, until only they remained, clutched tight together, and James believes Francis might have carried him those final miles.
On the whaling ship back to England, they had retold the story together, weaving it watertight with half-truths. How Sir John had died of illness in the spring of '47, how they had led the men onto land in the hopes of finding game, how scurvy and contaminated rations had chipped away at them, unrelenting, despite their perseverance. Despite Captain Crozier's heroic efforts and sound judgment, despite his faith and boundless devotion to our crew, James had written for the Admiralty, not that they paid it any mind. I understand, he wanted to tell them after, wry, I couldn't see him properly either, in this blighted light.
He and Francis agreed to say nothing of the spirit in the great bear, nor the Netsilik, and nothing of the sedition which had rent their ranks and nearly claimed his Captain's life. These matters solely passed between them in the dark of the cabin, as though shared dreams. They had repeated the names then, too, what words they would speak of them, their mettle, their endurance, their all-honorable ends, nothing of their tears, their quaking hands, their black-cracked lips. And Francis recalling, as he always did, which borough or county each man called home, whether they had brothers, nieces. It had been a long pilgrimage after London, the work of the better part of a year, more than six score visits to make, hats in hand, even on to Limerick. Cornelius—
To his shame, James would never trade them back, those many lives. For his own, gladly, yes, without a moment's hesitation, but not for the man cradled in his arms, never him. He could scarcely look their kin in the eyes, knowing what fervent joy sustained him, despite every other sorrow, writ deep, but this: Francis lives, Francis lives.
"Thomas Blanky," James says for him now, taking up the slack line as he strokes his side, soothing. "Sir John Franklin," he says for himself. "Graham Gore. David Young."
"I should have." Francis grips James' arm, holding fast. "I should have."
"You did all," he answers. "All a man could do and more."
They never did cross back over the Irish Sea, but wandered down the green coast until they could go no farther. It's a modest house, squat and stone. They need no more than this, than the garden and a few hens and the kitchen and the sturdy table where they share every meal; than the down-soft bed piled high with blankets; than a good hearth and a fire neither of them will let die, even in high summer. The solitary records James keeps now are of what they plant in the spring and early autumn, rhubarb, broad beans, parsnips, peas, radishes, summer squash, aubergines, pumpkins, marrow, tayberries, fennel, how each likes the weather, cool or hot, shade or sun, much rain or little, what they pickle and jar for the winter. Francis manages the house ledgers, such as they are, and writes to his sisters, their children.
Let the world forget me, he has said on more than one occasion. Let them forget I lived when their sons and brothers and husbands didn't. It's best.
Sometimes, he adds, I would not have returned, I think, if not for you.
What he has uttered just once: If you would rather go on, James, I won't—
There are other tallies James might make, for no one's histories but his own, memoirs he will never write, recounting how many days he's woken with Francis at his side—thousands now—absently stroking his hair or kissing the ball of his shoulder, the hinge of his jaw, his cheek, his brow in slow succession. How many times he's turned over and into his embrace, and they've spent the uncounted hours learning each other's every tic and twitch, reveling in those most luxurious pleasures. How many days they've walked along the beach when Francis' humor is good—and he hasn't touched an amber drop since the winter of '48—and he's told and retold the stories of his childhood here, sweet as new milk. How many evenings James has taken his hands in his and rubbed the wrists and knuckles, chasing off what aches he can, pressing his face to them afterward. How many poems Francis has read to him, huddled together under the quilt on rainy days, no one needing them.
And, yes, the hours spent on his own reckonings, his in flesh—here the wound in his arm, under his ribs—are they closed, Francis, are they healed—the scar tissue made sound again—or here, please, along his brow, the tender line of his gums, loosening his teeth at the roots, the taste of iron hot in the back of his throat—is that blood beading over the skin, pooling under it, mottling—is he a man somehow made porous, light, and hollow, brittle as bone china, the essence of him running clean out of him—is he bleeding, Francis, please might you check again, I beg of you, once more—and those pleas never once refused. Francis kissing each of his old wounds, as though he might seal them shut with a press of his lips, render James hale and whole with his hands. There you are, my love, there, there, you see? They've healed all.
So too, the litanies, as there must be; the names demand saying. They will always demand saying, and James will be here to aid in saying them.
He holds Francis until the gloaming grays the windows, deepens the fire-flung shadows, until he has eased and quieted, lax in James' arms, his work finished. Together they lay the tokens in the tin box, Francis repeating the names once more as they do, touching each trinket as reverently as he would have cupped the man's cheek, fatherly, gripped his shoulder, spoken his last service. There are monuments for them, their crew, for Collins and Dundy and Dr. Stanley and all the others, their names written in stone elsewhere; there were memorials, songs, speeches, solemn ceremonies intoned by comfortable, titled men before he and Francis went away. They stood and listened and pretended it was true, that their sacrifices were worthy, righteous, gladly given for Queen and country. These past years, decades now, have been quiet, the world turning on without them.
It is best, James reasons, as he helps Francis to his feet; he has nothing to offer anyone but this. Two old men leaning on each other as two sickened, starving souls once did, worn to whipcord, staggering over the unforgiving earth. He seizes Francis as closely as he did then, suddenly fearful, as though he might vanish in the starlight, borne away like snow on the wind, and he left alone. And there is this last accounting, the most necessary, this crooked mouth, this rasp of whiskers, these weathered hands and this broad chest, this sound heart, drumming on. Francis leans into him, unprotesting, his grip as tight on James' shirt, his nose pressed into his collar afterward, breath steadying. His eyes are clear when they may part again, when it's passed—this compulsion as all the others, heeded as they must be—his rumpled face more lined than it was when they departed England but no less dear.
There are no days to mark, no candles, no prayers. There is only a little seaside house, only the salt air and the tinder crackling and a whistling kettle, only garden earth and green shoots and the patter of a spring rain; there are only the accounts when they must be said and, with them, those assurances sworn anew, here, here, here, and affirmed by touch alone; there is only Francis' voice rolling in and out like the tide, James' head in his lap, only that cadence and softly turning pages; there is only the next day and the next and all that they may have, for as long as they may have it.