Cold, hungry, sleep deprived, defeated; Sir James Clark Ross returned to his ship and watched with heavy eyes, dark as storm clouds as the Investigator hoisted its anchor and drifted away from Somerset Island, into a sea of pancake ice.
His gaze lingered on the misty, desolate shore. “They really have disappeared, haven’t they?” He muttered.
He was snapped from his uncharacteristic melancholia by a shout, “Heads up, Sir James!” he flinched and without thinking he caught whatever it was the gunnery sergeant, Mr Abernathy, had thrown at him.
It was an apple, a large, shiny red one at that.
“Thomas…” Ross chuckled lightly.
“You should go below and Eat, Sir James. If you stay up here much longer, you’ll freeze.” Abernathy advised in his north Scottish brogue. He was quite a gentle giant of a man and his voice was friendly to Ross’s Frozen ears.
Ross looked back at the water, his smile disappeared, he leaned further over the frosty bow and stared at the bubbling currents that bounced off The Investigator’s hull.
“As those men lay dying, they must have wondered what they’d accomplished. Left behind. Done worth remembering. The answers to all their hopes and questions is probably, ‘No’.” Ross muttered quietly as he settled down in his cabin, but Abernathy heard him well, he lingered in the doorway with his muscular arms folded over his broad chest, looking sympathetically at his captain.
“Believe you me, the men responsible for this should be keelhauled.” Abernathy sighed and rubbed one of his eyes drowsily.
“I do feel partly to blame.” Ross reasoned, “If I’d acted sooner… but I had too much faith in the admiralty.” He whispered disappointedly to himself.
“Well there’s no need to have you thrown overboard. You’re putting yourself through hell already.” Abernathy chuckled. His familiar manner was a privilege that came with having saved Ross’s life on several occasions, both at fury beach and on the expedition to the heart of Antarctica. All this experience and Mr Abernathy was more than a decade younger than James Clark Ross.
“I was meant to tell Francis’s family what happened to him.” Ross looked at Abernathy, his piercing orbs sparkling with woe. “I knew that was going to be difficult. But having found nothing… I don’t know what that feeling is.”
“Emptiness, I think, Sir James.” Abernathy assured him earnestly.
“Emptiness…” Ross repeated softly to see if the word could provide a vessel for his emotions. “The universe is mostly emptiness.” he recalled floatily, he was thinking deeply, of the emptiness between stars and comparing it to the emptiness between himself and Francis. Yes, he could walk forever in Francis’s direction but never reach him.
“Aye, and it feels more so as time stretches a man thin.” Abernathy agreed, though he likely interpreted Ross’s statement in a different way to how it was meant.
“Beloved men and boys cherished by those who yet live, torn from us. Parts of our souls have been ripped out. There is no catharsis for us unless we find something of them. These men cannot return with their shields are on them. Habius Corpus?” Ross shook his head and sighed miserably.
“No need to be composing an epitaph just yet, Sir James.” Abernathy smiled and gave Ross a reassuring nod. “I beg of you not to surrender hope, Captain. We’ll find out what happened to them. Graves at the very least.”
Finally, a smile returned to Ross’s lips and faith softened the anguish in his dark blue eyes.
“Just before he disappeared, he sent me a letter telling me how lonely he was, wishing he could see me. That fool never should have come here.” Ross shook his head and gazed at Francis’s letter, which lay open on his tiny writing desk, pinned down by a glass paper weight of a polar bear.
A rickety little rowboat bobbed against the icy shore at the end of the lead, causing a cracking sound that awoke its sleeping occupants. Luck would have it, Jopson and his companions spotted the faint, golden glow of an igloo situated within walking distance and they set out in its direction.
The wintry terrane they hauled the boat over was not the smoothest, it almost made them feel ill to be labouring in this way again. Thomas’s lithe frame felt unexpectedly heavy, after a few limps he fell to his knees and coughed up a mouth full of bloody bile. The others softly urged him to join Kiki in the boat. The Inuit girl had been knocked unconscious during that evening’s troubles and was yet to awaken.
Unable to speak, Thomas had to show them he was fine hobbling beside the boat and not putting any extra weight on the others.
The little igloo they reached was hidden at the foot of an ice ridge.
Francis projected a polite, formal greeting in Inuktitut and shortly after Silna stuck her familiar, hooded head out of the narrow entrance way.
Francis let out a quiet, relieved chuckle while Silna stared at her guests in astonishment and recognised their faces.
Her expression quickly turned serious as the cold night air began numbing her nose, she gestured for them to come in by swooping a mittened hand in a circle before disappearing back under the arch.
“Qujanaq.” Francis uttered gratefully.
“Is she inviting us in?” George asked cluelessly.
Francis nodded at him.
“It’s going to be pretty cramped in there, isn’t it?” Edward questioned with a raised eyebrow.
“It’s bigger on the inside.” Francis quipped.
Thomas climbed into the boat and hooked Kiki’s arm over his shoulder to lift her.
“Belay that Thomas! You’re in no condition to perform heavy lifting. Let George and Edward carry the girl in!” Francis snapped.
Inside the igloo was a ridge of packed ice about knee high with some furs piled over it, this was where Silna gestured for George and Edward to lay Kiki down.
“Lady Silence doesn’t look very pleased to have company.” George observed.
“I’m sure we’re a great inconvenience.” Edward grumbled.
Silna held Kiki’s head up to help her to drink some water. Kiki winced and made an incredibly quiet, pained noise but did not open her eyes.
In Inuktitut, Francis proclaimed to Silna that Kiki had been hit on the head during an accident and he could not testify to the severity of her injury. For now, she was left to rest in Silna’s bed.
The floor of the eight-foot-high and ten-foot circumference dome was made of compacted snow and extremely cold despite the warmth of the air in the shelter. To sit on the ground, Silna took off her parka and folded it up beneath her as a cushion. Inuktitut wear a thin vest of animal skin under their parkas, the material is porous, so it doesn’t develop the scent of stale sweat that cotton cloth does, and it’s breathability helps stop water clinging and freezing to the body.
Silna was far from nude but seeing a woman in a sleeveless garment that also fully exposed her neck and collar bone was perhaps even more likely to make a Victorian man blush. This cultural pause of nervousness was brief, and the white men copied Silna’s way of sitting on one's coat to make themselves comfortable.
One of the reasons Silna used to wince at these men while she was living on the ships with them is that they stank of sweat masked thickly by perfume and tobacco; they were all foreign, unnatural, unhealthy smells that made her scrunch up her nose but since wearing the Inuktitut clothing the men had became much more natural and clean smelling in her opinion.
Francis gave Silna an extra bag of seal blubber and a little jar of Marmalade as a gift. Since it was universally breakfast time they started eating together while Francis tried to explain to Silna why he had come looking for her and everything that had happened on the way. This was all in her language, Thomas understood it but Edward and George barely picked up a word; so they just ate quietly and did not pay much attention to anything other than the peculiar, spiral shape of the dome’s interior walls.
Francis explained that it is his people’s custom to say a proper goodbye with a meal, a gift exchange and a send-off, particularly when one feels incredibly grateful to a person they shall never see or hear of again. He explained he had learnt from talking with Yakone the true extent of her efforts to protect his crew from the Tuunbaq, that it was because she believed she had to take her father’s place as it’s shaman. He wanted her to know he did not consider her a failure in her duties even though the rest of her village did, she had worked so hard and that surely counted for something. That it was not fair, in his opinion, that she should be exiled from the rest of her people. He said he was sorry he had not understood better and sooner and been of more help.
She just smiled sadly at him and nodded her head now and again.
Thomas had looked melancholic all morning.
A certain chill had appeared in his already ice-coloured eyes.
He dwelled on the numbness in his mouth and the fact he had lost the ability to speak two languages. Now he could only be silent and do what he was told like a good servant. Le Vesconte had never accepted him as a Lieutenant despite all the hard work he had put into impressing his comrades and gaining their respect. This was surely some contrived method of putting Thomas back in his place. To remain a low born man who cannot think for himself or have a vote or a say.
Francis addressed Edward, George and himself, “We should go hunting in pairs. Silna tells me the wreck of the Terror is visible from the north side of the pressure ridge. One of the pairs ought to retrace our footsteps from our springtime exodus and see if we can pick up any useful discarded items.” He said this quite like an order.
Mention of the Terror made Thomas’s heartbeat rise as he remembered all his years aboard her. She was built brand new around his mind, and then with a sickly feeling he recalled the decay and imagined it acting fast and tearing her to pieces.
“I’ll go north with Thomas.” Edward elected gruffly.
“Do you approve, Thomas?” Crozier questioned with a worried, searching gaze.
Thomas gave a careless shrug.
“Then George can come Ice fishing with me.” Francis nodded at George.
“I’d be happy to, sir.” George accepted with a pleased, little smile.
Thomas wanted to speak. He really wanted to. He had more sentences crashing around in his head than ever before.
When he abruptly exited the Igloo, he was very calm and quiet. The others were not sure how to ask him where he was going or why because they knew he could not answer.
He crawled out of the little snow house and walked slowly to the rowboat, where he climbed inside and sat.
He squinted at the dazzling disk of the sun riding over the glassy ice folds. Then his attention lingered on the rope attached to the folded-up sail.
He leaned forward to untie the rope from the mast and began unravelling it. As he watched and listened to the long cable zip around the sail and mast, it reminded him of the long snakes he had seen in Australia years ago. A thick blanket of snow isolated the sounds of the boat while the surrounding landscape was muted.
Once the entire rope was coiled in his hands, he lay it at his feet, next to the tattered old book Francis had given him to write in. He bent lower to flip the pages with his thumb and confirmed that there were none free of print.
“Thomas, do you know what you look like? Coming out here all alone and immediately procuring yourself a rope?” He heard Edward’s voice question him gravely.
Thomas straightened his back so he could look at Edward. He stared for a long moment into Edward’s soft, brown eyes, wondering how best to communicate.
A sad, nervous smile pulled at Thomas’s lips and he shrugged. Of course, he knew how it looked.
He brought the pickaxe over his lap and studied the gunnel of the boat, choosing a spot to hack. Edward jumped back in alarm as Thomas tore a large splinter from the boat.
“Blimey Thomas! What on earth are you up to? Are you going to dismantle the entire boat!?” Edward shrieked.
Thomas put the axe down and stared at him. He was totally still and silent for a moment and Edward’s shock melted away into curiosity.
Once Thomas could see Edward had calmed, he shook his head at him. Then he carefully lay the axe at his feet. He got to work picking the wooden stake in his lap into smaller splinters with his boat knife.
“What are you doing?” Edward questioned again softly.
Thomas paused to smile at him and pointed at the sun as if to give the older man a clue, but this only seemed to confuse him even more.
Thomas quickly got back to making a series of sharp, pegs out of the wood.
“Should I leave you alone?” Edward asked worriedly.
Thomas shook his head.
“I suspect you’re making extra work for yourself…”
Thomas nodded contently.
“Perhaps you’re making some kind of animal trap?”
He denied this with another shake of his head.
A dozen wooden pegs clattered together as Thomas lay them on the floor with his other tools and then picked up the rope. Edward watched curiously as Thomas hopped out of the boat.
Being watched made Thomas feel nervous, as if he were some sort of silent play actor and he was performing for the former commander of the Terror.
He tied the rope to the front of the boat where a hauling cable would usually be fastened, then walked away, letting the twine slide through his hands but keeping it taut, until he came to a pillar of ice at the foot of the pressure ridge. He lassoed the pillar and suspended the rope roughly three feet above the ground.
“That would be useful for drying things out, like fish, if we had any. Maybe Francis and George will catch some.” Edward complimented as he followed him.
Edward watched in confusion as Thomas began ripping pages out of the book. The lad’s intention was to bleach the paper by hanging it out in the sun, so he could write on it. During his first attempt to drive the splinter through the page and into the rope he ripped the paper too much and found the rope unexpectedly tough. But he made his second attempt easier by making a few incisions with his knife.
Putting each of the dozen pages up took a while and to pass the time he tried to recite the English Alphabet in order to figure out what words he could manage without the use of his tongue. He told himself, to lose a tongue or part of one’s tongue is an injury like any other and must be overcome even if it remains an impediment, just like having nine fingers and only one good leg. “A, B, -, -, E, F, guhg, huh, I, -, K, -, M, -, O, P, Q, R, -, -, U, V, wuh, X, …I… Y, -.” He pursed his lips to stop himself from making too ridiculous a noise when he could not say the letters.
Before he had finished Kiki emerged from the igloo, rubbing her injured, aching head in a daze. She’d come out to get some air and take a guess at how the day's weather might continue. She ended up watching Taaq/Thomas in fascination. It looked as though he was casting some exotic spell on the unusual material he was hanging out. Her people wrote their language in the snow and carved it into their trinkets. Having in the past scavenged a few books left behind by the Kabloona, she had presumed the only use for them was for burning until now.
In all his adventures Thomas had never burnt a book, even in the direst and coldest of situations, because he had learnt from Captain Crozier a greater use for them; the pages could be scrunched up and stuffed between sheets or layers of clothing for extra insulation.
Thomas could say “I” with the tip of the stump in his mouth and “Y” with great effort, though it seemed slightly different from his usual pronouncements. “G, and K” also sounded gurgled and required great effort, he feared he might swallow what was left of the annunciation muscle at the back of his throat. Never in his life was he more aware of which part of the tongue was used to make what sound.
“I… am… okay… I’m okay.” He whispered to himself. That was the first sentence he figured out he could still say. It was not exactly true but being able to say it made him feel a lot better.
“Thomas you spoke!” Edward exclaimed ecstatically. “You spoke without a tongue, how did you do it?”
Thomas thought a moment. There was no way to address Edward with his limits, and no way to say anything negative. He could say ‘Aye and ‘yeah’ and nod his head like always. He could not say ‘No, Ney or Don’t’, but he could shout ‘Oy!’ if he wanted to protest something urgently. He certainly could not call ‘Ned.’ His pondering was at an end when he felt Edward pulling him into a tight hug.
“You’re okay, Thomas.” Edward repeated.
“…Yeah.” Thomas uttered sentimentally and returned the hug. He pressed his face into the soft, grey fur of Edward’s coat and tried not to let the emotions overwhelm him too much. His frozen tear ducts ached.
Thomas wriggled out of the hug when he saw George curiously pluck one of the pages from the line. “Oy!” Thomas shouted. He stepped towards George but his frustrations with the man disappeared when he realised what the blonde-haired man was doing with the page. He had very simply and quickly fashioned a paper crane.
“Please leave those alone, George, can’t you see that Thomas is trying to bleach the paper?” Francis sighed, being the first to correctly figure out Thomas’s intentions.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” George apologized shyly.
Thomas quickly tore another two pages from the book and tried to request with hand gestures that he wanted George to show him how to make a paper crane, as the art form was completely new to him.
“Oh, you want to see how I make them?”
Thomas smiled and nodded eagerly.
George very slowly indicated how to do it and Thomas imitated each fold carefully.
“I learnt this when I was serving in the orient, it’s a Japanese art called Origami.” George informed him.
Thomas nodded attentively.
“…I read a book on sign language once. That’s talking with your hands. I’d be happy to practice with you when we get back from hunting.” George offered, to Thomas’s delight.
Thomas and Edward walked side by side, leaving footsteps along the frozen coastline, they barely spoke to one another.
It was not so easy to expose one’s open mouth to such severe cold, or to speak with a muffler on anyway. But Edward gave the uncharacteristically miserable young man at his side a concerned glance now and then as he tried to think of something to say.
Thomas had a much keener eye for their designated task, and he paused repeatedly to pull small, half submerged objects of value out of the snowy bank, which he mostly gave to Edward to carry.
When they could see they were halfway to the shipwreck, Thomas halted and Edward watched him curiously.
It’s a good idea to put a check point here and bury some of the things we’ve picked up so far to save us having to carry them an unnecessary distance. Thought Thomas.
Will he understand if I just start making one?
Thomas remembered there was a desert of stones beneath these inches of snow and he brushed some of the white flakes aside to begin digging out some rocks and arranging them in a circle.
“You’re making a kern?”
Thomas nodded at him.
“But we can see where we came from and where we are going. What’s the point?” Edward questioned and furrowed his brow in concern. He was always worried now that Thomas had a good reason for his actions, even if he couldn’t explain it.
Edward squatted near Thomas and started piling up rocks with him. “I suppose a few kerns marking the way is useful just in case the weather changes for the worst.” He assessed.
Thomas looked at him in acknowledgement but made no sign of having an opinion on the statement.
“To think you used to be the happier and more talkative fellow aboard Terror.” Edward remarked. “Between the two of us, I mean. Neither of us are chatter boxes, that’s for sure.”
Thomas laughed softly. It warmed Edward to see his companion looking happy again. It was doing tasks and making himself useful that seemed to alleviate the lad’s anxiety best.
Thomas was also greatly pleased at how easily he had been understood, and he started humming to himself as they continued their construction of the kern. Edward recognised the tune, an old song, not a sea-shanty because it was bad luck to sing them on land, but he knew some of the words for this song and he tried to sing in time with Thomas.
“As I was walking all the day, I heard two ravens mocking me, and one onto the other did say; where were we ganging down to day? Oh, where were we ganging down today?” Their voices vibrated in each other’s chests and they laughed together at the end of the verse.
They buried their findings in the rock pile and carried on.
The grand, creaking, black husk of the ice-beached HMS Terror was increasingly haunting to be hold as they trudged on through the blue snow in her shadow. Edward stopped and stared, hesitating to approach, but Thomas picked up his pace and marched up to a hole in the ship’s belly here the ice had pierced her.
“Wait, Thomas, don’t go near it, it’s not safe. It’s falling to pieces!” Edward pleaded.
Thomas cautiously entered the ship, Edward felt like he had no choice but to follow him.
It was pitch black in the hull, Thomas sniffed the stale air audibly; the walls smelt of rotten wood and the scent of rust omitted from the boiler, near where the hole opened out. But to his surprise there was hardly a scent of fleshy decay. Not a trace of the great army of rats that used to populate this lowest floor. Nor was there any scent of the men who had been left on the ship, though they had surely died from the cold or hunger by now. As he wondered about this, he heard the crunch of a rat’s skeleton beneath his boot. It occurred to him that what last was alive in Terror had consumed itself, the men and the rats probably picked each other’s bones clean.
They searched for anything they thought useful and easy to carry back. Thomas found a whale oil lamp on the floor and was able to use it to light their way up to the orlop. The familiar smell of putrid cans was overwhelmingly disgusting despite the toxic slop lying in an impenetrably frozen puddle. They covered their noses with their mufflers and leaves, and hurried up the ladder to the lower deck, not even bothering to search the orlop further.
Both men ogled in amazement at the lopsided, deserted lower deck. Icicles were hanging from the walls and tables; everything was covered in a layer of frost. The floor was very slippery with ice and tilted at an angle so that forced them to skid towards to further wall. They had to climb in order to reach the hallway. As they made their way up the hall, to the stern they had to use the wall for support and move very carefully and keep each-other from falling.
Their search continued into the officer’s mess and great room, and they confirmed now that they were the only two souls onboard.
"I wonder what happend to the others... I think we should turn back, Thomas, this ship's a death trap.”
Edward followed Thomas into the old first-officer’s cabin. “Thomas, I didn’t leave anything useful in here.” He was cut off when Thomas’s lips held his in a soft kiss.
His Heartbeat rattled deafeningly in his ears, he melted into it and conquered the lad’s mouth in return.
They paused to catch their breath and found it had turned to heavy, white plumes in the chilly air of the abandoned ship.
Edward was ensnared in Thomas's hypnotically attractive gaze, wondering what he was meant to do next. When he felt Thomas's fingers stroking his arousal, he realised it was not his to decide. Thomas undid the leather toggles on the front of both of their caribou skin britches and pressed their bodies flush against each other. Edward’s back was pressed into the wall now. Thomas held both their manhood’s tightly in his ungloved hand and provided sensual friction by thrusting his hips.
Edward clamped his eyes shut nervously, he was afraid to look down at the act, it seemed too obscene to look at, despite it feeling so good. "I love you." Edward moaned softly, almost whimpering the words.
Thomas moaned into his ear in return, just the wanton note that seemed to beg for Edward to make the next move.
Thomas grazed his sensitive lips over the bristles on Edward's cheek and then left a trail of little kisses along his jaw and throat.
Edward's mind was too misty to think straight. He wrapped his arms around Thomas and nuzzled and kissed his neck in a tender display of affection.
Thomas felt one of Edward's cold, bare hands trail downwards, beneath his white furred trousers, to cup one of his buttocks. The other hand raised to cradle the back of his head, entangle fingers in his hair and pull him into another long, heated kiss. He relaxed into Edward's kiss, and into the teasing caresses of the other man’s fingers in the warmth of his britches. Edward rolled the soft flesh in his hands and at last admitted his lust to himself. He had wanted full reign over Crozier's young steward's perfect body ever since he laid eyes on him. Now after three years of repression and even guilt, he held the presently injured and spoiled lad in his arms, like a wounded butterfly fluttering in his hands, and knew not what to do, other than to love him.