All the seas are one creature. Of molten metal, iron-coloured, she has tsunamis for claws and white wave-crests for ears. Your ship rolls on her uncountable shoulders.
From your prospect above the rigging, you consider this creature. You don’t seem to fear her. Or perhaps, having seen beyond my fill of it, it is I who have forgotten the shape of fear.
The storm came upon you slowly. In these wide oceans, you see the weather creeping across great distances, the clouds gathering like inverse cesspits in the belly of the sky. The sea has you in her grip now. Every pitch of your hull drives her to greater frenzy. She slaps your sides, licking the tarred wood with many tongues, tasting oil, blubber, death.
I taste them, too. I am within her, as I am within you.
From the time you were a child, I have followed your life in gyres and wavelets.
Your father, alas, was marked; I knew that long ago. At your birth, he held you bawling and howling in his arms. His face swam with incandescent wonder, with disbelief at the living miracle he held, and in the light of his wonder you calmed, dribbling a little, your pale baby lips bubbling. Curiously you stared up into his eyes. Watching you, watching him, my skin parched with dread.
You were children of the shipyards, you and the others who thronged the shores of this grey city each time a ship departed. The whaling men kissed their families, shouldered their belongings, and crossed the docks with faces set hard and noble as statues in the grim, constant rain. Some were celebrities, like your father: famed for a string of successful voyages, working his way up the rigid whaleship hierarchy, bringing home not only oil but prestige, status, solidity. The people of your city still thought, in this late decade, that whaling would sustain them forever.
I took your father in frozen seas, in the ever-light summer waters off Greenland. He didn’t put up a fight. He seemed to recognise me, somehow; his face changed, softening around the eyes, as though at the sight of an old and once-beloved friend. He was young still, barely forty, but when I reached for his hand through the oil-bloated flames, my grip as cold and unyielding as the sea itself, he took it without hesitation.
Your face seems now to slip and hover in the air. You resemble him, strikingly so, although I see him much more clearly, given the long years he has spent in my care. A strange pain in my chest at that thought. Do you remember his face? Do you know how much you resemble him?
You were just a boy when he died. Still unstubbled, the fat still soft and dimpled on your cheeks. From beneath the harbour’s dirty, oil-slicked surface, I observed your rage. Loss pulled you inside out, embittered you against your mother and sisters, against all those who would never set foot at sea, and against me. Most of all, against me.
I haunted your dreams at that age. You pictured yourself sword in hand, a valiant hero, striking me down and rescuing your father from my clutches. As you grew older, your father’s face became less and less defined, your memories of him fading, though in my mind he stood as clear as glass and always will. Gazing into your dreams, I longed to see my own face, bright and strong again, without the sea’s myriad distortions. But you did not know my face then.
You went to sea as soon as you were able. In honour of your father, his old crewmates helped you pay your way. Out of the grey tenement slums you sailed, your mother and sisters weeping in the crowd, convinced you would not return. You were half-convinced of it too. Do you remember how you tempted fate? Your balancing acts in the rigging, ostensibly for the crew’s entertainment, but I knew better. Even then, I knew you sought me.
Successful voyages followed. You progressed, from greenhand to foremast hand to mate. You dreamed of captaining your own ship. To the older men, you were respectful, aware that your lack of experience rendered you only a liability in their eyes. To the younger men, your peers, you were a comforting presence on deck, sharing in their punishments, drowning their snores with your own in the cramped hammocks between shifts. And to the whales, of course, you were an enemy: a monster, striking down at them out of the sky, godlike, as though from another world.
(Is that how you see me?)
Ashore, you were a different man. You returned from year-long voyages to find your grey city unfamiliar, foul-smelling in ways that seemed strange to you, for your nostrils knew only the boil of blubber, the rancid bile within whale-skull, and the stench of confined men. You married young, as was expected, and your wife loved you despite your long absences. Together you moved to a top-floor tenement in the Castlegate, from whose windows you could see the harbour. You sat with your wife in the evenings, entertaining friends or dining with family, and wondered what she thought of you, tried to fathom what you thought of her. At night, you touched her flesh and thought of blubber sloughing immensely from skin. When it became too much, you wandered the granite streets, alone, hands thrust deep in your pockets, your expression preoccupied, as though searching for a half-remembered address.
I saw you often, on those walks. Even in the depths of night, the harbour sang out to you, a siren to her lover. You stood on the filthy docks and stared down into my eyes. You saw yourself falling into my embrace, into the mouth of that insatiable creature, the sea. You saw it so many times that it became more real to you than the tenement room where your wife slept, pale and unreachable on the pillow.
On long voyages you thought of her. You chastised yourself for not looking long enough on her face, which, after two months, three, four, began to fade. By the time you returned home, you barely remembered how she looked at all.
On one occasion, I thought you really would jump. You were just back from a voyage. Your wife had been softly rounded with child when you left, and throughout six months of quartering the South Atlantic whaling grounds you had tortured yourself with visions of babies, convictions of your inadequacy as a father, only to find upon returning that there was no baby – that your wife had lost it in a sudden rush of blood one morning while scrubbing the kitchen floor. When she told you, you were so relieved you laughed out loud, and she flinched as if slapped. Shame drove you outside. Wandering the dark docks, sleeting rain in your eyes, rain flooding your collar, you felt half-drowned already. You leaned towards me, lurching, and your feet slipped on wet cobbles. I felt sure that you would fall. I even opened my arms to catch you.
It was the thought of your mother that pulled you back that day. Your mother, who had already lost one man to the Locker. You staggered home, and all the while my cold breath whispered at your scalp, and I could almost feel your warm heart in my hands, rippling and pulsing, just as I feel it now.
We stand together on the rigging. For a moment you see me, and we exchange expressions: your calm for my rage, your elation for my longing. You are high on the nearness of death. Some are like that – entering the depths on a rush of adrenaline, heartbeat climbing to a wild burst, leaving the world on the same frantic thudding of blood with which they swam into it. You will be like that, I think.
But we have a few moments yet.
I would like to introduce myself. Caught in the wild beam of your eyes, outlined against the lightning, I must cut a strange figure, and I’m sure you have many questions. My answers, unfortunately, have for the most part slipped beyond recall. I am a name, these days, little more – and even that is a mystery. Was I named for a saint? A sailor of Biblical misfortune? A pressganger of drunks, famed for drugging unwary patrons and shipping them off to labour at sea? A saint; a scourge; a sinner. All these identities, and more, linger within my being, layered over others which are long forgotten.
I don’t even know what I look like. The whipped foam of the ocean provides no mirror. Am I a figure of fear? Of ridicule? Extending my hand to you, a nightmare smile upon my lips, I give you my name: Davy, David, the Welsh saint of good fortune; Jones, Jonah, the man swallowed alive by the whale.
Whalefall belongs to the ocean floor. You thieve, you and these others, with each carcass you hoist up your ship’s great sides, each barrel of oil taken and burned, each great bone whittled into ivory sculpture. As you take whales, I take ships. With every leviathan speared and hauled from the deep, the bones of men will litter the floor of the Locker.
That doesn’t seem to frighten you. So many of your kind have someone they hope to encounter down there. A loved one, long lost at sea. A father, a brother, a beloved friend. Perhaps you think the Locker a place of sweet repose, where loved ones might walk the deep sand, reunited, although others would think it a hell.
Lost at sea: what a romantic notion! As though at sail perpetually in a one-man craft, ever beyond the horizon’s reach, recessed eyes seeking in vain for land.
They are not lost, those who die at sea. They lie in the Locker, as safe as children in my arms. I carry all of them within me, as I shall carry you: safe, secure, many hearts that beat in my chest as one. With the eternal sleep of the damned comes eternal remembrance. I may not be remembered whole – as saint, sinner, or god – but I am remembered still. And your heart, in this chest, will be preserved forevermore.
Your pulse drowns the ocean. A swift, euphoric smile lights your face, and with the storm closing in around us, the rigging both rising up and falling inwards, you reach out through the maelstrom to take my hand.
For an instant, our fingers touch. I feel warmth. What do you feel? Ice? Death? Your father, on the day of your birth, putting a finger to your soft cheek?
What am I, to you?
I withdraw my hand. I may be smiling, though I do not know. My own face is lost to me.
The Calypso screams and howls. Behind you, your crewmates launch the whaleboats, making a desperate bid for the distant, ice-bound shore. Perhaps some of them will survive. These lands are not dead, after all. People live here, though not your people.
When you return home, wrinkled and wrapped in Inuit furs, perhaps you will think more kindly of me. Perhaps you will renounce the sea. Live out your life on land, passing down memories to your children, and their children, and beyond.
Or perhaps you will return. An officer, a Captain, an old, wretched man unable to forget. We will see each other again, if so. Old men together, we will reach out our hands again, this time to grasp forever. Your death in my care, your heart in my chest. Safe, and always, always, remembered.
Until then, I let you go. The creature that is the sea draws your ship down into her heart. I watch from below as the whaleboats leave from the wreck, fighting the ice, the waves, the endless draw of the deep.
Katie McIvor is a writer from the Scottish Borders. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in magazines such as The Deadlands, Fusion Fragment, and Little Blue Marble, and her three-story collection is out now with Ram Eye Press. You can find her on Twitter at @_McKatie_ or on her website at katiemcivor.com.