Warning: Mentions of human cannibalism
‘The men will have their say, of course.’
Lieutenant Little’s voice is a dry, rasping croak. His throat is scratchy and raw; for weeks he hasn’t spoken more than five words stringed together. Now the words have begun, they’re spilling forth from his rotten mouth like a dam crumbling.
‘The weakest will have first choice; whichever cut suits each man best. I don’t know who’s taken over cooking, but they’ll fend for themselves. I will take whatever scraps are left. No deference to rank here. No pecking order. Not anymore.’
He gazes from his tent flap out over the limestone shale where it blends into the dreary grey sky. The sunlight is blinding, and he squints to better glimpse the men who shuffle aimlessly from hovel to sledge to fire pit. They barely acknowledge one another as they wander around the bleak camp. There are so few left now, and each have been whittled down to pathetic desiccated shells, hollow ghosts of their former selves.
Little attempts to swallow. His bloated tongue clogs his mouth, and he fights back a cough.
‘We still eat,’ he mumbles, turning his gaze once again to the salt-crusted greatcoat in his hands. He clenches his fist around it, bunching the material until his fingers quake. There’s a speck of yellow vomit near his thumb by the woollen collar. ‘We still eat. The butchering takes more from me than the relief I get from the meal. But still we eat. It’s something to do. Passes the time.’ He stops. ‘Who made that first decision? When we ate Young. Was it you? Did I make that command? Did we have them vote?’
He turns his bleary gaze to Hodge, who lies unmoving in his bedroll staring unseeingly at the ragged tarp canvas above. No answer; Little clears his throat, fighting another cough.
‘It’s been long enough that … I no longer remember.’ He rubs at the vomit marring the coat, nose wrinkling from the unpleasant odour. Though it’s no worse than the stench emanating from his own rancid body, his filthy clothes, or the acrid aroma wafting from Hodge, from the stain seeping into his bedclothes and draining onto the rocky ground beneath him.
Snarls from outside. A fight breaks out at the fire pit; two ragged wretches are nose to nose, their voices loud and discordant. They exchange a few flailing blows, clawing at each other’s grimy shirts; but before Little can rise, can even croak a warning at them, they slump bone-weary against each other. They’re panting hard, heads drooped to their chests, arms dangling limp as their friends separate them.
‘No, I don’t remember,’ Little murmurs, watching the men resettle, huddled around the fire as though there weren’t a fight barely moments ago. ‘Don’t suppose it matters anymore. What good’s a vote now, anyway?’
He keeps the head. He props it against the crate.
There is a fascinating – if disgusting – irony that Hodge should watch Little as he eats raw slivers sawed from his thigh, his bones scraped clean of meat with a blunt boat knife and now bleaching in the wind. Some perverse, twisted justice. Little doesn’t eat much. His stomach has shrunken to a withered husk, and he cannot bear more than a few meagre chews. He covers the plate with a cloth, saving the meat for later, and wraps his threadbare blanket around his shoulders to watch the brief sunset.
‘Do you think the captain still lives? I hope he doesn’t, if I’m honest. Not now, anyway. If living’s like this—’ He pauses, unsure if he should explain what he means, but he assumes Hodge understands. The dead always do. ‘It’s hardly living. Surviving. Scraping the earth. This is hell.’
In a couple hours’ time, the sun will rise again, and the men in the camp will continue their mindless shuffle over the limestone. And the corpses will remain frozen hard into their sleeping-bag shrouds, contorted into the terrible clawing visages of their final death throes. They haven’t broken camp in over a week. Even the men that trudge the perimeter in a mockery of sentry watch only do so to stem the hunger pangs at bay, to keep their leaden legs limber.
Yet they are still Englishmen. They will survive, as is their duty. Live for …. no. Not live. Endure. For England. For God and country.
As any man must.
‘What do you think the Admiralty’s doing?’ It’s a dangerous thought, but Little feels a sudden flare of desperate energy, manic fervour gripping him as the hope smothers him in an iron stranglehold. ‘Are they searching for us? Do they know we yet live?’
He lapses into glum silence, watching the sky darken; not enough for stars to glimmer but enough that the air loses some of its dreary glow, shadows deepening inside the tent until the chill bites into Little’s bones. But the thought of rescue sustains him as he daydreams how they might be discovered, how a ship of whalers might find them on this barren coastline of King William Land, this desolate rocky wasteland where nothing walks or grows or lives. Perhaps by some great miracle they would have found Captain Crozier alive and well. The men would convalesce on ship as they returned home to England, never to sail in these icy Arctic waters again.
The sunrise pricks his eyes, and the dream shrivels away. Little sighs. He leans back against the crate, wraps the blanket tighter around himself, and closes his eyes.
‘Do you think our families miss us?’ he mutters, unsure from what hidden well of grief inside him that question comes. ‘Did you have sisters? Brothers? I can’t … I can’t even remember what my own mother looks like.’ He chokes down a sob. ‘Her hair. The colour of her eyes. I can’t remember …’
He is suddenly grateful that he sleeps alone in this tent, alone except for Hodge’s head, that no man living should see him weep into his hands, repeating I can’t remember. He marshals himself; he will not bemoan his grievances anymore for Hodge. No. No more sulking like a spoiled child.
He lets the memories die inside his mouth instead. Crumbling to ash on his tongue.
‘Hopeless,’ he whispers. ‘Fucking hopeless.’
A Netsilik family strays near their squalid camp next sunrise. They pause at the crest of the hill, wary of the white men’s camp. Little watches from his tent as two emaciated seamen approach the family. He hears nothing of the conversation, but it’s short. The men trudge back to camp, dejected in spite of the fresh seal meat gifted to them. It’s not enough to share; Little half expects the men hunched around the fire to begin tearing into each other like rabid dogs, fighting over pitiful handfuls of meat.
But the two men hoard it amongst themselves. They cram the slimy meat into their pockets, greedily hide it from their crewmates, perhaps waiting for a chance when they may eat in private and luxuriate in the taste of something other than raw flesh or the rancid clumps of tasteless sludge spooned from rusty tins into broken mouths. Or the rock-hard mouldy lumps crawling with weevils that the Admiralty had the nerve to call ‘biscuits’.
The next morning, both bodies lie dead by the lifeboat, stripped naked in preparation for butchering.
Little knows not who killed them, but he assumes — with a cautious glance to Hodge’s sunken gaze — that someone must have been eavesdropping. Caught wind of it. Divine retribution for selfish rogues? Hardly. Balancing Hell’s dripping red ledger, more like.
They don’t belong here. They never did. He still hears dead sailors’ whispers in the cold wind, the creaking groan of ice grinding against the splintered hull of a dying ship, the feeble hiss of oil lamps struggling to fight off the cold. Men reduced to savage beasts sucking the flesh from each other’s bones.
First Young. Then Gibson. Then Armitage, and Rogers, and … once they started, they couldn’t stop themselves. Gnawing away like starving rats.
‘Will we ever be forgiven? For all … this?’
He worries the gold chain between his fingertips where he keeps it stashed deep in his pocket, where the warmth of his body keeps the metal tolerable.
‘Does God even know we’re here?’ He glances at Hodge. The head is tilted to one side, his silver hair matted with dirt, one eyelid drooping where the eye is rotted. Little turns away with a grumble, ‘What would you know? I’d ask Crozier, were he here.’ His throat grows tight, thinking of Francis. He turns his angry glare back to Hodge. ‘Who the hell are you to me? Another brother officer? A crewmate? A friend?’ He spits the word like filth. ‘No, you pompous selfish bastard, Francis was my friend. James was my friend.’ His voice catches. ‘Thomas was my friend. Crozier, Fitzjames, Jopson … None of them are here now. Only me and you … and this goddamned fucking Arctic!’ His voice raises enough that he hears the despondent echo rattle through the camp. No one bothers them, numbed now to Little’s furious tirades, his mutterings to ghosts long gone, long dead. ‘No one’s coming. We’re already dead, Henry. The captains are dead. Sir John is dead. You’re dead. I’m dead. We’ve already been damned to hell. Forevermore.’
He scrambles up, seething, and kicks the head away. Watches it scrape and tumble over the shale until it rests a few feet off.
He feels wetness on his cheeks. Tastes salt in his beard. He takes his hand from his pocket and covers his face, sobbing like a blubbering child. He crawls on all fours to Hodge’s head, gentle as he picks it up, cradles it. Uses his sleeve to wipe dust from Hodge’s cheeks, runs his fingers through the ash-grey hair so it flops with a familiar curl over his forehead. The nose is broken — from what and when, Little cannot say — but he leaves it alone. He props the head against the crate and huddles away from it.
He shakes his head. ‘I know, I know. I’m sorry. It isn’t your fault.’ He slips his hand back into his pocket, stroking the gold chain with his fingertips. ‘I know, I know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’
Distantly he feels his stomach seize from hunger, and pulls the plate toward him. The meat is darkening, discoloured at the edges, already fading to grey. He cannot remember how long it has stewed there on the plate, but he raises a ragged morsel to his lips, chewing through leathery toughness.
He can no longer taste, he realises, and swallows with difficulty.
He looks to the heavens, imagining for a moment that the sky is more blue than grey, that the sun moves more than a lazy half-circle above their cursed heads.
‘Do you think any leads will open up in spring?’ he asks Hodge beside him. ‘That we might sail further west? Find the Passage?’ The head doesn’t answer, just a vacant one-eyed stare of I know something you don’t know. Little takes another bite of flavourless meat. It does not nourish him. Never will. ‘We are close, I think. Very close.’
© 2021 | Tom Burton
Artwork: Man Proposes, God Disposes
(Edwin Landseer, oil painting, 1864)