Actions

Work Header

You Are Who You Say You Are

Work Text:

June 1847

“Dr. Goodsir?”

“It isn’t really ‘doctor,’” Goodsir said apologetically, “but otherwise, yes.”  He took off his spectacles and rubbed out the little indentation they had made on the bridge of his nose.  He smiled at the man he could now more clearly see before him.  “I don’t think we’ve met—are you from Terror?”

“Yes, sir.  Cornelius Hickey.  Lately a caulker’s mate, sir.”

“Captain Crozier has a sense of humor.  You’ll still see your fair share of mending and patching-up here, Mr. Hickey, even if the materials differ.  The captain explained our situation to you?”

Hickey nodded.  “Your Dr. Stanley met with a sudden bleeding in his brain.”  He said it crisply, which, if callous, was all to the good; they wouldn’t get very far if he were squeamish.  “I’ve heard that’s a nice quick way to go.  And Commander Fitzjames’s not requisitioning Drs. Peddie or McDonald for now but letting you have the surgeon’s berth here in your own right, sir, which means you require an assistant, which means me.”

“You volunteered?”

“The captain suggested the position for me, sir.  He said to give you this—sort of by way of being a letter of introduction.”

He passed Goodsir a folded sheet of heavy, cream-colored paper; no sealing wax closed it, though there was a slight rouging to suggest that some might have once been there before an industrious thumbnail had carefully picked it off.

But he shouldn’t form his conclusions off that.  Hickey was hardly the only man who would have found it difficult to pass up the chance to read an account of himself.  In any case, the content of the letter was more promising than the prying into of it was concerning.  A likely young man, Captain Crozier had written of Hickey: diligent, industrious, and clever.

Goodsir privately added observant, curious, and maybe not altogether trustworthy.

He weighed all of that together and said, “I’ll be very happy to have your help, Mr. Hickey.”

“Happy to give it, sir.  I don’t know much about medicine, but I’m quick to pick things up.  In a month’s time you’ll think it’s your right hand I’ve been all along instead of Mr. Darlington’s over on Terror.  And it’s a step up, I must admit.”

“You won’t be sorry to leave friends behind on Terror?”

Hickey’s eyes shaded opaque for a moment, reminding Goodsir of nothing so much as the stifled hiss men would give when they felt sudden pressure on a bruise.  But he answered with all apparent cheerfulness.  “Well, we’re all one party together, aren’t we?  I expect I’ll make some here quick enough.  Besides, being cooped up the way we’ve been, your Erebites might welcome some novelty.”

“I’m sure they will.  You never know, Mr. Hickey, you might be the good luck charm that brings on our summer and opens up the leads.”  He needlessly patted and rearranged some of the books on his desk.  His face had grown warmer.

Ridiculous: so these were the intoxicating effects of novelty, even novelty he had reason to be wary of.  Mr. Hickey had a natural, vulpine handsomeness to him, all sharp-faced and ginger-gold; he had a fox’s poised watchfulness in the bargain, as if he too were on the knife’s edge between winning and being skinned.  He’d carried the clean scent of the cold in with him from his walk.

Goodsir cleared his throat.  “Shall I show you to your cabin?”

“That’d be very kind of you, sir.  It was yours, wasn’t it, before Dr. Stanley’s passing?”

So many sailors were superstitious—to inherit a man’s trunk was a blessing, to be moved to his old hammock a curse.  “It was.  I promise you, you won’t be sleeping in a dead man’s berth.”

Hickey chuckled.  “I’d have slept in stranger places than that.”

What impulse had made him ask, then, if not a fear of ghosts?  But he was reading too deeply into it all, no doubt, searching for meaning where there was only idle conversation made because most men disliked silence.  He quickened his step.

His old cabin was small and ill-furnished, but it still looked like home to him in all the ways his new, more spacious room did not.  He had spent so long with that lamp with its scorch mark, that coarse wool blanket with its fading tartan pattern, those nicked and well-loved shelves with the smeary brass bars that cradled the spines of their books.  He was the one carrying about a dislike for spirits, it seemed, if he still felt Dr. Stanley’s presence about him everywhere else.  It was his imagination that made every piece of china in his new cabin cool with disapproval and not merely temperature.

Hickey seemed well-satisfied.  “I haven’t slept flat on my back since the start of all this.”  He rested one hand against the mattress.  “That’ll make for a change.  And doors, too.  Quite an embarrassment of riches.”  His tone had not noticeably changed, but what had been pleasantness had become a kind of coiled amusement.

Goodsir looked at Hickey’s work-roughened hand, a browned starfish spread out against the uneven white of the bedding.  “I suppose the sea brings us all to strange passes, to make us grateful for the smallest and most ordinary things.”

Hickey looked almost startled to have had his irony observed, but then he smiled.  “Like not being slung up with a couple dozen of your closest friends like you’re on display in a butcher’s window?  I suppose it does, Dr. Goodsir.”

“It really is only ‘mister,’ you know.”  He couldn’t seem to rid himself of that note of regret, as if he’d personally failed Mr. Hickey by not rising further in his profession.  Absurd.  “I’m only an anatomist, not a physician.”

Sir John tends to be particular about titles, he nearly added, but of course Sir John was no more with them now than Dr. Stanley.  A hush of mourning for the captain was still about in Erebus, thick as smoke and just as likely to make the eyes water.  Their other losses—Stanley, Young, poor Lieutenant Gore, the Esquimaux man he’d not been able to save—seemed to have been overshadowed by it, yet they were the ones he could not keep from grieving, Sir John the one he often forgot was gone.  He was not a natural sailor, perhaps.  His affinities were not where they should have been.

Hickey, not beset by these concerns, only shook his head.  He said firmly, “You’ll be having just as much to do with physics as you will with your surgeon’s knife, so that’s nothing either way.  And the men would find ‘doctor’ more reassuring.”

“Perhaps, but they’ll know I didn’t suddenly attain that honor while stuck at sea.”

“I don’t know, sir, it seems like being frozen here has got to have some advantages.  Could have given you loads of time to study.”  His smile widened at Goodsir’s helpless laugh.  “Nobody will think a thing about it if you stop correcting them, Dr. Goodsir.  You take my word for it.”

 

July 1847

Try this on for size: him that a month back was caulking privies and getting his step by picking up still-warm dogshit now had work to do that was real man-of-letters business.  He liked it.  He wrote with a fair hand, but nobody had ever asked him to put the skill to any use before.  Now he did a daily portion of Dr. Goodsir’s surgeon’s log, neat and precise: barometric pressure, weather, temperature, observable miasmas.

“What do we want all this for?” Hickey asked him one day as he finished up the morning’s recordings.

“The Navy requires it.”

Hickey was resigned to that being the whole of the explanation—half the tales he’d gotten on ship as to why they were doing something at all, let alone doing it in the fashion they were, was just that they’d been ordered to, just that it was custom—but unlike most, Goodsir continued talking, drying his hands on a clean linen towel.

He had wide hands with neat long fingers and clean, well-kept nails; both rugged and fine where men usually couldn’t even manage one.

“We’re forever trying to see what will tamp disease down to nothing.  Environmental conditions are part of that, as I’m sure you know.  If, God forbid, a plague sweeps through, maybe something will later be gained by seeing what our weather was when it first took notice of us.  It’s the same with the notes on the patients—what doesn’t help this man may help the next one.  There’s a theory that someday there will be a perfect voyage—no illness at all—if we can just learn enough.”

“We’re well past perfect now.”  He turned his pen so the resting nib wouldn’t drip ink.  “What do you write of the creature?  That’s what besets us most.”

Goodsir looked, of all things, sheepish: it went with the wool on his face, Hickey supposed.  “Thus far: ‘animal attack.’”

Here lies Sir John Franklin’s leg, finely-dressed and dead of animal attack: a future caution for a future perfect voyage.  It would sound well enough read out on in the right sonorous tones—Franklin’s own, that was, not Captain Crozier’s.

“It’s oversimplified, of course,” Goodsir said.

Hickey nodded.  “Hard to write down what there aren’t words for.”

“If either of us gets a fair look at it, we can try to sketch it.”  And hell if the notion didn’t perk the man up.  “Do you draw, Mr. Hickey?”

If he wound up in a way to get a fair look at the creature, he didn’t think observing its proportions would be uppermost in his mind.  “Not well, sir,” he said, to put a definitive end to it.  There was no getting him out there in the bleeding cold and uproar to play artist.

“That’s a shame.  Still—”

But their talk was broken into by one of the men.

Hickey had gotten to know all the Erebites by then, the putrid right alongside the fine.  The inner smells of their bodies, damp and earthy; the soft little confessions they made of their ills, like toadstools blooming up all noxious in the dark.  Their blood and gristle.  None of it disgusted him, though the weakest of the men evoked a distant contempt.  He didn’t let that show on his face, though, and he didn’t go about blabbing what he’d heard in confidence.  He was getting to be well-liked.  There was more of a sheen on him here than there’d been on Terror, where he’d been just another man; here he was marked out as special and particular.  He rather fancied that.

Though Goodsir was still the one they all mooned over.  If he’d been in skirts, he’d have had besotted suitors hanging off him every minute of the day.

Their latest intruder was no different.  Headache, he said, all the while looking at Dr. Goodsir with calf’s eyes that didn’t have so much as a glaze of pain on them.

They’d seen a lot of men in with headaches lately, and Hickey didn’t count them all as malingerers—nor did he care if they were, except for how they took up his time—but he had his private suspicions about this Mr. Brown.  Hickey knew the look.  Brown wasn’t coming to them for tonics or powders or even sympathy, no: he wanted dear Dr. Goodsir’s cool, lady-soft fingers laid gently on his brow, his cheeks, his throat.  Never mind that all Goodsir was thinking of was glands and sinuses, the whole anatomical chart underneath Brown’s skin.  Sad little infatuations tidied a thing like that up, made a touch into something touching.

Still, Hickey said nothing about it, only made his notes as Dr. Goodsir called them out.  A good joke didn’t need company to be in on it; Hickey could smile over it all by himself.  And he wasn’t Gibson, to sell a man out that way.

If it came to where Brown was bursting in on them and dropping his drawers with complaints about his cock or asking could Dr. Goodsir please examine his asshole, then Hickey might warn him off.

If he would even need to.  Goodsir had pretty manners, but he wasn’t slow-witted, and he wasn’t quite an innocent, either.

Hickey thought that once Brown was gone they’d get back to whatever it was they’d been on before, the creature and Hickey’s excellent and apparently inescapable potential for watercolors, but Goodsir didn’t return to any of it.  Instead he said, “What made the captain think of you, Mr. Hickey?”

What had put that in his head?  “The letter didn’t say?”

Goodsir had a crooked smile when he was amused by unwholesome things; Hickey saw it now.  “You know it didn’t.”

“Don’t know what you mean, sir.”

“I much prefer you knowing to guileless,” Goodsir said.  “It makes conversation easier.”

Cheek suited him.  Hickey’d always preferred his idols to be made out of brass.

And he supposed he could see that—the benefit to conversation.

“Captain Crozier likes that we’re countrymen, sir.”

“You’re Irish?  You don’t sound it.”

“Well, that’s another bit he likes.”

He watched Goodsir take in that little tidbit.  Intelligent sympathy into the misfortunes of all men, micks or otherwise, knocked the softness back into him, more was the pity, but he said only, “I’ll count it my good luck, then, that Captain Crozier reads his crew manifests so carefully.  You’re a great help, Mr. Hickey.  And I could begin—rather badly, no doubt—to teach you something of drawing.  Only if you’d like, of course.”

“I shouldn’t think it would be worth your time, sir,” he said firmly.

Goodsir surprised him.  “Anatomy, then.  The uses of physics, perhaps.  It will be a help to you in securing good posts, if you wish to stay in this line of work.”

So he hadn’t been thinking after all of sending Hickey above decks when the creature was on one of its rampages, pen in one shaky hand.  Some kind of apprenticeship, rather.  Where would that lead?  Being Goodsir’s favorite had to be a lesser achievement than being Crozier’s, but Crozier’s favor had pulled out like the tide and left him stranded—not altogether unhappily, he’d admit—on Erebus and now he’d no contact with their captain at all.  He didn’t fancy a life in the Navy, but with a little learning, he could always advertise himself as a physician once he got to the Sandwich Islands.  He wouldn’t mind that.

Not like he was currently overwhelmed with activity, anyway, and it all interested him more than anything he’d been doing before.

“I shouldn’t mind knowing something of anatomy.  If it’s no bother to you.”

“None at all,” Goodsir said.  He took down one of his books.  “We can start with this one.”

 

August 1847

Hickey, as he’d once promised, learned quickly.  Keen eyes, sharp mind, watertight memory.

“I wish I could get you a fresh specimen for dissection,” Goodsir said regretfully.  “An animal, I mean, of course.  In our trade you can get quite ghoulish talking about what you need for training, but there’s a limit, naturally.  I want all the respite from men’s deaths we can muster.  But I likewise want to start acquainting you with something beyond books.”

Hickey pursed his lips.  “There’s Neptune, I suppose.”

It was not the first time he had made some offhandedly vile suggestion—he had done so more often of late, as if their conversation about the captain’s letter had persuaded him Goodsir would tolerate it.  And, perplexingly, perversely, he did.  He reasoned that most of the off-putting things Mr. Hickey said were not malicious but only alien—Hickey seemed the only one of his kind, which meant there was a peculiar thrill in learning to interpret him.

Not the most soothing of pleasures.  Their talks forced him to knock upon his own ideals to see whether or not they were sound: was it a moral or only a sentiment?  A principle or only a custom?  In arguing—and sometimes choosing not to argue—he was slowly coming to know himself better.

This was sentiment, but not one he intended to go against without purpose:

“I would prefer you not kill the dog.”

Hickey shrugged.  “As you like.  There are always rats in the hold, unless you’re feeling protective of them as well.”

“I shouldn’t mind a rat.”  He held up his hand, forestalling Hickey’s point.  “I know you don’t see a difference.  Humor me.”

“In any case, I can fetch one up for us.”

“Would you like company?”

Hickey looked as if he thought that even more absurd than the dog-rat distinction.  “You want to go digging around in the dark with me looking for rats, Dr. Goodsir?”

“Good Lord, not in the least.  But it was my idea.  I don’t want to see you bitten for the sake of it—or to be the only one bitten for it, at least.”

Hickey’s eyes lingered on him.  His gaze was weightless but cool, like the breeze off the ice.  His smile had taken on a queer kind of tenderness, as if to say, There, there, don’t worry yourself.

“I can avoid the bites all right, no need for you to get down in the muck as well.  Anyway, we don’t have to get ahead of ourselves.  I’m not grabbing my coat to go and do it now.”

“No, of course not.”

“I would have thought you’d be satisfied with the books.”  Hickey flipped a page back and forth: the illustration of a diseased spleen appeared and disappeared, sometimes in a flash and sometimes in segments, as if the folded paper were cutting it into slivers for an autopsy.

“Usually for a beginner they’d more than suffice—I wouldn’t have thought we’d outpace them this way.  But you have an aptitude, Mr. Hickey.”

For all Hickey’s arrogance, he colored up at compliments.  “Have I?”

“You know you have.”

He was entirely sincere.  Hickey lacked a little in bedside manner, admittedly, but he had a systematic mind and a strong stomach: he could both see the long and complicated chains of causes that wrapped men up in affliction and then act decisively to treat them.  It was a rare combination.  Goodsir had known academic doctors who could never have dealt with broken bones, let alone effluvia, and he had known hard-nosed surgeons who could not have put together a diagnosis if their own lives had depended upon it.  Hickey was born to the profession.

Since he was still silent, Goodsir lightly said, “I believe that by the time we’re home again, you’ll be quite fit for Harley Street.”

“Fancy that.”  Hickey went on fidgeting with the book and then abruptly stopped.  He’d abandoned the spleen, instead choosing to press down on another drawing entirely: a man’s skeleton alongside a woman’s, with their slight and variable differences indicated.  “I could start off copying some of these.  Speaking of books.”

He had at first the bizarre image of Mr. Hickey as a Medieval monk—how entirely ill-suited he would be for that position, in contrast—hunched over a desk, an illuminated manuscript before him.  Then he realized that of course Hickey meant the drawings.

“To practice your sketching?”

“I suppose you had real teaching for it,” Hickey said, his voice gone bitter as wormwood.  “A drawing master.”

There was no sense denying it.  “For a time.  But I didn’t begin to learn any real precision in the art until I was much older, when I started my training properly—all those dreadful pallid landscapes in my youth.   I’m afraid I wasted a great deal of time.”

Hickey’s smile and tone both softened: meadowsweet now.  (What a lovely herb that was—and as many pained joints as they were seeing, they could have done with some.)  “Bowls of fruit as well, Dr. Goodsir?  Vases of flowers?”

“I’m afraid so.  You know, we needn’t have all your lessons be so utilitarian—you’re as entitled to foolishness as anyone else.”  Though he didn’t know what patience his knife-edged Mr. Hickey would have for such gentle accomplishments.  He hit upon something.  “There’s life-drawing.  I’d wager many of the men would be thankful to have a picture of themselves to send back to their families, when we’re next able to have any post.”

“You last spoke of leads back in June, I think,” Hickey said, apparently indifferent to life-drawing after all.  “If they didn’t open then, I shouldn’t think we’ll see any going into autumn.  We’ll be losing the sun soon.”

“Yes.”

“You’ll have me drawing in the dark.”

“I imagine I’ll be able to spare you a candle or two,” Goodsir said.  He sounded a bit waspish even to himself—he certainly couldn’t force the thaw to come.  He could do nothing at all, really.  Outside this room of theirs, the weather beat on, the ice built up, and the creature stalked, and all of it without the slightest regard for him.  Hickey was his best hope—and these days his best diversion and calendar, as well, the only way he had to feel the passage of days and not merely mark them.

This melancholy was not like him.  But he felt thwarted, somehow—and why pretend, he thought wryly, that he did not know why?  He knew his own mind, his own desires, too well for that.

“A candle would be nice,” Hickey said, as if he were picking the notion up off the ground and polishing it off on his sleeve.  “A cozy little image, that.  Only you’d have to agree to sit for me, sir—I can’t be following a fellow around all day trying to get drawing practice done on him.”

Goodsir smiled, relieved to have neither bored him nor met with his ingratitude.  “I suppose not.”

 

September 1847

Hickey was lying awake.

There were a thousand noises to nudge at a man’s mind when he couldn’t sleep—nothing so flimsy as a door could keep them out.  The ice creaked in all its gunshot glory.  There were snores and grunts and belches and farts.  The wood settled and then resettled; the furnace rumbled.  He couldn’t get any of it out of his ears.

He lay on his side and traced the woodgrain of the wall; he could just make it out through the worn paint.  A little like the streaky marbling of fat in a good cut of meat, not that he’d seen so many of those.  That paint had already been thin when he’d arrived on Erebus.  Goodsir might have done this same idle thing when he’d been the one in this bed.

This restlessness was nothing but an itch he couldn’t scratch the way he wanted to.  He had half a mind to steal back to Terror for the night and have one off with Billy—bugger him behind the crates and casks where Irving had overheard them, sickly sweet as an anniversary.  Remind him what he’d lost.  Make him repent of that slander of a confession.

When Hickey was in him, in their days together, Billy had had a habit of stifling himself by biting down on his fist.  Hickey had kissed those sore, teeth-marked knuckles of his a time or two.

He touched himself beneath the scratchy blankets.

It wasn’t Billy he thought of.

Being in Goodsir’s old berth, that was the trouble.  He couldn’t rid himself of the pictures that knowledge brought to mind.  Couldn’t keep himself from wondering if Goodsir’s self-control was up to the task of taking another man’s cock in dead silence or if he would need to bite down on something to keep himself quiet.  Hickey would offer up his own hand for such use.

Goodsir had never had any help before him.  He must have been lonely.

They’d fit snugly in this narrow bed of his, of theirs.  Even have a sliver of privacy.

Earlier that day, Hickey had amputated a toe gone black with frostbite.  Anywhere else on the ship, it’d be a crime to chop off bits of a man, no matter how much you didn’t like the look of him, but in the surgery, it was your righteous duty and they thanked you for it, their breath all sweetened up with whiskey.  Goodsir had said he’d done it well, made the cut nice and clean.  His first operation.  He thought of that now as he stirred his cock up to full hardness; thought of the carefulness of that incision.  He could be careful in other contexts too, he wanted to say, he could rouse up gratitude just as well outside the surgery.  They shouldn’t let themselves be limited this way.

What pleasures would the good doctor like best?  He wouldn’t be one to shy off kissing, no, most likely he’d downright require it, want to be wooed as softly as any blushing miss.  All the better—Hickey liked to take his time and it had been ages since he’d had the means to.  He could satisfy every passing inclination.  Make taffy out of their minutes and hours, stretch them into endlessness.

You have an aptitude, Mr. Hickey.

Didn’t he just?  And he’d so enjoy the chance to prove it.

He closed his eyes.  No point egging on this fancy of his, he thought, but he didn’t work hard at turning his mind away from it.

Funny thing, though.  He’d always been one to work with the man he had, not go about all toffee-eyed pining over the one he didn’t.  And Goodsir was sponsoring the Education and Improvement of One Cornelius Hickey in an admirable fashion—aside from cock, Hickey was getting everything he wanted.  If he risked a plum post and talk of Harley Street for a quick tumble, he’d be too thickheaded for Goodsir’s attention anyway.

No, there was no working it.

Didn’t stop him from wanting to get his hands in those thick dark curls and use his grip on them to guide Dr. Goodsir through the sucking of his prick.  Didn’t stop him from going as sloppy-soft inside as a bad apple at knowing he’d pleased him.  Being clever never eased anybody off to sleep half so well as being good and spent with the other man still lying beside you.

 

October 1847

Dozens of times now, Goodsir had seen the marks the cat left on a man’s back, but they were seldom so bad as this: someone had gone after Petty Officer Brown in earnest once, apparently intent on flaying him alive.

Beneath the scars, nothing seemed wrong with him.  No apparent lasting damage.  He was a lean, hard man, well-formed despite the ruin that had been inflicted on him.

“These have all healed up nicely.  They don’t look to have formed any keloids—anything that should be pulling on your skin and making it feel too tight for you.  I suspect if your back’s paining you, we’re looking at a stiffness in your muscles.”

“What’s to be done about that, doctor?” Brown asked, his voice thick with its usual hopefulness.

“Well, I could try to loosen them for you.  Rub out some of the tension.”

He knew he sounded short: he regretted having opened this door to begin with.  He ought to have sent Brown off by now.  He put up with these endless, pointless visits because Brown was as mild-mannered as milk, never asking for more than a bit of kindness, but he was preoccupied of late.  They were seeing so many odd cases.  Dr. McDonald reported the same over on Terror—black-lined gums, crippling headaches, men stumbling ill-at-ease through work they’d done half their lives.

He was not averse to this peculiar arrangement, but he wished it were better-timed.

Brown, perhaps sensing some of this, said, “Just knowing that’s a comfort, Dr. Goodsir.  I don’t need tending to now—I could come back when it’d be easiest for you.”

“No, no.  Not at all.”  He sighed.  “I apologize, Mr. Brown.  I simply have a few matters weighing on my mind, I shouldn’t let it make me curt.  I have time to tend to you now without any trouble.  You can lie down on table—facedown, please.”

Brown arranged himself and heaved out an enormous breath when Goodsir began.  His skin was the color of putty, shiny in all its bands of scarring; Goodsir found himself practicing medicine by chance as there did prove to be a few knots in Brown’s back that yielded to his fingers.  He felt better for it even if Brown did not.  He might count it as an achievement.

He was in the midst of this when Hickey entered.

“You must let me take over for you there, sir,” Hickey said at once.  He spoke with unusual heartiness, as if about to lead them all in a song.  “That’s assistant’s work if ever I saw it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hickey, but it’s fine.”  He could hardly say that Hickey would not fulfill Brown’s particular requirements.  “I’m well-started now.”

“Then I’ll stay and observe, shall I?”

He didn’t wait for an answer before planting himself at the foot of the table.  He watched intently as Goodsir—now absurdly self-conscious though he was, in the end, doing nothing wrong, doing nothing he would not have done for any man—continued on rubbing Brown’s exposed back.  Hickey’s glower brought an unwantedly lecherous atmosphere to the proceedings.  In the face of it, Goodsir became more aware of the ridiculousness of it all—the prickle of sweat against his hairline, the low ache in his hands, the rubbery feel of Brown’s body, the pretense that this was about something other than Brown’s unvoiced heartsickness.

Hickey whistled suddenly.  “You must have taken a real lashing there, Mr. Brown.  Look at that.  Three guesses as to what it was for, is that the game?”

“It’s in the past now,” Brown said, his voice strained.

Behind you, as it were.”

“Mr. Hickey,” Goodsir said sharply.  “Please be civil.”

Hickey pressed his lips together until a thin white line appeared across them; it reminded Goodsir horribly of the men with their streaked gums.  Hickey looked like a photographic plate, the image of him dissolving into that of a dead man’s right before Goodsir’s eyes.  He couldn’t bear it.  He turned his attention entirely to Brown, ignoring the cramps in his hands to work at him tirelessly.  He could not in the end knead his fears into the man’s back, however, and he would tip over into hurting him if he kept this up.  He forced himself to stop, fidgety though he felt, and sent Brown off again.

The moment he was gone, Goodsir said, “Why did you try to rile him?”  Not that that was what had most upset him.

Hickey studied him for a moment, his eyes hard, and then pointed at the door Brown had just left through.  “That man comes to you for one reason only, and that’s to get your hands on him, and he’s grown bolder and bolder about it these last few months.”

He didn’t know what answer he’d expected, but not that, certainly.

“Mr. Hickey, have you taken it upon yourself to protect my virtue?”

Hickey raised his chin, not laughing as Goodsir had meant him to.  “He trades on your good nature.  Any other doctor would have gone to the captain now about the man’s malingering, but no, you’re patient with him, and he takes it as license to fool himself that you’d happily play the wife to him.”

“Yes, I understood you well enough before.  I knew that, Mr. Hickey.  He hardly conceals it.”

He’d seen statues with stares less fixed and stony.  Finally their connection broke and Hickey began looking about for tobacco.  “It happens to you often, then.”

“On occasion.”

“And you just humor them?”

Naturally sharp-faced, his Mr. Hickey, as though he’d been hungry every day of his life; it would be a mistake, surely, to become his next meal.  He had ambitions and he knew, certainly, that Goodsir’s fall could well mean his own rise—the men were used to him, even fond of him, and Commander Fitzjames had more on his mind than replacing another doctor.

You might hope to befriend a fox, but would you trust it to be tame?

No.  Not tame.  (A waste of teeth, most likely, to turn him into an animal that never bit.)  But he did trust, nevertheless—trusted enough for this.

“They’re lonely men,” Goodsir said.  “I treat the afflictions they tell me they have, knowing, yes, that they take more from it than I give.  I don’t—”  He didn’t know quite how to say it.

Hickey blew out a cloud of smoke.  “You don’t consummate things.”

As though it were some sordid series of weddings.  “No.  I’ve never gone so far as that.”  Far enough nonetheless to get him introduced to some lesser variant of Brown’s scars, however; what wasn’t outright sodomy was the somehow more incriminating dirtiness.  Sodomy the act and dirtiness the inclination, the fatal flaw.

Hickey said, “Never?”

The smoke dissipated where the word did not.

“No.”

“And what if I were lonely, Dr. Goodsir?”

The cold made the air in the Arctic feel thin, a pale burn inside his chest.  “Are you?”

“On occasion.”

“You’re not in my care,” Goodsir said.  Only my keeping.  “I wouldn’t fear—exceeding my role.”

“You’d give what I’d want to take, you mean.”

“Yes.”  The word had a strange precision to it, a cut severing his life into some before and after.

Hickey smiled.  It was the first time Goodsir had seen him do it in such a way that his mouth still seemed soft, not tight as a drawn-back bowstring, a tension ready to be relieved only in violence.  This was something new.  “After dark, then.”

It had been days since they’d last seen the sun in all its glory, but Erebus’s hours were unchanged; if they were to acknowledge their predicament, its peril, no one had yet decided how.  Perhaps he would be the first thread pulled loose from order.  He was sure this counted as inviting chaos.  Wildness.

That knowledge didn’t stop him from wanting all the lights on the ship doused that very moment.  Night, he knew, would come too slowly for his liking.

But still, by and by, it came.  He changed into his nightshirt and sat listening for Hickey’s careful, nimble tread; he was rewarded so quickly that Hickey’s impatience might have been almost equal to his own.

Hickey was well-scrubbed—pink-cheeked with it—and still in uniform.  So that was to be their story, then, if they needed one: Hickey still on duty, summoned for some midnight consultation.  There was more safety and convenience in that tale than most men in their situation were granted, he was sure.

Goodsir looked at him.  He was all golden in the lamplight, warm-toned and beautiful.  He had permission to dwell upon that now, to look at Hickey without excuse or apology; he’d not known before that he had been resisting it.  He was no seduced innocent—untutored in this, yes, and inexperienced, but not new to this dry-mouthed wanting—but he had willed himself into naivete, fooled himself into believing the pull he felt had only the consolation of philosophy.  Certainly philosophy was very far from his thoughts now.

Hickey spoke in a low voice, one that would not carry.  “What’s your pleasure then, Dr. Goodsir?”

“I hardly know.  I am—rather spoiled for choice.”

“I’ll assist you, then.”

Hickey joined him on the bed.  There was a little more warmth just from having another body so close to his own; that proximity changed everything.  It was something to be registered in the log—a few degrees’ shift toward summer.

Hickey cupped his cheek.  “That is my occupation, you know.  Assistance.  What am I now?  A surgeon’s mate?  Is that what’s written down next to my name?”

“You’d have to ask Captain Crozier,” Goodsir managed as Hickey began untying his shirt.

“I’d rather ask you.”

“I suppose that would be the—technical term, yes.”

“And what would you call me?”

His hand stole lower, his fingers brushing lightly against Goodsir’s cock.  The touch through his drawers was so faint it was almost not there, so nearly absent it was all he could think about.

“If you keep on doing that, whatever you like.”  He remembered that that could be a dangerous thing to promise Hickey.  “Within reason.”

Hickey laughed, tucking his mouth against Goodsir’s throat.  The reverberation leapt against his pulse.  “You can still think enough to reason, Dr. Goodsir?  Let me unburden you a tick, then.”

 

November 1847

The creature again, and more this time.  They were up to their eyeballs in it that night.  Hours on hours spent trying to stitch men’s guts back into their bodies and scoop their brains back into their skulls.  Hickey was engaged in just this thankless, fruitless task when Commander Fitzjames hauled him off, Hickey’s hands still gloved in blood.

“The man’s dead, Mr. Hickey,” Fitzjames said precisely, as if that cultured purr of his would hide the rest of him.  Usually he had sleek, horsy good looks, but stress had melted him like a candle; caved his cheeks in, turned his complexion waxy.  “He’s been dead two minutes at least.  Your time would be better spent elsewhere.”

Hickey had sweat running all down his face but could hardly wipe it off without smearing gore on himself; he didn’t mind much in this world, but that particular thought made his stomach turn.

“Yes, sir.”

“Why are you blinking like that?”

“Sweat in my eyes, Commander,” Hickey said, thinking quite viscerally of tearing the man’s head off.

But Fitzjames took out a handkerchief, still a freshly laundered white, and dabbed Hickey’s brow with it: a few pats dried him.

“Go to, then, Mr. Hickey,” Fitzjames said quietly.

“Thank you, sir.”

It was still hours of work.  That steward Bridgens pitched in, a giant moving all about them, giving comfort where he could, applying compresses that did no good.  Hickey sought out the men who were already dying, the ones he could size up in a single look as doomed; the more they needed Goodsir’s care, the more it would be wasted on them.

Let Dr. Goodsir pile up the survivors and the salvaged; Hickey could wade through the blood of the rest.  He wasn’t Harry, it wouldn’t do him any harm to see them fall.

He even saved one, like some dice had come up in his favor.  A plainly hopeless case—and yet still breathing when the fuss was over.  He didn’t know what to think about that.

He got the blood off his hands, even scrubbed it out from underneath his fingernails.  All the moving around had left him unsteady, shaky, and he had to walk as carefully as he had when they’d first set sail, when he’d been clumsy and retching up his breakfast every morning.  He stayed close to the walls.  The men kept their distance from him, some of them knuckling their foreheads like he was a fucking officer.  He couldn’t have explained how he had gotten so far away from where he’d been before, for hours—no, he was losing his head.  He’d been washing his hands in somebody’s basin.  He’d been somewhere just a moment ago.

“You’re relieved, son.”

Listen to that accent.  Not his accent, but then it wouldn’t be, would it?

“Captain Crozier,” he said.  On Erebus?  He hadn’t gotten all the way back to Terror without noticing it, surely.

Crozier put a hand on his shoulder.  “Go lie down, Mr. Hickey.  You’re done in.”  Sad glassy eyes like a dying dog; breath like a broken bottle.  He smelled like a drunk, but he didn’t sound like one.  “You need to get off your feet.”

“I’m looking for Dr. Goodsir.”

That clumsy, heavy paw squeezed him.  “Then I’ll tell him where you are.”

That might do.  He nodded and went off.

How many dead?  They’d have to be counting parts to figure that out, have to be doing their fractions.  At least they had put a cannonball into the beast, or so everyone was saying.  He undressed and stood there shivering, his skin awash with gooseflesh, looking all pink and plucked like raw chicken.  Christ, he was tired.  He could barely think how to put on a nightshirt.  He gave up on it and went to bed next to naked, tucking the blankets around himself.

He didn’t mean to fall asleep, but he must have—closed his eyes and opened them again and Goodsir was there, undressing too.

Hickey propped himself up on an elbow.  His head felt tentatively clearer, like the furniture in it had been moved back into place even if the dust was still all up in the air.  “I was trying to find you.”

Goodsir had the weariest look on his face; the faint smile did nothing to clear it.  “I’m found, apparently.  You—you did well.  You—”

All he’d done was watch men die, more or less.  He’d worn himself out with their corpses.  He didn’t need to be reassured—he’d only done it because it was his work to do it, because he didn’t want Goodsir hip-deep in the worst of it without any help.

“Shh,” Hickey said.  He stood up and cupped Goodsir’s face in his hands, the man’s beard scratchy against his palms.  “What, you’ve got Bridgens looking after them?”

“And some of the men have volunteered…”

He was barely with Hickey at all: the absence was in his eyes.  He could have been doped up on laudanum for all the difference it would have made, and maybe he should have been, Hickey thought, because at least then he would have gotten some sleep.  Had anybody seen him coming into Hickey’s cabin instead of his own?  Maybe that little fact would escape unnoticed in all the confusion.  That was the dangerous thing about being tired: you exhausted your caution, got self-indulgent.  He’d be ashamed of this in the clear light of day.

What light, though?  They wouldn’t even see the sun again for months.

Goodsir looked him over head to toe and a flicker of liveliness came back into his face.  “You’ll catch your death standing around like that.”

“I’ll count on you to warm me up, then.”

They lay face-to-face, forehead-to-forehead.  Hickey could taste salt when Goodsir started weeping.  He kissed his eyelids gently, one after the other.  This all belonged to him more than whatever life he’d saved—he hadn’t even known that man’s name.  But he owned this, whatever it was.  Cold and knobby knees against each other in the dark.

 

December 1847

The tins preoccupied him.  It was a confounding thing to be flat on his back with Hickey between his uplifted, strained thighs and Hickey’s cock inside him—he’d been talked into outright sodomy so easily that though not ashamed of the act, he was a little ashamed of his own enthusiasm—and have his mind be elsewhere.  It beggared belief.

Hickey wasn’t indifferent to his wandering thoughts, either.  Usually these acts put him into a rare and genuine good humor, but tonight, he only lay back afterwards with his arms folded behind his head.  Silent.

“I’m sorry,” Goodsir said, touching his elbow.  “I’ve been inattentive.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me.  I’ve got my seed leaking out of you right now.  I’d say I got what I wanted.”

Goodsir wasn’t hurt by that, but he wouldn’t pursue the apology further, either, not when it wasn’t likely to be well-received.  He knew this had not lost him Hickey’s respect or affection—he was bedding a man who changed his expressions but not his sentiments.  Hickey’s actions were unpredictable; his heart was well-mapped by now.

Still, even though experience had taught him that Hickey would put aside his mood on his own, he nudged at Hickey until Hickey turned around, his narrow back to him, and Goodsir’s fingers climbed the ladder of his spine.

“I am distracted,” Goodsir admitted against Hickey’s shoulder.  He was very lightly freckled there, as if his Irish lineage had been granted only that quarter—and even then only grudgingly.  “I’m… concerned about our tinned food supplies.  About their healthfulness.”

“Some have turned up spoilt, I know.  There’ve been complaints.”

“Why is it, Cornelius, that you have such a way of sniffing out discontent?”

There was the soft chuff, the sound of Hickey’s amusement.  He had cleared out of his temper, then—he always preferred intrigue to sullenness.

“I only listen.  The men tell you all sorts of things if you have the right kind of face.”

“And what face is that?”

“Mine, I’d think.  Untrustworthy in general—unfailingly sound in particular.  As if I’d keep their secrets but tell them everyone else’s.  People like a face like that.”

Goodsir could sometimes forget the natural turn of Hickey’s mind, the cold dark corners of it, the animal brutality married to human schemes—all that which separated him from truly decent men.  He was a falcon leashed to Goodsir’s wrist.  It was an awful thing to feel that and be stirred by it—an awful thing and a foolish one, since Hickey had all but admitted he cultivated it, that feeling of singularity, of secret understanding.  All he thought he knew—all he thought he loved—it might mean nothing.  Less, even.

He kept his eyes on a single freckle, a pinprick spot of pigment.  “You’re right, in any case.  We’ve had spoiled goods, yes, most obviously, and that’s lessened our supplies for the return voyage.”

“When the leads open up.”  Hickey sounded mocking; he never raised the subject any other way, a cynic about every hope.  “And all our Christmas wishes come to fruition.”

“But there is more to it than the food having gone off.  I think so, anyway, but I can’t be sure.  I have to—try to discern it.  It might be the source of our mysterious ailments.  You know the rash of them we’ve had, and I worry they’re pebbles before an avalanche.”

Hickey turned back over to face him.  His pale eyes caught the light.  He seemed to be considering all this.  “And what do you think—”

“Dr. Goodsir!  Dr. Goodsir!”  A fist hammered against the door.

Hickey was up off the bed in a moment, looking around for a place to hide himself, but there was none; Goodsir’s cabin was larger than his own, but still hardly chockablock with shadowy nooks and recesses.  He wasn’t even dressed.

Goodsir thought of the welter of scars on Brown’s back.  He could picture them all too clearly on Hickey’s own skin—cruelly scored lines across those freckled shoulders he had just been admiring, across the narrow hips he had so often held in his hands.  He wrapped a blanket around himself and did his best to look heavy-eyed, a man pulled from a disorderly sleep.  He motioned Hickey to the far side of the room and then slid his door open to what he hoped was some exactly calculated width—wide enough to not seem suspicious, narrow enough to not show any part of Hickey.

It was Bridgens.  “I’m sorry to wake you, Dr. Goodsir, but it’s the Esquimaux girl, sir.  The one whose father—”

He could hardly help but remember, and couldn’t do so without a knife-sharp pain in his heart.  “Yes, Mr. Bridgens, I know her.”

“She was wandering around on the ice, sir, a little confused.  She has blood all down her front—I can’t say for certain, Dr. Goodsir, but I—”  He hesitated.

“I’ll grant you any leave to speculate,” Goodsir said gently: he’d never seen the man so ill-at-ease.

“I believe she cut her tongue out.”

He could not think.  “The man, her father—he had such an injury.  We didn’t think at the time that it could have been self-inflicted, but from what I understand, his daughter has been more or less in sight all this while…”  He shook his head.  He couldn’t go on like this with a young woman in pain and Hickey in danger.  “I’ll come, just let me dress.  Take her into the surgery, please.  Try to reassure her—do we have anyone on hand who speaks her language?”

“I’ll ask,” Bridgens said, nodding.  “Should I wake Mr. Hickey, sir?”

“No.”  He said it too quickly.  If that did not already give him away, the flush he felt must have done.

Bridgens studied him—it was not an uncomprehending gaze, which would have been his hope, but rather a compassionate one.  “I’ll see her settled in the surgery and waiting for you, then, Dr. Goodsir.  That will be calmer for her.  It’s all tumult and disorder on the deck where she is now—but next to empty here.”

He could hardly misinterpret that.  So there will be no one to see your lover stealing back to his own bed.

“Thank you, Mr. Bridgens.”  He only hoped his own sincerity was as clear as Bridgens’s guarantee of safety.

Once the door was closed, Hickey exhaled.  His whole demeanor now suggested they had just had some exciting adventure, but he surely couldn’t have been unworried—even if there could not have been a charge of sodomy, scandal and humiliation and the lash could easily have followed.  Goodsir wanted, uselessly, to take him to bed again, not from desire but from thankfulness.  The lust was maddening.  He wanted to close his lips around the dark head of Hickey’s cock and hear Hickey’s breathing turn ragged for him.  As though they had the time.

“Narrow miss, that,” Hickey said.  “That seems to be my specialty of late.”

“What do you mean?”

He began dressing.  “Another time.  Go see to your Eski.”

He did, following the sound of Captain Crozier’s voice, which sounded more and more as though it were being raked over sandpaper.  Lady Silence sat at the center of the surgery, with a horrible hive built up around her, an endless and angry buzz of argument that he could neither understand nor, in this moment, concern himself with.  He had no interpreter—both Captain Crozier and Mr. Blanky were engaged in the furor, on which sides and what topic he could not tell—and so he was on his own.

He held his hand before Lady Silence.  “May I touch?  I’m a doctor.  Doctor.”  It occurred to him that he had proved Hickey right in the end—he was what he said he was, and no one disputed it.  He touched his own lips and then motioned to hers.

Understanding registered on her face even through the pain and she opened her mouth for him.  Inside was nothing but darkness and blood.  She had done this to herself and then come to them—had done this for them?  Surely not, surely she could not feel she owed anything to them, when all the debt ran the other way and could never be repaid.  This was above and beyond them, then.  A sacred thing, despite the wet pain of it and the din in his ears.  There was meaning here that none aboard could translate.

He tried to show her kindness amidst it all—to ease the burden of her purpose.

 

January 1848

“Dr. McDonald has sent to us asking for some of our valerian,” Goodsir said, “as his stock is running low.  I wondered if you might like to take it over to him.”  Carefulness turned to ruefulness as Hickey looked over at him.  “I ask because it’s been some time since you last visited Terror, and of course many of the men are still berthed there, but I… believe you may have a certain prurient interest in the errand as well.”

Delight spread out in his stomach, warm as whiskey.  “Is this a late Christmas present for me, Harry?”  That name being the gift he had given to himself on the day itself: an intimacy he’d claimed only slowly, as if it, like some innermost layer of clothing, would still be warm from the man himself and well worth savoring.

“I know your love of gossip,” Goodsir said dryly.  “Which means that I should rightly act to hinder it, but you’ve corrupted me.  I too want to know how Captain Crozier progresses with his illness, and if I am going to satisfy the impulse by sending either of us, I would at least marry it to affection.”

The last word stirred the blood in Goodsir’s face.  He had no shame these days for what they did in the dark; what he resisted wasn’t sodomy but the man he took it from.  His Dr. Goodsir didn’t like fancying him—no doubt that was why he was always after him with soap-and-water morals.  He’d prefer an honest man.

Well, he wasn’t going to get one.  That bird had flown years back.  Gone was gone was gone.

“Did I say something wrong?”

Now Goodsir was earnest, all squashy warmth like bread rising in an oven.  Harry could forgive any kind of weakness if it would let him save his judgment for strength; he could make a fellow well again and then cut him down with contempt.

“No,” Hickey said.  Which was true enough: what wrong had Harry done ever, let alone to him?  That was what rankled.  “Give it to me, then, and I’ll play postman for you.”

“I can take it myself if the prospect of the walk’s bothering you.”  One corner of Goodsir’s mouth quirked up.  “I do recall how you feel about the cold.”

“It’s fine.”  He reached for his coat.  Against the cold and in favor of scandal, well, that was him all over, wasn’t it.  “Besides, at least it’s not a month back and us scurrying around out of fear of the creature.  That’s been quiet enough.”

He wondered how the Netsilik girl had tamed it—and why, having tamed it, she’d not used it to tear them all to pieces once and for all.  They all said she’d keened like a banshee when her father had died, but she couldn’t have liked him that much, could she, if she was leaving them be?  If he’d been her and had command over that, the Arctic would need a decade of snow to cover up the blood.  He would stain their precious Northwest Passage red.

But the word was that Lady Silence, doctored by Harry, had gone back to her people.  There’d been no sign of her or her pet since.

He couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  But it did mean the object of his curses on the walk to Terror was nothing more fearsome than the wind.

He came aboard and belowdecks, stripping off his gloves and chafing the feeling back into his hands.  He wasn’t going to lose the skin off his finger to a little glass vial of bloody valerian, thank you.

Across from him, drawn into conversation with some of the other lads, was none other than his old friend Billy Gibson, too skittish to even meet his eyes.  There was this to be said for his present situation—Harry was chockablock with wearisome virtues, but his courage was one of the more tolerable of the lot.  He wouldn’t have gone to Irving with his tail between his legs, panting for forgiveness.  He wasn’t that way.

Harry was more of an equal to him.  More of a match for him.

Enjoy flogging away at your own prick, Billy-boy.  I was destined for better things.

He took the valerian down to Dr. McDonald.

“Ah, thank you, Mr. Hickey.  You’re welcome to peruse my own little stores and see if I have any abundances where you’ve shortfalls—it’s my understanding from Dr. Goodsir that you’re very much his right hand, and would know the inventory.”

He had already bent to examine some of the bottles, but that made him straighten up.  “Does he say so, sir?  That’s very kind of him.  And we’re well-stocked in most particulars, sir, but one of our amputation knives broke from overuse during the attack a few months back.  We have another, but if you happened to have a spare, I shouldn’t say no to an extra, and I’m certain Dr. Goodsir would be thankful for it.”

“That day was hell, wasn’t it?” McDonald said.  “The middle drawer of the medicine chest to your left—you’re welcome to the older spare.  Though I suspect we’ll all be sharing quarters and instruments soon enough.  Captain Crozier will give the order to move all us Terrors over to Erebus and we’ll be rubbing elbows every time we turn around.”

He couldn’t say he liked the sound of that.  If it came to crowded berths, he hoped he could argue his way to bunking with Goodsir and not these kindly doctor-fathers with their pats on the head.

“And Captain Crozier’s condition, sir?  How does he fare lately?”

McDonald’s open face swung closed.

Everybody knows he’s drying out, Hickey thought.  That’s no secret.  Fine, so he’s closeted up so us lesser mortals won’t see him bespattered with his own piss and sick, that’s fair so far as it goes, but it’s a simple question: how does the man do?

“You are a man of medicine in your own right now, I suppose,” McDonald said finally.  “You were bloodied head-to-toe that day in November, or so I’ve heard.  You’re entitled to a professional opinion inasmuch as I can give you one, and I’m afraid it’s bound to disappoint you, because I hardly know.  Mr. Jopson guards him like a mother cat with kittens.  But he’s seemed more cheerful lately, and has come to me less often for remedies—including for valerian, which means our captain is sleeping on his own once more.”

“That’s good,” Hickey said.  He was surprised to find he meant it: he’d have imagined himself neutral on that point, since he’d no grudge against Fitzjames, not in the main.  Crozier might still carry a fondness for him, but he’d have expected that to be wrung-out by now.  He certainly wasn’t counting on it.

Crozier had done him a service once, of course.  Given him over to Harry.  There was that.

And they were coming to dire straits.  One more level-headed man would be a blessing—all the more since Crozier could talk to the Netsilik folk and bargain with them, maybe even cozen them out of more than they’d otherwise give.  Hickey had to think of that, too, if he was going to get them to the Sandwich Islands alive and well.

 

February 1848

After all those months.

Goodsir had never imagined he would see it again—of course he had not.  He’d thought it buried on David Young’s finger in a nailed-shut coffin under as many feet of rocky scree and tundra as their men had been able to dig.  He had made promises to himself about it—what he would do for Young’s sister in poor recompense.

But there the ring was on his own hand.  Its faulty glass gems shone the light back at him, dingy and dim.

He touched his dry tongue to his lips.  “How…?”

“It’s just a little token,” Hickey said.  He was canted towards Goodsir, as if shielding the gift from any passing view.  He looked free from guilt, but then he generally did.  “I came by it.”

“You came by it.”  He opened and closed his hand, feeling the constriction of the band against his finger.  “This was David Young’s.  I had promised to remove it for him once he’d passed, so that I could deliver it to his sister as he’d wanted.  But the way in which he died, his fright… it caused me to forget.”  He tugged the ring off—with some difficulty, for it didn’t want to budge from him either—and held it up.  “This was buried with him.  I am sure of it.”

Hickey had slid the ring onto Goodsir’s finger with a strange kind of shyness, as if such a courtship were possible for them, but now those delicacies were nowhere to be seen.  He spoke in clipped tones.  “He may have gone into his grave with it, but it didn’t stay there.  Why should it have?”

“You took this off a dead man’s finger?”

“I dug his grave.  Even hopped down into it to fix the lid down again.  It was only right I get payment for it.  Besides, from what you just got through saying, you were going to have it off him first.”

“For his sister’s sake, at his request!”

“And I saw a man with gold he couldn’t spend.  I didn’t know him and his wishes.”

But Goodsir had no confidence that it would have mattered if Hickey had.  Even after all they had shared, he could not picture Cornelius diligently writing to his brothers if he were gone.  Would he send them Harry’s medicine chest, which they had bought for him together?  Or would he claim it as his own?

That washed some of his righteousness away, because the situations could not be the same.  Surely however angry he was, however repulsed, he would concede that Hickey had a right to those knives and little glass bottles.  Goodsir would have even left them to him, in the earnest belief that Hickey would use them well.  He believed that still.

He could not say where the fault lay here.  Why was it better to bury the ring than take it?  Why was the body sacred even after the soul was gone?  Why kill a rat but not a dog?

“Harry,” Hickey said.  His hand was warm underneath Goodsir’s chin.  “If it means so much to you, then here it is back again.  You can see she gets it now.”  He pressed his lips to Goodsir’s cheek.  He had a solicitous manner in anything regarding love—the physical act of it—whatever the circumstances; he could not kiss or touch without it showing the better part of his nature.  He knew that, of course.  But the deliberate use of a truth could not turn it into a lie.

He was so tired.  The exhilaration of cutting his way through the uncharted territory of Hickey’s morals had long since faded; he was left with love and queasy shame and sometimes an aching hope that he could hardly stand.

And they were dying.  Scurvy was eating through their joints and flesh and gums.  They spooned poison into their mouths at every meal.

If this kept up, they would all soon be in their graves, and only Lady Silence’s people would be able to liberate anything from their remains, if the Netsilik even did such things.

The ring was an outrage, but it was one he had, perhaps, accepted a long time ago.  He knew Hickey’s strange, intense, and narrow soul.  He had come to own it and then, in fits and starts, to cherish it.  The matter between them was settled; he could not divorce himself from the parts of the bargain he did not like.  And he would sooner tear his own heart out than try.

This was no longer a thing he could be parted from, like a ring or a falconer’s glove.  This was part of him now.

And part of Hickey, too.  Their ownership was mutual.

Goodsir sighed and leaned forward, resting his head against Hickey’s shoulder.  He could not yet know whether this was resignation or some unknown and transcendent state of clarity.

“This can hardly be the response you expected,” he said.

Hickey’s chest twitched against him, but the laugh, if a laugh it had been, was not audible.  “No, I’d say not.”

“Whether I know their provenance or not, in the future, I’d ask for no more gifts you know I’d not like the source of.  Because you did know, Cornelius.”

“I have a provenance myself you may not like, Harry.”  His voice was strained.

Goodsir pulled back and slid the ring onto his finger once more.  The fit, he took in this time, was better than he would have expected.  “But I’ve taken you already.  And for the ring—I’m grateful nonetheless.  We can give it to her together, when we’re back in England.”

“I thought we might settle in the Sandwich Islands,” Hickey said.  “If you’d come with me.”

It was rare, Goodsir supposed, for men in their position to make plans—doubly so for men in their circumstances, surrounded by death on all sides.  But they were rare.  These months had made them so.

“I should like the Sandwich Islands,” he said, and Hickey smiled.  “But England first.”

Hickey kept on looking at the ring on Goodsir’s hand.  “All right.  As you like.”