He is drawn to Terror as if by a magnet. Old, worn out metaphor becomes new here, new and bitter, here, where the compass needle goes mad, as if in fever, as if it's also being devoured by scurvy.
Only several years ago he sent letters from Greenland, into which he poured long lamentations about how the magnetic observations had been entrusted to James, not to him. It seemed undoubtedly important back then, just another evidence of how insultingly poor the Admiralty values him.
He is not certain now, if he even knows the man who wrote those letters.
He remembers people he wrote to - as one remembers pictures in a book, portraits in a gallery.
At night - he still thinks about time for sleep as 'night', even when polar day spreads above him, immeasurable and empty - at night he becomes Terror . He grasps the ice with his anchors, and the snow stays under his fingernails. His ribs are aching, cracking under the slow, blind, unrelenting pressure. One time he wakes up from acute pain in his back, and in those foggy moments between sleeping and waking, when mind threads strange routes, he thinks with certainty - his back aches, because the Terror 's mainmast has given in, has broken under the wind and its own weight.
Netsilik would say that those dreams are brought by his little ship, the one that Silna left behind for him. There's no need even to ask, of course that's the answer he would receive. He takes the ship in his hand a lot, touches it, twirls it (...James had a habit to twirl things in his hands - a napkin, a napkin ring, a desert spoon, while he was telling his stories, reenacting them, and that habit seemed so, so irritating, who would know back then what amount of worry, of anxiety was hidden behind those constantly moving fingers…). It is a ship only in the widest sense of the word, it bears only the barest resemblance to a boat, but it's wooden, and wood is of great value here - Silna has given him a treasure - and it’s covered in little abrasions that he can feel even with his hardened fingertips. It's wooden, therefore it's warm, against any reasonable thought. The little ship is warm by itself, not because he never parts with it and keeps it as Silna has kept her amulets - at his chest, in the little fur bag, right at that place where his ribs meet.
He doesn't know what he himself believes. He doesn't know whether he wants to believe. Everything that happened during this expedition has eaten through his scepticism like a ship borer eats through the bulge. Nothing was left of his scepticism worth of mentioning. The existence of Tuunbaq, obvious and unquestionable, he could not deny, yet he could not accept it either, could not come to terms with it.
His scepticism had sunken and he didn’t even notice when it happened, he had too much on his hands. But now, when he finally has time to think about it, when he has nothing (...no one, no one, no one...) but time, he knows, it wasn't any faith that replaced his scepticism. It was emptiness. It was silence. It was a frozen plain under the light of polar day.
He values that silence, he wants it as much, as he can ever want anything now, because if not for silence, because beneath it there is… (...no one, no one, no one).
His teachers - they are very careful, very patient with him like with a child - they give him praise for how good he is at mastering the art of seal hunting, of waiting, of becoming completely still, becoming one with the ice. A seal can sense your thoughts, they tell him, don't think, just wait. He's far from agile, one-handed old man, but this task he can manage with little effort.
They don't know it, but he is so good at it only because it's a blessing for him not to think, to become one with the ice. Though the very word, blessing, seems out if place here, too pompous, too pretentious, almost like golden epaulettes and fine china.
And then - then it all comes back.
“God wants you to live”.
“We've seen worse, you and I”.
“It is you who are teaching us all”.
What kind of God is this, who wants this kind of life? And for what?
“Is here a God? Any God?”.
No, not like that. Goodsir didn't say it like that. Some other way. The tone rings in his memory like a false note, but he cannot find the right one.
He goes through every single memory, he tries to remember every single phrase, even the most mundane, to unravel every conversation, from the very beginning, from the very start. To remember, remember, remember, to wrestle this at least from the nothingness. He was never one to keep diaries and he regrets it now, now when his memory is far from sharp (... James kept diaries, all those journals, that neat, elegant handwriting of his. “Keep an eye on that one”, Blanky would laugh, “or upon return he would write a mountain of nonsense in his memoirs. You would never swear it off”...)
His own memories are in the Terror’s ship log, short and business-like entries, and that log had been left on the ship.
In his dreams he often opens the log, puts a pen in an inkwell and wants to start writing, but for some reason he can’t, just can’t, he forgets words, forgets letters, and his hand is lead-heavy (...lead…), and all this is unbearable, and then he remembers - he doesn’t have a left hand. He doesn’t have a left hand, that’s why he cannot write a single word.
He is right-handed, he has always been right-handed, but inside a dream one does not argue with a dream logic.
Well, Netsilik and all Inuit, they don’t have scripts, nor an alphabet aside from several signs. But they remember, and it’s a strong memory, it goes many polar days, many polar nights deep.
He doesn’t know why he never tries to share his memories with them. He won’t last long (... God wants you to live…), but this way his men, their faces, their voices, their lives, cut too short too soon (...no one, no one, no one) - this way they will outlive him. Would outlive him.
They would, but...
In his sleep the little ship still lies on his chest, and sometimes he wakes up because he cannot breathe, because he is sure for a second that Terror’s backbone runs afoul of his ribs, runs with all its weight, its unspeakable, horrible and wonderful weight. The pain is excruciating, yet for some inexplicable reason the very pain makes him feel alive.
No one else comes into his dreams, only she, Terror , his ship.
His ship. As much as a ship belonging to Her Majesty can be his. But here, among the ice, any ice, be in to the north or to the south, royal authority is not much more than an abstract concept. While you remain the captain, while your ship is at sea, you are the king. It’s even written down somewhere in Regulations, but it’s the truth than everyone knows, even the illiterate among the men.
Terror is his ship still. She lies, crippled, in the pack ice, but still - at sea. At sea. Crippled, frozen into the ice, motionless, and empty. As he is himself.
* * *
He doesn't know why he makes this decision. Maybe he just wants to be sure that she still exists, that she has ever existed in the waking world and not in dreams - or that the ice has devoured her at last.
But no, he would have known. He would have woken up, drowning is ice-cold, salty, lead-heavy (...lead…) water.
He should be afraid of how easily such thoughts come to him now. He should be afraid of losing his mind, afraid that, perhaps, the long-awaiting lead in his blood is finally taking over.
But to lose his mind doesn’t seem so frightening.
He has nothing to fear anymore.
It’s no leisure walk - to her, to the pack ice, northwards. But it is a manageable journey, even for him, even more - he’s accompanied by those who are much older than him, and they prepare for the journey as calmly and efficiently, as they do everything else.
That path. No, not exactly that, not the same, he could not, would not take the same path. It’s the route from another side of the island - the island, he knows now, it’s an island and it has a name in English atlases, a name that means nothing.
* * *
He doesn’t recognize the place at first and it causes him a short and sharp fit of panic. He must remember, he remembers, all those steeps and ravines, hungry maws of rampant ice. But the ice changes every summer, and there she is, his ship, the same and not the same, in the middle of the same and not the same sea.
Crippled, frozen into ice, motionless and empty.
The mainmast is broken.
* * *
He feels the second fit of panic when he remembers that for Netsilik Terror is a treasure, that it’s wood, still strong wood which means - frames, sledges, spears.
But they ask him. With earnesty and respect, and when he swallows and shakes his head, they don’t object, they share glances between them, but they don’t object.
That’s how English men would behave, but for Netsilik - what can his rights to the body of his ship even mean to them?
But they leave the great wooden treasure alone, they leave him alone with his ship, and they don’t approach the prow pointing to the white summer sky, and he feels gratitude, so strong, so sharp, that he wants to break into tears.
Here she is.
Here she is at last.
And he understands that he also cannot approach her. All that journey - and yet he cannot, may not come to her.
* * *
He’s afraid of falling asleep. He fears that if he lets himself, here, so close to real her, almost in the shadow of her crippled body, if he lets himself, then longing and grief will take him into he deep end and he won't find a way out.
He grips the little ship in his hand so tight and for so long that its ridges cut into his palm, leave red marks on it.
He knows that sooner or later he will give in. For how long exactly can a man of his age abstain from sleep?
Some time later he knows the answer. Not for long.
It is a fitting end in itself, he thinks and bows his heavy head. Something Greek emerges on the surface, meaningless pieces of poetry and verb conjugations, Franklin’s cheerful voice from afar, “We are Argonauts, gentlemen!”. And then - a weary old man falls asleep under his long broken, washed astrand ship, and the fragile backbone crumbles, crumbles, crumbles down and buries him.
Yes, is his last thought, yes, that is me.
* * *
The deck catches Francis, doesn’t let him fall. Strong, scrubbed clean deck and also - someone’s hands in white gloves, familiar and unfamiliar at once, hands that hold his shoulders.
Francis knows this voice, he would not confuse it with any other, he recognized this voice even from the depth of his fever, from the depth of his delirium.
“I’m afraid you haven’t set a foot on the deck for so long that you might have lost your touch, sir. And look at yourself, you’re covered in snow”.
Francis has no other choice than to lift up his eyes.
Thomas Jopson smiles at him, Thomas Jopson in his third lieutenant uniform, dress uniform. And God knows, any god, whichever god, Jopson has deserved his shining buttons, his sparkling epaulettes, his brand new white gloves.
“Thomas”, Francis manages, his voice fails. “Tom… God almighty, Thomas, forgive me”.
“There, there, captain”, Jopson says and smiles again with that wonderful smile of his. “It wasn’t your fault, sir. I know”.
Francis knows that it’s not true, he knew it wasn’t true, but it's coming away, dissolving, melting just like the snow that Jopson is busily brushing away from his collar. (Collar of what exactly? For some reason Francis cannot tell, but it doesn’t matter).
“This is beneath you now, Thomas”, Francis says.
“Taking care of you will never be beneath my dignity, sir”, Jopson replies calmly and continues to brush the snow away with his white gloves.
Dignity, yes. Dignity is what he was robbed of, left behind, dying alone. The horror of such death Francis cannot even begin to imagine. Dignity is what’s back now, Jopson beams with it, it shines through his brand new coat.
“It’s so good to have you back with us, sir”, Jopson says. “We all missed you a lot”.
“I… I came as soon as I could, Thomas”,' Francis says, and he feels guilt again, but some other kind of guilt.
“Of course, sir. Of course. Don’t you worry about that, sir”'.
Jopson nods his head very seriously and then - he takes Francis' hand and kisses it. As a dutiful, devoted son would kiss a hand of an aging parent.
She had died, his mother, Francis knows. He understood that, when he remembered their conversation later, when he had time, when he had nothing but time.
And it feels like the most natural thing in the world, to kiss on Jopson’s bowed forehead, to put a stray lock of his hair back behind his ear.
“I'll see you around, sir”, Jopson says. “We’ve all been waiting for you”.
* * *
Francis lifts his head and sees the flag, and hears the flag, the familiar clapping in the wind. But despite the sun standing high and the day being clear, despite seeing the flag right in front of him, he cannot figure out, just cannot figure out, what exactly is on the flag.
* * *
“What on the damn earth took you so long, Francis?”
Blanky lands on the deck with agility and deftness that would put to shame a seaman half his age, and lets go of the rope.
He still wears his grey sweater, the same grey sweater in which he went down to meet Tuunbaq. And those forks, those damn forks that made Francis choke with laughter and grief at the same time, those forks are still attached to that sweater too, and when Blanky grips him into hug, again with a strength of man half his age, Francis feels the blunted prongs at his chest.
“Have you sailed to England and back, old man, to the Queen, for your knighthood?”
Blanky's graying hair has grown even longer, it looks even more like a mane, and he, with that constant squint of his, now more than ever before reminds Francis of a lion, a British one, or any other.
“Of the two of us it's you who deserve a knighthood', Francis says in earnest.
“To think about it, I'll give you that. What was the name again of that pirate, knighted by Old Bess?”
“Drake. And stop pretending that you don't know”.
“Drake, that's right. Why, I didn't graduate from any naval academy. Unlike certain gentlemen among us”.
And Francis notices how those mercilessly bent forks form something across Blanky's chest, something that he cannot find any other name for, except - the honorary decorations.
Francis expected Blanky to appear in one piece here like he had been before everything. But no, his leg still makes a distinct wooden sound. Except that he climbs the mast like a man in his twenties and doesn't even wince once. “You make that contraption work like a ballet”, he once said to Thomas, but now it's true.
Wait, it wasn't him who said that. He would remember, and besides - when did he last call Thomas 'mister Blanky', except for official occasions? And when was he known for giving flowery compliments?
“That's right, it was’t you who said that. You weren't present. It was I who said that”.
Francis turns around and James takes a long stride towards him, and the sundogs, all three of them, are shining blindingly above his head.
“Francis”, he says.
“Francis”, he says again.
As if he, the most eloquent man in the Navy, was suddenly at a loss for words. And Francis understands him as never before.
James still says his name in that vaguely French manner, stretching the vowels so it becomes almost 'Frauncis'. It once sounded so irritating, so pretentious, and now - here Francis is, willing to just listen to his own name, listen and listen.
“I've missed you so much, Francis”, James says, simply and inartificially.
He’s not wearing a cap, and in his hair there is… There is a rose-knot made of a satin ribbon, navy-blue and gold. Its loose ends curl the same way James' hair curls. The sight is alien and the most natural in the world all at the same time. But it definitely doesn't look like one thing, like a masquerade.
Well, if there ever was a naval officer who could look completely natural and appropriate with a rose-knot of ribbons in his hair, it was James Fitzjames.
James takes his hand and all thoughts halt.
James' warm lips touch his knuckles, and then James turns his hand around and his lips touch the wrist, just above the pulsepoint, and then - the very center of the palm. James looks so concentrated, so attentive, as if this was the most important, the most needed, the most glorious task in the world.
And the most simple one. The most natural.
And there's nothing in his touch of Jopson's filial devotion, although James is also almost young enough to be Francis's son.
James takes his other hand, looses straps of his sleeve. Francis almost wants to withdraw his hand, when the scar is exposed - a well-healed scar, but still accidented, not a pleasant sight for anyone, even himself. He almost wants to withdraw, but only almost.
James inspects the stump with the same attention and concentration. His fingertips trace the ridge of skin, where the needle marks are still visible, marks from the seal intestines that Silna used to stitch the wound.
James takes the stump to his lips, and for a moment, like in a flash, Francis feels his long lost hand again.
* * *
James leads him through Terror , still holding his hand, and it's inconvenient inside the ship, but Francis also wouldn't agree to let go of James' hand.
It's warm inside Terror , so warm as it was last time when heating systems still worked, and even back then it wasn't, not really.
Francis has thought that he was warm with the Netsilik, and it was true, he is endlessly grateful to them; it was warm under furs and pelts and beside the hearths, always warm - apart from that place somewhere deep inside his chest, the place unreachable for any warmth.
This place is getting warm now.
James takes him to the stern, stops there. Sundogs shine above his head, always right above his head, but for some reason it doesn't hurt to look at them.
“Thank you, Francis”, James says. “Thanks to you, I have one face now”.
He takes Francis' hand and places it over his own chest, on the left side. Francis is almost ready to withdraw again - the wound, the reopened wound, it's there somewhere - but James only presses his palm harder. Francis remembers, how this heart, weary, exhausted, stopped beating under his fingers. And now it's beating steady and strong, and James' body, even through his coat, radiates warmth, almost heat, and it's not the heat of fever, but the heat of health, youth, strength. This heat reminds Francis of Terror's steam engine, and this unsophisticated comparison doesn't seem unfitting.
"I like steam engines”, James smiles. Probably, Francis has said it out loud.
Or he didn't need to say it out loud.
He remembers how in the last days - he didn't know they were the last, James, brave, sturdy, courageous, those days, so short, too short. In those last days Francis didn't even need to say things out loud sometimes to know that James had understood him, had grasped his idea, had shared his worry - and like every shared burden, the worry became two times lighter. Francis didn't have time back then, they didn't have time back then, nor did they have energy. Days too short, too few.
“One heart”, James says quietly.
“You have always had one heart”, Francis replies.
James smiles at him, with a wide, open smile, and three sundogs above his head, three phantom suns come together, meet, merge into one.
The sun above Arctic, the sun above England, the sun above Rio-de-Janeiro.
* * *
The men greet Francis with joy, but in such a manner, as if he had been away from the ship due to some mundane task and returned, as if no ice lied between them, no fire, no death. As if they never even doubted his return. As if he couldn't be separated from Terror for a long time anyway.
He can tell them now, tell each and every one if them, Hartnell, Collins, MacDonald, Bridgens, others, all of them, tell them how proud he is of them. How endlessly proud.
Francis can’t find only one of those who, as he knows, has certainly returned to the ship. Francis searches for him in the crowd - and there he is, not far away, he stands with his head hanged and shoulders bent, the guilt and shame incarnate.
“Edward”, says Francis and offers his open hand. “There now, Edward, do come here”.
And Edward Little does.
* * *
Francis follows James and listens to how heels of his boots clatter on the deck - James strides wide, confidently, always like on parade. The best walker in the Service, isn't he? But Francis hears something else as well. A rustle, deep and soft.
"Wait", he tells James. "Turn around".
James laughs and turns on his heels, spins with effortless elegance, like in a waltz at a ball. Yes, here it is. A rustle of heavy fabric folds. Like someone is drawing a velvet curtain, or a train of a fancy gown is following its owner.
Francis is certain about the color of that imaginary velvet. Deep red, dark cherry.
Wine-dark, as the sea.
* * *
I will wake up soon , he thinks. Even the best of dreams cannot continue for this long, I will wake up soon.
He tries not to look too closely, not to touch too persistently, not to сonsider too carefully, not to ask dangerous questions neither others nor himself, because he knows that otherwise the dream would give in, would start to thaw. These efforts are in vain, it's beyond his strength not to do any of this, but the more he stares, the more he touches, the more real and substantial Terror and her men become around him. Francis runs his hand on bulwarks where the paint has сhipped and later finds in his fingertip a sliver, a long and tangible one.
* * *
"We can sail here", Blanky says with distinct pride. "Right here".
He has a map in his hand, the old chart Francis knows. He leans so closely that he can even see the weaving of fabric that bears the paper rectangles, can see their frayed edges. But for some reason he just can’t focus on the place Blanky is showing him. There’s something written there, boldly, with a pencil across the tentative lines, those cautious assumptions of the Admiralty cartographers, but Francis cannot tell, what exactly is written there. Just cannot tell.
One can never read inside a dream, Francis knows.
"I'm sorry, Thomas. I just… just can't grasp it".
And he suddenly feels guilty, like he somehow has let Thomas down.
The smile leaves Blanky's face, and his voice becomes earnest - and soft, so unlike his usual one.
He pats Francis on the shoulder, strongly, reassuringly.
"Never mind", he says. "Never mind. You'll figure it out later, Francis".
* * *
James stops to scratch Neptune's upturned belly, pats its shaggy ears, makes funny faces at the dog. He always liked Neptune, and the dog clearly returned his tender feelings. Francis remembers looking at the dog and thinking, even you, old chap, even you are enchanted by the insufferable Fitzjames. Presented with an opportunity, James would catch the ship's cat and subject it to his affections as well, but the cat was always a feral one. And there it is, by the way, the cat - the light steps of little paws.
And here is...
A black tip of a tail flickers just around the corner. Too big to belong to a cat. And Francis is sure that he sees a spotted paw, too big for a cat as well. But just the right size for...
A cheetah. James’ cheetah.
"What?" James laughs. “Just so you know, we have practically an invasion in the hold. Rats have gnawed on my boots. So I decided that we were in need of a slightly bigger cat”.
“She almost mauled you to death one time!”
“And I absolutely deserved that. I had pulled her tail”, James smiles again. “Other than that, she is a thing of angelic temper, our Nebet is. She's just a bit shy, but you'll have an opportunity to pet her later, Francis”.
Rats, Francis thinks, there always have been hordes of rats in the hold, that much is true. Strange as it may seem, almost funny, he is glad that rats are here too. He doesn't want Terror , even transformed, with her transformed men, to become a ship from official paintings of royal maritime artists. He wants her to remain herself, with rats in her hold, with chipped paint on her broadsides, with a сreaky, almost screechy quarterdeck, with wood-worms, with loose hinges of her doors.
* * *
“We'll sail west”, Blanky says, and James nods in agreement.
“Yes”, Francis agrees as well, because everything in him agrees with the word 'west', agrees immediately and fully. “But where exactly?”
The Pacific Ocean lies to the west, in the west they will find whalers and tropical islands, but right now for some reason the Pacific Ocean, the immeasurable Pacific Ocean seems not enough. Not really enough.
Something else. There must be something else, he's certain.
Blanky looks at him oddly.
"You are the Irish one here, Francis. You tell me".
I am not Irish enough for that , Francis thinks. What an irony, for all my life I've been too Irish for everyone, for the Admiralty, for Franklin, for Lady Jane (even if not for Sophia) . A face too Irish, a speech to Irish, a temper too Irish. But his parents were trying so hard for all their lives to set themselves apart from everything Irish, and he couldn't blame them. People suspected him to be a secret Papist, that maybe he hides a rosary somewhere, but the truth was that his family wouldn’t get closer than a mile to a catholic church, ever.
If he had a real Irish nanny, then maybe… But he only read about a nanny like that in sentimentalist novels.
And yet… And yet, perhaps, there is something that enters you on its own, something that comes with an Irish face, and an Irish speech, and an Irish temper. Something that enters you with the scent of the Irish sea, different from the scent of Arctic water, different, and yet somehow the same. There's only one sea; he knows this, because he’s a member of Royal Scientific Society, and he knows this, because he's Irish.
The voyage of Saint Brendan, the thought emerges on the surface of his mind, and the island with a crystal tower, and Brazil, where James was born, though the name, 'Brazil', doesn't sound quite right, like there should be more to it. And finally - the albatross, albatross, but this is probably about something else.
"I think", Blanky says, looking at the horizon with serenity. "I think you shall have no trouble finding the way for us".
* * *
Some part of him fears that they are just puppets that he sets to motion, just phantoms created by his longing; he fears that when he turns away they just stop, adroop, empty. He would never, never wish such a fate on them.
He would never wish such a fate on himself.
But the ship lives on her own, breathes, chatters, works - on her own. Blanky schools young Hartnell in the art of ice-reading or merrily discusses something with James, they both laugh and swing their arms. When they will understand that two daredevils like them can actually make an alliance, the world will tremble, Francis thinks with warmth.
And he hadn't known the name of James' cheetah before, had he? James never told. Or did he? Or he did, during the first two years of the expedition, when he went through his vast collection of adventures several times. Or he did, and Francis just forgot. Forgot then and remembered now, it happens sometimes, it's possible, the memory is a tricky and unpredictable thing.
He feels cold for a second.
But Little, with his ever present earnestness and thoroughness, cathehizes Jopson about intricacies of lieutenant's duties.
* * *
Look , James says, or maybe just thinks, and gestures South with such an expression, as if he himself has hidden there a pleasant surprise.
And Francis looks. There's a shore of the island visible through the fog, but he sees through the island as through the fog. And they come to meet him, two deceivingly low-sloped mountains, white, so white from the everlasting snow. Far, unimaginably far, and yet - not much farther than Nunavut.
Erebus , Francis thinks, with worry and almost guilt. Erebus, Terror' s sister.
" Erebus is damaged", James says. "She had her propeller bent, remember? We'll have to leave her. I've already said goodbye to her and gave orders to carry everything of value to Terror as you suggested from the start back then. I won't be able to get Erebus out, Francis. But you can take Terror out".
Francis knows this to be absurd. He knows that the opposite is true, that between the two ships frozen into ice Erebus is the one far less damaged, almost hale, and it's Terror who is maimed by ice beyond hope.
But there's no ice here, here his ship softly rocks on the waves, and here it's true.
"She is almost ready to set sail", James says.
And this is also true, Francis knows. She is almost ready.
"Thank you, James", Francis says. "You've kept the ship and the men in perfect order, while I was gone. As you did the first time".
James smiles, and Francis somehow earnestly and without a second thought includes into the notion of the perfect order all of this: Blanky's torn sweater, covered in forks, and the cheetah's tail, and the rustle of the invisible velvet.
* * *
Or, perhaps, I simply died, simply reunited with them at last - with my ship, with my men. Does one know when he passes the gates of death?
It's not the gates of death, says something inside him, because your ship is Terror , not Erebus . This is madman's logic, but Francis has nothing to say in objection.
And besides, shouldn't there be a river beyond the gates of death? The river and not the sea? And isn't the realm of death inhabited by shadows, shadows devoid of memories and wishes, shadows you can only wake up by giving them your own blood to drink?
And not the other, the other way around, because it's they who fill him with life again?
* * *
Francis knows all those words, and none of them are kind, but they don't matter any more. Not here and not for him. Not for them. Not for anyone.
Although something inside him still braces for a second when James takes his hand, interlocks their fingers and leads him along the board, showing him something, telling him something, asking advice about something. Francis knows, the men look at them, but it's just that - looks, nothing more. Looks fleeting and friendly.
Well, encouraging, when it's Blanky's.
"You have some taste, don't you, Francis?" comes from above, from masts. "The most handsome man in the British Navy, isn’t he?"
James laughs, and it’s a positive and undeniable truth, that thing about the most handsome man in the Navy, be it British or any else.
Not that it mattered. When James had open wounds on his face, when he had bleeding gums and chapped lips oozing with ichor, when he smelled of copper (and it strangely, horribly reminded of a penny in a pocket), of copper and decay - Francis loved him the same.
"I know", James says and holds his hand even more tightly. "I know, Francis. That’s why I found the way".
James is standing, leaning on the bulwarks and looking into south horizon, where beyond silver-blue strand of water lies the shore of King William Island. Francis knows, James often comes here and waits. Who is he looking for?
"Dundy", James answers and sighs.
But Francis has already understood. Henry Le Vesconte, who had been baptised with that unimaginable middle name Dundas.
Francis doesn't want to tell James how he saw Le Vesconte, or rather Le Vesconte's body, for the last time. The camp, picked human bones, someone's leg cooked in the boot, and Le Vesconte… He was so dear to James, the faithful companion in so many adventures, the co-owner of the cheetah, and Francis can't bring himself to speak.
"I know, Francis", James says. "But Dundy and that dense head of his… What does he think, that you would throw him away from she ship, or something?.."
Francis thinks, he is not mine to forgive.
James nods. "Yes, I understand".
Francis squeezes his hand reassuringly and says, "If he comes, he will not come to me".
James nods again, with sadness and solemnity.
* * *
Francis knows that Franklin will never come. And he doesn't want him to come. For one part, and not the biggest one - because of possessiveness (they are mine , she is mine ). For the second part, much bigger… Franklin would never want to stay. Franklin always wanted to return.
Let him return, Francis thinks. Let him come home, to his wife, who he called 'Janie' (and Francis cannot loathe her anymore, this overbearing woman who he blamed for so many of his misfortunes before). If this is possible, let Franklin find his way to that clean, that airy and bright heaven that he believed in so earnestly. Let him find his ladder, deep and heartfelt words about which I butchered so ugly, barked so hoarsely at his funeral.
Francis harbors no grudge anymore. He doesn't want to.
He knows that Goodsir will never appear as well. Due to different reason. The completely opposite reason.
"This land is beautiful to me, captain, even now. Even now".
Francis reaches across the plain covered in shale, reaches and finds her. The woman in furs, the woman without tongue. Francis is so glad that she is alive, in the voluntary exile, like he is, but alive, like he is. He feels a connection to her, a connection as strong as the one binding him to the ship, to the men, to James.
She has no tongue and yet she talks to a spirit.
To a spirit who speaks English. But Inuktitut as well, and two languages merge into one more and more.
Goodsir's suicide is worthy of condemnation only in the eyes of the Christian God, but where is he, that God? And even if the dared to condemn, Francis would be the first to tell him to get out.
Get out of this land, the land that took Goodsir's blood, that took the man himself.
Francis knows that Silna sees him as well. She even smiles at him. He has thought for so long that the stoic, unreadable expression never leaves her face - until he noticed one day how she talked to Goodsir, how alive and expressive her face became. He was the only one on both ships who made her laugh. Who wanted her to laugh.
I haven't gotten a chance to thank her, Francis thinks, to give her my gratitude. He remembers thanking her for his life, but not for this last gift, for his little ship. And it seems important, endlessly important.
"Thank you", he manages. He doesn't know, which language he's using, perhaps, both at once. "Thank you for this".
She looks at him, nods. As if acknowledging something. Then she twists her brow. She gestures to the little ship in Francis' right hand. Shakes her head. Points at the stump of his left hand. And nods emphatically.
Wrong hand, Francis understands without words. Wrong hand.
* * *
There are ones, who are just slow in coming, Francis thinks. He himself hasn't found the way at once. It's not that easy for everyone, to find Terror 's ship lights in the fog.
There are ones, who will never come, Francis knows. Ones, who have nobody to wait for them.
Francis sometimes senses the far, barely audible echo of eternal hunger, the roaring emptiness inside a monster who wanders around the ice, the emptiness and loneliness.
"You must be surpassingly lonely, mister Hickey".
* * *
"I've heard that you allowed James Ross to call you 'Frank', James says.
Ross… “James dear” . A longing touches Francis. But Ross is back home, back with Ann who Francis almost hated once, because it's for her Ross had left the sea, but who he remembers with warmth now. Ross is back with his children. Ross will overcome the loss, will live through the sorrow, and maybe a day shall come...
There's only one sea.
"I want to ask you for the same privilege", James says, and behind his light-hearted tone there's something deeper.
"You may call me any name you want", Francis says, filling every word with the utmost earnesty.
"Are you certain?" James asks, and there's no lightheartedness anymore. "It's dangerous to give one such a power".
His words evoke something from the memory, something Francis heard among the Netsilik, conversations about how reckless it is to give them power over you, how dangerous it is to form certain bonds with them.
He looks at James, but it's only James, his hair is shining under the sun, the rose-knot, the navy coat, and James looks back at him attentively, waiting. This is only James. There are no them .
And even if there are, then Francis is one of them.
"I am absolutely certain, James", he says.
* * *
What will it mean to wake up? Shall I die?
You shall not die, but change, comes from the depths of his memory. Some Biblical verse, they never helped Francis, not him.
To die is not the worst thing, he thinks. Far worse would be to wake up in the light of polar day, far worse would be to forget all of this - as any dream flows away from one's memory, unavoidably, unbetterably, unrecoverably.
You shall not die, but change, comes again, with persistence.
* * *
Francis begins to notice the thing some time later, when he already can notice anything else in James' presence but him. It's the shield, the shield from the carnival costume of Britannia, thin wood and tin, and a slightly crooked Union Jack. There are traces of fire on the ridges, but only traces, although the shield along with all the carnival paraphernalia has definitely perished in flames.
The edge of the shield peeks from somewhere from time to time, as if the shield somehow comes with James himself, but Francis never saw the thing being carried by anyone. The shield just faithfully follows James around the ship, just happens to be in the same places as its owner.
James touches the shield sometimes, strokes it with his fingertips, as one would stroke an old dog.
James is teaching third lieutenant Jopson how to dance waltz, and not some simple one at that, a fancy one, full of intricate figures. Jopson is the only officer on the ship, including James, who's wearing a dress uniform, but it seems natural and well-deserved. He is, Francis should give him that, a diligent and capable pupil, and James himself is noticeably better at lady's part than many actual ladies Francis has seen. And Francis also feels how air is stirred by the wine-dark velvet.
"You are doing great, Thomas", James reassures Jopson in a big brother tone of voice. "You shall definitely make use of this skill in places we're going to".
And when Jopson finally begs for mercy, James turns to Francis and offers him a hand.
Francis shakes his head. "I've been as elegant as a penguin even in my best years. All the more now".
He lifts his stump as an evidence.
James doesn’t seem disturbed in the least.
"Nonsense", he says joyfully. "I shall lead. And for that, trust me, you won't even need your head, much less the other hand".
And Francis hears him. You will need the other hand for something else.
If only he knew, for what. If only he knew, how.
James is still smiling and offering his hand, and Francis takes it.
* * *
Francis is standing on the stern. Terror is breathing under him, and the sea is breathing under Terror.
He thinks about Ross again. And not only about him.
Ross was so close to him, in flesh, it would be enough to just draw the pelt away to take him by the shoulder. But then a winter ice lied between them, ridges and ridges up to the horizon. Ross is in England now, hundreds of miles away from here. But now the sea lies between them, the sea that washes against England and Nunavut both, and the sea will help Francis.
They are still intact, the sheafs and sheafs of standard Admiralty papers, given generously, with plenty to spare, with an order to throw them into the sea at any opportunity. With a message on them, considerately printed in all naval languages. Francis hasn't found the assigned сases, but there are plenty of empty whiskey bottles on Terror.
They will suffice.
He is worried that he won't be able to write a single line again, but no, the words fill the empty space under the printed text easily, by themselves. And he doesn't need many words.
James, dear, Sophia, my darling. Live long. Live happily, if you can. If not - just live, that's enough. Remember me, if that will make it easier for you. If not - let the memory of me flow with the water. With love, Francis.
The waves take the messages, rock them gently, slowly carry them away. Not tomorrow, not any time soon, but one day the sea will deliver them.
Francis thinks about the others. About James' adoptive brother, his sister-in-law, his godchildren. About Jopson's siblings. About Esther Blanky, singular and fierce. About Mr Diggle's little girl, who was given a second name in honor of Erebus. About everyone he knows. About everyone who stays ashore.
Time is but another current , a thought comes from somewhere deep inside. And everything that flows always returns to sea.
* * *
James bends his knee - an elegant, smooth motion - and takes Francis' right hand into his own. He doesn't say anything, just looks.
The meaning of the gesture is clear to Francis, although he never would have imagined himself on the other side of such a scene. But there's no anger, no humiliation, no longing, only the memory of them.
Now he feels warm, only warm.
It's dangerous, a voice from inside reminds him, and there's something else, something vague about pomegranate seeds. Of course it's dangerous, Francis answers to that voice. It's no one else we are speaking about but James Fitzjames, the worst daredevil across the British seas.
And so - Francis nods.
Then James lets go of Francis' hand - not for long, only to take the rose-knot out of his hair, to pull the free end, to loose the blue and gold ribbon.
“This is something Irish, I've read about it somewhere”, James explains. ”Or maybe not”.
“Yes”, Francis answers again.
It takes time, quite a lot of time, since they have only one free hand between the two of them. And the satin ribbon slides with a barely audible scroop while it binds their joined hands, binds once, twice, thrice.
* * *
Blanky looks at the ice overboard or rather - admires the ice. Gives Francis his pipe without looking.
“Look, there it is, that bastard”, he says with almost a tenderness in his voice and calls the ice one of his own words, that nobody but he understands. Those words make one suspect something sentimental and crude in equal measure.
"You come to ask about the leg, don't you?" Blanky says and nods at Francis's stump unceremoniously.
"I do", Francis smiles. "And to have a free smoke, while I'm at it".
Blanky laughs. "I bet you do, you stingy Irish bastard".
He takes his pipe back, draws it off.
"I wish I could help, Francis. But I can't".
He interrupts his ice-gazing, looks right at Francis and says with weight to his words. "I'm no advisor to you here, Francis. I'm the ice master. The captain is you".
His answer seems important, but the meaning escapes, slips away like a piece of ice from the prow of the ship.
"I don't even own Terror in the full sense of the word", Francis says.
"What's the big deal", Blanky grins. "We will steal her, then".
"From Admiralty and Her Majesty?"
Those names, those words, those titles seem empty here, as if washed out.
"From anyone", Blanky says completely serious. "From anything".
And everything inside Francis agrees with him unequivocally.
* * *
James is teaching him some Portuguese, because Francis has asked him. James sometimes switches to Portuguese and it seems that he himself doesn't always notice. Francis wants to understand him, wants to know the meaning of those little words, uttered in whispers.
Learning Portuguese is probably a lost cause from the start. Francis was never the one with an exceptional talent for languages, and as to Portuguese, he picked a word here and a phrase there, when he visited Rio-de-Janeiro with his first ship, the same year James was born. Probably there would be a task more hopeless, only if James would decide to teach him how to draw. But it doesn't matter. His thick Irish accent amuses James, and he's holding James' open hands on his lap. Not because it has anything to do with learning Portuguese, but because they both want it that way.
James's hands are lying on his lap, the charts of undiscovered seas, the lines of unknown currents, and Francis wants nothing more than to follow and follow them.
* * *
You know it, don't you , James thinks, we are waiting only for your command to set sail.
“James”, Francis says. “What will it mean, to set sail? For all of us and for me, because I'm still…”
Alive, he wants to say, I'm still alive, but it doesn't sound like truth anymore. Not because he doesn't feel alive himself, but because he doesn't feel like they - the ship, the men, James - are dead.
“Because you are still ashore”, James nods, and this sounds like truth. “I don't believe it matters. We'll always have time to go to the sea”.
“To the sea? To the eternity?”
“I don't know much about the eternity, Francis. I'm a sailor, not a priest. And you are a sailor too. Which is fortunate for us all”.
There's something important in his words, something endlessly important, but Francis just cannot grasp it, pin it down.
He looks James in the eyes and calls his greatest fear by name.
“You fear that you are imagining us all, is that what it is, Francis?” James says with bitterness and openness at the same time, “You know, Francis, among your many virtues, I'm not quite sure that you have ever been in possession of such a vivid imagination”.
“But I have a good memory, James”.
James shakes his head with frustration.
“Memory? Is that so? Does your memory include this?”, he asks, gesturing to the rose-knot in his hair.
And, not giving any time to respond, he continues, “Trust me, Francis, I know what it's like - to be made up. Yes, meu coração , you hold all of this…”
James opens his arms wide, and every trace of anger vanishes from his face, leaving it open as well, open and vulnerable.
“But it's not because you are imagining us, it's because you want us to exist, because you love us all more…”
Time halts and Francis remembers, falls back into desolation, into that bitter day after the mutiny and Tuunbaq. James said something to his back, under his breath, barely audible. Francis didn't fully grasp it, too tired to listen closely, to dwell on it. But now that James, weary, exhausted, a walking distance away from his death, and this James, healthy, strong, shining - and both of them are real, painfully real - both of them speak and Francis hears.
“You love us more than God”.
And everything is suddenly clear to Francis, blindingly clear, and it robs him of breath, of words. He understands, he knows, he does.
Francis grasps his James with his right hand, as tightly as he can. And with his left hand, the hand that he doesn't have, he grasps Terror, and the ship comes to his hand, fits into his hand.
* * *
Francis wakes up, but waking up does not scare him anymore.
He stands on the deck of Terror , and he holds Terror tightly in his hand.
In his left hand.