It is short, rat-faced Cornelius Hickey, caulker’s
mate. The men look all the same out here on watch in the dark
since they’re all issued the same cold weather slops
– layers of flannel and wool covered with a heavy, waterproof
great coat, bulbous mittens protruding from voluminous sleeves,
their Welsh wig – a heavy watchcap with floppy ears
– pulled tight, often with a long comforter –
scarf -- wrapped around the man’s head until only the
tip of a frostbitten nose is visible. But each man layers
or wears his cold-weather slops slightly differently –
adding a comforter from home, perhaps, or an extra Welsh wig
tugged down over the first, or perhaps colourful gloves lovingly
knit by a mother or wife or sweetheart peeking out from under
the Royal Navy outer mittens – and Crozier has learned
to tell all fifty-nine of his surviving officers and men apart,
even at a distance outside and in the dark.
Hickey is staring fixedly out beyond the icicle-sheathed
bowsprit, the foremost ten feet of which are now embedded
in a ridge of sea ice as HMS Terror’s stern has been
forced up by the ice pressure and the bow is pushed lower.
Hickey is so lost in thought or cold that the caulker’s
mate doesn’t notice his captain’s approach until
Crozier joins him at a railing that has become an altar of
ice and snow. The lookout’s shotgun is propped against
that altar. No man wants to touch metal out here in the cold,
not even through mittens.
Hickey starts slightly as Crozier leans close
to him at the railing. Terror’s captain can’t
see the twenty-six-year-old’s face, but a puff of his
breath – instantly turning into a cloud of ice crystals
reflecting the aurora -- appears beyond the thick circle of
the smaller man’s multiple comforters and Welsh wig.
Men traditionally don’t salute during the winter in
the ice, not even the casual knuckling of the forehead an
officer receives at sea, but the thick-clad Hickey does that
odd little shuffle and shrug and head-dip by which the men
acknowledge their captain’s presence while outside.
Because of the cold, the watches have been cut down from four
hours to two – God knows, thinks Crozier, we have enough
men for that on this overcrowded ship, even with the lookouts
doubled – and he can tell just by Hickey’s slow
movements that he’s half-frozen. As many times as he’s
told the lookouts that they have to keep moving on deck, walk,
run in place, jump up and down if they have to, all the while
keeping their attention on the ice, they still tend to stand
immobile for the majority of their watch just as if they were
in the South Seas wearing their tropical cotton and watching
“Mr. Hickey. Anything?”
“Nothing since them shots . . . that
one shot . . . almost two hours ago, sir. Just a while ago
I heard, I think I heard . . . maybe a scream, something,
captain . . . from out beyond the ice mountain. I reported
it to Lieutenant Irving but he said it was probably just the
ice acting up.”
Crozier had been told about the sound of the
shot from the direction of Erebus and had quickly come up
on deck two hours ago, but there’d been no repetition
of the sound and he’d sent no messenger to the other
ship nor anyone out on the ice to investigate. To go out on
the frozen sea in the dark now with that . . . thing . . .
waiting in the jumble of pressure ridges and tall sastrugi
was certain death. Messages were passed between the ships
now only during those dwindling minutes of half-light around
noon. In a few days there would be no real day at all, only
arctic night. Round the clock night. One hundred days of night.
“Perhaps it was the ice,” says
Crozier, wondering why Irving hadn’t reported the possible
scream. “The shot as well. Only the ice.”
“Yes, captain. The ice it is, sir.”
Neither man believes it – a musket shot
or shotgun blast has a distinctive sound, even from a mile
away, and sound travels almost supernaturally far and clear
this far north – but it’s true that the icepack
squeezing ever more tightly against Terror is always rumbling,
moaning, cracking, snapping, roaring, or screaming.
The screams bother Crozier the most, waking
him from his hour or so of sound sleep each night. The ice-screams
sound too much like his mother’s wailing in her last
days . . . of that and his old aunt’s tales of banshees
wailing in the night predicting the death of someone in the
house. Both had kept him awake as a boy.
Crozier turns slowly. His eyelashes are already
rimmed with ice and his upper lip is already crusted with
frozen breath and snot. The men have learned to keep their
beards tucked far under their comforters and sweaters, but
frequently they still must resort to knives to hack away hair
that has frozen to their clothing. Crozier, like most of the
officers, continues to shave every morning, although in the
effort to conserve coal, the “hot water” his steward
brings him tends to be just-barely-melted ice and the shaving
can be a painful business.
“Is Lady Silence still on deck?”
“Oh, yes captain, she’s almost
always up here,” says Hickey, whispering now as if it
made a difference. Even if Silence could hear them, she couldn’t
understand their English. But the men believe – more
and more every day that the thing on the ice stalks them –
that the young Esquimaux woman is a witch with secret powers.
“She’s at the port station with
Lieutenant Irving,” adds Hickey.
“Lieutenant Irving? His watch should
have been over an hour ago.”
“Aye, sir. But wherever Lady Silence
is these days, there’s the lieutenant, sir, if you don’t
mind me mentioning it. She don’t go below, he don’t
go below. Until he has to I mean . . . none of us can stay
out here as long as that wi . . . that woman.”
“Keep your eyes on the ice and your mind on your job,
Crozier’s gruff voice makes the caulker’s
mate start again, but he shuffles his shrug salute and turns
his white nose back toward the darkness beyond the bow.
Crozier strides up the deck toward the port
lookout post. When he was making the ship ready for winter
the previous month – after their three weeks of false
hope of escape in August – Crozier had once again ordered
the lower spars to be swung around along the parallel axis
of the ship, using them as a ridgepole. Then they had reconstructed
the tent-pyramid to cover most of the main deck, rebuilding
the wooden rafters that had been stowed away below during
their few weeks of optimism. But even though the men work
hours every day shoveling avenues through the foot or so of
snow left for insulation on deck, and hacking away ice with
picks and chisels, then clearing out the spindrift that has
come under the canvas roof, and finally putting lines of sand
down for traction, there always remains a glaze of ice and
Crozier’s movement up the tilted and canted deck is
sometimes more of a graceful half-skating motion than a stride.
The appointed port lookout for this watch,
midshipman Tommy Evans, -- Crozier identifies the youngest
man onboard by the absurd green stocking cap, obviously made
by the boy’s mother, that young Evans always pulls down
over his bulky Welsh wig -- has moved ten paces astern to
allow young Third Lieutenant Irving and Silence some privacy.
This makes Captain Crozier want to kick someone – everyone
– in the arse.
The Esquimaux woman looks like a short, round
bear in her furry parka, hood, and pants and has her back
half-turned to the tall lieutenant. But the young third lieutenant
has crowded close to her along the rail – not quite
touching, but closer than an officer and gentleman would stand
to a lady in a garden party or on a pleasure yacht.
“Lieutenant Irving.” Crozier didn’t
mean to put quite so much bark into the greeting, but he’s
not unhappy when the young man levitates as if poked by the
point of a sharp blade, almost loses his balance, grabs the
iced railing with his left hand and – as he insists
on doing despite now knowing the proper protocol of a ship
in the ice – salutes with his right hand.
It’s a pathetic salute, thinks Crozier,
and not just because the bulky mittens, Welsh wig, and layers
of cold-weather slops make young Irving look something like
a saluting walrus, but also because the lad has let his comforter
fall away from his clean-shaven face – perhaps to show
Silence how handsome he is -- and now two long icicles dangle
below his nostrils, making him look even more like a walrus.
“As you were,” snaps Crozier. God-damn
fool, he mentally adds, but loudly enough that the young lieutenant
should have no trouble hearing his thought.
Irving stands rigid, glances at Silence –
or at least at the back of her hairy hood – and opens
his mouth to speak. Evidently he can think of nothing to say.
He closes his mouth. His lips are as white as his frozen skin.
“This isn’t your watch, Lieutenant,”
says Crozier, hearing the whip-crack in his voice again.
“Aye aye, sir. I mean, no sir. I mean,
the captain is correct, sir. I mean . . .” Irving clamps
his mouth shut again, but the effect is ruined somewhat by
the chattering of his teeth. In this cold, teeth can shatter
after two or three hours – literally explode -- sending
shrapnel of bone and enamel flying inside the cavern of one’s
clenched jaws. Sometimes, Crozier knows from experience, you
can hear the enamel cracking just before the teeth explode.
“Why are you still out here, John?”
Irving tries to blink but his eyelids are frozen
open – literally frozen open. “You ordered me
to watch over our guest . . . to look out for . . . to take
care of Silence, captain.”
Crozier’s sigh emerges as ice crystals
that hang in the air for a second and then fall to the deck
like so many minuscule diamonds. “I didn’t mean
every minute, Lieutenant. I told you to watch her, report
to me on what she does, to keep her out of mischief and harm’s
way on the ship, and to see that none of the men do anything
to . . . compromise her. Do you think she’s in danger
of being compromised out here on deck, Lieutenant?”
“No, captain.” Irving’s sentence
sounds more like a question than an answer.
“Do you know how long it takes for exposed
flesh to freeze out here, Lieutenant?”
“No, captain. I mean, yes, captain. Rather
quickly, sir, I think.”
“You should know, Lieutenant Irving.
You’ve had frostbite six times already and it’s
not even officially winter yet.”
Lieutenant Irving nods dolefully.
“It takes less than a minute for an exposed
finger or thumb – or any fleshy appendage – to
freeze solid,” continues Crozier, who knows that this
is a load of horse cobblers. It takes much longer than that
at a mere fifty below. But he hopes that young Irving, already
the victim of frostbite, doesn’t know this. “After
that, the exposed member will snap off like an icicle,”
adds Crozier, gilding the already very gilded lilly.
“So do you really think that there’s
any chance that our visitor might be . . . compromised . .
. out here on deck, Mr. Irving?”
Young Irving seems to be thinking about this before replying.
It’s possible, Crozier realizes, that the third lieutenant
has put far too much thought into this equation already.
“Go below, John,” says Crozier.
“And see Dr. McDonald about your face and fingers. I
swear to God that if you’ve gotten seriously frostbitten
again, I’ll dock you a month’s Discovery Service
pay and write your mother to boot.”
“Yes, captain. Thank you, sir.” Irving starts
to salute again, thinks better of it, and ducks under the
canvas toward the main ladderway with one hand still half-raised.
He does not look back at Silence.
Crozier sighs again. He likes young John Irving.
The lad had volunteered – along with two of his mates
from the HMS Excellent, Second Lieutenant Hobson and First
Mate Hornby – but the Excellent was a damned three-decker
that was old before Noah had fuzz around his dongle. The ship
had been mastless and permanently moored in Portsmouth, Crozier
knew, for more than fifteen years, serving as a training vessel
for the Royal Navy’s most promising gunners. Unfortunately,
gentlemen, as Crozier had told the boys during their first
day aboard – the captain had been more than usually
drunk that day – if you look around, you will see that
neither Terror nor Erebus, -- you may note Captain Sir John’s
flagship anchored just down the way there – you’ll
notice that neither Terror nor Erebus, although both were
built as bombardment ships, gentlemen, have a single gun between
them. We are, young volunteers from Excellent -- unless one
counts the Marines’ muskets and the shotguns secured
in the Spirit Room, -- as gunless as a newborn babe. As gunless
as fucking Adam in his fucking birthday suit. In other words,
gentlemen, you gunnery experts are about as useful to this
expedition as teats would be to a boar.
Crozier’s sarcasm that day hadn’t
dampened the young gunnery officers’ enthusiasm –
Irving and the other two remained more eager than ever to
go get frozen in the ice for several winters. Of course, that
had been on a warm May day in England in 1845.
“And now the poor young pup is in love with an Esquimaux
witch,” Crozier mutters aloud.
As if understanding his words, Silence turns
slowly toward him.
Usually her face is invisible down the deep
tunnel of her hood or her features masked by the wide ruff
of wolf-hair, but tonight Crozier can see her tiny nose, large
eyes, and full mouth. The pulse of the aurora is reflected
in those black eyes.
She’s not attractive to Captain Francis Rawdon Moira
Crozier; she has too much of the savage about her to be seen
as fully human, much less as physically attractive -- even
to a Presbyterian Irishman -- and besides that, his mind and
lower regions are still filled with the clear memories of
Sophia Cracroft. But Crozier can see why young Irving, far
from home and family and any sweetheart of his own, might
fall in love with this heathen woman. Her strangeness alone
– and perhaps even the grim circumstances of her arrival
and the death of her male companion, so strangely intertwined
with the first attacks from that monstrous entity out there
in the dark – all must be like flame to the fluttering
moth of so hopeless a young romantic as Third Lieutenant John
Crozier, on the other hand – as he Discovered
both in Von Dieman’s Land in 1840 and again for the
final time in England in the months before this expedition
sailed – is too old for romance. And too Irish. And
Right now he just wishes this young woman would take a walk
out onto the dark ice and not return.
Crozier remembers the day four months earlier when Dr. McDonald
had reported to Franklin and him after examing her, on the
same afternoon the Esquimaux man with her had died choking
in his own blood. McDonald said that, in his medical opinion,
that Esquimaux girl appeared to be between fifteen and twenty
years old – it was so hard to tell with native peoples
– had experienced menarche, but was, by all indications,
virgo intacta. Also, Dr. McDonald reported, the reason that
the girl had not spoken or made a sound – even after
her father or husband had been shot and lay dying –
was because she had no tongue. In Dr. McDonald’s opinion,
her tongue had not been sliced off, but had been chewed off
near its root – either by Silence herself or by someone
or something else.
Crozier had been astonished . . . not so much
by the fact of the missing tongue, but from hearing that the
Esquimaux wench was a virgin. He’d spent enough time
in the northern arctic – especially during Parry’s
expedition which wintered near an Esquimaux village -- to
know that the local natives took sexual intercourse so lightly
that men would offer their wives and daughters to whalers
or Discovery Service explorers in exchange for the cheapest
trinket. Sometimes, Crozier knew, the women just offered themselves
up for the fun of it – giggling and chatting with other
women or children even as the sailors strained and puffed
and moaned between the laughing woman’s legs. They were
like animals. The furs and hairy hides they wore might as
well be their own beastlike skins as far as Francis Crozier
The captain raises his gloved hand to the bill
of his cap – secured under two wraps of heavy comforter
and therefore impossible actually to doff or tip – and
says, “My compliments to you, madame, and I would suggest
you consider going below to your quarters soon. It’s
getting a bit nippy out here.”
Silence stares at him. She does not blink,
although somehow her long lashes are free of ice. She does
not, of course, speak. She watches him.
Crozier symbolically tips his hat again and
continues his tour around the deck, climbing to the ice-raised
stern and then down the starboard side, pausing to speak to
the other two men on watch, giving Irving time to get below
and out of his cold-weather slops so that the captain doesn’t
seem to be following hard on his lieutenant’s heels.
He’s finishing his chat with the last
shivering lookout, Able Seaman Shanks, when Private Wilkes,
the youngest of the Marines aboard, comes rushing out from
under the canvas. Wilkes has thrown on only two loose layers
over his uniform and his teeth begin chattering even before
he delivers his message.
“Mr. Thompson’s compliments to
the captain, sir, and the engineer says that the captain should
come down to the hold as quick as you might.”
“Why?” If the boiler has finally
broken down, Crozier knows, they are all dead.
“Begging the captain’s pardon,
sir, but Mr. Thompson says that the captain is needed because
Seaman Manson is near to mutiny, sir.”
Crozier stands up straight. “Mutiny?”
“Near to it, were Mr. Thompson’s
“Speak English, Private Wilkes.”
“Manson won’t carry no more sacks
of coal past the Dead Room, sir. Nor go down in the hold no
more. He says he respectfully refuses, captain. He won’t
come up, but he’s sitting on his arse at the bottom
of the man-ladder and won’t carry no more coal back
to the boiler room.”
“What is this nonsense?” Crozier
is getting very angry.
“It’s the ghosts, captain,”
says Marine Private Wilkes through chattering teeth. “We
all hear ‘em when we’re hauling coal or fetching
something from deep stores. It’s why the men won’t
go down there below orlop deck no more unless the officers
order ‘em to, sir. Something’s down there in the
hold, in the dark. Something’s been scratching and banging
from inside the ship, Captain. It ain’t just the ice.
Manson’s sure it’s his old mate Walker, him .
. . it . . . and the other corpses stacked there in the Dead
Room, clawing to get out.”
Crozier checks his impulse to reassure the
Marine private with facts. Young Wilkes might not find the
facts so reassuring.
The first simple fact is that the scrabbling noise from the
Dead Room is almost certainly the hundreds or thousands of
large, black rats feasting on Wilkes’s frozen comrades.
The Norway rats –as Crozier knows better than the young
Marine – are nocturnal, which means that they’re
active day and night during the long arctic winter, and the
creatures have teeth which constantly keep growing. This,
in turn, means the God-damned vermin constantly have to keep
chewing – and the captain has seen them chew through
Royal Navy oak barrels, inch-thick tins, and even lead plating.
The rats are having no more trouble down there with the frozen
remains of Seaman Walker and his five unlucky comrades –
including three of Crozier’s finest officers –
than a man would have chewing on a strip of frigid jerky.
But Crozier doesn’t think it’s
just the rats that Manson and the others are hearing.
Rats, as Crozier knows from sad experience
of thirteen winters in the ice, tend to eat one’s friends
quietly and efficiently except for their frequent screeching
as the blood-maddened and ravenous vermin turn on one another.
It’s something else making the clawing
and banging noises down on hold deck.
What Crozier decides not to explain to Private
Wilkes is the second simple fact that while the lowest deck
would normally be safe but cold there beneath the waterline
or winter line of frozen sea ice, the pressure from the ice
has forced Terror’s stern more than a dozen feet higher
than it should be. The hull there is still locked in, but
only by several hundred heaped tons of jagged sea ice and
the added tons of snow the men have piled alongside to within
a few feet of the railings so as to provide more insulation
during the winter.
Something, Francis Crozier suspects, has dug
down through these tons of snow and tunneled through the iron-hard
slabs of ice to get at the hull of the ship. Somehow the thing
has sensed which parts of the interior along the hull, such
as the water-storage tanks, are lined with iron, and found
one of the few hollow outside storage areas – the Dead
Room -- that leads directly into the ship. And now it’s
banging and clawing to get in.
Crozier knows that there’s only one thing
on Earth with that much power, deadly persistence, and malevolent
intelligence. The monster on the ice is trying to get at them
Without saying another word to Marine Private
Wilkes, Captain Crozier goes below to sort things out.