On Desperate Seas

by Kate MacLeod

It all started with Jane’s letter. Our Penelope was deathly ill, and I must come at once. The letter went on, of course. In typical Jane fashion, she filled a page and a half with the various inadequacies of Dr. Mansley. Only Jane would argue the science at length without ever once considering I might not wish to abandon my own medical practice and return to Newfoundland for the sake of the woman who had broken our betrothal without warning to marry another.

And yet here I was, at their very door.

Jacob answered my knock. His look of shocked surprise told me that Jane had written to me without his knowledge. But the shock quickly melted into a teary gratitude. My extended hand was taken with gusto, and I was quickly led to a place by the fire, a glass of brandy pressed into my hands to warm me after my long walk from town in the cold night.

“Thank God you’ve come. What did Jane tell you?” he asked as he sank into the chair opposite mine. He was much aged since I had seen him last; too much aged, with deep furrows of grief and worry marring a face I had always thought a jovial one.

“Very little,” I allowed. “Only that I am needed.”

“More can wait until he has seen her,” Jane said from the doorway. With no more greeting than that, she took the brandy from me and led me up the stairs to where Penelope lay.

I’ve been in many sick rooms, and there is a sameness to the smell: a closed-in, concentrated collection of odors, of bile and blood and other less pleasant things. Yet when Jane opened the door to Penelope’s room, it was the smell of the sea which assailed me.

“You’ve left her to sleep with the windows open?” I demanded as I rushed inside.

“Come, Edgar,” Jane said. “Even if I had, we are not close enough to the sea to fill the room with the smells of high tide.”

I was still puzzling over this when the figure on the bed stirred. “Edgar?” Her voice, her sweet voice. A memory tried to wash over me: our last day together down on the beach between the rocks. The day we…

But I kept my head above water, so to speak. Jane showed me to the chair placed by the bedside then moved about the room lighting lamps until at last I could see her huddled there under the blankets, my one-time fiancée.

It was clear to me at once that she had been ill for quite some time. She was thin and a grayish sort of pale, and all of her golden tresses had been cut away, leaving her with the barest cap of blonde curls. She smiled at me and reached out so I could take her hand, but she was too weak to lift her head, and the hand I clasped in my own was like ice.

“Penelope,” I began but realized at once my voice was betraying me. I could not speak to her as a lover, not now that she was another man’s wife.

That memory tried to take me again: the sun and wind in her hair, the warmth of her skin, of her lips…

The sea smell was so strong in the room, it was perhaps no wonder it called to mind the beach. It was with some effort I reminded myself of my duties as a doctor. I changed my grip on her hand, pressing my fingers to her wrist to feel her pulse. It was slow but steady.

“What’s the matter, specifically?” I asked. “What has Dr. Mansley surmised?”

“He’s been quite useless,” Jane said, not bothering to hide her scorn. “First he thought pneumonia, then consumption, then some defect in her blood.”

“He bled her?” I pulled back the sleeve of Penelope’s nightgown. There was indeed a row of healing cuts in her arm.

“He weakened her horribly, very nearly killed her, I think, before Father took my advice and put a stop to it.” Penelope seemed to be drifting in and out of sleep, not even bothering to listen to this conversation about her near-death. She was indeed very weak. “Barbaric practice,” Jane grumbled.

“Out-dated science,” I amended. “Have you tried your own skills on her?”

“Of course,” Jane said, almost a rebuke. “No herbal remedy I know has done more than give her a few hours’ peace.” She moved to the other side of the bed and sat next to her half-sister, winding her fingers through the uneven curls. “I even went myself to Boston to speak with a Chinese herbalist there, but the tincture he gave me has not helped, and no amount of money would bring him to Newfoundland so he could see her himself.”

This was startling news. “You went to Boston and back? How long has she been ill?”

“Months. Almost since her husband left. He…”

But Penelope’s eyes flew open at the word “husband”. The sleepy smiles were gone; now she was wild and terrified.

“Edgar!” she cried, seizing my hand. “He has my heart!”


She fought her way up onto one elbow, her sister simultaneously supporting her and trying to quiet her and get her to lie back down. But Penelope would not be quieted.

“He has my heart, Edgar, and he took it with him to the bottom of the sea!” She tore at the neckline of her nightgown, pulling it askew until she could press my captive hand to her breast.

So cold. How could a person yet live with flesh so cold?

Then the chest beneath my palm began to heave.

“Quickly! The basin!” Jane cried, helping her wheezing sister to sit up. I seized the porcelain basin from the nightstand, getting it to Penelope’s lap just in time. She heaved again and again, and the smell of the sea became so strong as she vomited I felt I must be drowning.

At last she quieted, slumping against her sister, who stroked her curls and murmured soft nonsense into her ear as I took away the basin.

It was filled with water, green-tinged water. It was surely more than one stomach could contain. I dipped a finger in and licked it: salt water.

Jane was laying the now-quiet Penelope back against the pillows. The nightgown was still askew, her left breast exposed to the lamplight. I saw what my hand had failed to feel: a long silvery scar over her heart. Jane covered her sister up, but not before she knew I had seen.

Penelope roused once more, this time neither sweet nor crazed but melancholy.

“Find my heart, Edgar. Will you do that for me? Will you promise?”

“Yes, Penelope,” I said. “I promise.”

She smiled, but it was a smile with so much sadness in it, it made my own heart ache. Then she took my hand and pressed a kiss to it. Her lips were like ice, but the kiss burned like touching metal on a cold, cold day. I pulled my hand back and tilted it toward the lamp, convinced she must have left a mark. Of course there was none. This was always the effect that Penelope had on me; she made me believe the silliest nonsense.

She was already asleep once more. I waited in the corridor as Jane blew out the lamps.

“You did not summon me for my medical opinion.”

“No,” she admitted then led me back downstairs to where Jacob waited.

“Well?” he asked. If he had a cap in his hands he’d be twisting it. His struggle between wanting to hope and not wanting to hope was palpable. I looked over at Jane, but she was no help. She did not even look my way, only settled herself in a chair and pulled some bit of needlework onto her lap. What exactly had I just promised Penelope to do?

“I need to find her husband,” I said at last. Jacob nodded, apparently not trusting himself to speak. He turned away from me, looking up at the portrait of Penelope’s dead mother that had hung over the mantelpiece for as long as I could remember. It could as easily be a portrait of Penelope herself.

“Edgar hopes his presence will rouse Penelope,” Jane said without looking up from her work. “It is not for the last farewell.”

“Yes,” Jacob said. “But he is so far away.”

“How far out to sea does his ship take him?” I should perhaps be ashamed to admit how little I know of the life of a sailor, but it was by my mother’s design. My father was lost at sea before I was even born, along with all of her brothers in one great storm. She had vowed I would not follow them.

“He’s not out hunting whales this time,” Jacob said, at last leaving the portrait to pour himself a measure of brandy and bring another for me. “You are familiar, I trust, with the disappearance of the Sir John Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage.”

“Who isn’t? It’s been in all the papers.” I sipped at my brandy before remembering perhaps the crucial aspect of this case. “There was a reward for rescue or for information leading to recovery.”

“Indeed,” Jacob said. “The promise of 20,000 pounds, like Helen’s face, is enough to launch a thousand ships, even to those treacherous waters. Patrick left in April, shortly after the advert appeared in the Toronto Globe.”

April. A good time to head north. Now it was late August. But Jane intruded on my thoughts. “Penelope was afraid. She had had a premonition and didn’t want him to go.”

Her father scoffed. “I’m afraid to say some things haven’t changed since you’ve been away. Indeed, without your calm reason to temper her, Penelope has grown more superstitious than ever. When Patrick chose not to indulge her this once, she became quite unmanageable. I feared she would do herself some injury.”

I thought of the scar, the thin line down the inner curve of her breast. It certainly could not be what she claimed it to be. Yes, it was long enough to remove a heart, but that could not be done without cracking open the rib cage. Had she, caught up in her own imaginings, cut herself? I couldn’t quite believe she would do such a thing, and yet the alternative was even more unthinkable.

“I fear she has,” I said at last. Jane fixed me with an inscrutable gaze.

“And what of the seawater?” she asked.

“Ah, there must be an explanation for that,” Jacob said before I could speak. “She believes that Patrick has been shipwrecked and drowned, and that his body lies at the bottom of the sea. So she acts as if she had drowned herself. Somehow she is getting a hold of seawater and drinking it for the effect. I don’t think she remembers doing it, but what other explanation could there be?”

“What indeed?” Jane said evenly.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’ll bring her husband back to her. Then we shall see.”

“It’s too much to ask,” Jacob said, getting up to pour another brandy with shaking hands. “It’s too late in the year for such a journey.”

“She will not last till spring,” Jane said. His head dropped low and his shoulders shook.

“I already gave my word to Penelope,” I said. “I will risk anything for her.”

“Oh, son,” he said. “No one would hold you to promises made so long ago, to oaths exchanged…” his breath caught with a hitch and it was a moment before he could speak again. “Penelope broke faith with you.”

“Indeed,” I agreed. “But I renewed my promise this very night. And I will find her husband.”

“Lord help me, I won’t try to talk you out of it,” Jacob said. “Jane will prepare a room for you to stay here tonight. I shall go into town and find you a place on a ship heading north.”

“Surely that can wait until morning,” I said, acutely aware of all the brandy he had consumed, and of all the dangers between his remote home and the town. The road was not a good one.

“It’s not even necessary,” Jane said. “There is a ship already waiting for him. The Margaret Mary.”

“You overstep yourself,” Jacob said.

“They were going north anyway, in search of the reward. I merely asked them to stay a few extra days to wait for Edgar. They have need of a ship’s surgeon, if you are willing.”

“It’s better than I could hope for, I’m sure,” I said. “I shall depart first thing in the morning.”

That night I dreamt of Penelope on the beach, the memory I had held at bay all evening finally conquering me in sleep. I had just received Jacob’s blessing and we were newly betrothed when Penelope brought me down the narrow path to the beach where she had been born. She told me the story of how her mother on the passage over from Ireland had suffered through days of labor without release. She was convinced that baby Penelope refused to be born at sea. At the first sight of land her husband, Penelope’s father, had begged for them to be put ashore. Everyone on the ship had grown weary of the endless crying and screaming; the captain readily consented.

But his crew was not familiar with the treacherous waters around this beach where I stood, listening to Penelope’s tale. The rowboat was turned about then dashed against the rocks. The sailor manning the oars and Penelope’s father went under at once; their bodies never even washed ashore. But something in the water had taken hold of her mother and carried her to safety. A selkie, Penelope had said. And the minute her mother’s feet had touched the sands of Newfoundland, Penelope had been born.

She took me to the very spot where she had been delivered from her widowed mother by a selkie midwife and laid down upon the sand, pulling me down beside her. I would say she allowed me to take liberties, but in fact she did the taking. I only gave, willingly.

It was not a dream I wished to be having, but at least I did not dream of the end of that day, for by sundown she had been another man’s wife. Patrick’s wife. The wife of a man she had only just met, and a sailor at that. And now I was off to rescue Patrick, if he even still lived.

A thought flitted through my mind. Perhaps it was all true. Perhaps he had taken Penelope’s heart. Perhaps he had taken it that very day. Was that how he had stolen her from me? With magic? It would explain what had always been unexplainable to me.

But I didn’t really believe it, no more than I believed in selkies rescuing women from the sea and helping them deliver their babies.

I awoke the next morning out of sorts. I did not go to see Penelope or bid farewell to Jane or her father. I slipped out of the house shortly after dawn and walked back to town, inquiring until I found which of the many ships docked there was the Margaret Mary. The captain was waiting for me with undisguised impatience, and we were well out to sea before I even reached my cabin.

The Margaret Mary was a whaler. She did not have steam engines or steel hulls like Sir John Franklin’s ships, but she had a crew accustomed to sailing Arctic waters. The captain, a native Newfoundlander like myself, was a gruff fellow, and after giving me a cursory look-over when I first came aboard promptly dismissed me from his mind.

I sensed at once that Jane had not been entirely truthful, and money probably had changed hands to get the captain to wait for me before heading north. I was introduced to others as the ship’s surgeon, but quickly realized the ship had no real need for one. There was precious little for me to do other than stay out of the crew’s way.

I soon found myself passing the time in the company of the only other non-sailor aboard, the captain’s son Tetqataq, or Teddy as he preferred. Teddy had been born in a native village deep in the Arctic, where he had lived with his mother until his father had come to take him away when he was ten. The captain had introduced him to me as his Arctic expert, although from Teddy’s cosmopolitan air and almost foppish taste in clothes I had my doubts as to the extent of his expertise. Still, he was a personable companion with a keen and curious mind who soon devoured all the medical texts I had brought with me and constantly asked questions about my work. I didn’t mind. There were far worse ways to pass the dreary, endless hours on a ship.

It was not long before the hours became far less dull. Our ship was swept up by an unseasonably early gale. The crew worked without rest as day and night became indistinguishable. As for me, I confess I was violently ill and was soon so miserable I would have welcomed a watery grave just to escape the heaving of the ship and of my stomach.

I was curled up on the floor of my cabin – praying, perhaps even weeping – when Teddy burst in. He was greatly excited, although I was far too insensible to comprehend his words. He pulled me to my feet, helping me walk out of the cabin and up to the deck of the ship.

The rain and spray from the sea stung like ice, and I felt aware for the first time in days, although the sight of the monstrous waves all around us made me wish I were still insensible. Teddy was shouting, but the wind took his voice before it could reach my ears. Then he pointed.

At first I took it for an angel, this white form standing at the prow of the ship. In the wind and rain she almost seemed to shimmer. Then I heard it, faintly at first then stronger and clearer as the storm began to disperse. The words were in no language I had ever heard, but the song seemed so familiar. I couldn’t name it, but I knew it well. Perhaps it was a cradle song sung to me when I was just an infant.

The waves shrank from mountains to hills, the rain and clouds disappeared to reveal the star-filled sky, and the gusting winds settled into one strong wind carrying us swiftly to the north.

At last the song died away and the woman at the prow turned, casting back the hood of her white cloak. It was Jane.

She had been hiding in the hold, in a crate she had had secretly brought aboard days before we had set sail. It had made a cramped yet comfortable apartment with food and water enough to last her the entire voyage as well as books to pass the time. Yet it was inconceivable to allow her to stay there any longer, so I gave her my own cabin and strung a hammock in Teddy’s cabin for my own use.

“Watch her closely,” Teddy warned. “The men are superstitious, but they are practical. As long as the wind is favorable they will leave her be, but if another storm should arise, or any other bit of bad luck no matter how mundane it may seem, she will be blamed.”

“And you?” I asked. “Are you not superstitious?”

“Superstition is a fear of what seems unnatural to you,” he said after a moment’s thought. “Singing to the winds is not unnatural to me.”

And what of me? Was it unnatural to me? I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t bring myself to believe her song had calmed the storm, and I couldn’t entertain the thought that Jane would believe so either. Penelope, yes, but not sensible Jane.

I did not get the chance to ask her myself. Once she was settled in my cabin she did not come out of it again. If Teddy were right about the crew, this was merely prudence on her part, but I couldn’t shake the feeling she was avoiding me, or rather avoiding explaining her actions to me.

That night I had a dream as vivid as when I had dreamt of Penelope on the beach, only if this dream were a memory it was not a memory of mine.

I dreamt I was walking through snow, trudging and stumbling over drifts that occasionally gave way to patches of bare ice. It wasn’t land beneath me; it was sea. I looked around but all I could see were snow and ice glowing softly in the rising sun. Where was land? Was there land?

Men walked all around me, heads bent into the wind. I knew them and yet I didn’t, like with Jane’s song. My heart was heavy in my chest, beating slowly and painfully. I knew this feeling. I had felt it when I had left Newfoundland so many years before. My heart was breaking. I turned to look back, to catch one last glimpse of that which I loved most.

Behind me was a ship caught in the ice. There was another behind her, also trapped. The ice had pushed them up and over so that they listed dreadfully, and even with their steel hulls I doubted they would be seaworthy if the ice should release them.

I awoke sobbing like a child. Teddy tried to calm me, but I was inconsolable. I didn’t know where I was – who I was – I knew only that I had left behind all that I had ever loved, had abandoned her to meet her fate all on her own. Whether this was a ship or a woman I mourned I could not say.

Soft hands brought me out of the dream as merely waking had not. A mug of tea laced with brandy was pressed into my hands, and as its warmth spread through me I regained my senses.

“Jane,” I said, for it was she who had come to my aid, who had answered Teddy’s knocking when she had not answered mine.

“Drink it down,” she instructed. I took a gulp, swallowed, and began to ask the first of many questions when she interrupted me. “Show me your hand.” I did not understand this request, but my hand presented itself of its own accord. Jane took it in hers, turning it this way and that in the lamplight as she examined it closely.

“Here it is,” she said, touching the back of my hand, a touch which burned.

“Here what is?” Teddy asked, leaning in closer to see for himself.

“Her mark,” Jane said. “Penelope’s mark. Her kiss has enspelled you.”

“Nonsense,” I said, snatching my hand back.

“You don’t believe she would?”

“I don’t believe she can. Spells? Nonsense.”

“She’s using you to find her husband,” she said.

“And why are you here if not to do the same?” I demanded.

“I’m here to keep you safe,” Jane said. There was something in her tone of voice, in her eyes as she looked at me… I had seen the change the years had wrought in Jacob and in Penelope, but until that very moment I hadn’t realized that Jane was no longer the girl of thirteen she had been the day I had left Newfoundland.

“Tell me what you dreamt. I think it might be significant,” she said.

I told it to them in much the same words in which I told it to you. I didn’t weep again, but I could still feel the grief as if it were my own.

“Such feelings for a ship,” I said. “I don’t understand it.”

“But then you are not a man of the sea,” Teddy said. “That storm we just sailed through was nothing compared to some I’ve seen. When nothing stands between you and the cold deep but the timbers of your ship… aye, you come to love her. But to sense loss as you describe it, the man must have been her captain.”

“Sir John Franklin?” I ventured. I had seen his portrait in the papers, a slightly rotund Englishman, appearing to my eye to be an old gentleman with refined tastes. I doubted very much I had dreamt myself in his place.

“Franklin led the expedition, but the ships had their own captains,” Teddy said. “Younger men.”

“One was an Irishman,” Jane added. Her eyes gazed unseeingly at the ceiling as she searched her memory for the name. “Francis Crozier.”

“It sounds familiar,” I said. Then gave myself a little shake. “I’m sure I’ve read it a dozen times in the papers.”

“There’s something I don’t understand,” Teddy said. “If Penelope is using you to find her husband, why are you dreaming of the Franklin expedition? Shouldn’t you be dreaming of her husband’s ship?”

“Patrick’s ship was searching for Franklin,” Jane said. “The only way to find Patrick is to search for Franklin ourselves.”

“I saw nothing that would give us clues in that regard,” I said miserably. “Nothing but snow and ice.”

“There must have been something else, something you’re not noticing,” Jane said. “Was there an object that caught your eye? One of the men who seemed more important than the others?”


“Isn’t it possible this was just a dream?” Teddy asked. “Too much worry, things weighing too heavily on your mind.”

“You don’t believe in magic, Tetqataq?” Jane asked.

“Yes, I do,” he admitted. “But it’s not my answer to everything.” A slow smile spread across Jane’s face. Teddy had just risen several levels in her estimation.

Our journey continued on without event. The captain exchanged messages with what ships we passed, but none had heard anything of the fate of the Franklin expedition or of Patrick’s ship. Still, we were making excellent time, our wind unfailingly favorable. Jane remained in her cabin, although I would visit her often. We would take meals together, read to each other, or play chess or cards. Sometimes Teddy would join us, but three in a cabin meant for one would quickly grow cramped.

Jane still would not tell me about the song she had been singing in the storm, or why she had sung it, although from time to time we would hear her singing it again, when she was alone in the cabin. She had a lovely voice, but her singing made me uneasy. The crew did not like it either. Teddy had known these men since he was a boy, and they spoke freely with him if not with me. Teddy would tell me the things they whispered to each other, how they thought her singing was responsible for our favorable winds and unseasonably fine weather, but also how her singing was attracting things.

“What sorts of things?” I asked. Teddy shrugged.

“White shapes in the water. Long and immense, but never close enough to the surface to be seen clearly,” he replied. “They come up to the ship when she sings, then disappear when she stops.”


“No,” he said with a firm shake of his head.

“Have you seen them?” I persisted.

“No, but this crew knows these waters, and they know what is a whale and what is not. If they tell me these things are not whales then, my friend, they are not whales.”

“I want to see this for myself,” I vowed, although my new-found fear of the open water had kept me below decks since the night of the storm. Perhaps it would not be so frightening when the sea was calm, free of waves the size of mountains. I would have to brave it out; secondhand accounts would not satisfy my mind.

It was the middle of the night when she sang again. Teddy and I awoke at the same instant and dashed up to the deck without a word.

“I see nothing,” I said after several long minutes of searching. I wondered how anything could be seen in such waters as these; even under the light of a full moon they were black as pitch, so black I expected the waves to leave dark stains as they slapped against the sides of the ship, like a stick dipped in tar.

“Wait,” Teddy said, his eyes scanning the waves more calmly than mine. “There,” he pointed.

I could see it, although what “it” was I could not say. It was silvery-white like the moon above, but even I knew it was too long and sleek to be a whale.

“Sea serpent?” I pondered, for “serpent” certainly described its shape. “It’s longer than our ship.”

“Quite a bit longer,” Teddy said, as calm as ever. “Depending on how deep it really is.”

That thought turned my stomach to rock. Judging from the mumblings of the crew around me, I was not the only one afraid.

The song ended, and the mysterious form dove deeper, fading from view.

“It looked brighter at the front, like its eyes were glowing,” I said. Then one of the crew gave a shout I could not quite hear.

“Ice,” Teddy said at my look of puzzlement. “Icebergs up ahead. Soon we will be in the Arctic itself.”

We went back to our cabin, and I fell back to sleep at once, but it was not a restful sleep. I dreamt I was him again, the Irish captain. I was walking through the snow, pulling a harness like a horse would. My legs below the knees were so numb it was like walking on two peg legs; no feeling of cold, no feeling of the ground beneath me; I was clumsy and slow. The harness around my chest bit deeply; I was pulling something far too heavy for a man to be pulling. It felt like the straps had worn grooves into my flesh; I had been pulling it for a long time.

At first I thought the snow was a bloody pink, as if some massacre had taken place here, but I lifted my gaze and saw everything was bloody pink: the snow to the horizon all around, the sky, the other men.

The other men. I wanted to scream at the sight of them but could not make a sound, so I screamed in my own mind, in my own soul. Have you ever screamed such a scream, a scream that does not need to pause for breath?

The men around me were a horror: walking corpses of skin stretched tight over bone; sunken eyes and cheeks making their faces show too much of the skull beneath. The flesh of their cheeks and noses was blackened; some of the men had no noses at all.

It was horrid, but then one spoke to me. I could not hear his voice, but I saw his mouth: a black maw. The teeth were gone and the gums, the tongue, all of it had turned black, blacker even than their faces.

Still they pulled this heavy load, a boat on crude sled runners, over uneven ice and snow. What could be in the boat worth all this?

Nothing. Nothing was worth this. They were in Hell.

I awoke and screamed at last.

Again it was Jane’s ministrations that brought me back to sensibility, her gentle yet no-nonsense touch and her tea laced with brandy. I quieted, but my hands still shook as I told them all I had seen.

“Why would Penelope do this to me?” I demanded of Jane. “Why? How can this help?”

“There is something you’re meant to see, something small enough where you aren’t noticing it,” she said.

“Were there any landmarks? Anything that might help us find this place?” Teddy asked.

“No, nothing. Nothing but ice and snow and sky. And men blinded by sun on snow, dying of hunger and scurvy, watching bits of themselves blacken and fall off from frostbite.”

“That’s horrid,” Jane said. She looked repulsed, but I knew my words had not conveyed the true horror of that moment I had lived in that strange man’s mind. Those other men, those walking corpses, I had seen madness in their red-rimmed eyes. Their sanity was gone, and I wasn’t sure that wasn’t a sort of blessing.

The ship’s progress was slowed as the icebergs grew larger and more numerous. We met other ships also searching for Franklin near Beechey Island which were preparing to winter over on that desolate shore. There was a cemetery there, just three lone graves, all men from Franklin’s expedition, but no clue was found as to the fate of the others. Of Patrick’s ship there was still no sign, and the other search ships had seen nothing. They advised waiting for spring but our captain decided to press on.

I was plagued with insomnia. I could not decide whether it would be preferable to dream again of that captain and perhaps finally find the clue Jane thought I should be seeing or to avoid putting myself through another vision of horror. The illusion that I had a choice in the matter kept me awake until the dark hours of early morning, when I would at last fall into a short, dreamless sleep that was far from restful or refreshing. I was beginning to look like a wraith myself.

Then the unthinkable happened. One morning as I slept my fitful sleep, the Margaret Mary sailed into Peel Sound. By the time the crew saw the ice, it was too late. I awoke to learn the ship was trapped until such time as the ice chose to release us.

I remembered that first vision I had had of the two ships trapped in the ice. The Terror and the Erebus had been steam-heated with desalinators for making seawater drinkable and enough canned food to last for years, and still the crew had been forced to walk away and abandon those fine ships. We who had none of those things, when would we be forced to try our chances on foot out on the open Arctic?

It is not surprising the crew turned to Jane when looking for someone to blame. They had left Newfoundland under-equipped and too late in the year and had only made it this far because of the fair weather which they credited her for. They had gambled on their own skill to see them through and had lost. But the option of blaming witchcraft for their fate rather than their own bad planning was too tempting. Nothing could be done about the coming of winter and its weeks of endless night, nothing could be done about the small store of food that was completely inadequate to the task of feeding the crew until spring. But witchcraft? There was always something to be done about that. If you think we are too civilized in 1854 to allow such things to happen, all I can tell you is we were very far from civilization.

Teddy and I were roused from sleep by the sounds of Jane’s screams. Before we could even get to our feet our cabin was filled with the grabbing hands of crewmen. Teddy tried to fight but was quickly cuffed on the head, and his hands were tied behind his back before he could recover his senses. I struggled as best I could, but soon I too was bound in chafing rope and hauled up on deck.

The crew had worked fast; they had smashed the dinghies into kindling and had already made a pyre out on the ice from every scrap of wood they could spare, with one long timber standing at its heart, pointing up to the indifferent sky. The captain was nowhere to be seen, although whether he was turning a blind eye to the proceedings or whether the crew had killed or incapacitated him first I cannot say; even now I do not know.

The crewmen forced me to my knees near the pyre. Teddy was dumped in the snow next to me. He lay motionless, and his face was a wash of blood. I knew well how much even a small cut to the scalp could bleed, but still his lack of movement worried me.

Then Jane was brought out of the ship, screeching and fighting. It took five men to pull her over to the pyre and tie her to the timber. Then one member of the crew lit a torch and Jane’s screams and curses died away. She stared through the dark tangled locks of her hair. She was not afraid, only angry. For some reason, that frightened me. I drew closer to Teddy.

“We’ll be givin’ ye just one chance to save yer life,” the torch-bearing man said.

“Will you now?” Jane said.

“There be magic in yer song. Ye sing us out o’ this ice, we’ll call it square,” he said.

“Oh, I can break the ice,” she said. She tossed her hair back out of her eyes and began to sing, a different song than before. This one was not at all familiar, and it filled me with dread. The crew did not like it either. Their nervous murmurs changed to cries of alarm; over what I could not tell. They bolted back to the ship, leaving me still bound and Teddy still unconscious. I stayed with him, desperately trying to rouse him. Then the ice beneath us shook and cracks began to form. The ice shook again, bucking up beneath me and sending me rolling. I realized with growing horror it was being rammed from below.

The sound of splintering wood filled the air. I managed to get my knees beneath me and scramble to my feet, turning to see a massive beast, a great white wyrm, rising up from the heart of the ship, cleaving it in two with its very body. It reared up higher than the mast, and I knew I was not seeing even half of it. The monster was covered in white fur like a polar bear’s, fur which glowed in the rising sun. It was achingly beautiful; I could not look away.

Then it tipped its serpent head and snatched a fleeing crewman off the deck, impaling him on its monstrous teeth. The sailor’s screams echoed over the ice, outliving him by several horrid moments.

“Teddy!” I called, running back to where my friend still lay motionless. But my hands had been tied behind my back and when my bootless feet slipped on the ice I had no way of catching myself. I fell on my chin and my mouth filled with blood. When at last I raised my head it was to see flames before my eyes.

They had lit the pyre. For all the good it would do them. The ship was rapidly sinking, the white wyrm snatching up all the men it could, ripping them to shreds but scarcely swallowing one before reaching for another.

“Jane!” I shouted, trying to rise once more. My head was spinning and the ice beneath me seemed to be tipping madly. It was only as I began to slide backwards I realized it was tipping. I rolled onto my back, trying to slow my slide with my stocking feet. Bootless and coatless, I wasn’t going to last long in the Arctic, but a dunk in the water would finish me off all the sooner.

Then the head of a wyrm rose up out of the sea before me, and I longed to feel the killing cold of the ocean. The thing’s face was hideous, long and thin like a snake’s with bulbous knobs over its eyes, as if its eyebrows were some sort of bladder. Then it opened its mouth to show me its teeth, as long and sharp as rapiers. I closed my eyes.

Something warm and wet slapped around my waist and lifted me up off the ice just as my feet plunged into the frigid water. I opened my eyes to find myself safely past the teeth, which were rapidly closing behind me. I had one last glimpse of another wyrm plucking an unharmed Jane out of the fire’s reach, then I was in the moist, warm dark of the creature’s mouth.

The tongue, for that’s what it was, released me. I feared I was being swallowed as the muscular floor beneath me sank down and the tongue pressed down over my head, creating a sort of roof. There was a horrendous pressure and both of my ears popped painfully. Then the tissue before me billowed out like a frog’s throat. I was in a sort of bubble, and though the membrane was cloudy I could see through it. I saw another wyrm with Teddy in its throat, then it was gone from view as we plunged into the sea.

We swam for some time through dark waters, and I was warm and apparently safe if not quite comfortable. Then specks of light appeared before us. As we drew closer I realized the light was coming from other wyrms. The bulbous knobs over their eyes were glowing eerily. There were dozens of them prowling around the wreck of a ship resting on the ocean floor. As we passed the prow I could just make out the lettering: Erebus.

My wyrm swam past the ship then turned back to watch the approach of the other wyrms behind us. One lowered its head to the muddy bottom and opened its mouth. Jane stepped out, as easily and naturally as she would step out onto her porch at home. Her hair and nightgown were a constantly moving mass around her as she turned to face the wyrms gathering around her. She seemed to be speaking to them, although her back was to me and I could hear nothing. Then the wyrms began to move forward one at a time to present her with things they had salvaged from the wreck. She inspected them all but declined to take them, except for one small item, too small for me to see through the cloudy membrane.

The ceremony ended, and Jane once more was swallowed by her wyrm. Then we were off, swimming through the deep. Once the ocean floor disappeared far below us there was nothing more to see, and as improbable as it sounds I drifted off to sleep.

I don’t know how long I slept, but the nightmare which took me was a brief one. I was in a makeshift campsite out on the Arctic. There were very few of us left. Someone was cooking a soup. It smelled divine. I watched as the cook poked at the meat in the kettle, my mouth watering.

Then I walked around the boat on his sledge, over a little rise in the ground, to a place just out of sight from the camp. Something was buried there, but the wind kept blowing the snow away. I crouched by the mound, pushing armfuls of snow over the mass and trying to pack it down, but it was too dry and powdery and the next gust of wind took it all away. I could see what was buried there: a pile of severed hands and feet.

Lord help me, I was hungry still.

I awoke with a jerk to find myself facedown in the snow. There was a splash behind me, but all I saw when I looked over my shoulder were ripples in the water. My wyrm had abandoned me.

I fought back a sob of grief. What good was it to spare me from being eaten only to leave me to die in the cold?

Then I heard something clatter and turned to see a boat nearby, a boat mounted crudely on runners. If it weren’t the boat from my dream it was another exactly like it. Jane had climbed inside and was rooting through it.

“What are you looking for?” Perhaps not the question I should have been asking first, but my reason was nearly gone. I could not see what she was doing inside the boat. All I could see was a bluish lump at the stern, a lump I became increasingly certain was a man’s head in a woolen cap. A dead man’s head.

“Oh!” Jane cried, straightening with a book in her hand. She sounded delighted, almost girlishly so. “The Vicar of Wakefield! He kept it with him all this time.”


Still she did not answer. She looked at the book for a moment with a fond smile as she turned the pages then tossed it aside carelessly to resume searching. I looked about at the ice and snow until my gaze fell on another shape nearby.

“Teddy!” I cried, scrambling to his side. He gave a groan but did not quite wake. “We need to build a fire,” I said to Jane, getting to my feet. I had been warm in the wyrm’s mouth, but my clothes had not dried in that humid environment. It was with wet stockinged feet I crossed the snow to the boat.

Jane dropped coats and boots down on my head. She seemed anxious for me not to get inside the boat. I was suspicious, but practicality won out. I put on a dead man’s boots and coat and went back to Teddy to do the same for him.

His eyes fluttered open as I lifted him, and he managed to sit upon and put on the coat himself.

“How do you feel?” I asked, peering into his eyes. His gaze was steady and focused, his pupils correctly sized. Something inside of me released a tension I hadn’t realized it was even holding.

“Cold,” he said at last, looking around at the snow and at Jane still digging through the boat.

“There are mittens in the pockets of your coat, I believe,” I said to him, then more loudly to Jane, “we need to make a fire.” I got back to my feet and crossed the snow back to the boat. “Jane, don’t you realize the danger we are in?”

“Edgar,” she said, pausing in her search to give me a fond smile. Fond yet sad.

“What are you looking for, Jane? Can you tell me that, at least? What could possibly be worth all this?”

“I have what she wants,” Teddy said suddenly. I turned to find him standing, his hands buried deep in the pockets of the wool coat which was much too large for him. Then he pulled out one hand. The bulge I had taken for mittens was something else entirely. It appeared to be a fur pelt, rolled up like one would roll parchment into a scroll, and tightly bound with leather cords.

Jane gave a cry and launched herself out of the boat, stumbling in the snow. Teddy took several steps back, tucking the fur out of sight.

“You don’t understand,” Jane said as Teddy continued moving away from her. “I need it. I can’t return to my people without it. And they need me! They are dying without me.”

“Your people?” I repeated.

“Selkies,” Teddy said. “She’s a selkie.”

“Half-selkie,” Jane corrected. “My mother was human.”

“This is nonsense,” I said. “Your father is as human as I am.”

“Jacob is not my father,” Jane said. “Penelope showed you once the place where she was born. I know she did, she told me. It’s a place of great power, sacred to the selkies who dwell around Newfoundland. She was born there, she has a touch of that power to her. Don’t deny it! You and Patrick were not the only ones to fall under her spell; you were merely the only ones she loved in return.”

“This is nonsense,” I said again, with more heat. But Jane could not be stopped.

“Penelope was born there, but I was conceived there. I am half-selkie because I am my father’s daughter, but I have the power of that place in my blood, which makes me something more.”

“What do you mean, more?” Teddy asked, still keeping his distance, holding the fur pelt close to his chest under the folds of his borrowed coat.

“It would take too long to explain. There is a war on, down under the waves. I am meant to play a part in it, to end it. I have the power to unite the tribes, only I cannot. Without my skin, I cannot remain in the deep for more than the space of a few moments. I cannot take my true form.”

I heard a laugh then, an angry mocking laugh. I realized it was coming from me.

“Edgar,” Jane said, turning away from Teddy to approach me, but I too backed away. She persevered. “I know this all sounds like one of Penelope’s stories, and her stories are largely nonsense. She is a silly, silly girl. We both love her dearly despite it, I know. Or perhaps because of it. The world can be a cold place for realists like you and me. Penelope is all warmth and comfort. But this is truth I am telling you, cold uncompromising truth. And I need your help. What will it take for you to believe me?”

I thought of all I had seen. Reluctantly, I had to admit I already did believe her story. All of it. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell her so. “What about Patrick?” I asked instead.

“I didn’t send him after my skin, I swear it. He chose to go in hopes of seeing a piece of that reward money.”

“But…” I prompted.

“I did cast a spell over him,” she admitted. “The same spell I cast over you. To dream of those nearest my skin, to help me find it. If you had ever seen it in your dream, you would have been compelled to find it and return it to me.”

“I see. And Penelope’s heart?”

Jane put her hand in her own pocket and took out a small metal box. This was the object the wyrms had brought to her down on the ocean floor.

“This wasn’t on the Erebus.”

“No. Patrick’s ship wrecked in a storm near Beechey Island. But my servants have been watching all the ships at my bidding. All hands were lost in the shipwreck, but this they caught and returned to me.”

I took the box and pried back the lid. It was indeed half a human heart. Blood and muscle, caked with ice.

“It was a foolish thing she did, tying herself to a sailor like that. But then perhaps I should not judge, for I let one slip away from me with my skin.”

A look of nervousness passed over her, and she seemed to wage a war with herself on what words to speak next. “What will you do?” she managed at last.

I snapped the lid back down on the box and slipped it into my coat pocket.

“Penelope has been saved,” Jane said. “Her heart is out of the sea; she can recover now. When you reach Newfoundland once more you will find her alive. But she will never be quite whole without this half of her heart.”

“You’re trading your sister’s heart for your own skin,” Teddy said. “Don’t question what Edgar chooses to do with it.”

“No, it’s not a trade!” Jane insisted. “I can’t go back to Penelope to deliver it myself. Even if I could, it’s your right to be the one to carry it back to her. That’s why I gave it to you.”

“There’s magic in it, I presume,” I said. “I could use it to make her love me.”

“Yes,” Jane said, her eyes desperate. “If you put it in your own chest, she will be yours once more.”

“I’m not going to do that,” I said. The very idea was disturbing in too many ways. “She loves me with her whole heart in her own chest or not at all. I suspect not at all.”

“And what of this?” Teddy asked, holding out the roll of fur once more.

“Let her have it,” I said. Teddy considered this for a moment then relented, cutting the leather cords and unrolling the sleek seal skin before draping it over Jane’s outstretched hands.

“Thank you,” Jane said. “Thank you both.” She laid the skin down at her feet and began shedding layers of clothing. I turned away for the sake of her modesty, but apparently Teddy did not. I opened my eyes when I heard his gasp and turned back to see Jane gone. Sitting in the midst of her discarded clothing was a seal of dark chocolaty brown. I looked into its eyes; they were Jane’s eyes, with Jane’s mind behind them. Then the seal gave a short bark and propelled itself over the snow and out into the open water of the sea.

I never saw Jane again.

Teddy and I were now alone in the Arctic. We scrounged through the boat for anything useful. We filled the pockets of our coats with foil-wrapped squares of chocolate and helped ourselves to extra mittens and woolen hats. There was another skeleton in the bow. This one was not covered with desiccated flesh, like the one in the stern. I tried not to think about the lack of flesh on a skeleton that couldn’t be more than a few weeks older than the other, or the fact that the flesh should be gone when chocolate remained. I could not judge these men; I was about to walk in their footsteps.

We set out along the river. We had no way to make a fire, not so much as a knife to hunt with, and the chocolate soon ran out. We lacked only a harness and heavy boat to pull to be living my nightmare. Frostbite blackened our faces, and our feet soon began to follow. Teddy was worse off than I; the cut on the back of his head would not heal. Finally he collapsed in the snow, delirious with fever and too weak to go on. I settled down beside him and we both waited to die. I was not angry or afraid; I felt nothing but cold.

Why did the natives rescue us when they had given such a wide berth to the men of the Franklin Expedition? It was not because of Teddy; with his modern clothes they did not realize he was one of their own until he woke some days later and began to speak. Perhaps it’s because we were only two, more easily fed than Crozier’s many men. The fact that we had no weapons and were too weak to be a threat may have been a factor. I do not imagine the idea of all of those men starving nearby had rested easy with them; perhaps we were an opportunity to assuage guilty feelings. But I do not question it; I’m only grateful for it.

And it turned out that fashion sense aside, the captain had not exaggerated Teddy’s skills. Once he was back on his feet he joined the other men in hunting, bringing home enough meat to feed the two of us plus extra to give to the tribe to repay them for their hospitality and later to trade for supplies we would need when we resumed our long walk south when the sun returned in the spring.

In all it was a year and a half from the day I left before I set foot on Newfoundland again. Jacob had passed on and Penelope now lived alone in their house by the sea. There was a look to her I knew well, the look of someone who has survived a major illness but still carries the shadow of death with them for the rest of their days, never quite recovering.

I gave her the metal box, and she took it with murmured thanks but held it without opening it, without even looking at it.

“I wonder,” she said at last, “If I haven’t been happier without this. No, not happier; more content.”

“Perhaps,” I allowed. “But the day will come when you will want it again, a day when you are ready.”

She smiled a smile with no real feeling in it, a mere polite gesture. I realized the fire had gone out of me as well. I still loved her, but it was a different sort of love. It was the love of a fond childhood friend, half-forgotten. A sudden horrible thought struck me, that my passion as well as hers would return if she opened that box. Could I convince her to do it? Could I force her? I kissed her forehead and departed in haste before I could be tempted further.

Or was it a temptation? I had traveled to the ends of the earth for Penelope, but my travels had left me much changed. A life with Penelope no longer held any appeal for me. I had lost some part of myself in those cold seas.

So it was that I traveled to the Arctic and came back empty-handed. Teddy returned to Boston with me and became first my apprentice and then my partner. My life fell into a certain contented pattern, but the thought of the box still haunted me. Perhaps it always would. Some wounds never heal, and from some illnesses there is no recovery. Like Penelope, I would spend the rest of my days with the shadow of death falling over me.

2 Responses to “On Desperate Seas”

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