Sebjørn squinted against the pale light of the midnight sun. The sky was cloudless. There was no wind. Save for where it frothed against the hull of the Höðr, splitting around them into a wide V of wake, the sea was still, and vacant. It was so quiet that Sebjørn had become aware of the throbbing noise of the boat’s engine, a sound so familiar that he was usually as ignorant of it as he was the pump-thump of his own heartbeat. The regularity of his breathing.
At the bow, Aaron leaned on the barrel of the harpoon cannon. He, too, searched the sea. He wore binoculars around his neck and occasionally he used them, but only briefly.
In the crow’s nest, Sigved used his more frequently. He wore his bright orange waterproof, as if he’d seen rain the others were yet to notice. He wore the hood up, cords pulled so tight that it puckered around his face, and he held the binoculars at what little gap remained.
Brage and Nils—one port, one starboard—also looked to the water. Searching, like the others, for a plume of expelled spray. The run-off from an arching back. Maybe birds, sitting on the water, bobbing to eat krill.
There was nothing.
In the wheelhouse, Osvald held them steady. Grim-faced but fierce when others might be sullen. A suitable expression for a captain yet to catch his first whale of the season; of the thirty to forty they were set to catch this year, the crew of the Höðr had none.
Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales and can remain submerged for twenty minutes at a time. They barely breach when they come up for air, nor do they bring their flukes from the water when they dive. It makes them difficult to spot. For a species so apparently great in number—enough, at least, to be considered sustainable—they were proving to be frustratingly elusive this year.
Sebjørn checked his watch. Another day would soon be over. Another night. He clapped his gloved hands together a couple of times and rubbed them. Not because he was cold but because the gesture felt decisive. Come on now, he thought. Show us something. Give us something to take home.
Nils, standing close beside him, chose that moment to begin singing. Not a whaling song, but a traditional fishing song. His father, he’d said, had been a fisherman, but then every whaler was a fisherman in the winter.
The men on the Höðr knew the song.
Brage turned and smiled at Nils, smiled at Sebjørn, and added his deep voice to the chorus. Sebjørn mouthed the words as well, quietly at first but gaining enthusiasm with the others. Aaron, at the cannon, waved his arms to conduct an imagined orchestra and they sang of the rise and fall of the sea, of the catch and the haul, driven by a rhythm meant to ease hard work, though they had none.
A sudden whistle, brief and shrill, cut the song short. Sigved had the binoculars at his face but was holding them with only one hand; with the other he pointed.
There. A small cloud of spray. The mist of a blowhole, spouting. It settled quickly on such a windless day, drifting just enough to indicate a direction of movement.
Sebjørn offered Sigved a thumbs up. The man nodded, unclipping the radio from his belt and calling through to the captain, but Osvald was already steering the boat around. The men cheered as the vessel turned. This was it. At last, the thrill of the hunt.
There was another eruption of spray ahead and a dark shape emerged from the water before slipping back under.
There were two of them.
Aaron readied himself at the harpoon cannon. Brage took one of the rifles from the nearby rack. He wouldn’t need it. The harpoon was grenade-tipped, designed to explode inside the whale’s brain, and Aaron was a good shot.
The blast of the cannon shuddered through the deck. The Höðr was a small vessel and all of it trembled when the gunner fired. Sebjørn, resting against a rail, felt it thrumming as he watched nylon wire unravel behind the harpoon. Heard it hiss its sizzling echo to the sudden thunder that had launched it.
The whale turned and, with a final wave of fin, it rolled. Raised its side to the sky. Its pale underbelly.
Brage lowered the rifle.
“Eight meters,” said Nils beside Sebjørn. Sebjørn nodded. Twenty six, twenty seven feet. Half the size of the Höðr. About average. But average was good. Small would have been good. Average was very good.
Sebjørn looked to the wheelhouse. Osvald, usually so serious, was smiling. Sebjørn was glad to see it.
A metallic whine from the winch signalled the men to their stations. The nylon cord yanked its slack out of the water, flinging seawater skyward as it pulled taut with the weight of their whale, and Sebjørn clapped his hands together.
“Let’s get to work!”
The minke laid sprawled across the deck, a ragged pulp of meat and blubber where the harpoon had exploded close to the thorax. A good shot. Sebjørn inspected it briefly, nodded at Aaron, and with the others began to carve the animal into pieces.
They would strip several tonnes from the carcass, reducing it to a head and a tail with only bones in between. The tail had been nearly severed already in coming out of the sea, the winch pulling cord through flesh as the whale’s own weight split skin and blubber and muscle down to the bone. The deck was awash with blood. The men were red to their elbows, rubber suits smeared about the chest and waist. Boots sliding in the mess that spread around them.
Sebjørn was in charge of the flensing. He carved blubber into thick strips, handing them to Nils to send below where Brage packed them in ice. Whale blubber was not like animal fat. It was not soft; cutting it demanded strength. Sebjørn was still strong. He enjoyed the work. It was greasy, stinking work, and he was slick with fat and fluids, but it was men’s work and he was happy.
Sigved and Aaron followed Sebjørn’s progress. They drew their knives through meat and muscle, laying each thick chunk on the deck ready to go below. They all worked in focussed silence, save for the grunts and exhalations of their exertions. There were plenty of songs they could have used to accompany, even ease, their efforts, but by some unspoken agreement they worked without them. As if a song would make this routine when the catch was far too special: they would honour it with quiet efficiency. There was chorus enough, anyway, from the birds that had appeared from nowhere, circling and diving and crying their impatience, calling at each other in battle over whatever scraps made it to the sea.
The heavy bulk before the men, thick under their hands and firm against their bodies, uncurled piece by piece until the body was an open wet cavity, red and white and steaming in the cold air. The grey-black whale, skin shining like an oil-slick, was swiftly becoming a length of bones. These would be thrown back to the sea; today’s whaling was concerned only with the blubber and the meat beneath. The blubber would be rendered down to oil. The meat would be eaten.
Sebjørn cut away one of the fins, let it drop to the deck, and kicked it overboard. The sea had fed the whale, the whale would feed the sea. He cut into the sagging swell of whale belly and reached inside, pushing bones aside to locate the stomach. Cut it loose. He hefted it overboard like a shot-put, startling the birds with its heavy splash. For a moment it rose again, buoyant, but it wouldn’t float for long. The birds were already pulling it to pieces, screeching their excitement, fighting. Tossing their heads back to swallow whatever chunks they managed to scavenge while smaller scraps sank for the fishes.
Behind Sebjørn, somebody swore. Somebody yelled. He turned to see Sigved throwing a punch at Nils, who sprawled across the whale carcass. Nils lashed out in return. Sigved turned the blow aside with an open hand but hissed in pain. Sebjørn yelled at both of them. One held the curved blade of a flensing knife, the other a metal hook for dragging slabs of butchered meat, but he stepped between them and shoved them apart. He didn’t ask what the fight had been about because it didn’t matter. Men would always fight.
Sigved snatched up one of the hoses and washed blood from his palm. A smile gaped there, filling with more blood as he flexed his fingers.
“Get it bandaged,” Sebjørn said.
Sigved gestured with a quick jab of his head to where the meat was piling up beside Nils. “He’s clumsy,” he said. “And he’s slow.”
Nils was new. He had worked a couple of other boats previously but there was some truth to what Sigved said, Sebjørn had to admit.
“If we don’t find another whale for a while you can take it out on each other then.”
Sigved twisted a bandage around his hand. He nodded.
Sebjørn looked at Nils. The man was working his jaw, probing his cheek for loose teeth. “Fine by me.”
“There’s at least one more out there,” Aaron said. “I saw it.”
“Good,” said Sigved, “because I’ve got more meat hanging between my legs than we’ll get off of this one.”
Aaron laughed. Sebjørn too, after a moment. Nils slammed his hook into another steak and dragged it away.
The radio at Sebjørn’s belt crackle-spat to life and Osvald told him that the next man to strike another would be thrown overboard. Sebjørn acknowledged the statement and showed the men his radio as if the captain’s words were still coming from it. The captain of a vessel was its law. Sebjørn looked to the wheelhouse but Osvald had already put them out of mind.
The Höðr carried them further north.
The men ate together in the cramped galley, bunched around a scarred table, hunched over their meals like hungry convicts. The room was warm and thick with the smell of whale meat fried in garlic and butter. The briny smell of drying clothes. The smell of hard work. And there was beer. They carried very little on board, but there was always something for celebrating the first catch. The men were loud with good humour. Laughing, shoving each other with boisterous banter. Drumming on the table. Around them, on the walls, on cupboard doors, were pages torn from magazines. Centrefolds. Celebrities in varying states of undress. The women had been renamed several times over. They had each been girlfriends, had each been wives. Many of them had been graffitied from boredom. Tattooed in pen, enhanced, made monstrous. Aaron, leaning in his chair, added a geyser gush to one of the ladies, swearing and shaking at the pen dying in his hand, but laughing with Brage’s encouragement. Old men being boys. The captain always ate separate to the rest of the crew. It allowed them such freedoms.
Sebjørn shoved his plate aside as soon as his meal was done and grabbed for cigarettes that hadn’t been in his shirt pocket for over a year. What he found there instead was the postcard he had replaced them with. He knew all of the words but he read them again anyway, faded though they were. On the other side, a familiar picture. The image cracked, white lines like scars where the card had folded. It was the Snøhuit facility where his son worked, flames spouting hundreds of feet into the air from the gas plant’s chimney, higher than any of the mountains behind and casting a fiery glow over the town below. “There she blows!” his son had written across it. A joke, but also a sharp reminder of how times had changed.
“Hammerfest,” Nils said, looking over from beside him.
“Who do you know there?”
“My son,” Sebjørn said, though he didn’t really know the boy any more. Didn’t know the man. As a father he had always been more elusive than any whale.
“It is a good place,” Nils said. He took another mouthful of beer.
It probably was. Anna had always said so, back when she used to try to make Sebjørn feel better. Hammerfest had been a dying town before the gas plant. Now it was not only rejuvenated but expanding. Yet it had been a fishing town once. Sebjørn couldn’t help wishing it was still.
“He works there,” Sebjørn told Nils, though the man had not asked. “My son.”
He had gone away to school, and though he had returned he did not stay long. The young never did. They took work in the cities. Tourist jobs, and the oil industry. They left the island communities behind them. The fishing, the whaling. The winter seas and the challenging summers. When Sebjørn was a boy there were nearly two hundred whaling vessels working the waters off the north of Norway. He worked those same waters now on one of maybe twenty.
“Your son works at Snøhuit?” Nils asked. “Good! That’s good!” He slapped at Sebjørn’s arm a few times in celebration. “The world’s cleanest petroleum project.” Nils tried to explain how the company owning the plant separated carbon dioxide from the natural gas. How the carbon dioxide would be injected it into the seabed. Some way of helping with global warming. Sebjørn barely listened. He had heard it before.
“Why do you not work in the city?” he asked Nils. “You’re young.”
It was answer enough. Nils’s father had been on the Lofotofangst, lost last year. Sebjørn had already assumed it must have been something to do with that. Assumed that was why Osvald had hired someone so green. Only last month, the Bjørn had gone down with all hands, too. There had been experienced men on both of those vessels but it hadn’t made any difference. The sea was like that sometimes.
“We never really got on,” Nils said. Sebjørn thought that was probably true of most of the men here. Their own fathers. Their own sons. Nils grinned and said, “I never really liked whaling,” and raised his bottle to toast the apology. The challenge.
Yes, he was like other sons.
“It is the same as farming,” said Sigved. “They are like cows. It’s like slaughtering cows.”
Nils nodded. “Like cows, of course. Yes. Except people still eat beef.”
“People still eat whale meat.”
“People buy whale meat. It is tradition. They respect the tradition.”
“You just ate whale meat,” Sebjørn noted. In amusement, not to encourage argument. His own view depended on his mood. He was a fisherman, and whales drove the fish closer to shore. Made fishing easier. It was good to have them around. But they also ate the fish, and so he wasn’t against culling them either. Sebjørn was a fisherman, but he was also a whaler. It only depended on the time of year. They were all of them hunters. Only the prey changed.
Aaron, who had been blowing a melody over the tops of beer bottles, joined in to say, “Sustainable.” It was a word he liked to use.
Brage agreed. “Japan and Iceland do it, too.”
“Last year we caught more whales than Japan and Iceland combined,” Nils said.
“Didn’t feel like it.”
“And it’s not even legal, not really. There are international treaties and– ”
Sigved stood abruptly. He knocked the table hard enough that bottles bounced on their bases. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You’re too young.” He nudged Nils more than was necessary in leaving. Men like Sigved built their arguments on experience. Young men, like Nils, used statistics and what they’d read elsewhere.
Sebjørn looked again at the photo in his calloused hands and relished the day’s ache in his arms, his back. His old bones. There she blows! He looked at that plume of fire. Looked at the buildings of the Snøhuit and the town around it. He tried to imagine working in such a place and was glad when he could not.
Sebjørn woke suddenly, thinking of the harpoon cannon. He could still feel its shudder through the boat.
Across from him, Nils stirred in his bunk. He turned to one elbow and rubbed at his face. He started to say something but there was another vibration, a thrumming through the boat from beneath.
Sebjørn leaned out to see Aaron nursing his head in the bunk below. “What was that? We shooting something?”
It wasn’t the harpoon cannon. The reverberations were stronger.
Osvald appeared in the doorway. He held both sides of the frame for a moment—“Get up.”—and was gone again. Sebjørn called after him but there was no answer to his question. He swung his legs out from the bunk, dropped to the floor, and staggered as the boat suddenly shifted. He fell into Aaron emerging from his own bunk and the two of them grabbed at each other and the bunks to stop from sprawling.
The vessel shifted again. A protracted list to starboard. It righted itself afterwards but was slow doing so.
One of them said it. All of them knew it. Sebjørn pulled himself straight and used the momentum to hurry out to the passageway. The Höðr was sitting lower in the water. He could feel it. Could feel the sea pressing in on all sides. They were held in a grip of high water.
Brage was hurrying towards him.
“Where’s the captain?”
But Brage pushed past. “We’re abandoning ship,” he said. Sebjørn grabbed him, caught a bunch of his clothing in his fist as the man pressed between him and the wall, but there was nothing else to say. The clothing in his grip told him everything; Brage was in his waterproofs. He had a life jacket hooked over his head. Sebjørn let him go.
“Come on,” Sigved said, suddenly with them. He had his vest in one hand. Then he was gone, hurrying to the deck.
Aaron, pulling on his boots, asked, “What’s happening?”
Sebjørn grabbed the handheld, but if Osvald had his radio he wasn’t answering.
“All right,” Sebjørn said, tossing the radio. He clapped his hands together once, twice. “Let’s go.”
They fell out of the room as the vessel plunged suddenly under them. The floor dropped away and came up again, pitching them against the wall. They rushed to the deck in a stumble, snatching life vests as they went.
It was bright outside. Calm. Boats could sink in any weather, yet Sebjørn thought there should be winds. High waves. The deck should be getting swamped again and again with crashing water. That was how it happened whenever he dreamed it. Instead, all was still. Brage and Sigved stood prepping the raft between them, taking a final moment to read through the instructions printed on its side. They could have been at the seaside or beside a swimming pool, preparing some novelty inflatable, though they stood to their ankles in seawater. A gentle wave of it washed over Sebjørn’s feet.
He glanced at the wheelhouse.
“Where’s the captain?”
Nobody answered. Brage or Sigved pulled the appropriate cord and together they threw the raft out to sea to inflate. They climbed over the gunwale and leapt one after the other without a backwards glance. There was no need to consider the necessary actions here. The Höðr was already lost.
Sebjørn called to Aaron. The man was patting at his pockets. Looking for something, or performing a mental checklist of all he carried. He looked at Sebjørn long enough to nod then made his way to the raft. Nils was looking around the deck, as amazed as Sebjørn at how it sat almost level with the sea. When it pitched backwards, all of them staggered with it, and then as it leaned to port they ricocheted off each other and fell that way, too. Clutched at the gunwales. Sebjørn hit them just as the boat righted itself again. Flipped over them with the sudden rise of the deck. Span. Grabbed at something, anything, whatever he could. Caught his ankle on something hard that snapped a sharp pain into his brain. Maybe he felt water rushing in over him, but it might have been a moment of unconsciousness. Either way, when he shook the darkness off he was in the sea. His clothing had ballooned up around him. His vest was high around his neck, too loose on his body and too tight against his throat. He splashed and kicked in a circle to find everyone. A flash of bright pain lit up his ankle again but he saw the raft. Someone, Nils, was being hauled inside.
The Höðr was beside him. A protrusion of winch-arm and a wheelhouse roof and that was all. Strangely level, like a floor he could climb up onto, though it wouldn’t be long before it sank completely, Sebjørn thought. He wanted to get as far away from it as he could before that happened. He wanted to get into the raft. He twisted in the water to begin a strong, short, crawl.
He felt the pull of water. Movement on both sides as the sea tugged him back, pulled against him. He sensed something large behind him, displacing the water he moved in, and imagined the Höðr descending. For a moment he thought it moved beneath him, thought he saw its large dark shape in the water, and he grabbed at the air, desperate to pull himself away. His hand came down on the rubber of the raft. Then the others had him around the wrist, the forearm, under the armpit, and they hauled him in from the sea.
Dragging the life-raft ashore is difficult. Awkward. The men are exhausted. They splash through the shallows with their heads down, shoulders hunched against the wind as they stagger towards land. Wavelets froth onto a black shore salted white with ice and snow. Frozen sand cracks and scrunches tight under wet boots as they stumble inland. Raft bumping between them, they make puddles with each footprint they press into the beach. Churn its sand and snow into slush.
Sebjørn has no idea where they are.
Jan Mayen is far west. The Lofoten Islands are east, and closer to land. It is not Svalbard, nor anywhere near it. Osvald has taken the Höðr further out than is usual—he had admitted as much in the raft. They are well north of Norway, into the Arctic Circle. Stuck, now, on a barren spit of land they do not know.
The island is a sloping stretch of rock and black sand, lurching into a short chain of black mountains at the northern end. Sebjørn thinks of trolls and Valkyries and wonders where the hell they are. Remembers something his son told him once: in the last three decades, retreating sea ice has freed over a million square miles of ocean. That, he’d explained, was why whales were proving harder to find; global warming allowed them more space in which to disappear. He called this new space “the meltwaters”. The Arctic was a ghost. A fading place that haunted the very ocean it created in its passing.
Osvald points, not looking to see which of his men pays attention. Assuming, correctly, that they all do.
White with ice, protruding from the snow-spotted sand, are rows upon rows of wooden racks. Cod-drying racks where loops of twine shine with icicles, some of them so thick and heavy it seems fish still hang there. Translucent. Ethereal. The ghosts of fish.
This time Osvald moves towards where he points. The men follow, dropping the raft, holding their wet bodies tight. Shivering as they make their way towards the leaning shape.
It’s a boat. Turned over, propped into a makeshift shelter with poles from the nearby drying racks. Drifts of snow slope up the overturned hull. Curl around the prow and stern. The boat is half buried but still a serviceable windbreak.
Sebjørn runs his hands over the vessel. “Lichen,” he says. It’s been here for a while. It’s wooden. It has been here for a very long while.
“We’re looking at history,” says Sigved. His bandaged hand is on one of the supporting poles. He’s looking at where the tip has been forced into the wood of the leaning boat, and Sebjørn sees it isn’t part of the drying racks at all. It’s a harpoon. A rusting, metal-headed harpoon. The non-explosive kind. No, not a harpoon: a barbed lance. Whales were harpooned from small boats like this one only as a means of attaching the whalers to their catch. They would pull themselves closer, closer, as the animal tired itself fleeing, struggling, and when they were close enough they would stab it into submission with lances like these. Whale hunting has been part of Norwegian culture for centuries, but back in the beginning it had been far bloodier. Sebjørn shakes his head. How difficult it must have been, penetrating all that blubber with a lance. There were no grenade harpoons with their 80% IDR back then. No such thing as an instant death rate at all. Only stabbing and hacking until you found the right coil of arteries. Grinding the lance in widening circles as the sea spread red and the beast drowned in its own blood. Sebjørn imagines spouts of that blood gushing in a geyser spray. Falling as hot rain while the whale thrashes with its tail pounding, mouth snapping. Twisting and turning its body until finally—
Osvald has his head turned to a sound he’s caught. The men are quiet with him, trying to hear it themselves. Sebjørn hears only the sea, sweeping down the shore. Raking over rocks.
Osvald shakes his head. “It’s gone,” he says. “The wind,” he says.
But to Sebjørn he does not sound certain.
Not far from the boat, they find the rotten ruins of a building. It rises from amongst the rocks that curve with the cove behind the leaning boat. What is left of its wood is wet and soft. Inside, some collapsed roof, crusted with sand and shells. A shore station. More of the past. A remnant from when whalers would set anchor on an island like this, building a shelter to work from using materials from the ship. There they would wait, looking for whales from shore. Riding the waves out to fetch them, lance them, bring them back. Boil the meat and blubber down to bones. Barrel the oil for soap, paint, varnish. Store the bones for clothing, umbrellas. Ambergris for perfume.
Osvald stands where once there was a door, his head turned and tilted. He has been standing that way for long moments, the men gathered behind him. Eventually, Sebjørn speaks.
Osvald raises his hand to silence him. The men look at each other. As if another one of them has spoken, Osvald hisses for shush. Says, “Quiet,” and winces, as if regretting his own sound. He shakes his head as if to clear it and steps inside what little remains of the shore station. He looks around. He looks at the ground. He scuffs at something with his foot.
He glances back at Sebjørn and shakes his head again, a silent answer as he listens. Snaps his attention left, then right. Stares at something he sees there instead.
The men wait. Some of them are shivering.
“We should shelter in the raft,” Sebjørn says. “We could—”
In two, three, strides, Osvald is back outside with them. He seizes Sebjørn by his life vest. Shakes him. “Quiet. I will tell you what must be done.”
Sebjørn is a large man. He is bulkier, still, in his waterproof clothing and vest. Osvald is greyer with age but he is larger, and he carries the extra weight of his authority. Every man feels it.
He releases Sebjørn. Looks at each of the others. “Bring the raft here.”
The men do as they are told and they do it in silence. The only sound between them is the heft of the wind. It comes to shore with more force than the waves, cutting over rock and casting sand at their skin in abrupt gusts. Sebjørn keeps his head down. He tries to hunch deeper into his coat. When he checks on the other men beside him he sees Brage pull hard at his hat, yanking it down to protect his ears. Fumbling at his coat’s collar for the hood that is buttoned up inside.
Nils stops walking with them, so Sebjørn stops too and looks at him. He grabs his arm and pulls him forward but the man only stumbles. He points. When Sebjørn looks, he sees the other men have stopped as well. They are looking at the expanse of beach stretched out before them. They are looking at:
The beach is filled with them, scattered like strange seashells. Large lengths of rib protruding from the sand. Lines of broken spine. Scattered vertebrae. Irregular blocks of strewn bone. Giant skulls, half buried, sand spilling in neat slopes from the sockets and open mouths. Long frozen grins. Pale, ice-sheened baleen.
“There are so many,” says Brage. He turns his whole body to look at the others, hood pulled down tight over his head with both hands.
So many. As many whales as Sebjørn has ever seen in his lifetime, it seems. Full skeletons, remarkably intact where they have come to rest, washed clean to bleached bone. Collapsed structures holding shape enough to show head, body, tail. A protrusion of fin. Ribs curving up in half-cages, or sitting in arched segments like giant bone-spiders. Too many for drift whales, Sebjørn feels. Surely this many would not simply wash ashore.
And there is so much more shore now. A vast spread of dark sand where moments ago there had been the frothy slush of a cold sea. The raft sits isolated on an open expanse of beach and bones while the tide washes out in retreat, far away. A quiet, passing, hush.
Sebjørn strains to hear it.
A sudden gust of wind flings the sea at him. A fierce spray that stings his skin. Spits salt into his eyes. There has been no crash of wave to explain it, not that he has heard, yet the wind is wet and sharp. He winces into it and sees the blurs of his companions hunker down. Nils crouches. A trick of perspective makes him look like the eye of one of the skulls some way behind him. A foetal man against an elongated dome. A part-swallowed Jonah.
A stuttered shush draws Sebjørn to the life raft scudding across the sand. It comes to rest for a moment against a claw of ribs. At one end, a length of jaw, sharp and beak-like, angles up at the sky. The raft shudders to move again.
He hurries the men from where they crouch and hunch their bodies. Only Sigved hesitates, his hood pulled down tight in fists that press against his face.
The man doesn’t seem to hear, but he sees Sebjørn approaching and gets to his feet. He keeps his hands at his ears. The bandage on one of them has begun to unravel. A wet length of rag, dangling.
“Whale brains have a section we don’t.”
Sebjørn looks at Nils. He is staring into whalebone. “They have a section we can’t even understand.”
Sebjørn feels like he knew this. Perhaps his son had told him. His unfathomable son.
The raft rests against a skeleton far larger than the others, with a head at one end accounting for almost a third of its length. It does not have the baleen plates of a minke for filtering food. It’s a toothed whale. The largest of its kind.
“Sperm whale,” says Sigved. He is winding the bandage from his hand around his head instead. Over his ears.
Sperm whales have the largest brain of any animal, even the giant blue whale, but this fleshless head has been opened and emptied of everything. A man could stand inside the case where once there had been a brain and 500 gallons of thick precious fluid. The first men to ever see it had thought of sperm. Sebjørn supposes they had been at sea for a while, without women. He wonders, if he put his ear to the skull, what would he hear? The ocean? Would it roar louder than the eerie whisper that currently hushed in with each wave? Or would it merely be the flush of his own blood, pulsing? His own heartbeat, a years-late echo of something dead.
We’re looking at history, he remembers.
Between them, they prepare to carry it across the sand and snow. Sebjørn looks over the few supplies the others had thrown in with them. Amongst the plastic boxes and foil-wrapped bricks of food lies one of the rifles. Who had paused long enough on a sinking vessel to grab that? Still, he is glad to have it. Its presence reminds him of what they are, these men. That they are not helpless.
The men, reaching for handholds around the raft, rummaging at the few supplies within, pause in their actions. Frozen. Looking at Aaron.
“Did you hear that?” he asks.
The men have nothing for reply, but they listen.
“The captain,” Sebjørn says. Not because he thinks he heard him, but because he speaks his thoughts aloud and his thoughts are with Osvald.
Aaron nods. He hefts his side of the raft, and says, “Let’s go.”
They struggle the raft back to the ancient boat amongst the fishing racks. Back to where the shore station rots amongst the rocks. Of Osvald, though, there is no sign.
The captain is gone.
The photograph flutters in Sebjørn’s hands. There are gaps between the boards of the ancient boat he shelters behind. He has not been reading the postcard, merely holding it while he thinks of Osvald. He is still missing. Tracks they’d found had led only to the sea, nowhere else. They’d followed them to the water’s edge, and further still, into the shallows, as if the receding tide may have left some trace of them. But of course there was nothing.
A quick gust snatches at the place Sebjørn has never been, takes it from his hands, and casts it away down the beach. He grabs for it, stands in a hurry to chase it, but leaves it lost when he sees Sigved.
The man has been acting strange since the captain’s disappearance. Talking to himself. Looking at places only he seems to see. Now he stands distant at the shoreline, waves lapping at his feet. His head is cocked to one side, bandage askew. Ear turned to the sea that hushes in. Hushes away.
Nils steps close to Sebjørn. “What is he doing?”
They watch as the tide washes out over the long skulls of whales. Each hollowed dome fills and empties with the waves, awash with ocean. Sigved stands amongst them. Head tilted, as if they have something to tell him. Some secret to whisper.
Sebjørn opens his mouth to call Sigved but the sound that comes to him on the wind quietens him. A piping noise, long and low. A melancholy melody sent to him through the bones. Whistling over them and through. One note. Two. Mournful, and haunting, beautiful and—
The raised voices of an argument pulls Sebjørn back from his thoughts.
“Let me go!”
Brage is dragging at Aaron’s sleeve. Yanking at his jacket. Aaron is pushing back. Shoving at the Brage’s chest. Kicking at his legs.
“Sebjørn,” says Brage. “Help me.”
“Help you what?”
But he goes to them. Puts his hands between them, tries to prise them apart. Brage shoves at Sebjørn to get his hands on Aaron again. The back of his jacket as the man turns away. “Let him go,” Sebjørn warns.
Brage pulls so violently that he and Aaron fall. They topple some of the fishing trestles and the rifle that had been leaning against them. Sebjørn stumbles with them but keeps to his feet. He helps Brage to his then puts his body between him and Aaron. “What the hell are you doing?” He pushes him back a few steps.
But it isn’t Brage who answers. It’s Aaron. He’s standing with the rifle cradled in his arms. “Don’t you hear it?”
“Aaron . . . ”
“Don’t any of you hear it?”
Brage lunges at Aaron but Aaron sees it coming and strikes at him with the rifle. He has it turned, stock first, and he hits Brage in the chest. In the face.
Nils stands wide-eyed. Sebjørn glances for help from Sigved but the man has noticed nothing of this. He stands in the receding sea. Further out now, as if the tide has pulled him with each wave.
Brage grabs for Aaron again, this time for the rifle. Manages to get his large hands on the rifle butt. He pulls it to him, hand over hand, gathering it to him like rope and Sebjørn sees what is about to happen a moment before it does. Too late to warn them. Too late to do anything. Brage pulls at the stock and Aaron pulls at the barrel and his head is flung back with a sudden spray of blood. A following crack of sound.
Sebjørn turns away from the sight of a man sprawled in the sand and watches Sigved wading deeper out to sea, too stunned to say or do anything to stop him.
“Do you think the captain sent a signal in time?”
Nils is standing, looking down the beach when he asks. There is little to look at. The waves sweep in slowly, barely moving up the shore. Leaving more of it behind.
Sebjørn sits in the sand beside Aaron. The wind is making his ears ache. Constantly, now, he hears how it whistles through the bones. How it arcs over the turned boat, and cuts between the soft boards of the collapsing shore station. The island is awash with the rise and fall of its music. The keening two-note call that threads through him, low and long.
“A distress signal,” Nils says. “Do you think he got one out in time?”
The Höðr’s beacon would have activated as soon as the vessel took on water, broadcasting their position.
“How long before they find us?”
Sebjørn doesn’t answer. After all, the Lofotofangst had the same equipment. The Bjørn, too.
“I don’t know.”
Aaron lies on his back on the beach, staring at the sky. Blood has pooled around his head; a crimson nimbus that refuses to soak into the wet sand.
“Sebjørn? Where’s the rifle now?”
“Brage took it.”
He can’t remember if he knows that or not. Or if he knows where Brage has taken it, either. Can’t think much of anything with that constant noise. The peep and elongated squeal. Regular enough it seems like song and frustrating in its patterned resounding. But beautiful, too.
Sebjørn looks back at where the raft sits, nestled between the fishless racks. A red light blinks from it. A white. Mostly they pulse out of time with each other but sometimes, briefly, there is synchronicity. A pattern that stretches out and comes back in and repeats.
“Do you think he’ll come back?” Nils asks. Adding, “Brage,” because he could have meant somebody else. Anybody else but Aaron.
Sebjørn has no answer for him. He returns to staring out to sea. It has retreated further still, the shore expanding as the waterline recedes, and recedes, and recedes. And everywhere, all he sees is bones. Pale prisons curving from and on the dark sand. Giant skulls, scoured smooth by the sea, grinning their wide lines of baleen. Tails of spine behind pointing to where the sea retreats, retreats. And carried to him from between them, over and through them, comes that watery drawn out sound of low notes.
Sebjørn smiles. Of course it’s watery. Water transmits sound far better than air. And then he thinks, we are eighty percent water. Something like that.
He slaps at his ears. Head bowed, he strikes himself a flurry of blows, as if he can knock the noise from his head. Muffle it with the singing sting of pain. Yet it is a smell that distracts him.
Beside the shelter of the overturned boat, a thick column of dark smoke rises from a fire where men warm themselves.
Sebjørn scrambles in the sand to get up, clumsy with his injured ankle. He lopes towards the men in a limping stagger, dimly aware of Nils moving with him.
The wind tears the smoke ragged, throws it around. Twists the black stink of it into a greasy coil that clings to the skin of the men gathered around the fire. They are not simply warming their hands by the flames. They are working with them.
“What are you doing?”
One of them holds something. He makes downward strokes with a blade.
“Captain? What are you doing?”
The man glances at Sebjørn through the smoke. His face is bloody. His forehead is dark with it. Hair sticks up in oily clumps. His beard is grimed. It isn’t Osvald. It isn’t anyone Sebjørn knows. None of them are. Each is filthy with the grime of their work, blood-streaked and soot-stained. They are dressed in simple clothes, all cloth and leather. One wears a coil of rope across his chest like a bandolier. Another carves at a slab of blubber with a rusted blade. He cuts it into sections like pages, each of them an inch or so thick. As Sebjørn watches, he fans them out and drops them into a pot that boils over the black fire. A glut of bubbling blubber, dense and popping, belching the heavy stench of melting meat juices. One of the men reaches into the pot, his gloves thick with grease. He retrieves crisp pieces from the oil, skims them from where they float, and casts them underneath into the flames. Fuel for the fire that renders the rest into something new.
We are looking at history.
Who said that?
As if suddenly aware that Sebjørn watches, each of the men looks up from their work. Together, they open their mouths wide.
Sebjørn slams his hands to his ears and crouches, turning away. He expects that drawn, hollow vowel sound, the two-note chorus of whale-song, to come from the mouths of those who once hunted them, and he turns from it quickly. Strikes the pot suspended over the fire. Nothing spills, though it falls to where there was once a fire and is gone, dispersed into absence like the wind-driven smoke. Like the men, too, gone with the song that retreats, retreats. Summoned away by the sounds of its own diminishing echo as it retreats. Retreats.
Sebjørn scoops up snow and sand with each hand and clutches them to his head. Packs ice coarse with grit into his ears to silence what he can’t not hear. Handful after handful of sand, snow, stones. Forcing it in tight. But the song remains inside his head. He fights the pull of it, the rise and fall of its siren call, and shudders. Shivers. Spasms with the cold forever in his bones. And all the while his hands are at his ears, pressing them flat. Forcing a hush of blood that sounds like an empty ocean.
The hand on his shoulder startles him. He makes fists in reflex and so has no choice but to hear:
“What are you doing out here?”
He is crouching at the shoreline, Nils standing beside him. A wave laps over their feet. Sebjørn stands slowly and looks back at the long, long, expanse of beach behind. It stretches far away from him . . .
. . . away . . .
. . . away . . .
Right back to where an old boat leans out of the sand like a rotten loose tooth.
Nils reaches for Sebjørn—
“Come on, come with me.”
—but Sebjørn steps away. He faces the darkening sea as a wave comes in, bringing with it more of the same music, and when it recedes it takes it away again. Leaves more shore behind. There are prints in the sand, impossible prints that have not been washed away. That lead into the sea and its music.
Nils positions himself in front of Sebjørn, holding his arms out as if to embrace him. Block him. He is speaking, but Sebjørn can’t hear more than a muffle of noise because he has covered his ears to him as he walks with the receding tide. He does not stop walking, treading wet sand into gurgling puddles. A drowned man’s splutter. Every step he takes is the sound of a throat closing with water as the sea draws back, and back still, and shows him the Höðr. The Lofotofangst. The Bjørn. Others. All of them beached and leaning vacant.
We are looking at history.
Sebjørn limps towards them, hands at his head like a marched prisoner. He thinks of the taut rope that tethers whalers to the whale. The tight line that tows one behind the other across the tops of white waves.
It’s not just whale we’re chasing, Sebjørn realises. It has never just been whales.
Suddenly the sea retreats from him no more. Where once there had been a growing expanse of shore comes a final surge and swell of surf as the ocean rushes in to meet him. It engulfs his knees, his thighs, climbs high up his vestless chest, and turns him about in its violent tide to show him a beach in illusory movement; the bones of whales rushing back into the swift encroaching sea.
And here are the whales now. Two of them. Three. Four of them. Five. They swim with him amongst them and draw him away, out to sea. Arcing slow curves as they appear, then submerge. Raising tails that make wide Vs in descent. Waves that haunt the minds of men in their beckoning.
On the diminishing shore, Nils struggles to free the raft that will save him, surrounded by whaling men. Sebjørn opens his mouth to call a warning but the water hushes him, rushing in with the roar of a whale exhaling as the island that had been slowly rising to heave itself free of the sea dives once more with a mountainous flip of its tail.
Originally published in The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea, edited by Ellen Datlow.