The North Water by Ian McGuire follows a nineteenth-century whaling ship as it sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard, capturing the limits of humanity under the most extreme conditions (Available March 15, 2016).
Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship's medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage.
In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring?
Behold the man.
He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth. At the end of Charterhouse Lane he turns north onto Wincolmlee, past the De La Pole Tavern, past the sperm candle manufactory and the oil-seed mill. Above the warehouse roofs, he can see the swaying tops of main- and mizzenmasts, hear the shouts of the stevedores and the thump of mallets from the cooperage nearby. His shoulder rubs against the smoothed red brick, a dog runs past, a cart piled high with rough-cut timber. He breathes in again and runs his tongue along the haphazard ramparts of his teeth. He senses a fresh need, small but insistent, arising inside him, a new requirement aching to be met. His ship leaves at first light, but before then there is something that must be done. He peers around and for a moment wonders what it is. He notices the pink smell of blood from the pork butcher’s, the grimy sway of a woman’s skirts. He thinks of flesh, animal, human, then thinks again—it is not that kind of ache, he decides, not yet; it is the milder one, the one less pressing.
He turns around and walks back towards the tavern. The bar is almost empty at this hour in the morning. There is a low fire in the grate and a smell of frying. He delves in his pocket, but all he finds there are bread crumbs, a jackknife, and a halfpenny coin.
“Rum,” he says.
He pushes the single halfpenny across the bar. The barman looks down at the coin and shakes his head.
“I’m leaving in the morning,” he explains, “on the Volunteer. I’ll give you my note of hand.”
The barman snorts.
“Do I look like a fool?” he says.
The man shrugs and thinks a moment.
“Head or tails then. This good knife of mine against a tot of your rum.”
He puts the jackknife on the bar, and the barman picks it up and looks at it carefully. He unfolds the blade and tests it against the ball of his thumb.
“It’s a fine knife, that one,” the man says. “Hant never failed me yet.”
The barman takes a shilling from his pocket and shows it. He tosses the coin and slaps it down hard. They both look. The barman nods, picks up the knife, and stows it in his waistcoat pocket.
“And now you can fuck off,” he says.
The man’s expression doesn’t alter. He shows no sign of irritation or surprise. It is as though losing the knife is part of a greater and more complex plan which only he is privy to. After a moment, he bends down, tugs off his sea boots, and puts them side by side on top of the bar.
“Toss again,” he says.
The barman rolls his eyes and turns away.
“I don’t want your fucking boots,” he says.
“You have my knife,” the man says. “You can’t back away now.”
“I don’t want no fucking boots,” the barman says again.
“You can’t back away.”
“I’ll do whatever the fuck I like,” the barman says.
There’s a Shetlander leaning at the other end of the bar watching them. He is wearing a stocking cap and canvas britches caked with filth. His eyes are red and loose and drunken.
“I’ll buy ye a drink myself,” he says, “if ye just shut the fuck up.”
The man looks back at him. He has fought Shetlanders before in Lerwick and in Peterhead. They are not clever fighters, but they are stubborn and hard to finish off. This one has a rusty blubber-knife pushed into his belt and a gamy, peevish look about him. After a moment’s pause, the man nods.
“I’d thank you for that,” he says. “I’ve been whoring all night and the whistle’s dry.”
The Shetlander nods to the barman, and the barman, with a grand show of reluctance, pours out another drink. The man takes his sea boots off the bar, picks up the drink, and walks over to a bench by the fire. After a few minutes, he lies down, pulls his knees up to his chest, and falls asleep. When he wakes up again, the Shetlander is sitting at a table in the corner talking to a whore. She is dark-haired and fat and has a mottled face and greenish teeth. The man recognizes her but cannot now recall the name. Betty? he wonders. Hatty? Esther?
The Shetlander calls over to a black boy who is crouching in the doorway, gives him a coin, and instructs him to bring back a plate of mussels from the fishmongers on Bourne Street. The boy is nine or ten years old, slender with large dark eyes and pale brown skin. The man pulls himself upright on the bench and fills his pipe with his last crumbles of tobacco. He lights his pipe and looks about. He has woken up renewed and ready. He can feel his muscles lying loose beneath his skin, his heart tensing and relaxing inside his chest. The Shetlander tries to kiss the woman and is rebuffed with an avaricious squeal. Hester, the man remembers. The woman’s name is Hester and she has a windowless room on James Square with an iron bedstead, a jug and basin, and an India-rubber bulb for washing out the jism. He stands up and walks over to where the two of them are sitting.
“Buy me one more drink,” he says.
The Shetlander squints at him briefly, then shakes his head and turns back to Hester.
“Just one more drink and that’ll be the last you hear of it.”
The Shetlander ignores him, but the man doesn’t move. His patience is of the dull and shameless kind. He feels his heart swell, then shrink; he smells the usual tavern stench—farts and pipe smoke and spilled ale. Hester looks up at him and giggles. Her teeth are more gray than green; her tongue is the color of a pig’s liver. The Shetlander takes his blubber-knife out of his belt and places it on the table. He stands up.
“I’d sooner cut ye fucking balls off for ye than buy ye another drink,” he says.
The Shetlander is lanky and loose-limbed. His hair and beard are dank with seal grease and he reeks of the forecastle. The man begins to understand now what he must do—to sense the nature of his current urges and the shape of their accomplishment. Hester giggles again. The Shetlander picks up the knife and lays its cold blade against the man’s cheekbone.
“I could cut ye fucking nose off too and feed it to the fucking porkers out back.”
He laughs at this idea, and Hester laughs with him.
The man looks untroubled. This is not yet the moment he is waiting for. This is only a dull but necessary interlude, a pause. The barman picks up a wooden club and creaks up the hinge of the bar.
“You,” he says, pointing at him, “are a skiving cunt, and a damned liar, and I want you gone.”
The man looks at the clock on the wall. It is just past noon. He has sixteen hours to do whatever it is he must do. To satisfy himself again. The ache he feels is his body speaking its needs, talking to him—sometimes a whisper, sometimes a mumble, sometimes a shriek. It never goes silent; if it ever goes silent then he will know that he is finally dead, that some other fucker has finally killed him, and that will be that.
He steps suddenly towards the Shetlander to let him know he is not afraid, then steps away again. He turns towards the barman and lifts his chin.
“You can stick that shillelagh up your fucking arse,” he says.
The barman points him to the door. As the man is leaving, the boy arrives with a tin plate of mussels, steaming and fragrant. They look at each other for a moment, and the man feels a new pulse of certainty.
He walks back down Sykes Street. He does not think of the Volunteer, now lying at dock, which he has spent the past week laboring to trim and pack, nor of the bloody six-month voyage to come. He thinks only of this present moment—Grotto Square, the Turkish Baths, the auction house, the ropery, the cobbles beneath his feet, the agnostic Yorkshire sky. He is not by nature impatient or fidgety; he will wait when waiting is required. He finds a wall and sits down upon it; when he is hungry he sucks a stone. The hours pass. People walking by remark him but do not attempt to speak. Soon it will be time. He watches as the shadows lengthen, as it rains briefly, then ceases raining, as the clouds shudder across the dampened sky. It is almost dusk when he sees them at last. Hester is singing a ballad; the Shetlander has a grog bottle in one hand and is conducting her clumsily with the other. He watches them turn into Hodgson’s Square. He waits a moment, then scuttles round the corner onto Caroline Street. It is not yet nighttime, but it is dark enough, he decides. The windows in the Tabernacle are glowing; there is a smell of coal dust and giblets in the air. He reaches Fiche’s Alley before them and slides inside. The courtyard is empty except for a line of grimy laundry and the high, ammoniacal scent of horse piss. He stands against a darkened doorway with a half brick gripped in his fist. When Hester and the Shetlander come into the courtyard, he waits for a moment to be sure, then steps forwards and smashes the half brick hard into the back of the Shetlander’s head.
The bone gives way easily. There is a fine spray of blood and a noise like a wet stick snapping. The Shetlander flops senselessly forwards, and his teeth and nose break against the cobblestones. Before Hester can scream, the man has the blubber-knife against her throat.
“I’ll slice you open like a fucking codfish,” he promises.
She looks at him wildly, then holds up her mucky hands in surrender.
He empties the Shetlander’s pockets, takes his money and tobacco, and throws the rest aside. There is a halo of blood dilating around the Shetlander’s face and head, but he is still faintly breathing.
“We need to move that bastard now,” Hester says, “or I’ll be in the shit.”
“So move him,” the man says. He feels lighter than he did a moment before, as if the world has widened round him.
Hester tries to drag the Shetlander around by the arm, but he’s too heavy. She skids on the blood and falls over onto the cobbles. She laughs to herself, then begins to moan. The man opens the coal shed door and drags the Shetlander inside by the heels.
“They can find him tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll be long gone by then.”
She stands up, still unsteady from the drink, and tries impossibly to wipe the mud from her skirts. The man turns to leave.
“Give us a shilling or two, will you, darling?” Hester calls out to him. “For all me trouble.”
* * *
It takes him an hour to hunt down the boy. His name is Albert Stubbs and he sleeps in a brick culvert below the north bridge and lives off bones and peelings and the occasional copper earned by running errands for the drunkards who gather in the shithole taverns by the waterfront waiting for a ship.
The man offers him food. He shows him the money he stole from the Shetlander.
“Tell me what you want,” he says, “and I’ll buy it for you.”
The boy looks back at him speechlessly, like an animal surprised in its lair. The man notices he has no smell to him at all—amidst all this filth he has remained somehow clean, unsullied, as if the natural darkness of his pigment is a protection against sin and not, as some men believe, an expression of it.
“You’re a sight to see,” the man tells him.
The boy asks for rum, and the man takes a greasy half bottle from his pocket and gives it to him. As the boy drinks the rum, his eyes glaze slightly and the fierceness of his reticence declines.
“My name’s Henry Drax,” the man explains, as softly as he is able to. “I’m a harpooner. I ship at dawn on the Volunteer.”
The boy nods without interest, as if this is all information he had heard long before. His hair is musty and dull, but his skin is preternaturally clean. It shines in the tarnished moonlight like a piece of polished teak. The boy is shoeless, and the soles of his feet have become blackened and horny from contact with the pavement. Drax feels the urge to touch him now—on the side of the face perhaps or the peak of the shoulder. It would be a signal, he thinks, a way to begin.
“I saw you before in the tavern,” the boy says. “You had no money then.”
“My situation is altered,” Drax explains.
The boy nods again and drinks more rum. Perhaps he is nearer twelve, Drax thinks, but stunted as they often are. He reaches out and takes the bottle from the boy’s lips.
“You should eat something,” he says. “Come with me.”
They walk together without speaking, up Wincomlee and Sculcoates, past the Whalebone Inn, past the timber yards. They stop in at Fletcher’s bakery and Drax waits while the boy wolfs down a meat pie.
When the boy has finished, he wipes his mouth, scours the phlegm from the back of his throat, and spits it out into the gutter. He looks suddenly older than before.
“I know a place we can go to,” he says, pointing across the road. “Just down there, see, on past the boatyard.”
Drax realizes immediately that this must be a trap. If he goes into the boatyard with the nigger boy he will be beaten bloody and stripped down like a cunt. It is a surprise that the boy has misprized him so thoroughly. He feels, first, contempt for the boy’s ill judgment, and then, more pleasantly, like the swell and shudder of a fresh idea, the beginnings of fury.
“I’m the fucker, me,” he tells him softly. “I’m never the one that’s fucked.”
“I know that,” the boy says. “I understand.”
The other side of the road is in deep shadow. There is a ten-foot wooden gate with peeling green paint, a brick wall, and then an alley floored with rubble. There is no light inside the alley, and the only sound is the crunch of Drax’s boot heels and the boy’s intermittent, tubercular wheezing. The yellow moon is lodged like a bolus in the narrowed throat of the sky. After a minute, they are released into a courtyard half-filled with broken casks and rusted hooping.
“It’s through there,” the boy says. “Not far.”
His face betrays a telling eagerness. If Drax had any doubts before, he has none left now.
“Come to me,” he tells the boy.
The boy frowns and indicates again the way he wants them both to go. Drax wonders how many of the boy’s companions are waiting for them in the boatyard and what weapons they are planning to use against him. Does he really look, he wonders, like the kind of useless prick who can be robbed by children? Is that the impression he presently gives out to the waiting world?
“Come here,” he says again.
The boy shrugs and walks forwards.
“We’ll do it now,” Drax says. “Here and now. I won’t wait.”
The boy stops and shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “The boatyard is better.”
The courtyard’s gloom perfects him, Drax thinks, smooths out his prettiness into a sullen kind of beauty. He looks like a pagan idol standing there, a totem carved from ebony, not like a boy but more like the far-fetched ideal of a boy.
“Just what kind of a cunt do you think I am?” Drax asks.
The boy frowns for a moment, then offers him a beguiling and implausible grin. None of this is new, Drax thinks, it has all been done before, and it will all be done over again in other places and at other times. The body has its tedious patterns, its regularities: the feeding, the cleaning, the emptying of the bowels.
The boy touches him quickly on the elbow and indicates again the way he wants them both to go. The boatyard. The trap. Drax hears a seagull squawking above his head, notices the solid smell of bitumen and oil paint, the sidereal sprawl of the Great Bear. He grabs the nigger boy by the hair and punches him, then punches him again and again—two, three, four times, fast, without hesitation or compunction—until Drax’s knuckles are warm and dark with blood, and the boy is slumped, limp and unconscious. He is thin and bony and weighs no more than a terrier. Drax turns him over and pulls down his britches. There is no pleasure in the act and no relief, a fact which only increases its ferocity. He has been cheated of something living, something nameless but also real.
Lead and pewter clouds obscure the fullish moon; there is the clatter of iron-rimmed cartwheels, the infantile whine of a cat in heat. Drax goes swiftly through the motions: one action following the next, passionless and precise, machinelike, but not mechanical. He grasps on to the world like a dog biting into bone—nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and sullen appetites. What the nigger boy used to be has now disappeared. He is gone completely, and something else, something wholly different, has appeared instead. This courtyard has become a place of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations, and Henry Drax is its wild, unholy engineer.
Copyright © 2016 Ian McGuire.
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Ian McGuire grew up near Hull, England, and studied at the University of Manchester and the University of Virginia in the United States. He is the cofounder and codirector of the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing. He writes criticism and fiction, and his stories have been published in Chicago Review, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.