This story available on Apr 10, 2021
“A good day’s hunting,” my father said. Around us the ship’s crew were bleeding and skinning and gutting their kills, transforming what had been living seals into graceless lumps of blubber and hide. The pristine ice had become a slush of blood and excrement. “That one’s for you.”
He’d taken two seals as his personal trophies while I’d stayed behind on the ship. At ten years of age I was too young to be trusted with a rifle, but I’d seen enough of my father’s trade to be sickened by every part of it. I used to wonder if it was the butchery that had driven away the mother I barely remembered. More likely she had grown weary of my father’s fists, and of the son who resembled him in every physical feature.
Most seal hunters dispatched their kills with a blow to the skull, but my father was different. For him, the entirety of the fur had to be perfect, the beast taken down with a single bullet to preserve the perfection of the pelt. The smaller of his trophies had the pure white fur of a newborn pup, the larger the mottled silver coat marking it as a female. I wanted to be sick.
“Skin it.” He pressed a flensing knife into my hand and pointed it at the larger of the two seals. “Skin it, or I’ll skin you alive.”
I swallowed down the lump in my throat and rolled the dead seal onto its back. One of the crew patted my shoulder in passing, muttering a few words of support. My father’s hands moved automatically as he slit the seal-pup open, but his eyes stayed locked to mine.
The knife in my hand shook. I slashed it clumsily down the seal’s front from throat to groin, but as the blade bit flesh the animal lurched under my hand. I dropped the knife and the seal screamed, a piercing shriek that I thought at first had come from my own throat. My father cursed and lunged forward, the seal-pup’s body falling forgotten to the ice behind him. The living seal thrashed and shrieked and roared in agony, smearing wide bloody arcs in her wake.
“Finish it off, you idiot!” my father bellowed, but I was frozen to the ice. With a violent jerk of its body the seal was in the water, a shadow receding beneath the surface, gone.
My father’s fist slammed into the side of my head and sent me sprawling to the ground. Something wet dropped onto my cheek. I wiped away a gobbet of stringy, tobacco-smelling spit.
“Let the sharks have it,” my father said. “Do that again and they can have you as well.”
Despite the loss of my seal, the hunt had been a good one, and the ship returned to port pregnant with riches. Once the sealskins had been transmuted into coin, my father spent a week swimming in drink, returning at last with his pockets bulging and a new wife on his arm.
She wasn’t the first woman my father had brought home after my mother had left. Girls only a little older than me despite their painted lips, weary-faced women grown heavy with years. None of them had lasted more than a week or two, but this one was different. She was broad about the cheekbones and hips, blunt nosed, thin-lipped, with liquid black eyes that took in the world but gave away nothing. Any hope that she might be a step-mother to me – or even an ally – swiftly faded. In my father’s eyes she was as much a possession as his hakapik, and he was not a man given to sharing.
She slept with him beneath a pile of seal skins, ate little, and said nothing at all. He dressed her in fine silks and furs that matched the sable of her hair, which she treated with the same indifference as she regarded everything else. I only saw a hint of emotion from her when he was gone from the house, when she would sit crooning in my father’s chair, stroking a soft, milk-white sealskin in her lap.
When it came time to set sail again for the ice floes, there was no question that she should accompany him, despite the mutterings of ill-fortune from the crew.
The seas were calm and the voyage smooth until the third day out of port. The wind rose first, bright, knife-sharp gusts that set the ice-floes dancing light as driftwood over the water. By the time we reached the killing fields, the ice-floes had gathered so tightly around the hull that there would be no return until the wind drove them elsewhere. Never a man to miss an opportunity, my father sent twenty crewmen out hunting under the first mate’s command, preferring to remain on board with a skeleton crew — and of course with his new bride.
Clouds chased the sun into the sea. The sky became the purple-grey of a fresh bruise, and the crew did not return. As night fell the six of us on board — my father and his woman, the ship’s doctor, the bosun, Cook and me — ate below decks, listening to the wind shriek and the ice-floes groan like souls in torment. It was not the first time the crew had spent the night on the ice-fields, but my stomach was a tight knot of rope beneath my breastbone, and I left my dinner uneaten. No one said much, but the woman’s silence was deep as water.
The wind was keening across the deck when I went to light the lamps. With the sails furled, the masts stood stark and bare like the trunks of two massive trees. Dark had fallen like a shroud, leaving no sign of where ocean ended and sky began. Only when I had set the flames trembling in their lanterns could I make out a faint glimmer of the ice close-packed around the ship. I strained my ears against the storm and wondered, for a moment, if I could hear the faint sound of voices far across the ice floes. I called out a shaky hello and waited for an answer, but when none came I slipped to my hammock belowdecks and into an uneasy sleep.
I woke to blackness at what should have been eight bells, but instead of the steady chime of the clapper on brass, my father was shouting far above me. I knew better than to ignore his summons, and left my laces untied as I scrambled up the ladder onto the deck. The sky had cleared, and his broad-shouldered bulk was silhouetted against the glow from the pack-ice as he stood at the foot of the mast. There was someone standing in front of him, swaying from side to side, though the air had become still and the ship was held fast between the floes.
“What is it?” I asked, taking care to stay out of his reach. He jerked around to face me, and behind him the swaying figure leaned forward, out of the shadow of the mast. The rope around the neck, the raw expanse of skinned meat, the gutting wound down chest and belly – all came clearly into view.
The sight stunned me into silence. For one giddying moment I thought it was the carcass of a seal, but the proportions were wrong for that. The face had been skinned along with the rest, its jaw hanging open revealing a mouthful of yellow-brown teeth, but the top half of the skull was deformed, staved in just above the eyes.
Someone moved behind me.
“What’s happened, Captain?” The footsteps behind me stopped. The voice belonged to the ship’s doctor, clipped and hard-edged. Rumour had it that he’d once practised his profession on the far side of the ocean, until one rich patient too many died under his knife. The gold in his purse had been enough to buy him passage half-way across the world, just ahead of the mob baying for his blood. Even so, he always seemed to consider himself cut of a finer cloth than the rest of us, and for all I knew he was right. He took another step towards my father, then stopped.
“What happened to him?” The doctor’s hand dropped to the pistol on his belt.
“What do you think happened?” My father’s face had turned an ugly shade of grey. “Someone skinned him, bled him and strung him up like a seal. For a learned man, doctor, you’re a fool.”
The doctor put an arm about my shoulders, and turned me away. “Are you all right?” he asked me, his voice unexpectedly gentle.
In the end it was that gentleness that brought the tears to my eyes and the surging tide of vomit into my throat, as the bosun’s blood spattered the deck like the pulp of overripe blackberries.
The three of us searched the rest of the ship, the doctor watching my father with a troubled frown on his lean, sunburned face. We found the cook skinned, boned and jointed on his own cooking table, his head set upright to regard the butchered remains with glassy eyes. Like the bosun’s, his skull had been pierced with a heavy implement.
Of my father’s woman, there was no sign, but his hakapik was missing from its usual place by the bed.
“Bad fortune having a woman on board,” the doctor muttered as we left the cabin. Instantly my father rounded on him, towering over the smaller man like a breaking wave.
“What did you say?”
The doctor, to his credit, held his ground. “The woman. She should never have been on the ship.”
A soft growl rose in my father’s throat, and he placed the lantern he had been carrying on the ground. I knew the warning signs, willed the doctor to back down, to step away, but he was oblivious to the rising of the storm.
One blow from my father’s fist slammed the doctor’s head into the bulkhead behind him. He kept his feet under him, blinking like a stunned animal as my father closed two massive hands around his throat and began to squeeze.
“Never speak of my woman again.”
“Stop — please —” I tugged at his fingers, but his grip was unbreakable. “Father — you’re going to kill him!”
If anything, the grip intensified. The doctor’s eyes were wide and bloodshot, his mouth gaping as he struggled to draw air into his empty lungs. Something moved in the cabin we had just left, little more than a flicker of light and shadow. There was something beneath my father’s bed, and it was moving.
“Father — please!”
His eyes were locked on the doctor’s scarlet face, lost in his fury and his fear. I turned my back on the doorway, tried to intersperse myself between the two of them, and something pale and lithe leapt into the corridor behind us. Someone — perhaps it was me — knocked over the lantern, and the darkness rushed in around us. A bone-crunching jolt shuddered through my father’s hands into mine, then the dead weight of the doctor’s body slumped to the floor. I heard my father shout, then the sound of a blow meeting flesh, and then my nerve broke and I was sprinting for the deck as though the ship was taking on water.
Tongues of fire were licking through the boards as I reached the deck and sucked in lungfuls of cold, clear air. My father was already at the taffrail, securing a rope ready for his descent.
“The lifeboats?” I shouted over the cracking of timber, and he paused in his work to fix me with a withering gaze.
“We’re ice-bound, you fool! Onto the ice-field’s our only chance!” He dropped into the darkness, and was gone. I followed a moment later into the frozen night, blundering in his wake, the ship ablaze behind me.
I found my father a little further out on the ice, staring empty-eyed at the conflagration. I wanted to reach out to comfort him, to find one fleeting moment of connection amidst all the horror, but I knew he’d slap away any offer I made.
“What do we do now?” I asked at last, as the flames started to subside.
“Wait for morning,” he said. “There’ll be other seal-hunters. Whalers, too. Like as not they’ll pick us up.”
“And if they don’t?”
He didn’t answer. His gaze drifted over my shoulder, then he barged me out of the way and ran towards a dark shape, silhouetted against the ice in the glow of the burning ship. My father crouched to touch it, stood, wiped his hand.
It was another body.
“Skinned,” my father whispered.
They appeared one after another as my eyes acclimated to the darkness: twenty freshly butchered human bodies arranged in two neat rows, like trees lining some landside boulevard. Each skull had been staved in with one deft blow. My father’s jaw set hard, but his hands were shaking.
A shadow moved behind me. A pale shape surged out of the night towards my father, something long and sharp held above its head. He flung up his arm so that the blow took him in the shoulder rather than the skull, but the impact was still enough to drive half the breath from his body. His assailant tugged its weapon free, and a bright gout of blood arced through the air. His pistol fired once, a sharp retort that echoed again and again from the distant glaciers — then the hunter brought its weapon back around. This time it caught my father under the ribs hard enough to lift him from his feet, and he went down sprawling across the ice.
I saw her clearly then. My father’s woman, naked despite the biting cold. A hakapik dangled from her hand, its head a mass of blood, tissue and tangled hair. A scar, livid and twisted, ran between her breasts, down her abdomen, stopping just short of the thatch of hair between her thighs.
She swung the hakapik again, once into his left knee, once into the right. He managed to roll onto his belly and crawl across the ice, a dark smear trailing in his wake. She followed him at a thoughtful pace, her bare feet leaving a line of bloody prints behind her.
I closed my eyes, waiting for the sound of the hakapik smashing bone, but the killing blow never came. Instead the night became filled with the thin, high keening of an animal in pain, and the soft rasp of a knife parting flesh from skin.
Soft footsteps broke the silence that followed. A cool hand cradled my jaw and tilted my face upward to the sky, turning it first one way and then the other. Hot animal breath gusted into my face — once, twice, three times — and then the hand was gone.
When I opened my eyes she was kneeling opposite me, a mottled grey sealskin across her shoulders. The hakapik lay a little distance away beside a shapeless bloody mound. The flensing knife was in her right hand, a small white sealskin in her left, and her eyes held all the sorrows of the sea. Her head cocked to one side, and I understood that she was asking me a question, but when I had no answer to give her she rose and turned away. By the time she reached the edge of the ice floe it was a grey seal who slipped below the water and not a woman.
The crew of a whaler found me a day later, half-starved and all but frozen, cast adrift on a lump of pack-ice. They thawed me and fed me and questioned me, but I stayed mute as a seal. In the end they decided I was the only survivor of a tragic shipwreck and returned me safely to port. I grew to manhood in the care of a distant cousin, who barely noticed the addition of one more child to her raucous brood, and the sea and I became strangers.
But sometimes, in the heart of winter, when the air is bitter and clean, I wake to the sounds of creaking timber and cracking ice – and I wonder what would have happened if only I had understood what the seal-wife was offering that night on the ice, her dead child’s sealskin in one hand and a flensing knife in the other.
Jude lives in Glasgow and is a full time doctor, full time parent and full time border collie wrangler. In her spare time she writes horror stories, climbs inadvisibly large mountains and drinks a powerful load of coffee.
Interview available on Apr 11, 2021