"North" by Joseph Fick

Chapter 35 Dinner and the Dark p419~433

There was laughter around the table at which four men
sat, consuming their evening meal, over which steward
Burger hovered, picking up an unused dish or pouring a
cup of coffee as required, in general trying to ward off a
mess at present to save himself some work later.
Hollister had a natural ability to tell stories keeping all
who were listening, interested and entertained which
was pleasing in the arctic night, so far from what most
people would consider normal or natural.
“Captain, I must say, you do set a fine table. Is the food
this good on all whale ships?”
Mason smiled and shook his head. “No, Mr. Hollister
the food we are enjoying this fine evening is an exception
to the trade. Messrs. Roland, Hughes and Jones thought
the better we ate, the more successful we’d be and,” said
Mason taking a drink of Ed’s most recent brew of java
and fighting the natural gag reflex, “I must say that it is
a good incentive. No, Mr. Hollister, our usual fare
consists of ships biscuit, peas, rice and salt pork, keeps
better for long voyages.”
“What is hunted up north, certainly not sperm
whales?” said Hollister.
Mason shook his head, “No, not this far north.”
“What then?”
“Walrus oil is profitable enough,” said MacDonald.
“Really?” said Hollister.
MacDonald nodded his head, “Sure. A bull might weigh
anywhere from two to four thousand pounds. They are
fairly easy to kill on the ice. In the water they may ram a
boat or dive on ya.”
“And how much oil will a walrus give up?”
MacDonald shrugged, “450, 500 animals may show 300
barrels.”
“Anything else?”
“The hide is tough, good for trunks and such. There is a
market for the ivory.”
“The problem with hunting them though,” said Dunn.
“Is that it takes away food and other things from the
Eskimos.”
“What do ya mean, Isaac?” asked Hollister.
“There ain’t much to hunt up here, Jack. Walruses and
seals, ya know. The more we take, the less they have.”
“What about the whales?”
Mason took a sip of tea, “Well, as I said you’d be hard
pressed for sperm whales, this far north, though damned
if the oil in ‘em ain’t the best there is. They’s in the
Atlantic and Pacific along with the grey whales. Right
whales are fine to hunt. They’re slow swimmers and float
when they’re killed.”
“Making them easy to tow,” said Dunn.
“Up north, we hunt bowheads and humpbacks. Oil and
bone. One season can net two years profit.”
“If you’re lucky,” said Dunn.
“How many times have you worked up north Captain
Mason?”
Mason thought for a moment, “I’ve done two seasons
with the Greenland fishery Mr. Hollister and Mr.
MacDonald has a season to his credit as well as time
spent around Alaska.”
“Aboard the SPIDER?” asked Hollister.
MacDonald nodded his head and took a sip of Ed’s
repulsive coffee. “Yeah, the old SPIDER,” said the first
mate.
“Aesop, what exactly happened aboard that ship?”
Hollister asked.
MacDonald shrugged his shoulders, “Hell, I don’t know
Jack at that time I was just a cook boy. My perspective
would be the same as Timmy Reiner’s on this trip. I
think there were signs, but Sebastion, he was the
Captain, he couldn’t see ’em.”
Dunn with a hot mug of tea shook his head, “No Aesop,
I don’t think he wanted to see ’em. Both Rainer and me
cautioned him about staying any longer, but all he saw
was them dollar signs.”
“Isaac,” said Mason, “I’ve read accounts of what
happened, does it bother you to talk about it?”
Dunn shook his head again, “No, I wrestled those
demons a long time ago, Captain.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what were the events
that led to the loss of the SPIDER,” asked Hollister.
Dunn smiled. “Now that is a tall order Jack, but I’ll try
and do my best. Ahh…let’s see, Sebastion was going out
on the SPIDER, first time as Master and he had some
high expectations, anyone could see that. Both me and
Rainer learned right away that he wouldn’t listen to
anyone’s advice on anything.”
“Did you know you were heading up to the Arctic?”
asked Mason.
Dunn shook his head. “No not at first. We expected to
be working in Asia, off the Japans and the like, but
Sebastion was in a hurry to get rich and got this wild
idea we could make more money in the arctic. He was
like that change his mind on the flip of a coin.”
“So you weren’t ready for any arctic work,” said Mason.
“No, an’ me an’ Rainer tried to tell ‘im that, but he
wouldn’t listen. He convinced the crew it would be a walk
in the park and they’d have money spilling out of their
pockets.”
MacDonald nodded, “Yeah, Sebastion got ’em all
thinking they was gonna be wearing silk and living the
easy life for the rest of their days, boy was he ever
wrong.”
“But not you?” smiled Hollister.
The first mate grinned. “There was no way in hell I
was gonna get rich as the ship’s cook boy no matter how
much bone and oil was brought on. No, it was the others
trying to grab that brass ring, not me.”
“So what happened?” asked the newspaperman.
Dunn shrugged his shoulders. “Same thing that always
happens when everything goes to shit. First everything
was alright, ice weren’t bad, the hunting was good, but
then…”
MacDonald sighed, “And then, when the ice had us
where it wanted us, it stranded us. It was that simple.”
“Low on food and fuel, Sebastion never counted on us
getting locked in,” said Dunn. “Scurvy throughout the
crew, everyone freezing and Sebastion had the audacity
to die first.”
Hollister looked concerned, even Dunn had reassured
him their last night in New Bedford, still… “Could that
happen to us? I mean starving and freezing to death
doesn’t seem the most ideal way to die, if you ask me.”
Mason looked at the table. “It’s not without possibility
Mr. Hollister. Work in the Arctic is obviously not without
its risks,” he raised his head and looked at the reporter.
“But we’ve done everything we could think of to avoid the
same situation as the SPIDER.”
Dunn smiled, “We got lots of food Jack, we ain’t gonna
starve.”
“And,” said MacDonald, “We’ve reinforced the ship and
we loaded a lot of coal, wood and oil, we’re gonna be ok,
Jack.”
Hollister looked somewhat embarrassed. “I’m sorry
gentlemen, I sound like some questioning old woman,
forgive me.”
“Mr. Hollister, any man that fought at Gettysburg and
participated in Picket’s charge, I hardly consider an old
woman. Your concerns are justified, believe me, we
thought of them as well.”
“Thank you Captain Mason, I appreciate that,” said
Hollister.
“Now, what is the difference with the ice, I mean isn’t
all the same?”
“Not exactly Jack,” said MacDonald. “If you look where
we’re sailing now, you’ll see ice floes and lots of ’em.”
“And what is an ice floe, exactly?”
“Frozen seawater, usually flat and free moving, some are
big and some are small,” said MacDonald.
“How big?” asked Hollister, he didn’t think there was
much to fear from the smaller ones.
MacDonald shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know,
some are a couple of miles across, ain’t they Isaac?”
Dunn nodded, “Yeah, some bigger. We’re coming up on
the floe edge, where the ice meets the open water you’ll
see some big ones then.”
“We’re not there yet?”
“Not yet,” said Mason. “When do you figure Isaac?”
“I don’t know Captain. If the weather holds, five days,
seven days at most I figure.”
“And after that?” asked Hollister.
MacDonald smiled, “Pack ice, Jack.”
“Pack ice?” repeated the writer.
MacDonald nodded. “Yeah, Jack, ya see, ice floes move
but pack ice don’t.”
“Pack ice doesn’t move?”
MacDonald shook his head, “Nope, it’s all frozen solid,
don’t move. So the farther we get past the floes to the floe
edge and to the pack ice which should be stable, it’ll help
us get to where we’re going.”
Hollister nodded, at least that sounded reasonable but
as new to the arctic that he was, he knew that ice melted
and speed was a vital factor in this enterprise. “What can
you tell me about the dogs we’re carrying?”
The men at the table laughed. Hollister certainly did
have his questions, then again, that’s how he made his
living they all knew that.
“Well, they ain’t house dogs, they are literally mean
sons of bitches,” said Isaac. “These dogs are born to work
and they love it. They can pull damn near twice their
weight a hell of a long ways, rest a bit and keep going.
There is always a boss dog or what we calls a king dog,
all the other dogs follow his lead. He eats first, breaks up
fights between the other dogs and if any dog challenges a
king dog, he better win cause if he don’t he’ll be dead.”
“What do they eat?”
Dunn shrugged his shoulders, “Damn near anything,
meat, fish even dog shit, they don’t care. If a bitch has a
litter ya gotta keep the king dog from ’em till they gets
older or he’ll eat them too.”
Hollister could envision such a thing and he did not
find the thought very appealing, Dunn continued. “For
this trip we got plenty of corn, we mix it with fish and
tallow, it’s good enough for
them.”
“If dogs are the normal way to travel in these parts,
why haven’t they been used before?” asked Hollister.
MacDonald shrugged. “Takes time to learn how to
handle dogs and like Isaac said, the little bastards can be
as mean as the Devil, besides,” the mate laughed, “most
civilized people think of ’em as pets, they think it’s cruel
to use ’em the way the Eskimos do, it’s just their way is
all.”
“Most accounts I’ve read, talk about men pulling the
loads themselves,” said Hollister.
Mason nodded, “And they failed in their objective. The
minute we started planning this expedition, we intended
to use dogs.”
“And keep it small,” added MacDonald. “No reason to
bring up a lot of ships and men where one will do the
trick.”
“No desire to recreate the Franklin Expedition, ehh?”
said Hollister with a grin.
“Nor the POLAIRIS or Greely Expeditions,” said
Mason.
Dunn heard the ship’s bell ring and stood up. “If you’ll
excuse me gentlemen, I have the next watch.”
Mason smiled, “Be off with you Isaac, don’t wreak the
ship. Tell Danny, dinner is still warm and we’ll be here
for another hour or so, if he’d like to come in.”
“I’ll tell him Captain.”
Dunn left the table and went to his cabin for his
peacoat, his wool knit cap and mittens. Grabbing the
required items, he went out on deck to take his turn on
watch.
He found Higgins at the ship’s helm, standing
confident, glad that his watch would soon be ending.
“Good evening Danny,” said Dunn approaching the third
mate, who was stomping his sea boots on the deck, trying
to keep the blood circulating in his feet.
“Evening Isaac, how was dinner?”
“Good, Captain said for ya to go down, still some hot
food left.”
“That’s the best thing I’ve heard all night,” said the
younger man and commenced to give the turn over for
the watch and after Dunn acknowledged that he had the
watch, and the that the other crewmen were relieved,
Higgins went below to get something to eat.
Dunn looked at the compass to check their heading and
then to the sails. Fore and Main courses were set and
there was a enough of a breeze to move them at a good
five to seven knots, look outs posted and a clear night. It
was a good way to start the watch.
He walked the deck. The dogs went into a barking fit
when they saw him. He smiled, “Good evening, beasts of
burden.” His words seemed to excite them even more and
the barking became louder. Seeing that all was in order
forward he walked aft to the ship’s wheel, getting to the
ladder of the poop, he was pleasantly surprised to see
Ahnah at the foot.
“Hello Dunn,” said the Eskimo girl.
He smiled, “Hello, Ahnah. Is everything alright?”
“Yes,” she said a little absently. “I just like walking
around this…ship, is that the correct word?” She and
Peter had learned to speak English from traders and
missionaries when they were younger but with little
opportunity to use it, they were both a bit rusty.
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“It all looks very…hard to learn. Is it difficult to
remember everything?”
Dunn shrugged his shoulders, “Well, it’s like anything
else I guess. First thing a person would learn are the
ship’s ropes, we call it rigging and every vessel has two
types of rigging.”
“Two riggings?” asked Ahnah.
Dunn nodded. “Yeah, we got standing rigging and
running rigging. Standing rigging keeps the masts up,”
he pointed to the nearest one, that being the Mizzen
mast. “And the running rigging is what we use to handle
the sails.”
Ahnah pointed to the thick, heavy lines that made up
the ship’s shrouds, part of the standing rigging. “And you
climb these ropes to go up the…mast, is that right?”
“Yeah, we call those ratlines, climb on the weather
side…” he began and then noticed he’d lost her in his
explanation. “With the wind at your back,” he clarified,
“three points always in contact with the rigging, hands
always on the lines going up and down, feet on the ones
going across.”
“It looks very high and frightening.”
Dunn smiled. “At first, maybe, but after awhile there’s
nothing to it.”
She nodded her head and continued to observe the ship
and the goings on of the watch around her. “How old
were you when you left your family?” she asked.
Dunn shrugged his shoulders, “About 13, working
flatboats and carrying freight down the Mississippi. That
was how I started.”
“Mississippi?” she asked.
“It’s a river in America, a very large river, long and
wide. People use it for travel and carrying goods. That’s
what we use flatboats for.”
“Oh,” she said, “like we use umiaks.”
“Yes, that’s right,” smiled Dunn.
“Why did you leave your people Dunn, were you cast
out?”
“Well,” began Dunn, “if you knew my father…”
Ahnah shrugged her shoulders, “I didn’t know my own
father,” she said innocently, stating a simple fact.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” he stammered
embarrassingly, “I mean, my father wanted me to be like
him but I wanted to be different, so I left. It was better
for all concerned.”
“I saw you in the water and men were shooting at you,
why would men shoot at you Dunn?”
The second mate sighed. “Sometimes outsiders are not
as civilized as we like to imagine ourselves.”
Ahnah touched the side of her face. “Yes, I know.”
Dunn did not think Ahnah was unattractive the scar
on her face gave it a sort of savage character, a hard
beauty that was befitting for her. She was not a woman
that would shed tears easily.
“Did outsiders do that to you?” asked Dunn, restraining
the urge to reach out and touch her hand.
Ahnah nodded her head. “This and more,” she sighed.
“Three men from a…ship and the one you know as
Keelut.”
Christ, thought Dunn, who didn’t have a high opinion
of the Eskimo anyway, Keelut really was some kind of
bastard, to do something like that to a young girl.
“Well, Keelut’s gone Ahnah, you needn’t worry about
him,” said Dunn.
The Inuit girl shook her head, “No, he is not here but
that does not mean he is not gone. We will see him
again.”
The second mate said nothing. He had no reason to
doubt her. When he did see the son of a bitch, he’d teach
him a lesson he soon wouldn’t forget.
“When did you start to dream Ahnah?”
The Eskimo girl smiled. “I don’t really remember, I was
young and the dreams frightened me at first, so much so
that I was afraid to sleep, but eventually I learned to
accept them and the good that could come from them.”
“Do you know everything that will happen?”
She shook her head, “No. Most of the time the images
are pieces and it takes time to put things together.”
“Most of the time?” asked Dunn.
“This ship. You, Mason and MacDonald have always
been very clear. When I saw Mason on my father’s ship it
was very easy to see as well as you and MacDonald alone
in the cold trying to survive.”
“And you knew we would come?”
“Yes, I don’t know why, or for what reason, I just knew
you would.”
“Mr. Dunn,” called one of the men forward, “could you
come here sir? Growlers ahead sir.”
“On my way!” he replied, somewhat reluctantly.
“Ahnah, go below and get some rest, I’ll talk to you again,
when time permits.” The Inuit girl nodded and left the
deck and Dunn concentrated on the business at hand,
getting them through the ice.
Ahnah descended into the hold, crowded with people
and dark with the exception of a few swaying lamps
casting shadows against the curved hull and separating
bulkheads the crew had erected to allow their guests
some form of privacy. It didn’t smell as bad as it could
have. For the most part those in the hold adapted well
enough to their situation, with only a few of them getting
sick. Most of their time was spent on deck, taking care of
their animals and hunting tools and weapons which was
fine as long as they didn’t get in the way of the crew and
their normal shipboard duties.
Sedna smiled at seeing her daughter. “Ahnah, we saved
you some food. Come sit down and eat something.”
Ahnah sat down next to Allawah and little Tah, who was
sleeping soundly in his mother’s lap, worn out from all
the exciting things he saw aboard the SHY LADY. Within
a short time Ahnah was passed some food to calm her
rumbling stomach and gratefully took what her mother
offered, a bowl of luke warm soup, bread and pork.
“Were you on deck, Ahnah?” asked her brother.
Ahnah nodded, “This umiak is so big I wanted to see
how it moved through the water.”
Peter nodded, “Yes, this ship is big. Was our father’s
ship as big as this mother?”
Sedna nodded, “Yes, your father’s ship was as large as
this one. I don’t know if it was the same though, I see no
differences, they all look the same to me.”
Peter grunted and just shook his head it was such a
wonder to him. When Sedna and Allawah got up to take
little Tah to the head, Peter moved closer to his sister so
they could converse.”These men and our people, do you
know what will happen?”
Ahnah shook her head, “Nothing certain or clear, I
know there is danger ahead and more trials, but I am
ignorant of the details. We must be strong, you above all
others Peter.”
“What are your thoughts about the outsiders?” he
asked.
She was silent for a moment, collecting her thoughts
before she spoke. “They are not like the others we have
met,” she said. “These men have a purpose far different
than the other whaling ships. Why they want to go over
the distant ice, I don’t know, but they have their
reasons.”
“Yes, I agree, they are different,” said Peter. “Mason
and MacDonald look like they know what they are doing
and I like the ones called Dunn and Higgins, the band
does as well. There is something about Dunn, though…is
he sad?”
Ahnah cocked her head to the side. “Yes, in a way. He
has ghosts from his past, Dunn is here to confront them,”
she said.
Peter nodded his head, “I have a feeling that before
this is over we will all do the same thing.”
Her meal finished, Ahnah found a place to lie down.
She was tired and thought Dunn’s prior advice sound.
Within minutes she was softly snoring.

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