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By Jess Hyslop

By the time Beth learned Jonathan was lost, he had already been dead two months. News of the incident travelled slowly, drifting from port to port, St. Jago to Panama to Port of Spain, across the Atlantic on a clipper bound for Amsterdam, before washing up here in London. It was a whale, the Reverend told her. Jonathan, lately promoted to harpooner, chasing it down, plunging the iron into its flesh. The line unspooling among the crew crowded in the whaleboat, hissing around the loggerhead, fouling, snapping taut too soon. The brute had pulled them far, fast. Pulled them under.

I’m so sorry, he said. They gave me his effects. This is all he had. He handed her Jonathan’s things: a small, sorry bundle. She received it wordlessly. The Reverend frowned, licked his lips. If you need anything. Well. You know where to find me, Mrs. Thorne. He fussed with his collar, her blankness unnerving him. She could make it easier, she knew. She could raise tears from her inner depths, let them brim and spill, let them fill her voice as she thanked him for his kindness. But no--she would not conjure grief for him. Disguising her relief was compromise enough.

Afterwards, alone, Beth sat in her chair and unwrapped the oilskin package. Not much remained of Jonathan. A wooden comb, a small Bible, a purse containing a few pennies and one tortoiseshell button, a spare shirt worn to rags at the elbows. Atop it all there lay bone. A shard of it, as long as her forearm, yellow-white, pointed and fierce. Not bone after all, but a tooth. And inscribed on its surface was Beth. Warped, inexpertly rendered, her nose a rough scratch where the stroke of the knife had gone awry, yet it was her. He had managed her curls, rubbed dark with lamp-black, and the curve of her jaw. Her expression was pleasant, here on the tooth of the whale, her eyes passive, her mouth set in a meek smile. 

Beth snorted. So Jonathan had fancied himself the artistic type, the sentimental type. She picked up the scrimshaw, felt the heft of it in her palm. She expected it to be cool to the touch, but it was not. The tooth had an unsettling warmth to it, as though a living, animal thing. She shuddered. Throwing the oilskin back over the oddments, she rose and shoved the entire package into the lowest drawer of the dresser.

* * *

She had almost managed to forget about Jonathan’s things in the three years that had passed. She had always been alone for long stretches--the wife of a whaler got used to such things--but these years had been different. Three years of peace, despite the penny-pinching; of her money, her home, being her own. Three years with no new bruises, outside or in. Three years free from the fear of his return. But now the Reverend was here again, standing on her rug in the same spot as before, smoothing down his swallowtail coat.

Thought you should hear it from me first, the Reverend said. Beth stood very still as the tale unraveled from his mouth. Wreckage, marooning, starvation. And then, at last, deliverance. Remarkable, the Reverend said. Miraculous, even. When all had thought him lost. Truly, the Lord works in mysterious ways. 

Truly, thought Beth, so He did. To give her something so precious and then wrest it away again.

Bound back to London now, the Reverend continued. A frown wrinkled his brow again as Beth’s own face remained motionless, becalmed. Soldiering on, he clasped her hands, trying to massage a reaction in through her knuckles. Soon have your husband returned to you. Praise be.

Praise be, Beth echoed. 

That night she lit the lamp and sat in her chair and gazed around the small room. She had made it nice, these three years past. Flowers in a vase on the windowsill. A runner on the table, embroidered by a friend. Yellow curtains made of bargain off-cuts. The widow’s payment from the whaling company had given her time, space, reprieve. She had always known it would be fleeting, but still, she had imagined an onward trajectory, a widening of her prospects, not this current circling her back into powerlessness. The tears came then, bitter and salt in her throat.

She must have dozed, for when she next knew anything the air was cold, the lamp guttering, and a noise suffused the room. A low wail, plaintive and aching. The sound pressed against her ears, immersing her in its melancholy.

Beth staggered upright. The wailing seemed to be all around her, but as she stumbled dazed around the room she realized, gradually, its source. Opening the drawer, she lifted out the oilskin bundle. It was the first time she had touched it since that day, that first day, that blessed day when the Reverend had borne her the news of Jonathan’s drowning. Now the heft of it remembered itself to her. She threw open the package, shucking the comb, the Bible, the purse, the shirt, onto the floor. 

She gasped as her fingers touched the scrimshaw and she snatched them back. For it was hot, scorching hot. Her portrait stared up at her from the simmering surface: serene, servile, alien in the way Jonathan had envisaged her. Trapped upon this tooth taken from the jaw of a leviathan, a beast that had thrashed bloody in its death. Its body flensed, boiled, burned to light the lamps of her own home.

Beth turned to the room. Not hers, no longer. These four walls were his again now, and all that was within. Her. This life she’d made.

The wailing undulated around her, singing out as the scrimshaw blazed. The heat pulsed through the wrapping, searing her palm. The pain and the song combined in her, a surging wave of grief, of anger. 

She surrendered herself.

The oil in the lamp was low, but it was enough. Beth spilled it onto the rug, the table. When finally she threw the lamp onto the bed, the glass cracked and the oil dribbled out and the fire licked at the sheets she and Jonathan had shared. As the flames grew, engulfing the bed, the chair, the dresser, climbing hungrily up the walls, the sound from the scrimshaw swelled with it, its wail drowning out the crackling of the fire, so loud that Beth’s heart rang with it.

Turning her back upon the burning house, Beth fled into the darkness. She took only what she needed, only what would take her to the port and, from there, across the sea. A widow she would remain, somewhere beyond the waves. 

The scrimshaw she left to the flames, her portrait fracturing as it sang. 

* * *

Jess Hyslop is a writer of fantasy, fabulism, and science fiction. Her short stories have been published in venues such as Black Static, Interzone, and Cossmass Infinities, and her debut novella, Miasma, is out now from Luna Press. Jess can be found online at Offline, she resides in Oxford with a number of slowly decaying houseplants.

What advice do you have for other writers?

My biggest piece of advice for writers is to build yourself a writing community. While the actual act of putting words to paper is a fundamentally solitary pursuit, the rest of your writing life doesn’t have to be. Whether it’s a local in-person crit group, a discord channel, or a couple of other friends you occasionally have drinks with and chat all things writing, having that support network around you to celebrate successes and commiserate with struggles is so, so valuable. Invaluable, even!