The Madness of the White Lands

L. Reed Walton

20 July 1846

 

Dearest Martha,


I hope this missive finds you in good health and spirits. Receipt of your letter has warmed me more thoroughly than my seal-skin coat. That very garment I wear as I now as I write, and will return with me to England. It may be that I leave my sanity behind on these shores, but I relinquish judgement of it to you, and to God.

In a fortnight, the ship that will bear me around Boothia Felix and onward to points west will pull anchor. In advance of that date, I will endeavour to write of my time under Captain John Rae. Though I shudder to revisit those occurrences, their memory weighs heavy upon my shoulders and presses at the seams of my mind. I beg you permit me my un-burdening here, after which I will speak of it no more.

The ship H.M.S. Albert Fine discharged us at Repulse Bay on 5 July, whereupon Capt. Rae led us into the settlement called Talur-yuak. The people there are called Inuit, and our captain is much respected among them, for he speaks well their language and has adopted their manner of survival in this ice-bound land. On the strength of this goodwill, he procured for us all native vestments, which are warmer by far than the woollens of Royal Navy issue. We also were taught to fashion snow-shoes in the Inuit fashion which, when strapped to his boots, allow a man to walk atop the snow as a water-beetle upon a river.

The Far North offers abundant wonder, my dear, as it gives terror in equal measure.

Perhaps it was your intent to ready me for the terrors ahead when you secreted in my rucksack “The Modern Prometheus,” the novel by Mrs. M. W. Shelley. Her words proved great diversion on many a night, before the fantasies therein were revealed as prophecy. Regrettably, I cannot now bear the sight of the book, or to touch its pages.

Leaving Talur-yuak, we travelled north-east for two days to a nameless cluster of snow-huts, which the Inuit call iglu. I could by then manage a few words of the language, which thoroughly amused our hosts. I find they are people of great ingenuity and given to generousness and mirth.

From them, the captain requisitioned strings of salted fish, after whose purpose I enquired, for surely we would have fresh along the coast. According to the elders, he replied, the peninsula’s eastern-most waterway was impassable, and that points north would best be reached over-land.

We might have had a tranquil parting from that place had not those same elders offered an unnerving gift the eve of our departure. White man's bones, the captain translated, upon receiving the small hide sack.

As I looked upon the jumble of dry remains, I dared not speak my observations aloud. There, written upon the bones were marks of unspeakable savagery. Not the furrows of tooth or claw, but regular, deliberate knife-marks. The man to whom these bones belonged had been carved, just as a ham-hock or roast. Had I needed further proof of depravity, it could be found in the smaller bones, which were broken and emptied, sure as one cracks a chicken bone for its marrow.

This unfortunate victim, the captain reasoned, must have belonged to John Franklin’s vanished crew. I knew the tale, but was loath to imagine anyone so desperate as to consume the bodies of his mates. Rather, a flame of hope kindled in my breast that some might still survive in the blighted expanse of Boothia and that we might return them to civilisation.

God cannot but forgive that which man does in extremis.

What I would discover on our fateful route fed that flame, then extinguished it. Yes, a remnant of Franklin’s crew lives on, but as a thing most uncivil...one that cannot rightly be called man.

The following day, we ventured forth, navigating by the ever-present sun. Here, it does not sink in summertime but instead remains suspended above the horizon, taunting those who are accustomed to the night.

It may astonish you, Martha, that to which a man grows accustomed in short order, for soon I hardly felt the chill. It was not for warmth but slumber that I sorely lacked, as throughout the false night my sleep was often shattered by tremendous groans and howls. Oftentimes I felt as if I slept on a battlefield of dying men, and like Ulysses, I yearned to stop up my ears to it.

Yet unlike the Sirens’ cries, these sounds were earthly by their nature. The ice below our feet was not of one piece but many, further sundered in the spare warmth of Arctic summer. The grinding of these great frozen islands against one another produced the moaning.

After five days’ travel, we came upon a promontory marked with two cairns, under which were said to lie crewmen of the Erebus, Franklin’s flagship. There the captain bade us make camp and give a few moments’ solemn recognition of their sacrifice.

I enquired of him whether we might also inter the unnamed bones, to which he replied they would be ferried back to England. I only understood later that he meant to bring home a tangible record of the atrocities to which starvation had driven ordinary men.

Evening saw us gathered by the stones, where Seaman Millford drew out his fiddle. Alas, the cold had so badly buckled the wood that it would produce nothing more than a quivering wail under his bow. The men were much perturbed by the sound. Millford regretfully stowed the instrument, and instead we made a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer while Capt. Rae laid a cross between the cairns.

In my least rational hours, I cannot help but believe it was the unhallowed melody of the mutilated fiddle alongside the haunted complaint of the ice which conjured death into our midst.

MacKeever, on watch, first spotted the figure in the hazy distance, and shouted to alert us. He brought a wretched thing shambling into camp, gaunt as a coat-tree and draped in a motley of Naval and Inuit garments. The stranger’s face was like candle-wax in both hue and texture. No brows did he have to speak of, nor any but sparse hair upon his unprotected crown. His eyes lay sunken in pools of shadow, but for two diamond-like flecks imbued with animal cunning.

I confess, Martha, at first I was put in mind not of a Navy man but of the mad Doctor Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel, marooned and purblind in Arctic vastness.

He moved with great effort, dragging one leg behind. As he approached, step by laborious step, I understood why MacKeever kept well clear, for the interloper reeked of carrion. 

Capt. Rae came forward to hail him and ask his name.

The stranger did not offer it at once, enquiring instead after our business on the promontory—as if he had staked claim to the untrammelled land.

To a man, we shrank back at the foulness of his breath, his jagged teeth.

The captain responded, cautiously, that our purpose was exploration, and again asked his name.

“I am called Adam,” said he, and I marked this at once an untruth. A guise, I thought, as Adam in the Hebrew tongue is merely the word for man.

“Are you wounded, sir?” asked the captain. “Perhaps our doctor may assist.”

Despite my healer’s oath, I confess my reluctance to approach this creature.


He first drew himself upright, as if in affront at the idea, but exhaustion made him sway on his feet.

“Come,” I bade him, reluctant. “Let me have a look.” Before beginning my examination, I wound a cloth around my face, a pretense to feeling chilled but in truth to mitigate the stench.

Seemingly inoculated to the cold, Adam shed his outer garment. Bending with some difficulty, he tugged up his trouser-leg.

I could fain comprehend the sight. From the knee upward, his leg was pallid and hairless, but darker below it, with more copious hair and a foot gnarled from confinement in too small a boot. Enjoining the two halves was a line of stitching, which tugged at the ragged flesh to either side. It soon became clear what I beheld was not a wound poorly mended, but an amputation. More horrifying: my realisation that the affixed limb had belonged to another man altogether.

“Beg pardon for its condition, sir,” said this hideous patch-work man, sounding not the least abashed.

“I must remove it at once,” I cried. “Else risk your very life.”

To my surprise, he shook his head emphatically and bent again to stroke the limb, affectionate. “It is only hunger,” he said. “It behaves better on a full belly.”

Even then, curiosity surmounted dread, for I raised my lantern in the liminal near-dusk and peered closer. By some heretical science, the dead limb pulsed with a life it should not have possessed. The toes twitched, blood moved in the veins.

“Then, ah, we’ll have food,” I stammered. Struggling upright, I called for Halbert to bring salt cod and rum.

No sooner did Adam have the meat in his fists than he tore into it with unnatural vigour, swallowing each mouth-full whole. His satisfaction soon ebbed, though, and his hand flew to his throat as if he choked. He stood and tossed his meal away in disgust. Not a moment later, it spewed forth from his gullet upon the ice, now spotted with scabrous clots of blood.

“You mean to poison me!” he cried and knocked free the proffered flask of rum. Taking hold instead of Halbert’s arm, he threw himself upon the man, tumbling them together to the frozen ground.

The poor lad gave one terrible cry before Adam sunk teeth into his throat and tore it free with an awful rending sound.

As he raised his head, I discerned a soulless glimmer in the pits of his eyes, the bloody gristle in his mouth dripping dark upon white snow.

Now Capt. Rae was alert to our peril, and as Adam descended again upon his prey, the captain shed his gloves and drew his pistol. It seemed as if I myself could feel the cold burn of metal on my skin.

“Stand clear, Doctor!” he cried and tried to fire. But no powder ignited; the cold prevented it.

From behind a sledge came Millford, wielding his ruined instrument as a cudgel. He swung, but the blood-sated fiend slid away, serpent-quick. True to his claim, he had regained strength by his profane feast.

Then a great roar rent the glacial silence. At last, the captain had fired! I turned to see Adam driven backward, one knobbed hand clutching a powder-blackened wound. I hoped he would fall, but hope deserted me as he drew away the hand from his bloodless breast and held it aloft with a mocking laugh.

“A lamp!” McKeever cried. “Set it alight!”

The first mate stepped to, his lantern-flame high. With a shriek, the thing that had once been a man sank clawed fingers into Halbert’s corpse and scuttled away, leaving the glass to burst upon the bare ground. Behind its flare, the creature disappeared, and soon the flame guttered and died.

We gathered in a circle, facing outward with all lamps burning until the crepuscular gloom lifted. In heavy silence, we returned southward to the nameless village, and then to Talur-yuak. The captain chose to stay in Boothia but entrusted to me the sack of bones and one more artefact, a coat in whose collar is embroidered the name John Hopcroft.

I know not if Adam was Hopcroft. Whatever he may have been, the taste of human flesh and the madness of the white land made of him a depraved mirror to Shelley’s noble Creature. Perhaps such is the fate of man in this place; I shall not remain to discover it.


Faithfully,

Your William

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L. Reed Walton has a BA in English - Creative Writing and an MA in Journalism. A science writer by day, she is currently querying her fourth novel, a hard-boiled science fiction mystery. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, USA with her librarian wife-to-be and four unmanageable cats. Can be found on Twitter @LWriteWalton and at her website www.lreedwalton.com