· Illustration by Michelangelo Iaffaldano
The sailor looks up from the book. He looks up, out of the oily coin of candlelight lying on the page. He can still hear the shore crowd at Greenhithe, even though they have long since sailed from there. The cheers and shouts of the thousands who mobbed the docks to see them off have been replaced by the groans and creaks of the timbers as the heavily laden Erebus struggles up the east coast of England.
He is not meant to be reading, not now, not yet. The sailor looks down at the lines of poetry on the page, up at the shelves of books in the Great Cabin—over 1,200 volumes in this shipboard library, as many again in the companion ship, Terror. How many will he read during the voyage through the Northwest Passage?
There’s a crash from up on deck. Sails being changed or trimmed, cargo being shifted. He cannot hide here much longer. When the sailor looks back down at the page in front of him, he can’t remember a word of what he’s been reading. All there is to do is to close the book. He does this. He closes the book, and he goes up on deck.
In this story there’s a fall from heaven. A casting down of a great man. A kingdom lost. There is rage and sorrow, and a beautiful woman with hair like moonlight, who might be able to lead the fallen man out of his despair. He asks her to raise her bowed head from where she kneels before him, to look upon her face so he can see his defeat mirrored there. Doom, is what he says. Our doom.
The king is not used to defeat. He doesn’t know himself in this state. He wants to make himself another kingdom, another chaos, and he is led off into the forest by the woman/moonlight.
The sailor leans up against the shelves of books in the Great Cabin. He can feel the shudder through the body of the Erebus as she is towed from Stromness Harbour, their last landfall in England. He runs one hand over the books, feeling the cool reassurance of their leather spines stutter under his fingertips. In his other hand he holds the copy of the book of Keats’ poems he is reading.
They have left the well-wishers waving from their fishing boats in Orkney. Now they are settling in for the monthlong sail across the cold north Atlantic. The sailor looks at the dull colours of the leather that covers the books. A red like the blood of an ox spilled to earth. A brown like the earth itself. A green like the dull colour of moss, deep in the woods on a sunless day. Deep in the woods at night. These are all colours of the world they are leaving behind. There will be no colours to match these in the white world they are sailing into. He opens the book that he is carrying, holds it in the palm of his hand and looks down at the white pages, at the lines of type running across them like black waves on a white sea, like lines of small figures disappearing into walls of snow.
The empire of the sun has been unsettled by the battles that have swept the king from his throne. The keeper of the sun can see only darkness on the earth and he is too shaken to restore the dawn. He lies his radiance down on the line between heaven and earth, full of sorrow, and he will not move until his father persuades him to drop to earth and help the fallen king, his brother.
There must have been many fallen kings, for the sailor has seen this mantle of light lying above the earth many times. It is often there in the evenings, glowing in a welt across the western sky, all red and purple, with a plumpness that is airy and soft, the way lips are, or the coil of smoke lifting from a chimney. The sailor has not thought before that it was the shape of a man, but he can see now how that could be true. A man lying on his side. His body propping up the dark sky, absorbing the fading light from the earth below, so that he is the place where the two states meet and marry. His limbs are cords of light, and his torso is thick with darkness. Everything begins and ends with his very body, with his mortal flesh.
The sailor stands at the railing on the deck of the Erebus. During the crossing of the Atlantic there is not as much to do and he has moments where he can stand like this, watching the horizon and the plunge and churn of the ship through the ocean swells. A half-mile distant the Terror makes the same passage, shows the sailor by its movement on the water what is happening with the ship he is on.