I was the cook aboard the steamship Messemer in the year 1906. En route from Edinburgh, Scotland to Bergen, Norway, we were unexpectedly trapped between two arctic ice flows. Food became scarce, and I went to the captain to discuss a sensitive matter at the urging of the sailors.
“We can’t spare a single dog, Mr. Welch.” The captain shook his head. “They are such perishable goods when the men are hungry.”
Captain Pollock feared nothing, except maybe the ice. Not that we avoided it, all together, and so we were in the midst of it for a week, on a voyage that should have taken three days.
Like the ship, Captain Pollock puffed white smoke from his pipe. He stood at his helm in the Wheelhouse, where a sailor steered the vessel. During our meeting, the captain never looked at me. He only listened while commanding the vessel.
“Increase speed to slow-ahead,” the captain ordered.
“Aye, aye,” the helmsman, Eric, answered. His right hand grabbed the speed dial. He pushed forward and then down to the position marked ‘SLOW’’. The clicking was met with a raised chest by the captain, as if it moved him.
I looked out from the steering cabin. A thin, dark crack of water showing through two white sheets of ice was all that lay before us. I could not imagine what this narrowing passage that vanished into the distance had in store for us.
The helmsman and the Captain seemed unfazed.
“Captain, may I speak, sir?”
“You may, Mr. Welch.”
“A week past, sir, when we were within sight of the northern ice flow, I saw you study the sky on that afternoon before we became ice-locked. What was the reasoning?”
He took the pipe from his mouth. “Winter is a perpetual force. Like death, it succeeds because of the absence of its opposite, not by its own virtue. It’s always there, waiting. To ward off death, we must keep ourselves alive. To ward off winter, we must keep with the sun. Therefore, I peer into the sky when I see ice.”
I looked out over the frigid deck and the endless white beyond. “It is nearly Spring, and we are surrounded, Sir.”
The helmsman shot a frigid stare at me.
“You think me blind, Mr. Welch?!” The Captain bit down on his pipe.
“I am the captain of the Messemer. Have you lost sight? Our goal is an early arrival in Bergen to capture the highest price for our goods. Equally, a quick return with Norwegian timber before the other ships. This will produce a huge profit. You’ve come to me because they want you to roast-up a dog, and then what, another and another?”
The captain puffed his pipe. His chest swelled beneath his thick wool sweater, that looked as if cut from a brown bear.
“I — I — I don’t know. The men are hungry is all,” I stuttered.
“Those dogs are our last chance if all goes wrong. Listen well, Mr. Welch! You chisel that jaw before climbing below deck. A speck in your eye of doubt will set the men into a frenzy. We’ll need those dogs to traverse the ice if a million tons of glacier bite this ship in half.”
“Yes, sir, Captain,” I answered. I looked at the helmsman, who stared forward. The captain stood straight. Only the smoke from the captain’s pipe moved freely.
“You’ll boil our leather overcoats before we eat a single dog. Now, return to your kitchen, and…” The captain scanned the horizon, uneasy. “Make more pudding for the crew.” He tapped his pipe. “Serve it twice a week,” he answered.
“You had better start tonight, Mr. Welch. This should ease their stomachs, and their minds, and will provide them cause for our meeting… That is all.”
I climbed below deck through a hatch and into the last compartment of the berth deck. There, a few of my shipmates waited in a small room with four bunks. Adam, Herschel, and Bellamy watched me intently as I descended the ladder. When I turned, they were as I left them. Herschel had his hand on the ladder rail, Bellamy sat on a stool, and Adam stood in the corner, holding a pup.
“Well, what of it?” Herschel asked with a wild stare. He stood head and shoulders above me.
I glanced at young Adam, who held the playful pup that fought with his sleeve.
“The captain did not agree.” I said firmly.
Herschel slammed his fist on the rail. His crooked nose revealed his belligerence. Bellamy stared downward, deep in thought. Adam blew a sigh of relief.
Herschel paced with his hands on his hips. He flexed his square jaw. “We’re starving to death down here.” His lips curled inward, then he pointed in the air. “While he eats his tinned meats!”
“Quiet!” I shouted, then looked up the ladder at the closed hatchway.
Bellamy straightened himself from his stoop. His face possessed a confused expression, exaggerated by a bruise around his left eye from his last disagreement with Herschel. “Oh, if I could get my hands on just one of them tins, mmm.” He closed his eyes, licking his lips.
“The ears and snouts for the dogs were pilfered,” Adam mumbled.
Herschel raised the back of his hand to Adam, as if ready to strike him. Adam flinched. He eyed the pup, then turned to me. “So, what did you talk about?”
“The captain gave the order for twice-a-week pudding, starting tonight.” I looked at each man, smiling.
Bellamy’s eyes rolled back. “Twice a week!” He repeated with elation. It seemed to invigorate him from his depression.
Herschel made a fist. “Pudding tonight! You best get started, mate.”
“And you best be in the engine room.” I answered. “The captain returned to slow ahead..”
“We hear the bell. Tommy’s down there.” Herschel smirked with confidence. “He’ll muddle through until we return. We wanted to hear what you had to say.” He smacked Bellamy on the arm. “Come on Bell, let’s stoke the boiler.”
Adam stood, wrestling with the pup. “Slow-ahead again? Well, there must be a break in the ice. Did you see it, the break, I mean?”
Herschel and Bellamy stopped before exiting a door deeper into the hull. They waited for my answer, as did Adam.
“Uh, yes, yes, I wasn’t really looking, but there was a passage.”
Herschel’s eyes squinted.
I stood firm. “You don’t expect me to question Captain Pollock, now do you? If he says there’s a passage, by God there’s a passage.”
Adam smiled. Herschel and Bellamy appeared satisfied and pulled the door closed behind them.
In the ship’s galley, which sat above the boiler room, I used the engine’s heat to cook. We finished the dried meat two days earlier. Meals were now composed of lard and flour. The pudding was flour, water, butter, and cardamom, a favorite sweet herbal spice of the captain.
Now, near the arctic, fish were scarce. Only mammals were present, hiding and surviving.
Adam entered as I sprinkled the cardamom into the boiling pot.
“The captain ordered me to tell you to have the pudding ready at the five bells call, and that he will attend.”
“The captain? You can tell him it will be ready.”
Adam leaned over the pot, breathing in. “Ah.” His face ignited with pleasure.
When the five bells rang, the mess deck table, off from the galley, was nearly full. The ship noticeably slowed to nearly a stop, which marked concern on the faces of some men. I stood with a ladle, ready to serve.
Three men scurried in and sat, with eager expressions on their faces, and looked up in anticipation.
“Well?” Herschel pushed.
“The captain is joining us. We’ll wait.” I answered.
From the other end of the galley and out of sight, a hatch opened, cold air wafted in carrying the smell of the captain’s tobacco. Everyone froze.
The captain turned sideways to fit his broad shoulders through the door leading from the galley. Standing at the end of the table, stoic, His head turned toward us all, but his eyes never met ours. His skin bitten with cold, matched his thick brown sweater, and his bear blended with it.
He cast his gaze forward. “I understand you are hungry,” he said with a nod. “We should have arrived in Norway three days ago. Now, we find ourselves between two ice packs. The corridor we had followed has closed.”
A deathly moan emanated from almost everyone at the table. Everyone else, like myself, froze speechless. Herschel looked at me with a scowl. I worked to not betray I’d noticed.
The captain continued, “Tomorrow morning we will put the ship to a stop and try a hunt. Eric witnessed white bears, and you know what that means… Seals. The bears are a sign the ice is loose. In a day or two, it should drift apart.”
A few nods of optimism spread around the table.
“In the meantime, enjoy a second measure of pudding… As you were.” Captain Pollock exited as he had entered.
The men let out cheers and held their tin plates in the air, ready to be served.
Herschel’s mood had lightened, but throughout the meal, he whispered to Bellamy, glancing up at me from time to time.
Everyone aboard the ship knew that I now slept in the galley to watch the provisions. It worried me. That night I curled up under a table with a knife, next to empty crates that once held onions. The smell was mouth watering, and I slept to the aroma.
At sunrise, I awoke to a gunshot. I gasped, clutching my body. Soon, I heard rowdy cries top-side.
I dressed and ran to the upper deck. The reflection of the sun on the ice was blinding.
“There! Over there!” Herschel yelled and pointed as the gangway watchman, who stood as lookout, was at the prow. He bent to reload the only rifle we had onboard, a single-shot breech-loader. A lever actuated it beneath the wrist of the buttstock. The time to load a single cartridge seemed an eternity, though the watchman had it ready in less than fifteen seconds.
I felt my hunger claw at me with the anticipation of fresh meat, and I ran to the side of the mid-deck near Herschel. Across the ice, two small white bears scurried away, nearly invisible against the backdrop.
The watchman fired. We stood helpless as the bears disappeared behind a cleft of ice; crumpled sheets that pointed upward where the ice buckled, less than a quarter of a mile a way. We all cringed at the missed shot.
A rope ladder hung over the port side where Herschel stood. He bent over the rail. “You scared them away, you spoony.”
I looked over the edge to see Adam standing a five feet the ice edge. “They were just baby bears,” Adam shouted into the air and reached out with a mooring hook to take hold of the rope ladder.
Those of us on the deck turned in different directions scanning the vast wasteland of ice around us for any moving speck that could be a chance at a meal. Below, Adam swiped with the pole.
“Let me have the rifle.” Herschel shouted to the watchman. “If I was shooting, we’d have some fresh meat already.”
The watchman turned his head in Herschel’s direction and then looked away.
“Cock-up!” Herschel yelled to him.
Now, the watchman turned and walked toward Herschel, who met him half-way.
“You think you’re a handier shot?” The watchman asked. “The Navy trained me atop a swaying ship.”
Herschel walked up on him and pointed his own thumb to his chest. “And I’ve shot freebooters and marauders in the Merchant Navy. Shooting a living thing differs from shooting a target.”
The two men faced off exchanging insults. I glanced over the gangway where Adam had hooked the rope ladder and was pulling it up over the ice edge, when something flitted in the corner of my eye.
My head turned toward it. I squinted to focus through the bright white. Then, to my horror, a monstrous white bear appeared, as if spontaneously generated from the ice. “Bear! Bear!” I shouted, pointing, then remembered, Adam. All I could do was scream his name.
Herschel and the watchman ran to the edge of the ship. They both froze and turned to the rifle, which the watchman held. He unlocked the breach. Herschel grabbed at the rifle, and the two men struggled. I watched them and then the bear and then Adam who froze with the pole in his hands.
The watchman, with a firm grip, turned his body, yanking it from Herschel.
“Hurry then!” Herschel yelled, balling his fists.
The watchman’s arms moved frantically, his hands out of sight. I could not breathe.
He turned and fired over the ship as the bear sprung forward. The shot missed. With two immense leaps, she was within reach of Adam. The watchman hurried to reload again, pulling a bullet from his coat pocket. Each second was painful.
In an instant, the bear positioned herself to strike. The monster must have stood ten feet tall when it rose on its hind legs. Adam shrieked, staring upward into the air with only the mooring pole between them. In a crushing instant, she pounced on his wiry frame.
Again the watchman fired. The bullet hit the bear, but did nothing to stop the slaughter of our friend, but inspired her to run. Which she did, along the ship and out into the vast ice field.
“Shoot it, shoot it!” Herschel yelled as the watchman ran the length of the deck, running and firing shots between each loading of the gun.
We all followed as close behind the as we could, but there was nothing we could do. The bear trotted off, dragging Adam.
One moment, we were the only predators. Then, in a flash we were reduced to likes of mammals surviving in the cold.
“Adam!” I cried, holding my face.
The men clutched each other, gasping and turning away, some with heads hung low. Except Herschel, who appeared bitter. The mourning of Adam was short-lived when an argument broke out.
“You’re a worthless marksman!” Herschel screamed at the watchman. “You ought to be shot yourself. That was our last chance.” Herschel spit at him.
The watchman shook his head in disgust, but said nothing as the captain rushed to the main deck. We all stood at the bow as the animal vanished toward the icy cleft, where the two small bears emerged and joined the feast.
“Adam, sir,” The watchman said. “A white bear scavenged him.”
The captain looked out over the ice. He showed no emotion. “There are no seals here now. The bear has shown herself.” Captain Pollock turned to head back to the wheelhouse.
“Permission to kill that bear, sir,” Herschel asked.
The captain stopped. “It would take the entire crew to corral a white bear and kill it… Some of us would surely die. Keep watch for a seal if you like. You may get lucky.”
Despair overcame the faces of the men on deck. Some, like Herschel, were mixed with anger. The captain showed nothing.
I dreaded what Herschel might do next and made a detour through the berth deck after leaving. On Adam’s bunk, a sleeping puppy twitched as if running in a dream. I scooped him up and returned to the galley, where I placed him in one of the onion crates. Here, he would be safe, but for how long?
That afternoon, I scraped the last of the lard from the barrel to mix with flour, when I heard a ruckus, men yelling and dogs barking. I followed the sound to the aft deck, where we caged the dogs in the storage room. Ice cold and dark, the room was lit with one candle. A casket with the dog’s rations, dried pig’s ears and snouts, lay tipped and empty.
The dogs barked viciously, as Herschel stabbed at one with a mooring pole and others encouraged him with laughter. In the cold air that surrounded us, fog blew from their lips, evaporating above their heads.
“We’ll be eating this one right here.” Herschel snarled back as if he were a dog.
Captain Pollock burst into the room. “Stand down, Mr. Jacoby,” the captain ordered Herschel.
“It’s too late, Captain, sir. Adam is no longer here to take care of the dogs, so I decided how they should be cared for. Besides, this is out of your hands.” Herschel shouted. “We’re starving!”
“We’re a day from the Norwegian coast as soon as the ice separates,” the Captain said.
“That’s all fine and good, sir, but we need to eat, and come to think of it, how come you don’t look ragged like the rest of us?”
“And you never eat dinner with us, or the pudding!” Bellamy observed.
“Because he eats from them fancy tins, he does,” Herschel declared.
Angry voices chanted, “Yah, yah.”
“MUTINY!” a voice shouted.
The captain pulled out a pistol. “Stand down or I will put you in chains on the mainland.”
“What mainland?” Someone cried.
“Chains or starvation, that’s what we get?” Herschel shouted. “Kill him!”
The angry mob of men charged at the captain.
He fired without aim into the air after Herschel snatched his wrist. The inertia of the angry crowd poured over him. Men in the rear moved into position without a motive except the action propelled them and they followed as sailors do, each taking swings. From where the captain lay, a crowd of men hunched over him, their fists and elbows turning over, and over again.
From the mauling mob, I saw Herschel stand from in the middle of it. He looked over the chaos, panting. Blood stained his shirt and his eyes kept moving until they met mine.
“There!” he shouted, pointing at me. “He said there was a passage.”
Heads rose and turned in my direction. I was a new focus for their blood thirst.
“No — No,” I begged. “I’m just the cook.”
The men looked uncertain, but were ready to act.
“He spoke with the captain.” Herschel accused. “He knew, but didn’t say.”
“I told you what I knew. The captain said the dogs were our only chance. We couldn’t eat them.”
“They were HIS only chance.” Herschel sneered. “There are only five dogs and one sled. How is that supposed to pull fifteen men? He would ride away without us if he had the chance.”
“Yah, yah!” Some men shouted.
Bellamy interrupted, “I believe the dogs were to pull the lifeboat until the ice broke and then we would row ourselves the remaining distance. I heard the captain say once.”
Everyone looked at Bellamy, and then at Herschel, who still breathed hard. Herschel raised his hand, holding Captain Pollock’s pistol. “Who asked ya?” Then he pointed the gun at Bellamy’s chest and pulled the trigger.
The blast sent Bellamy backward, open-mouthed. He lay unmoving.
Some men pulled at Captain Pollock’s belongings.
“Give me his sweater,” Herschel ordered.
Before long, they stripped the captain down to his skivvies. A sailor had his boots, and another his belt.
Herschel tucked the pistol in his trousers and pulled the sweater over his large head, that squeezed through the neck hole like a monster being born from a womb. Herschel smiled grotesquely. “Now I’m wearing the sweater.” He gritted. “You’ll all do as I say.”
Herschel flexed his arms, admiring himself, then shouted. “Let’s get them tins!” Everyone cheered, and they dragged the captain’s body to the upper deck like a skinned animal, then followed Herschel to the captain’s cabin.
I limped back to the galley, nauseous. My mind swirled as I looked around the room until I saw the boiling pot. I stirred it. It was the only thing I could think of doing. Chaotic sounds spread throughout the ship. Looking into the mush and mixing calmed me. I heard a scream and then a laugh. Something shattered, and then a gunshot. I dared not step out of the galley. I was ready to kill a dog as soon as Herschel gave the order. Equally, I knew my life was over as soon as Herschel decided that, too. Death, like the ice, had closed in. A heavy feeling of dread hung over me as I stirred the flour and lard.
Tommy, from the engine room, entered. “Captain Herschel wants to see ya.” He rolled his eyes.
My heart sank into my stomach hearing those words. I dropped my ladle and exited. Above deck, a few men ate from tins, ignoring me.
I entered the steering room. Eric turned to me from the wheel with a horrid expression. The speed dial, read, ‘SLOW’. Herschel stood as the captain did, wearing the sweater and holding the pistol. Strangely, the sweater had the magnetism of Captain Pollock, from the sight of it and perhaps the smell of his tobacco. I felt Captain Pollock was still in the room, but with an unfamiliar face.
Herschel turned with a smirk. Blood stains darkened the brown wool around the collar in splotches. His head bobbed with confidence, and his brutish face inspired unpredictable horror. He looked at me, about to speak when a bullet shattered the glass of the steering room window. We all ducked. Eric crawled toward me, where we crouched near the door. Herschel lay unmoving. Blood trickled out from under the sweater.
Moments later, the watchman who Herschel had berated stood with his rifle in the doorway. Eric and I rose as he walked past us. He stood over Herschel and spat. Eric, without thought, took the steering wheel, and moved the speed dial to ‘STOP’.
The watchman exited and two men arrived shortly after to drag Herschel out.
I returned to the galley as the ship glided to a complete halt. An inspiration filled me to make more pudding. It was all I could think of doing to feel normal.
After the five bells rang, men stumbled in and sat, more from habit than order. The table was far from full. Nobody spoke, and some didn’t eat, despite the gnawing hunger we all felt. Equally, our eyes never met. This, I could only guess, was because of the shame we all felt, or a habit Captain Pollock set upon us, but it felt appropriate.
After dinner, I returned to the galley, but left the pots on the mess deck table for anyone who wanted the remains. The pup had escaped from his crate and roamed the galley. I bedded down under the table with my face near a crate, and the aroma of onions.
The next morning, I awoke as the ship lunged forward. It had restored a feeling of order, as much from my sense of motion as from cheers above deck that accompanied it. I pulled myself together and realized that my feeling of dread had vanished.
In the morning sunlight, above deck, I stood with the others. There, we could all see a clear passage through the ice where the sun rose in front of us. A vast open gap in the sea stretched out before the ship. Everyone smiled and their eyes twinkled in the light. Beside us, in the cold air, Herschel, Bellamy, and Captain Pollock lay on the deck. We redressed the captain in his sweater.