The crew dragged up the long black whale, sliced it open head to fluke, and then there he was, lying among the red, red ropes and glistening offal of the creature’s belly.
He was little more than bones. His skin had been bleached white by the stomach liquids, and all his hair had fallen out. He lay still as could be, staring up through the bloody cleft. Every few seconds he breathed, a quick, shallow breath.
Hooks and paring blades clattered to the deck. The whalers jerked back, growling into their beards, wiping the blood off on their rough woolen sweaters.
“He’s been swallowed,” one of them hissed. “Swallowed alive, like in ’em old stories.”
“Is he breathing? Oh, crikey, he’s breathing. . .”
“Let’s throw ‘im back,” Eli, the cabin boy, suggested, but they were a thousand leagues from the nearest lighthouse, a hundred fathoms above the nearest ship. It would have been murder. Murder was unlucky.
So they kept him.
He had forgotten how to walk, but they lifted him from the whale’s carcass and brought him below-deck. He was slippery as a fish, all knobby, slimy elbows and legs.
They propped him up by the iron cook-stove and fed him broth with arsenic and whiskey. At first the broth dribbled down his chin. Then he swallowed, and all the sailors that had gathered around him let up a shout.
They tried to teach him how to stand and how to speak. They asked him tricky questions to see if he might be a whaler like them. None of it worked.
“Well, we suppose we’ll call you Johnny Knockers,” they said. “Because those knees knock like a drum.” And then they all laughed.
That night, the clouds heaped against a stiff wind. Below deck, an air of anticipation had settled in the narrow galleys. Was Johnny Knockers a gift from the sea? Or a curse. . . The whalers went to their bunks and left him on a bucket next to the cold, gone-out stove.
Whaling was good the next day. The water chopped, deep and dark, and a fat whale was caught in the first hour of the watch, which was a rare thing and a lucky one. The men rolled up their chains and stowed the harpoons, and even the look-out was allowed to come in and sit the rest of the day out of the wind. Everyone was given an extra beaker of ale. Everyone except Eli. He was barely fourteen, and not a proper whaler, and so he was given the job of feeding Johnny Knockers.
Eli went over to the stove, scowling. He sat down on a bucket next to Johnny Knockers and began shoveling stew into the pale man’s mouth so hard that the spoon clanked against his teeth. Johnny Knockers didn’t protest, but he looked very sad.
Eli stopped. He was such a piteous looking thing, Johnny Knockers was, so bony and haunted-looking.
Eli spooned slower. “All right,” he said, “I didn’t mean it about throwing you back, yeh? We was afraid is all. You’re a right frightening chap to look at.”
Johnny Knockers said nothing. But every time he swallowed, his throat clicked like a bird’s, like there was a marble in his gullet.
Eli spooned the broth in silence. Then he said, “I don’t suppose you’d tell where you came from? Where your home’s at? D’you even remember?”
The whalers had tried to find out the first day. They had searched his garment (a shred of bleached cloth, stiff with salt) but all they had found was a long tooth on a leather cord, hanging around his neck, and black scribbles on one arm in some foreign writing. “What language is that?” they had asked, but he hadn’t told them.
And he did not tell Eli. He did not look up. His pale blue eyes were fixed on the floor-planks, worn smooth and glimmering.
Eli listened to the whalers, merry in loud in the next room.
“I’m from Suffolk,” Eli said. “Suffolk by the Sea.”
Spoon, swallow, spoon, swallow.
“Have you been there? Don’t worry if you haven’t. It’s a gloomy place. A nasty place, right up next to the water. Not as bad as this, though.”
Eli felt that Johnny Knockers agreed with him.
That night, a storm struck––a vicious, screaming storm, all lightning and waves and a white wind that rushed in the sails. A rope snapped. A barrel of whale blubber was lost, a part of a harpoon station went into the sea. But the men were fresh off the victory of the morning’s catch, and so it was shrugged off as nothing.
Eli got the job of feeding Johnny Knockers again the next day. He grumbled in front of the whalers, which confused the cook, because that morning Eli had waited for everyone to leave and had begged him for the job.
Eli took the bowl of stew from the brig and sat down by Johnny Knockers.
Again he spooned for a while in silence. Then he said stoutly, “I’m not always going to be a whaler.In fact, not sure I like it much. Hauling all day, cutting and slicing, and shoveling. It’s right horrid.” Then, with a furtive glance through into the dank brig, he said, “One day I want to be a shoemaker.”
Johnny Knockers said nothing, and Eli didn’t mind. “I’m going back to Suffolk when I’m older and have got enough money. There’s a girl there named Lizzie. I gave Liz a tin of taffy before I went, three years ago, and she gave me a ribbon.” His fingers unlooped a slip of cloth from one of his buttonholes. The weather had faded the blue to gray.
“What, d’you think o’ that, Johnny Knockers? Sound like a plan? Sound like a good thing?”
Eli would have gone on, but then feet hammered the deck above. Shouts split the air. “Well, back to work,” he said, and left the remainder of the stew next to Johnny Knockers’ feet. Eli did not see, but Johnny’s eyes moved a bit as he turned to go, just a flick, and it made a sound inside his skull like a fingernail snagging.
Whaling had never been better, but no one spoke that night as they clambered into their bunks. Rations were going bad. Only twenty-four days at sea, and already food was spoiling.
That morning, a great big beast had been spotted going north, and all the whalers wanted the Misselkree to press on, despite there being nothing but rancid stew and tack to eat, and no fresh anything. They were becoming grumbly and lead-footed. The cook had found spiny crabs like spiders swarming the larder. But the whaling was so good, and so the whalers were convinced they were still on a streak of luck.
Still, they weren’t sure of Johnny Knockers, and since no one would go near the bony figure by the stove, Eli had to feed him permanently. Which was all right with Eli.
He liked talking he had noticed. He liked telling someone things, whether he got any answer or not. In fact, it was almost better not getting answers.
And so Eli talked. Even after the cook had gone to his hammock and the whalers were snoring in their bunks Eli murmured to Johnny Knockers in the dark, told him of Lizzie and how she was very poor and so was Eli, and how neither of them minded. He told of the house on the heath that he wanted to buy in a year or ten. Just a short jaunt from the town, Eli said, a short jaunt that a buggy and an old horse could manage nicely. And no more of the sea. No more fear of drowning, black waters creeping over pale faces, filling your nose, your lungs. You didn’t drown on a dirt road. You didn’t drown in a buggy.
The crabs had begun snapping at the men’s toes as they slept. Barnacles were found on the inside of barrels, which was unheard of. But whales continued to be bountiful. They came steadily, one a day, at least, and they were becoming ever larger. Soon the Misselkree would be too full. It was a large whaler, and they had room for many barrels of blubber, but there was only so much space, only so many barrels.
“Perhaps it’s him,” Crickets said one night to the other whalers, as he scraped a strange green fungus off his tack. “Johnny Knockers. Perhaps he’s like a lure to them. To the whales.”
No one agreed at first, but slowly they came to realize: Johnny Knockers was very good luck indeed and whatever was happening around them had to be due to unfortunate weather and bad planning and a no-good blarsted tack-and-flour merchant back in Liverpool. Because yes, indeed, whaling had never been this good, whales never so foolish. And Johnny Knockers was a lure.
So they made him into one.
At the crack of dawn they took him from his place by the stove and dragged him onto the deck. A coil of rope was brought.
“Stop!” Eli yelled, when he saw what they were doing, but the whalers pushed him back.
“Shut yer trap, boy. It’s more blubber in the barrel, for you too.”
“I don’t want any blubber, stop it!” he screamed, but they only clouted him and shoved him away from Johnny Knockers. Then they tied Johnny to the mast, tight so that he wouldn’t flop about.
A whale came very soon. Its tale slid up out of the water. Then its head dipped up, very close to the ship. Johnny Knockers saw it. His eyes took on a sickly, desperate glaze. He began to strain, pushing against the ropes.
“Stop!” Eli cried again, but no one listened.
The whale approached. The pale man began to make croaking sounds, louder and louder, and then the first harpoon struck the whale in the water and the shriek that came from Johnny’s throat was so ghastly that the sailors very nearly lost their grip on the whale. The beast began to struggle, suddenly, where before it had been calm. It thrashed and Johnny Knockers’s did, too, his voice screeching up and up. The harpoons rained over the edge of the ship. For an instant the water was stained red.
When the whale was at last dead and they were scooping the pearly fat from under its ink-blue skin, Johnny Knockers stopped screaming. He went limp again. They dragged him below-deck, and Eli sat next to him, trying to feed him, because it was the only thing he knew to do, but Johnny didn’t eat. He sat staring out into nothing, and Eli felt sure his eyes were full of hate.
The whalers went to their bunks, but not Eli. He stayed with Johnny.
The hours crept past. Eli began to doze. And then a hand crept forward and gripped Eli’s arm. Johnny had not been in the water for days, but somehow his skin was still wet, slippery, as if the water were inside him, seeping out of his pores. The grip was so hard. Johnny’s eyes were wide.
The cook woke at one point to empty the chamber pot and saw them silhouetted by the stove, the boy and the bone-thin Johnny Knockers. Later, when asked, he couldn’t for the life of him remember later if it had been Eli whispering. . . or Johnny Knockers.
It was middle of the day, bright as a bell, when Eli came up on deck and wrapped his arms in chains and plunged into the sea. He sank like a stone before anyone could reach him, before anyone could even shout.
The whalers held a burial-at-sea. Ashes to ashes, brine to brine. The captain mumbled from the ship’s damp and battered Bible. They had to shorten it a bit because a humpback had been sighted, so close by, floating calm as you like toward the Misselkree.
The hold was filled to bursting, barrel upon barrel of blubber, but there was still one corner left. One last corner with space for a few more barrels. The food was rotting, the men were sick, but it would only take one more whale.
They tied Johnny Knockers to the mast again, to speed things up. One last whale and they would turn keel to the sun and return home. Back to port, and ale-houses, and enough money to live at least until Christmas for those who drank, fairly well until June for those who didn’t. The Misselkree’s hold was very, very full indeed.
That day, a tiny whale came. Johnny Knockers did not thrash or scream this time. He looked at the whale, though. And just before it came within range of the men’s harpoons, it turned and folded back into the ocean. The men cursed and shouted after it. They had been looking forward to the journey back. They dragged Johnny Knockers below and threw him to the floor.
A whale came not too long afterward. They killed it and filled their last barrels. They felt very pleased with themselves, very pleased as they vomited over the side of the ship.
That night, a whaler named Smithy died of dysentery. Several others were too sick even to move. But they were headed home now, headed to port and a year of comfort.
“What an expedition,” said Crickets. “What a lucky expedition.” And everyone agreed.
The whales came in the night. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, surrounding the ship. The night was black, the air still and cold, and the men barely stirred as the waves from the whale’s fins began to pummel the ship. It started gently, became stronger. Then the whales struck, head-first on all sides of the ship, like hammers. Leaks sprang. A porthole burst, splashing Crickets in the face.
The men staggered from their bunks with weak shouts. They hobbled on deck in their nightclothes, lanterns swinging, tiny fireflies in a great black ocean. The whales struck again, again. The hull buckled. Men were thrown from their feet. And then the Misselkree split, right down the middle, with a deafening crack. She sank quickly––ten seconds and then she was gone––and all the little fireflies winked out.
But just before the last of it slipped under the waves, Johnny Knockers stepped off into the gurgling water. He did not sink. He did not swim. A whale’s head rose up, a black monolith, blacker than the night. A deep, hollow sound echoed out of its belly. The whale opened its mouth and Johnny Knockers flopped in, curling into the dark and the red like a child into a womb.
Far away, a boy struggled up a rocky shore, dragging himself over the stones. He was paler than he had been, just bones. His hair was not as thick as a fortnight ago, and his eyes were somewhat sunken. A ribbon was looped through his buttonhole. Only the faintest threads showed that it had been blue once.
But he would live, years yet, forty, fifty, and he would find roads and travel them, to Lizzie and shoe-shops and houses on heaths.
Not the men on the Misselkree. They lay at the bottom of the sea in a boat full of blubber, and not all the luck in the world could have saved them.
Neither had the whales.
The woman pushing the stroller was tall and thin, and Amelia-Anne noticed her because her pants were a bit old-fashioned like something out of an old cartoon. The woman’s jacket was brown. Amelia-Anne thought it looked lumpy, like a potato bag. She watched the thin woman’s bell-bottoms drag over the ground and then Amelia-Anne passed her and went to the park and played on the slides until she was tired.
The thin woman was back the next day. She pushed her stroller along with all the other moms, but none of them said hi to her. Amelia-Anne wondered why that was. When they were at the playground, the other moms laughed and talked and loaded their babies into swings and bounced them and showed them off to each other.
The thin woman sat by herself, hugging her baby and singing to it softly.
Amelia-Anne had to go to a birthday party the next day. She didn’t really want to, and her mom didn’t want to take her. In fact, her parents had an argument about it, but Amelia-Anne was getting dressed so she didn’t hear much of it. Her mom drove her to the party. There were presents and balloons and cupcakes with pink and blue frosting. Ally was turning nine and she wanted to be cool, so she had invited a bunch of fifth-graders. Amelia-Anne thought that was dumb.
After the party, Amelia-Anne was going to walk home, but her mom insisted on coming in the car again to pick her up. All the other moms picked up their kids, too. Amelia-Anne thought that was nice, because it was getting cold.
She went to the park the next day and sat on her bench and started to draw with a red crayon on a big piece of paper. There weren’t as many mothers in the park today, but the thin woman was there. She looked around, clutching her baby. She saw Amelia-Anne. She came over and sat next to Amelia-Anne.
“Hi,” said Amelia-Anne, swinging her legs. Then she went back to drawing.
“Hello,” said the thin woman. “Did you see my baby? Isn’t my baby beautiful?”
Amelia-Anne looked at the baby. It looked like all babies, she thought. She went back to drawing.
“Isn’t my baby fabulous?” the thin woman asked. She hugged the baby.
Amelia-Anne thought he was a bit drooly and a bit chubby, and she didn’t want to be rude, so she didn’t say anything. She continued coloring, making a big red circle and drawing a red flower inside it.
The thin woman didn’t seem to mind. “My baby’s the most wonderful baby in the whole world,” she said, and stroked her baby’s head with her long fingers.
Amelia-Anne put a rake inside the red circle, too.
After a while the playground emptied. The sky turned gray and the leaves started to whirl. The other mothers went home. Amelia-Anne headed home, too, but when she left, the thin woman was still on the bench, holding her baby and talking to it.
The next day, at the park, the sky was sunny and the birds were out, and so were the mothers, their toddlers stuffed into colorful jumpers and put into strollers or onto leashes so that they could crawl around. The thin woman was there. She was letting her baby crawl without a leash, but she was following it. Amelia-Anne watched them. The baby took about five crawl-shuffles for every one of the thin woman’s long, long steps.
The baby went right up to one of the other mothers and looked up at her. The other mother saw and swooped up the baby, laughing. “Who’s a little deary!” she said. “Whoooo’s a little deary-schnookums?”
The thin woman screamed. She screamed so loud that Amelia-Anne broke her crayon. Everyone on the playground froze.
“Don’t touch my baby!” the thin woman shrieked, and snatched the baby away from the other woman, who stood shocked and mortified.
The other mothers frowned and put their heads together. The mother who had picked up the thin woman’s baby went away.
After a few minutes the playground calmed down again. Most of the mothers left. The thin woman let her baby stay on the ground, crawling as it pleased, and she followed it. Amelia-Anne went home.
The next day was dark and rainy, but Amelia-Anne went to the park anyway. Her mother had said, “Amelia-Anne, I don’t want you going out by yourself,” but Amelia-Anne had forgotten and had done it anyway. She went up the gravel lane to the playground and sat down on the bench. The wind gusted around her. She swung her legs. After a while the thin woman came, pushing her stroller. She saw Amelia-Anne and smiled and waved. Her hair was a bit mousy, Amelia-Anne thought. She needed extra-pomegranate conditioner. Amelia-Anne had seen extra-pomegranate conditioner on TV, and she was sure everyone with mousy hair needed it.
“Hello!” said the thin woman, and sat down next to her. She lifted the baby out of the stroller and set it on her knee.
“Hi,” said Amelia-Anne. She didn’t have her crayons with her today. She wished she did.
The wind blew around them.
“Isn’t my baby the most wonderful baby in the whole world?” the thin woman asked.
Amelia-Anne sighed. She swung her legs. “What’s your baby’s name?” she asked. That was good. That was polite.
“I called him Max,” the thin woman said.
“How old is he?”
“A few months.” The thin woman bounced the baby gently. “Isn’t he fabulous?”
“Don’t you know exactly how old he is?” asked Amelia-Anne.
The thin woman looked at Amelia-Anne, smiling. “Isn’t he fabulous?”she asked again, and then the baby gurgled a big bubble of spit right out of his mouth, so Amelia-Anne said yes.
“I just love babies,” the thin woman said, and Amelia-Anne couldn’t be certain, but she thought the thin woman’s eyes looked very dark right then. Very, very dark.
Amelia-Anne went home.
Amelia-Anne’s mom wouldn’t let her go to the playground the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. Finally, Amelia-Anne’s mom said they could go, but only if Amelia-Anne’s mom went along. So Amelia-Anne’s mom did.
They sat on the bench. There were a few other mothers at the playground. The thin woman wasn’t there. Amelia-Anne searched and searched for the brown coat and the long, long legs in their cartoon jeans, but she couldn’t see them. Amelia-Anne’s mom talked with some of the other moms. They kept looking over at their toddlers, and at Amelia-Anne, too, as if they wanted to make sure Amelia-Anne didn’t hear. Amelia-Anne didn’t really care what they were talking about and she wished they would stop looking at her.
The next day, the thin woman wasn’t at the park either. But that was the day that Amelia-Anne overheard her parents talking about the baby that had been stolen two weeks ago while sitting in its mom’s grocery cart, and how no one knew where it was, and no one knew who had kidnapped it, and how there hadn’t been a ransom note or anything. Police had been out looking for a crazy woman who might have done it, but they couldn’t find her. They had been asking for clues. Amelia-Anne thought of the thin woman, clutching her baby, smiling. “I just love babies,” she had said, so Amelia-Anne knew it couldn’t have been her.
Two houses stand at No. 17, Farringdon High Street, behind the station tracks where the steam engines used to whistle and where the mushrooms grew tall as trees. One house you see, grey and cold, red drapes and only a single window lit. One house you don’t see. One house you’ll never see. I write this as a confession. I write this to speak of that other house – the one under the back stairs – and what happened to it, and what I did.
The stairs are still there. I hobbled down them just to be sure, while the nurse was sleeping. It is a dark, creaky little flight, squeezed between the scullery and the back hall. It has a door under it leading into what may have once been a broom-cupboard or a boiler room. You wouldn’t know it now. You would never guess. I had it papered over years ago in dull green stripes. Behind the door, that is where the other house stays. It is so silent, but when I was small, and we had servants and maids for every little thing, the other house used to come out at night and I could hear it wheezing and clattering from all the way upstairs. It had legs, you see. Long clicketty legs like a spider’s.
“Mother, there’s another house under the stairs,” I said to my mother once before bed, and she said, “Oh, how wonderful,” and looked worried and hurried away.
I thought it was wonderful, too. One night, when I was feeling very brave, I left a crust of bread for it in the back hall and watched from between the spindles in the banister. I waited a long time before the little door under the stairs creaked open and the house scuttled out. It was like a doll-house with eight sharp metal legs and a turret. It went right up to where the piece of bread lay and seemed to tip forward, its joints scraping. If it were a dog, I would have thought it had sniffed the crust. It wasn’t a dog, though, so I’m not sure what it did. Then it retreated back into the door, leaving the bread untouched on the tiles.
It doesn’t much fancy bread, I remember thinking. I wonder what it does fancy. I wonder it wants.
For several nights I did the same thing only with different foods. I tried a teaspoon of quince in a saucer. The house didn’t eat it. I tried a single ripe gooseberry and a bit of pear. A great angry puff of smoke went up from the house’s chimney when it investigated those and it immediately retreated under the stairs, slamming the little door behind it. It did not fancy gooseberries either.
I tried biscuits and snapped beans, a slice of plum pudding and a bowl of curds. It investigated all of them, but it did not take any.
“Father, there’s another house under the stairs,” I said one day, when he came back from the city, and he said, “What utter nonsense!” and had a talk with my mother, as if it were her fault.
Nonsense. . . When I saw the house again it seemed a bit darker and the windows were full of soot.
That evening, at dinner, I hid a disk of sausage inside my napkin. Mother saw me, but she said nothing. Father saw, too. He said something.
“What is that for?” he demanded. “Why did you take that sausage?”
I said something about the other house, and how I wanted to catch it and open its roof and look at its insides, and how-
“There is no other house!” Father snapped. “There is no such thing!”
But there was! I knew there was!
That night, I slipped from my bed and padded down the back stairs. When I had settled myself behind the banister, I tossed the sausage into the hall. It struck the tiles with a sound like a slap. For a second nothing stirred. Then I felt a shudder under the stairs. The door opened a crack. Two long black legs uncurled, testing the tiles, testing the air. With a whir and clatter, the house shot out the door and fell upon the sausage in a frenzy of smoke and metal. I saw something, something so small I cannot be certain what it was, flicker out and snatch the sausage. That was when I knew I wanted to catch that house more than ever.
A few nights later I stole a small roast from the larder. The roast had a mottled white bone at one end, and to this I attached a length of twine. The twine I tied about my wrist. I laid the roast in the back hall. I sat up on the stairs. I leaned my head against the spindles, and thought about the house and all its secrets.
The other house came out after not very long. It was on the roast in a blink. The twine snapped tight around my wrist. The house began to drag at the ham, pulling and scrabbling, frantically trying to get it back under the stairs. I gasped, struggling to undo the twine. It was so strong. My head slammed flat against the banister. The house pulled and pulled. The twine went tighter, tighter, and then I was thrown off balance and went tumbling down the stairs.
“Help!” I shrieked. “Father, mother, help me!”
The spider-house was pulling me toward the door, right along with the roast. I squeaked over the tiles. Somewhere I heard doors open. Footsteps and worried voices. Faces peering down at me, pale moons of befuddlement and indignation.
I wasn’t moving. I was lying on the cold tiles. The roast was next to me, and the twine, and there were bruises on my arms and back.
“Mrs. Barrowstamp!” the housekeeper shouted. “Mr. Barrowstamp, your son!”
I got the most horrible lecture that night. It went on and on until I felt the words in my bones, and my head was full of them, full enough to burst.
Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.
I went to bed, and woke the next morning with it still ringing in my ears. Mother had cried, Father had shouted, the maids had whispered, and the housekeeper had sneered.
Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. Someday you’ll have to grow up.
And I did. I stole a great big ham next. I think it was for New Year’s Eve; I think a servant was probably sacked because of it. But I didn’t think of it then. From Father’s glass cabinet I stole a syringe and a bottle of carbolic acid. I had heard what carbolic acid does. I wasn’t innocent. The cold precision with which I went about all this would shock me now. I filled the acid into the syringe and injected the entire load into the ham.
As soon as everyone had gone to bed, I took the ham and laid it out on the tiles. Then I went up to my perch behind the banister and waited.
Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.
I was almost ready to assume the problem had taken care of itself and I could go back to bed, when the door under the stairs opened. The other house stood in it, swaying slightly on its long, long legs, staring at the ham. It clicked over to it. It leaned down. The ham was already shriveling, drying into a thin twist of sinew. The house turned slowly. Its gable tilted up, and I might have sworn it was looking at me. Then it turned back to the ham and began to eat it, quietly. A spring popped from the tiled roof with the sound of a snapped wire. It spasmed and jerked. It staggered around the newel-post toward the foot of the stair. It began climbing the stairs, right up toward me, legs scrabbling for hold on the wood.
But when it was only two or three steps below me, it stopped. Through its little windows I could see people, tiny shadowy figures moving frantically this way and that. They had fingers and eyes and clothes on their backs. A woman ran to one of the windows and mashed her face against the pane. Her mouth was open, gaping in a silent shriek. She had been pretty once, like porcelain painted doll. Now she was hideous, her face cracked and wicked-eyed. I watched as the fumes engulfed her and ate her away.
I vaguely remember the house retreating, dragging itself back under the stairs. I have not seen it since then. I think it must be there still, silent in the dark, spider-legs curled around itself, but I have not seen it. I have not seen anything particularly interesting since, and I no longer believe there were ever mushrooms growing as tall as trees on Farringdon High Street.