Jacobi was the first to die and so the first to be eaten. Poor Jacobi had sustained a fatal head wound in the storm—the wave that capsized them had slammed him headfirst into the mast—and so they were without guilt when, after several days of waiting, they carved into him.
Of course they tried other things first. A few men swam through the wreckage, searching for any food that might have survived. They found nothing and expended a lot of energy in the search. Next, they used what they could salvage to make rudimentary fishing tools. But the fish were smart and they were weak.
All the while Jacobi’s body lay there. Captain Haverford could smell the beginnings of rot. He desperately wanted to bring Jacobi’s body back to his family, to give him a proper burial, but there was no sign of rescue and the men needed sustenance to survive. At this point Jacobi’s soul was wherever it would spend eternity. He had no use for his body. And so Captain Haverford quietly told his men that there would be no debate; they would eat Jacobi. And they would be grateful to him for it. Captain Haverford used his pocket-knife to remove chunks of flesh from Jacobi’s thighs and arms. He took the first bite, but only the first, and then spread the meat among his men.
Each man cried while they ate their friend. But none vomited. That would have been a waste of calories and disrespectful to Jacobi.
The last of Jacobi was eaten four days ago. Jacobi had kept them alive that long. If only he had more to give.
Captain Haverford saw the desperation on the faces of his men. The starvation. The weakness creeping in. He saw how close to death they were.
He also saw the hesitance. No one wanted to be the first to suggest it. And no one wanted to volunteer. Quietly, he began to rip pieces of cloth from his undershirt. He did his best to make them of similar lengths, although he knew it wouldn’t matter. Whomever got the short piece would be the next one to die for the others’ survival.
The men watched him in silence. They knew. There were stories of other ships that had done this. Not long before their wreck, the plight of the whaling ship Essex had dominated the headlines. All knew of it, and all knew that’s the horrific situation they were now living.
Captain Haverford bunched the strips of cloth in his hand, made a fist, and held it out to his first mate, Thomas. “Take one,” Captain Haverford said.
“Sir…” Thomas hesitated. “Is this necessary?”
Captain Haverford studied the faces of his men. Perhaps he had misread the situation. All were trying to be brave, to hide their hunger, but it was there. In their eyes. In his own tight stomach and lightheadness. “I believe it is, Thomas. Take one or you’ll be given what’s left after the other men have taken theirs.”
Thomas’s eyes watered, but he did as he was told. Captain Haverford went down the line of the dingy. His Second Mate, Owen, looked away as he took his slip. A few of the sailors spit, some refused eye contact, while still others stared at Captain Haverford with hate.
“I think we all know what this is,” Captain Haverford said. “So let’s be done with it, then. Line up next to one another and lay your cloth in front of you. Shortest is…” He didn’t know how to phrase it. Next to be killed and eaten? Sacrificed? He wanted words that at least sounded heroic, but could think of none. Survival by these means is a coward’s game.
“How’s it to be done, sir?” Thomas asked. He was shaking.
“Quickly. As painlessly as we can manage,” Captain Haverford said. “A knife to the throat seems to me the most humane way.” Thomas nodded and Captain Haverford could see that he wasn’t calmed by the thought. Captain Haverford put a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s see it.”
Thomas lay the cloth on the deck of their dingy. Owen followed. Like dominoes the men fell to their hunger one after the other with no complaint, just a quiet reservation that any one of them might next die for the sake of the others.
Captain Haverford was last. “Men, no matter the outcome, it’s been a pleasure to serve with each of you. I don’t think any of us expect Heaven, but this sacrifice should force God to give you another look.” He laid down his cloth.
It was shorter by half an inch than the rest.
“Captain…” Thomas said. He looked away, across the endless ocean that had with a single storm transformed from home to prison.
Although Captain Haverford knew the outcome, had in fact rigged it that way, his stomach still dropped at the sight of it, as if God Himself would undo the decision, swap out his short cloth for someone else’s, protect him from his own honor. Was that what this was? Honor? Suicide? Protection of his crew? Sacrifice, as he had told his men? None of it felt right. Not now that it was reality.
“Thomas, you’re in charge. I trust you’ll do it quickly.”
Already Thomas was crying. He knew what Captain Haverford had done. “Yes, sir.”
“Best of luck, boys. I hope you’re rescued soon. But not too soon, so as to make my death worthwhile.” He meant it as a joke, but no one laughed. The men just hung their heads. “Well, let’s get on with it.”
Thomas stood, already holding the knife that rarely left his side in the best of times. “The throat, sir?” he asked.
Captain Haverford nodded. “That’s fine, Thomas. I trust your hand.” He had seen Thomas slaughter hundreds of pigs in their time together. They died quickly, with nary a surprised yelp.
Thomas slid behind Captain Haverford and raised the knife to his throat. Observing his men one final time, Captain Haverford didn’t see a single askew look. No hard eyes. No neutral expression. No man looked away. Beneath the hunger, beneath the sadness, Captain Haverford saw respect. That was enough for him.
The cold metal touched his throat, Thomas making sure to line up the blade where it would end things quickest, and then then the air left him. He lost control of his head and was suddenly looking at the blue sky above. But he felt nothing. And for that he was grateful.
His men crowded around him. The last thing Captain Haverford saw were his crew, faces contorted in hunger and hands outstretched, as they bent in to tear the flesh from his bones.
For insight into this story, check out the Behind the Vignette blog post.