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Dave Read Personal Haibun Thread

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  • Dave Read Personal Haibun Thread

    Crossing the Ice: The Lost Journal of the Franklin Expedition


    On May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin and crew boarded the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on their ill-fated quest to discover the Northwest Passage. Nearly three years later, trapped in the ice off King William Island, the ships were abandoned. With many men, including Franklin, having already succumbed to death, the decision was made to seek salvation afoot.

    Very little contemporaneous reporting is available of the time between the crew’s departure and their deaths. A great deal of what is known has been provided by search crews and the oral history of the Inuit. The consensus is that, after leaving the ships, the men plunged into madness and cannibalism. The events that lead to that end remained, until now, largely undocumented.

    Over one hundred years after the skeleton of an officer buried on King William Island was identified as Lieutenant Henry Le Vesconte, that same skeleton was, through the modern study of forensics, re-identified as Harry Goodsir - the assistant surgeon and scientist of the Erebus. More recently, however, there was a new discovery. Near the site of Goodsir’s grave a journal, believed to have belonged to the scientist, was found. The document, reprinted here, provides insight into the journey, the struggles, and, ultimately, the failure of the crew in their quest to reach civilization again.

    Arctic sun …
    the glare of winter

    April 22, 1848

    Crozier directed us to abandon ship. A part of me does not agree with the order. The cabins provide cover and a reasonable place to cook and sleep. The sick, increasing in number and plagued with scurvy, will not get healthy trekking through an Arctic desert of snow.

    Yet the thought of another winter here is hard to bear. It appears that the ice will not loosen, and many have died already. Perhaps the decision to leave for Back River is for the best.

    I am glum with little hope. Civilization, however, will not to be found in the hull of the Erebus. I must accept the Captain’s decision, and prepare to brave this godforsaken land of ice and wind. Surely, more shall perish, but we have no alternatives in seeking our salvation.

    Let God-Almighty help us now!

    lodged in ice
    our fortunes

    April 24, 1848

    With disappointment bordering on despair we stop to rest tonight. Our lack of progress has been disheartening. Fresh falling snow reduced visibility and weakened our foothold on the ice. We fought the winds, bitter and strong, in struggling to pull the sledges. It is difficult to gauge how far we travelled, but my guess is we’ve made no more than 9 miles.

    The tent is cold but provides solace from the wind. I peel off my gloves, examine my bluish fingertips. Reaching Back River seems like an impossible task. Even if we do, our journey will have only begun. Fort Resolution, the closest site of English men, is another 1000 miles away.

    A gust of wind pulls back the flap of the tent. I peek out at the whiteness of the ground, the air, and the sky. The enormous world grows bigger set against our isolation.

    falling snow
    poor men gather
    their remains

    April 25, 1848

    Crozier reassigned the men into smaller groups. While we will continue to travel as one unit, each of the groups will be responsible for a sledge along with the welfare of its members. The eight men to whom I am bound are second master Collins, Reddington, Watson, Rigden, Hoar, Aylmore, Pocock, and Murray. While none of the men are well, Reddington, Pocock and Murray are especially sick. Each has begun to suffer the delusions that are attendant in the later stages of scurvy.

    Collins assumes the lead of our group and assigns each man his tasks. Among other things, he places me in service of the very ill. However, without proper medicines or the opportunity for the sick to stay warm and rest, there is little I can do to help. The demands of the journey will prove too much for them to bear.

    As we start out for the day, I gaze inland across the ice. In the distance, through the morning mist, are two Esquimaux men. I watch them with interest, and more than a little envy. How easily these savages manage this impossible land.

    snowblind …
    I shade my eyes
    to my fate

    April 27, 1848

    We traced the shore for any sign of geese, duck, or ptarmigan. The wind was cool - stirring the light snow and disrupting our vision.

    At one point, I approached Pocock and asked him to check the bay ahead. He burst into tears, sobbing loud enough for the other men to turn and look. I tried to console him. Although I cradled his head in my arms, he continued to wail like I wasn’t there at all.

    into frostbite
    leather boots

    May 5, 1848

    Tragedy struck today. While hiking south along the shoreline, Murray claimed to hear a duck. He started walking towards the sea. Others called after him but he would not listen. Pursuing the sound, he marched out further on the thinning ice.

    A handful of men and I followed him. He kept a surprisingly brisk pace. There was a crack as Murray’s step punctured the ice and his right leg slipped thigh deep in freezing water.

    Tossing a rope, we were able to pull him back to the thicker ice and return to the waiting crew. Murray, unfortunately, was unable to get warm. He died of hypothermia early in the evening.

    away from the group
    north wind

    May 12, 1848

    The sledge was full. Lifeboats, pickaxes, cooking stoves, ironworks, slippers, shower curtains, china, and scented soaps were included amongst its wares. Many of these objects should have been left on the Erebus. As it were, teams of men were left to pull loads that weighed north of a thousand pounds.

    Hauling the sledge wore on the men. As we trudged through the snow into the wind, Pocock could barely remain upright. I told him to lie on the sledge. With fewer men left to pull a heavier load, our progress slowed considerably. We completed the day's journey, but Pocock died along the way. The men, already exhausted, set about digging an icy grave.

    with little
    room for hope
    our sledge

    May 17, 1848

    Wild game continues to be scarce and our tins are running low. The men, with nothing else to eat, pick at their meals. Every bite is taken reluctantly. It’s as though the food, mouthful by mouthful, is pulling its consumers closer to death.

    I, likewise, no longer relish my meals. Dipping my spoon into the tin, I stir its cold beef and feel the utensil scrape the lead soldering. I remember formal dinners, the gaiety and celebration with which food was attended. Melancholia overwhelms me.

    hollowed out
    the wind becomes
    my breath

    May 20, 1848

    When Collins called for our group to stop, Reddington slumped exhausted on the sledge. I melted snow for him to drink. Setting the cup to his lips, the water trickled onto his cheeks and over his beard. He looked with empty eyes to the nothing in the distance.

    Preparing to feed him, I opened a can but was shocked by its contents. There, instead of food, was a human hand! Crooked and arthritic, the fingers had been twisted and broken to fit inside. What cruelty! Could it be expected we would eat our own kind?

    I looked away and back again. The can had nothing but tomatoes. Feeding Reddington, I shuddered at the strength of my delusion.

    Northwest Passage
    a seaman slips through

    May 27, 1848

    The winds blew strong and the weight of our sledges was burdensome and crippling. We were not far into the day’s journey when our progress was halted by Franklin’s reappearance. Resurrected, he was a large and looming figure. He stood at least 10 feet tall, and looked down upon us with anger. Glaring at the men, he pointed back at our northern route. “The ships!” he bellowed. Before speaking again, he became a cloud and started to snow. When the weather cleared, an Esquimaux was standing in Franklin’s place. Looking through us, the native examined something distant on the sea. His interest waned and he hiked away - gradually disappearing into morning mist.

    Startled from sleep, I was sweating and breathing heavily. Restless and feverish, Franklin remained strong on my mind. While dreams, I know, are but imaginative tricks, some do not easily pass. Throughout the day, I kept my eyes peeled - certain our former captain would join us again.

    wind-blown snow
    the men drift away
    from themselves

    May 29, 1848

    The last of the food was eaten today. I am very concerned. This sparse environment has provided almost nothing by way of game. Increasingly debilitated, we have even less strength with which to try and hunt.

    A silence has fallen over the men. As long as there were provisions, there was hope. Even more than the environment, hopelessness crushes the spirit. There is little on our minds but death.

    Quietly, I think of the prayers I haven’t said in years. I wonder if the Arctic is too desolate for God. I vaguely remember the parable of the landowner and the payment he provided to those who signed on late.

    hunter moon
    a ptarmigan flies
    out of sight

    ... continued ...

  • #2
    ... continued ...

    June 2, 1848

    Our daily treks have become exceptionally difficult. Our numbers have dwindled. All of the men, including myself, are starving and weakened by scurvy. Ploughing on as best we can, we are lucky to cover a few miles a day.

    Crossing the ice, I see an Esquimaux man in the distance. He stands at ease, the wind ruffling the fur of his parka. Had we their strength, I am certain we would reach Back River. Instead, one by one, the English silently perish.

    Lost in my thoughts, I also lose my footing. I fall face first, hard onto the ice. It takes me a long time to recover, to stand and support myself. I look to the spot the Esquimaux stood, but he is there no longer. Following our crew, I place one heavy foot before the other.

    rolling thunder
    the Arctic howl
    of my stomach

    June 6, 1848

    The wind and snow blew strong today - a blizzard like we hadn’t seen in weeks. Weakened and sick, the icy air cut gaps between us. Before long, our group was scattered. Although we fought to stay together, me, Collins, Rigden, and Reddington were all who remained.

    When the blizzard finally ceased, only God knew where we were. There was no trace of other men. The sledge, with our tools and gear, was gone. While we were all ill, exhausted, and starving, Reddington was teetering on his very last legs. I could not imagine him surviving the night.

    the life that dies

    June 7, 1848

    Reddington passed away. He simply lies on the ice. Even with tools, we wouldn’t have the strength to bury him. Either way, we haven’t the strength to care. With our backs turned to the corpse, Reddington’s a memory. Our stomachs growl.

    last rites
    cutting ties
    with a knife

    June 8, 1848

    Rigden and I are struggling to maintain our senses. We are both suffering delusions. I, for one, have heard wild game, mistaken rocks for cans of food, and sought to re-board the ship. Starving and ravaged by scurvy, the visions are stronger than my ability to fight them.

    But Collins simply sits. He stares at Reddington’s corpse as if expecting it to rise. Motionless, he appears nearly dead himself. Yet there is something in his eyes, something that reflects thought and intent. He’s fighting. But for what? Reddington? Life?

    Of the three of us, Collins is the furthest gone. Despite my delusions, I still know there is nothing we can do to fend off death.

    Arctic pool …
    I peer into
    my ghost

    June 9, 1848

    Collins rose and walked to the corpse. Withdrawing his knife, he grabbed Reddington’s pants and cut a slit that ran the length of the buttocks. With a quick rip, he tore the pants back - leaving the dead man’s bottom exposed. Collins stabbed Reddington, carving out a piece of him. He bit into the flesh and started to eat.

    Knife in hand, I approached Collins. He paid me no notice whatsoever. Blood trickled over his beard as he gazed into the distance.

    I turned to Reddington’s remains. There was a red gap where his flesh was cut away. Otherwise, he was just as he had been; completely unaware of what had happened.

    I could not remember when I last ate. Whatever words floated in my conscience could no longer be heard over by my belly’s hungry roar.

    Arctic chill ...
    a glimmer of frost
    on his flesh

    Contemporary Haibun Online, January 2019


    • #3
      I'm impressed by the thorough distillation of such a dark voyage. Reading this alone is sufficient to make someone more grateful for their life. Perhaps it also serves as a reminder to be prepared before traveling, wherever you are, and no matter how far you go! Thanks for sharing. Did you use a history textbook as a reference for some or all of the material? If so, which book did you use?
      Last edited by Jacob Salzer; 07-31-2019, 08:34 PM.


      • Dave Read
        Dave Read commented
        Editing a comment
        Thanks Jacob, much appreciated. Yes, I did a fair amount of research as I was writing this haibun. I picked up the narrative, fictionally, from the point after they left the ships which was the last European reporting of their Expedition. (There is some contemporaneous oral history from the Inuit). I read a fair amount of articles, etc, online, but the focus of my study came from a book called “Frozen in Time” by Owen Beattie and John Geiger. This book details Beattie and Geiger’s trip up north to exhume three bodies from the known graves of the sailors. They referred to historical texts and created the equivalent of a forensics report, from studying the bodies, to determine what caused the deaths of the Franklin crew. At the time of the Expedition, the suffering and deaths of the individuals was thought to be caused by scurvy. Beattie and Geiger’s work proved it was lead poisoning that resulted in the deaths. I allude to lead poisoning briefly and subtly in the narrative but focus on scurvy as the problems of lead poisoning were not know in the 1840s.

    • #4
      Thanks for sharing the background info Dave. Your in-depth research is clearly reflected in your vivid prose. So, would you like to go on an expedition? : ) (!) Strangely, it seems history repeats itself in different ways. Today we know of course it's not scurvy or lead poisoning but other causes of death that takes precedence.

      I took a peek at the top 10 causes of death worldwide in 2016, according to the World Health Organization. Ischemic heart disease was the #1 cause of death by far. They sum it up as:

      "Of the 56.9 million deaths worldwide in 2016, more than half (54%) were due to the top 10 causes. Ischaemic heart disease and stroke are the world’s biggest killers, accounting for a combined 15.2 million deaths in 2016. These diseases have remained the leading causes of death globally in the last 15 years."

      1. Ischemic heart disease
      2. Stroke
      3. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
      4. Lower respiratory infections
      5. Alzheimer disease and other dementias
      6. Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers
      7. Diabetes mellitus
      8. Road injury
      9. Diarrheal diseases
      10. Tuberculosis

      Your haibun also brings to mind a quote I read some time ago:

      "The farther back you look, the farther forward you can see." - Winston Churchill


      • #5

        The wind carries across the lake, biting my cheeks like cold teeth. I shield myself and look over the water. The surface is rough. Waves rear their white capped heads but are yanked down again. I'm reminded of the ghosts at the River Lethe: pulled to the water, forced to drink.

        Way out on the lake is a man in a rowboat. At a distance, he looks pale. He could be struggling, or enjoying the ride. He's like an explorer in search of new lands, except in forgetting his proximity to shore.

        grandpa can't find
        the end of his tale
        winter fog

        Akitsu Quarterly, Winter 2017


        • #6
          Looking forward to watching this thread Dave your haibun are top-notch.
          ghost cave i brush aside the dharma of a lobster god


          • Dave Read
            Dave Read commented
            Editing a comment
            Thank you very much Clayton. I am glad you enjoy them.

        • #7
          Tooth Fairy

          Our youngest loses his last tooth. Three kids. Twenty teeth. Two bucks each. One hundred twenty dollars. That's one week's worth of groceries, three tankfuls of gas, a family movie night, jeans for my wife, or four new shirts for me. One hundred twenty dollars. Blown on a bullshit story.

          for unicorns ...
          valley mist

          The Other Bunny, January 2018


          • Clayton Beach
            Clayton Beach commented
            Editing a comment
            Yeah but how much money did you spend on Santa Claus?

          • Dave Read
            Dave Read commented
            Editing a comment
            Hhmmm. Good point. You’ve planted the seed for the next haibun Clayton.