The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 15, No. 3

HMS Terror

by Jim Shepard

3 July 1845

There is a feeling generally entertained in scientific societies and among officers of the Navy that the costs of discovery are never so great that we should shirk from the immensity of the endeavor. I was actuated by this idea at a very early age. One August morning when I was a few days short of eight years old my father found me idling in a mangy patch of park beside his establishment and announced on the spot that we would take an excursion by foot. We lived in Sleaford, a town so miniscule that the public excitement was the communal pelting with stones of the wayward donkey that got into the kitchen gardens, and my father ran a shop in which you might buy anything you wanted provided what you wanted was a secondhand campstool or a broken-down wheelbarrow. He proposed a walk of some distance to Scrane End, on the coast, where we would, as he put it, gather data at the outer limits of human knowledge.
     He saw me as one of those solitary and open-mouthed boys who possessed the gift of lethargy in its highest perfection, though he never glimpsed the comprehensive intransigence of my isolation, and he never lost an opportunity to provide me with what he liked to call moral hints to the young on the value of time. My mother had died in childbirth, and though I never saw him read, he had the scholarly air of someone with neither a wife nor a child at home, and a basic humanity so considerate that at night in my bed I shook with a devotion to him that I felt unable to fully express.
     We set off without hesitation that morning, me with my walking stick and my father sporting his ancient ruin of a hat, and we followed for a time the rail line, passing stations so small they were nothing but a platform and a bell. He held forth about his business as though I were a confidante, and he seemed never able to make out why no one was quite satisfied with him. By late afternoon he was teasing me that for every step of which I approved I complained of two more. I had by then developed an awful case of blisters but was proud of having resolved to keep that information to myself so as not to shame him about the state of our shoes. And when we finally arrived, Scrane End's waterfront opened before us to a glorious eastern expanse of sea and sky, and its market featured heather brooms so fresh the purple flowers still flourished among the bristles. Together we assayed the sheep stalls and the pig stalls, through which a naval recruiting sergeant watchfully elbowed his way. And it was there, seeing my father's response to the sergeant's passage through the town, and to the three-masted schooner in its harbor, that I first conceived of a career at sea.

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Image credits
left: Ostgut Freischwimmer, right [detail], 96.3 x 242.09 inches (244.6 x 614.9 cm) (2004)
inkjet print by Wolfgang Tillmans
edition of 1, 1 AP
courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

right: peach and blue mohair fringe draped silk dress with Swarovski Elements (Rodarte Fall 2008 collection)
photograph by David Armstrong