The whale had appeared on the beach that morning. I think it was Patience Scott who saw it first, just as it was breathing its last, wheezing breaths out of its blowhole, abandoned by the waves along the strip of sand between two headlands towering above the sea.
Almost the whole village had turned out to help drag it off the beach. The harvest had been poor that year, but now we could feast on this extraordinary prize all winter. Tobias Earnshaw had let us use his barn, in the field by the beach, to keep out of the rain during the grisly task of butchering the carcass. Even Malachi Thorpe, who’d been sacked from Mr Earnshaw’s farm a few days ago, and John Wickham, who’d been arguing with him about some money he owed, were welcome today.
The leader was Nathaniel Crawford, whose cousin had gone off to Greenland on a whaling voyage, and who claimed to know what he was doing. He inspected the carcass, checking how everyone was doing, with their knives or axes or saws. Tabitha Holdsworth sat on top, hacking away slices of blubber and throwing them down to a grease-covered Harry Stobbs, who in turn threw them into a precarious stack, until he was beckoned away. Anderson Cockroft stood at the Sea Monster’s vast and bloody mouth, methodically sawing away the fibrous flaps that lined its jaws.
Apparently, they’re called “baleen”, and they’re what corsets are made of. Whales have them instead of teeth, and they use them to filter out the tiny creatures they eat from huge mouthfuls of seawater. There were probably 3 or 4 people in the village who’d ever worn a corset, and certainly nobody knew how to make them, but that hadn’t stopped Nathaniel from handing the 19-year-old farmhand a saw and telling him to get to work.
I don’t think he’d actually spoken to anyone all day, but he seemed happy enough, stinking of whale slobber.
Someone had found an old, rusty harpoon buried in the whale’s thick and clammy skin, that had grown around it years ago. It had been propped up carefully at one end of the room, where the workers occasionally walked past and admired its antique, exotic grandeur.
At sunset, Andrew Metcalfe’s son, who had been sent to fetch some lamps, ran into the barn shouting something incomprehensible. Nathaniel strode over and bent down to listen to him, before following him back out into the twilight.
Work resumed, with some of the other children returning with arms full of candles and lamps that bathed this terrible beast in their light and shifting shadows.
When Nathaniel returned from the dark, he climbed on top of the whale.
“Listen!” He shouted.
There was silence. Nathaniel had that effect.
“Tobias Earnshaw has been murdered!”
The silence became even more silent, before collapsing into a chorus of muttering.
“This was found by the body!”
He pulled a blood-stained butcher’s knife from inside his jacket and brandished it with theatrical relish.
The workers clustered around the head, upon which Nathaniel stood, dispensing justice as if from the mouth of this ancient creature of the deep, that mouth which had tasted the distant saltwater among the scattered atolls of South Seas and among the ice floes of the High Arctic.
“Tabitha Holdsworth! Step forward!”
The crowd parted and Tabitha gazed up to Nathaniel in his cetacean pulpit.
“I put it to you!” Nathaniel bellowed in the most legal voice he could muster, “That you were in possession of the knife that was used to carry out the murder of the late Tobias Earnshaw!”
“I was, sir.” Tabitha responded, meekly. “But it were here until the break. I couldn’t find it afterwards, and I’ve been here the whole time since.
The crowd murmured assent. Nathaniel allowed Tabitha to fall back, and shouted again.
“Did anyone see anyone going out of the barn since the break?”
The crowd muttered and scuffled. Eventually, four people were pushed forward towards the whale’s jaws. There was Malachi Thorpe, John Wickham, Bethany Coulson, and on the end was Anderson Cockroft, fidgeting and looking anywhere but up to the Judge.
“Can anyone vouch for these people’s whereabouts at the time in question?” Nathaniel asked the crowd.
Harry Stobbs spoke up. He’d seen Malachi leaving the barn, but all he’d done was had a piss against a nearby tree, and then come straight back.
Malachi was removed from the list of suspects and allowed to merge back into the crowd.
That left three.
John was first before the Inquisitor’s scrutiny. He stepped forward, hands in his pockets, and looked up to Nathaniel’s stern face.
“Mr Wickham, were you responsible for the murder of the late Mr Earnshaw?”
“No, Your Honour,” he declared.
“Can you account for your movements at the time of the incident?”
“When I were out, I were just taking some fresh air, round the back of the barn, with my little flask of rum. It’s right smelly in here. I weren’t doing any murdering.”
A voice from the crowd suddenly shouted out.
“He owed Mr Earnshaw a fiver!”
“No, it were a tenner!”
“It were just two pounds!”
The Judge intervened.
“Silence! Silence! Mr Wickham, I put it to you that you did owe to the aforementioned Mr Earnshaw the sum of five Pounds.”
“It were a tenner, your honour, but I swear to God I’d never have murdered him about it.”
“Mr Wickham, that is all.”
John returned to the line. Bethany was next before the Leviathan’s weathered visage.
“Can you account for your movements in the interval in which it has been established that the aforementioned murder of Mr Earnshaw occurred?”
“I just went out for a walk, you see.” She said sheepishly. “I know you all know I’m next to inherit his farm and all, but it weren’t me who did it, I swear.”
She was dismissed and Anderson was summoned, bowing his head as Nathaniel towered over him.
“Mr Cockroft, are you able to account for your movements at the time in question?”
Anderson stared down at his boots. He looked up as if to speak, but then back down. The crowd began to stir.
“What were you doing at the time of the murder, Mr Cockroft?” Nathaniel declaimed again. Anderson remained silent, and looked around and then back to his greasy boots. The murmurings of the crowd grew louder.
Seeing what was going to come next, the Accused seized a hatchet that had been left on the floor close to his feet and darted past the huge and stinking beast, round its great, two-pronged tail and out into the murky night, waving his weapon at of anyone who tried to apprehend him.
It had started raining again, hard. There was no moon, and beyond the flickering circles of orange light from our lanterns, nothing could be seen. But still we searched, as the killer had to be brought to justice.
We’d reached the top of the cliffs, with no sign of our quarry, and the darkness was beginning to fade into twilight, when I saw a swinging lantern and heard, among the roar of the waves far below, a breathless voice coming up the hill.
“I did it! I killed him!” Malachi shouted frantically, between wheezes, as he approached.
We stopped. Malachi was bent over with his hands on his knees.
“He sacked me from my job on his farm. I couldn’t handle it and I just… went for him. I threatened Harry that he had to say what I were doing. But I couldn’t stand back and let you come after that boy. I couldn’t live with that.”
He stood with his back to the Edge, above the distant foam, as the Sun rose on the sea revealing, on a ledge halfway down the rockface, the glinting blade of a hatchet.