Serpent Blog

U-Boat : A Story 
I am posting, for the first time here, a story in progress. The story is called U-Boat, and it was written (as so many of my stories are) in response to a photograph. I thank David Fox, a fine writer, for providing me with this inspiration and for continuing to challenge me with sparks and fuel.

U-Boat is an oral story. It was written as if it was spoken. Soon I will post an MP3 of me reading it.

If you read it, and have an emotional response to it, please convey that to me. Here is the photo I began with:

And here is U-Boat.


The sky was bright and clear the morning the old captain disappeared, but the water was mysteriously black, and it was smooth as a mill pond after a night with no moon. The tide was dead bottom low. He was up before dawn, as was his custom, and he was seen at Fulton’s for bait. He bartered for a box of sandworms with Dewey Fulton and bought a quarter’s worth of Bunker chum he scooped into a Maxwell House can with a tin dipper that hung from a rope on a hook. When he left the chandlery about ten past six it was already warm enough to melt the creosote on the dock pilings and the glass was rising ahead of a squall that never did come. He was seen out near the Lost Banks around seven and the skipper of the Cornada spotted him at anchor at Torpedo Rock at eight. Beyond that there were no further sightings. Nobody paid much attention to him those days - though I always watched for him, to ask what might be running, and I’d often query him on weather sign and the draw of certain bait. But when I saw that old bicycle of his there against the dock-shed on past midnight I just had the feeling I’d never see him again.

I remember. When I was a boy, we’d see him dive the sunken wrecks to hunt conger eels with a three-pronged spear. And one time I watched him swim through a rough chop in a storm, with the bowline of that little Whaler he had in his teeth, pulling that boat against a swift current in the dark with the strength of the damned. We called him the captain. He was a man who spoke few words but those words he did speak carried with them the weight of one who knew the sea and all her means of betrayal. He would fish in the Narrows at slack-water or out at Bird Island when the tide pulled too fast, for he was old by this time and his hands were not quite as strong. He was a captain in name only, as there were many who claimed he skippered a submarine in the war, true or not he was a German sure enough. He had the mad blue eyes of an Aryan prince.

He lived in that gray shack at the end of the estuary, the one with the crooked stove-pipe and the raked tin roof and he kept more cats than he could feed with the guts of his daily catch. He had the tanned and leathered skin of an old waterman, his face was deeply lined and he had a great head of silver hair. But what I remember most about him were his hands. His hands were things of true ugliness and strength and they appeared to have been forged with hammers of ice. His skin was all red on his swollen knuckles and scarred up good and he lacked nails on some of his fingers and lacked a finger entire on his left hand where he also bore a smudged black tattoo that could have been an eagle or an anchor or some Teutonic creature from the walls of Wotan’s crypt. As boys we all called it the hand of death.

I set out that next morning and searched all the hidden coves of the island and all his favorite haunts but it was like he fell off the edge of the world. We never did find a body nor was he ever seen again on the waters of Maine. But later on that night I found his boat swamped and adrift in the reeds. The engine was an old Merc 30 and it was in good working order, with plenty of gas left in the tank. The oars were lashed tight to the gunwale as was all of his gear - his rods, his nets, the sandworms and the chum. The only strange thing was that the anchor was gone, its line trailing a good twenty feet in the water but still wrapped tight around a cleat. The bitter end looked like it was cut clean with a knife.

He was a skilled mechanic, the captain was, and he could perform marvels with old outboards and diesels alike. If he so desired he could have surely restored some old truck or a car. But he rode this red bicycle that he salvaged from the bay with a grappling hook and he refused to drive, nor would he ride in anything with wheels and an engine, even when offered a lift. He fished with poles and he fished with nets and like I told you there’d be times he’d dive the wrecks off the shoals with nothing to aid such endeavors but a harpoon he fashioned from a number eight treble hook and narrow shaft of ornately carved teak. He rode that old bicycle with all that gear lashed to a pair of hand-sewn goat-hide panniers and there was a time he’d ride fast, and in a crouch, with his elbows akimbo and his face down near the bars like some renegade boy on a dare.

Like I said we called him the captain but the name on his mailbox was Wilhelm Schmidt and he was hated by some for what he might have been. This is a small island remember, and many served in that war. We don’t forget those who go down to the sea in ships. There are mothers here still whose boys went down with the Hermione. There was one woman, spat right in his face. She had two sons aboard that ship. Darling was her name. Henrietta Darling. The boys were named David and Skip. Walked straight up to him and spat in his face. Middle of Mulhoon’s this was, and she had an arm-full of groceries and the captain he came in for a bottle of milk. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve but she spit again and hit him right in the eye, and that time he let it stay. Just stood there like she shot him dead. He left a quarter on the counter-top and never was seen in there again. Mulhoon threw that quarter out in the street and later on I went and picked it up. I keep that old coin in my wallet for reasons I still don’t understand and I have it there still.

Well, after that he’d take company with no man and he began drinking alone at The Scupper, talking to himself in that old language of fairy tales and myth, just talking and talking, as if some phantom might answer back. Many a time he’d pound on the bar with his fist and storm off in a rage. But that was the only occasion we’d ever see him that way. Mostly he was quiet and he was always kind to the children. I remember that. Carved us little animals out of wood. Made us bamboo fishing poles and taught us the secrets of current and wind. On Sundays he’d fix our bicycles for us and he’d make us boys these kites out of newspapers that could fly higher than anything you could buy in a store. As the years passed, and we got older we saw him less and less. He became like a ghost, wandering out there on the water searching for something he lost long ago.

One night, I remember I was filling in for the barman at the Scupper when old Billy, as I came to call him, was in there alone on a bender. Told me it was his birthday and he got me good and drunk. He was singing to himself some old song that pleased him greatly when he leaned too far backwards and fell off the stool on his ass, and he took with him a shelf full of glasses that broke all over his head and face. They cut him up pretty good. I brought him back into the kitchen to pick the glass out and I made him some coffee too. He was stinking drunk and started talking in German with bits of English mixed in and then he suddenly seemed sober and he looked at me with those crazy blue eyes of his and told me I had always been a good little boy.

You were always a good lad Steven, he said. And I told him told him to shut up and hold still. But he kept talking.

You were always good to me, he said. Always polite.

Well, I had a pair of tweezers in my hand and I was holding his chin, trying to turn his face to the light so I could get the last of it. He was bleeding and there were small shards of glass, which I could see the glitter of, in the light of a single hanging bulb.

There’s gold down there Steven, he said and I paid that no mind. I told him to stop jabbering.

I need you to hold still, I said and I picked all the glass out of his face and he kept quiet long enough for me to get the job done. I cleaned him with alcohol and dabbed iodine on his cheek and tried to send him home but he couldn’t walk by himself so I carried him, with his arm around my neck like some wounded chum. All the way down to the docks where he lived alone those many years.

It was late by this time, and the stars were out in all their glory and he saw them too, and maybe it’s the effect of such a sky that gets a man to thinking about the time he’s spent in this world and the time he has left. Maybe there’s some message in those far off lights that we can somehow understand that reminds us how small we really are and how foolish and how we just can’t hide from our God. Whatever it might have been was in him now and he trembled and he began to cry like a boy. He fell to his knees on the dock there at my feet.

We were to set a man ashore, he said. An SS man.

I didn’t know what he was saying.

You’re drunk Billy, I said.

But his voice had changed. His voice took on that death-bed quality when your mind suddenly becomes clear and you realize you’re finally free from all your lies. He held my arm just above my wrist. He held me in the death hand. So strong was his grip, I can feel it now. And he looked at me.

This was October, he said. 1942. And there was a beautiful yellow moon on that night. We surfaced. We came up to launch the boat. Close enough to see the lights of Chahanatuck.

And he stared out at the lights of our village across the harbor as if he had just discovered some new land.

The man’s name was Oldong, he said. Karl Oldong. He spoke perfect English. Hands like a woman he had and a briefcase full of Kugerants. I know this because I saw it Steven, and because I would also operate the wireless. I knew what he was.

And then he let go of my arm, and he let out a small cry, a sound came out of his throat that might have been a word not fully formed. He looked me square in the eye.

I was the only one Steven, he said. I was the only one who survived that night.

And I remembered.

The U-Boat. So many of our merchantmen sunk that dread summer. And that’s how it was with the Hermione, a trawler bound for Nova Scotia who took two dud torpedoes astern that didn’t explode and one amidships that did, breaking her neatly in half so that her bow rose straight up out of the water tombstone black and burning like a Roman candle, like some torch from the netherland in the hand that swallows ships, and we saw it all, we gathered on the beaches and we gathered on the cliffs and we watched her out there till dawn, spewing great arcs of fire, and refusing to go down, her survivors coming ashore in ones and twos and drenched in oil so black you’d hardly know them as men, so badly burned we thought it seaweed hanging from their limbs, wading up on Danger Beach in a night so quiet we could hear the flames out there and those great sheets of Pennsylvania iron, buckling, tearing, this terrible groan, the leviathan itself I imagined, I’ll never forget that sound as long as I live, the collective sigh of all man’s demons, the pride of his generations unwrought by the curse of Prometheus himself, sinking, just slipping away with a final hiss of smoke and bubbles into the very bosom of our creation.

And that was that. Later on that same night the U-Boat was sunk by a depth-charge from a coast guard cutter. And that’s all the captain ever said about it. I put him to bed that night in tears and never spoke of it again. We were drunk, the two of us, and this was years ago and of course I went off to Korea and learned a thing or two about what it means to be the only one who comes back from something so terrible and wrong. I gained what you might call perspective on this art of killing men that we call war. The things you see and the things you do. To live. To survive. But you don’t think about that. You can’t. You only think about living in that moment, not living with yourself later on, or you won’t make it, you just won’t, and only after does the feeling hit you, that maybe it would’ve been better to not have lived at all. Only later, when you see a child like the one you saw lying in the road at No Gun Ri, or when you smell apple blossoms, or cordite in the air, or that other smell that will never leave your hands or leave your clothes. The dead. The dead. You see them in every elbow now, every knee, the Adam’s apples, all the teeth, it’s in every face and every body and enough to drive you mad like it must have driven him mad, living among us as he did, all those years, and do you know what he was doing? All that time? Diving the wreck of his U-boat. No air supply. No tanks or nothing. Going out there, night after night and bringing things back that were better left alone.

Well, after I found it that night I towed his boat back into the harbor and I pumped it out and tied it up in one of my empty slips. I brought his bicycle down to the dock shed, where it stands to this day, and that night I jimmied the lock on the door of his shack and went in with a lantern to see what clues I might find there. Everywhere I looked there were things covered in barnacles that seemed vaguely to resemble the handiwork of men and all around me were things living in the shadows and slinking back into the darkness whenever I raised the light. They ran between my legs and brushed up against my shoulders and I could see them perched all over and up in the rafters, their eye-shine red as the spectral lights of chaos. His collection of feral cats. And the sound they made together was horrible amidst the grisly exhibition of things he pulled from the wreck. They wailed like babies and darted about so fast that I fell among them and the heavier objects he must have raised with a winch - hatch-covers and wheels and iron gears and a torpedo entire. It must have taken him years to gather what I saw there laid out before me like some museum of the Paukenschlag - all the plates and cups he had, the spoons and sliver forks, the rotten uniforms and tarnished buttons, their caps and shoes, and their skulls. Yes he brought them up too. God lord I had stepped into a tomb.

Now I know what you’re thinking and I know what you’re going to ask so I’ll just cut right to the chase. I never did find that German gold, though I searched the shack through and I dug up around it and I even found the U-boat. Sunk in less than forty feet of water, past the shoals about two-hundred yards off Danger Beach. I found his charts and I found the map he made of the wreck and I read his log through and through. I never said a word to nobody and I brought it all back to where it belonged. Every last relic. I dropped them all back into the wreck. And I bought his little shack. I had to or he’d have been discovered. I cleaned it out and kept the cats and sometimes I go in there and sit on his bunk and read what he wrote. I got a hold of German dictionary and pretty much translated all his journals and his letters too. Believe me, there’s a whole other story there I could tell you, the things he’s seen and the things he’s done. We misjudged him we did. All of us. If they could only know what I know they’d build a statue of him in the square.

Ask yourself this. How did that cutter find them so quick? How did Billy survive when none of the others did? Something to ponder on nights like this. And one day I’ll tell you what I think. But not now my boy, not now. Now is a time for bed. Now is a time for dreams. But I’ll tell something. Sometimes I just sit there in his shack, in the quiet. Sometimes I go out in his boat and just drift there above the wreck. And every once in a blue moon I’ll hop on that old red bicycle of his and I will ride like the ever-loving wind.


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