Each of us at the helm counts backward from fifteen for luck. Lieutenant Heimburg doesn’t count aloud. A good minute after flooding the ballast tanks, we release the pent up air in our lungs. In the thinnest parts of our inner hull the metal croaks, guttural, to prevent the crew any solace, to remind us that no more than three centimetres of metal hold in the crew and hold out the three and a half million cubic kilometres of the Mediterranean.
“Radio Room, systems check,” Heimburg says into his mouthpiece.
“Control Room, Radio Room systems operational.”
“Radio room, contact UB-3.”
And we all wait. The inside of our ship is a steel casket confining us all to abnormal postures. Dirk, our First Watch Officer, labeled the thing mausgrab. We joke about being permanently disfigured, chasing women with our jerky hips when we return home. But Heimburg is young and so are we.
I am Nils Faber, a helmsman on the SM UB-14 out on its first patrol under the Pola Flotilla. I have been afraid of water since 12 June, 1915. On 12 June we piloted an Austrian submarine, U-11, to the waters near Venice for experience. In the early morning our periscope sighted an Italian submarine. Heimburg ordered me starboard to face it. A single torpedo dispatched the enemy. We dove immediately to account for losing trim. At 150 metres, we could barely feel the rattle of the detonation. Dirk asked if we’d even hit the target. Jahn, the other helmsman on duty, rattled his arms in a personal shockwave and smiled. We all waited for Heimburg to smile before we laughed, and he made sure it’d be the only time we’d be so loose.
“Control Room, Radio Room contact UB-3 unsuccessful.”
Everything in a submarine is contagious, from perplexity to dysentery to superstition.
“Radio Room, check contact UB-3 again,” Heimburg says.
“Control Room, Aye, checked contact UB-3. Unsuccessful.”
“Grab the binoculars,” Heimburg tells Dirk. Dirk grabs two pairs and follows Heimburg up the conning tower.
“Perhaps they’ve just got a bad radio transmitter,” Jahn says. Jahn claims he’s German, but we’ve all decided he’s Polish. We don’t bother him about it anymore. Instead, we’re kind enough to keep him talking about the farm he worked before the war.
I’m watching all the pressure gauges and meters and monitors and dials in the control room. I’m watching all the lights to make sure they don’t change.
“They didn’t count,” Jahn says.
“Stuff it,” I say.
Fifteen seconds after our first launch with UB-14, our forward ballast tanks malfunctioned. The bow dipped and the three men occupying the sleeping quarters shouted that the whole of everything was tipping over.
The Second Watch Officer, Reiner, comes up behind us to watch us steer, but there is no allure to it. Steering a submarine is sealing yourself in a tunnel with a flashlight, and hoping you don’t run out of air.
“It’s stupid. They should’ve counted.”
“The rest of the Navy isn’t a bunch of witches relying on superstition the way you do,” Reiner says. He watches the lights.
We all want to laugh, but it’s bad luck.
Heimburg and Dirk come back down the conning tower. The radio room buzzes to say they’ve established minimal radio contact with UB-3, claiming our counterpart is suffering from an electrical issue.
“They must be submerged,” Heimburg tells Reiner. Reiner is long-time friends with a torpedo man onboard UB-3. They kissed the same girl, and it’s the only girl Reiner’s kissed.
“Will we test our systems as well, Lieutenant?” I ask.
Heimburg has a wife somewhere back in Hanover. I speculate she’s taught him how to remain quiet. He taps his wedding ring against the rail. We all know he’s hidden a locket in his room with his wife’s profile inside, protected from the tons of pressure in its sealed tin case.
Heimburg shakes his head.
Two hours into our patrol and something Dirk said has me thinking about the way I’m guiding a twenty-eight metre long metal tube through a vastness that is fatal with its silence, our motions diminutive like the changing of planetary orbits, lifetimes away.
I’m checking the gyrocompass.
“Don’t worry, Nils,” says Dirk. Dirk is a dull man with a mother and not much else.
The war started much as any other war starts, with many of us still in school and all brandishing pride on our sleeves. Two days later, my brother was ordered to the eastern front, from Thorn. We were both in Danzig when the news of Sarajevo marched itself across the country; we were both happy. I had another few months of school left before I started with the shipbuilders, while he was on leave from the infantry.
After supper, Father pulled Thilo and me to our front room, where he’d taught us about astronomy and physics the way he’d lectured the rest of his students. Thilo kept to himself over the brandy. I kept to myself on the rug. Father kept on smiling about the purpose of sons. “Just like your brother,” he said to me. “Just as quiet.”
“It isn’t because of him,” I said.
I stretched my legs out along the floor and forgot Thilo hadn’t spoken. Maybe he had and I didn’t hear it.
“I’m proud of you,” Father said to him again.
I tried talking but it didn’t work. We spent the rest of the evening listening to father recall the times in school when Thilo had snatched my trousers with fishing hooks or when Maria had come home crying, and I followed Thilo to her classmate’s house to curse him. I’d been sure if it weren’t for the boy’s lame leg we would have killed him; Thilo would have let me kill him.
Maria kept me company for the week after Thilo left, reading in the front room on the warm days I had off from my lessons. She tried sounding like a character from one of Shelleys’ works whenever I asked her about the boys in her classes.
I put up my copy of Buddenbrooks next to the H. G. Wells collection Father bought six years ago. Maria rested her book on the small centre table. She kicked her legs out the way I do, and propped an arm on the floor. Maria told me not to worry so much about the heat. She told me Thilo would have a nice summer uniform for the weather, and he wouldn’t exhaust himself. August waned, and the heat felt good and helped us sleep.
“What about you?” I asked.
She didn’t understand me and went back to reading her book. I told her to stop reading British works.
“Don’t be such a worry all the time.”
“Check if Mother needs you,” I told her.
Maria wouldn’t leave the room, and we sat for some time busying ourselves with nothing other than watching the sunlight rush away, letting purple empty over us.
“I worry about him, too,” she said.
I turned my back to her, standing by the books still trying to find something new, but we hadn’t sprung for a new book in over a year.
“You can say you worry.”
“I’m not worried for him, Maria.”
She closed her eyes and lay back on the rug until I quit with the books and joined her in backstroking along the carpet.
“Remember when Father read about the stars for us?” she asked me.
I could see through the ceiling and wanted desperately to reach past our roof and swim through the currents of the atmosphere.
“And after Thilo left, you’d sit in his chair. You’d sit just like him,” Maria said.
The chair was in the corner then, set by the window so that Thilo could look straight at Father’s chair. I never moved it, but only so that I could let myself look out beyond the windowsill. The bookcases, and sofas, and chairs, and tables, and side tables, and glasses on serving trays, and paintings in frames, and absent photographs cluttered the room until we became almost inflexible.
“I don’t want him to come back,” I said to Maria.
She didn’t stir. We didn’t stir in hopes that those words wouldn’t land, and it’d be as if they’d never been thought, just filaments of dust to gather along the page tops.
The bunks are more like sheets to separate our bodies from one another. The lights in the quarters quit flickering last week, so finally there is enough darkness to sleep a life away. The moans, though, are the sea’s gentle suggestions to resurface; the moans are the sea’s promises to occupy our insides. We are seven hours into our transfer to the Constantinople Flotilla, what Dirk assumes is a fleet of barges in light of our Ottoman allies.
“Still though, they’ve been around for centuries,” Reiner says from his bunk.
“I just don’t like the idea of it,” I say.
Dirk ducks through the bulkhead, “You’re to relieve Jahn.”
“Himmler’s been there longer,” I say.
“He’s working extra shifts.”
I slap him with the copy of From the Earth to the Moon we’ve all been rereading. On the bridge I keep slender eyes and try to droop so Dirk will go easy on me.
“Will it be a long night?” I ask Otto.
“It’s night from hatch-close to hatch-open,” Otto says. He’s got a brother in Germany. I tell him I’m sure his brother worries more about us, but I suppose that doesn’t help.
I sit next to Himmler. We are quiet for our shift.
“Control Room, Radio Room failed to contact UB-3.”
Dirk grabs the receiver, still leaning on the rail like he’ll float away without it.
“Give it time.”
The radio room replies quickly and Dirk is off his railing.
“Negative. Contact broken three-zero minutes. Unable to reestablish.”
“They’ve all fallen asleep,” Himmler says.
Dirk leaves and returns with Heimburg, still in his underclothes. Heimburg’s taken the receiver and he’s pulled up the periscope. We’re all watching him the way we watch the valves and meters in the bridge.
Heimburg asks for the last message and the radio room confirms. The fizz stops. We’re waiting for it to pick up again and say something wonderful like the war’s over, or at least that we’re not floating unaccompanied.
“Control Room, last message reads: Electrical acting up again. Staying course. With luck, Greek waters by sunup.”
I can’t remember if Otto’s brother is an artilleryman or a pilot. Either way, he’s got a better seat than us. Otto likes to say the pilots get all the nice girls at the border—all the girls that might have German grandfathers—but as pilots of a submarine we get the best the sea has to offer, which means we might as well learn to fuck fish. He laughs hard each time he suggests so. I was the last to give up on laughing with him, but I think it had more to do with our overlapping shifts.
Heimburg returns to his quarters. We are all quiet.
“Well it’s not as if we are the ones drowning,” Dirk says.
“I didn’t say we were,” I tell him.
He tells me to stop looking like it then, and Himmler recommends he quit his pestering or we’ll all have the wrong idea.
“You’re all crazy,” I say. “I’m too tired to care about a radio.”
Dirk gives me a shorter shift and goes to the map with its lines to everywhere.
“Are you worried?” I ask Himmler.
“Of course he is,” Dirk says.
Himmler laughs and nods his head.
“Are you really though?”
“What does it matter to you?” he asks me.
Himmler won’t answer me much anymore. He calls me a case of over-eager sociability that a tin can doesn’t need. He means well, though.
“Are you married?” I ask Himmler.
“I keep saying so. She and I will be married by the end of this mess.”
Jahn and I keep asking Himmler about her because we’ve never loved with just emotions. “That’s ridiculous,” Jahn always says to my excuse. “I ask because she’s beautiful.”
Dirk orders the stressing of the engine. He’s worried we won’t make it around the Italian patrols by dawn. Himmler stops answering my questions about his girl. We save what conversation we have so as not to drain the wells. Otto stands with Dirk, over the map.
Maria wouldn’t see me after Tannenberg. With the first reports claiming a casualty rate over seventy percent for the Russians, our neighbours hurried to join the rest of Danzig in celebrating our great reprieve. Of the 166,000 men comprising the Eighth Army around Tannenberg, Thilo became one of about 5,000 killed. His company circled a Russian pocket in the fields by Frogenau, and on 29 August, 1914 a mortar fell beside Thilo and two other officers on their way to a meeting with their major. The shrapnel grated the right side of his body, blasting bits of his bones through the left side of his face and torso and ripping off his right leg at the middle-thigh. One of his companions died with a scrap-piece run through his helmet, mashing up the insides. The other went blind and lost his arm before the doctors gave up on him in the field hospital.
For the first two weeks I spent most of my time away from school as we all came to terms with irreversibilities. Our family became an exhibition: the lacklustre of patriotism. The front room was emptied after the funeral and we hadn’t bothered to fill it with our shuddering bodies.
“Tell me who to blame, Nils.”
I told my mother I didn’t know.
“This country can go to hell.”
“Don’t be that way,” I said.
“What are the odds? Do you have them figured?”
She wanted to talk about the Kaiser and his role in ruining young men, this continent’s role in ruining young men. But she didn’t have enough in her to force it. Her words were so dense I didn’t know what to say, and I stood unable to be more than a wall for her to ricochet words against.
Father came into the kitchen. He took to carrying newspapers with him everywhere. They had bold letters always reading ‘Success on the Front,’ or ‘Tommies on the Run.’ Father clipped out the segments about the closing of the stock exchange and martial law, and discarded them. He kept the rest in his desk, under Thilo’s casualty letter.
“Antwerp will fall soon,” Father said.
Mother stopped messing with the herbs on the cutting board.
“These British don’t know a thing about fighting on land. Fools they are anyway. Antwerp will fall.”
Mother looked at me, and I remained an uninterrupted surface, a sheet-metal statue.
“Adler is putting together a meeting in the north of town, by the sea,” Father said. “He’s celebrating the drive into Belgium. You ought to come with me, Nils.”
“Let him be,” Mother said.
“He wants to be a good man, doesn’t he? A good German man.”
Mother asked if he meant like him. The words crumpled in her mouth, the scream at Father collapsing on itself.
Father smacked his newspaper on the counter. Mother took her cutting board to the stovetop and we were each pieces immovable for a moment as we thought in different ways how best to go about replacing the hole in our family. All we were doing was exacerbating it to sink us all. Plugging it with paper, soaked and dissipating. Scuttling the house.
“Nils?” Father asked again.
“No, no. I don’t think so.”
He left us, looking for something. I didn’t hear what, and I didn’t move until Mother turned back around from the stove. She cried then.
“Where are you going?”
I walked out on my mother standing in the kitchen and went down the road. I walked along the river for some time and watched the absence of boats. Situated tall and slender and clumped into one another, the antiquated buildings annexed a cordon of shadows deep across the street and into the water. On the other side of the canal, a man and perhaps his son migrated up and down asking everyone for spare socks.
I came to the sea and sat down on the pier. My legs fell asleep over the floorboards and I thought they would fall off and drift into the Baltic and in their absence I would need a pastime outside of soldiering. Maria and I had run out of new books to read some time ago.
Along the canal back through the town, I stopped in a bookstore. The owner turned it into more of a library since my last visit and loaned books now. Inside, there were stacks and piles of books and journals so that their small number seemed overgrown in the tight space. I told the old man behind the counter I was looking for a sentimental book. He followed me by every bookshelf because he knew my father. Halfway down an aisle I found an old copy of From the Earth to the Moon.
Maria went upstairs to write or sketch something, knowing Father wouldn’t disapprove now and not for a long time. I heard her close her door as I hid the book under my bed.
Downstairs, Mother busied with dinner and took to asking me what now? while setting out plates and forks. I was no help to her. I became nothing more than a nod of agreement to all of her questions she never finished.
“Your father won’t answer me,” she said. “I understand why, though.”
I took the plate of potatoes to the table and watched as her resilience dissolved into incomprehension. I called Maria down for dinner. We passed the time waiting at the table for Father by pretending to be sculptures. Maria enjoyed it and called our hobby an awkward sort of mourning.
Mother left the table and once more retreated to the desk drawer in the back room. She read the letter from Thilo’s Major while Maria cloistered herself in her room—I could hear her sprawling out her charcoals and papers in the warm square of sunlight along her floorboards.
I went to listen to Mother’s trembling. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her. I’d shake her until she quit with this drudgery of grief.
“What are you doing?”
“I haven’t done anything,” Mother said. She put the letter back in one of the drawers.
“That’s not what I asked,” I said.
“Isn’t it?” She put her elbow on her thighs so she hunched in the chair. “I’m feeling very absentminded today.” She started to pick at the skin around her fingernail, biting at it every so often. “The garden looks awful. Won’t you fix it?”
I didn’t know where to put my hands. I thought again of shaking her, so violently her head might roll off her shoulders. I thought to shake my mother until it fixed her and she joined the rest of Danzig in draping vivat ribbons from roof eaves.
Mother grabbed up the letter again and stared at it. Its contents engrained, she no longer read but rather relived opening it. She asked me if I wanted to read it. I took the letter and put it in the desk.
“Can’t you please do something about the flowers?”
UB-3 ceased to exist four days ago. A few hours afterward Dirk woke Heimburg; Hans had received a message from UB-3 stating it was on course and enjoying dinner. We’ve yet to discover their whereabouts. Heimburg is eager to label them deserters but only to quell the suspicion of drowning. The radio silence diminishes our small talk to empty bravado. Heimburg enjoys it, thinking always of the morale.
Bodrum is a small town with gypsies and good wine. The heat stifles more by the water than inside the submarine. Jahn passes me the feta cheese. We cram our mouths with it and olives and bread. When we can’t fit it all, we douse it with good wine to help it along. Jahn says we’ve earned it and I don’t fuss with his privilege.
En route, our engine died twice and filled the compartments with the sound of metal scraping gravel, and then our gyrocompass malfunctioned off Crete. Jahn counted to one thousand. A Turkish cruiser picked us up in the maze of islands speckled throughout the Aegean and dragged us along for a quiet ride. The Turkish engineers must still travel by camel to the port from inland.
“Two more days of paradise,” Jahn says.
“It’s too hot to be paradise.”
“And the sky is too blue,” Jahn argues with me.
“Save some wine for Himmler,” I say.
“If we finish it, he won’t know.”
I laugh with Jahn and we watch Reiner and Hans dive off the pier in turns, pretending to be torpedoes crashing the hydroplanes. They dive from the deck back to the pier and start all over in the sun, painting with their arms the splashes of explosions below the surface. Jahn stops eating.
“Himmler should be back with the letters by now,” Jahn says.
“Perhaps they’re late. Where is Izmir?”
Jahn shakes his head and looks up the shore to the cragged hills. The rest of the town and its huts and fish stands and market goers jut rigid out of already geometric rocks, and everything is a shade of the sun. We can hear the vendors—birds squawking over one another to sell their fish. The smell of the salt from the sea mixes with the wine. The sand is coarse.
“Himmler won’t be long,” I say.
“Ah, the worst things happen in the best of places.”
“Go for a swim,” I tell Jahn.
He wipes off crumbs of bread and swishes the wine in his mouth for the stuck pieces. “Himmler won’t be long,” he says. Jahn goes to the water and rinses off the heat.
Otto comes down from the town with a sack of more olives and cheese. He puts it in the sand next to me and tells me Heimburg isn’t enjoying the holiday. The Turks want us out and hunting by dusk.
“Anything to get me up and about, I suppose.”
Otto agrees. Jahn wades back up the beach and starts with the olives again.
“Is Himmler back?” He asks.
“He’s up at the station with everybody else,” Otto says.
Jahn spits out a seed and grabs Otto’s cheeks. I chase after Jahn to the station and leave Otto with the food and the view: the divers’ splashing drowning out our muffled footsteps in the sand.
The men in the station circle around desks, and maps, and boards. In the corner, by a window over the bay, Heimburg stands with Dirk and two Turkish officers. Himmler sits at a desk playing tavla.
“Alright you pig, where’s the mail?”
Himmler rolls double threes and the Turk he’s playing gets sore.
“Fuck off, Jahn. The mail’s in the sack.”
Himmler points. We hurry to the sack and spill the letters across the tabletop. Jahn scatters them. I snag two. The first is dated months ago. Maria’s drawn a few small figures in the top corner; they’re silhouettes under a tree. Cattycorner she’s sketched half of a woman’s profile, turned away. Maria says they haven’t received a birthday letter for Mother. The next one is from two weeks ago and much longer. Along the margin, she’s used ink to draw a stack of books nestled between arms. “She’s spending too much time in the back room. She says she’s afraid of the dark when I go to put out the candles. Maybe she thinks something is there,” Maria writes. “Father’s home less but I’ve run out of money for my charcoals, so it gets quiet. When he is home, he’s restless, looking through things.”
Maria says one of the neighbours’ boys hangs around the house to try to comfort her, but that he’s not understanding a word she says. She asks me what our submarine looks like and that she’ll draw it for me. I start to take down a letter and get jumbled in all the technical specifications of the submarine. Maria won’t be able to sketch knowing merely twenty-eight metres in length, seven metres high, one diesel engine, no deck gun. I write, “Keep up with the drawings.” I write that I understand, before giving up on my letter. Jahn still pushes piles of envelopes around.
“Nothing here this time,” he says to me.
“There’s no news. I don’t think a single thing’s changed,” I say.
“What do you expect? We can’t win the war sinking second-hand cruisers in the Mediterranean.”
Himmler wins his game of tavla. The Turk gives him some raki, and I warn him it’s terrible stuff. His girl’s not written him in two months.
“Do you really have to keep scattering them?” I ask.
Jahn won’t hear me.
“What is this? Do you have a girl or something?”
He quits his fidgeting and sits, the beads of saltwater too sticky to fall down his arms. Dirk and Heimburg are arguing through the translator that our submarine can’t go out until the mechanics patch up the engine. Heimburg’s fists aren’t behind his back and his hat’s on the table and Dirk’s watching the translator lose his patience. I stretch out my legs and tell Dirk we’ve killed enough for the month. He tells me to shut up, and I press it, and I am ordered to go fuck myself. Heimburg doesn’t move and for the first time I can see the hardiness that makes up every line of his face shudder at things worse than commanding hunters of men.
Dirk comes over to me and asks what I busy myself with.
“Why would I want to be busy?”
“Have you read Sylvie and Bruno yet?” he asks.
“It’s for children,” I say.
I read Dirk’s two books while he worked navigation. The spines were unbroken save for a sliver in the second volume.
“Has the ink of yours come off on your fingers yet?” Dirk says and laughs.
Dirk has reread perhaps a thousand times the dinner party of Sylvie and Bruno.
“What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “The farmers objected: they said the whole country would shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
I ask Jahn to come back down to the beach, to swim with Otto and the rest of us, but Otto won’t join and the others are surely drying in the sun now. It’s been about a year since Thilo died.
“Remember your last birthday?” Father asked Thilo.
“It was terrible the way you had everyone gathered.”
It was a meticulous conglomeration of our family from nearby. We set about decorating the whole house in colourful banners and Maria and I tore up bits of confetti. Thilo came very late that evening, after the food and dessert. He’d been held up on account of a reprimand for arguing with superiors. Formally, it was a neglecting of orders.
“The two of you are the worst mannered boys I could’ve raised,” Father said. He laughed then to relax Thilo.
“It’s all Thilo’s fault,” I said.
“Yes, yes, blame your brother,” Thilo said back to me.
He told a story from a number of years ago. On a trip to the sea, he promised he’d drown me if I ever tattled on him about his sneaking off at night.
“Where did you venture off to?” Father asked him. But he was happy.
Thilo stood up to use his hands, animating the story of how he was certain Mother —with her worrying—would chop off his legs to stop him from wanting to swim in the sea at night. Thilo wouldn’t quit describing how much he loved the look of everything in the dark. He loved nights when the water and the sky became seamless and he felt as though he could swim anywhere.
“You belong locked in a sanatorium,” I said.
Thilo held a toast to it. We all drank. I finished.
On the side table near the bookcase, someone had laid out a few books in no definitive order. Maria perhaps, looking for something new. Thilo went over and picked up an old book of his, From the Earth to the Moon, and flipped through its pages. He held it up for us.
“You still have this?” he asked Father. “I could have sworn I gave it away before enlisting.”
“What is it?” Father asked.
“A madman’s diary,” I said.
“Nothing important,” Thilo said. “I ought to donate it now anyway.”
I told him I wanted to read it.
“If your brother wants to sell it let him sell it,” Father said.
“He doesn’t need the money,” I said.
“I’ll need to buy cigarettes.”
“What’s it about?” Father asked.
“Americans shot to the moon in a megalithic bullet.”
“I told you, Father,” I said.
Thilo laughed and brought the book back to his chair and smiled. Father relaxed. We finished our brandy. We all felt very warm.
That night I could hear Thilo breathing, loud and worried, in his bed across the room. I wanted to tell him everything would be all right, but that didn’t make sense.
“Nils? Are you still awake?”
I faked drowsy and said I was.
“You ought to read that book.”
“Which one?” I asked.
“Downstairs. You could travel through space like that.” He laughed then.
I told him that was silly to think and it wouldn’t make Father happy.
“It doesn’t matter, I’ll sell it tomorrow—” but I couldn’t hear the rest.
I told him he should’ve been a scientist. Thilo stopped breathing altogether and I thought perhaps he turned to stone. But I saw the silhouette of him in the night-covered bedroom nod its head. Slight and mistakable, Thilo nodded his head that he should’ve been a scientist.
“Being in a ship is being in jail, with a chance of being drowned,” Heimburg says.
“A man in jail has more room, better food, and better company,” we all reply.
There are an impossible amount of variables to account for when aiming a torpedo and we only fuss over the ones we can calculate with slightly less-than-reliable accuracy. We must work together to adjust for not only our trim, the speed of our ship, the target, and the water, but potential deviations to any of these, and of course the consistent outlier of bad luck. We have decided to call it guessing every time Heimburg asks for bearings.
“Over two kilometres,” Dirk says. He’s ticking off metres by the hundreds with precise flicks of his pencil.
“Stay the heading,” Heimburg tells me. His face excites each time he goes for the periscope, like his wife is with him, arms wrapped around his chest.
“It’s just another hospital ship,” Jahn says. “We waste our time. We could be drinking instead.”
Otto stands by the microphone, eager with the switch. In Otto’s letter’s, his brother’s trench foot has gotten worse, and I remember he’s an artilleryman and not a pilot. Heimburg hasn’t spotted the medical markings yet. Dirk scratches around his neck because he doesn’t know what to do with his arms when they’re not hovering over the charts.
Heimburg hurries away from the periscope to watch the gauges and dials that the rest of us are watching.
“Let’s sink it anyway,” Dirk says to Heimburg.
“I’m not sure if it’s a hospital ship.”
“Let’s sink it and not stick around to find out,” Dirk says.
Jahn agrees with him but only to get back to Bodrum. The ship is unescorted and larger than anything we’ve yet seen. Heimburg goes back to the periscope. We all count backward from fifteen. I choke myself as I keep from saying let it go, it’s too big.
“HMT Royal Edward,” Heimburg says. “It’s an authorized target. I don’t see any troops on deck though.”
Dirk takes a look and Heimburg has him start working calculations with the torpedo room. He orders me faster and we push the engine as far as we can. Heimburg won’t sit still. The room is dark because of the strain on the engine sucking up power. Dirk and Otto don’t bother being quiet. Reiner comes in from the bunks. He asks me what’s been spotted, and I tell him a whale, and he says fuck off. Dirk quiets us. I ask him what it looks like.
“What does the ship look like?”
“It’s got two funnels and more portholes than I can count,” Dirk says.
“One-five double-oh,” Dirk says.
Otto scribbles fast, a soft scrape against paper we can all hear above our breathing.
“Prepare, one-oh double-oh.”
Otto prepares the torpedo room. They confirm the hangar is ready.
“Don’t you know any songs?” Jahn asks me.
“Why would you want a song?”
“We ought to sing a song for them or something,” Jahn says.
Dirk leaves the periscope to come over and keep us in order. He grabs Reiner and tells him if he doesn’t help he’d better get back to his bunk.
Reiner stays on the bridge and Jahn breathes loud beside me.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Don’t we always do just fine?” We’ve seen and sunk two targets with the Royal Edward as a lucky third, and our first non-Italian.
“We aren’t winning the war,” Jahn argues. We aren’t winning the war. Jahn checks if Heimburg heard him. Satisfied, he goes back to counting.
Heimburg has me adjust the heading to 290°, and Otto spouts off protocol to the torpedo room; he’s more animated than ever and might as well be shouting at the Royal Edward that we’re on our way. Heimburg takes over the receiver and the periscope. He lets his eyes catch fire with the last of the sunlight reflected from the sea and funneled through the tube.
“Set depth zero-five metres.”
Jahn obeys the command.
“Torpedo Room, ready torpedo one.”
There is a calm in the sea that comes only when the whole crew takes a breath together. Each of us with different thoughts about the troops aboard the Royal Edward or the torpedo loaded in the hangar or the mothers of men we’ve never met, but we all breathe together.
“Control Room, torpedo one loading complete.”
They’re all just about to eat their suppers on board the troop ship.
“I don’t see a man on the deck,” Heimburg says to no one.
Otto tells him we’re a kilometre away.
“Fire torpedo one.”
“Torpedo one, away,” the torpedo room yells.
We lose too much trim and our depth gauge starts turning back to zero. Heimburg sets Jahn on fire to get us diving. Dirk takes over on the periscope. Otto is on the radio with the Engine Room.
“Change heading 100° and get us diving.”
Our conning tower punctures the surface and our bow carves through the water pane.
“Torpedo, five double-oh,” Dirk says. “Four double-oh.”
“Engine Room reports malfunctioning and suggests we slow our heading,” Otto says.
Jahn manages to submerge the deck, and Heimburg lets go of his shoulder.
The gyrocompass shudders, and the plane of the degrees starts on its whirling. The points spin out of control, and if it weren’t for the lack of centrifugal pull, I’d swear to Heimburg we were spinning down a drain.
“Gyrocompass malfunctioning,” I say.
Jahn hasn’t stopped counting and I imagine he’s near the millions, with the creeping pace of the world turning. Outside I dream up the sun rising like a balloon, defying gravity to coat the sea glimmering again.
“Torpedo contact: stern,” Dirk says.
We don’t hear the shaking of an explosion and I forget entirely that we’re floating along the top of an expanse with an unknowable bottom. Heimburg has us surface just the tower so that he and Dirk can get a good look and help us with our heading. The engine room hasn’t calmed the scraping sounds. The gyrocompass: ineffective. We are turned south for the nearest island without a heading. Heimburg retreats back into the hull and tells me that if I can manage without the compass to get underway to Bodrum for repairs.
Dirk comes down from the conning tower.
“Nils, take a look at this. Jahn, get ready to dive.”
I follow him up the ladder and stand in the nest.
Water like whitewash is sucked in through the gape in the stern of the Royal Edward. Gurgling, loud as factory generators even from this range, bubbles churn around the perimeter of the ship. The sea is hydrofluoric acid corroding away the hull. Inside, bulkheads funnel vertices of rushing seawater, the brine scraping paint and metal bits from the quickly submerging lower decks. The troopship’s boiler room surrenders to the Mediterranean, its omnipresence cleansing out the coal. The smokestacks spout white steam, a defeated flag to mingle with the heavy sloshing and whirlpools that muffle all the speck-sized men surfacing. Forever passes before anyone breaks out from the layer of water and clambers for the spine of the keel, but to no avail. In six minutes, the Royal Edward slips, a yielding tectonic plate beneath the stratum of seawater.
Two hundred-fifty metres starboard, the Soudan, the medical ship we passed up earlier, makes a long and slow swing through the Aegean, turning back around to search for survivors. The ship appears motionless and trapped in its own wake. Dirk and I can’t pull our eyes away, watching a mythological behemoth learning to swim.
“Get down here or we’ll drown you with the fucking Tommies,” Heimburg says from below. I scurry into the hole and take to the controls with Jahn and get us underway.
Once Reiner and Otto and Heimburg have all left the control room, Jahn asks me if I know “The Kaiser’s Birthday Song.” He starts singing it and I do as well.
“Strong seamen, be our pride and glory, Germany at sea. The waves urge slender masts and shimmering bare arms, Germany hurrah. We are thine, O Lord, at any hour. And the gun’s mouth thrust into the ocean known.”
We put in at Bodrum for repairs once more. We didn’t stay long enough for wine; the mechanics hadn’t left yet. The next day we took a Bavarian Prince to Istanbul for his new command. Three days ago, we sunk the troopship Southland. Heimburg insists we all become officers. But he hasn’t joked since.
“Get us some more to drink,” Reiner says.
“I went last time,” I say.
The men in the café are trying to close up and finish sweeping the floor. Reiner and Himmler and Jahn and I have come to find distractions.
“Istanbul is full of good distractions,” says the porter of the upstairs hotel.
“I’d like to dance with one,” Jahn says.
Jahn’s cheeks are warm with the good Turkish wine. The rest of us are warm with the good Turkish air. Himmler has pushed two tables together just to make room for all the food. Reiner makes a toast about the four ships we’ve sunk and in ten more minutes he’ll propose another. I preoccupy myself with watching the men pass us in the streets. Not too long ago a man in black robes passed and cursed us for being so loud. I wish he hadn’t.
“Get more to drink, Nils.”
I go inside the café and ask for more wine, but the man doesn’t speak German. I ask for raki and he gives me the bottle. It’s all going to my head and I’m tight in the breeze from the Bosporus. Reiner says we’ve got to learn how to live like our allies.
I pass around glasses of raki and the liquorish flavour burns my nose. Jahn’s left the tables now and harasses any woman he sees. There is a group of fishermen by the bridge over the Golden Horn that watches him. They watch each of us with closed fists.
“Tell us about the beauties from Danzig,” Jahn yells.
“There aren’t any,” Reiner says.
I laugh because he’s right, and the other two are upset that I don’t have a dirty story about a girl back home.
“Ask Himmler here then. Tell us about your girl’s breasts once more. Nils says they spring just so with every movement.”
“What would Nils know of women?” Reiner says.
“Come on, Himmler. Tell us all again,” Jahn says.
“Leave her alone for now,” he says.
I laugh. “For Jahn’s sake, tell us.”
“Leave it alone.”
Himmler pulls his legs off the chair he’s facing and drinks his raki.
Jahn dances over to him and shoves his shoulders a few times.
“Don’t keep her for yourself,” Jahn says.
“Don’t be so prudish about it,” Jahn says. He pushes Himmler out of his chair and the two are standing, leaning into each other.
“She’s not yours,” Himmler says. He looks to say more but Jahn slaps him the way friends do. I would’ve slapped him back and that’d be the end, but Himmler can’t help himself.
Himmler pulls a fist across Jahn’s jaw and spills raki over the food. Jahn drops his bottle of wine, and it shatters and fills the cobblestone cracks. Jahn doesn’t move his hands. Himmler lands another strike before Reiner and I can get a grip on his arms and calm him down. We can’t hear Jahn. He’s crying and salt and blood trickle down into his mouth. The porter is a flurry of Turkish that doesn’t help settle Himmler. Jahn pulls his knees into him as he gets acquainted with being under the tabletops. He goes to sleep while the rest of us are miming things like, ‘What’ll we do now?’
Himmler’s girl isn’t dead. She’s still beautiful and breathing, but she’s no longer Himmler’s. Reiner and I pay the bill and split ways. He takes Himmler down the road along the strait while I drag Jahn back to the submarine bunks.
“What the hell happened to him?” Dirk asks.
“He tripped in the street,” I say and we lift Jahn into a bunk without sheets. I crawl into the bunk underneath and search for the book we’ve been passing around. But I can’t find it and I’m tired anyway.
Otto comes into the quarters and hands me a stack of envelopes. He asks me for the book and I tell him I can’t find it so he goes to sleep. I wait until Jahn and Otto are both breathing easy before I open the letters.
The first two are from Maria. One has a sketch of a dog. “Mother’s found a photograph of your shoulder and Thilo’s leg next to the dog in the yard. She complained about the weather today, saying it snowed and then asking me if I remembered the dog’s name. Father can’t remember it either. He keeps looking all over the house. The weather is nice.”
The other letter is absent of sketches. “I haven’t seen Father this week except for when he tried to yell at Mother. It wasn’t his fault; she isn’t herself. She took the salt to the table upside down and left a trail behind her.”
I try laughing but the air is suffocating.
The next letter is from Mother. “Nils, do you remember the dog we had? The last time it snowed this bad, the dog was left tied outside. He’d cried so much to run through the snow. I don’t blame you for him.”
I left the dog outside, tied to our column, and he’d twisted around it enough that when he jumped off the porch he choked himself nearly to death. He died six months later chasing a rabbit.
“Mother’s hollow,” Maria says in the next letter. “She’s just a big tin statue, empty inside. You can see it in her eyes so bad that even Father’s noticed. I think it terrifies him at night. Father keeps leaving. He’s hectic. He looks lost. Come home.”
There are no sketches along with any of Maria’s letters anymore. Later she mentions Father is as every bit quiet as Mother is raving at night. She says soon Mother will be institutionalized and that I should come back afterward, when she’s well again.
In the most recent letter, she thanks me for the photograph I sent of Istanbul and tells me Father thinks I look very nice. “Looking like an officer, dressed like your brother.”
In the bunk, I watch the steel hull and look past it into the sea. Fish constellations: moving planets without aim, as listless day-clouds. I want to reach out to touch the fish the way Impey Barbicane reaches for the moon. We all memorized one of Verne’s final paragraphs from the book.
However, two hypotheses come here into our consideration. Either the attraction of the moon will end by drawing them into itself, and the travelers will attain their destination; or, the projectile, following an immutable law, will continue to gravitate round the moon until the end of time.
Father took off his hat and joined me alone in the dining room. Mother used to sew on the table, her back to the unused china hutch. Father was missing something, a piece of reassurance. I thought about surprising him with the book as a gift then, but he wouldn’t understand it that way—not yet. I’d wait until Father truly needed it from me.
“Adler wants us over for dinner tomorrow,” I said. “I won’t stay in town for it. I have a few things to do before I leave.”
Father cleared a space for his elbows and sighed the way he did when Thilo and I didn’t understand an astronomical term or equation. “What do you mean?”
There weren’t many different ways to put it, and at first, Father wasn’t sure I was telling the truth about enlisting in the navy.
He took his time in realizing I meant it. He took his time sitting back down and calming his eyes.
“I’ll be taking off soon,” I said. “I leave for Kiel to train, and after that I’m not sure.” But none of it was coming across as consolation.
“It’s too much responsibility,” Father said.
“There will be plenty of training.”
“This is Germany, Nils. You’re needed elsewhere. For help, of course, but not as a sailor.”
“I’m needed behind a gun,” I said.
“As a shipbuilder, Nils. Be a shipbuilder. You’re suited for it.”
I let him run out of his own protests until we sat across from each other with faces blank as depth meters. I told him I was able-bodied and should serve. I let it seep through his pores that I’d already enlisted.
“This is good news then,” he said as a great toast, except we had no champagne or tuxedos. “This is good for our country. I can boast to Adler.”
I believed him. I believed Father wanted to be proud, but I didn’t know of what. His acceptance, I suppose, made me regret enlisting more than any prospect of death.
Mother came in from the back room, eagerness charged by Father’s inability to settle his hands anywhere in particular.
“Germany will win the war. I know it,” Father said. “I know it.” And he almost laughed at me as if I gambled against him and his premonitions. Father said that he wished I had more time, that we could celebrate if there were more time.
“What are you on about?” Mother asked.
“Don’t worry,” I said.
“Nils, you ought to tell her yourself.”
I did as my father said. I crushed my Mother with fathoms of indeterminable pressure so that her lungs imploded for a time and we sat around her, myself quiet, and Father a haze of slogans and propaganda.
“Germany will kill your son,” she said to my Father.
“That’s impossible. We’ll all be cheering victory before anyone can die.”
“You’re wretched,” Mother said. He joined her standing. He used his hands to ask her what was the matter.
“You’re wretched,” was all she could say to him and I felt that every other utterance had been directed at me. She stuttered her breaths with sobs, each betraying she hated me for leaving.
“You’re certainly Thilo’s brother,” she said.
“I’ll be out at sea,” I argued.
Everyone left the dinner table, Mother to her bed and Father to our front room for brandy. He forgot to ask me to join him. I stayed somewhere between the two until night.
Danzig grew louder. The sunny days quit their frequency and the women wore sweaters. We didn’t mind walking, though; the breeze left us alone.
Maria, Mother, and I ambled along the canal, stopping in at vendors. I told Mother to buy some pike. Maria argued for lamb, but we couldn’t find a man selling any good lamb.
We could feel the air, cold enough that it became tangible. I carried the pike and cabbages. Maria had carrots in a bag. The three of us walked home, quiet to match the river.
“This winter won’t be so cold,” I said.
Mother left us for the bakery. I stayed outside with Maria against the rail along the stretch of the canal.
“I’ve been working on my drawings,” Maria said.
“You’re getting good,” I said.
“Oh, you wouldn’t know.”
“Have you perfected Mother and Father yet?” I asked.
“I can’t draw Father.”
“Mother’s easy, though.”
“Not anymore. She hides. You are easy. You don’t change your face all the time.”
“I can’t help it,” I said.
Maria put her bag on the ground so she could lean far over the railing.
“Where are you going, Nils?”
“Kiel first. They say we’re off to Austria after that.”
“You’ve got a good face for sketches,” Maria said.
“Not anymore,” I said. I leaned over the rail with her. “It’s not just Austria. I’ll be going south, through—”
“Stop it, Nils.”
I said I was sorry but it didn’t matter, I guess, because I didn’t mean it.
“Your advice is better than anybody’s,” Maria said.
I nodded and grabbed bits of rock from the ground to toss into the river. Maria took some from me.
“I mean I don’t want you to go.”
“I know,” I said
She called me cruel.
“I ought to be concerned about the country,” I said. “You ought to be concerned about the country.”
“What are you holding on to?”
I watched her.
I took Maria and embraced her until we saw Mother praying through the window. We gathered our bags and walked down the canal through town.
The Dardanelles’s current is strong and takes us into the Aegean in about four hours. We’re sailing for a small island north of Lemnos. The Turks captured a French submarine last week before it could scuttle. On board it had papers relating to its sister submarine, the British E20. In one hour the two were to meet at the coordinates we’re sailing for, but Dirk thinks we’re too slow.
“Perhaps if you go and talk to the engine. Coax it with your beautiful smile,” Reiner says.
“Go wake Otto,” Dirk says.
Reiner leaves and the control room hurts my ears.
“Do you think they’ll be there?” I ask.
Heimburg says the French weren’t able to signal before surrendering. Heimburg says the Turks expect another kill.
“Everyone expects kills from us,” Dirk says.
“We all ought to have our own command,” Jahn says.
“You’re upset here?” Heimburg asks.
Dirk and I laugh and it matches the hiccups in the lights. We told the mechanics in Bodrum not to bother leaving for the remainder of the war. Our engine is a concoction of German prefabrication—Austrian shipbuilders and Turkish engineers—that works about as well as one could expect from such a miscellany. But it’s loud enough on the bridge that I can’t hear the sea telling me I will die.
The hour passes slow, and as we near the coordinates, Dirk checks my heading and goes back to his maps and charts. Jahn’s busy counting to hide his prayers from us. Otto paces near the radio and practices his English. Heimburg stands by him, listening.
“Want to take a look?” Dirk asks me.
“Want to take a look on the surface? Maybe a last one.”
I follow him up the conning tower to our little perch and we look, with binoculars, in all directions. I’m guessing the names of the few islands we can see. We’re heading for the nearest one. The sun falls but mars everything, still bright. And the water seesaws all over, the bottom of each wave like a crater.
I’m sure from far enough above I could see a face, the same face perhaps of the man in the moon. I want to take down a letter to Maria. I want to ask her if she enjoyed the moving picture, A Trip to the Moon, or if she held my hand in the theatre house out of terror, in awe of the moving face, the terrible creatures, the certainty of death. Forever in my mind now the sky is home to an insidious head, pocked and glowing.
We go below and Dirk makes sure I’ve got everything just precise, inch for inch with his plotted course. Heimburg’s proud of him.
Father slinked out of our back room with the surgically removed headlines ‘Bank Rates Doubled’ and ‘Trenches at Aisne.’ He searched a collection of letters and books on the dining room table. He threw out the clippings. He checked the counter in the kitchen but there were no papers.
I set my bags down. “Have you lost something?”
He asked me what I said and I asked again.
“No, no. There’s nothing here. How was your walk? Fetch some water.”
I put a kettle on the stove. I made tea, but I didn’t want any. Father went to the desk with his newspapers and I knew his searching was an act, a craving for relief of some kind, and I could wave my hands and grant it. I went under my bed for Thilo’s old book and brought it back downstairs with me into the back room.
Sprawled across the desktop: ‘Ottomans Join, Shell Russian Ports,’ ‘Antwerp Captured,’ ‘Troops Save the Austrians.’ In the drawers more, each fact and fiction paying testament to Germany’s triumph, were collected for reviewing.
Father sat on the edge of his chair, with his elbows on his knees and his hands on his temples. I stayed in the doorway, From the Earth to the Moon behind my back.
I watched Father. For the first time, he looked like Mother. Her defeat cracked the mould of his face. We didn’t speak. He couldn’t. None of us could anymore, so I thought I’d remind him I leave tomorrow. The back room smelled stale. We didn’t move and took great pains to keep from stirring the blocks of air in the room, only to match the lumps of empty space between the window and desk between us.
“Oh, just go away,” he said.
I thought about it. He said he didn’t mean that. Father took out two more articles from the drawer. He told me to come read all the bits of every battle, micromanaged to small print. I did as he told. We read a few of the articles together.
“Look here, this piece on Mons. I think the French are catching on. These trenches aren’t good news.” Father turned pages over, unstopping. “Death is swallowed up in victory,” he said to me.
I placed the book on the corner of his desk. Father scattered more articles, kept sifting through headlines. They blanketed the desk in the strict lines of words and covered the book. Father went on about the Ottomans. He went on about the Austrians. He went on about the French and British and never mentioned an individual, singled out by name.
“Do you think the Kaiser is a better father than I?”
“Does he have kids?” I asked.
“You’re right, I suppose. I could be like him.”
I told him that he wasn’t worth emulating but I wished I hadn’t. Father, hurt, went back to his clippings. He kept scanning. I couldn’t understand him, and I didn’t know what to do. The book disappeared beneath layers of newsprint.
“He’s a man to marvel,” Father said.
I left him at his desk.
Inside, the submarine is cold. Otto speaks English into the receiver, convincing E20 that we’re French. They haven’t yet surfaced.
“Shouldn’t he be speaking French?” Jahn asks.
“They can’t afford pretensions anymore,” I say.
Otto’s talking a flurry of nothing distinguishable and I wish I’d learned English. Heimburg taps one hand; the other strangles the railing. Himmler’s on the bridge with us because he can’t sleep; he’s waiting to feel useful. He keeps his distance from the controls, though. Jahn’s working hard not to laugh about something. Dirk is staying as quiet as he can. I’m watching the gyrocompass. The hull moans like packed snow under the tires of Danzig’s taxis.
“We’ll sink them,” Jahn says.
I want to nod. We have sunk many.
The torpedo room is prepped. We’ve set our heading and now E20’s surfaced and set out their signaling lights. Faint scraping funnels through the pipes along the inside of the hull, through the bulkheads, and past the meters. Some day ineffable to us, the war will end.
“We’ll sink them,” I say.
Each of us breathes in an expectation of malfunctioning. The gyrocompass has spiraled into ineffectiveness twice. The engine goes unrelenting with its small clicks and groans. The ballast tanks operate erratically in releasing water. Our torpedoes are relatively heavy so that in the most vulnerable seconds of our attack, we surface undefended by the waves. I sit at the helm, with eyes closed, pretending to be smaller than the circuitry, motionless in the fear that moving will betray to the sea that I am mortal.
Kenan Orhan Dannenberg is a student working on degrees in History and Creative Writing at Kansas State University. He is an assistant editor of flash fiction for the university magazine, Touchstone, and cofounder of the Manhattan fiction reading series, Driptorch. His story, “If I Could Draw a Line across Africa” appears in The Fat City Review. He plays tennis when the weather allows, and watches James Bond movies when it doesn’t.