Honorable Mention, Glimmer Train Press’s Award for New Writers Contest, 2016
Based on actual events
On the ocean, you cannot see the thing that wants to kill you.
In the Atlantic, at least, the waves are too high, too grey, too white-capped. And the thing that hunts you is far beneath those waves, waiting, lurking, and – as I found out – painted grey like the waters of the sea itself. I am told now there were hundreds of them stalking the Atlantic during the war years, like sleek wolves hunting the lumbering, fat prey that were the troop transports and merchant ships plying the waters between America and England. But the only wolf that mattered to me was the one that tried to kill me off the coast of Africa in September of 1942.
My mother had died three years previously, and my father – never the best at solo parenting — had finally managed to get rid of us. He was forty-one, retired from twenty years of service with the British Army in South Africa, and too old to fight – or so they said. He had waited two years to be recommissioned by the Army and when word came that he was approved for duty in North Africa, he promptly cabled his sister in Canada and made plans to send my brother Arthur and I off to what we imagined to be a frozen wasteland. We had both been born and raised in Cape Town, and what we knew of Canada came from pictures in our geography textbooks of igloos and icebergs and folks muffled up tight in fur hoods. No more sea lilies and wild lavender for us, we thought. No more beach picnics and warm sea breezes and clear blue skies. Moving to Canada was tantamount to moving to the Arctic Circle, as far as we were concerned.
And so, one day in early autumn, my father packed us up into his aging Vauxall Cadet with one suitcase apiece and drove us down to the docks. We said a simple goodbye — a kiss on the cheek for me, and a pat on the shoulder for Arthur.
“Look after your brother, Lily,” my father said. “You’re in charge until you reach Halifax.”
I was sixteen. Arthur was twelve.
And so we boarded the Laconia.
Thud. Bang. Shudder. Then silence.
Voices in the hallway. The sound of feet pounding on wooden floorboards.
I flicked on the small light above my berth and looked over at Arthur. He was sound asleep.
More voices. Amid the babble, I heard the word torpedo.
I jumped out of bed and scrambled to my brother’s side, as the voices in the hallway grew more frantic.
He blinked his blue eyes at me. His brown hair stood out in spikes from the crown of his head.
“Get up! Get dressed!”
“Just do it!”
I stripped off my flannel nightgown and threw on my trousers, a blouse, and a wool jumper. Then I opened the cabin door to bedlam. Stewards and passengers in their pajamas swarmed the corridor, everyone shouting and hollering. The stewards were all wearing beige canvas life vests over their white uniforms, and I slammed the door, diving under my bunk for the life vest I knew was tucked underneath.
My brother, never one to wake easily, was halfway into a wool jumper. His eyes were half-closed, as if he were in a trance.
“Hurry up, Arthur!”
“What’s going on?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “Just get dressed!”
I pushed past him and went to my knees, digging around under his bunk for his life vest.
I tossed it onto the rumpled blanket on his bunk. “Put this on.”
He eyed the beige canvas suspiciously. “Why?”
“The stewards all have theirs on. They must know something.”
Bells started clanging.
Arthur stared up at me, one sleeve on, and one sleeve off.
“Alright!” He slung his right arm into his sleeve and then began messing around with his life vest. He still wore his pale blue pajama pants.
I pulled my life vest on over my head and worked at untangling the waist straps. Someone had knotted the straps together like a pretzel. I tucked my thumbnail into a loop in the knot and pulled it free. Tying the straps as best as I could remember from our first-day drill, I looked down at my hapless brother.
He blinked up at me. “Are we sinking, Lily?”
The bells blared. My diary, on the bedside table, slid across the smooth oak. The boat was starting to list.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Do you think it’s the Krauts?”
“Well it’s not the bloody Americans! Get your vest on, Arthur!”
He did as I ordered, and I, fed up with his dawdling pace, leaned over and tied his waist straps for him. We were like little kids again, me tying up the laces of his brogues before school.
“Alright, let’s go,” I said.
“What about our things?”
“Forget about our things!”
I opened the cabin door and Arthur came up behind me. I grabbed his hand and we joined the swarm of people pushing down the corridor toward the door to the upper deck.
“Lily, you’re hurting me!” Arthur shouted.
I ignored him, and squeezed his hand tighter. I wasn’t about to lose him in the melee of shoving passengers and crew.
The bells clanged and people shouted. Women shrieked. A man in a suit rammed his suitcase against my shoulder and pushed past me.
Arthur and I were carried forward on the tide of humanity and soon found ourselves out on deck – a deck that was tilting to port. Seamen were in the process of untethering lifeboats, and passengers were scrambling to get in line to be the first to board.
There was a stiff wind, and the stench of acrid smoke. It should have been pitch black that time of night, but the deck was lit by an eerie orange light, dancing in weird black-and-gold shadows across the stricken faces of the frightened passengers.
“Women and children first!” A man in a dark blue uniform was shouting. But no one seemed to be paying attention.
I wondered if my brother and I still qualified as children.
I turned and grabbed Arthur by the shoulders, pushing him ahead of me toward the lifeboat line. He tried to squirm out from beneath my grasp, but I held him tight, pushing him into the crowd.
Arthur was small for his age, and I knew I could get him onto a lifeboat if someone would only notice him. I stood on my toes and looked for the man wearing the blue uniform. I spotted him, standing tall on a barrel near the railing of the listing ship.
I waved at him frantically. “My brother!” I shouted.
The man didn’t see me at first, so I waved and shouted again. He saw me, and I pointed down at Arthur.
The man jumped down from his barrel and pushed through the crowd.
He reached us. “Come with me!” he called above the din.
He took Arthur’s hand, and I gripped Arthur’s shoulders with hands like crab’s claws.
“Make way! Make way!” the man shouted, hauling us through the swarm of shoving people. “Children coming through!”
We reached a lifeboat and the man helped us climb aboard. The boat was long and wooden and bursting with people. As soon as Arthur and I were seated on a hard wood bench, our thighs and shoulders pressed tightly together, the crewmen on deck began lowering the boat down the side of the ship. The descent seemed to take forever. Voices on deck drifted down to us — curses, shrieks, and the bellowing of men demanding to be next.
The lifeboat splashed down, spraying us with the chilled water of the Atlantic. Orange light danced across the waves, and I looked up at the Laconia for the first time since boarding her in Cape Town. Bright flames licked skyward near her bow, reaching nearly halfway up her radio mast. The broad white square that was her bridge was also in flames, as was the water surrounding a great gash in her side.
I didn’t know water could burn.
Our four crewmen hauled on the oars, pulling us farther and farther from the ship. The woman next to me wept quietly. I reached for Arthur’s hand and looked over at him. His face glowed gold in the firelight. He squeezed my fingers.
A brisk breeze blew off the sea, bringing with it the reek of burning oil and smoke. I could still hear the shrieks of the passengers who had yet to make it onto lifeboats and I wondered absently if there were enough lifeboats; if they would all make it off in time. How long did it take for a ship to sink, I wondered?
The woman next to me screamed. A burst of wails and shouts went up from the people packed into the lifeboat as everyone looked in the direction of the crewman’s pointed arm.
Sitting in the water, fifty yards away, was the unmistakable long, sleek shape of a German submarine. It was like a grey steel whale, glistening in the flickering light of the fires from the Laconia.
Arthur stood up, craning his neck. I yanked him back down.
“Sit!” I ordered.
“You’ll fall in!”
“They’ll kill us all!” The woman next to me shrieked. She sounded Australian.
“No. They help survivors,” another woman said. This one was British.
“The Nazis? You must be joking,” the Australian woman cried. “They’ll shoot us all. Or take us aboard, ship us to North Africa, and lock us up in a prison camp.”
“I’d like to go aboard a Kraut ship,” Arthur said.
“Shh,” I said.
“You just might, young man,” the Australian said. “You just might.”
In the end, the British woman was right. They did help us. The Germans tossed us a rope, towed us in and hauled us to their deck. A blond-haired officer with a silvery-blond beard, dressed in a dingy white turtleneck sweater and grey coat, spoke to us in English, explaining that we would be looked after.
Arthur squirmed in his seat, his boney knees bumping against mine, eager to get aboard the U-boat. I was fine just where I was. I had no desire to go aboard a Nazi ship; no desire to mix and mingle with the very enemy my father was setting off to fight.
The officer introduced himself as Oberleutnant Müller, and said all woman and children would be welcome aboard his boat. The Australian woman next to me snorted.
Arthur stood up.
“Arthur!” I barked.
“Hello, young man,” Müller said, smiling and offering his hand. And with one deft move, Arthur was aboard the U-boat’s bobbing deck. I scrambled to the side of the lifeboat, unwilling to let my brother be taken hostage by the Germans alone, and Müller offered me his hand.
“Fraulein,” he said, nodding his head and smiling.
I didn’t smile back.
He hauled me up onto the deck and I grabbed my brother’s hand. “Don’t do that,” I whispered.
“We have to stick together.”
“I’d rather be on this ship than in that leaky lifeboat,” he said. “It’s safer.”
“He seems nice enough.”
“He’s a Nazi, Arthur.”
Arthur shrugged — as if the last two years of the war had never happened — and gave me a lopsided grin. “My friends won’t believe this.”
I snorted like the Australian.
Other women were being unloaded onto the deck of the U-boat, all welcomed by Müller’s warm smile and a nod of the head. If he meant to take us prisoner, he was certainly doing a good job of disguising his true intentions.
Other sailors appeared, arms heaped with grey blankets, and Arthur and I were wrapped up in scratchy German wool that stank of diesel fuel. One soldier handed us steaming tin mugs of coffee – the worst coffee I had ever tasted, and Arthur’s first ever cup.
“It’s a little odd, don’t you think?” I said.
Arthur had his nose buried in his mug. “Whah?”
“An hour ago, they torpedoed us. Now they’re giving us coffee.”
“It’s a trick.” It was the Australian woman, standing behind me.
If she was right, it was a good trick. And it worked. We were bundled up to the top of the U-boat’s stubby tower and then down a ladder into the ship. We entered into a brightly lit compartment full of white dials and shiny bronze instruments. Condensation dripped from every surface. Pipes and wires and cords ran the length of the ceiling, and the room was packed full of men in beards and turtleneck sweaters and slick grey coats. The smell of the ship was unbearable – diesel fumes and stale food and the stench of unwashed men.
“That’s a real periscope,” Arthur said, nudging me.
“Oh?” I muttered. He was having the time of his life.
Müller split our group of ten into two groups. Six women headed one direction with an older man in a black cap, while Müller led Arthur, me, and a woman and her little boy down a narrow passageway in the opposite direction. We passed a tiny room filled with what looked like radio equipment. A young man, brown-haired and bearded, sat on a metal chair studying a huge white dial and listening intently to a headset.
Müller stopped in the middle of the passageway. There was a wooden table on the left side of the passage, about a yard in length, with benches lining three sides in the shaped of a squared-off “C.” I noticed a small shelf with books, a few leather-bound, and a framed black and white photo of Hitler on the wood paneled wall. The photo was askew, as if someone had brushed past it in a rush and neglected to set it right again.
“Sit, please,” Müller said.
We four slid onto the benches, gliding down the smooth wood to make room for each other, and huddled beneath our blankets. It was cold on the U-boat, and damp. I placed my tin mug on the oak-plank table.
Looking at my fellow survivor, the woman with the little boy, I saw that we must have looked a ragged bunch. She was still in her nightclothes, a fine white gown with lace trim at the neckline. Her face was pale and drawn. Her shoulder-length black curls were wildly tangled from the wind, and she had tears on her cheeks.
Her son, eight or nine years old, had ginger hair, and he sat placidly in his mother’s lap, his green eyes huge and rimmed by long, curling lashes. A dark smudge, oil perhaps, darkened his left cheek.
“Ladies,” Müller said. “Welcome aboard the U-156. We apologize for any inconvenience. Please know that you are safe now and that our captain has radioed for assistance to have you evacuated.” He smiled. “Our boat may be small, and you will find yourselves in tight quarters for a bit. But be assured, you are safe.”
The woman with the black hair raised her hand tentatively.
“Yes, madam?” Müller said, smiling.
“What about the others? The men? My husband…”
“Be assured they are being taken care of. The captain has ordered that we tether the lifeboats holding the men to our deck. So your husband is safe.”
Arthur raised his hand. I swatted it down.
“Yes, young man?”
“Could I have a look at the rest of the ship?”
“Arthur!” I whispered.
The Oberleutnant smiled. “Not tonight, young man. Perhaps tomorrow. Tonight, you need your rest. You and your sister will sleep here, in the officer’s mess.” He looked at the woman with the red-haired boy. “Madam, if you come with me, I will find you accommodations.”
And so we were left alone. Although “alone” is, I found out, a relative and quite optimistic word on a U-boat. The officer’s mess was really just a table set off to one side of the passageway, and officers and seamen passed by constantly on their way to and from other parts of the ship.
The benches were hard, made of oak, and only one, the one along the wall, was long enough to stretch out on. I was a good five inches taller than Arthur, and decided for anatomy’s sake that I would have the longer bench. Arthur had always been able to curl up and sleep just about anywhere, so a shorter bench would not be a bother to him. He agreed readily, wrapped himself up in his blanket, and snuggled down beneath the lopsided picture of the Füher. He promptly fell asleep.
I listened to the sound of Arthur’s soft snores. I was thankful he wasn’t afraid. He seemed to be taking this all as one grand adventure. As for me, I hadn’t felt as if I’d had time to be afraid. Too much had happened too quickly. And I had been too busy looking after Arthur. But his bravado had steadied me, made me irritated, but also confident. If he wasn’t afraid, then maybe I didn’t have to be afraid for him. Or for myself.
The U-boat listed to the left and I slid against the wall. Arthur snorted in his sleep. I pulled my blanket up to my chin and closed my eyes. What would my father think if he knew his children were on board a Nazi ship? He was a stern man, our father, not one for displays of affection or for many words. But he loved us, I knew that, and when word reached him that the Laconia had been torpedoed, he would be devastated.
I slept fitfully that night. The hard oak of the bench dug into my spine and the bobbing of the U-boat made staying in one place impossible. I was in constant danger of sliding off onto the floor. The diesel fumes were rank and hard to ignore. It was as though I were stuffed into the muffler of a lorry. And then there were the voices. German voices, passing by in the passageway as the business of the boat went on all around us.
I think I dreamed in German, although I didn’t understand a single word.
I woke in the morning with a stiff back and surprised that I’d slept at all. Oberleutnant Müller stood beside the table, holding a tray with steaming tin mugs and slices of bread.
Please, I thought, not coffee.
“Good morning, fraulein. And young man,” he said.
I sat up and reached my leg under the table to kick Arthur awake. He mumbled and squirmed under his blanket.
“Coffee,” Müller said, placing the tray on the table.
I gave Arthur another kick.
“Hmph,” he grumbled.
“Get up, Arthur. Breakfast.”
There was rustling under the blanket and he sat up, his hair askew. His eyes had that same half-closed look they usually did in the morning.
“Coffee,” I said.
Müller handed me a piece of dark bread.
“Thank you,” I said.
He nodded and passed a piece to Arthur, who yawned and took hold of it with both hands like a squirrel.
Müller sat down on the empty bench. “My captain has sent out messages on all channels detailing your situation,” he said. “Any vessel in the area will hear the message. We have put a Red Cross flag on the deck. We will soon have you evacuated.” He smiled broadly at my brother. “Arthur, I have found someone who will give you a tour of the boat. Are you still interested?”
Arthur perked up immediately. “Yes, sir!” He chirped.
“Good, good,” Müller said. He looked at me. “Then that leaves you, Fraulein Lily. I thought perhaps you would like to go up on deck. Breathe some fresh air. I know not everyone is used to our diesel fumes.”
It was as if he had read my mind. Going up on deck sounded blissful.
“Thank you, Oberleutnant,” I said. “I would like that very much.”
“Excellent,” Müller said. “I shall accompany you.” He peeked around the corner of the officer’s mess and called to someone in German. A bearded man in a grey sweater appeared. “Arthur, this is Hans. He doesn’t speak English, but he is happy to show you the boat.”
Arthur slid down his bench and flew to Hans’s side. He beamed up at the man.
“Arthur,” I said. “Don’t touch anything.”
“Well, then, Fraulein Lily.” Müller’s blue eyes sparkled under golden lashes. “Shall we?”
I swallowed the last of my bread and followed Oberleutnant Müller into the passageway, past seamen in filthy sweaters and around wooden crates of canned fruit and dehydrated milk. We reached the compartment with the dials and the instruments and the periscope, and Müller held out his hand to the steel ladder.
“After you, Fraulein.”
I climbed the ladder. Blessedly fresh sea air flowed down from above and I felt I couldn’t scramble up the ladder fast enough to escape the fetid stench below. I reached the top of the ladder, Müller right behind me. We stood at the top of the observation tower, a few yards above the deck.
The sky was a cloudless, clear blue, and the sea was a muted grey, like drawings I had seen of whales in my science book at school. At the stern of the deck was a line of Laconia lifeboats tethered to the boat with thick rope. The lifeboats were filled with men. I could hear their chatter from atop the tower. A huge white sheet, painted with a red cross, was draped across the forward deck, just as Müller had said.
“Come.” Müller pointed to a ladder that went down to the deck.
I followed him down the ladder. Ridges ran along the broad steel deck, and the swell of the ocean caused it to heave lightly beneath our feet.
I breathed in deeply.
“Better?” Müller said, smiling.
I smiled up at him. “Much better.”
“We men of the Kriegsmarine tend to forget that the rest of the world breathes fresh air. We adapt to the diesel and the mold and the smell of our comrades.”
“Did you volunteer to be on a U-boat?” I said.
“You wanted to live like this?”
“I wanted to serve my country.”
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I said nothing. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply of the sea air. The cool breeze ruffled my hair, blowing a curl across my lips, and I was glad for my wool jumper.
“You will be evacuated, Lily,” Müller said after a time.
I opened my eyes and looked up at him. He had high cheekbones above his silvery beard, like pictures I had seen of Vikings.
“By an Allied ship?” I said.
“Our captain has sent messages to all ships, saying we have survivors from a British ocean liner. So, yes, one would think by an Allied ship.”
“Some of the women think you are going to take us prisoner.”
“U-boat crews don’t take prisoners. Where would we put them?” He smiled again beneath his beard.
I smiled back.
“No, we will wait here until you are rescued,” he said. “By an Allied ship.”
“And then what will you do?”
“And then we will continue on with our duties.”
“Torpedoing other ships?”
“We have our appointed task.”
A faint hum came from the east. Müller raised his blue eyes and looked over my head. He put his hand to his brow, shading his face from the sun.
“What is it?” I said, following his gaze.
“All the way out here?”
“Just a reconnaissance plane, I’m sure.” He turned and called up to the seaman standing atop the tower. The man raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes.
Müller called something again. The man shrugged.
“Too far away to tell whose plane it is,” Müller said.
The hum grew louder, the plane drew closer, and my stomach began to harden. It was a big plane, with broad wings, and it was coming in low.
“Amerikanisch!” the man on the tower shouted.
“American,” Müller said. He turned to the man on the tower and yelled something, and the man disappeared down the hatch.
“Nothing to be worried about,” Müller said. “They know we have British survivors on board. They will see the Red Cross flag and the lifeboats. Probably they are looking for confirmation of our radio message.”
My stomach felt like a rock. The plane was flying straight at us, and now I could make out the sound of its propellers chopping through the air. It had four engines, I could see, and it was painted silver. On the front of the plane was a weird glass bubble.
“Oberleutnant…” I said.
The sound of yelling in German came from the top of the tower, and Müller whirled around. He shouted back in rapid-fire German. The man yelled back, waving his arms.
Müller turned to me. “Jump, Lily.”
“Into the water! You must jump!”
“I will take care of Arthur. You must jump. It is a bomber, Lily. They intend to sink us. We must dive. I don’t want you on board when we do.”
“Go, Lily. Now. It is safer in the sea.”
The propellers chopped toward us. Whining sounds, like angry hornets, filled the air. Something whizzed past my head.
“They are shooting, Lily! Go!”
Müller kissed my cheek as the plane roared over our heads, its shadow blotting out the sun and darkening the space around us. The plane was close enough, it seemed, to touch.
Then Müller left me. He scrambled up the ladder to the top of the tower and called down, “We are diving! Swim as far as you can!” He turned to the lifeboats at the stern of the ship and called out to them. “We are diving! Untether yourselves!” And then he disappeared down the hatch.
I heard shouts from the men in the lifeboats. I heard screams of pain. I knew some of the men had been shot. Looking up at the clear blue sky, I saw the plane in the distance, banking to the left, making a turn, readying itself to come back, readying itself for another run at us.
The chill of the water took my breath away, but I swam. I swam as fast as I could in a woolen jumper that wanted to drown me. But I wanted, needed, more than anything to get as far away from the U-boat as I could before that plane came back. I felt like I was swimming in chilled molasses. I stripped off my jumper and swam only in my blouse and trousers, kicking, splashing, sucking in what air I could. I thought of nothing but distance.
The first explosion nearly deafened me. I stopped swimming and turned to look. The U-156 had disappeared, had dived as Müller promised, leaving behind a white torrent of water. But the American plane was bombing her anyway.
A sob lurched up my throat as I watched another bomb drop from the plane, falling as if in slow motion, splashing into the water where the U-boat had been.
Oh, dear God not my brother.
A great surge of water came toward me, a tidal wave set off by the explosions, and I took a deep breath. I rode the swell as it lifted me high in the air. I looked for the lifeboats, but saw only splintered wood and the humped forms of bodies floating on the swells. Nearby, something large and white was floating atop the water. A heavy swell hit the object and I saw the brilliant ruby paint of the homemade Red Cross flag the U-boat captain had hung on the foredeck.
It floated now, useless, on the sea.
The plane came back twice more, dropping its bombs as I watched, the only witness left. I did not know what happened to my brother. Or to Müller. Or to the women huddled in the tight, diesel-fumed spaces of the U-156. I only knew what happened to me.
I had jumped. And I had survived. Oberleutnant Müller had saved my life.
And in the Atlantic, at least, the waves were too high, too grey, too white-capped to see much beyond the shattered wooden scraps of the lifeboats, the floating bodies of the men of the Laconia, and the tattered Red Cross flag.
I was alone. Alone in an ocean where you cannot see the thing that wants to kill you.
But the sky. The sky is another matter.