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Friday, March 12 (part one)

From the Diaries of Peter M. Sexton ● Santiago de Cuba, 1920

Friday, March 12

Today I was told a tale so very fantastical I can only try to set it down exactly as I heard it. Thoughts of belief or disbelief I reserve for later.

This morning I found myself at the city library, scanning the American papers for any news regarding the upcoming election, and it occurred to me that I could try to find the article that I had read concerning the expedition of the young gentleman that I visited the night before. With a little help from a wan and sickly librarian I found the correct paper, and I picked apart the story for any new information, but there was very little that I did not already know—scientific expedition, three men lost, one man hospitalized. Then, just as I was about to fold the paper closed and set it aside, I had a moment of electric recognition which nearly made me jump out of my chair. Printed in the paper alongside the story were photographs of the submarine docked in the harbor, and also of the submarine’s captain, an ex-American naval officer named Adamski. The picture showed a broad-chested man with dark, sunken eyes, close-cropped hair and a wide handlebars moustache. I realized with a start that I had seen this man in the flesh only the day prior: when I had left the hospital at sundown, I had spotted him loitering outside. His face had struck me because he had looked intense and restless, watching those who entered and exited, and momentarily he fixed me with his stare. Upon his features I could see a kind of gruff manliness grappling with anxiety, as though he were not sure if it were a prudent moment to be afraid, but then he backed away behind a column and began scanning the street again.

Suddenly now this person began to interest me a great deal. No doubt it would be only natural for him to be concerned about young Seagrave’s health, but what purpose did lurking around the hospital gates serve? Did he wish to ambush someone going in, perhaps an agent for the backers of the expedition? Was it a question of money? Or was he trying to ambush someone coming out, a doctor, or young Seagrave himself? Does he have something to hide? Or, maybe, something to reveal?

Since my successful infiltration into the mental hospital last night I had been fancying myself as something of an amateur adventurer, and so no sooner had I the thought to visit the harbor than I was striding off downhill to the waterfront. I had never seen a submarine before, and if it had not been towed back to wherever it had come from it might yet be down there, bobbing in the bay. Perhaps Captain Adamski would be there with it, and who knew what sort of fascinating secrets were ready to be shared with a sympathetic yet unrelated party such as myself? Little did I know what was in store for me.

The expedition turned out to be an uncomfortably long one; the water’s edge is a warren of sheds, piers and plankways, some areas with no apparent access to the land lubber, others guarded by sun-scarred men sipping at old-fashioned pipes through pursed and toothless mouths, a gallonsworth of spittle suddenly crossing your path in a looping squirt as you passed. One white-haired sailor grabbed a pinch of my jacket and demanded to know the country of its manufacture, what specie of ovine supplied the material, what the process for the dyeing. He thought little of me when I had difficulty supplying the answers, and another fire-hose blast of saliva was shot over the rail into the water, dropping itself cleanly into the gap between a young Cuban laddie heaving by in a scull and a bobbing cormorant dreaming of home.

Fed up after what seemed like hours of pounding boardwalk I finally did the sensible thing and gave an urchin a penny to tell me where the submarino was. He lit off like a monkey with a fire on its tail, his dirty simian feet clambering up and over every obstacle in his path, and I had to bolt like a fool to keep pace with the little monster. He called back to me, aquí aquí! and I imagine it must have been a sight of no small hilarity for the sea dogs watching me, the young man in his fancy jacket and hat leaping across the docks and railings to keep pace with a spry little gutter boy who’d never interfered with clean linen in his life. In no time we picked up more children, all screaming and chasing my leader in a wide flying wedge, and it was a great jolly footrace in the salt air like nothing anyone had ever seen; we were cursed and cheered, with chips of wood and pegs and even empty rum bottles thrown after us in great arcing heaves from afar, but these hitting no one, for in their wake I had acquired some of the exemption from harm that belongs to children and drunks and the very very foolish.

When I could run no more, we were there, and the children lined the rope at the water’s edge and looked down on the great metal slug below. At first I could only collapse onto a coil of rope and try to catch my breath, the children obscuring the view like a screen, but after a few moments of gawking they boiled off, holding their noses and looking for new sport. Indeed there was an unfortunate funkor about the place, notable even for the waterfront.

In time I was able to stand again, and I looked down to where the machine was berthed about twenty feet below. What I saw was a gray shadow shaped like an elongated lozenge, with a little fez of a cap in the middle and then a long pole or mast on top of that. There were also awkward-looking metal-and-glass boxes affixed on either side of the deck near where the hat was, and by the coloration I judged that these were recent additions to the machine, perhaps sensitive apparatuses designed for scientific exploration.

After a few minutes of study I came to the realization that it was almost a kind of necessity that the exterior surfaces of submarines be somewhat uninteresting, as this one most certainly was, for they had to be fashioned to avoid both interference from watery turbulence and attention from enemy vessels. This dullness did not deter the more nautically inclined onlookers, however, for there were yet a few enthusiasts who gaped at the thing, despite the fact that the ship had certainly been tied up here for some days now and was not showing any signs of gradually becoming more fascinating.

In time an older gentleman of the seafaring variety took notice of my attention to the ship and struck up a polyglot conversation with me about the marvels of modern engineering—men encased in metal scooting beneath the waves, liquid armored moles, deadly, like the blind gunpowder in the bullet casing, ready and waiting to spark the movement that spits the torpedo out to its final awful flowering. Here the suntanned man made an explosion with his mouth and threw up his hands like a wave. How long before we would have giant undersea cities, encased in metal, lit with electric light, powered by who knows what kind of fuel bubbling away down there, unknown and untapped? Great swaths of soggy sea coal, perhaps? Or how about teams of yoked sperm whales turning millwheels and plowing up the sea bed for crabs and fresh young oysterfruit? There was enough room down there for civilizations to live, all the room in the world, no more bumping elbows with the other countries, each in its own bubble, an end to war (he spat), a new frontier, the next human era. We had already proved that we couldn’t get along with each other, that it only took the shortest of shoves to tumble us out of civility and into barbarism, so now it was time for the P.C. age—Post-Christ—and instead we would worship Neptune, the great crushing father that presses in at the bubble and divides us from our enemies. From the cross to the trident: it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarium.

I must confess that I did not much care for that kind of sacrilegious talk, but then again I suspected that there might be dark-hour U-boat memories that weighed upon the sailor’s soul and discolored his thinking, and so I did not protest, but only felt a strange, sad empathy for him. By way of extricating myself from his grasp I asked, as innocently as I knew how, where the captain of the ship would be? Certainly it would be instructive to make the acquaintance of a man of such daring and accomplishment. With a touch to his nose the fellow winked and said that since his return from the undersea kingdom the famous Capital Adamski was often seen patronizing a particular cantina out on the road to Siboney, not too rough but not too polite either, and that he had been steadily drinking his fees, perhaps to relieve the sorrow of being back on dry land and out in the open air again.

I thanked him for the information and discourse and took my leave. Meanwhile, however, I had finally realized what had created the terrible stench that I had been smelling all the while; as my eyes adjusted to the dimness of the shadow in which the boat lay, I began to perceive that the submarine was encrusted with strange, ugly creatures, coral and barnacles striping it like rainbow cancers; on every place where feet would not trod the surface was rough and rotten with sea-parasites, and I wondered how it was that a metal ship that was surely still a part of the American Navy only some short time ago had fallen into decrepitude so quickly.

* * *

I had no appointments this afternoon so I returned to my room, changed into cooler clothes, and then found a cab to take me up into the hills beyond the city to the East. As the horse climbed, concrete and ironwork gave way to towering palms and shacks of planks and straw, the Sierra Maestras a bluish haze before us like petrifying thunderheads falling to crush the land. I looked at our fellow travelers on the road as we passed and watched as shoes thinned out and disappeared and pant cuffs disintegrated upwards towards the knees. The faces somehow became more alive, however, some sly and laughing and others wary and aggrieved, though still as if searching for an excuse to forgive. One middle-aged man silently threw me a guava as we passed, and this gesture affected me oddly; the tension of the past few weeks and the looming shadow of failure suddenly broke like a wave, collapsing in on itself and scattering into foam. I bit into the fruit and it was sour, but good; I stood up in the cab, ready to throw the man a coin or at least a wave, but he had disappeared.

I had been on this road once before, for upon arriving in Santiago Don Z— had taken me by automobile to San Juan Hill, considering it symbolic of the good relations between our nations and a sure-fire point of interest for any American familiar with the youthful adventures of the late President Roosevelt. What my guide didn’t know beforehand was that there was a celebration taking place that day, and the road was blocked by young women in white dresses who were singing and climbing the hill in a file. We decamped the car and fell in with a couple of stragglers, and they informed us that the procession was in honor of Ms. Katherine Tingley, the famous theosophist who had founded the Raja Yoga school for girls here in Santiago, of which the ladies who marched before us were former students. Our winsome interlocutors explained to us that in addition to science and dancing they were instructed in practical occultism and the Bhagavad Gita, and would frequently spend hours absorbed in mental meditation like Nepalese lamas snoring away on mountaintops. As one of the girls handed me flowers and straightened my necktie, the setting sun firing the delicate brown down on her arm to gold, it occurred to me that never in my life had I seen so much female beauty gathered in one place, and even those with snub noses or pock marks marring their complexions had a kind of inner shine that I found arresting.

No beauties in white gowns were on the road today, however. There was only emptiness, dust and flies, and then there appeared around a bend a large, rambling wooden building with sagging walls; a faded sign identified it as “El Club Huracán,” quotation marks included. Negroes in straw hats squatted against the walls while on the porch a group of men played at dominoes and smoked cigars.

I instructed the driver to wait—quizás una hora o cinco minutos, no sé—and stepped up the porch and into the cantina. Inside it was like a cave; lowered blinds strained the sunlight to slivers while the heavy air and tobacco smoke ambushed and diffused it. The walls were mostly bare, the failing plaster only occasionally accented by a picture torn from a magazine, but behind the bar hung an elaborate painting of a band of shirtless men with machetes charging a wooden palisade. Like soldiers, the men in the Huracán had established redoubts of their own, one group holding the high ground of the bar while others circled tables or defended nooks. A heavyset barkeep and two women leaned against what was handy and stared at their feet, waiting. Off to the right a solitary man occupied a wide swath of territory, the other patrons at a distance like the edges of a fan; his back was to me but his fair skin and a curled point of moustache jutting beyond a cheek suggested that I had found the person for whom I searched.

I was by now fully enjoying my new role as the daring adventurer, and so I walked up to the bar and loudly ordered a glass of rum, and this in my best American accent. From the corner of my eye I thought I saw the round head off by the wall snap to attention; I took the drink and carried it back towards a table near him and tried to look as unpurposeful as possible. The man watched me with undisguised interest, and at any moment I expected him to speak, but there was nothing, and by the time I had sat down at my table he was again looking down into his drink. Unsure of what to do, I took a sip of the rum and waited. It was sweet, spicy stuff—familiar, almost like I was tasting some essence of the dirt, some tang of local sweat and air, like I was drinking Cuba itself. The alcohol burned through, however, and my eyes watered as I tried to keep from coughing. I sat still, thinking, and the captain—for surely it was he—sat still as well, waiting. Finally I hit upon an idea.

“Excuse me sir, but your face seems very familiar to me, do we perhaps know each other?”

The captain rolled his eyes in my direction, the rest of his body rigid. “Well, mister sir, how do you imagine that we would know each other?” He had a broad chest and the words rumbled out like distant thunder.

“Or perhaps, yes, perhaps it’s just that I’ve seen your face before. A picture, maybe? Is it possible…are you not the famous submarine captain? Are you not just back from a daring scientific expedition? I apologize for being forward, but it sounded like a fascinating story and I simply had to find out if you were the same man.”

“I’ve been in the water a bit,” he said, biting into a lime. “You…American. What brings you to Cuba, mister sir?”

I gave him my name. “Business,” I said.

“Oh? What is it then? You’re a rum smuggler? Sugar man? Tobacco man? Or…some other kind of man?” Here he finally fixed me with his eyes, which drilled into my own with a sudden sharpness.

“Sugar man,” I said, which was close enough to the truth. I mentioned the company’s name, and his posture relaxed somewhat.

“Well, everybody likes sugar, little tiny babies, and…”—he sucked lime juice off his thumb—”…sweet old ladies, yes they all like sugar. So you’re a sugar man. I guess I’m a sailing man. Sit down here with me, then, have some of this sugar.” He held out his bottle, and as I sat down at his table he replaced the tiny sip that I had previously removed from my glass. “And speaking of little old ladies…”

Hola, cariño,” came a lathe of a voice, and one of the women from the bar slid a chair next to Captain Adamski and placed her chin on his shoulder. “¿Quién es el guapo?” There was a loud scrape and then a chair was next to me as well, the other woman on top of it. I glanced at her; she was about my age, with a face that looked hard though not hateful. There was something catlike in her eyes that unnerved me, but she stared away at some distant corner, graciously granting me an opportunity to look over the skin bared at her bosom, had I wished to take it. Her companion was older and more frightening in countenance, her face a lean doll’s mask of pancake makeup and rouge, but she kept up a clownish pantomime of the coquette that softened the terrifying edge of her appearance.

Pregúntale. Señor Azúcar.

Señor Azúcar!” the women chimed gleefully, and, despite a certain distaste apparent in his face, Captain Adamski filled up the two additional tumblers that had appeared out of nothing. The woman next to me leaned closer, smiling and pressing a knee against my leg. I shifted away. She gave a tiny shrug but stayed close, elbow on table and chin in her hand. Adamski looked at me. “Everybody likes sugar.” He downed his drink and poured himself another.

“So, tell me, Captain—may I call you Captain?—what is it like traveling under the sea?” I held up my glass in a toast and sipped off a quarter inch of liquor.

The captain shrugged, nearly tossing the older lady perched on his shoulder off her chair. “It’s…”

Ay, están hablando en inglés. ¡Que aburrido!” She opened a pinchbeck cigarette case and set about trying to choose which one to smoke.

“…I say, it’s—the devil with these sluts, they drink like fish—it’s a strange life to be sure. Well, for part of it it’s just like being on any other ship, for you know most times you’re on top of the water, except of course the crew lose some acquaintance with sun and air and develop what you might call a stoop,” he winked and tried to pinch his lady’s cheek, a maneuver which she dodged with the facility of long practice. “It’s not ever so roomy inside the vessel, you see, and one needs to learn a great toleration of one’s shipmates, or else go a little mad. Sometimes, both. But then again submariners are like brothers…closer, really…like brothers who chose to stay in the womb maybe three or four extra years, with just that many extra moons of pardon me and excuse me and if you would be so kind, brother dear. Here, poke that one’s belly, see if she has room for two! You can call her Vionaika, by the way, should you choose to call her anything. Sí, estoy hablando de ti, Vaika. The vanity of these felines!” He twirled the ends of his moustaches.

“Are you still in the Navy? I mean, are you on leave?”

“No, Mister Sexton”—so he did hear my name after all—”I left the service at the quietus of hostilities.” He drank again.

“You fought in the war?”

“I did, sir. Or didn’t. We patrolled and escorted here in the Caribbean. We did not find any Germans.”

“I imagine the thought of having to fight in one of those things must be…unsettling, though.”

“Unsettling? Not much shoots back at a submarine, so perhaps you could say no, not like the fools on the ground, charging up some hill with nothing between them and the bullets but the buttons on their shirts.” He gestured towards the painting that hung over the bar. “But then again the wrong thing happens in a sub and the sides punch through and you’re sunk like a stone, and say your prayers loud because by God you’ll be saying them through water. Do you know what water pressure is at all, Mister Sexton?”

I told him that I did not.

“Gravity pulls down on the water, squeezes it tight. Air and water don’t lie on the earth, they hug it. That’s science. So we push our bubble down into the water, and the water pushes back. The deeper you go, the stronger the push. Down a couple hundred feet, it pushes quite hard. Go down too deep, and….” He snapped his fingers.

“What?”

“You get crushed.” He leaned forward. “You die.”

“Oh. I see.”

“And then of course there’s the…moral question.” He made a wry sort of grimace.

“The moral question?”

“I suppose sugar men don’t have to face too many moral questions. Soldiers and sailors do, though. Now, those men, up on the hill, they knew they were in a battle, they knew what they faced, and they accepted that. That’s called being a soldier. Us, though, I mean to say the submariner, we see a little German boat bobbing along, not paying attention, well, we fire, and here are all those sailors not even knowing they’re in a fight. Maybe they’re playing schapfkopf. Maybe they’re reading letters from their little fraus and kinder. And do you know how fast a torpedoed boat can sink? I wonder if you know that.”

“I do not know that.”

“Well, I should not like to be the one to tell you. All I will say is that if you’re on a warship and want to have a nap, I suggest you take it in the lifeboat. Drink your rum, sir, for I can’t pour you a second while the first still lies in the glass.”

I was very much disinclined to have more of the rum but I complied with his wishes nonetheless. This time I could not help coughing out some of the volatile fumes. Vionaika clicked her tongue but Captain Adamski did not comment.

“Well,” I said, “I believe that all men must face moral questions, but I take your point. I think, though, that Christ understands that a man must sometimes fight.”

“Not fight,” said Adamski,”kill. Does Christ understand that a man must sometimes kill? There’s a difference, you see.”

“Well, I believe…I mean to say it is my belief….” The rum was already going to my head, and I struggled for the words, but then they rushed out on their own. “You see the picture of Justice, the woman holding the scales and the sword, and she has a kerchief or scarf tied over her eyes, because Justice is blind, a rule in a law book is blind, it doesn’t care about circumstances or what’s in your heart. But is Christ blind? He is right here! He sits right next to us! What doesn’t he see? What doesn’t he understand? But,” I said to Vionaika, “that also means that he cannot be fooled. You cannot fool Christ.”

Está hablando de Cristo,” said the other woman, pursing her lips and looking upward in a face of sour sacrosanctity.

¡Que mala suerte!” sighed Vionaika, brushing dust off my sleeve.

“Don’t you think that’s a bit blasphemous?” asked Adamski.

“Why? What do you mean?”

“Are you trying to tell me that Christ spends his time in saloons?” His laugh rocked the air like a gunshot.

As if on cue, Vionaika suddenly spoke to me in English. “Do you like girls, meester?”

“Why,” said Adamski, “do you know any?”

¿Qué?

Adamski growled into his glass. “I mean to say I only see a couple of old hags.” He took another sip and bit a new lime. “Anyway,” he said petulantly, “the Germans did it first.”

¿Qué? ¿Qué?

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you speak about matters of such, er, gravity. I just find the topic of submarines very interesting.”

“Quite natural,” said Adamski. “I do as well.”

“For instance, I understand from the newspaper that you just recently captained a scientific expedition.”

There was a pause while the captain studied the near-empty bottle of rum. In time he said, simply, “yes, that’s true.”

“Who supplied the ship? Is it yours?’

Adamski laughed. “Me? Rich enough to own my own submarine? Ha! The underwater pay is not as good as all that. And what would I do with it even if I could buy one? I’d be better off playing with a bucket in the bathtub. No, she’s a Navy ship. Decommissioned. C-7.”

“Sea seven? You mean…the seventh sea?”

“The letter C and the numeral 7.” He drew this with his finger in invisible ink on the table. “That’s her name. Formerly U.S.S. Coelecanth. I was her captain then. Used for training out of Coco Solo now, but the Navy leased it to the folks from Argoyle University.”

“For the expedition.”

“For the expedition. Excuse me for one moment please.”

While Captain Adamski was gone I signaled to the bartender and pointed to the empty bottle. Emboldened by the sight of my money, the older woman shouted that we also wanted a plate of crabs. “¡Cangrejo! ¡Queremos cangrejo!” For some reason The bar erupted into laughter, and there was some rather rough talk between the painted woman and the rest of the patrons until Captain Adamski returned. I poured him another drink. “So Argoyle University hired you as captain.”

“Aye, and together we were able to scrape together a skeleton crew of ex-submariners, or something that passed for that. So, they had their submarine.” He silently raised his glass to his former employers.

I leaned across the table. “Captain Adamski,” I whispered, “what were you looking for?”

A shadow passed across his face, and suddenly he seemed not himself; the brass and confidence were drained away, and he looked at me with a strange high nervousness, as though flinching away from something. “How should I know?” he finally replied. “I only steer the ship.” His glass hung in the air halfway between mouth and table; he seemed unable to move at all.

“Okay, but…let me put it a different way: what did you find?

He sat there still, pinned, almost I would say helpless. “You want to know what we found?”

The words jumped out of my mouth. “Damn it, I do.”

He rubbed his face with a thick hand, sank back in his chair, and then told me his story.

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