The roots of this story likely go back much further than anyone involved in it would care to admit. I was younger and thinner then, and I’d been two years on a merchant ship ferrying men and munitions across the Atlantic during the Great War. I suppose it had given me a feel for the water, because the ink on the Armistice was barely dry before I was shipping right back out on the first tramp freighter I came across. That was ten years before this story took place. Ten long, hard years at sea that burned my skin dark, rubbed my hands raw, and turned my soft youth’s heart to leather.
It was now 1928, and the ship I’d recently signed onto as First Mate was a lousy old wench of a tramp steamer named the Bali Sai… seventeen tons displacement and a stink that they could still smell in Manhattan hours after we left harbor. She was an old bird from before the War (based out of Trinidad so’s to avoid the taxes) and captained by a crazy dwarf named L’Angley Wrathbone, who had stunted legs and a foul temper when he had a gutful of the hard stuff, which was most of the time. It was crewed by as motley a bunch of cutthroats and ex-cannibals as you ever saw… and me. My name is Tom Clover, but everyone calls me ‘Tom Tom’ and I’ve never figured out why.
We were seven days from New York to Tortuga, where we provisioned up with slimy fruit and salted pork, and then we set out across the great green water of the Atlantic.
We were a good week east of the Americas when Monkeyface Collins, the bosun’s mate, somehow managed to get his damn neck caught in a deck chain one afternoon, and after that no one was calling him Monkeyface because he didn’t have a head anymore. We wrapped him in three yards of duckcloth and some eighty-pound cord and Captain Wrathbone slurred a few words from the Bible over him with a breath that stunk of rum and onions, and we put him to rest in the deep dark.
After that, nothing was the same on that ship. Men spoke to each other in low voices, and stopped talking when someone passed by. The Captain took to his cabin, and didn’t come out for days—and when he did he looked like he’d gone four rounds in the ring with a randy orangutan. In the meantime I ran things as best I could with the help of my Second Mate: a Russian goliath by the name of Simkin. He’d been on the boat before me and the men respected him, but half the time you couldn’t understand a cursed thing the guy was saying, and the other half he’d just stand there staring off across the water and humming something I figured was an old folk song from whatever godforsaken Siberian hovel he’d grown up in. Meanie (the Cook’s assistant) told me that a year before I’d shipped on board, Simkin and another crewmember named Mutter had gotten into it over a local Brazilian dame, and Mutter had pulled a knife on the big Russian and stabbed him in the leg, which was probably all he could reach. Meanie said he watched Simkin grab this poor sucker and rip his blasted arm out of its socket and beat him with it before the locals pulled him off. Mutter lived, but was no good to nobody anymore, so they left him in San Cristobal with twenty-five dollars. I’m not sure why that story has stuck so well in my mind over the years, but it has, and so I include it here.
The real trouble began as soon as we reached St. Helena, off the Africa Coast: we dropped off the mail and took on fresh provisions to replace the gruel we’d been shoveling into our bellies. The crew got a few hours’ recreation off-ship, which they naturally spent tearing up the local saloon—coming back before we set sail all bruised and disheveled and triumphant. Seems the barkeep had seen fit to tell Meanie, who hailed from Gabon, that he wasn’t welcome in the saloon on account of his African color, and the men had seen fit to persuade the man to look past his prejudices, this being Meanie’s home continent and all. In a way, I was proud of them, sticking up for their fellow like that.
I remember thinking with some amusement that the Bali Sai wouldn’t be getting a warm welcome the next time it docked on the little island—having no way of knowing at the time that the ship would never dock in St. Helena, or any other port, ever again.
If Captain Wrathbone had issue with the state of the returning men, he didn’t show it. As I said, he’d reappeared from his cabin sequester much the worse for wear, but the two weeks since had seen a great change in our diminutive leader. It’s possible he’d gone off the sauce (the Cabin Boy had stopped finding cast-out bottles left outside his cabin door), but I hadn’t seen any sign of the delirium tremens or fits of temper that usually accompanied a man who’d all-of-a-sudden embraced a sobrietous lifestyle. Still—the Captain I now saw moving about on deck, inspecting the catches on the cargo holds, stood steady on his stout legs, and looked about with clear eyes. This seemed a fortuitous change, but it brought an odd feeling to my stomach—during the War Years, this feeling had always foreboded calamity. There was something at work here, which neither the men nor I were privy to knowing. And until we did, it was impossible to tell if this was a good sign, or bad.
It was almost immediately after leaving St. Helena that Simkin first caught sight of a boat following us: just a far-off little dark speck bobbing up and down on the waves near the horizon, directly to our stern. The next day two more members of the crew spotted the same craft, and Captain Wrathbone ordered a twenty-four hour aft watch to be kept up, charging me with organizing the rotation. Whoever he was, our friend kept a good mile or so astern of us: just far enough that even the strongest binoculars on board couldn’t make out much more than a glint of saltwater on a steel hull amidst the tumbling ocean swells.
After the third day, the mysterious pursuer vanished and we saw no more of him. By then we were ‘round the Cape of Good Hope, and turning North Northeast to chug up the Eastern coast of the Continent towards our destined port of Lourenço Marques, where we’d unload our cargo of motor parts and machine oil for its trip to the interior country of Swaziland. This part of the water is where the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet, in a place called the Agulhas Passage. It’s dangerous waters—the Agulhas Current flows down the coastline of Mozambique from the north, butts up against the colder Benguela Current as it reaches the Horn of Africa, and turns back on itself. If it’s clear weather, the safest route is to skirt the land a few miles off the shoreline, keeping to where the current’s carved out an abyssal channel, until reaching the Transkei Basin.
On this day, the weather was anything but clear.
A savage wind had kicked up as we passed Cape Town, kicking a stinging salt spray in our faces. The clouds had come in and soon we were all in our weather gear and struggling to remain standing on deck. Captain Wrathbone ordered us to chart a course six miles further out from the shoals, for fear the surging tide would sweep us into land and break us up on the rocks. It wasn’t an absurd fear: many ships larger than ours had been dashed up against those jagged shores.
So we turned our bow out towards the turgid blue horizon, and the Bali Sai crashed its way though six-to-ten foot swells as we made for what we thought was the safety of the open water.
Six hours we spent in that hell, the men retching their guts up as they hunkered down below—no one was allowed on deck, or they’d be swept over the side in a heartbeat. I stayed in the wheelhouse with the Captain and old Potter, our Steersman. The old timer dripped with sweat from the effort of keeping the rudder straight against the tides. I offered to take over, but the cantankerous cuss shooed me away, and I contented myself with staring out at the dark, undulating mass surrounding our tiny boat.
We all spoke a silent, thankful word when we finally came out of the storm. A quick check found a few leaking seals on the starboard hull, but otherwise the Bali Sai seemed to have escaped the storm more-or-less intact. I was down below in the engine room checking to make sure we hadn’t taken any salt water into the batteries, when I heard someone calling my name from up above:
“Tom Tom! We need ya up here!”
Reaching the deck, I saw a cluster of sailors gathered ‘round the rail near the bow of the boat, and hurried forward. I had to push past a few of the men to get to the rail, but when I did I saw what they were all staring at: there was an old junker ahead—a rusted hull cracked down the middle, with the skeletal remains of two smokestacks leaning towards the water.
“How long you think she’s been there?” Meanie asked at my side, and all I could do was shake my head. Awhile, was my best guess.
“Why ain’t she moving?” one of the men asked, and I looked closer. He was right: She wasn’t moving at all—no bob, no sign of a yaw. She wasn’t floating derelict: she was run aground.
“ALL STOP!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, then again—but the ship kept chugging. My feet flew over the wet deck as I raced to the superstructure and up the stairs to the wheelhouse. I burst in, only to find old Potter slumped over his wheel, his eyes staring out the window, but seeing nothing any more. The effort of keeping the ship on course had proved too much for the old fella.
I grabbed the throttle and pulled back, signaling All Back Full to the engine room, and swung the wheel; hoping to turn and avoid whatever reef or atoll the derelict had run up on. In a moment I could hear the propellers reverse, and the Bali Sai gave a scream and an awful lurch as her engine got thrown into reverse. Black smoke belched out of our twin funnels, and I heard a long, low scrape as the keel brushed against something underwater. Every man aboard held their breaths for what felt like a lifetime—but for once it seemed luck was on our side, and we slowly pulled away from the wreck.
Wrathbone had been in his cabin catching forty winks after the stress of the storm, but looking down now, I saw he’d come up on deck in a hot flash, and was peering over the bulwark (he was barely tall enough to manage) at the wreck. After a moment I saw him look up at me and give a little nod. Moments later he was up in the wheelhouse.
“It was good maneuvering, my boy,” he muttered, staring down at poor Potter’s body.
I shook my head. I could feel no pride at this moment, only guilt: “I should have pulled rank and made him let me relieve him.”
“Crud,” the little man sniffed. “Not a soul could make Elias Potter do a blessed thing agin’ his own will. Trust me, I spent decades trying…”
I picked up one of the charts laying about from all the tossing and heaving: “If we turn due North, I think we can—”
But the little man cut me off:
“Take two men in a rowboat and give that hulk a look-see, would you, Tom Tom?”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. “Captain,” I began, “I’m not sure that’s a wise idea…”
“Wise is as wise does. It’s an old wreck, but there might be articles of import still aboard. And if not—well we should identify her, to give some solace to the ones still waiting for her return, don’t you think?” I could tell from his expression that Wrathbone wasn’t making a request, and to again decline would be counted against me.
So a half-hour later I was in the bow of a small rower, with Meanie on one oar and Luke Lewis, a lanky guy who worked down in the engine room, on the other. The ocean had calmed, and the Bali Sai hung just clear of the reef, which we’d decided was likely a heretofore-unknown western ridge of the Agulhas undersea Plateau.
It was tricky maneuvering to get the boat beached up on the jagged plateau without damaging its hull, but we managed it, and found we could stand easily on the rocks—only a few inches of water swirled around our ankles. The plateau seemed to go on for some ways, but we didn’t have time to explore. We made our way quickly to the rusted hulk of the wrecked ship, which loomed only a few yards away.
From the ship we’d been able to see that the wreck had once been a tramp steamer like ours, and was likewise at least a decade old, judging from its perpendicular bow. The derelict lay at an angle, with the tangled steel of her stern facing the Bali Sai. Now we were able to get a closer look at the wreckage of its rear:
“She was torpedoed in the war.” Lewis murmured as the three of us circled around her shredded steel that had once been its rudder. Coming round the topside, we could see the boat’s bottom wasn’t the hulk’s only similarity to our boat.
“Look at the amidships—the bridge and the stairs…” Meanie muttered. “It’s like she came off the line right after ours.”
Lewis nodded to our feet: “Water’s getting deeper.”
I nodded: “We outran that storm, but she’s catching up. Let’s make this quick.” I looked the two men in the eye: “We’re not going to find anything here, you understand me? We give it a once-over, like the Captain said, but we’re not—I repeat not—gonna find anything. Let’s be back on the boat in ten minutes. Savvy?”
They both nodded. I didn’t want to go against the Captain’s orders, but I had no interest in losing any more crewmembers today. We’d lost two souls since leaving port already, and to my mind that was two too many.
We’d barely begun peeking around the deck when Meanie came up to me, holding a tattered pea coat.
“This is pretty funny,” he said.
“What?” I asked, and he held up the collar so I could see. There was a name written on it: so faint I’m surprised Meanie was able to read it. When I did, my blood ran cold.
It read Vladimir Simkin.
“Maybe we bring it back to him,” Meanie was enjoying his little joke. “Say to him ‘ey, Simkin? Ya lose somethin?’”
I told Meanie to drop it, and to make a sweep aft to see if there was anything left in the containers. I had no way of reckoning how many sailors there were out to sea named Simkin, but I didn’t like the coincidence one bit.
I needed to find a logbook or something by which to identify the ship, so I clambered up the steeply inclined deck to the superstructure, and shimmied up the stairs to the bridge. The entire thing was so oddly familiar it gave my belly that old feeling, and I had to steady myself before turning the knob.
I wasn’t surprised to find the room inside in total disarray, with its shattered windows and its rotted wood and molded charts. I knew right away that entering would too dangerous—the floor could likely give out and send me plummeting. But I now also understood that there was no need for me to enter, and no need to further hunt for clues as to what boat this was. For I could see the remains of two bodies lying there: one on the floor, and one leaning against the wheel. It was the one leaning against the wheel that made me stare. It was the corpse of a man: that much was obvious from the wispy sideburns that clung to the skull-like head. But it was the size of the body that my tired eyes locked upon, even when I heard Lewis and Meanie calling my name to come quickly.
The remains I was looking at were those of a man barely four feet in height.
It took me a long moment to finally turn away from what I saw, and stumble back down the stairs, slide down the deck and regain the waterlogged plateau. The two men were near our rowboat, staring at the Bali Sai, which, as I hurried to them, I could see was pulling away: puffs of steam were coming out of its funnels.
We three screamed and waved our hands. We couldn’t believe it possible that our captain and crew would abandon us here—but then even as the ship moved off to our right, it revealed a dark shape looming not far off in the water: our pursuer from St. Helena.
“It’s a U-boat. I’ll never forget that silhouette as long as I live,” Lewis mumbled, and even as he spoke we heard a swoosh, and saw our fellows yelling and running around on the deck of the Bali Sai. Only a few seconds passed before a great orange ball of flame engulfed the boat’s tail, and men screamed and flung themselves into the ocean as they burned. The ship lost all its thrust, and began quickly drifting towards the plateau.
“She’s comin’ right at us!” Meanie hollered, and we three ran as fast as we could through the ankle-deep water to get clear. We barely made it, and the great ship smashed into the plateau with such force, it knocked us all off our feet.
My head must have hit an outcropping of the rock as I fell, because I lost all my senses for a few moments. My next memory is of Meanie pulling me out of the water and slapping me on the back. I’d swallowed half the ocean, it seemed, and my throat burned as I coughed up brackish water.
When I finally looked up, the first thing I saw was Meanie’s red eyes full of fright and confusion. Looking past him, I understood why.
The rusted hulk we’d explored not minutes before was now gone. In its place the present form of the Bali Sai now rested in an identical position. My brain struggled to make sense of what I was seeing, and failed utterly. So I struggled to my feet—the waves were coming in strong now. The surviving crewmembers were mustering about, struggling to stay on the small plateau as the waves crashed over it. Some tied themselves together with ropes from the ship, while others lowered rowboats down from the deck. Many bodies floated amongst the wreckage, and I swore I saw a particularly big one sloshing up against the side of the wrecked hull.
“The Captain?” I asked, full well knowing the answer. Lewis shook his head, and I knew it was my responsibility to save as many of the remaining men as I could. I ordered the rowboats tied together, and we quickly grabbed all the provisions we could from the ship’s mess. I wanted to take a moment to visit the wheelhouse, and bid farewell to L’Angley Wrathbone, our Captain—but the water was rising, and he was well past my aid.
Seventeen men and I climbed into the boats, and the swells took us up right away. The men rowed for all they were worth away from the jagged stone of the plateau, and before long we were clear. The shattered silhouette of the Bali Sai retreated away astern, eventually fading into the mist and spray as we took a compass reading, and set course for Africa.
It was four days and nights hard rowing before we finally crossed the shipping lanes east of Port Elizabeth, and were rescued by a Dutch tanker. We’d since lost one more man, a coalman named Steeves who’d been badly burned in the attack. But the remaining sixteen survivors of the Bali Sai came through their ordeal with no permanent damage, and I will forever be grateful to whatever gods of the sea watched over us on our journey away from that cursed plateau and its dark magic, where the bones of my shipmates likely still dwell.
I had said nothing of the uncanny things I’d seen to my surviving crewmembers. But during that four-day journey, I would often stand up in the small boat and scan the horizon in all directions for any sign of the U-boat. Each time, I saw nothing. Why he attacked us, so many years after the end of hostilities between our countries, remains a mystery to me. Was it possible that the crew been out at sea all this time? Hunting prey with no knowledge that the war had ended a decade before? It seemed unlikely.
What seemed more likely, to my mind—and having seen what I’d seen on that sinister plateau—was that the U-boat that sunk the Bali Sai wasn’t part of our time, but rather another; and that to them, the War was still raging, and perhaps would always rage.
The final voyage of the Bali Sai wasn’t my last, but I’d lost too many friends on that trip, and my love of the sea had gone with them. I settled in Providence, borrowing some money from my brother-in-law to set up a little shop on the pier selling gaudy trinkets, sand dollars and dried starfish to tourists. Some nights when I close up, and the fog is coming in off the water, I pause and look out over the great dark mystery—and I wonder what other dark secrets the sea holds, which no man has yet been unfortunate enough to discover. And as I stare out, I repeat to myself the old sailor’s proverb:
The meek shall inherit the earth… …and the brave will get the oceans.