The Night Before
“It was all in that jar, you see, they kept the key in the China jar,” Comrade Allan spoke with his hoarse voice.
The men around were listening intently. Some chugged their beers, others ate through their steaks, but all ears were with him. It was only by the sea that people listened to him. It was only by the sea that his stories bore any significance.
Allan continued to speak of the jar, describing the embroilment vividly without pause. He was dressed for the piercing cold, as were most men, but his coat had an extra layer of fur that covered up to his ears. He wore a flap hat that covered his white hair that had grown coarse and rough, much like his beard that parted down the middle from the wind. His eyes were green, crow’s feet creased their corners like most seamen who had spent much of their time aboard ships.
But Burya 4 was no ordinary ship. It was a submarine intended not to be detected by the most advanced of sonar systems. It was the glory of the Russian Navy architecture. It required a crew of over a hundred men. And those men were handpicked, the crème de la top.
It was exactly a year ago that hordes of Russian soldiers hopped on board for the new program. It was advertised through the force as a special training program for marines to prepare a special group of soldiers. Out of every ten that signed up for the program, maybe one came out. The program was held over the four seasons, or whatever equivalent of four seasons that we have in the homeland. The lucky ones were the ones who failed the trials and the first season.
Perhaps Allan was only a distraction from what we were going to go through during the next months. We loved Allan, but the man was insane. He did tell good stories.
“And then, when we were going down the caves, we saw lights flickering.” He paused when he didn’t receive a good reaction from the men, then he repeated, howling, “Lights flickering!” And there he received the response he had hoped for. The men’s jaws dropped, and the little chattering stopped.
“When we looked,” his voice lowered, and the intensity of his story grew madder, “they looked like tentacles along the corridor. Massive tentacles that formed the passage through the cave. Whatever we were going into, it could not have been from this world.”
“What was it?” Asked one.
“Did you find out?” Asked another.
“It can’t be.” Said a third.
“Ah, my beer…” Muttered Allan as he looked down into his glass. It was empty.
Men who had longed for a beer immediately emptied the contents of their glasses into his. He took a sip.
“Nah, it wasn’t what you think,” he said, and nodded his head. “They were plants. Some’in like coral reefs, you see, they glow in the dark, and when it’s always dark, they keep on glowin’. Some’in to do with the phosphorous or some science thing. We were terrified at first, but when we got closer to the end of the cave, we actually found it. We found the chest. Some o’ the men didn’t want to go forward with the job. It was too risky!” He took another gulp of the beer, and when the attendees started chattering quietly, he slammed the cup onto the table.
“When I looked behind, I couldn’t find Anton,” he exclaimed, captivating the men into his long story again.
“I thought Anton was ahead of him?” Whispered one soldier into my ear.
There was a shift in weather. We were, perhaps, furthest away from Allan. There was still some chattering. But from the distance, Allan paused, and I could have sworn that his eyes had fallen on us. It was the uncomfortable feeling of being watched. He cleared his throat and then when he spoke, it was like his voice carried the cold.
“The First Lieutenant, Anton, whose name I emit from the story much like all other stories I’ve told you, was gone. He did not escape in cowardice. He did not flee us. I still carry his tag with me, like I do all my fallen comrades. He did not abandon the mission. He was taken. And he was killed. But perhaps for your own sake, I shall spare you the details of our findings that hour.
“The three remaining men and I, including Commander Anton, were terrified. We thought that we had stumbled upon the Dead Man’s chest. Of course, those stories we heard from pirates that we rescued and shipwrecked sailors.
“Ah, but do not rest assured yet. For I haven’t the slightest clue of what the chest held. Collectively, we decided to abandon the cave. There are some things in this world that are not meant to be seen, let alone known. There are some things better left untouched.”
I was silent. My whispering comrade was silent. We were all silent for a moment.
Comrade Allan picked out a leather-bound flask from his coat and took a sip of its contents.
“Comrades, I will leave you with that. Perhaps we will finish the story later, perhaps with less interruptions next time. But for now, I wish you all the best of luck.” He then raised his glass, “To the living, breathing, and kicking brothers-in-arms, to the dead and lost, and to Burya 4!”
All the men raised their glasses and pounded on the wooden tables in cheers before they chugged their drinks.
‘Somethings are better left untouched,’ I repeated in my head as I watched Allan walk to the dorms. He was a strange man, a foreigner to us, but all the men here loved him. Some say that he was washed ashore one night, the sole survivor of a ship, others say that he was a spy. No one knew how old he was. No one knew where he came from, but he was always with us somehow.
He had some fun stories that lifted the spirits of the crew. But the night before boarding Burya 4, his story…was less of the sort. We were trained not to believe in those superstitions, but that felt like an abrupt sign. Perhaps my vision was all clouded by the Yorsh I amply consumed.
But the words echoed in my head the whole sleepless night. ‘Some things are better left untouched.’
Read Chapter 1 (Into the Belly of the Beast) here.
Written by Amr Abbas.
Cover illustration by Amr Abbas.