THE LANGUAGE OF THEIR YOUTH

Fall 2006: Issue 80

Laura van den Berg

The Admiral had not been well for several months, slow to rise, aches in the joints, fatigue. He had stopped sleeping through the night, although insomnia was not an altogether new development. However, this sleeplessness concerned not his mind or memories, but his breathing. He was unable to find a position in which he could take in the large pockets of air needed for adequate rest. His wife, Marie, always slept soundly on the opposite side of the bed, curled underneath the sheets, oblivious. Two weeks before he was called upon to oversee the submarine rescue, he had coughed blood into a handkerchief and scheduled an appointment with his physician. He showed the doctor the bloodied handkerchief, specks the color of rust. The doctor nodded and frowned and arranged tests. He counseled him to avoid stress and travel, but the Admiral was never one to heed such advice.

Now he sat on a plane that carried a six-person rescue crew and, in the cargo level, diving equipment and two Super Scorpios—small, unmanned submarines. He was nearly fifty and approaching retirement, but had been assigned to the mission because of his experience with the Kursk, another Russian submarine, seven years prior. The entire crew had died. All one hundred and eighteen of them. Even though the mission had failed, the Admiral was among the few who understood the procedures, the equipment and manpower needed, the many dangers.

It was close to midnight in Russia. From the window of the plane, through patchy clouds, he saw the sea below, dark and sprawling. The Admiral had always enjoyed flying, the temporary existence between two worlds, a state of being he had never been able to name. In an hour they would land at the Kamchatka naval base, located on Russia’s eastern coast.

Papers and charts were stacked in the seat next to him. He had read everything twice, pausing only to take notes on a legal pad. The most recent reports confirmed a fishing net had coiled around an antenna—designed to monitor the activities of international vessels—on the AS-28, stranding the submarine on the floor of the Pacific, and the Russian navy lacked rescue vehicles capable of operating at the necessary depths. The submarine carried seven men, even though it was only equipped for four. According to the reports, their air supply would last for another twenty hours.

The Admiral removed his glasses and polished the square lenses on his shirtsleeve. The seven-hour flight from the British naval base to Russia had exhausted him and he was developing a terrible headache. He inhaled deeply, feeling his lungs expand, and struggled to direct his energy towards what was, at this moment, his only care: a successful mission.

 

One of the last things Fyodor remembered was watching the sonar, the neon-green lines and circles pulsing on-screen. The submarine was quiet, save for the hum of the propeller, and the lights, sharp and unnaturally white, reached into the corners and pushed out the shadows. The crew worked in silence, reviewing coordinates and navigational charts.

“Just a few more weeks until we’re back on the base,” Kristof said. He looked up from a control panel and yawned. “I’m sick of boat food.”

They ate fresh meals for the first two weeks, then switched over to canned, frozen, and dried foods. Fyodor always looked forward to pizza on Thursday nights, although he hated the canned fish, which they were having tonight. Canned salmon with pickled vegetables, probably.

“And the coffee,” Boris said. “Why does the coffee always taste like shit?”

“Yeah,” Kristof said. “It’s worse than my wife’s.”

Fyodor shrugged and went back to watching the sonar, waiting for the lines to shift and indicate the presence of another submarine. The screen had been empty all afternoon, the waters calm. These days at sea were interminably long—he missed the buzz of cities, the anonymity, the freedom of movement.

For the last decade, Fyodor had thought only of one woman. Two years after his mother died, Anya had moved into the apartment down the hall from the one-bedroom he and his father shared on the fifth floor of a tall gray building on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. She was thirteen, three years older than Fyodor and several inches taller, with skinny legs and dark braids that swung when she walked.

After her arrival, he began opening the door every time he heard movement in the hallway, a cough or creak in the floorboards. Anya was usually accompanied by her mother, but sometimes he found her standing alone in the hall and they talked about the other tenants and the planes they heard flying over the apartment building at night. She tried to teach him to balance a rubber ball on top of his head; she could walk down the stairs and up again without losing it. Whenever the ball tumbled from his head and bounced off his nose or shoulder, she whistled and caught the rubber sphere before it hit the floor.

When Anya was eighteen, she left St. Petersburg for a secretarial job in Moscow. From the foggy and smudged window, he watched her wait for the bus. A small suitcase sat on the sidewalk; a red purse hung from her shoulder. When she boarded the bus, he waved and kissed the pane.

He did not see her again until this past February, when he was on leave in Moscow and went to the Boarhouse for a drink. Her dark hair had been cut short and dyed burgundy, but he still recognized her behind the bar, a black apron tied around her waist. After her shift ended, they walked around the city, talked and laughed and allowed their shoulders and hands to brush together. Her last boyfriend—she looked away when she said the word—had gone to Madrid with another woman. After he left her, she had stayed in bed for a week and lost the office job. Now she worked at a café during the day, the Boarhouse at night. While she spoke, Fyodor touched the base of her neck, felt her spine, and the tips of her hair grazed his knuckles. Before they parted, she wrote her address on a paper napkin and kissed his forehead. He tucked the napkin inside his jacket pocket and watched her disappear into Teatralnaya Square, crowded by people flowing out of the shops and movie theaters, into a veil of falling snow.

A loud crack echoed throughout the control room, followed by a low roar, which seemed to come from the back of the submarine. Then silence. The vessel lurched and shuddered; the lights wavered and dimmed. Kristof was knocked to the floor, Boris slammed against the wall. Fyodor reached into his pocket and rubbed the napkin Anya had given him. He had kept it on hand since the beginning of their mission and the paper was beginning to fray. Erik, who had been off watch and sleeping in the bunk space, ran into the control room. Lieutenant Kozlova turned away from the crew for a moment, his body swaying as though he was going to faint, then exhaled slowly and looked through the periscope.

 

Sitting in Lieutenant Vladimir’s dark office, the Admiral thought again of the Kursk. The submarine had been performing training exercises when an explosion stranded it on the ocean floor. Several men had died in the explosion and the rest suffocated. The request for aid came far too late for the British navy to assemble a successful rescue. The gravest of operations, he believed, required the most planning. He straightened his jacket and smoothed his pants, expecting the Lieutenant to come through the door at any moment.

A window stretched across the far wall of the office. Outside, four British officers stood in the shadows. In the darkness he recognized Private Marks, a diver and the only woman on the rescue team, by her posture: arms crossed and legs slightly spread. She was an attractive woman, with blond hair that bounced just above her shoulders and elegant sloping cheekbones. She had dozed for much of the flight and the Admiral caught himself staring at her more than once. Even just a few years earlier, he would have tried to sleep with her.

Lieutenant Vladimir entered the room, closing the door behind him. He shook hands with the Admiral, then sat in the leather chair behind his desk and clicked on a lamp, filling the center of the office with an orange glow. The Admiral disapproved of his handshake; his long fingers felt limp and clammy. He was a young man, no older than thirty-five, with full hair and a creaseless face, save for the gathered skin around the corners of his eyes. He opened a drawer, removed an envelope cutter, and began tapping the gold point against his open palm.

The Admiral folded his hands in his lap. “Have you been in contact with the men?”

Lieutenant Vladimir nodded.

“What kind of shape are they in?”

“Terrible.” He suspended the point in midair; the gold shimmered in the pale light. “They all remember the Kursk, of course.” His accent was smooth, his voice low-pitched.

“Of course.” He glanced out the window. The divers were gone. “In all public statements, and this, Lieutenant, is of the utmost importance, say the men are remaining calm and brave. If they survive, you don’t want them emerging as cowards.”

The Lieutenant returned the envelope cutter to the drawer and went to the window, where he stood with his hands tucked behind his back. “The Japanese have dispatched three ships and the Americans are on their way.” He turned to the Admiral. “But it looks as though you’ve beaten them to the job.”

“Tell the sailors to lie flat and breathe as lightly as possible. To conserve oxygen.”

“The amount of air such actions will conserve is negligible.”

“Yes.” When the Admiral rose, unsteadiness attacked his body. His vision blurred, merging the Lieutenant’s silhouette with the moonlight and shadows. He blinked twice, then continued. “But they must feel like they’re playing a part in the saving of their own lives.”

 

The crew stood silent and still as the instructions came in over the radio. Fyodor crossed his arms and stared at one of the control panels, the buttons and levers. Lieutenant Kozlova held the speaker close to his ear and angled his head towards the garbled voice. He was a slender man with pointed features and thick waves of black hair.  Fyodor had heard talk about the Lieutenant’s lack of qualifications—cowardice, some even said—but he had nevertheless been promoted through the ranks because of his father’s and grandfather’s distinguished service. As a sign of their disrespect, when the Lieutenant wasn’t around, the sailors called him by his first name: Lieutenant Igor gives orders. Lieutenant Igor isn’t happy today.

When all communication ended, the Lieutenant set down the radio and covered his face with his hands. Then he ordered the men to turn off the heat and lie down. Some resisted, bending at the waist and muttering for several minutes before joining the rest of the crew on the floor. Fyodor wrapped his hand around the napkin, squeezing it into a soft ball, then kneeled and stretched out on his back. They had been trained for emergency situations, to cut the power as much as possible, to breathe lightly and limit their movements, but somehow those acts now seemed like an acknowledgment of doom.

Fyodor had never paid close attention to the ceiling of the submarine. In the low light, it looked skeletal, gray pipes and metal, the paint chipped in some places to reveal the bone white color underneath. He felt the warm air thinning, the cold seeping in through the walls. The submarine was twelve meters long—a control room, a bunk space, and the cramped mess and wash rooms. The walls were lined with navigational and weapons control panels, the center of the floor empty except for the periscope and a plotting table.

They had been on mission since March and were scheduled to return to land in June, just a few weeks away. He was planning to go straight from the naval base to Moscow, to Anya’s apartment. He had given considerable thought to his reappearance in her life: how many times he would knock on her door, how loudly, what he would do if she didn’t answer, if he would stop on the way for flowers. The moment in which he would climb the stairs of her building and stand in front of her door had seemed so close, so possible, although it was beginning to drift away—like a dream upon waking.

“They’ve called in the British and the Americans,” the Lieutenant said. “They’re going to attempt a rescue.”

“Remember the Kursk?” Ivan’s voice bounced around the control room. He lay directly below Fyodor, so close he could have nudged the top of his head with his boots. “They brought in the British and the Americans then, too. And the crew still suffocated.”

“I saw pictures of their bodies in the news,” Erik added. “Piled on top of each other. Stiff and white.”

“Shut up,” Boris said. “You’re using my air.”

Fyodor wondered about the rescue crew, their ages and ranks, their origins and the families they had left behind.  He thought of the Kursk, the candlelight vigils held outside cathedrals, the pictures he had seen in the newspaper. He remembered photographs of an older man standing by the raised submarine, tall and angular, his face drawn and gray. The man was distinguished, with good posture and well-defined features, handsome even in his somberness, so unlike Fyodor’s own father and the men of his childhood neighborhood. He remembered being struck that such a man, someone who looked utterly powerful and judicious, could have failed so completely.

 

In a dark bathroom, down the hall from Lieutenant Vladimir’s office, the Admiral kneeled in front of the toilet and vomited. His torso spasmed; the pain bloomed in his stomach and spread to his chest. He rounded his shoulders and coughed violently; his throat burned. The Admiral heard a woman’s voice through the door and wondered if it was Private Marks; he turned on the faucet to cover the noise. Afterwards, he rinsed his mouth and splashed water onto his face, smoothed his thinning gray hair and patted his skin dry with a wad of toilet paper. He leaned against the cold sink until his hands stopped trembling. He never turned on the lights.

 

When the radios died, Kristof—whose wife had recently given birth to twin boys—began to cry softly. Fyodor watched the quiet tremors of his chest and shoulders, redness spreading across his cheeks and the tip of his nose, his knuckles swollen and white.

“Quiet,” Boris shouted, slamming a fist against the floor.

Fyodor inhaled and savored the feeling of air pooling in his chest. The metal had turned icy. His temples ached; his tongue felt thick and dry, filling his mouth.

Lieutenant Kozlova told Boris to stop shouting and Kristof to stop crying, for fuck’s sake. They grunted in response. All the sailors wore blue pants, white shirts underneath their jackets, and thick boots. Fyodor imagined them arranged on the floor—rows of dark bars. The navy was a drab chorus, the steady drone a rhythm he could slip into and out of without so much as a ripple. He entered the service right after he came of age and found his father dead on the bedroom floor, a trio of empty vodka bottles nestled in the carpet. He had left the apartment furnished, taking only a single duffel bag, a black-and-white photograph of his mother, and a postcard Anya had sent him from Moscow, a glossy image of the Kremlin’s towers and gilded roofs. He received it several months before his father died. It was the last time she wrote to him. I have met someone, she had scrawled across the back in her scrunched, messy script. A photographer. He likes to take my picture.

When he and Anya were teenagers, they built a language from sounds. The doors and walls in the apartment building were thin, allowing for easy communication. One knock on the front door was a simple greeting. Two quick raps meant their parents were preparing to leave. And three knocks meant they were alone. Any thumping on the walls meant they weren’t allowed to go out and might get in trouble for loitering by the door. Sometimes, when they were together, they changed this into a language of words. Knock, knock, knock, Anya would say before leaning towards him and resting her lips on his cheek.

There had been one night, shortly before he left for the navy, when he went out for a drink and met a woman. She was young, with bleached hair and a tiny diamond in her nose. She smoked one cigarette after another, sucking in her cheeks and closing her eyes with each drag. They went back to his apartment and when he woke in the morning she was gone, a few pale strands of hair stuck to the pillow.

Fyodor thought of how the radio sounded before it went dead: a voice from land filled the submarine, followed by static and a long hiss. Lieutenant Kozlova had punched the buttons and shouted into the speaker before finally wrapping both hands around it and bowing his head. From the floor, he had a diagonal view of the Lieutenant holding the lifeless radio against his chest. He wondered what their final instructions were, what else they had wanted to tell the sailors. Perhaps someone from another country would have gotten on the radio, an expert in emergency rescues, and told the men of their plans.

 

The Admiral had decided that the Scorpios, equipped with underwater cameras and steel appendages for cutting, should be lowered into the water first, followed by the divers. As the ship left the naval base, the crew gathered around him on deck and he dispatched his orders. They were fifty miles from the rescue site. It would take hours to reach the stranded vessel. After the briefing, the crew scattered to prepare for the rescue.

The Admiral remained on deck, standing close to the stern. The sky was still dark, the moon a milky crescent. When he was a student at the Royal Naval Academy, his father visited every other Sunday and they took walks to Portsmouth Harbour. His mother rarely came. She was frightened of the sea; her brother had drowned in the Severn River when they were children. But the Admiral had, long before his father delivered him to the Naval Academy, been obsessed with immersion. Not with the rush of cold or the noise that filled his ears when he dived, but with finding ways to exist underneath the surface or above it—for this felt, to him, like conquering.

The blast that stranded the Kursk was caused by a torpedo exploding inside one of the compartments. The submarine had been carrying two dozen warheads. When the divers reached the vessel, the escape hatch was so damaged it couldn’t be opened. The submarine was too large—over one hundred and fifty meters long—to be raised in time. When the Kursk was finally emptied, the ship’s log and two notes written by sailors were discovered along with the bodies. One of the notes revealed that small fires broke out as a result of the explosion, clouding the cabins with smoke.

After it became apparent that they were not going to save the sailors aboard the Kursk, President Putin went on television and promised every measure would be taken to ensure the bodies were returned to their families. The Admiral was present when the hatch was opened and the men were dragged out, their skin waxy and gray, limbs stiff like dancers halted in mid-twirl. Most were very young, their faces fleshy and clean-shaven.

In recent months, he had caught himself wondering what his son’s obsessions would have been—if he had had a son. Marie only conceived once and the baby was lost at eight weeks, before they could determine the sex. He did not believe in considering the impossible, so when his wife’s infertility was confirmed, he’d ceased to think about fatherhood and the way her stomach would grow in pregnancy. But now he could not keep himself from such thoughts. Would his son have inherited an obsession with the sea? Or would he have wanted to climb mountains? Cross deserts? Would he have had any obsessions at all?

He heard a cough and looked up. Lieutenant Vladimir stood before him, his dark eyebrows pulled together, his thin mouth sagging.

“We’ve lost communication.”

The Admiral nodded.

“You don’t look well.”

He shook his head, dismissing the observation. “Let’s review the coordinates again.” He stared past the Lieutenant at Private Marks, who was talking to another officer on deck, the wind blowing her hair across her face.

 

The submarine had darkened. The lights were burning out. The roof and walls grew thick with shadows. The dimness made the cabin feel smaller, although the spaces between the men seemed to have lengthened. Kristof wiped his nose on his jacket collar. Fyodor rubbed his face and swallowed. If only one could be saved, he thought, it should be Kristof, with his pretty wife and twin boys. He had seen pictures of her, a tall woman with auburn hair that hung straight down her back.

No one depended on Fyodor—with the possible exception of Anya—who, for all he knew, might have already forgotten his promise to return. Perhaps by now she had changed apartments or even left the city. Returned to her old lover or taken up with another man. He shut his eyes for a moment and searched for her face, but saw only blackness. His chest throbbed. His mind felt hazy, as though he was suspended between sleep and wakefulness. This seemed a particularly cruel end, allotting him enough lucid time to consider his longings and regrets and what, if a future existed, he would alter. And these were the things, in the quiet belly of the submarine, Fyodor had decided: to leave the navy, find Anya and pull her close like he did when they were young, visit his mother’s grave in St. Petersburg then stand atop the bridge that stretched across the canal and toss a coin into the water, to scatter his father’s ashes in the countryside. His remains currently sat in a plastic container, stuffed inside a sock to conceal the contents in the event of an inspection, on the top shelf of Fyodor’s locker at the naval base—revenge for all the times his father drunkenly slapped and kicked him. And, finally, he would register for violin lessons at a music school in Moscow. When he was a child, shortly after his mother passed, a violinist moved into the apartment next door and stayed through the winter. Fyodor still remembered pressing his ear against the wall and listening to the music, a melancholy hum, the power unfolding gradually.

He stretched a little and bumped against Kristof, then shifted his weight and bent his legs, his muscles taut and aching. The skin underneath his fingernails had lost its color. He exhaled and started counting the white flecks on the ceiling. He was beginning to wish for a quicker death.

 

The Admiral had returned to the deck for the sunrise and now gazed across the sea. The sun rested on the cusp of the horizon, thinning the darkness and shading the sky with blue. He raised his hands and stared at the webbing between his fingers. His skin looked transparent, the green and blue veins vivid and swollen. He poked a large vein on the underside of his wrist and watched it slide back and forth under his fingertip.

When he first entered Lieutenant Vladimir’s unlit office, knowing he would be waiting for at least ten minutes, the Admiral had stood behind the desk, located the phone, and dialed the number of his home in Hampshire. The phone rang four times before Marie picked up; she had always been a heavy sleeper. When she answered, he heard voices in the background. She often fell asleep on the living room sofa with the television on when he was away.

“Hello?”

He imagined her sitting up, straw-colored hair falling across her face, and rubbing her eyes, reaching for the remote and turning down the volume. She had a long slender neck and small hands.

“Hello,” she said again.

“Are you still downstairs?” he asked.

“Yes.” She yawned. “It’s very late here.”

“What were you watching?”

EastEnders,” she replied. “Phil’s in the hospital again.” Sometimes when he called her from the field he asked her to talk about everyday things, so he wasn’t surprised when she offered to tell him more about the television program and, without waiting for his reply, began to relay this week’s betrayals.

His wife was a devoted, cheerful woman, who always brought a hand to her mouth when she read or laughed. Except in the months that followed the miscarriage, when he would wake and go downstairs and find her sitting on the front porch with a wool blanket wrapped around her legs, her face withered, her eyes puffy from crying. Even then, she never said anything about the late night phone calls or his unexplained absences. He couldn’t decide whether she was blind to his indiscretions or had chosen to ignore them.

“Are you there?”

“Yes,” he said, not realizing how long he had been quiet.

“I thought you’d gone.”

“No. Just listening.”

She continued talking, describing the new foliage and her progress in the garden. When it was his turn to reply, he once again fell silent.

He had returned to the doctor’s office three days before the submarine crisis. The test results confirmed what he had already sensed. The cancer cells had spread, the doctor explained, consulting his charts, although the progression could be slowed. He had yet to tell Marie and now wanted to say something that would prepare her for what lay ahead, as though such words existed, for he was beginning to feel the burden of his secrecy.

“Are you all right?” she asked, the pitch of her voice rising.

He concentrated on the rhythm of her breathing, winding the phone cord around his index finger. She waited a few more minutes, then hung up. He stood in the dark for a little while longer, the dial tone bleating in his ear.

The Admiral looked across the ship and saw Private Marks, dressed in windbreaker pants, a sweatshirt, and a baseball cap. She stood close to the edge of the deck, her arms crossed, her head tilted downwards, as though she was staring at something in the water.

“Low surface tension,” she said as the Admiral approached. “Good for diving.”

Her ponytail sprouted out the back of the baseball cap, messy in a way that reminded him of a child’s hair. “How long have you been with us?” he asked. “At the base in Hampshire.”

“Nearly five years,” she replied. “The first place I went after I finished my training at the Academy.”

He wondered if she’d loved the water as a child, whether her parents detected any early signs of her talent for diving. “This time it will be easier,” he said. “The AS-28 is much smaller than the Kursk, less than fifteen meters.”

She tugged at the brim of her cap. Her hands, he noticed, were small, her fingernails cut short. “A lot of time has passed, sir.”

The calculated air supply was approximate and after one of his own men reworked the math, the Admiral decided the Russians had been generous in their estimate. And without the radios, they had no way of knowing how the sailors were doing, if they were beginning to lose consciousness, or worse.

The pain in his head returned. He slipped a hand inside his pocket and felt the tissue he had used to conceal a nosebleed on the plane, crumpled and brittle with dried blood. He slumped forward.

“All right, sir?”

She squeezed his upper arm and her touch steadied him. The sea and Private Marks blurred for a moment, then regained their shape.

“Time to prepare for the dive,” he said, patting her hand. “You’ll be needed soon.”

 

Edvard, the youngest crew member at nineteen, who had not spoken since the submarine became stranded, suddenly began to talk. He went slowly, pausing after each word and biting his upper lip. His voice reminded Fyodor of wind passing through tree leaves, fluid and hushed. None of the other men, not even Boris, stopped him, sensing the urgency in his voice. His brother had been aboard the Kursk.

“My mother calls the sea a mass grave. It has taken more men, she always says, than any war. The worst was seeing him lumped in with all the other bodies.” He stopped and sucked in air. “She cried for days and days when I joined the navy. She moved the rest of the family from St. Petersburg to Moscow just to get away from the water. She said it was bewitching her sons.”

Edvard’s skin lightened to the color of slate. His legs and shoulders twitched. His eyes turned empty and glazed; he opened his mouth wide, as though he was going to scream, but only released a faint moan. When he began to kick the wall, Kristof and Boris held down his arms and legs until his body stilled, until his fists uncurled and his head rolled back.

The temperature was dropping. Fyodor’s skin swelled with goosebumps. He tried to remember what it felt like to be outside, under the sun, to watch the movements of the clouds. The other men shook from the cold, their skin faintly blue. Perhaps they would freeze before they suffocated, he thought, like the exiled Soviet prisoners his father used to talk about.

In St. Petersburg, his father had slept in the bedroom, Fyodor on the couch, the cushions thin and tattered. He never had enough blankets during winter and the cold kept him awake at night. His father rarely closed the bedroom door—only when a woman who lived on the ground floor made her monthly visit—and sometimes, in the middle of the night, he would talk about the way things used to be, his voice raspy from cigarettes.

The specters of communism still loomed in St. Petersburg, abandoned Soviet housing and KGB buildings, the basements once used for interrogations and beatings now empty, the concrete facades covered in graffiti, the windows shattered. Fyodor had entered one of the stripped KGB buildings twice in his life: once in his youth and again when he was older, just before leaving for the navy. The second time, he took a flashlight and found a gold tooth in a shadowed, dusty corner.

 

From the cabin, the Admiral supervised the descent of the Scorpios. He watched the screens, monitoring the direction of the underwater cameras; in the light thrown from the machines, the surface waters looked gray. He gave the command and the divers, dressed in wet suits and aligned on the deck, plunged into the sea. Even though their gear was identical, he was able to discern Private Marks from the group, the movements of her limbs possessing a languid femininity.

He was surprised to learn she had been at the base for five years, as he now felt she projected a specialness that should have set her apart from the legions of cadets. He tried to remember if he had observed her from his office window, her shoulders drawn back and her hair neatly arranged, but could not recall such a moment. She had only come to his attention when a lieutenant recommended her for the rescue mission, praising her resolve and skill—more assured, he had said, than many of her peers.

The submarine was far deeper than the divers could swim, nearly two hundred meters down. They would be needed to open the hatch after the Scorpios cut through the cables and the submarine surfaced, he had explained to Lieutenant Vladimir, trying to impress the importance of the sailors being met by voices and human touch.

A Russian officer entered the cabin and stood at attention.

Lieutenant Vladimir nodded.

“Sir, the media has been calling,” he said. “They want to know if you’re still optimistic.”

The Lieutenant looked at the Admiral, who replied, “Yes. Always tell them yes.”

In truth, he had been considering alternate plans, in case the Scorpios were unable to completely free the submarine. If they could lift the vessel a hundred meters or so, the divers could work on the body, but that would require more time. And even if the submarine was quickly disentangled and raised, there was always the chance that the hatch was damaged, like the Kursk.

He watched the screens, the divers hovering in the water, their ink-colored wet suits and the alien look of their masks, the steel limbs of the Scorpios. The cameras had just reached the murky bottom when his dizziness returned. His breathing became shallow; the muscles in his chest tightened. On-screen, the water deepened to jade and the lights from the Scorpios revealed the outline of a capsule resting on the ocean floor, a dark egg.

 

The summer Fyodor’s father vanished for a week, then stumbled through the front door, lips split and eyes blackened, Anya’s mother met a man at work and started spending Friday nights at his apartment. That same summer he and Anya created a secret language and he found two cans of black spray paint in his father’s closet and they snuck out of the apartment building and wandered deep into the city, the cans clinking together in the satchel that hung from his shoulder.

Fyodor heard three long knocks at ten o’clock, signaling her mother’s departure. He crossed the hall and opened the door. The apartment was stark and tidy, the floor polished, the walls and surfaces bare. He followed Anya into her room, furnished with a narrow bed and a small table. He glanced at the ceiling and noticed a light fixture lacking a bulb. A map was taped to the wall, the continents shaded pink, blue, yellow, and green, the borders represented by thin black lines. Different countries had been circled: Uruguay, Egypt, Australia.

“What are these?” he asked, tapping the paper.

“Places I want to go one day.”

He watched her pull on a lavender sweatshirt and brush her hair.

“Come on,” she said, tugging his sleeve. “Let’s go.”

They slunk down the hall and stairs, pausing whenever they heard footsteps or voices nearby. Outside, the air was cool and thin, the buildings dark, the sidewalks quiet. As they approached the city, they could see clusters of light rising from the squares.

A celebration had overtaken the Palace Square, drawing people away from the streets. Fireworks popped and shimmered, bursts of red expanded into huge discs, then faded. Fyodor wondered if his father was moving through the crowd, if Anya’s mother and her boyfriend were watching the sprays of color from the window of his apartment.

When they reached the abandoned building, he unloaded the spray paint from his satchel, shook both the cans, handed one to Anya, then faced the wall. He jerked his arm, haphazardly coloring the dull concrete, propelled by the hiss of the can. Black drops splattered off the surface, dotting his hands and forearms as he made long, snaking lines and messy loops.

He ran out of paint long before Anya and watched her deliberate strokes, her thin arm moving in huge circles. She rotated her wrist from side to side, creating a design that resembled dark waves. She seemed unaware of his gaze, her face tense with concentration, her hair falling forward and obscuring her face.

When she finished, she handed her empty can to Fyodor, who tossed them into a nearby alley littered with overturned garbage bins and rotten food. They stood on the street, Anya’s palm between his shoulder blades, and listened to the snap of the fireworks before linking arms and disappearing into the night.

Fyodor heard a rumbling in the water and opened his eyes. He rolled onto his side and listened. The Lieutenant pressed his head against the wall. Boris and Erik leaned against a control panel. The submarine swayed; the plotting table fell over and slid across the cabin. The floor vibrated; something scraped and banged against the roof.

“They’re coming for us,” Kristof shouted. Fyodor sat up.

When the sawing began, loud as street construction, the  submarine lurched and rattled. A new fear sparked inside him. It didn’t sound like they were being freed but assaulted, and for a moment he believed the submarine was going to be crushed with the sailors inside.

Then he felt the rising.

 

The Admiral slumped into the wall. His eyes watered; the rhythm of his heart turned erratic. None of the other officers noticed, their gazes fixed on the screens and the submarine slowly ascending from the ocean floor. In the artificial light of the Scorpios, the AS-28 glowed green.

When the mini-submarines first reached the AS-28, cables were wrapped around the antenna, a fishing net draped over the nose. Once the Scorpios severed the cables and netting, the submarine bobbed for a moment—causing everyone watching from the ship cabin to gasp—then broke away from the ocean floor.

For the Admiral it wouldn’t be over until the vessel broke through the surface and the sailors boarded the ship, until he shook their hands and shuttled them back to land. When the submarine reached seventy-five meters, the divers materialized on the screens. Private Marks swam closest to the steel pod, her slender legs scissor-kicking through the water, and he wondered if she was married, if she had children, or if all of that still lay ahead.

In the early years of their marriage, he and Marie drove to a lake every Saturday. She preferred to go at dusk, even though the water was cooler. The lake was shaded by weeping willows, their leaves long and straight like curtains. A huge white rock sat at the water’s edge. The Admiral would wade in waist deep, feeling bass and trout brush against his calves, and watch his wife dive off the rock, crack the surface, and emerge, her hair—it was longer then—slicked back, her face full and pink.

After they lost the child, they stopped going to the lake. His wife’s face grew thinner, her features more pronounced. She cut her hair. He thought of his phone call in the Lieutenant’s office, the way the silence had expanded into a gap that words could not bridge, and wished he had tried harder with his marriage, with their need to have a child, with the Kursk.

As the submarine drew closer to the surface, he felt a shuddering between his temples. He lost his ability to think clearly, as though his mind had filled with fog. He collapsed onto the floor, cracking a lens in his glasses and bruising his forehead, a mark that would turn the color of an eggplant, a mark his wife would fold warm washcloths against until it faded into a sickly yellow. Men swarmed, one kneeling and pressing his thumb against the Admiral’s wrist, shaking his shoulder and calling to him. But he was lost to their voices, already imagining a giant fishing net being cast from the sea and swallowing his body, dragging him across the deck and underneath the tide.   

 

The rough movements of the submarine jostled the crew, knocking them against the walls. When the machine became still, several men, including the Lieutenant, cheered and wept. Some of the sailors were kneeling, others standing, their eyes starved and bloodshot, their skin ashen. They heard footsteps above them. They all looked towards the roof.

Fyodor heard a clank, then two more before the hatch opened, drenching his hair and face in rich yellow light. Heat filled the submarine, the smell of the sea. Salty, dry air rushed across his face. Water dripped onto the floor. Arms dangled through the opening; he gazed at them for a moment before grabbing hold. As his eyes adjusted to the light, his body to the warmth, an entire person came into focus, clad in a black wet suit. A diver, still wearing goggles. He looked closer. Sunlight fanned behind her head. A woman.

The men below gripped his waist and legs and pushed him through the hatch. The woman clutched his forearms and pulled. He kept looking at the diver, staring through her goggles, into her pale eyes and the dark half circles underneath. As sunlight engulfed Fyodor, her face shifted. Her nose thinned, her complexion lightened, the arch in her brows sharpened. Her form loosened and moved and when her features hardened again, it was Anya’s face he saw: the red of her tongue and lips, her eyes dark and glistening, her face open and pale as the moon. She whispered to him, in the language of their youth, her voice as soft as the beating of wings, the music of her words drawing him from the sea.