We had a whisky and coke at Doc’s place before leaving. He was sat there under the shark’s jaw on the board behind the counter where all the bottles waited, sagging fifty-five year old in floral shirt with his greying hair shaved into a mohawk, pinkish flesh scarred and cut, sunglasses over his eyes, in the deckchair that looked out onto the harbor and the ocean and the mangrove swamps where the mosquitos played, and he smiled at me. “Great White.” he said. “You remember? It wasn’t one of those that got me.” And he waved his right arm with the dumb wooden fake hand at me. “That was a tiger shark. Big fucker. I saw it there in the water, Mustang going down around me. I was bleeding and my suit was cut and the glass of the cockpit was all broken up, and my hands were working the harness but not fast enough, and then this shadow came up – and I thought I saw it smile. They’re always smiling, now, but this guy – he was grinning. He was ready for me. He was laughing.” His accent stronger than ever despite decades away from home. He leant forward. “Paddy. Little brother. You think it’s fate?”
I drank up. “Don’t believe in it, man.”
We set off for the island before nightfall. Doc had got a whole crew together out of thin air, as he always did, and the Blood ‘n Guts, his little fishing boat that wasn’t, sat ready in the mangroves for a trip as always, and as we slunk out onto the pier it was almost like just another job. But he wasn’t seeing it that way – he had fallen into something, the man who had moved drugs and weapons and ancient treasures and all kinds of people all throughout the holes left by America’s lumbering through South East Asia with guns and napalm, who had always told me since first helping me out of the army that it wasn’t worth being attached to a damn thing in this world. He was chasing that shark. Not literally. The job had come in from a source he guessed was Triad, some Chinese cut-out – they wanted a submarine looking over. A Jap thing from the war. There had been a scheme once, when the goose had been cooked for Uncle Sam’s last playmates out here, to use chemical weapons on the West Coast, sneaking them in by submarine, and one of these subs was, so the brief went, sunk somewhere near this little island off the ass of Taiwan. Not properly scuttled – the Japs hadn’t done it right, so it went. So this submarine was sitting there rusting and the triads wanted it stripped clean for the chemicals inside. They were paying a lot. But Doc’s eyes hadn’t lit up – he had been without his shades then, bleary and red in the afternoon sun, half-drunk on some rum in only his khaki shorts with all his fat hanging out above – until the man from the Chinese trading company had told him the codename of the submarine we were supposed to be looking for. “Itachizame.” the Chinese had said quietly. “Tiger shark.”
Maybe once before the Mustang had gone down over Okinawa Doc had been kinda mystical, like me and like our dad, always finding patterns, and the submarine story had brought it back; maybe he was tired of shipping drugs up to the US troops keeping Saigon’s ass out of the fire and selling girls to Hong Kong businessmen and all that crap and now just wanted to find some meaning in something. Who knew? But as the Blood ‘n Guts set out he wasn’t barking orders in a dozen languages to the crew like usual but standing by the bow and looking out with his arms behind his back, face hidden in the light of the exploding sun. That was different. We were at sea for a week and Doc kept on coming out and making sure things were right, in calm seas or storms, always with a drink in hand, going up to old Shaw the skipper, rail-thin tanned fella with hard eyes and golden moustache, and chewing out details with him in the evenings, helping out the deckhands with things that needed doing, chatting with the hired boys in Cantonese. I didn’t have half of his knowhow of either maritime things or oriental business, so I stuck clear belowdecks making sure what I did have would be ready if we needed it. Guns – assault rifles from the South Vietnamese, small arms from China, a prized M60 snatched from a dumbass Australian officer high on dope during a game of cards. Doc had brains but he didn’t have a right hand and he didn’t trust anyone else out here to have their finger on the trigger for him. Evenings we played cards with Wong the old Chinese who Doc did half-trust, scarred eye and bald head and always in lean old army fatigues, and the air was thick with smoke and it all stank of booze and yet there we were, listening to the waves crash against the boat’s hull and the iron groan with each hit and not feeling worried at all.
Soon we came close to the island, a big hunk of rock sticking up out of the bare ocean like the head of a giant all worn-out and craggy, a necklace of jagged rocks all cresting up out of where the waves slammed hard against the cliffside. The cliffs were tall and barren and the water was rough and so Shaw guided the Blood n’ Guts up into the bay to their right, a narrow little spot with an arm of peninsula rock sticking out to cradle the fury of the waves. It was late at night and the bright bulbous shape of the moon had disappeared behind misty clouds and Wong had two of his Cantonese manning the lights on the bow, and by them we found a pier there half-rotted away, battered by the water and the wind. Slowly and with care the Blood n’ Guts was eased into the bay. Ropes were hurled and we were moored and Doc ordered the engines killed and the sudden quiet of it filled the air as we unloaded things onto the shore. We beheld a camp there buried in the rock at the end of the jetty, scraps of tent fabric rotted through and old wooden buildings half-collapsed inward. Doc found a sign by the entrance to this ramshackle display and Wong identified it as Japanese writing. Doc was glowing; grim-faced stiff but damn he had a look to him, an intensity I didn’t know. “Let’s go inland.” he said.
We went inland. The path was hemmed in by thick rock on one side and thick jungle on the other, a writhing, hissing, steaming tapestry of shadowed things hidden by gnarled undergrowth and ancient trees. There were more Japanese things there strewn about the path, ancient guns and pieces of uniform and kit but no bodies. Could have been a firefight if not for that; a few places our Chinese found bullet holes etched into the rock wall. Doc and me went first and followed the path as it curved inland, past an old Jap car lying there swallowed by vines and leaves, past a bunch of discarded Arisaka rifles all in a neat little pile, past another little camp the bastards had put up with sandbags and machine gun at the entrance, which now unconcerned we stepped over, moseying past their guard post and into their tents. Shaw checked his map. The Triad had given it us and told us in that big cavern on the island’s east side might be where the sub – Itachizame – lay stricken, but that a direct approach would have been a bad idea, for the rocks there were treacherous and the water so it went was home to the meanest, most bloodthirsty kind of sharks. For a bunch of lazy bastards like us going in via the land route was better; nobody wanted to lose their hand like Doc had, or worse.
A short while down the path the Japanese had built bunkers, concrete stains against the abyssal tropicana, sitting there as deep into digestion as everything else within this beast’s vast stomach. The doors were rusted shut and the whole site stank of rot. Again no bodies. Doc stood in the centre of this military graveyard sniffing the night and looking up at the pregnant moon. I with the M60 shouldered cleared it, two Cantonese at my back, and when it all was secured I went back to him. “Coast’s clear.” I said. There was nowhere else to go so we got a team to blast open one of the bunker doors. Inside stank of stale air and rust and shit, and there were a pair of skeletal corpses in ragged military fatigues huddled up like lovers in one of the corners, but after a few minutes’ combing we found there a passage blasted into the rock – a secret tunnel that led down and eastward. It was a narrow little thing and it stank of damp and the sound of dripping water came echoing up at us from its depths, which were as black as tar. No doubt it looked liquid, the kind of blackness that oozed.
Doc swept his flashlight about, at me and Shaw and Wong and one of the Chinese. Everyone else was still outside, securing the area. “Who’s in?” he asked. Well it wasn’t a fucking question; I nodded, M60 heavy against my shoulder. Shaw did the same after a second. Wong said something in Cantonese to his man and the man stepped forward. “I leave him.” Wong patted the Chinese – skinny kid, tattoo of some characters on his arm and a knife in his waistband – hard on the back, and the boy wilted but did not fold. “My son.” he said proudly, grinning a half-missing grin. A kind of hostage, was how I understood it – and Doc too, for he swept the boy close with his good arm and gave Wong a stiff nod by way of signaling his acceptance. So it was that we set off into the tunnel.
It was wet and stinky and narrow, and with my big lug’s frame and my big gun I had a hell of a time inching along after Doc, who was moving with purpose like he knew what was ahead, his boots splashing in deep puddles that seemed now and then to verge into little lakes – then mine, then Shaw’s and then the Chinese boy’s, Doc’s flashlight waving about, its beam bouncing off of the moss-choked glistening stone of the walls. The path was loosely straight and kept on going down, and soon there wasn’t anything behind us or anything ahead, and the little Chinese was murmuring something unhappy and, although Shaw was no pup liable to complain, I could feel the old sea dog’s unhappiness like a cloying wave at my back. The tunnel was cold and soon the water was sloshing about our ankles as if it always had been doing so, and my brain was starting to play tricks on me, asking how just how long we’d been down here. But Doc alone wasn’t flagging. What is it you’re chasing, old man, I asked him without asking. What are you looking for down here?
“We sold the Japs their first damn submarines.” he had said the other day, when we’d been on the Blood ‘N Guts drinking as the boat had been drifting a while out from anything, evening sky filled with whispering stars and the ocean was peaceful as a babe on all sides. “Did you know that? Back during the war with the Russians. Sent ‘em five Hollands. Death traps back then. But it was the start of all this. We gave them their ships and they built up a navy and went after us, and now all this is happening. The Vietnamese are fighting with captured American weapons just like the Chinese did in 1949.” He leant forward, light of our little lantern catching in his eyes which glittered like those incomprehensible stars above. “Do you get it, Paddy?”
A cry came from ahead. It was Doc – in his haste he had stumbled and now he was splashing about in water up to his waist. We hurried after him and found ourselves somewhere else as the tunnel opened up into a wider chamber, a rounded area with high walls and – from a quick sweep of my flashlight over Doc’s bent-over form – ever-deeper water. “Jesus!” Doc spat, scrambling over to the wall and resting there. I lowered myself into the water and Shaw with me and then the Chinese, and we all stood there crowded about in this little underground space. The water was cold and the ceiling and walls were further away but still too close. I held onto the M60 but it wasn’t much comfort. “Alright.” Doc said. He poked the abyss with his flashlight and ahead it became obvious that the chamber went down again, retaining its new wideness and hiding ahead even-greater depths of water and rock. We in our formation edged forward. My boots scuffed things beneath the water, immobile hard shapes that might have been stone or might have been something else. As we approached the next part of the tunnel the Chinese let out a yelp. We turned, focusing our lights, and swept past him to what he had yelped at – in an alcove on the right side of the chamber was what seemed to be some kind of wooden thing sat on a shelf of rock. “God.” Shaw said, the first time he’d spoken since we’d entered the tunnels. “It’s a man.” Or it had once been a man. Now it was only the remains of one – a grinning skull, a cracked ribcage, one arm and a broken pelvis, all wearing army fatigues so rotted-through they were only scraps of fabric clinging to ancient bone. But we’d all seen corpses before – that wasn’t what had set the boy off, and I knew it at once, because I saw it too and I didn’t cry out but I felt a chill all over that had nothing to do with the cold water swirling about my midsection. The corpse was propped up in its alcove against the wall, and before it stuck to the stone was the feeble slim shape of a joss stick like Asians always used for worship – and the end of the joss stick was smoldering. That meant someone else had been here and had lit it. For what? In memory of the dead man? Or for something else?
“Fuck.” Doc said, and he spat into the water. “Let’s keep going. You, boy. Keep your trap shut, alright? No more Halloween surprises.”
“Sorry boss.” the boy said in a quiet voice. So we left the corpse there and went on. But I was thinking about and I couldn’t stop and I wondered if I was going to go nuts, if every smart-aleck white boy who came out to Asia ended up like this; seeing things in all the shadows, flinching at invisible demons, staring so much at Buddha’s golden face it started to seem more real than your own. Or maybe Doc-
The passage had narrowed again and we were again hemmed in, in the midst of black nothing with the rock our only comfort. Now the descent was so steep that we kept slipping on uneven flooring, splashing in the water for a few seconds then rising again, each of us discordant in our fumbling. Soon we were scraping the walls and our feet were pressed together and the water was past the waist. Doc yet kept on, his flashing scouting out the next, even slimmer part of the path and his body following, his prosthetic hand tapping on the rock wall as he used it to find his way down. But as we were advancing Shaw stopped. The boy stopped with him and then I had no choice but to pause too, and that seemed finally to tip Doc off. He turned, flashlight glare in our faces. “What’s this?”
“We ain’t got no clue what’s down here.” Shaw said. By his tone – the danger tone, leveler than level, slow out of his mouth and flat – he was pissed off as anything. But Doc, all wet and staring and with his wooden hand upon the wall, didn’t seem to get it. “Yeah we do. The sub.”
“No.” Shaw said in that same deliberate voice. “We don’t.”
“They said it was in a cave. Ain’t this a cave?” By the flashlight’s electric glare Shaw’s face was pale as death, his mouth tight-lipped and his brow set like stone. “If we don’t find anything in the next goddamn few minutes-”
“Then you go back.” Doc said. He turned away. “We’ve got a job to finish.” So downtrodden we resumed. Shaw was done – the little Chinese boy was done. I wasn’t. Doc was family. Would have to chat with him but after this. After – occurred to me, dumb little thought. What did a no-good bunch of triads want with chemicals the Japanese had wanted to use to bomb the US? Hair on the back of my neck stood on end. It stank so badly and I don’t just mean the water and the tunnel, although now the damp was so intense it was seeping through us and the water was up to my chest and God I don’t know how the boy was managing but somehow he was still with us. We trudged through another narrow gap and then we came finally to open air, a cavern wider than wide, the gaping mouth of an ancient giant – even in the dark the vast contours of the ceiling were visible, and the far-off light coming from some hole that led out into the open night, and between here and there the deep black water which by now had almost swallowed us whole. I had never felt more fear in my whole life than in that moment, and the fear was not of the cavern or the water but the man ahead of us, my brother, who was now wading out into the open with the fervor of a man who had found a goal that he and only he could comprehend. The water splashed all around him as he swam. “Doc!” I called. Shaw at my side grunted in alarm. Doc was lost to all of us – not a single thing that could be done. I knew this as I knew my own name. He was no longer human out there but a beast, set on a quest that was less than the brain and more than the heart; pure instinct. He moved clumsy through the water and then he was out into the depths. His flashlight bobbed about in his good hand. Then a tug at him, a soundless gesture of want. A sharp jerk and he disappeared, pulled under, and the light went with him. Ripples danced across the water’s surface. That was all.
“Jesus.” Shaw said. I lowered the M60 – no point in it now and I knew it and I handed it to him. He took all of its weight and held it to his chest and looked at me like I was just as crazy. “Patrick, what are you-” Nothing for it. I dove in – realized the ground was gone, that this cavern was all open water. My legs and arms worked and I was swimming just like Doc had been, blind but for a little bit ahead, seeing roughly where he’d gone under – one-armed old man out in the water like that, what a fucking joke – but with no way of knowing. Far-off was the glow of the cavern’s exit and that was all that guided me. Soon I was there or almost there. The water splashed against my mouth, soaked my clothes. It was for a moment sweet. Sticky. I realised that I was swimming in blood. I pulled back, tasting it on my tongue, treading water. “Doc!” I spat. “Doc, where-?” But there it was before me, the truth. I saw it break the surface of the water ahead of me a silhouette painted against the cavern’s feeble like, the perfect geometry of a triangle with angles cut as sharp as blades sticking up out of the black like the sword of God; the lone fin of a shark.
Bobbing there I watched it as it arced away from me. Doc’s blood splashed again into my mouth. Another fin there, to the right – a third close to the exit. And more, and more. The water I saw was full of shark fins moving against the stillness of the cavern lake. I hung there without thought. Machines of death all around me working in their autonomous way. None came close. They had taken Doc – but they were moving of their own accord, closer then further, the great things hidden under the surface indicated by those fins – I saw briefly wet skin, gills, once or twice what might have been hints of great glassy eyes – never taking any chance against me. This great armada of hunters stayed its hand as I bobbed there useless in the midst of it and that was worse than if they hadn’t.
But they had got Doc. They had got Doc and there were so many of them these great perfect predators patrolling their waters and I was only feeble prey, a mammal limited by myself, a dumb thing without a chance, a fly stuck against a windshield, and I floated and tasted blood and the sharks’ fins seemed to be waiting there like the teeth in the giant’s maw ready to close tight around me. One came close – dead eye, bloodied snout, scars running along the white and deep blue of its fuselage. The water stirred about it, its fins and its body cutting through. Its wake diffused near my face. God, I thought. I saw at last what he had – what Doc must have seen from the cockpit of his sinking Mustang. Death itself.
And with a creak, a groan of ancient metal, it announced itself to me. I turned in the water, splashing, and saw that taking up the whole other side of the cavern was a vastness, a shape beyond shapes, long and broad and enormous, its rusted skin flaking away and its rotting bulk floating there half-wedged against the rock, holes pockmarking its side, its conning tower lapsed and its hull cracked half-open at the middle. It was the wreck of a submarine. Itachizame – the tiger shark. The submarine we had come here for just like we’d been told, waiting for us in her nest beneath the island alone for all these years. But not a wreck: a living thing, for the light that broke the cavern’s blackness did not only come from the far-away exit but as well rose from it, a reddish dark glow that pulsed every second that emanated from the depths of the broken boat’s interior, that was filled with anger and hatred and lust that, despite its dimness, stung my eyes just to glimpse. A thing there was within her body that was alive. The beating heart of war. And near the submarine’s luminescent belly, signified by a forest of fins, all her children of gill and fin, nourished by her glow, moved without thought endlessly through the water around her. I couldn’t look at it. I couldn’t hear the creaking of its rupturing steel. But there was nowhere else to go. I turned back to where I had come from to find Shaw and the Chinese boy and couldn’t see them. The water – the blood – was in my eyes and through my clothes and right down all the way into my soul, and I was sinking but not yet, stuck there between places. With a flurry of motion a shark came close on my right side and I beheld its thick body inches from my own. The pulsing of its gills as for a second they left the water. From behind me the noise of the submarine intensified, the rumbling of her broken body now higher, coming together, the piercing sound of a scream. I had I realized angered the god and though I did not turn I perceived her and felt her leave her rocky perch, the great form of the tiger shark loosed after me, a leviathan now falling fully into the water of the cavern with a thunderous splash, crushing the nearest of her children beneath her as she now advanced with engines that did not work water rushing through a hull that did not keep, as she bore down upon me and opened her metal maw and her jagged teeth of shrapnel rended me apart and her great gullet of buzzing electricity stripped me bare and the diesel acids of her stomach melted me finally into only empty matter to be ejected as slurry the barest trace of man or life but only fleshy meaty paste, the final stage of evolution for her children, the beautiful sharks, to feast on as they pleased-
This was not real. I lived. My arm hit hard stone and I realized I had dragged myself back to the entrance. Shaw and the Chinese boy were gone but I was upon the stone gasping and gulping and spitting out water and Doc’s blood and other darker liquids. I didn’t look back again at the cavern and at the sharks and at the Itachizame stranded there, because I was afraid not that I’d see it all there but that I wouldn’t. I went up into the tunnels alone. I passed the strange altar to the Japanese corpse and didn’t look at that either – just hurried, not running but not walking, feeling unreal like I’d died down there like Doc had. Hadn’t he? His blood or someone’s blood was upon my cheek. The bunker was silent. I didn’t see Wong or his men or anyone else. The moon shone down. Staggering through this – I had cut myself on the rock down there, I was bleeding all over, hurting like hell– I returned to the Blood ‘n Guts and I went to Doc’s cabin – where he had fitted another shark’s jaw, a bull shark he had speared once – and I lay down there to rest.
They found me there a week later. A bunch of Kuomintang boys on a boat. The whole thing had been the only way, they said. The Itachizame had disappeared – the army could put up soldiers there again. That was it. Nobody said anything about anything else to me. But they put me in a nice little hospital there. No other survivors. I kept on thinking about it. I’m thinking about it now; how they cleared out that island and they didn’t find any submarine there, and they didn’t find any Japanese corpses either, or anything of Wong or his men or anyone else. No sign of Shaw – the Chinese boy, they told me they found him, that he died a little later of his wounds. Wouldn’t let me see him. Said he kept talking about men there, strange men, and knives and blood and the shark’s teeth. Said Shaw had been taken and thrown to them too. A sacrifice to the tiger shark.
I don’t know about any of that. But as well as the Chinese boy they found Doc. They found him stripped to the bone, flesh all gone, and they found him with his wooden hand propped up in an alcove somewhere in those tunnels, still in the shredded clothes he’d been wearing when the sharks had got him. And – the last thing they told me, before they left me here with the men in white coats – they had found him with a single joss stick before him, like he had been a god mounted in a temple altar. And the end of the joss stick had been smoldering like someone had just recently lit it. And- and the tiger shark had not maybe been roaring at me in that cavern beneath the island. But maybe – just maybe – she had been laughing at Doc instead. For his foolishness in coming back.
I think I’m done for, anyway. After all this. After everything. It’s been good to get things down, but we all have to move on eventually. Get things sorted. It’s an island, you see. Where they put me. There’s an ocean outside. I can hear the waves lapping against the shore. And the sharks. The daughters of God. They’re in the water outside and hell I just know they’re waiting for me. Waiting to feast upon what’s left of me. All I have to do is trust fate. All I have to do is just like Doc did when he knew his time had come. And just dive in.
— Yoshimi is an Englishman using a Japanese pseudonym posting online from China. Figure that out. He writes fiction and non-fiction about communism, Asian history and internet culture on his blog at https://lateralthinkingtechnology.wordpress.com.