I never saw the ocean until I was nineteen, and if I ever see it again, it will be too damn soon. I was a child, coming out of the train, fresh from Amarillo, into San Diego and all her glory. The sight of it, all that water and the blind crushing power of the surf, filled me with dread. I’d seen water before, lakes, plenty big, but that was nothing like this. I don’t think I can describe what it was like that first time, and furthermore, I’m not sure I care too.
You can imagine the state I was in when a few weeks later they gave me a rifle and put me on a boat. When I stopped vomiting up everything that I ate, I decided that I might not kill myself after all. Not being able to see the land, and that ceaseless chaotic, rocking of the waves; I remember thinking that the war had to be a step up from this. Kids can be so stupid.
I had such a giddy sense of glee when I saw the island, and its solid banks. They transferred us to a smaller boat in the middle of the night, just our undersized company with our rucksacks and rifles. We just took a ride right into it, just because they asked us to. The lieutenants herded us into our platoons on the decks and briefed us: the island had been lost. That was exactly how he put it. Somehow, in the grand plan for the Pacific, this one tiny speck of earth, only recently discovered and unmapped, had gotten lost in the shuffle. A singularly perfect clerical error was all it took. It was extremely unlikely, he stressed, that the Japanese had gotten a hold of it, being so far east and south of their current borders, but a recent fly-over reported what looked like an airfield in the central plateau.
We hit the beach in the middle of the night. I’d heard talk of landings before, and I’m not ashamed to say that I was scared shitless. I don’t know quite what I expected, but it wasn’t we got, that thick, heavy silence. Behind the lapping of the waves and the wind in the trees, there was… nothing. No birds, no insects, just deathly stillness.
Another hundred yards deeper into the eerie tranquility of the jungle, we stopped in a small clearing for the officers to reconvene, and it was obvious even they were spooked. I wasn’t a bright kid, but I knew enough to know that something was very wrong. It was like the whole island was dead. I remember I could only smell the sea, despite the red blossoms dangling from the trees.
It wasn’t an airfield, on top of the plateau. I can’t tell you what it was, because I’ve never seen anything like it, and I don’t think anyone ever will. It was sort of like the Aztec pyramids, but turned upside down, so that it sank, like giant steps, into the earth. You’d get the basic idea of it, but that somehow fails to capture the profound unearthliness of the structure.
There was no sign of individual pieces in the masonry. It appeared to have been carved out of a single immense block of black rock into a sharp and geometric shape. It was slick and perfectly smooth like obsidian, but it had no shine to it. It swallowed up even the moonlight, so that it was impossible to see how deep it went, or even focus your eyes on any one part of it, like it was one giant blind spot.
Our platoon drew the honor of investigating the lower levels, so we descended the stairs as the rest of the company surrounded the plateau. We took the stairs slowly and carefully, after the first man to touch one of the right angle edges cut his hand on it.
At odd intervals down the steps, there were several small stone rooms: simple, empty, hollow cubes of stone with one opening, facing the pit in the center. There was no door that we could see, and with the opening being four feet off the ground, you’d have to put your hands on that black razor sharp edge to climb into it.
We circled the descending floors, shining our lights into each of the small structures. They contained the same featureless black walls and nothing else; no dust, leaves, or foliage from the jungle. The whole monument was immaculate, as if the place was just built, but that couldn’t be right. The whole structure felt incalculably old to me, somehow.
Down near the bottom, you could see that it simply sloped away into a darkness that swallowed the flashlights. We tossed first a button, and then a shell casing down into the pit. We waited in the unearthly silence, but no sounds returned. No one spoke. We simply turned away from the yawning abyss and continued our sweep of the bottom rung and the last of the small structures.
The body in the back corner was almost invisible at first in the thick shadows, but the long spill of drying blood reflected the light of our flashlights, and it led right to him. He was coiled tight, arms around his thighs, and his face tucked into his knees. You could see that he was badly cut. His clothes opened in ragged bloody tatters to reveal the pale skin and bone beneath it. He may have been dressed in a Japanese uniform, but it had been reduced to ribbons. I only had a few seconds to look at him before we heard the first shots.
It echoed in the still jungle, swallowed almost instantly by the blanket of quiet. By the time we reached the top, the rest of the company had vanished. There were shell casings on the ground and the hot smell of gunpowder in the air, but they were gone. The trees were deathly quiet around us, and there wasn't a trace of the nearly fifty other men that had come ashore with us. I could taste bile rising in my throat as panic threatened to cripple me. I felt crushed between the yawning pit and razor edges on one side and the dead jungle and the pounding ocean on the other. The silence rang in my ears and I struggled to still myself.
They were just inside the jungle, waiting for us. They came out from between the trees with all the sound of a moth, simply sliding into our view.
I can try to tell you what I saw, the same as I did to the army doc on the hospital ship when I first woke up (and half a dozen other various officers over the following months), and you’ll have the same reaction they did; that I was a dumb country rube suffering from heatstroke and trauma. That I was crazy.
You know me. You know I’m not crazy. And I remember every second of that night with crystal clarity.
The thing, the first one that caught my eye, was wearing the skin of a Japanese soldier, all mottled with the belly distended from rot. The head drooped, useless and obscene on the shoulders, tongue swollen and eyes cloudy. I could see where it was coming apart at the ill-defined joints, with ragged holes in the drying flesh. At the bottom of each of these raw pits was blackness, deeper than the stones of the buildings; a darkness that seemed to churn and froth like an angry cloud.
The thing moved suddenly, the head snapping and rolling backwards as it dashed toward us. I had my rifle clasped tightly in my hands, but it simply didn’t occur to me to fire. All I could do was gape silently at the macabre sight bearing down on us, and think absurdly of my mother’s marionettes.
A gun went off beside me, and I turned to see a dozen more of the horrors darting silently in on us. Among them were a few more rotting and swollen forms, but the majority wore the same uniforms as us, and were pale, fresh, and soaked in blood. More bullets zipped through the air, and I saw the grisly things hit again and again, but they never slowed. I caught a glimpse of the First Sergeant’s vacant, glassy eyes as his head dangled limp from his shoulders. I saw the great ragged wound in his back and the shuddering darkness that inhabited his corpse when he leapt just past me without a sound, landing like a graceful predator onto the soldier beside me. The others around me began to drop in a silent dance of kinetic energy and blurred motion
I was on the track team in high school, and it could have got me to college. I didn’t need an invitation. I just ran. I ran blind through the jungle, bouncing off of tree trunks. I ran until I saw the ocean, and it struck a new ringing note of terror in me. I don’t remember actually deciding to swim, but when I turned back to the tree line, I saw one of the white and bloody things emerge, running on all fours, the hands splayed wide and the back contorted and cracked in an impossible angle.
To this day, the mere thought of the ocean still brings on a cold sweat, but that night I let it embrace me. I let the tide drag me out to sea, if only to bring momentary relief from the impossible monolith and terrors on the island. The days I spent drifting offshore and blistering in the sun were a welcome release from the silent island.
I never saw the war. They sent me home as soon as I recovered.
It was comforting in a way, when I thought no one believed me. It allowed me to believe that it never happened, that it was a product of my mind. However, as I got older, I’ve found that it is pointless to lie to anyone, especially yourself. I know what I saw.
Someone else believed me, too. I’ve seen maps of where they tested the hydrogen bombs in the South Pacific.