We, The Drowned
Many years ago there lived a man called Laurids Madsen, who went up to Heaven and came down again, thanks to his boots.
He didn’t soar as high as the tip of the mast on a full-rigged ship; in fact he got no farther than the main. Once up there, he stood outside the pearly gates and saw Saint Peter—though the guardian of the gateway to the Hereafter merely flashed his bare ass at him.
Laurids Madsen should have been dead. But death didn’t want him, and he came back down a changed man.
Until the fame he achieved from this heavenly visit, Laurids Madsen was best known for having single-handedly started a war. His father, Rasmus, had been lost at sea when Laurids was six years old. When he turned fourteen he shipped aboard the Anna of Marstal, his native town on the island of Ærø, but the ship was lost in the Baltic only three months later. The crew was rescued by an American brig and from then on Laurids Madsen dreamt of America.
He’d passed his navigation exam in Flensburg when he was eighteen and the same year he was shipwrecked again, this time off the coast of Norway near Mandal, where he stood on a rock with the waves slapping on a cold October night, scanning the horizon for salvation. For the next five years he sailed the seven seas. He went south around Cape Horn and heard penguins scream in the pitchblack night. He saw Valparaiso, the west coast of America, and Sydney, where the kangaroos hop and the trees shed bark in winter and not their leaves. He met a girl with eyes like grapes by the name of Sally Brown, and could tell stories about Foretop Street, La Boca, Barbary Coast, and Tiger Bay. He boasted about his first equator crossing, when he’d saluted Neptune and felt the bump as the ship passed the line: his fellow sailors had marked the occasion by forcing him to drink salt water, fish oil, and vinegar; they’d baptized him in tar, lamp soot, and glue; shaved him with a rusty razor with dents in its blade; and tended to his cuts with stinging salt and lime. They made him kiss the ocher-colored cheek of the pockmarked Amphitrite and forced his nose down her bottle of smelling salts, which they’d filled with nail clippings.
Laurids Madsen had seen the world.
So had many others. But he was the only one to return to Marstal with the peculiar notion that everything there was too small, and to prove his point, he frequently spoke in a foreign tongue he called American, which he’d learned when he sailed with the naval frigate Neversink for a year.
“Givin nem belong mi Laurids Madsen,” he said.
He had three sons and a daughter with Karoline Grube from Nygade: Rasmus, named after his grandfather, and Esben and Albert. The girl’s name was Else and she was the oldest. Rasmus, Esben, and Else took after their mother, who was short and taciturn, while Albert resembled his father: at the age of four he was already as tall as Esben, who was three years his senior. His favorite pastime was rolling around an English cast-iron cannonball, which was far too heavy for him to lift—not that it stopped him from trying. Stubborn-faced, he’d brace his knees and strain.
“Heave away, my jolly boys! Heave away, my bullies!” Laurids shouted in encouragement, as he watched his youngest son struggling with it.
The cannonball had come crashing through the roof of their house in Korsgade during the English siege of Marstal in 1808, and it had put Laurids’s mother in such a fright that she promptly gave birth to him right in the middle of the kitchen floor. When little Albert wasn’t busy with the cannonball it lived in the kitchen, where Karoline used it as a mortar for crushing mustard seeds.
“It could have been you announcing your arrival, my boy,” Laurids’s father had once said to him, “seeing how big you were when you were born. If the stork had dropped you, you would have gone through the roof like an English cannonball.”
“Finggu,” Laurids said, holding up his finger.
He wanted to teach the children the American language.
Fut meant foot. He pointed to his boot. Maus was mouth.
He rubbed his belly when they sat down to eat. He bared his teeth.
They all understood he was telling them he was hungry.
Ma was misis, Pa papa tru. When Laurids was absent, they said “Mother” and “Father” like normal children, except for Albert. He had a special bond with his father.
The children had many names, pickaninnies, bullies, and hearties. “Laihim tumas,” Laurids said to Karoline, and pursed his lips as if he was about to kiss her.
She blushed and laughed, and then got angry.
“Don’t be such a fool, Laurids,” she said.
In 1848, war broke out between the Danish crown and the rebellious Germans across the Baltic in Schleswig-Holstein, who wanted to cut their ties with Denmark. The old customs steward, de la Porte, was the first to know because the provisional insurgent government in Kiel sent him a “proclamation,” accompanied by a request to hand over the customs coffers.
All of Ærø was up in arms, and we immediately formed a home guard led by a young teacher from Rise, who from then on was known as the General. On the highest points of the island we erected beacons made of barrels filled with tar and old rope, attached to poles. If the German came by sea, we’d signal his approach by setting them alight and hoisting them up.
There were beacons at Knasterbjerg and on the hills by Vejsnæs, and all around our coast, guards watched the horizon closely.
But all this war business soon became too much for Laurids, who never had much respect for anything to begin with. One evening, as he was on his way home from Eckernförde Fjord, he passed Vejsnæs, where he neared the shore and yelled, “The German is coming!” His voice rang out across the water.
A few minutes later the barrel at the top of the hill was set alight, then the one on Knasterbjerg, and the others followed all the way down to Synneshøj, almost fifteen miles away, until the whole of Ærø was illuminated as on bonfire night.
As the flames rose, Laurids lay in his boat, laughing his head off at the mayhem he’d caused. But when he reached Marstal, he saw lights everywhere and the streets teeming with people, even though it was late evening. Some were shouting incomprehensible orders; others were whimpering and praying. A belligerent crowd was marching up Markgade armed with scythes, pitchforks, and the odd gun, and terrified young mothers rushed around the streets, clutching wailing babies, sure that the German would skewer them on his bayonet. By the well on the corner of Markgade and Vestergade a skipper’s wife was arguing with a servant girl. The woman had got it into her head that they should hide in the well and was ordering the girl to go first.
“After you, madam,” the girl insisted.
We men were ordering one another about as well, but there were too many skippers in our town for anyone to heed anyone else, so all we could agree on was a solemn vow to part with our lives only at the highest possible price.
The upheaval reached the parsonage in Kirkestrædet where Pastor Zachariassen was entertaining guests. One lady fainted, but the pastor’s twelve-year-old son, Ludvig, grabbed a poker, ready to defend his country against the advancing enemy. At the home of Mr. Isager, the schoolteacher, who also doubled up as parish clerk, the family prepared for imminent attack. All twelve sons were on hand to celebrate the birthday of their mother, the portly Mrs. Isager; she equipped them with clay pots filled with ashes and commanded them to throw the contents in the face of the German, should he dare to storm their house.
Our flock moved on through Markgade toward Reberbanen led by old Jeppe, who was waving a pitchfork and yelling that the German was welcome to come and get him if he dared. Laves Petersen, the little carpenter, was forced to return home. He had bravely slung his gun over his shoulder and filled his pockets to bursting with bullets, but halfway down the street, he suddenly remembered he’d left his gunpowder behind.
At Marstal Mill the miller’s hefty wife, Madam Weber, already armed with a pitchfork, insisted on joining the fight, and because she appeared more intimidating than most of us men, we instantly welcomed her to our bloodthirsty ranks.
Laurids, who was an emotional man, was so fired up by the general fighting spirit that he too ran home to find a weapon. Karoline and the four children were hiding under the dining table in the parlor when he burst in and proclaimed cheerfully, “Come along, kids, time to go to war!”
There was a hollow thud. It was Karoline, banging her head against the underside of the dining table. She crawled laboriously out from under the tablecloth, stood to her full height, and screamed at her husband, “Have you completely lost your mind, Madsen? Children don’t go to war!”
Rasmus and Esben started jumping up and down.
“We want to go! We want to go!” they yelled in unison. “Please, please, let us go.”
Little Albert had already started rolling his cannonball around.
“Have you all gone stark raving mad?” their mother shouted, boxing the ears of whichever child came near. “You get back under that table right now!”
Laurids ran into the kitchen to find a suitable weapon. “Where do you keep the big frying pan?” he called into the parlor.
“You keep your hands off it!” Karoline shouted back.
“Well, I’ll take the broom then,” he announced. “The German will be sorry!”
They heard the front door slam behind him.
“Did you hear that?” whispered Rasmus, the eldest, to Albert. “Father wasn’t even speaking American.”
“The man’s insane,” their mother said, shaking her head in the darkness underneath the dining table. “Have you ever heard of anyone going to war with a broom?”
Laurids’s arrival in our militant crowd stirred great delight. True, he had a reputation for being cocky, but he was big and strong and good to have on your side.
“Is that the only weapon you’ve got?” We had spotted the broom.
“It’s good enough for the German,” he replied, brandishing it aloft.
“We’ll sweep him right out of here.”
Feeling invincible, we roared with laughter at his joke.
“Let’s leave a few pitchforks behind,” Lars Bødker said. “We’ll need them for stacking the bodies.”
By now we’d reached the open fields. It was half an hour’s march to Vejsnæs, but our pace was brisk and our blood was up. At Drejbakkerne, the sight of the flaming beacons further fueled our fighting spirit. But at the sound of horses’ hooves in the darkness we froze. The enemy was upon us!
We had hoped to surprise the German on the beach, but here on the hill the terrain still favored us. Laurids positioned himself for battle with his broom and we followed suit.
A voice rang out behind us. “Wait for me!”
It was the little carpenter, who’d gone home for his gunpowder.
“Shhhh,” we warned. “The German is closing in.”
The hoofbeats grew louder—and it became clear that there was only one horse. When the rider appeared out of the darkness, Laves Petersen raised his gun and took aim. But Laurids pushed down on the barrel.
“It’s Bülow, the controller,” he said.
The horse was dripping with sweat, its black flanks pumping in and out. Bülow raised his hand.
“You can go home. There’s no German at Vejsnæs.”
“But the beacons were alight,” Laves called out.
“I’ve spoken to the coast guard,” Bülow said. “It was a false alarm.”
“And we left our warm beds. For what? For nothing!”
Madam Weber folded her arms across her chest and fired us all a warning glance as though looking for a new enemy, now that the German had failed to show.
“At least we’ve proved that we’re ready for him,” the controller said soothingly. “And surely it’s good news that he’s not coming at all.”
We mumbled in agreement. But although we saw his logic, we were sorely disappointed. We had been ready to stare the German in the face, and death too—but neither had made it to Ærø.
“One day that German will be sorry,” Lars Bødker said.
Starting to tire, we decided to head home. A chilly shower had started to fall. In silence we reached the mill, where Madam Weber parted company from us. Turning to face our miserable flock, she placed her pitchfork on the ground as though presenting a rifle.
“I wonder,” she said in an ominous voice, “which one of you jokers got decent folks out of their beds in the middle of the night to go to war.”
We all stared at Laurids, towering there with his broom on his shoulder.
But Laurids neither flinched nor averted his eyes. Instead he looked straight at us. Then he threw his head back and started laughing into the rain.
Soon war broke out in earnest and we were called up for the navy. The naval steamer Hekla anchored off the neighboring town of Ærøskøbing to pick us up. We lined up on the wharf and as our names were called, one by one we jumped into the launch, which took us to the steamer. We’d felt cheated out of war that evening in November, but now the wait was over and we were in high spirits.
“Make way for a Dane with his life, his soul, and his sea bag!” yelled Claus Jacob Clausen.
He was a small, sinewy man who liked to boast that a Copenhagen tattoo artist called Frederik the Spike had once told him he had the toughest arm he’d ever stuck a needle into. Clausen’s father, Hans Clausen, had been a pilot, as had his grandfather, and Clausen wanted to follow in their footsteps; what’s more, the night before we embarked he’d had a dream that told him he’d emerge from the war alive.
In Copenhagen we were inspected on board the frigate Gefi on. Laurids was separated from the rest of us and was the only one to join the Christian the Eighth, the ship-of-the-line, whose mainmast was so tall that from top to deck, it stood one and a half times the height of the church tower in Marstal. We had to crane our necks to take it in, but the dizziness it induced filled us with pride about the great deeds we’d been summoned to perform.
Laurids watched us as we left. After a year on the American manofwar Neversink, the Christian the Eighth suited him. He’d soon feel at home on her deck—though when he saw the rest of us disappear up the gangway to the Gefi on, he must have briefl y felt abandoned.
So off we went to war. On Palm Sunday we sailed along the coast of Ærø, past the hills at Vejsnæs, where Laurids had turned the island upside-down with his cry “The German is coming!” Now the Dane was coming, and it was the German’s turn to light his tar barrels and take off like a headless chicken.
We moored off Als and waited. On Wednesday we set course for Eckernförde Fjord and reached its mouth late that afternoon. There we followed the order to line up on the quarterdeck: in our homespun shirts and cloth trousers of blue, black, or white, we were a motley crew. Only the ribbons on our caps emblazoned with the name Gefi on and a red and white cockade announced that we were members of the king’s navy. The captain, who was dressed in his finest uniform, complete with epaulettes and a sword, gave a speech in which he ordered us to fight like brave men. He shouted three cheers for the king and waved his tricorn, and we joined in with all our might. Then he ordered the cannons to be fired so we raw recruits could hear how they’d sound in battle. A formidable roar rolled across the sea, accompanied by the acrid smell of gunpowder. A strong breeze was blowing, carrying the blue haze of cannon smoke off on the wind. For several minutes we couldn’t hear a thing. The noise from the cannons had deafened us.
Two steamers arrived, and we recognized the Hekla, the ship we had sailed in from Ærøskøbing. We were now a full squadron. The next day we geared up for battle, settling the cannons in their ports, positioning the pumps and hoses where they could be put to immediate use if fire broke out on board, and placing case shots, grapeshot, and boxes of cartridges by each cannon. Over the past few days we had practiced this drill so many times that we knew most of the naval commands by heart. We were eleven men to each cannon, and from the moment the first command sounded—“Get ready!” followed by “Fuse powder and paper!” and “Insert cartridge!” to the command “Fire!”—we scrambled around one another, terrified of making a mistake. We were used to working in threes or fours on our small boats and ketches but now suddenly we were to be masters of life and death.
All too often we’d stand there, baffled, while the gun captain screamed something like “Tend the vent!” or “Search the piece!” What the hell did that mean in plain Danish? Whenever we succeeded in performing a complicated routine without errors, the captain would congratulate us and we’d erupt in cheers. Upon which he’d look first at us, then at his cannon, and finally down at the deck, and shake his head.
“You bunch of puppies,” he said. “Just do your best, damn you!”