75: It Was The Moon That Did It.


It was the moon that did it. Its beauty drew him to the rail like a magnet. That was it, it was beautiful–though there were undertones. Similes spun through his head–a proud woman, reproducing herself in the countless mirrors that lay on the surface of every wave–a tawny Spanish maiden, trailing her golden cape across the black sea. Some of the gleaming spangles had torn off on the crest of a wave and lay near the side of the ship, sparkling fitfully. They were brilliant, flashing, golden, flashing–

He realized that his eyes were wide, staring, and he sharply turned his head, breaking the current between the spangles and his eyes. Anne used to wave her hand in front of him when he got that way, and he’d break, and her eyes would crinkle as she smiled at him. He thought of her, the soft turn of her shoulder brushed by her shining golden hair. But Anne was in sunlight. This was nighttime, and the moon-gold was unearthly, it had no scent of woman, no human warmth. It was feminine, fascinatingly feminine, because it received him, enfolded his avid glance, and invited deeper exploration. It was beautiful.[2]

It stood for Beauty, and the thrumming motors of the transport meant everything that was not. He had been out there once before, and knew what it meant–tight horror of destruction and fear–cruelty, not in extinguishing a dangerous enemy, but in killing those who tried to surrender, nude with their hands up, because you had no time to handle prisoners. Wary, half-felt fear, face achingly set in one twisted expression, the smell of the dead bodies, of Death itself, a montage of smoke, rubble, splintered wood and tortured steel. The smell of steel and coral dust in the sun–the leaden-foot tread of fear.

Fear again. He wasn’t afraid now. He wasn’t afraid of going in. But he knew that he’d be afraid when he got there, past the beach and surrounded by unseen rifles. That was the worst of it–not seeing, not being able to meet your opponent. But it wasn’t fear–he wasn’t afraid of going in.

His hand slid along the rail and he dropped his head, but his eyes couldn’t escape the flashing lights. They drifted back, slipped into gear, and opened wide again.

That was beauty, shimmering, elusive. Not austerely masculine, but feminine in its personal allure. What he was headed for was ugly, there was pain and discomfort. He wasn’t afraid now, but he knew that fear would be one of the worst pains when he got there, on the beach. His mouth would be dry, his eyes strained and tired, and his ears deaf from the chattering roar of battle. Here, even the low murmurings of the sleeping ship were lost in the soft swish of the water curling up from the bow. The water was soft and sibilant, the moon-gold was cool.

His shoulder muscles convulsively tensed and his arms threw him back from the rail. His back hard against the warm steel bulkhead, he thought, “God! I almost went in!” Now he was afraid. That last lurch, and he had teetered–what was the matter with him, anyway? He was a rugged Marine, he was hard, his body was hard, his legs–

He realized that he was holding himself rigid and suddenly relaxed; his body slumped and his feet spraddled out in front of him, bracing his weight against the wall. He could feel sweat on his lip. He’d never let this bother him before, he had joked with the rest of them, and here he was thinking like a love-sick schoolgirl.[3] Another phrase–moonstruck, that’s what he was, moonstruck. But at least nothing had driven him to this; it had just happened. And he hadn’t been consciously arguing with himself to do or not do anything. They were just random thoughts that presented themselves.

He wouldn’t let himself think of what it was that he might or might not have done. But he knew what it was and he was afraid. He didn’t even trust himself–yes he did. He was going to force himself to. He pushed himself erect and took the one step up to the rail. He grasped a thin rope tightly with one hand and leaned his weight on the rail again.

The moon was cold now, and he shivered. The blue-black water seemed sinister instead of invitingly warm and dark. He remembered that it would be hard on his body if he hit it from this height. Christ, what was he thinking about? He knew the ship couldn’t stop, even if anyone heard him go. By the time the transport had stopped, backed up and located him, the convoy would have gone by. No one man was that important–certainly no lieutenant.

He was letting himself get carried away by this. He should go back to his compartment, but he knew that if he did it would be an admission of defeat to himself. He would be running away from the struggle. Damn it, there he went again–there was no argument. Whichever side won it would still be him. The result would be right because he made it. All by himself, with the help of the moonlight and the motors of the transport of course. There was no conflict, he had just thought for a while of Anne and she was true and pure and so was the sea. Certainly it had no imperfections either. He thought of what Anne would have thought of all this and smiled.

That seemed to break it. He had been taking himself too seriously. Maybe that was what showed that he was young. But he could go now–just to give a final fillip to the mood, to prove his courage to himself he leaned far out over the rail, his stomach hard against a hinge. His feed left the deck and he leaned heavily on the rope. At least he had been right about the beauty of the night. The water did look inviting–not for swimming, but to lose oneself in its warm depths. And that moonlight was hypnotic. Maybe–

The ship rolled heavily up from the trough of a wave, his weight went on the rope and with a rending sound it tore loose from the rotten canvas of the life raft above. He felt his toe catch on the rail, his body twisted but his heel slipped over the smooth wood and he felt himself go backwards, and the black hulk of the ship slipped up and away.

A couple of luminous globules wavered when he opened his eyes and when he violently flung his arms into one breast stroke a trail of them danced after his fingertips. His legs slowly sank under him and with two tremendous heaves his head broke water and he heard sound again. His lungs sucked in air and he tried to call for a life raft but there was stinging salt in his threat and his voice only rasped. Foamy sea from the side of the ship broke over his head and it was white–ghostly white in the moonlight. He felt the throb and roar of the propeller close, very close, and when he could see again it had gone past.

He couldn’t–he didn’t want to think. He only felt regret as the ship slipped away. It was almost futile to call now. They were all asleep and comfortable, but he tried one hoarse, meaningless bellow. It sounded small, and then his throat choked with rage and futility. He threw himself at the water and tried, for a few violent strokes to catch the ship. What else was there to do? He would have wept if he remembered how. He was ashamed, bitterly ashamed of himself. For the first time in his life he had done something that he could not even sanction to himself. Of course the final going had not been his fault, but he had let himself get into the danger. He looked at the thin bubbles of the wake and suddenly thought of his life belt–he reached down and squeezed the two arrows together, as the directions said, the carbon dioxide cartridges hissed and he stopped paddling.

He was alone. So alone that no one else was even alive in the world. There was nothing in the world but himself, the water and the flickering reflection of the dying moon. He wasn’t afraid, he knew that now. But it was an empty triumph, for there was nothing to be afraid of. The outcome was inevitable and he knew now that you could only fear what was unseen or unknown. He was glad at least that this hadn’t happened because of fear. It was the moongold–he kicked his body half around and cursed bitterly at the moon. It wasn’t beautiful now, or fascinating. It was just a phenomenon of astronomy and cold, restless water had happened to reflect its light. It wasn’t feminine or masculine. It was just a cold fact. He looked away, sick at heart, thinking again that it was such a foolish way to die. He could have sold his death dearly on the beach, but here he had thrown it away. The country needed young men–now someone else would have to do his job, take his risks. He was a Marine and he was proud and his men might think–

He told himself that he would think of Anne later, when it didn’t hurt so much. When it would be a goodbye instead of a regret that he could not live and fulfill the promise that their life had held.

He was glad that the mocking moon had almost gone. It would soon be dawn, though it didn’t matter. He could have taken his lifebelt off and made the end come sooner, but there wasn’t much point in it. He was almost comfortable, and he had a lot to think about and feel.

If only he wasn’t quite so completely alone.

I felt the first part of this last night, it bothered me, and I thought I’d try to get it down, in its tenseness and confusion. I figured I’d caught it and thought you might like to see it. But don’t get ideas! It’s not a story–could only be half a chapter of an introspective, Thomas Wolf-ian book.


[1] Envelope dated 7 June 1944, presumably written aboard USS Calvert en route to Saipan.
[2] Strikethrough in original.
[3] GWW heavily edited this short story, cutting everything after this footnote through Phil’s conclusion.

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