“A seabat has been captured on the fantail. Personnel wishing to view same should report to the fantail on the double. That is all.”
A group of men surrounded a sturdy wooden box that jerked and jumped, as if a large, angry sea monster would escape at any moment and attack its tormentors. Two sailors sat on the box, their muscles straining to steady it on the deck. Several young sailors were very excited and bunched up in line to look at the seabat through a small hole punched in the box. But others looked bored and ignored the excitement. A man casually swept down the fantail near the box.
“What's a seabat?” Larsen asked, as he sat in the Operations living compartment watching a card game.
His question was ignored by the four men playing cards at a corner table. Larsen didn't want to make too much of a deal over it. He was super cautious, seeing how he'd already been burned once. During transit to Subic the Goat had sent him down to Supply to requisition a Fallopian tube to repair an IFF receiver. The boys in Radar I got a chuckle out of that one. Then they had tried to get him to go to the Boatswain Locker for 20 feet of water line, but he wouldn't fall for that old ploy. Every sailor with any sea time at all knew what a water line was.
But a seabat! If it was announced over the 1MC, it must be real.
“Aren't you guys going back to see it?” Larsen asked, but again there was no response. Fatty, Toolard and the others were involved in a fierce game of hearts, a game that didn't suffer interruptions lightly.
Toolard grunted as he slapped the queen of spades on Fatty's vulnerable seven of diamonds. He looked at Larsen. “Ain't no seabat. Those guys on the fantail dragged in a half-dead seagull and are trying to make something out of it. Seabats are extinct, everybody knows that.”
“A damn pity, too,” Fatty said as he shuffled the cards. “I seen some big ones in my day. 20-foot wingspan. Covered with scales. Blind. And smell, oooh baby. Like Toolard's underwear after a week at sea.”
“Blind?” Larsen questioned.
“Yeah,” Toolard said as he gathered the cards dealt in front of him. “They don't need to see. They have built-in radar--like bats--and screech so they can tell where they're going. They dive to the bottom of the sea and scoop up mud with their beaks, digesting all the crawly things that live there. That's why they're so ugly. They eat ugly things.”
“And they shit mud,” Fatty interjected. “Seabat's the only bird that shits mud.”
“A seabat ain't no bird,” Toolard flared. “Seabat's a fish. It has gills and breathes underwater.”
Fatty raised his eyebrows. “Seabat's a bird. It has wings and flies in the air. I seen it myself. Back in '67 one of those big suckers swooped down on deck of the Tulare and snatched up a seaman deuce name of Rogers. Carried him off and we never saw him again.”
“Seabats eat people?”
“Yeah. Seabats need the sweet taste of human flesh before they can mate and make a lot of little seabats,” Fatty said. “Ugly furry fuckers. Lost three guys that year to seabats.”
“That's nothing,” Toolard countered. “When I was doing time aboard the old Seminole we were dropping anchor in Hong Kong harbor when a seabat crawled out of the water and capsized the captain's gig. Chewed the captain's foot off before we saved him.”
Fatty looked surprised. “I didn't know you were a gator sailor, Toolie. Them the guys who taught you to put salt in your coffee?”
Toolard glared at Fatty, but Larsen didn't want it to stop. “How can I believe this? If a seabat is so big and ugly and dangerous, why haven't I ever heard of one?”
Stewart, a radarman who had remained quiet throughout the argument, rolled his eyes. “Because it's a seabird...”
“It's a fish, goddammit!” Toolard snapped.
“Bird, fish, whatever,” Stewart went on. “Only sailors see seabats, and who believes a sailor.”
Larsen thought a moment. “I don't believe it for a minute. I think it's a big story you guys are making up.”
Fatty shrugged. “Larsen is right. Why argue? There aren't any seabats anymore. They're all dead.”
“How did they die?” Larsen asked, not believing, but wishing he could believe.
“Chinese caught 'em all and put 'em in soup,” Fatty replied. “Seabat soup is a Chinese delicacy.”
Fatty's comment ended the conversation and the men resumed playing cards. Of course there was no such animal as a seabat. How could anything so amazing exist? But Larsen was strangely disappointed when the argument ended. Wouldn't it be something if a strange and wonderful monster like a seabat was captured on the fantail? What if there was some truth in what they said? What if they actually caught the last seabat? What if it was the last survivor and he didn't get to see it? What would it hurt to wander on back there and take one small peek?
Larsen stood up. If he slipped out quietly no one would notice.
Feet stamped down the steel ladder. A young seaman Larsen had never seen before gasped, “I seen it! I seen it! The biggest seabat in the world!”
Larsen asked the first question. “What's it look like?”
“It's black and has scales and a big yellow beak full of seaweed and...” The man was breathless and couldn't go on.
“Did it have wings?” Fatty asked. All eyes were glued on the seaman.
“Big black ones, covered with mud.”
“Then it's true. It's a seabat!” Fatty yelled, and leered at Toolard. “And it's a bird.”
“It has scales, so it's a fish!” Toolard snapped.
Stewart scraped back his chair. “First dibs. I get to see it first.”
The men rushed for the ladder but Larsen beat them to it. Now that his doubts had evaporated, Larsen was determined to see the seabat, and it was very important that he see it first. The fantail was jammed with men staring and pointing at the jumping box that skittered a few feet across the deck. A high-pitched scream like squealing tires stunned and quieted the crew.
The seabat wanted out.
Pappy Sabo, the knarled first class boatswain, scrinched up his weathered eyes in worry.
“We can't hold him any longer. We gotta let him go.”
“But I want to see him!” Larsen screamed. He reddened at the violence of his outburst, but he stood his ground. He was going to see the seabat and no one would stop him. The men moved away and left a path open to the box, which jerked suddenly. What was inside was certainly alive and kicking.
“It's too dangerous,” Pappy said. He scratched at the faded tattoos on his brown forearms. “He's been cooped up too long. He'll peck your eyes out if you get too close. And if he gets his claws in you...”
“I'll be careful,” Larsen said, his voice strained. “I gotta see him.”
Fatty leaned over and whispered into Larsen's ear. “Pappy's right. You shouldn't chance it. Pappy's caught some big ones in his day, and if he says it's dangerous...”
Larsen was desperate. He snapped at Fatty. “If you'd never seen a seabat, would you look? Hell yes you would. Give me my chance.”
Fatty nodded to Pappy.
“Well...it's your funeral,” Pappy said. He motioned to two more men to sit on the box and steady it, and then pointed to a hole cut in the wood. “You gotta look through that hole. But don't get too close.”
The men held their breath as Larsen bent down and, from a distance of two feet, tried to peer into the hole. He couldn't see, so he got on his hands and knees and crawled gingerly to the box. He placed his eye close to the hole. It was so quiet he could hear himself breathing. Was it still alive in there? A rank odor bit at his nostrils, a vile, decaying smell of things dead.
The inhuman howling startled Larsen so badly he jumped back and landed on his rear. He was breathing fast now, and nervous sweat stung his eyes. It was alive, all right. Maybe he should just say he saw it and get the hell out of there, Larsen thought. But no. He breathed deeply and approached the box again.
“Boy's got guts, I'll give him that,” Pappy observed.
He looked hard through the hole, his eyes now adjusted to the blackness. He saw nothing. There was nothing in the box! He looked intently but he was sure of it. The box was empty.
His forehead hit the box from the force of the blow. His butt began to sting. He looked up and saw mouths open in laughter. Everyone was laughing at him. The man with the boom had hit his tender, exposed rear while he'd been bent over looking at what? At nothing! Fatty and Toolard were laughing so hard tears rolled down their cheeks. It was all a joke. He'd been suckered, but good.
Larsen looked at the box and saw how it was done. A man stood behind a stanchion with a rope connected to the box. The sailor's grin spread as he gave it a small jerk and the box jumped. Two men tipped the box over and showed him the small tape deck attached to the top of the box. The shrieking. A pile of decaying food from the messdecks lay on the deck. The smell.
But who was the sailor who had pounded down the ladder and swore in his excitement that he'd seen the seabat?
The last victim. The men laughed, but strangely Larsen did not feel the fool. They were not laughing at him, but with him. He was one of them now, an initiated member of the seabat club. Now he knew what he had to do to make it complete.
“Who can I get?” Larsen asked, and when someone said a messcook in the chief's mess was a ripe candidate, Larsen was on his way.