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We, the Drowned

Carsten Jensen

Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents


























Translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder


Boston New York


Copyright © 2006 by Carsten Jensen og Gyldendal

Translation copyright © 2010 by Charlotte Barslund

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to

Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,

215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Jensen, Carsten, date.

[Vi, de druknede. English]

We, the drowned / Carsten Jensen ; translated from the Danish

by Charlotte Barslund with Emma Ryder.

p. cm.

"Translation of: Vi, de druknede"—T.p. verso.

ISBN 978-0-15-101377-7

I. Barslund, Charlotte. II. Ryder, Emma. III. Title.

PT8176.2.E44V513 2010

839.8'1374—dc22 2009046568

Translation of Vi, de druknede

This translation has been sponsored by

the Danish Arts Council Committee for Literature.

Book design by Lisa Diercks

Text set in FF Clifford

Map by Joe McClaren

Printed in the United States of America

DOC 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

The author is grateful for financial assistance from the following:

Statens Kunstfond



Statens Kunstråds Litteraturudvalg

Politikens Fond

J. C. Hempels Fond

Konsul Georg Jorck og hustru Emma Jorcks Fond

Fonden Erik Hoffmeyers Rejselegat

For Lizzie, the love of my life



The Boots [>]

The Thrashing Rope [>]

Justice [>]

The Voyage [>]

The Disaster [>]


The Breakwater [>]

Visions [>]

The Boy [>]

North Star [>]


The Widows [>]

The Seagull Kill; er [>]

The Sailor [>]

Homecoming [>]


The End of the World [>]

Acknowledgments [>]



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 pitch-black 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 Gefion. 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 man-of-war 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 Gefion, he must have briefly 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 Gefion 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!"


We weren't entirely sure which German we were supposed to be shooting. It surely couldn't be old Ilse with the crooked hip who sold us our beloved schnapps when we moored our boats at Eckernförde Harbor. Nor Eckhart, the grain trader: we'd struck many a fine bargain with him. Then there was Hansen, the innkeeper at Der Rote Hahn. What could be more Danish than the name Hansen? And we'd never seen him anywhere near a gun. None of them could be the German; that much we understood. But the king knew who the German was. As did the captain, who had been cheering with such bravado.

We approached the fjord. The enemy batteries on the coast started to thunder, but we were outside their range and they soon grew quiet. We were given schnapps rather than the usual tea. At nine o'clock came the beating of the tattoo; it was time to turn in. Seven hours later we were roused from our slumbers. It was Maundy Thursday, April 5, 1849. Again we got schnapps rather than tea, and a barrel of beer awaited us on the deck. We could drink as much as we wanted, so morale was high by the time we raised the anchor and headed into the fjord.

We had no complaints about the victuals on board His Majesty's ships. Food had been scarce when we'd had to supply it for ourselves. They said you'd never see a seagull in the wake of a Marstal ship, and that was true enough: we never wasted a crumb. But on top of tea and beer, the navy gave us all the bread we could eat and more. Lunch was a pound of fresh meat or half a pound of bacon, dried peas, porridge or soup; in the evening it was four weights of butter, and a schnapps to go with it. Long before we smelled our first whiff of gunpowder smoke, we loved the war.

Now we were inside Eckernförde Fjord, where the shores were closer and the cannons' positions clearly visible. Kresten Hansen leaned over to Ejnar Jensen and confided in him, yet again, his conviction that he wouldn't survive the battle.

"I've known it since the day the German demanded the duty coffers. I'm going to die today."

"You know nothing," Ejnar replied. "You had no idea the battle would be on Maundy Thursday."

"I've known a long time: the hour is upon us!"

"Shut your trap," growled Ejnar. He'd suffered Kresten's bleating ever since they'd packed their sea bags and laced their boots.

But Kresten was unstoppable. Breathing in rapid gasps, he placed a hand on his friend's arm.

"Promise me you'll bring my sea bag back to Marstal."

"You can bring it yourself. Now stop it, before you scare the living daylights out of me too."

Ejnar threw an anxious glance at Kresten. We'd never seen our friend in such a state before. Kresten was the son of the skipper Jochum Hansen, an official with the harbor authority. Kresten took after him, right down to the freckles, the strawberry blond hair, and the silent manner.

"Here," Ejnar said, handing him a pitcher of beer. "Get that down your neck."

He held it to Kresten's lips, but the beer went down the wrong way; he spluttered and his eyes grew glassy. Ejnar slapped him on the back, and Kresten gasped and wheezed, the beer pouring from his nostrils.

"You dumb oaf," Ejnar laughed. "You won't drown if you're meant to hang. You nearly finished yourself off there. You're doing the German out of a job."

But Kresten's eyes remained distant.

"The hour is upon us," he repeated in a hollow voice.

"Well, I for one am not going to be shot." Little Clausen had joined in the conversation. "I know, because I dreamt it. I was walking down Møllevejen, going into town. There was a soldier on either side of me, ready to shoot. Then a voice called out, 'You shall go!' And so I did. The bullets whizzed past my ears, but none of them hit me. So I'm not going to get shot today. I'm certain of it!"

We looked across the fjord: the surrounding fields were clad in spring green, and a thatched farmhouse lay snuggled in a small grove of lime trees in bud, with a road flanked by stone walls leading up to it. A cow grazing by the roadside turned her back to us and flicked her tail lazily, oblivious to the war approaching by water.

The cannon batteries to starboard were closing in; we saw the smoke, then heard their thunder roll across the water like a storm gathering from nowhere.

Kresten leapt up.

"The hour is upon us," he said.

A tongue of fire flashed from the Christian the Eighth's starboard stern. We exchanged puzzled glances. Had she been struck?

Being unfamiliar with warfare, we did not know what a direct hit might entail. There was no reaction from the ship-of-the-line.

"Why don't they shoot back?" Ejnar asked.

"Because they're still not crosswise to the battery," Clausen answered knowledgeably.

A moment later a cloud of pewter smoke on the starboard side of the Christian announced that they were indeed responding. The battle had begun. Fire and earth exploded on the shore and tiny matchstick if men rushed around. A good easterly wind was blowing and soon it was Gefion's turn to deliver a broadside. The roar from the huge sixty-pound cannons made the whole ship shudder. Our stomachs lurched. We pressed our hands to our ears and screamed from a mixture of fear and elation, astounded by the force of the impact.

Now the German was getting a real hammering!

After some minutes, the firing from the battery on the point ceased.

By now we had to rely solely on our eyes because we couldn't hear a thing. The shore looked like a desert landscape, with sand shoved up in piles. The black barrel of a twenty-four-pounder stuck up in the air, flipped over as if by an earthquake. No one was moving.

We slapped one another's backs in mute victory. Even Kresten appeared to forget his grim premonitions of doom and surrendered to the general ecstasy: war was a thrill, a rush of schnapps that fired up your blood—only the joy was wider and purer. The smoke drifted away and the air cleared. Never before had we seen the world with such clarity. We stared like newborn babies. Rigging, masts, and sails formed a canopy above us like the foliage of a fresh-sprung beech forest. Everything bore an otherworldly sheen.

"Christ, I feel all solemn," Little Clausen said, once our faculties had returned. "Damn, damn, damn." He couldn't stop swearing. "Damn me if I've ever seen the like."

We'd heard the thunder of cannons being tested the previous evening, but actually witnessing their effect—that did something to a man.

"Yes," Ejnar reflected. "Those cannons make Pastor Zachariassen's hellfire seem tame. So what do you say, Kresten?"

Kresten's expression had turned almost pious. "Fancy me living to see this," he said quietly.

"So you've stopped thinking you're going to die?"

"Oh, I'm more certain of it than ever. But I've stopped being scared."

We couldn't claim this incident as our personal baptism of fire, because the sixty-pound cannons that we manned were mounted on the top deck on the port side, and the fighting was to starboard. Our turn would come soon, when we sailed deeper along the fjord toward Eckernförde, where two more batteries awaited on either bank. But this was no great threat, as we saw it. It wasn't yet eight in the morning and the battle was already half won; we even began to fear the war would end before it had begun. We'd just had a taste of it, and now it looked as if the German might be beaten before lunch.

The Gefion continued toward the head of the fjord; the northern battery lay straight ahead. We were only two cable lengths from the southern battery when we shivered the topsails so they spilled the wind. We struck the jib and let go a drag anchor on the port side so that we lay facing the enemy with our broadside, and the Christian the Eighth did likewise. It was time to fire.

Our blood sang. We were like children waiting to see Chinese fireworks. Fear had melted away completely and only anticipation remained. We hadn't yet recovered from our first victory, and a second one awaited us.

Then the Gefion started to move. The drag anchor was failing to hold her and the strong current propelled us toward the southern battery. We looked across to the Christian the Eighth. The huge ship-of-the-line was adrift too and already coming under intense fire from the shore. Its sailors lowered the heavy anchor to stop her from drifting and let off a violent salvo, which burst from her side, from stem to stern. Cannon smoke erupted from the ports, floating across the fjord to form a rapidly growing cloud. But there hadn't been time to adjust the cannons before the ship's unexpected drift toward the shore, and they'd fired too high, hitting the fields behind the batteries.

A moment later it was our turn. We were now close enough to the coast to be within firing range of the German rifles. The current and the wind continued to torment us, and we were crossing the fjord with both broadsides facing the empty water. Only our four stern cannons had a chance to respond to the vicious fire from the battery on shore.

The first hit cleared our aft deck of eleven men. We'd been calling the cannonballs "gray peas," but the thing that shot low across the deck, tearing rail, cannon ports, and people apart in a shower of wooden splinters, was no pea. Ejnar saw its approach and registered every meter of its journey as it swept across the deck, shearing the legs off one man and sending them flying in one direction while the rest of him went in another. It sliced off a shoulder here and smashed a skull there. It was hurtling toward him, with bone splinters, blood, and hair stuck to it. He let himself fall backward and saw it shoot past. He later said that it took off his bootlaces in passing; that's how close it came before it tore out through the quarterdeck aft.

To Ejnar that cannonball was a monster with a will of its own. It showed him what war was: not a battery that exploded and sent matchstick soldiers fleeing, but a dragon that breathed hot fire on his naked heart.

The deck was in chaos; a wild-eyed officer screamed at him to go to the mast with the helmsman and a soldier. The order made no sense, but he did as he was told. The soldier collapsed straightaway in a pool of blood. It looked as if he'd imploded: a hole had opened in his chest and blood gushed out. Ejnar saw a man's eye explode into a red mess and another man's skull torn off. That was a strange sight: pink brain matter exposed and splattered as if it were porridge, and someone had slammed a wooden spoon into it. Ejnar had not known that such things could happen to human beings. Then a second cannonball struck and killed the lieutenant. As he witnessed Armageddon, Ejnar went hot and cold and his nose started bleeding from the shock.

Another officer with blood pouring down his face ordered him to cannon number seven. Ejnar had originally been assigned to number ten, but that one had taken a direct hit and now stood lopsided by the cannon port. Around it lay a roil of motionless bodies in a slowly spreading pool of blood. Small streams of urine formed deltas between their legs. He could not see if Kresten or Little Clausen was among them. A severed foot lay a short distance away. Like the dead men, Ejnar had wet himself. The roar of cannons had caused an earthquake in his intestines, and he'd filled his trousers too. He knew that people emptied their bowels at the moment of death, but he hadn't imagined that it could happen to the living as well. The notion that war made a man of you vanished as he felt the stickiness slide down his thighs. He felt half corpse, half baby, but soon discovered that he was not the only one. The stench of upturned privy buckets wafted across the deck. It wasn't just coming from the slaughtered. Most of those still fighting had soiled pants.

The gun captain at cannon number seven was still alive, bleeding from a cut above his eyebrow where he'd been hit by a flying splinter. He screamed at Ejnar, who could hear nothing, but when he pointed at the cannon, Ejnar understood that he wanted him to load it. His arms were too short to reach, so he had to climb halfway out of the cannon port in order to stuff the cannonball into the muzzle, exposing himself to the enemy battery. As he worked, only one thought occupied him: when was the next round of schnapps?

Meanwhile, the Gefion had managed to reposition herself so her broadsides were aligned with both shores. But the steamer Geiser, which had tried to come to our aid with a hawser, had taken a hit to her engine and was being pulled out of the battle, and so was the Hekla, whose rudder was shot to pieces. The wind was due east and the loss of the two steamers, which were supposed to tow us, meant that we were unable to retreat if things went wrong.

However, our luck was about to change. The northern battery took one direct hit after another, and we saw the matchstick soldiers on the beach run for cover. Their cannons were undamaged and new soldiers kept running to man them, so there was hardly any respite from their fire, but still, it was halfway to victory. The quartermaster came around with a pail of schnapps, and we accepted the outstretched mug solemnly, as if it were communion wine. Fortunately the beer barrel had survived intact and we paid it frequent visits. We felt utterly lost. The constant bombardment and the randomness with which death scythed us down had exhausted us, although the battle was only a few hours old. We kept skidding in sticky pools of blood and there was no avoiding the spectacle of all the horrifically maimed bodies. Only one sense was spared: our deafness prevented us from hearing the screams of the wounded.

We were afraid to look around, for fear of staring straight into the face of a friend, snared by eyes that might plead for relief one moment and burn with hatred the next, as though the fallen blamed us for our luck and wanted nothing more in this world than to exchange fates with us. No one could offer a single word of comfort; it would pass unheard in the din from the cannons. A hand on the shoulder would have to do. But already those of us who were still uninjured were keeping to ourselves and avoiding the stricken, even though they were the ones in need of consolation. The living closed ranks against those marked for death.

We reloaded the cannons and aimed as the gun captains ordered us, but we'd stopped thinking in terms of victory or defeat. Our battle was to escape the sight of the wounded, and questions rang in our heads like an echo of the destruction around us: Why him, or him? Why not me? But we didn't want to heed them: we wanted to survive. Nothing existed beyond what we could see through the barrel of a gun.

The schnapps had worked its blessed magic. Drunk now, we surrendered to a blankness born of terror. We sailed on a black sea and we had only one goal: not to look down and drown in it.

Ejnar climbed in and out of the cannon port. It was a beautiful spring day and every time he appeared in the mild sunshine, he expected a bullet to his chest. He was muttering to himself, though he'd no idea what he was saying. He was a sight to behold, smeared in soot and blood, with a bleeding nose, which from time to time he would wipe with his sleeve before tilting his head back to try and stanch the flow. There was an acrid taste in his mouth that only repeated swigs of schnapps could relieve. Eventually his tension loosened into lethargy and his movements became mechanical. But he was in no worse a state than the rest of us, with his bloodstained appearance or his soiled trousers: none of us looked alive anymore. We resembled ghosts from a battle fought long ago: corpses on a muddy battlefield where we'd lain for weeks, forgotten in the pouring rain.

Three times we saw the men on the northern battery relieved, and not one of the shots fired by the matchstick soldiers appeared to miss its target. It seemed that the batteries on both sides of the fjord had concentrated their fire on us.

At one o'clock a signal flag was hoisted on the mangled rigging of the Gefion. Its message was intended for the crew of the Christian the Eighth: we can do no more. Most of our cannons were now abandoned and the ones firing were undermanned. Those of us still standing were working amid piles of corpses and the dying, who reached out for us in their delirium, pleading for company in the mire of guts, blood, and voided bowels.

The signal we sent was in code. The enemy on the shores of Eckernförde Fjord couldn't understand it, but the Christian the Eighth knew exactly what it meant.

On the ship-of-the-line there was no significant loss of life as yet. Early that morning a quartermaster from Nyborg had been killed and since then two men had been wounded, but the vessel had been spared any major hits. At the same time, Commander Paludan was forced to acknowledge that our squadron's bombardment of the batteries on the northern and southern shores had inflicted no significant damage. The battle had now been raging for more than six hours and there was no prospect of victory. Retreat was impossible; anyone could see that.

The two steamers, the Hekla and the Geiser, were out of action, and the wind was set against us. So when Commander Paludan decided to raise the flag of truce, it was not a surrender, not yet: merely a pause in the battle.

A lieutenant was rowed ashore with a letter and returned soon after, with the message that a reply would be forthcoming in an hour. Christian the Eighth's top and lower sails were fastened and the crew given bread and beer. There was still order on deck, and though everyone had been deafened by the cannons, there was no mood of resignation. At most the crew felt a vague unease about the course of the battle. They could see that the Gefion was in a bad way, but there was no way they could imagine the bloody chaos on our deck.

Laurids Madsen sat by himself with his bread, busy satisfying his hunger and as yet unaware of his fate.

By now thousands of people had spilled out of the town of Eckernförde and were crowding both shores. Watching them as he munched his bread, Laurids soon realized that it was not curiosity that had brought them out. They were lighting huge fires in the fields and collecting the cannonballs that lay scattered on the beach, then shoving them in the fires and heating them until the iron glowed red before transporting them to their own cannons. Horse-drawn land artillery appeared on the high road from Kiel and spread out behind the stone walls that bordered the surrounding fields.

Laurids recalled his father's account of the war against the English, when Marstal came under attack. Two English frigates had anchored south of the town; they had come to hijack the town's ships, of which there were roughly fifty in the harbor. The English sent out three launches crammed with armed soldiers, but the inhabitants of Marstal, together with some grenadiers from Jutland, managed to drive them off. They could scarcely believe their own eyes when the English started retreating.

"Well, I never did understand what that war was really about," his father said afterward. "The English are good sailors, and I've no quarrel with them. But our livelihoods were at stake. If they took our ships, that would be the end of us. That's why we won. We had no choice."

On the deck of the Christian the Eighth Laurids sat beneath the flag of truce, watching the teeming crowds on the shores. He wasn't sure he understood war any better than his father had. They were defending the Danish flag against the Germans, and that had sufficed for him up until a moment ago. War was like sailing. You could learn about clouds, wind direction, and currents, but the sea remained forever unpredictable. All you could do was adapt to it and try to return home alive. Here the enemy was the cannon fire in Eckernförde Fjord. Once it had been silenced, the way home would lie clear. That was the war, as far as he was concerned. He was no patriot, nor was he the opposite. He took life as it came. His horizon was one of mast tops, mill wings, and the ridged turret on the church: the skyline of Marstal, as we saw it when we approached from the sea. Here were ordinary people throwing themselves into war: not just soldiers, but people from Eckernförde, a port where he'd often docked with cargoes of grain, the very place he'd sailed from on the evening he'd turned all of Ærø upside-down. Now the Eckernfördeners stood shoulder to shoulder on the beach, just as the Marstallers had once done. So what the hell was this war all about?

A boat was launched from the beach. In it sat the lieutenant from the Christian the Eighth, returning from a third round of negotiations. On each occasion the battle had been deferred. The ceasefire had lasted two and a half hours and it was now half past four. From the furious way the sailors were tugging at the oars, it was clear that something decisive had happened. Then out of nowhere the cannons on the beach burst into a roar. The flag of truce was still fluttering from the mast, but the war had resumed.

The Christian the Eighth returned fire immediately, while the Gefion, silent as a ghost ship, tried to get out of the way. We had given up and were using our last strength to inch ourselves forward with the kedge.

Now the enemy changed tactics, aiming the batteries on both sides of the fjord at the Christian the Eighth rather than us, in an attempt to set her alight. Many of the cannonballs that struck her were red-hot from lying on the field fires half the afternoon. The Eckernfördeners had made good use of their time.

Within seconds, the deck was covered with fallen and wounded men. The attack had come out of the blue. Fires flared in several places, and we immediately deployed pumps and hoses to swill death off the deck, but the crackling flames had already taken hold.

Commander Paludan now saw that the battle was lost. The Christian the Eighth swayed to escape the line of fire, but the wind was still set against her and all she succeeded in doing was traversing the current, losing the advantage of facing the shores broadside-on. Second-guessing the commander's plan, the Germans immediately aimed at her sails and rigging. They weren't going to let us cut and run.

The heavy anchor was raised, but to huge losses. Firebombs landed on the bows; grenades exploded between the legs of the poor souls manning the capstan. They called for reinforcements and the new arrivals kicked aside the dead and the wounded with their boots. Then fresh grenades blew off the bars of the capstan, leaving ragged wood stumps, shattered bones, and mangled fingers. Finally the anchor was pulled up, dripping with mud and seaweed. This feat alone cost the happiness of ten families. Their sons and fathers would never return home.

The jib was raised, the topsail sheets secured, and the sails hoisted. As a top-man, Laurids went up with the others and clambered onto the yardarm, from which he had an excellent view of the battle.

The sun was setting on the horizon, casting its soft light across the fjord and the landscape. Wisps of cloud fanned out across the blushing sky; only a few hundred meters from the fjord everything was peaceful and springlike. But the shores were black with armed people and the artillery was firing away from behind the shelter of the stone walls. From the beach, red-hot cannonballs flew in an endless cannonade, while civilians in the thousands raised their guns and took aim.

Once, Laurids had hung off the far end of a yardarm through a whiteout south of Cape Horn, his hands freezing to lumps of ice. He'd had to crawl back to the rigging, clinging to the yard with his arms and legs—but he hadn't been afraid. Now his hands were shaking so badly that he couldn't undo the simplest knot.

Sails, masts, and rigging had been torn apart during the firing. Around him other top-men fell one by one, hit by grenades or fireballs or spear-sized shards from the stricken masts, tumbling down between half-raised sails, ropes, and halyards, plunging to the deck far below or plummeting into the water. Then he gave up and made his way back to the rigging.

On deck chaos reigned. The sails couldn't be hoisted because the halyards and braces were shot to pieces. Some of the crew were pulling like mad at the cross-sail and had almost managed to raise it when suddenly the blocks and tackle—heavy enough to crush any man in their path—came hurtling down.

Every attempt to rescue the Christian the Eighth had failed. Sailing her had become impossible and in any case the wind blew directly toward land. A severe gale was brewing and the mighty ship drifted helpless to the shore, where she foundered just east of the southern battery, which continued its ferocious shelling of the now defenseless ship. Only her stern cannons could have been used in this position, but she'd tilted so violently that nothing would hold in place.

Then the cry went up: "Fire on board!"

The earliest shouts had been cries of wolf compared to this. A fireball had pierced the innermost battery and lodged in the starboard hold. The blaze spread quickly, threatening the powder magazines. Other areas had caught too. The men worked the pumps, but in vain. The flames had the upper hand.

At six o'clock the flag was lowered and the Christian the Eighth ceased firing, but the bombardment continued for another quarter of an hour before the enemy's lust for victory—over a battleship that only hours before seemed invincible—was assuaged.

Commander Paludan was rowed ashore as a sign of surrender, and it was at that point that the crew's courage finally plummeted. They gave up fighting the fire and shuffled around, filthy and foul-smelling. Their seamanship was of no use to them now, and they had no experience of war or of defeat: they'd imagined the battle would be a laugh, and now their souls were drained of energy and their heads empty of all but the echo of cannons. This last shameful part of the battle had lasted one and a half hours, but it felt like one and a half lifetimes. They could see nothing beyond this. They were utterly spent.

Some sat down on the deck in the midst of the sea of flames, as if clergymen's pulpit warnings about the fires of hell had become reality, while others stood motionless, staring straight ahead, their inner mechanisms broken. Lieutenants Ulrik, Stjernholm, and Corfitz rushed around, screaming into the men's faces: they must act, they were needed more than ever, if complete disaster was to be prevented and the honor of Denmark saved after a battle that they could hardly pride themselves on. But they'd been deafened by the cannons, and only pushing, shoving, and kicking would stir them.

Laurids let himself be herded to the powder magazine farthest astern, but it was slow work throwing the kegs into the water. They were only five men, and whenever a new crewman was forced into the chamber, he'd rush straight back out.

Suddenly came the cry "All men up!"

They knew instantly what that meant. Exchanging looks of alarm, they dropped the bombs and the kegs and raced up the ladder to find sheep, calves, pigs, hens, and ducks out of their enclosures, running on deck among the terrified sailors. A pig rummaged about, sticking its snout into bloody piles of guts, slurping things up.

The men raced about, each on his own urgent mission. Some hunted for their clothes and sea bags, while others climbed onto the rail as though contemplating jumping into the cold water. No one paid heed to the wounded men, who got in the way and were carelessly trampled. Their screams of agony went unheard; most of the crew were still deaf after the hours of intense shelling.

Laurids rushed downstairs to the sickbay, concerned that the wounded might be abandoned. Smoke seeped up through the heavy oak planks. Covering his mouth with his hand, he stepped into the murky room, where an orderly, covering his face with a cloth, came up to him.

"Is anyone coming?" Laurids realized his hearing had returned. "We've got to get the wounded upstairs. We're choking down here!"

"I'll go get help!" Laurids shouted back.

On deck there was no sign of the officers who had kicked the crew and whacked them with the flat side of their blades; instead he saw a crowd of men flocking to an open gangway with a Jacob's ladder, and ran over to them. The evacuation was already in full force. He spotted a couple of the lieutenants slashing through the crowd with their swords as they tried to reach the gangway. The ship's second in command, Captain Krieger, stood to one side, watching it all with an odd, distant gaze, his binoculars slung across his back, a gilt-framed portrait of his wife tucked under one arm, and the other raised in salute.

"You have shown yourselves to be brave men," he muttered over and over again, as if blessing his woeful flock. "You have done your duty. You are all my brothers."

No one took notice of him; each man was focusing on the most important obstacle in his path to salvation: the back of the sailor ahead of him, blocking his access to the open gangway. Laurids made his way to Krieger and screamed into his face:

"The wounded, Captain Krieger, the wounded!"

The captain turned to him, but his gaze remained distant. He placed a hand on Laurids's shoulder. Laurids felt it tremble, but the captain's voice was calm, almost sleepy.

"My brother, once we are ashore, we shall speak like brethren."

"The wounded need help!" Laurids screamed once more. "The whole ship is about to blow sky high."

The captain's hand stayed on Laurids's shoulder.

"Yes, the wounded," he said in the same monotonous tone of voice. "They too are my brothers. When we are ashore, we shall all speak like brethren." His voice disintegrated into mumbling, and then he began again, reeling off the same phrases. "You have shown yourselves to be brave men. You have done your duty. You are all my brethren."

Giving up on the captain and turning to the men who were struggling to reach the open gangway, Laurids grabbed them by the shoulder one by one, shouting his message about helping the wounded into their faces. The first man reacted by punching him on his chin. The second shook his head in disbelief and then threw himself with renewed energy back into the brawl.

The evacuation had picked up pace. Fishing boats set off from the beach to rescue the crew from the battleship that only a few hours earlier had been bombarding them, while the ship's own main launch shuttled continuously between ship and beach. Laurids leaned over the rail and spotted the roaring fire leaping out of the stern cannon ports. It was only a matter of time.

Smoke was pouring out of every hatch, making it just as difficult to breathe above deck as below. Once again he rushed down to the sickbay but was soon forced to abandon the idea: the smoke was now so dense and suffocating that it seemed impossible that anyone might have survived.

"Is anyone here?" he called out, but there was no reply.

The smoke seared his lungs and a fit of coughing sent tears streaming down his cheeks. He hurtled back up to the deck, squeezing his burning eyes shut in pain, temporarily smoke-blinded. He slipped and fell on the deck, slick from human excretions and spilled organs. His hand touched something soft and wet, and he shot to his feet, rubbing his palm on his soiled trousers in terror. He couldn't bear the thought that he'd touched another human being's blood and guts. It felt as though his soul had been scalded.

He staggered to the rail, where the smoke was thinner, and tried to regain his vision. Through a mist of tears he made out the launch, which had run aground on a sandbank, forcing the crew to jump into the water and wade ashore, where the enemy soldiers were waiting for them. Then the launch came unstuck and immediately set course for the Christian the Eighth, while several of the fishing boats close to the ship started heading back to the shore. The launch too turned around. Howls of protest erupted from the open gangway.

Laurids stepped back from the rail into the billowing clouds of smoke.

"I SAW LAURIDS," Ejnar would always say later. "I swear I saw him."

Ejnar was standing on the beach when the Christian the Eighth blew's up. He'd been taken ashore from the Gefion under guard and grouped with the other survivors from the frigate, waiting to be led off. The German soldiers seemed taken aback by their own victory and looked as if they had no idea of what to do with us. Our numbers kept swelling as men from the two vanquished battleships filled the shore.

Then the warning cry rang out across the water.

Most of us, tired and disheartened, had been sitting on the beach with our eyes fixed on the sand as the soldiers pointed their bayonets at us with hands that trembled. But now we looked up. At the stern of the ship-of-the-line, a pillar of fire shot up with a deafening boom. Then more: column after column of flame broke through the deck as the powder magazines ignited. In seconds, the masts and yards were reduced to charcoal, while the sails fluttered off in huge flakes of ash and the great oak hull became a weightless toy in the brutal hands of the blaze. But the worst was yet to come. The immense heat had set off the vanquished ship's cannons, which at the moment of capitulation had been loaded. Now, simultaneously, they discharged their deadly contents toward the shore.

Screams of horror rose from the crammed beach when the cannonballs started crashing down on us. Death was arbitrary. Burning debris rained from the heavens, wreaking destruction wherever it landed, so that the hour of victory was marked only by the sound of men screaming. This, then, was the dying ship's final salute to the victors and the vanquished: a murderous broadside that attacked both friend and foe alike. War showed its true face out there in the fire shower on Eckernförde Fjord.


For a moment it looked as if everyone on the beach had been killed. Bodies were strewn everywhere and not a single man was standing. Many were lying face-down with their arms outstretched as if they were praying to the flames that leapt on the water. Here and there a piece of wreckage lay burning in the sand. Slowly, some of the prostrate figures got to their feet, anxiously eyeing the burning ship. Cries came from the water. Several of the boats that had hurried to rescue the ship's crew had been struck and set ablaze. Lieutenant Stjernholm and four men had been heading for the beach with the ship's coffer, but their launch's stern had been blown off when the Christian the Eighth exploded. The coffer was lost, but the lieutenant managed to save himself. Only one of the men from the launch was with him when he staggered ashore, drenched. The rest had drowned.

The beach was quiet except for the faint moaning of the wounded and the crackling of the still-burning wreckage, when suddenly a loud yell echoed across land and water.

"I've seen Laurids! I've seen Laurids!"

We raised our heads and looked around. We'd recognized Ejnar's voice, and most of us presumed the poor man had lost his mind. Then chaos erupted across the entire beach and everyone began shouting, as if the only way to feel alive was to kick up all the ruckus you could. In the confusion we could have escaped our captors, but we'd lost our nerve—and with it our ability to act. We had to content ourselves with having simply survived: we could run no more.

Our captors weren't much better off. They led us away from the beach, their faces frozen, mute witnesses to the destruction they'd so closely avoided themselves. Our march looked more like a wholesale retreat from the theater of war than an organized transportation of prisoners.

The Germans had routed us, but their faces showed no signs of triumph. Horror at the unthinkable forces that war had unleashed united both victors and vanquished.

THEY TOOK US TO Eckernförde Church. Straw had been spread across the floor so we could collapse and rest our weary bodies. We were soaked through and shivering with cold. Once the sun had set, the April night grew chilly. Those of us who'd managed to save our sea bags changed our clothes and lent our less fortunate comrades what they needed. Soon food rations arrived: whole-grain bread, beer, and smoked bacon collected from the town's grocers. No one in Eckernförde had expected to see the town filled with prisoners of war. On the contrary, they'd been expecting Danish soldiers to be patrolling their streets before the day was out. Now, instead of being under guard themselves, the town's citizens were playing host.

Old women appeared in the church to sell white bread and schnapps to those with money. One of them was Mother Ilse, with the crooked hip. She stroked one prisoner's cheek with a sooty finger and muttered, "You poor lad."

She'd recognized him from his previous visits to the town. We'd all bought schnapps from her in our time. The man grabbed her hand.

"Don't you call me a poor lad. I'm alive."

It was Ejnar.

In the long pause that had followed the hoisting of the signal flag, Ejnar had wandered the deck looking for Kresten, but he could find him among neither the living nor the wounded. Many of the dead were lying face-down, and he'd had to turn them over. Others had had their faces shot off. But Kresten wasn't among the bodies around cannon number seven.

Torvald Bønnelykke, who'd been standing by one of the other cannons, came up to him.

"Are you looking for Kresten?" he asked.

He was a Marstaller and had been party to Kresten's grim premonitions.

"He's lying over there," he said, pointing. "But you won't recognize him. A cannonball took off his head. I was standing next to him when it happened."

"So he was right," Ejnar said. "Bloody awful way to die."

"Death is death," Bønnelykke said. "I don't know if one way is better than another. The result's always the same."

"I'd better go find his sea bag. I promised him I would. Have you seen Little Clausen?"

Bønnelykke shook his head. They asked around, but no one had seen him.

By now it was around ten o'clock. Exhausted, we were getting ready to sleep when the church door opened and yet another prisoner was led in, wrapped in a huge blanket. He sneezed incessantly, and his whole body shook.

"Damn it, I'm cold," he said hoarsely, then gave another explosive sneeze.

"My God, if that isn't Little Clausen!"

Ejnar struggled to his feet and went over to his friend.

"So you're still alive."

"I damn well am. I told you I would be. But this bastard cold will be the death of me instead: I'm sick as a dog." He sneezed again.

Ejnar put his arm around him and led him to the straw bed he'd prepared for himself. He could feel Little Clausen shivering beneath the blanket, and his white face was mottled with feverish red.

"Do you have some dry clothes?"

"No, damn it, I didn't manage to save my sea bag."

"Take these. I hope you don't mind wearing Kresten's stuff."

"So he—"

"Yes, it turned out he was right. But what happened to you? We looked everywhere. I thought you..."

"Don't they say that you don't drown if you're meant to hang? Seems the Lord has decided I'm to die from a cold, rather than in combat. I spent the whole battle suspended in an old bosun's chair along the side of the ship. I was supposed to be mending the holes with lead plates. They kept shooting at me, the bastards. But somehow they missed."

"I didn't think you were a weakling," Ejnar said. "How come a bit of fresh air made you sick?"

"The rest of the crew damn well forgot about me. I was stuck there the whole day with my legs in the water, freezing my butt off." Little Clausen sneezed again. "It wasn't until the ship was evacuated that I managed to flag down a boat. By then I was blue all over. I couldn't even walk when I got back on shore." He'd put on the dry clothes and now slapped himself for warmth as he glanced around the church. "How many were killed?"

"You mean how many Marstallers?"

"Yes, what else would I mean? I don't know the others."

"I think we've lost seven."

"Was Laurids one of them?"

Ejnar stared at the floor. Then he shrugged, as though embarrassed about something shameful. "I can't answer that."

"You don't mean he ran away?"

"No. Not exactly. I saw him shooting up into the sky. But then I saw him come down again."

Little Clausen stared at him in disbelief, then shook his head.

"My eyes tell me that you've not been wounded," he said. "But my ears tell me that you've lost your mind."

He let off another sneeze and sat down abruptly on the bed of straw. Ejnar sat next to him and stared into space with lost eyes. Perhaps he really had gone mad. Little Clausen leaned toward his friend and put his arm around his shoulder.

"There now." He comforted him. "It'll come back, you'll see."

He lapsed into silence. Then added, softly, "But I suppose we might as well write off Laurids."

They sat for a while longer, saying nothing. Then they lay down and fell asleep, utterly spent.

At seven in the morning they woke us and treated us to more bread, bacon, and warm beer, and an hour later there was a head count. When an officer arrived to take down our names and our hometowns so that our families could be informed, we fell on him, yelling out our details so clamorously that by ten o clock, when the order came to march us to the fortress in Rendsburg, he'd noted only half our names.

Outside the church they lined us up in ranks. The mood had shifted: it seemed that Eckernförde was turning against its vanquished enemy, and our guards were losing patience with us. Many of us were still half-deaf from yesterday's cannon fire and couldn't hear orders even when they were shouted right into our faces. So they shoved us around and beat us. The town's citizens hustled around us, whooping at our humiliation, while a crowd of sailors with cutlasses swinging from their belts hurled out coarse oaths—which, to our great irritation, we had to endure in silence.

The high road ran along the shoreline, affording us a final glimpse of our inexplicable defeat: the wreck of the Christian the Eighth, floating on the water. She was still smoldering, with smoke waiting from her charred hull, and the beach was littered with the debris of masts and yards flung ashore by the explosion. Like ants stripping the carcass of a lion, the Germans were already busy securing the flotsam from what had recently been one of the Danish navy's proudest vessels. We passed the southern battery, which we'd spent a day bombarding and that in the end had sealed our fate. Not even the most unschooled among us needed to count fingers to calculate the enemy's firing power. Four cannons! That was all. David had fought Goliath. And Goliath had been us.

Several vehicles overtook us, carrying officers from the Christian the Eighth and the Gefion. They too were heading for prison in Rendsburg. We exchanged salutes, and they were gone in a cloud of dust. Then came the rumbling of yet another cart and the sound of laughter. Some Holstein officers drove past us. Among them towered a man. He was bareheaded.

Little Clausen and Ejnar looked at each other.

"The devil take me," Little Clausen said. "That was Laurids!"

"I told you so. He went shooting up into the sky and came back down again."

Little Clausen's face split into a grin.

"Well, I don't care how he did it! The most important thing is he's alive."

The cart stopped a short distance ahead, and the officers got out and shook hands with Laurids. One of them shoved a bottle of schnapps into his coat pocket, and another thrust a wad of bank notes at him. Then they raised their arms to salute him, and left. For a while Laurids just stood there, dithering. Little Clausen called out his name. He looked in our direction and lifted his hand hesitantly. A soldier took hold of his arm and nudged him into the ranks next to the two men from Marstal.

"Laurids!" exclaimed Little Clausen. "I thought you were dead."

"And so I was," Laurids said. "I saw Saint Peter's bare butt."

"Saint Peter's bare butt?"

"Yes, he pulled up his tunic and flashed his ass at me."

Laurids fished the schnapps bottle out of his coat pocket and took a swig of the clear liquid. He handed the bottle to Little Clausen, who drank deeply before passing it on to Ejnar, who still hadn't said a word.

"Didn't you know," Laurids said, "that when Saint Peter shows you his ass, it means your time's not up yet?"

"And so you decided to return to earth."

The explanation illuminated Ejnar's face, and he spoke with the relief of someone who has just been let off a criminal charge.

"I saw it," he said. "You were standing on the deck when the Christian the Eighth blew up. You were flung high into the air, ten meters at least, and then you came back down and landed on your feet. Little Clausen said I must have lost my mind. But I saw it. You did it. Isn't that right?"

"It was hot as hell," Laurids said. "But cooler higher up. I saw Saint Peter's ass and I knew I wasn't going to die."

"But how did you get back ashore?" Little Clausen asked.

"I walked," Laurids said.

"You walked? You're not telling me you walked on water?"

"No. I'm telling you I walked on the seabed."

Laurids stopped and pointed at his boots. Somebody in the column behind him bumped into his broad back, and the ranks became muddled. A soldier rushed over and shoved Laurids with the butt of his gun.

Laurids turned around.

"Gently, gently," he said with the tolerance of a drunk. He made a calming gesture, then fell back into the ranks and picked up the rhythm of the march.

The soldier kept pace alongside him.

"I didn't mean to hurt you," he said in Danish. He had a South Jutland accent.

"No harm done," Laurids replied.

"I've heard about you," the soldier continued. "You're the man who was blown up with the Christian the Eighth and landed right back on his feet, aren't you?"

"Yes, that's me," Laurids replied with considerable dignity, straightening up. "I landed on my feet, thanks be to God and my sea boots."

"Your sea boots?"

Now it was Ejnar's turn to be mystified.

"Yes," said Laurids in a tone of voice you'd use to explain something to a child. "It's because of my sea boots that I landed on my feet. Have you ever tried wearing my sea boots? Damn heavy. No one wearing them could stay in Heaven for long."

"It's like the Resurrection." The soldier gawked.

"Hogwash," Laurids snorted brusquely. "Jesus never wore sea boots."

"And Saint Peter didn't flash his bare ass at him either," Little Clausen added.

"Too right," Laurids said, offering the bottle around.

The soldier too was offered a drop. Glancing quickly over his shoulder, he took a big swig.

But our merriment soon abated. It was thirty kilometers to Rendsburg and we had to walk all day to get there. When the farmers came out to stare at us, we didn't look back at them; our bravado had faded. As we staggered on, most of us just kept our eyes on the highway dust. A leaden weariness had us all in its grip, but whether it stemmed from our sore feet or from our sunken spirits we couldn't tell. Past caring, we jostled one another like drunken men, though only Laurids was enjoying the privilege of actual intoxication. He, for his part, was unmoved by our predicament. He marched along, humming tunes to himself—despite his visit to the Lord, none of the songs he chose were godly. Finally even he too fell silent and trudged on with his eyes turned inward, as if beginning to sleep off his inebriation while on foot.

From time to time we would stop at a pond for a drink of water. The soldiers would keep an eye on us, bayonets at the ready, while we filled our caps with water and passed them around. Then the marching resumed. Halfway to Rendsburg, our guards were relieved, and Ejnar and Little Clausen bade goodbye to the friendly soldier. Laurids was still in a world of his own. The soldier took one last look at him and swapped a few words with his replacement, a Prussian. The Prussian threw Laurids a doubtful look and shook his head. But throughout the rest of the march, he kept eyeing him.

We reached Rendsburg at dusk. Rumors of the battle had preceded us, and the highway and ramparts were teeming with people who had come out to gawk at the prisoners. We passed through the town gate and crossed a bridge before going through the inner portal, then found ourselves in the narrow streets of the town center. Here thousands more had gathered to stare, and our guards had to show their guns to make way for us and keep curious onlookers at bay. There were plenty of pretty girls among them, and it was an ugly thing to know that their eyes rested on us with contempt.

They held us in a spacious old church whose floor had been strewn with so much straw that it looked more like a barn than a house of God. We had eaten nothing all day, but now they distributed sacks of biscuits and warm beer. The biscuits must have been several years old, they turned to dust in our mouths, but the beer was welcome, and soon we lay scattered across the broad church floor, fast asleep.

The next day, Holy Saturday, we milled about, assessing the accommodations and sleeping options, rediscovering some friends, and noting the loss of others. There were men from both the Gefion and the Christian the Eighth. Some rooms in the church had chairs, and curtains in the windows; these quarters were quickly occupied, and possessing one was considered a privilege. We men from Marstal gathered in a room by the chancel. The others stuck with those from their hometowns too: men from Ærøskøbing here, men from the island of Funen there, men from Lolland, men from Langeland. There in the straw-carpeted church, we redrew the map.

We knew nothing of discipline. We hadn't been in the navy long enough to value any formal systems of order beyond those we'd come up with ourselves. When our battleship had been set alight beneath our feet, we'd been separated from our officers. Now we obeyed only one command: that of the stomach. When the church door opened in the morning for the guards bringing bread, there was a stampede, each man thinking only of his own hunger. In the end the soldiers flung the bread over our heads and we fought over it like wild animals. Someone tore Ejnar's loaf from his hands, and Little Clausen got kicked in the shin. It was a shameful episode, but whatever discipline the navy had instilled in us had vanished. In the new hierarchy we were forced to create, fighting was a useful skill. Only Laurids remained above it all, as though untouched by hunger or thirst.

The next meal was distributed as though it were a military exercise, with a major and a sergeant bellowing commands at us. They had brought the bosuns from the Gefion and Christian, who divided us into the same groups of eight as on the warships, so we could be fed in an orderly way. We were each given a spoon and a metal bowl and made to line up by the altar. And it was, in its way, a form of communion, because it took every last scrap of imagination to transubstantiate what was in our metal bowls into something edible, and we consumed the sorry-looking mess of gruel and prunes only out of sheer necessity. Afterward we lay down on the straw to sleep. The exhaustion that had overwhelmed us the day after the defeat still held sway.

Late in the afternoon the church door opened again, and a group of officers entered, along with some well-dressed men, doubtless prominent citizens of Rendsburg, and the Prussian soldier who had eyed our fellow townsman so suspiciously on the second leg of the march. While the guests waited by the door, the Prussian began walking around in the church as if looking for someone. Finally spotting Laurids, he ordered him up from the straw and led him over to the party of officers and gentlemen. When they began talking, it became obvious they were questioning Laurids. Then, after a while, they did the same thing that the departing Holstein officers had done on the way to Rendsburg: they handed Laurids bank notes before politely taking their leave. A few of the well-dressed folk even tipped their hats.

Laurids, the heavenly traveler, had become a celebrity.

The story was now circulating around the whole church. It turned out that Ejnar wasn't the only one who'd seen Laurids shoot up into the sky when the Christian the Eighth exploded, only to miraculously reappear on the burning deck once the column of fire had subsided. They'd all believed it to be a kind of mirage, an apparition brought on by the nervous strain of mortal danger during battle, and had mentioned it to no one—but now they came forward to bear witness to the rest of us, and soon a large crowd had gathered in front of Laurids.

We wanted to know why his clothes and hair weren't scorched.

"My boots are," he said, sticking out a leg for inspection.

"And your feet?" We wanted to know.

"They stink," said Laurids.

Ejnar couldn't take his eyes off Laurids. He looked at him the way you'd look at a total stranger—which was precisely what Laurids had become to him. He started treating him with a bashful subservience and couldn't seem to act normally around him. Little Clausen, meanwhile, accepted what had happened. Or rather, now that Laurids was standing in front of him as large as life, he accepted that others believed in his ascension. Personally he had been a skeptic right from the start, so when he became an official believer, it was mostly for the sake of comradeship, like joining in the laughter of a shared joke. In his eyes, Laurids was a born prankster. First he'd made the whole island believe that the German was coming. And now he'd made the German believe that he'd been to Heaven and back. Little Clausen felt a jaw-dropping respect for this achievement. That Laurids was one hell of a guy!

While Laurids held forth on the subject, the church filled with women who'd been given permission to come daily with their baskets to hawk coffee, cakes, sour bread, eggs, butter, cheese, herring, and paper. The men from the Gefion had money to spend: before throwing the ship's coffer overboard to prevent the enemy getting hold of it, the officers had opened it and given each crew member a couple of coins, and most of us had managed to save our sea bags.

We Marstallers considered ourselves privileged: we'd all been on board the Gefion, except for Laurids, who'd recovered nothing from the Christian the Eighth except the clothes on his back and, of course, his reputation as an astral traveler. However, the latter was enough to secure him a considerable income. His pockets were stuffed full of five-mark coins given to him by curious Germans. When he saw that we had everything we needed, Laurids bought extra provisions and distributed them among the crew from the Christian the Eighth, who, like him, had been forced to abandon ship without their possessions. They received his gifts with gratitude and this enhanced his reputation even further.

When we woke up, it was Easter Sunday—and we were to spend it locked up in a church without a clergyman in sight. We lay on our backs on the straw, gazing up at the soaring, pinnacled arches high above us. All around were dark paintings with heavy gilded frames, and carved wooden figures, and from the ceilings, which were as high as masts, hung chandeliers: all a far cry from Marstal's church, with its blue-painted pews and plain, whitewashed walls. But we weren't in any mood for worship, lying there in the straw. Straw was for farmyard animals, and we felt like pigs in a sty: the church's grandiose arches prompted not so much a feeling of religious contemplation as a sense of humiliation and mockery. For we were beaten men, robbed not only of our freedom but also—far worse—our pride. We hadn't fought with honor. Later we would probably be informed otherwise—and perhaps one day some of us might end up believing it. But right now, the events of Eckernförde Fjord were fresh in our minds, and they told the story straight. We'd been confused and panicky—and yes, even drunk too—and those of us who were skilled sailors weren't trained as soldiers, and those with military expertise knew nothing of seafaring.

Captain Krieger had been blown up, together with his wife's portrait (and the Lord have mercy on his soul, the poor bewildered wretch) while Commander Paludan had been the first to board the lifeboat and be rowed ashore to safety. Was this conduct becoming of a commander? An act an honest seaman could respect?

Sitting there on the straw like the pathetic creatures we were, we gazed up at the arches. And from high above, they jeered back.

Pails of schnapps could be found in several corners of the church, and we were offered all we could drink, for free. The hawkers didn't sell strong liquor, but from the very first day of our captivity, the German army doctor had decreed schnapps to be good for the health, and we headed for the buckets like pigs to the trough. Yes, we were indeed like pigs, sleeping and rolling around on the straw: pigs that had temporarily avoided the butcher's knife. We might be alive, but we were no longer human.

And we stank too. We'd soiled our clothes during the battle, and we reeked of fear and uncontrolled bowels. For isn't it a secret common to all men that if you go to war, you'll fill your pants like a frightened child? As seamen, we'd all feared drowning, but none of us had ever crapped his pants when a gale ripped off the mast and rigging, or a wave crushed the rail and cleared the deck.

What was the difference? The difference was that the sea respected our manhood. The cannons didn't.

"Hey, heavenly traveler," we called out to Laurids, and pointed to the pulpit. "It's Easter Sunday. Give us a sermon! Tell us about Saint Peter and his bare ass!"

Stumbling slightly, Laurids climbed the stairs to the pulpit. His elation had subsided and he was drunk again, like the rest of us. The pulpit was no mast top, but once up there he grew dizzy all the same. It was the schnapps. He'd been shipwrecked twice in his life. The second time he'd stood a whole night on a flat rock in the sea off Mandal, where his ship had gone down. There he'd felt both grief and terror, and he'd been within an inch of death. The water had slapped at his feet until dawn, when a pilot boat came and threw him a line. He'd felt no shame on that occasion, for it was no shame to be defeated by the sea. He wasn't a bad sailor. He knew that. The current, the wind, and the dark had simply got the better of him. But in the battle on the fjord, where his seamanship had counted for nothing, a lesser enemy had defeated him, and that defeat and his commander's unmanly conduct had left him without honor.

When he stood on the pulpit, he found he had nothing to say. His gullet stung. Then he leaned forward and threw up.

We greeted this with cheering and applause.

Here was a sermon we could all appreciate.

Laurids remained silent the rest of the day. Once again, officers and local bigwigs turned up to visit him and hear the story of his ascension, but he turned his back to them in the straw, like a hibernating bear. They offered him money, but nothing could tempt him out of his retreat and in the end they had no choice but to leave. His fame dwindled in the days that followed. It would have been lucrative to put himself on display, press the flesh, and expound his views of the Hereafter. But he was in the grip of a foul mood.

He lay on the straw or paced up and down with his arms folded across his chest, frowning.

"He's thinking," Ejnar said, filled with awe.

Ejnar was Laurids's only remaining disciple. But he could have spawned a whole sect if he'd wanted to.


As for the rest of us, our mood had improved; we gathered in small groups, and soon music and singing echoed from various corners of the church. At first we'd grouped according to our home districts, islands, or towns and looked at one another almost as enemies. But music united us. Here was a man from one of the islands next to a man from Jutland, here a man from Lolland next to a man from Seeland. As long as our voices were in harmony, it didn't matter that our accents were at war. That said, all the melodies came courtesy of the schnapps pail.

A few days later Little Clausen received a letter from home. It was from his mother, who gave him her version of the fateful Maundy Thursday when the battle took place. Ejnar and Laurids settled down beside him on the straw, and Torvald Bønnelykke joined them. We were all eager to hear news from home. Little Clausen read aloud in a stumbling voice, with long pauses.

His mother wrote that they'd heard the cannon fire in Marstal from early morning, and it was loud enough for you to think the battle was being fought at the end of the breakwater, rather than on the other side of the Baltic. The thundering had been especially fierce during Pastor Zachariassen's sermon in the church; the ground had literally trembled beneath their feet, and the minister had been moved to tears.

Around noon it grew quiet, but no one could relax. Instead of going home for lunch, the citizens of Marstal wandered the streets, discussing the course of the battle. A few men with combat experience, such as Petersen the carpenter and old Jeppe, and even Madam Weber—all veterans of the great mobilization, the night we thought the Germans were coming—had insisted that there was no way we Danes could lose. A ship-of-the-line could never be defeated by a coastal battery. The Germans must have got a good thrashing: what they'd been hearing all day was unquestionably the sweet music of victory.

Toward evening came a boom so gigantic that it collapsed the cliffs at Voderup. No one in Marstal got a wink of sleep all night, tormented by a creeping unease about the battle's outcome. News finally reached them well into the afternoon of Good Friday, a day that must have been as tough for them as it was for our savior. For now their worst fears were confirmed.

"I was completely beside myself with despair, though I should have put my trust in the Lord. I prayed to Him all night to keep you safe and He heard my prayers, though there were others He did not heed. Kresten's mother walks around with a tearful face and blames herself for not forcing him to stay behind. I tell her that Kresten foretold his own death and that no one cheats fate, but she says that Kresten had lost his wits, and it is a mother's duty to shield her son from his own lack of sense, and then she starts to cry again."

Little Clausen read all of this in a monotone. The strain of deciphering the letters required every ounce of his concentration; he had none left to understand the meaning of the words he was repeating.

"What does it say?" he suddenly asked.

We gave him a blank look.

"You're the one doing the reading," Ejnar said.

Little Clausen looked helplessly at them, unable to explain his predicament.

"Well, it says that we lost," Laurids snapped. "But we don't need her to tell us that. And then it says that Kresten's mother has lost her wits from grief. And that your mother has been praying for you."

"My mother has been praying for me?"

Little Clausen looked down and with some difficulty found the line where his mother described her sleepless night. Then he read it again, his lips moving silently as he did so.

"Read on," Ejnar implored him. "What else does she say?"

Marstal had been issued a royal decree to send all its large vessels to the navy immediately, in order to transport troops across the Great Belt. But although every sailor in town had gathered in the schoolroom to listen to the order, not one volunteered to comply. Eighteen vessels were then commandeered—but when the day of their departure dawned, the ships were gone. From the pulpit, Pastor Zachariassen lambasted the people of Marstal for their lack of self-sacrificial spirit, after which the townsfolk began to talk of replacing him. Everything was in confusion. There was a war on, and times were harsh, but if only the good Lord would protect Little Clausen and the rest of Marstal, all this misery would surely have to end someday, and things could return to normal. Little Clausen's mother ended her letter by conveying her most fervent prayers and loving thoughts to her captive son, and expressing the hope that he was getting enough to eat and keeping his clothes neat and clean.

"Lack of self-sacrificial spirit!" Laurids fumed when Little Clausen had concluded his reading. "That pastor's got a nerve! Seven men are dead and the rest of us are prisoners. We're prepared to give up our lives. But is that enough for him, the devil? No: he wants our ships too. But he won't get them. Never!"

The others nodded their agreement.

The mornings began with warm beer, with bland gruel and prunes one day, split peas and meat the next. Our stomachs soon adapted to the pattern; they had no choice, and besides, we'd had worse at sea, working for stingy skippers, so we complained mainly for the sake of complaining. They'd confiscated our knives, so we had to tear our bread or gnaw at it like horses. For one hour, morning and afternoon, we were allowed to stroll around the churchyard and smoke, while the sentries watched over us with loaded guns. There, we'd let our eyes wander from headstone to bayonet and back again, and if we fancied it, philosophize about the meaning of life. That was as much variety as our captivity afforded.

A FORTNIGHT LATER they woke us at five in the morning and ordered us into the churchyard, where they lined us up in ranks. We were six hundred men in all, and we were joined by the junior officers, whom the Germans had been holding in a riding school. Our guards felt we were in need of discipline, and who better to knock it into our heads than our own cadets?

We marched out of Rendsburg with our sea bags on our shoulders and our food bowls tucked under our arms. Our arrival in the small town of Glückstadt was met by thousands of onlookers. No longer covered in powder residue and at last wearing clean clothes, we almost resembled human beings, so it wasn't our appearance so much as our quantity that made an impact on the townsfolk.

We marched down to the harbor, where we were to be billeted in a grain warehouse. Inside there was a lower and an upper loft, with a separate room in each where the cadets were housed. In these vast open spaces the men slept on the floor, 150 to a row; it seemed that one wall was to serve as our headboard while some planks hammered together would be our footboard. Our bedding, once again, was straw. But there were also tables and benches, and a yard at our disposal, so overall it was a change for the better. There was a second grain warehouse across the yard, connected to ours by wooden fences, so we were locked up on all sides.

A small pond that lay between the warehouses made our yard seem a complete landscape in itself. The eye rests easier on a fence than on a bayonet, and the pond fired our imagination much more than the headstones in Rendsburg, so outside too we found something new to enjoy: we built model ships, fixing scraps of fabric to masts made of sticks and staging naval battles on the smooth surface of the pond. Half the ships sailed under the Danish flag, while the other half—which appeared to be stateless—represented German rebels, whom we could not bring ourselves to honor even with their own colors. During our battles we bombarded the flagless German fleet with pebbles, and we Danes won every time, suffering losses only when one of our fleet took an accidental hit from a stray pebble.

We clustered in our hundreds around the ponds, cheering every time a pebble struck its target and a toy ship tipped over. This was our hour of restitution.

But Laurids turned his back on us, fuming with contempt.

"Yes, that's all we're good for. If only we could win when it really matters."

Laurids spent most of his time in the straw, staring out a window that faced the river Elbe, watching the ships sail to and from Hamburg. His eyes followed them as far as they could, and his heart went even farther. He longed for the sea.

After his trip to Heaven, he'd become a different man.

During the day we'd relax in the sunshine. Benches had been put out in the yard, and some of us played cards. We dictated our letters home to a literate seaman from Ærøskøbing, Hans Christian Svinding. He was never without a notebook in his hand and his eyes were always on the alert; he wrote everything down. But most of the men just stared vacantly into space, halfway to a schnapps-induced haze. In the evening there would be singing and dancing, and the heavy floor planks would creak under our weight. The cadets made the most noise. They didn't mix with the crew but stayed behind the closed doors of their rooms, their drunken shouting drowning out even our music. They were mere boys and couldn't hold their drink. Not one of them was older than sixteen; most were thirteen or fourteen. The youngest was twelve. Many of us had sons their age or older, yet as junior officers the cadets were our superiors, though they knew nothing and could do nothing either. We had to stand to attention to a bunch of cabin boys.

Speculation about Commander Paludan's desertion at the moment of greatest peril remained rife. Why had our commander got into the boat before everybody else? A soldier from Schleswig started the rumor that Paludan had claimed a German officer arrived on board the Christian the Eighth and commanded him off the ship before the wounded could be brought ashore. Paludan protested bravely but was told that if he disobeyed, the bombardment would resume. However, no one on board the Christian the Eighth had known anything about this officer, whose name was supposed to be Preuszer, and the German rebel army denied any knowledge of him. The soldier from Schleswig said he thought that Commander Paludan had invented Preuszer as a cover for his own cowardice.

When Little Clausen heard this story, he opened his mouth to defend his commander: his own honor, as a Dane, was at stake. But he couldn't think of a single argument to make. In fact, the story sounded all too plausible. We'd been led by dishonorable men. Ejnar too stayed silent, but his eyes filled with tears of shame. Laurids swore.

Commander Paludan's treason didn't light the fire of rebellion in us; instead, it sent us more frequently to the schnapps pail. As our disgust at our captivity grew, our manners coarsened.

The cadets became a target for our anger. We'd already cracked plenty of jokes about their smooth chins, but only behind their backs. Now we told the little men to their faces, "Pull down your trousers so we can see if you're hairless there too."

The cadets' leader was a fourteen-year-old with the surname Wedel. He'd been the first cadet of the Christian the Eighth to board a rescue boat, and we'd all noted his triumphant expression as he sat next to Paludan—a close friend of his father—on the main launch. He led the drinking sessions the cadets held behind closed doors. But now he became the most frequent target of our increasingly aggressive bullying.

In response to a particularly cruel reference to the size of his genitalia, Wedel slapped an able seaman, Jørgen Mærke from Nyborg, hard across his face. The fact that Wedel had to stand on tiptoe to do it fueled our mirth—but the slap was a proper one. The seaman stood dazed with shock before hesitantly putting his fingers to his stinging cheek, as though unsure that he'd really been struck.

"Stand to attention, God damn you!" little Wedel roared.

The seaman grabbed Wedel by the shoulders and flung him to the floor, then thrust a heavy sea boot into the boy's chest. A crowd quickly formed around them—not because anyone wanted to rescue the kid, but because here, finally, was a chance to vent our frustrated rage. Wedel was saved only by his screams. Two soldiers from Schleswig-Holstein came charging up the stairs, brandishing their bayonets, but before they reached the boy, Laurids had dispersed the combative crowd, pulling the boy to his feet by the collar while holding off the bystanders with his free hand.

Wedel dangled limp, like a rag doll, fear buckling his legs.

"Now behave," Laurids said in a calm voice.

He'd rediscovered the authority he'd lost on the deck of the ship. The menacing crowd dissolved, and the soldiers led the cadet away.

We heard Wedel sobbing all the way down the stairs.

Later the same evening the cadet recovered his courage. Another loud drinking session was held in the closed room, and from a corner of the loft someone began cursing the noise. It wasn't bedtime yet, but everything about the cadets was beginning to rile us.

We banged on their door, demanding silence. A brazen, high-pitched boy's voice immediately told us to shut up. "Or we'll cut your prick off, you peasant oaf!"

"What did you say?" the seaman roared back.

The drunken men who sat clustered on benches around the sturdy central table staggered to their feet en masse. Hefting a bench, they swung it back and forth as if calculating its weight, then rammed it right into the cadets' door. On the other side, all went quiet.

"Right," shouted one of the men. "Bet you're not feeling quite so cocky now, are you?"

They stepped back for another salvo, then rammed the door again. This time it gave way and they poured into the room, knocking over a table and sending a bottle smashing to the floor. Someone screamed, and the crowd that was gathering outside the cadets' room started cheering the brawling men. Ejnar and Little Clausen stood at the back on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of the fight but could see nothing through the narrow doorway.

Then the German soldiers turned up, alerted by the uproar. Smashing their way through us with the butts of their guns, they broke up the fight.

The brawlers emerged one by one. The cadets' heads hung low, and it was obvious who had borne the brunt. Wedel's nose was bleeding. Another boy had a swollen eye that had already begun to close up. A third spat out a tooth as he came through the door; blood was streaming down his chin.

A cry rang out from the crowd. "Someone's lost a milk tooth!"

Then Commandant Fleischer arrived. He was a sturdy man, with a high forehead and soft curly hair on the back of his neck. His cheeks were flushed and his lips moist; he had gravy on one corner of his mouth, as if he had just left a dinner party and had forgotten to wipe his face.

He was a major, but he instantly disappointed us all with his jovial tone of voice.

"Listen, men, this won't do. You've got to show your officers a bit of respect. Otherwise I'll have to be very strict with you and I don't really want to do that. So let's all try to get along. You'll be exchanged soon and there's really no need for us to fall out while we wait."

We stared at one another, slack-jawed. Was this supposed to be the enemy? The German, who had blown the deck from under our feet and was now holding us prisoner?

The next few days passed quietly. The pails of schnapps were kept full and we carried on drinking. Jørgen Mærke never missed an opportunity to needle the guards. Monkey asses, he called them. Dogshit. Snakes in the grass. Prickless pygmies. He insulted them with impunity, protected by his entourage who, if a guard approached, instantly formed a protective shield around him.

One day the soldiers finally decided they'd had enough. They'd been keeping an eye on Mærke, and two of them came up to the loft to nab him at the table where he was sitting with his gang. They were arresting him, they said, for drunkenness.

Jørgen Mærke's men laughed out loud at the charge and offered their wrists.

"Better arrest all six hundred of us, then."

One guard grabbed Mærke by the shoulders. He clung to the edge of the table, yelling the usual insults and adding a few fresh ones for good measure. Leaping up, his men jostled the two soldiers, rendering their guns useless, then started shoving them toward the stairs. Scared, the soldiers made little resistance. One stumbled and fell backward down the steps, while the other got a shove that sent him flying. He lost his gun as he fell. It landed a few stairs down.

The rebels looked at one another, then at the gun, then back at one another.

No one moved. It had all gone very quiet.

The soldier on the landing scrambled to his feet. He was too dazed from his fall to notice that he'd lost his gun. When he looked up there was no menace in his eyes, only confusion.

Jørgen Mærke took a step forward.

"Boo!" he shouted, tugging at his caveman beard.

The guard jumped, then turned and hurtled down the stairs. His companion got to his feet and followed him. The men laughed and slapped their thighs. Then their eyes rested on the gun and they fell silent. It was lying so near them! All they had to do was walk down a few steps and pick it up.

"Take me." It seemed to beckon. "Shoot, kill, be a man again!"

The men stood spellbound, mute, listening to the gun's whisper.

Then one of them broke the silence.

"We could—" he began, taking a step toward it.

He looked at Jørgen Mærke. He was waiting for a nod, approval, an order: Yes, do it!

But Mærke's eyes were empty, and the mouth behind the caveman beard stayed closed.

The man who'd spoken began to waver. The others took a step back, as if he were no longer one of them. Then he bent down and picked up the gun. He didn't look at anyone as he walked down the stairs, bearing the weapon in outstretched hands with the greatest of care, as it if were a sacrifice. When he reached the lowest landing, he leaned the gun against the whitewashed wall. Then he turned and went back up.

We drank heavily that night and shouted "Hurrah!" countless times. The cadets came out of their room and joined us. We were all brothers now.

The next day we made more model ships, decorated them with tiny paper flags in the Danish colors, and launched them. Bobbing there proudly on the scum of the pond, they reminded us of our nation's power.

We started doing drills in the yard, marching in closed ranks as though preparing for a major battle. Holding three fingers high, we swore that we would never "retreat or desert," but "preserve and defend"—puzzling phrases we barely understood. Nonetheless, they sounded impressive, and we proclaimed them out loud, there in the middle of the yard. Anxious-looking faces appeared above the wooden fence from time to time. They belonged to the townsfolk of Glückstadt, who were spying on us. It was in their honor that we staged these little dramas.

And sure enough, the rumor soon started spreading in Glückstadt that the Danish prisoners were gearing up to conquer the town, and the commandant informed us that from now on we were banned from equipping our model ships with the Danish colors. The people of Glückstadt were upset, it seemed, by the sight of the enemy flag.

We regarded that as a victory.

Now the German had learned to fear us!

Many victories of this kind were won in the weeks to come, and we celebrated every one of them with large quantities of schnapps.

WE WERE MORE THAN four months into our captivity, when, at the end of August, it was decided that we would be exchanged for German prisoners of war. It took us ten days to get to Dybbøl, where the exchange was to take place. We suffered many delays and humiliations on the way, but we took them all in stride because we'd regained our honor by alarming the people of Glückstadt. And when we saw the Danish ships anchored in Sønderborg Harbor, we knew that we were free men. On board the Schleswig, the steamer bound for Copenhagen, they gave us white bread and butter, schnapps, and as much beer as we could drink.

We spent the night on the bare deck, with the ship rolling gently and the wheezing engine vibrating the planks we slept on. It was a cloudless night, and the starlit sky stretched high above us. August 21, 1849, was a good night for shooting stars, and the bright tails of the comets conjured a cannonade very different from the one that heralded our miserable captivity. Laurids breathed a deep sigh. Prison had cut him off from the stars.

When you can't see land, and when the wind, the current, and the clouds tell you nothing, when your sextant has gone overboard and the compass won't work, you navigate by the constellations.

Now he was home.

"Hurrah" was the word we heard most often in the days that followed. On the Baltic Sea we passed a steamer filled with Swedish troops, and from the deck of the Schleswig we shouted three cheers for the brave Swedes. At the Customs House in Copenhagen the crew of the frigate Bellona welcomed us with a triple cheer, to which we immediately responded; soon the entire harbor had erupted in answering hurrahs. Then it was the turn of the officers. They too were celebrated with applause. Commander Paludan took the lead as they walked ashore, just as he'd done when he abandoned the wounded on board the Christian the Eighth. Through his incompetence he was responsible for the loss of two ships, the deaths of 135 men, and the captivity of a thousand. But now he was greeted with respect because he was a hero. We were all heroes. It seemed as if the clapping would never end.

With our sea bags in hand, we went our separate ways to look for lodgings for the night. Soon we were seated in the city's pubs, drinking and cheering. We missed the schnapps pails; since we were now footing the bill ourselves, our drunkenness didn't reach the extremes it might have.

The following morning we were due to meet at Holmen. The naval minister had announced that four months' captivity merited two weeks' wages. Afterward we were to draw lots to decide who would return to the navy's ships and who would be sent home. Laurids, Little Clausen, and Ejnar returned to Marstal two days later. Here, a celebration arch of spruce branches was constructed in Kirkestræde, where the homecoming men were applauded and the dead mourned.

A terribly deformed creature stood in the midst of the crowd that greeted us. One eye was missing, and the bones of his right cheek and his lower jaw protruded from his skin, which leaked constantly. Even those of us who had witnessed so much on that dreadful day on Eckernförde Fjord had to avert our eyes.

We didn't know who he was until he greeted us.

It was Kresten.

It emerged that not all of his head had been shot off, as Torvald Bønnelykke had told us: only half. He'd been in a hospital in Germany until recently and had been sent home some days before the rest of us. The army surgeon had tried patching him up, but his damaged jaw refused to heal. Now he was back home with his mother—who still hadn't recovered her senses and kept asking after her missing son. When poor Kresten assured her that he was standing right before her, she stuck her finger into the hole in his cheek, just as doubting Thomas h