By Mark Sutz
Like most identical twins, my brother Oscar and I were indistinguishable from one another to most people. We weren’t the kinds of twins who harbored any unique moles or tics or cowlicks that would, to the discerning eye, separate us one from the other. On every square inch of our bodies, we were exactly alike, two people walking the earth who seemed in every hop, slurp, action or speech, to be the same. Even when we got into trouble, the harsh punishments were meted out in doubled, equal chunks. Our bar mitzvahs were even held in unison, our passage from boys to men held side-by-side, firmly cementing in our minds that we were going to travel through our lives closer to one another than most could imagine or desire.
The only thing different about us was the titanium rod that had been inserted into Oscar’s ankle when we were twelve. He’d sustained a nearly identical injury to me during a particularly vicious skiing accident, an impromptu downhill race we’d engaged in during a ski trip in Zermatt.
Even the scar left visible on his ankle we shared, but when the doctors had gone into my ankle they’d determined I wouldn’t need the permanent assistance of a metal rod to help strengthen my joint. The scar on the insides of our left ankles was shaped like a fingernail moon. Try as we might, we couldn’t ditch our identicalness.
That is, until we were eighteen and Oscar met Luisa.
We’d been apprenticing on a research vessel, the Fathom, to learn the business of what most people call treasure hunting but was known in the trade as deep sea salvage. My father knew the captain, John Angeletti, and convinced him to take Oscar and me along with him one summer. The captain’s daughter, Luisa, had practically grown up on the ship and become a beautiful diversion for us both. We spent as much energy pursuing Luisa as we did learning salvage.
It took Luisa five or six weeks to be able to even tell which one of us had snuck into her cabin and crawled under her sheets. When she was finally able to distinguish Oscar and me — Oliver is my name — from the other, she sat us both down and told us it was Oscar she wanted.
We had both been as smitten as lovesick children, but for the first time in our lives, Oscar and I had one thing different about us. Over the next five years, Oscar and I worked on the vessel, but Oscar was made the heir apparent to its ownership.
Luisa and Oscar were married at sea on our fifth summer on the boat and I became a valued, if not heired, member of the crew.
Captain Angelotti treated us both with equal respect and responsibility—after all, even our boat skills were perfectly comparable—but Luisa’s choice of Oscar as her lover and companion meant his place was far more secure.
Before launching for our sixth summer, Captain Angelotti brought the whole crew together to hear his encouragement. More than once, our salvage operations were conducted in tricky weather and conditions that only people addicted to uncovering history would bother suffering. Captain Angelotti’s boundless energy and enthusiasm was enough to palliate any amount of trepidation we had.
He gave us his usual spiel, but there was always at least one person in the crew who was new and hadn’t heard the captain discuss the vastness of treasures in the waters of the world. According to the UN, there are more than 3 million shipwrecks on the ocean floors of the world. Whenever the Captain repeated this number, it amazed even the most jaded person. At least we knew we’d never be out of work and could always dream we’d find something magical.
“This year,” he said, “is going to be a special year. I was privy to information about what could be the most valuable shipwreck the world has ever had and one which has remained secret.”
I nudged Luisa who was sitting next to me and asked her if she knew what he was talking about.
“He’s kept it secret even from me,” she said.
“Last year,” the captain continued, “some historians discovered papers that have brought to light a very interesting twist in the sinking of the HMS Sussex.”
The Sussex was a known shipwreck, but no more interesting for salvagers than any other of the hundreds which we’d studied. It was simply a Royal Navy ship that had sunk in along the Spanish coast on its way to the Mediterranean in 1694 and one which interested historians more than it did salvagers. The captain’s body had washed up clad only in a nightshirt on the shores of Gibraltar.
“Apparently,” he said, “the Sussex was on a secret mission. Captain Wheeler was carrying 1 million pounds sterling to deliver to the Duke of Savoy, to keep him from falling to French bribes. Today, that booty, all those silver and gold coins are worth more than a billion dollars.”
We could hear the collective gasp and then childlike tittering from the crew. The captain told us all we’d sail in two days.
Oscar, Luisa and I went to the local pub at the marina where we were docked and spent the night reveling in the possibilities of our next adventure.
“You and Luisa are going to be rich beyond your dreams. Beyond mine. Beyond anyone’s,” I said.
Oscar said, “Oliver, whatever’s mine is yours. You know that.”
Luisa, as she usually did, bristled when I brought up the fact that her choice of Oscar had inexorably changed the course of my life. After all, because they were married, Luisa and Oscar became the beneficiaries of anything that Captain Angelotti and the Fathom found at sea.
Oscar squeezed my shoulder, knowing full well how our lives had taken different roads. But I believed in his reassurances and put it to rest.
We drank enough that night to carry us into a reverie about our impending trip that we’d ever had before. The three of us stumbled back to the ship and passed out in our cabins, dreaming of the Sussex’s treasure off the Spanish coast.
The next day, last minute preparations were made with more vigor than I could recall. Broad smiles were on everyone’s faces. Captain Angelotti even treated the entire crew to a gluttonous dinner where pats on the back and hugs were in full sight. We all could taste the possibilities, though we knew full well how difficult this salvage would be.
The sail across the Atlantic was calm, uneventful, and filled with energy. For three weeks, we studied maps of the wreck, made specific plans for the salvage and read more about the history of the Sussex. Our dinner conversations often veered to Admiral Wheeler and his unfortunate voyage three hundred years before. Even Don, the first mate, was excited for old sea voyages as he never was before.
On the 22nd day after we left the eastern coast of the United States, we anchored above what was the site of the HMS Sussex. Captain Angelotti gave us his final pre-salvage pep talk.
“I know this will likely be the most exciting excavation of your lives. It certainly is mine. But we’re going to be working out here for the better part of six months, so whenever anyone needs to take a break and visit Gibraltar via the transit vessel, just let me know. Or First Mate Don, here.” The captain put his arm around Don and said, “To a successful rebirth of the HMS Sussex.”
After the anchoring and initial lowering of our navigation sub, the electronic eyes for the crew, a few of us gathered around the video feed to await the first images of the Sussex. Through the murky water, we spied the ship that had lain under a thousand meters of water for four centuries. We all applauded and then set in to guide the sub around the wreck to see how we’d begin the excavation.
That first day was a day of meticulous planning on how we’d raise the ship, piece by piece, into airtight compartments under the water so the wood wouldn’t disintegrate upon hitting the air. Then, to the surface, and into the transfer ship that would head to our warehouse on land to go through the treasures of the wreck. At the end of the day it felt like we’d already been working for months because of what we knew lay ahead of us, the sweat and hard work we’d endure. We ended the day on the deck, Oscar, Luisa, Captain Angelotti and I sharing two bottles of Spanish wine.
When we were nearly finished with the second bottle, we noticed the sky was darkening and a storm would soon be upon us. Mostly clear weather had been on the horizon all day, so the quick turn to drizzle surprised us all.
Don came up and consulted with Captain Angelotti. After the first mate returned below deck, the captain told us we’d be in for a surprise levanter, the strong easterly wind that in this part of the world could appear in an instant and cause havoc to even the most sturdy of ships. It was a levanter, in fact, that had originally downed the Sussex long ago.
Within minutes the Fathom was in the middle of severe winds and a rainstorm of frightening night. As the four of us were making our way carefully along the rails to find our way below deck, the Fathom lurched heavily and I slid headfirst across the slick deck.
I awoke in my cabin, my vision blurred and my head a knot of pain. Two people were at my bedside – Don and the ship’s medic.
“You’re awake, son,” Don said.
I struggled for words.
“The storm. What happened?” I asked.
The medic had his hand around my wrist to check my pulse. “You were knocked unconscious. You’ve been out for five days.”
“My brother? Luisa? The captain?”
Don motioned for the medic to leave, and waited for the door to close behind him.
“Oscar, this is difficult, but you’ve got to know,” Don said. “The three of them were washed overboard that night. It took us two days to find their bodies.”
My memory was absent. The last thing I recalled was sliding uncontrollably across the wet deck. And why was Don calling me Oscar? In my haze, I was unsure of my own identity.
Don continued, “The Fathom was severely damaged. The storm got so bad they couldn’t even send any boats to assist us.”
“Where is my brother’s body?” I asked.
“Oscar, we lost all power to the refrigeration systems. There was nothing else we could do but cremate them.”
I remembered Captain Angelotti once telling us that in the absolute worst case and in order to spare the rest of the crew the possibility of disease, a person who died at sea might have to be put into the ‘crematorium’ built into the Fathom. Though referred to as the crematorium, it was actually a large oven used to help bake off debris from wrecks we pulled up. The morbid truth was that it was easily big enough for a body.
I began to weep thinking I’d lost the person with whom I’d entered life. The confusion was overwhelming. And then I thought about what would happen to the Fathom.
Don said, “The captain and Luisa, their ashes are where they would want them to be. In the ocean. Your brother’s ashes are in a makeshift urn, secured on the main deck.”
I lifted myself up so I was sitting on the bed.
“Will you please bring the urn to me, Don?”
He left me alone there. It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt since the day Oscar and I were separated for a mere three hours when we were five years old. I had no idea how life would even be possible without him, without that possibility of working with him and Luisa on the Fathom once the captain had retired and passed it onto them. Now I had no claim to it at all.
As I was weeping into my hands, Don brought the urn. My parents would never understand the cremation. Our faith forbade it.
“We saved the titanium pin. We had no idea your brother had one, but the melting point of titanium is higher than the oven. I assumed you’d want to keep it with his ashes. A tug is coming. When we finally are able to dock in Gibraltar, your parents will be there. They’ve been notified and are coming to pick up you and his ashes. I’ll leave you alone now. I’m so terribly sorry, Oscar.”
After a while, I took the urn under my arm and made my way to the deck. The day was so still the water looked like a sheet of blue glass. I said a prayer for the three of them and unscrewed the lid to the urn. I poured my brother’s ashes over the side of the boat and watched, as if in slow motion, the titanium rod implanted in his ankle when we were twelve—the only difference between us—plummet into the ocean with a visible but inaudible splash. It sank, I hoped, to the very bottom of the ocean near the Sussex. I wished as hard as I’ve ever wished for anything in my life that by taking my brother’s place in this life, I was doing the honorable thing.
I buried both of us that day and often think of Oscar’s ashes in the ocean. And me, Oliver, lost to my parents that day too, though they’d never be fully aware of what had really happened. The lie was written in water, and somewhere in the limbo of two lives taken much too early, I wonder some days who I really am.
* * *
Mark Sutz is a writer living in Arizona. He contributes regularly to the online culture magazine, The Nervous Breakdown. A list of his publications can be found at www.marksutz.com. You can contact him at his gmail.com address, “masutz”.