It was the night we rounded the Cloven Hoof, a curious feature of the nameless island guarding the mouth of the Windy Straits, east of the Greater Diamond Cloud ice shelf. A deceptive bit of sea, it is, with water clear as air lying atop a plateau of rare blue granite and a narrow channel twisting its way roughly parallel to the island’s northern coast. Balloonists tell us it’s impossible to distinguish the depth of the channel from the shallows of the formation by sight alone as the shades of blue are identical. A pilot must be specially licensed by the Maritime Ministry to attempt it. Most of the freight lines plying the Great Seas of the north avoid the island and the treacherous shallows but The Merchants of the Western Thunder built their reputation for speed and reliability by boldly taming such risks, thereby making their fortune.
The deck master was down with “the wobbles” so I had just finished my second watch of the day, shivering at his post on the afterdeck while himself lay snug and warm in sick bay. Not that I’d wish such gastric mayhem on my hardest foe. The mess is ungodly.
The night was sharp and cold, with a full moon shining like ice in the bottomless violet sky and stars thick as flying snow. The banshee-wail of the wind in the rigging sang with an eloquence not of this world, calling me to contemplate the frail mortality of my kind and the fascination that drew us to such extreme places, where impending disaster was the air we breathed. But this clear, star-strewn night held no catastrophic portents, at least none as could be read by an ignorant old sailor like me.
I eased my knotted muscles and frosted bones down on the edge of my rack, racing against onrushing sleep to pull off my sea boots but the race was over before it began. I am in my seventy-fifth year at sea and not the rock I still fancied myself to be. Down I went, leaving ghostly impressions of the moonlit compartment fading behind me, on through the gate of sleep.
Of late my dreams have carried me to the sun-drenched fields of the farm where I grew up under the watchful care of my widowed mother, gone these forty years and sorely missed. How the dear used to worry, especially about the state of my eternal soul! “Have a care, my boy!” she would say, her soft, amber eyes glistening with the tears she fought to hide. “I’ve seen how the sea can rob a man of his faith before sending him on to the next world. Beware!”
She needn’t have worried. I’d sooner forget the way from stem to stern than Him who stills storms and rescues the shipwrecked souls.
There was to be no visiting the old place this time. The waving fields of turquoise grass gave way to more fluid vistas as my slumbers took me far from the rustic comforts of home and showed me things long forgotten or never seen before.
‘Twas a bracing wind that flew us across the foaming tops of the steely gray waves. Our sky-blue sails, now tinged with red from the hidden sun ahead, were swollen with the gale and the old ship’s timbers creaked and cried as if they knew their time had come. I felt the speed of our reckless dash away from the churn of the blackened sky and sea swallowing our wake in the cold distance aft and smelled the crisp, clean scent of ozone that came with every snap of lightning.
As I pondered these things my gaze was drawn to a ship emerging from the ruddy glare of the sun-infused mist, his course parallel but opposite to my own. A curious thing! Could there be two strong winds running counter to each other in such proximity?
He drew closer and I saw his blue sails tinged with that same red illumination, filled with the opposing wind. No signal passed between us and we were too far apart to make out the forms of men but as he sailed by I felt a great sadness for the trials he would endure in the grip of the storms ahead. The icy blasts of his life upon the sea would surely sap his youthful strength, harden his character and cut him off from loved ones upon the land. Likely he would see good ships wrecked and good mates go down to the black depths, where souls never rest quiet.
Even so, for all that knowledge of dangers and pains, I felt a boundless longing to abandon my trusty old ship and swim across the briny waves to join him. A fine thing that would be, to mingle my ancient knowledge of the mariner’s arts with his youthful vigor! A fine thing indeed, but tide and currents did their work and I was powerless to do aught but watch as his ship continued on its appointed course toward the black-shrouded horizon.
My own vessel glided smoothly now, with hardly a ripple upon the quiet, calming waters. Ahead lay the warming embrace of the rosy haze, inspiring reflections upon the passage in the old, old Book; “By blood have ye gone out; through Blood shall ye return…”
I awoke to the songs of nesting birds ringing sweetly through our snug little house all full of sun. My mother was at the hearth, my gear was stowed neat and ready in my sea bag by the door.
“Have a care, my boy!” said my mother, looking up at me with eyes impossibly soft for all the hard things they’d let in to her mind and heart. “I’ve seen how the sea can rob a man of his faith before sending him on to the next world. Beware!”
“Mother, my dear,” I answered, “you’ve nothing to fear! Last night I had a dream that I take for a prophecy. I saw an ancient ship upon the ocean, sturdy but battered from long years of hard use. Its course was for home as mine was for the mystery of the open sea. A great peace came upon me as I watched, for it sailed quietly into the calm red waters of heaven.”
“His will be done,” she said with tender reverence, relinquishing me to the care of The Commander of The Sea.
With a final look about the dear old place I hefted my sea bag, said my goodbyes and made for the stormy seas.