Sailing Home

Author’s Note: A small boy is fishing with his grandfather; as they talk about life, thoughts and feelings emerge that make a lasting impact on the both. The story is told from the point of view of the young boy’s memory now as a grown man.

I was sitting with Grandpa as he cleaned his catch with a knife that he always had, seemingly forever.

The skritch it made against the scales as he worked it with expert hands was like the rhythmic slap of waves on the shore.

His deft fingers never seemed to get caught on the hooks, though he showed me where they had, when he was first learning. Callouses covered the tender skin there, but never covered over the lessons.

I watched the shallow water eddy about my ankles as I sat on the boat’s edge, watching the wheeling gulls hoping to steal a fish or two, though grandpa always left them something.

“Hey Grandpa?”

“What is it, sailor?”

“Why do you always feed the gulls?”

“Folks call ’em the rats of the sea. I call ’em good luck.”

“Why? The fish swim away when they see them.”

“Yep. Right onto my hook.”  He leaned over to catch my eye and said with a wink, “Fish ain’t too bright.”
Then he’d laugh his gentle laugh, and give me a fish head to examine. Somehow, they always looked surprised to be dead.

A gull wheeled in close, and I threw the head into the water to watch them dive and scramble and chase, until finally a victor flew away, three others in pursuit, but there were always others, and they flew in close and bold, curious to see if I held any more treats, but I splashed at them, and they wheeled off, calling me names in their language.

I ran my fingers over the scales of one that was close to me, but didn’t pick it up. The gulls were big, and I was small. I wasn’t afraid, but I didn’t want to test how far they’d go.

“I wonder what they think about when you pull them up…” I said.

“Don’t guess they think much at all.”

“Why?”

He’d finished cleaning the fish, and walked slowly over, and carefully sat next to me, and dipped his ankles in the water next to mine, and the water sloshed in harmony around all the ankles now, and gently swayed the boat beneath our weight.

“I guess they’re in a lot of pain, and just want it to end…” his eyes got far away when he said that, and I knew who he was thinking about.

“Like Grandma?”

He nodded, and took off his glasses, cleaned them with his shirt tail, and dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve.

“Yeah, like Grandma.”

He looked at me then, and put his arm around my shoulder, and we watched the gulls for a while.

“And like me.” he said.

“What hurts?”

“Nothing in particular, and everything in general,” he chuckled.

I smiled, not fully understanding, but he knew that.

He cleared his throat:

“Life’s a lot like a boat,” he said. “You start out in a small craft, and as you travel further out, you take on more, and the craft’s got to get bigger, has to be able to hold all you get. But if you get too much, it slows you down and the journey takes longer. You make more mistakes because you’re always making adjustments for the things you have. You with me…?

“Yes, sir,”  I said, proud of myself that I actually sort of got it.

“And then the storms come, and the stuff you have can help weigh you down, and keep you steady, or it can shift and help the waves flip your boat. If it does that, which is most of the time, you not only lose the things, you lose the people too, the people who’ve helped you to become a good sailor. Still there?”

I nodded, swinging my feet in the surging surf, making foam, dangling a piece of seaweed from my toes.

“And then, eventually, you have to get where you have to be. You have to take the boat home, and get rid of the stuff, because it’s just too much. Some of it you drop off along the way, and some of it you unload when you’re back. The journey’s over, and your stuff’s gone, and you’re just glad to be home, in the quiet. You like that?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “When I’m reading, or thinking about stuff.”

“You thinking about this?”

I looked up at him, because his voice had changed. “Yes, Grandpa, I am.”

He tousled my hair, and laughed his gentle laugh again. “Good man.”

“Grandpa?”

“Hmmm?”

“Are you sailing home, now?”

“I am, son.”

“To Grandma?”

He sighed, and looked out at the setting sun.

“To her, and a whole bunch of other folk you don’t know,” and his sleeve moved again, but I couldn’t see if he was crying.

“You getting rid of stuff?”

He chuckled at that, and again, I smiled with him, unsure.

“Most of it’s gone now, but there’s a little more to go.”

“Oh. Wellll, could you tell her I said hello?” As I spoke I tried to write the word “Grandma” in the mud with my big toe, but the waves kept pushing new mud over it. I wrote it anyway, knowing I’d finished it, that it was still under there somewhere, and it would last for all time.

He smiled, a bit sad, “Ok, sailor. I’ll do that.”

We gathered up our catch.

As we walked home, me with my small sack, him with the bigger one and the fishing rods, I turned to look back at the empty boat, sitting empty on the stilling water, in the fading light, and thought about the time he wouldn’t be there with me.

I stopped, and gestured for him to bend.

He did, and I kissed his cheek.

He straightened, a bit puzzled.

“What’s that for?”

“In case you sail for home before I say good-bye.”

*********************************

I was cleaning my catch, and he sat on the edge of the boat with his ankles in the water.

I threw him a fish head, and he caught it, turning it around to look at it as the gulls grew bolder.

Satisfied he found what he was looking for, he kicked his feet, making foam, and hummed a tune, looking at the sea birds.

He watched them for a time, turning the fish head like an hourglass, but he didn’t throw it.

The blue of the sky deepened as the sun dipped toward the horizon.

“Hey Grandpa?”

“What is it, sailor….?”

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.   2014

 

Choose Them Wisely, Guard Them Well (continued)

“Dr.Chen?

She was startled out of her reverie.

I have to stay focused. Caroline is the mission now.

She did, however, have some questions for the General.

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

“I just heard that…”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“Do you–?”

“No, no. There was nothing to be done for it.”

She looked around, then back at Harris. “For any of it, really.”

He nodded. “Are you all packed?”

“I’m ready to go, yes.”

“Follow me, please. I know you know the way, but there are clearances that  you don’t have. They seem pointless, now, I know, but everyone seems determined to embrace the comfortable until the end.”

“I understand.”

She followed him.

************************

General Williams was waiting at the dock.

“Teri, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you, General.” She straightened her shoulders. “I do have a question: if I’d requested my family be evacuated and brought here, was there anything that could have been done?”

Williams didn’t hesitate, and his own eyes clouded a bit as he shook his head.

“Nothing is going to be done for any of us. I won’t see my family again. My grandkids…”

“Oh.” She looked down, and her voice sounded small and far away. Of course others have family that are not going to see them before they go; at least you got to see yours, and you know what happened, and when, and why. There are so many others who will never have those questions answered.

He continued. “And to what end, doctor? You said it yourself, destruction is imminent. Make peace with it, Teri. With yourself, too. We’re going to need you now more than ever.

She lifted her eyes to his. “I will complete the mission, sir.”

Williams smiled. “Unfortunately, we’ll never see the outcome, but I have every faith in you.”

A faint tremor vibrated the floor beneath them.

Voices were raised, and the mood instantly grew more somber and intense, and not a little fearful.

“Time to launch, sir.” said Harris.

“Thank you, captain obvious.”

They all laughed.

“Teri?” Williams extended his arm expansively, inviting her to go aboard, as if he were the captain of a cruise ship, and not the doomed general of yet another science facility that wandered too far from its walls.

“Kyro’s already strapped in,” Harris said, extending his hand. “It’s been an honor, Teri.”

She watched him closely, but his face betrayed nothing but fondness, and a trace of sadness they would no longer be working together. Beyond that, there was nothing she could decipher. Either Kyro really wasn’t his son, or he was gifted at deceiving.

She took the proffered hand. “Same here, Ken.”

She released his hand, and turned to board. Glancing over at Kyro, his head had lolled to the side, so he was already asleep. Good, she didn’t feel like engaging an assassin. She looked out at the black, weightless expanse of dotted with white fire.

*****************************

No family. No longer a wife. No longer a mother. Just these children now. And Caroline, who will cause no end of grief on the new colony.

If it weren’t for her, I would’ve been able to join them,  see them, hold them…but she has given me a life devoid of meaning. With no one to share with, to spend time off with, to do anything with; I’m going alone.

Her evil intentions mean nothing to me, but because of her, I’m forced to go on, when all I want to do is die.

So I will stop her. I will make her pay for what she’s done to me; every day I stay alive, I will make her pay. Every memory, she will pay.

The stars blurred, and she realized she was crying. This time, she didn’t bother fighting it.

“….three….two….one….we are launched. All automated systems are functioning normally.”

“Safe journey, Dr. Chen.”

“Goodbye.”

Her voice came out more than a whisper, less than a sob; it was not just meant for her colleagues. It was to everything that had made her up to this moment.  She wasn’t just on her way to a new colony, but on her way to becoming something else.

Chapter 3:

The tremors were becoming more violent. Williams and Harris could’ve enlisted the help of others, but they’d either left or were trying to find a place to exit, though where they’d go if the ground was crumbling, Harris had no idea.

“The Naissance is ready, General.”

“Thanks, Harris. Caroline?”

“She’s in her pod.”

“Is there any way to extract her covertly?”

Harris gave him a grim smile. “She changed all the protocols, sir. You said it yourself, she’s ten steps ahead of us.”

“What I want to know is when did she have time to do all this, and if someone helped her. Have security run video from the last thirty days on all the bay doors.”

“Yes, sir.”

“If Teri can’t get to her, maybe one of the others will do us all a favor and stab her in the back.”

Harris looked away.

“I’m sorry, Harris. That was out of line.”

“What was, sir?”

Williams smiled.

Another tremor boomed, and the building swayed like an empty swing in a storm wind.

Both men lost their footing, and when the tremor subsided, they pushed themselves up along the walls behind them, the portion that remained intact. As they were in the northernmost station, it could only mean that now the entire planet was all but consumed from within.

No one knew if it would be another hour, or another day, but they all knew they were living on borrowed time now.

“General?”

Williams had gained his feet, and helped Harris up the rest of the way.

“I’m listening.”

“We still control the launch, sir. We don’t have to send them.”

“I’ve thought of that, but to kill all for the sake of one…as I said, they may do it for us, and we’ve already programmed them as well.”

“Just an option, sir. Still on the table as long as we don’t–”

An alarm blared through the station, but there was no tremor.

“What in the hell–?” WIlliams blustered.

“Naissance has pre-launched. Repeat, repeat, Naissance has pre-launched!”

Williams and Harris found the nearest com station; the young attendant was punching keys but coming up empty.

“Onscreen, young lady!”

“Trying, sir! Please give me a minute…”

Harris put up a restraining hand, and Williams backed away.

The screen flickered, went out, flickered again, and flared to life, stabilizing.

The ship came into view, and the shot of its interior showed the floor was empty.

They watched as the ship sailed over the station below, the shadow blocking out the starlight glittering like strewn gems spilled in ink.across the top,

“Retractors?”

“Offline, sir. Damaged.”

“We’re going to lose it.” The ship was past the station, clearing the harbor.

A hologram of Caroline sitting in the captain’s chair filled the screen.

“Hello, General Williams. I managed to gain access to the ship’s computers days ago, when the tremors first started.

“I programmed the ship to override the safety protocols and release the locks if the magnitude went above four-point-five. If you’re seeing this, then the ship is already loose and on its way.”

All three of them shook their heads in wonder; they’d badly underestimated her intelligence; in no way they measured it was she able to pull this off.

“I had no idea, of course, if it would actually work, but I guess I’ll know if I wake up dead,” she smiled at the weak joke,  “or if we’re still in that hellhole you call a station. And if the magnitude of the tremors is beyond that, then the creature is about to tear the place apart.

“I hope it doesn’t come after us, General, but so be it if it does. Either way, I won’t be able to send those reports I promised you.

“Farewell, sir. I’ll never forgive you for what you did to my father.”

She leaned forward, and the camera zoomed in on those dark, glittery eyes.

“Never.”

The com went blank again.

“Shoot it down, sir?”

Williams said nothing.

“Sir?”

“Check the weapons.”

The young attendant pushed more buttons.

“Nothing, sir. Offline.”

Williams felt his shoulders slumping yet again.

Outwitted by a thirteen year old girl…

Not for the first time, he wondered if he’d been wrong to sign up all those years ago.

A loud rumbling filled the hall, and things began to sway and rattle and fall and slide.

The floor bucked beneath him, and he flipped over backward, catching the corner of a moving desk, the corner cracking a hole in his skull; he could see the blood running from under his head as his vision began to fade.

I thought it was the right thing to do. ran through his mind as he passed into oblivion.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015

Knight’s Watch (2)

Markis gave no thought to himself, and bolted from his room down to his father’s.

He kept the door closed but never locked it, in case he had to get to Markis, or Markis had to get to him.

Markis dreaded the latter circumstance, but it was here now.

There were no lights on; his father slept in total darkness, and Markis knew he would be at a disadvantage if she attacked.

Cautious, straining to listen, he cracked it just a little, and gave his vision time to adjust to all the familiar shapes of furniture the room contained.

Nothing seemed amiss; nothing was disturbed.

He allowed himself a brief smile of relief, but she’d been sitting in his father’s reading chair, watching him.

Her eyes flashed that serpentine yellow again, and Markis found an edge of anger fueling his fright.He opened the door all the way, opening himself first if she were of a mind to do anything, if she hadn’t already…

“Come in, Markis. We’ll chat awhile.”

He understood the threat under the pleasantry, and Markis closed the door behind him, still in the dark.

“My dad…?”

“Won’t hear us. He’s asleep, and I haven’t hurt him. Cross my…well, he’s asleep. I won’t hurt you either, sweetheart. Come. ”

Soft light flared from her, and suffused the room, and she beckoned him.

He was wary, but glad he could at least see her now.

“What do you want from me?”

“It’s not a small thing. Since you saw me, us, do what we did, I’m obligated to ‘request’ that you keep silent.”

“Who would I tell? He disappeared, along with whoever was helping you set him up.”

“True, but the people I work for have reason to take more precautions these days, and they’re not the type to trust promises. In addition to your silence, I have to ask for your assistance.”

He barked a laugh. “Why would I help you?

She looked pointedly at the sleeping figure, snoring softly under his comforter, at peace in spite of his pain, then back at Markis.

“Don’t threaten him!”

“Calm down, Markis. The threat isn’t coming from me.”

He calmed, but it took a moment.

“What do you need me to do?”

She got up, came toward him, strong, supple body beneath her clothes, the air around her engulfing him, heady with a scent he couldn’t identify, and something in her eyes that locked him in tight.

Her hand on his chest was warm, but sent shivers through him.

Her other hand on his stomach as she lifted his shirt warmed him elsewhere.

Slipping behind him, she raked her nails lightly, and steam rose from his flesh, but he wasn’t burning.

Her lips brushed his earlobe, her voice husky with her own desire.

“I don’t know yet, darling, but I know where we can start.”

It seemed to him he melted to the floor as she pressed him down, and time was no longer of the essence.

*********************

He woke in a dimly lit room, a storage room of some kind, full of cases and casks, and he realized he was in the bar across the street from his place, underground. He’d come down here with his dad sometime when the owner would ask him to help with a restock before the place opened.

Markis realized they’d bound his arms and ankles, but they didn’t gag him, and he didn’t hurt anywhere. Testing his limbs in his bonds as surreptitiously as he could, he was satisfied nothing was broken or gone.

“Ah, Markis, you’re awake.” A man’s voice, sonorous, quietly forceful, used to getting his way.

“And this is how you say good morning?”

To his surprise, laughter rippled around the room.

“Remarkable,” the man said, but what he meant by it, Markis didn’t know. “Forgive our primitive precautions.”

The ropes fell off, crumbled to fibers as if old and desiccated, and Markus rubbed his wrists.

“I’ll get to the point: I’m asking for your help. The man you saw so hastily, mysteriously dispatched was in fact looking for us. We found him first. His people want to destroy us.”

“And there’s a reason you shouldn’t be destroyed?”

“Who wants to be destroyed? Who really desires destruction?”

He had no answer.

The man continued. “We took advantage of his drunkenness. He was a fool to let his guard down.”

“So what’s my part?”

“Help us locate them.”

“How?”

“I won’t tell you unless you agree, and though you might want to agree now, I’m not going to accept it now. I’m going to give you some time to think about it.

“Your father, and the rest of your family, will be safe.”

“Unless I say no?”

The man gave no answer, and Markis couldn’t read his face.

“Well, given what I’ve seen, I guess if you wanted us dead, we’d be dead.”

The man arched his brows in approval, a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

“We’ll not detain you further.”

Markis blinked, and found himself outside on the sidewalk with his paranormal seductress, who helped him get his balance when he stumbled against her.

The rain had stopped, and the pale light of dawn was blotting at the black night sky.

Steam rose from the manhole covers, and the morning wind was high.

Her hair blew about her face, and she draped it over her fingers as she watched him; she said nothing as he got himself together,

“I’ll walk with you.”

“It’s right here.”

I’ll walk anyway.”

The crossed the iridescent street, still puddle, still oiled, but the edges drying in the wind.

“I’m sorry, Markis. I got you involved.”

“And I don’t really have a choice, do I?”

“You do, just not if you want to save your dad.”

“What are you, that you can do these things to people. To me?”

“We’re a roomful of monsters, Markis. Hybrids of the spirit world, with many powers gained over many lives. We’ve been chased across the world; some want to study us, others to kill us outright and feed our souls to hellfire.”

“And you?”

“Part succubus, part demon, part witch.”

“That explains…” his face heated.

“Well, I do like you, Markis.”

They laughed.

“Better get upstairs. Your dad’s going to be up soon, and he’s going to want pancakes for breakfast.”

“How do you–?”

“Part clairvoyant, too.”Again the smile: how could it be so dazzling, and pretty, and feral? He supposed it was a gift, of sorts, that she could make it so.

She placed a hand on his forearm. “Take care of yourself, Markis.”

As she walked away, he called out. “You too…uh…I don’t know your name!

“Better for now, you don’t!” she called over her shoulder, as she faded away, instead of suddenly vanishing, as she did so dramatically the last time.

Markis looked on, incredulous: there were people on the street, not many, but some, in plain view of them talking, and she was fading away, and nobody saw her, no one stopped to look.

Better get upstairs.

He smiled, shook his head; the memory of her heated his face again.

“Turns out I had a crazy night out after all.”

But a man is dead, Markis. Dead, and no trace of him left on the earth, anywhere.

  Best not forget that, Markis.

  Don’t forget that at all…

Knight’s Watch

Markis was in bed with his headphones on, looking out the window on the wet streets of the Lower East Side.
He lived on the third floor, and his bed was by the window, which was dangerous because bullets were known to fly suddenly and randomly, one could have his name on it.
But tonight, he needed to see outside, and the rain normally kept men who could bench press four hundred pounds or more inside, so there was little chance of anything happening tonight.
It was nine thirty on a Friday. He’d gone to school that day, and there were parties going on, but Markis was tired, and as much as he liked to dance and the attention of girls, his body said no, so no it was.

There was a soft knock on the door.
“Markis?”
“Come in, Dad.”
His father left the door open behind him.
“Are you all right?”
Markis smiled. “Yeah, Dad, just tired.”
He sat up and took off his headphones.
His father sat in the chair at Markis’ desk.
“Not like you to stay in.”
“But you don’t mind,” Markis grinned.
His father chuckled. “Not gonna lie, I breathe easier. I’d breathe easier still if you moved that bed from the window.:
“I will; just needed to look out for a bit.”
“Anything interesting?”
“Just rain, and watching the traffic lights change.”
“Good.”
They both laughed, then his father grew serious.
“I know it’s been hard without your mom, hard for both of us, but you’re all I have left, Markis, and I want you to listen to me: there’s nothing you can’t tell me, y’hear?
“We can talk about anything, for as long as you need to, and I’ll listen.”
He said it again, “Y’hear?”
Markis looked at his dad in the striated street light: tee shirt, slacks, black socks with no shoes, one foot on the toes, digging into the cheap, clean carpet; he was still strong, but a little more stooped these days, more rounded in the shoulders.
The death of his bride had deeply shaken him, taken something out that was vital to his very being. It was almost an aura, vibrating on the verge of a breakdown, but his dad was a fighter.

Markis almost wished he wasn’t, but he knew his dad wanted to be strong for both of them.

He understood his father needed him now as much as he needed his father.
Maybe he cried where Markis couldn’t see him.
“I know, Dad. And I promise to come to you.”
His father was visibly relieved, and trusted Markis to keep his word.
They talked about school for a bit; it was a universal truth that parents liked to hear about school. Markis and his friends could never figure out why, but he appreciated that his Dad asked in spite of how mundane school always seemed to be.
His dad finally yawned, sat on the edge of the bed, gave Markis a hug and a dry kiss on the ear.
“I love you, son.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
His dad left, closing the door behind him, to go to his own bed, now emptier by one.

*******************
Markis was about to put his earbuds back in, when a movement across the street grabbed his attention.
Part of his view included a bar that his parents used to frequent when they wanted to go out, and didn’t want to go far.

It was a neighborhood fixture, and his dad would take him there when he was younger to watch games on the large screen, and the men would give Markis team hats, buy him sodas or juices, and mock argue with him about the players and teams he liked. 
Markis would laugh and his dad would put his arm around his shoulders and say, “Ya’ll better leave my son alone, ‘fore I hurt you.”
Markis loved those days, but as the neighborhood got older, it slipped away, and the men left in various ways: some through crime, some through disease, some through violence, and some through alcohol.

The bar had fallen into disuse, and got boarded up. In a month it was open with a banner that said “Under New Management,” but he and his Dad never went back.

************************

A man came out of the bar, not too steady on his feet, but not stumbling.
He lit a cigarette, giving himself time to get adjusted to the cool autumn air, clear his head, get his bearings before heading home, when a woman in a short black skirt and leather jacket walked up to him.
The man smiled, looked her up and down, interested in what she had to say. Then his face changed, and he began to back up, when a hand came around and covered his mouth, and a knife slit his throat.
The streetlamp that lit the front of the bar flickered and went out, and when it came back on, the man and whoever cut his throat were gone; there was no blood in the street, no body, no weapon, and only the first woman remained, checking up and down the street.
Oh hell! Now I’m a witness, he thought.
The woman was crossing the street, coming toward his building.
He was on the third floor, but he was getting ambient light, and he pushed himself into a shadowed corner.
The woman stopped just before his window, and looked up, right into it, as if he were completely exposed. Her eyes flashed a serpentine yellow for an instant, her full lipped smile was feral.
Are you, Markis? her voice was low and purring, as if she was sitting by his side. Are you sure you want to be a… witness?
She lifted her hand, waggled her fingers at him in a girlish greeting.
You should’ve gone out tonight, baby.

She vanished, leaving a trace of black vapor slowly dissipating in the cool night air.

In the Temple of Her Heart (Chapter 1)

The day came, bright and clear, though snow remained in the mountain passes.

Arlun had to admit that he was nervous, but he dared not let it show. His parents and siblings were counting on him, and he needed to concentrate. He still wasn’t quite sure how it all happened, but it had, and he was to be wed by the end of the month.

The travel would take a week, the preparations the remaining two; his family would be sent for and conveyed with the utmost care and reverence due their new station.

He shook his head. It had all come about so suddenly….

  The soldiers had pushed the crowds to the sides with the weapons and the large flanks of angry stallions. As the people scrambled aside to avoid the royal procession, a dog, feral, rabid, and scrounging in the alleys had somehow found its way to the merchants’ district. 

In the air, it caught the high scent of fresh meat, and foam pattered in droplets from its mouth as it ran, snarling with anticipation and starvation. It burst out of the alley and snapped at the legs of the people standing aside, who began to jump and scream at the new threat that came suddenly behind them.

   Unheeding of the forest of human legs that sought to entangle it, it broke through just as one of the smaller horses, a pearl colored mare, was passing by; leaping onto a haunch, the dog savaged the flesh, a spout of red staining the white haired beast with calico spatters of blood before the animal reared and wheeled, screaming at the sudden flash of pain, tossing its rider, a slender girl, from its back to sprawl in an undignified heap on the cobblestone street.

Arlun reacted without thought, and rushed forward to pull the young girl to her feet and take her out of harm’s way as her guard’s dealt with the more immediate threat of the dog. 

Her personal guard, however, had seen Arlun, and gave pursuit, now thinking this was a kidnapping ploy. She ran hard into him and sent him sprawling; in a flash she’d straddled him and punched him in the gut twice as his face reddened and his breath fled. With him immobilized for the moment, she got up and let him roll around on the ground to catch his breath, and turned to the girl.

“Are you well, Nahaia?”

“I am, Zarai, thanks to this young man.”

“He was not taking you?”

“Only out of the path of the horses. You did well; you did not know.”

Zarai nodded.

“Help him up.”

Zarai went over, brought Arlun to his feet, still looking him over suspiciously.

By now a crowd had gathered about them, and some of the guards bustled through.

The mangled dog corpse was burning in the middle of the street, and the procession stopped.

“Come, Nahaia.”

“In a moment, Najiu; I have not properly thanked this young merchant boy for saving my life.”

The guard stepped back, and Nahaia went over to Arlun, took off one of her gold armbands, a single ruby in its center, and gave it to him.

“Your Highness,” Arlun said, stunned at the gift, his parents and siblings looking wide eyed over his shoulder. He was going to say he couldn’t take it, but realized that would be an insult, so he knelt, and looked at the ground, as did his family.

“You do me too much honor.”

“Perhaps,” Nahaia said, with a mischievous grin, “but consider it an invite to the palace; my father will want to show his gratitude, as do I. This is neither the time nor place. Tell me your name.”

“Arlun.”

“I will expect you within the month, Arlun. This bauble will only be good until then. If you do not come, I will send Zarai back to extract it from you; the journey to this part of my father’s kingdom is long, if not unpleasant, but still, she may not be polite about it since she will be traveling far.”

“I will be there, your Highness.” His eyes remained on the ground.

To his surprise, she lifted his chin with her finger and favored him with a smile; her eyes were big and brown and beautiful, and his heart quickened as his cheeks flamed.

“I will be most disappointed if you are not, Arlun.”

They turned to go, and Zarai shot him a look of cool disdain, her lips in a mocking, knowing sneer, but knowing what, Arlun couldn’t say.

He swallowed.

This wasn’t going to be easy.

   

Sailing Home

Author’s Note: A small boy is fishing with his grandfather; as they talk about life, thoughts and feelings emerge that make a lasting impact on the both. The story is told from the point of view of the young boy’s memory now as a grown man.

I was sitting with Grandpa as he cleaned his catch with a knife that he always had, seemingly forever.

The skritch it made against the scales as he worked it with expert hands was like the rhythmic slap of waves on the shore.

His deft fingers never seemed to get caught on the hooks, though he showed me where they had, when he was first learning. Callouses covered the tender skin there, but never covered over the lessons.

I watched the shallow water eddy about my ankles as I sat on the boat’s edge, watching the wheeling gulls hoping to steal a fish or two, though grandpa always left them something.

“Hey Grandpa?”

“What is it, sailor?”

“Why do you always feed the gulls?”

“Folks call ’em the rats of the sea. I call ’em good luck.”

“Why? The fish swim away when they see them.”

“Yep. Right onto my hook.”  He leaned over to catch my eye and said with a wink, “Fish ain’t too bright.”
Then he’d laugh his gentle laugh, and give me a fish head to examine. Somehow, they always looked surprised to be dead.

A gull wheeled in close, and I threw the head into the water to watch them dive and scramble and chase, until finally a victor flew away, three others in pursuit, but there were always others, and they flew in close and bold, curious to see if I held any more treats, but I splashed at them, and they wheeled off, calling me names in their language.

I ran my fingers over the scales of one that was close to me, but didn’t pick it up. The gulls were big, and I was small. I wasn’t afraid, but I didn’t want to test how far they’d go.

“I wonder what they think about when you pull them up…” I said.

“Don’t guess they think much at all.”

“Why?”

He’d finished cleaning the fish, and walked slowly over, and carefully sat next to me, and dipped his ankles in the water next to mine, and the water sloshed in harmony around all the ankles now, and gently swayed the boat beneath our weight.

“I guess they’re in a lot of pain, and just want it to end…” his eyes got far away when he said that, and I knew who he was thinking about.

“Like Grandma?”

He nodded, and took off his glasses, cleaned them with his shirt tail, and dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve.

“Yeah, like Grandma.”

He looked at me then, and put his arm around my shoulder, and we watched the gulls for a while.

“And like me.” he said.

“What hurts?”

“Nothing in particular, and everything in general,” he chuckled.

I smiled, not fully understanding, but he knew that.

He cleared his throat:

“Life’s a lot like a boat,” he said. “You start out in a small craft, and as you travel further out, you take on more, and the craft’s got to get bigger, has to be able to hold all you get. But if you get too much, it slows you down and the journey takes longer. You make more mistakes because you’re always making adjustments for the things you have. You with me…?

“Yes, sir,”  I said, proud of myself that I actually sort of got it.

“And then the storms come, and the stuff you have can help weigh you down, and keep you steady, or it can shift and help the waves flip your boat. If it does that, which is most of the time, you not only lose the things, you lose the people too, the people who’ve helped you to become a good sailor. Still there?”

I nodded, swinging my feet in the surging surf, making foam, dangling a piece of seaweed from my toes.

“And then, eventually, you have to get where you have to be. You have to take the boat home, and get rid of the stuff, because it’s just too much. Some of it you drop off along the way, and some of it you unload when you’re back. The journey’s over, and your stuff’s gone, and you’re just glad to be home, in the quiet. You like that?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “When I’m reading, or thinking about stuff.”

“You thinking about this?”

I looked up at him, because his voice had changed. “Yes, Grandpa, I am.”

He tousled my hair, and laughed his gentle laugh again. “Good man.”

“Grandpa?”

“Hmmm?”

“Are you sailing home, now?”

“I am, son.”

“To Grandma?”

He sighed, and looked out at the setting sun.

“To her, and a whole bunch of other folk you don’t know,” and his sleeve moved again, but I couldn’t see if he was crying.

“You getting rid of stuff?”

He chuckled at that, and again, I smiled with him, unsure.

“Most of it’s gone now, but there’s a little more to go.”

“Oh. Wellll, could you tell her I said hello?” As I spoke I tried to write the word “Grandma” in the mud with my big toe, but the waves kept pushing new mud over it. I wrote it anyway, knowing I’d finished it, that it was still under there somewhere, and it would last for all time.

He smiled, a bit sad, “Ok, sailor. I’ll do that.”

We gathered up our catch.

As we walked home, me with my small sack, him with the bigger one and the fishing rods, I turned to look back at the empty boat, sitting empty on the stilling water, in the fading light, and thought about the time he wouldn’t be there with me.

I stopped, and gestured for him to bend.

He did, and I kissed his cheek.

He straightened, a bit puzzled.

“What’s that for?”

“In case you sail for home before I say good-bye.”

**************************************

I was cleaning my catch, and he sat on the edge of the boat with his ankles in the water.

I threw him a fish head, and he caught it, turning it around to look at it as the gulls grew bolder.

Satisfied he found what he was looking for, he kicked his feet, making foam, and hummed a tune, looking at the sea birds.

He watched them for a time, turning the fish head like an hourglass, but he didn’t throw it.

The blue of the sky deepened as the sun dipped toward the horizon.

“Hey Grandpa?”

“What is it, sailor….?”