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

 

The War of Canticles

In the aftermath of the devastation, none of the Great Halls remained.

Stone, marble, fine cloth, weapons, and instruments from around the known world lay in smoking, shattered heaps, among lumps of broken bone and shredded flesh, littering the valley, and the smoke, still thick, roiled back on itself and grew larger, like a confused stampeding crowd. Sprawling across the cloud-strewn sky, it hid the bodies from the view of carrion birds, and small fires, safe from the coming spring rain, still burned in protected places, unchecked, but unable to do anymore damage.

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

Singers Hall was completely destroyed.

Lorelei woke up, her throat raw from the smoke, her eyes bleary and bloodshot, her clothes torn, and her thoughts rambling. Her book wasn’t far from her, but it was singed.

Gingerly, she picked it up, lifting with her fingertips; bits of charred paper fell off and flew away, but only from the edges. The book itself was sound, its pages untouched by fire, still readable, with all of her notes in the margins.

That, and the clothes on her back, were all she had.

She was able to stand, and slowly got to her feet, not wanting to be prone in case whoever did this was searching the rubble to kill the wounded.

She took a look around, and tears not born of smoke filled her eyes…

That was good, because it caused her not to focus.

There was a general impression of carnage, of blood, of bodies broken and torn, but she didn’t look at anyone’s face, didn’t allow herself to recognize, and remember, because she’d be paralyzed by fear and grief, and there was no telling who was coming.

So she waited, and collected her thoughts, as the soft spring rain began to fall.

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

Footsteps crunched over stone.

A fallen pillar hid her from view, but hiding didn’t occur to her.

She wanted to see if whoever it was had been responsible for what happened; what she would do then, she didn’t know.

Her throat, however, was still raw from smoke and dust, so a canticle of binding was out of the question. She had her training, but no weapons, so with the only recourse left to her, she picked up a sharpened piece of the fallen pillar.

There would only be one chance.

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

A boy stood on the fallen pillar, but above her.

Shielding his eyes against the rain with his hand, he scanned the remains of Singers Hall, and Lorelei used the time to observe him.

He was brown, all over, from his skin to his clothing, to the small harp in a brown case strapped to his back. She could see the burnished scrollwork at the end poking out of a corner of the case. He was a stranger in these lands, but if he’d made Musicians Hall here, he was indeed talented.

She looked some more.

He was bald, almost hairless to the point of babyhood, and had a dark gleam about him, brimming with some unknown power, but he seemed whole, and strong, and about her age; he wouldn’t need looking after then, but she was still reluctant to reveal herself.

Seeing nothing, he turned to go.

If he leaves, you’ll be traveling alone, for who knows how long, facing who knows what?

“Wait!” She stepped out from hiding.

He turned, surprised, but wary.

She scrambled up the pillar, put herself on level with him, and they stood, taking each other in.

“You survived,” he finally said.

“So did you. Did you see anything?”

“Bodies, ruin, and fire, not much else. You?”

“The same. None of the Halls are intact. I thought they might be walking around to kill the wounded, so I got up.”

“I don’t think they needed to; they were pretty efficient. And it might not have been wise for you to get up, since they would’ve killed you for real.”

“I’m no good at pretending to be dead if I’m not.”

“No,” he smiled, “me neither.”

He walked back toward her, but didn’t offer his hand.

She didn’t take offense; the Musicians never offered their hands, which they held as transporters of their craft to enter this world from the next, so they were sacrosanct, and kept untainted.

“I’m Devon.”

“Lorelei.”

“Now there’s a name for a Singer.”

She smiled, pointed to his back.

“Harp?”

“Among other things, none of which survived; this will have to do for now.”

The rain fell harder.

“Let’s find shelter, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

“We already have shelter.”

He looked at her.

“We can stay right here, under this pillar, and wait out the rain.”

“You could do that? Your friends’ corpses lay here, your teachers…”

“None of whom would mind. Is there any point to blundering about in the rain, not knowing where we are, or where we’re going?”

Besides, I’ve already mourned, in secret, where no one could see.

He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t argue the validity.

She was already scrambling back underneath the pillar.

Intrigued by her practicality, if surprised at the hardness of her decision, he followed.

2:

The rain continued falling, steady, after dark, and they went hungry that night, though they managed to make a fire.

In the morning, the sun came out, the smoke cleared, and a herald crow sounded the breakfast bell.

They left, still dampened in clothes and spirit, and began to try to find a path out.

As they searched, she thought back to her first day.

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

Her teacher was a walking willow stick; everything about her was wispy, like the pink, fluffy candy of country fairs, sweetness without substance, but that was only on the surface.

  “You have been chosen as Singers; you are above the pale and beyond the norm, and this is now your home. Everything, and I mean everything, you need, or ever will need, is here.

   “There is no need to go skulking about in the woods, like trolls and brigands. The sacrifice of your voice in offering replaces what is left of your life. You no longer have families, or friends, or lovers, save those you meet here.

   “You are given no outside indulgences to detract from your training, for while you are superior, you are not yet fully formed.

   “And it is I who will form you, from now on.”

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

The days were grueling, the nights sometimes more so.

   Willow, for that is what Lorelei called her, was relentless, merciless, and sometimes cruel.

  Lorelei had been at turns beaten, starved, made to sleep standing up, and a few things in between, but last month, at the end of her fourth year, Willow had given her the book, Blessed Canticles. Her own copy, signed with Willow’s own hand.

   “To Lorelei, you have been blessed beyond your worth, but you have earned it, and done well.”

   She later found out, when she went to see what Willow had written for the others, that hers was the only book signed.

  Gradually, they’d fallen off, wondering what she’d done to gain such favor, when they had all been equally punished and rewarded, seemingly solely based on Willow’s whims.

   The imposed shunning hurt, the exile to a table of her own as they left at her approach even more so, but there it was.

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

“And now, I’m all that’s left…”

“What?”

“Nothing. Nothing, Devon, just thinking out loud.”

3:

“We’ve flushed her out into the open, Lord Karis; she travels with a bard.”

“A bard? Indeed, two for the price of one. I’m pleased, Jahrin.”

Jahrin smiled; he didn’t like when Karis wasn’t pleased.

“May I ask a question, Lord Karis?”

“You may.”

“What do you want with the Singer?”

Karis looked out the window, distracted, but he’d heard the question.

“I will answer you, Jahrin. If I hear it on the lips of anyone else, your tongue is forfeit. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, Lord Karis.”

Karis sighed, and walked over to a table, where he took a book of white and gold, and placed it before Jahrin.

“I…I can’t read, Lord…”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Karis walked away, and began to sing, a minor key, that sounded something like a dirge, slow, sonorous, and foreign sounding, and Jahrin closed his eyes, shuddering in his seat, held by something that frightened him beyond words.

His teeth chattered, and tears leaked copiously from his eyes, and when the song ended, and he was finally released, he slumped forward.

The cover was bleary in his vision, and he clumsily wiped his eyes with an overlarge hand, breathing hard.

And the cover said,

The Canticles of War

 “Lord Karis…Lord Karis…I…I can..”

“I know, Jahrin.”

Jahrin remained speechless, reading the words over and over again, wanting to hug the book to him; he dared not touch it, and ran to the shelves, pulling things at random, reading, books and parchments gathering around him like sand.

Karis, enjoying his servant’s excited mood, stopped on his way out to give him a look.

Jahrin’s eyes were bright with happy tears.

“Now imagine what I could do, Jahrin, if I had her power.”

He thought about taking the words from Jahrin, leaving him illiterate again, but that would be cruel, even for him.

This might be actually prove to be useful, later.

He could hear Jahrin’s laughter echo in the hall, and the crash of more books falling off the shelves.

Quite useful, indeed.

Night Roads (con’t 4)

4)

 

Amia was in the garden when I walked up.

“What are you doing back here, Haskell?” She hadn’t turned around.

“Using your witchy skills, huh?”

She turned to face me then, smiling a little.

“Never you mind.”

“We need to talk. I need you to change my face, and I need to hire Alazne.”

“Yes to the first, no to the second.”

Amia stood, smoothed the dirt off her apron. She’d tied her hair back, and looked like a perfect housewife. The last thing I’d expect her to do was blow me apart with a bolt of light from her hands, but she could.

I would’ve smiled in amusement if she couldn’t.

“Alazne? She’s vulnerable, and that makes her volatile. I’m just getting her to where I can trust her. Leaving her alone in my house was the turning point. I half expected to return to find her gone and my place looted, if not a pile of ashes.”

“Maybe she is, but she has advanced stalking skills for her age, and she looks like a beggar child. I could use both to help me further your efforts in stopping the council.”

She paused to consider it.

“Come on, then. Tell me what you’re thinking, while I work on making your face be what I’ve always wanted.”

I felt my face do something between blush and blanch, which set her chiming laughter pealing.

 

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

“How would you like to look?”

I told her.

“Close your eyes,” she said.    I did.

The blackness that my lids created began to lighten to a deep blue, the color of the sky when a full moon shines, and I felt the light scrape of her nails and the pads of her fingertips begin to caress my face.

My skin tightened, and there was some pain, but it was bearable; caught off guard by its suddenness though, I gasped.

“It’s all right,” she whispered, sending a relaxing wave across my body. “Trust me, Haskell.”

“I do.”

The light began to darken, and I was once more in natural darkness, but then I felt a slight change taking place through my body as well. I had what I would call an average build, but it seemed to be getting thicker.

She was making me more muscular, a bit wider, but not preposterously so.

“Is this all right with you?”

My laugh was sardonic.

“Did you leave me a choice?”

“No.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

Oh, Amia. What might have been…

A few moments of silence passed, and then:

“I’m done. Rest a moment. I’ll find a glass for you to see.”

I took a few deep breaths, feeling the increase of the expanse of my chest; it felt good, solid.

She’d gotten a lot stronger; her powers had increased. I should’ve been concerned then, but I wasn’t.

“You can get up now.”

I took my time, getting used to maneuvering with the larger frame.

She left me nude, and the glass showed everything.

“Madam, please,” I said with false modesty, covering myself with my hands.

She laughed again.

“What do you think?”

I took my hands away.

“This isn’t what I told you, but I’m not sure.” I looked like a pirate: curly black ringlets of hair down to my neck, swarthier than I was, and for added effect, a pale scar along the right cheek.

“How am I supposed to fit in with a face like this?”

“You don’t like it?”

“I said I wasn’t sure…”

“Close your eyes, and picture the face you want.”

“What? Amia…” my voice took a warning note, but she just gave me her ‘innocent’ look.

I closed my eyes, pictured the face I wanted, and felt the slight pull on my skin and the elongation and shortening of bones. It was a creepy feeling.

The sensations stopped, and I opened my eyes again.

More average features looked back at me, with no scar. I could be a servant or a merchant.

Just for kicks, I closed my eyes again, pictured the face of a nobleman I met once, and once again the magic crackled across my face.

Bearded, regal, with piercing eyes that struck fear in the hearts of men and made women weak in the knees, or so I hoped.

I looked back at Amia and smiled.    She returned it, pleased.

“I didn’t know you could do that, Amia. You’ve gotten stronger.”

“A woman shouldn’t be defenseless, Haskell. You know that as well as anyone.”

I did, and I was glad she was among those who could do it.

She came up behind me, and put her hands where I had mine moments ago, and put her lips by my ear.

“Let’s try this new body out, and see how it works for you.”

“Shall I keep this face?”

“No, Haskell. I like you for you.”

Changing my face back, I turned toward her, kissed her long and deep, my own hands busy before I picked her up and carried her to her bed, the place she’d denied me the night before, a deed which I promised her she was going to pay for, and she rose to the challenge..

As it turned out, the new body worked just fine.

 

5)

 

It was evening when we were done with each other.

“Where’s Alazne?”

“Out, hunting dinner.”

“She’s a scary girl.”

“I agree. One step up from feral, really. Even I haven’t gotten all of her story from her yet.”

“Do you want it?”

She laughed. “Not sure.”

We finished dressing in silence, and Amia poured some of that wine from Inkara.

The clothes were a bit tighter, but would cover me enough for now.

“I need her, Amia.”

“Why? After the power I gave you, you can fit in anywhere.”

“I need a scout though, a spy, if you will. She’d be able to get into places unnoticed.”

“I don’t know, Haskell. Ragamuffins aren’t welcome in most places; they’re the kids who get watched in the marketplaces, the ones cast out into the street. People do see them.”

“They do,” I agreed, “but only when they get careless. Alazne doesn’t strike me as careless, and she’s got a whole host of skills we don’t know.”

“How do you know?”

“She gave me the lantern, and found her way back to you in a dark forest.”

“By now she’s familiar with the path, the direction; it’s no great feat, Haskell.”

“I’m telling you, even with all that, for one of her age to go skulking about as she does, it is. I need her eyes, and I need her to gain access to places where I won’t fit in.”

“I’ll do it,” said a voice from the doorway.

“How long have you been standing there?” said Amia.

“For most of it.”

I turned to Amia, grinning, and just managed to dodge the empty wine cup she threw at my head.

 

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

As I told Alazne of my plan, and she cooked a late night rabbit, we spent another couple of hours ironing out the details.

She helped with the logistics of where she’d be able to go, and we both agreed that Jonas provided the only real threat.

“Kill him first, or last?” I asked her.

“Let me think about it.”

“All right.”

“Haskell?”

I turned to see Amia in the doorway of her room.

“Are you spending the night?”

Alazne rolled her eyes.

“Actually, no. I need to get back to the inn, make sure everything’s intact, and where I left it.”

The door slammed so fast and hard that Alazne and I both jumped.

Alazne looked up at me.

“You’re a stupid man, aren’t you Haskell?”

I sighed, looking at the door where just seconds ago, I’d seen a vision of erotic loveliness.

“Yes, Alazne. Yes I am.”

RAIN

As I listen the rain

Each new drop’s a fresh new pain

Memories blossom in my brain

As I listen to the rain

 

To new places you have gone

Laughing as you travel on

Never caring, dusk til dawn

It’s my heart you’ve walked upon

 

As I sit and watch the sky

Cry the tears I cannot cry

Clouds all hide the reasons why

As I sit and watch the sky

 

Others hold you in their arms

Never hearing the alarms

Muffled by your many charms

Unaware your poison harms

 

Solitude’s new denizen

Seems the sun won’t shine again

I was very happy then

Guess I’ll just remember when….

 

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.

 

 

In the Temple of Her Heart (Chapter 2)

Heat suffused his face at her words, her boldness. She laughed, playful, delighted at his discomfort, and charmed by it too, and left him with the tingling warmth of her hand under his chin, as if he were the dog that rescued her, and she’d scratched his fleas there in gratitude.

And there it was, the opportunity of a lifetime, all because of a rabid dog.

In and of herself, Nahaia was pleasing to the eye, and Arlun counted himself fortunate; marriages were often arranged, and he’d seen some of the mates of his friends, both male and female, and his heart went out to them.

He knew, at least in theory, that in matters of the heart such things were ultimately superficial, since some of those marriages flourished in spite of the physical shortcomings; it wasn’t often, but it did happen. Shaking his head again as he packed, he put it from his mind.

It was not an issue for him.

Strange land, strange customs, strange people, foods, gods, and so forth were going to occupy his days so much that he didn’t need to worry about anything else.

The sun climbed, wearing down the day hour by hour, until finally, shortly after noon, he was ready to depart.

After tearful goodbyes and long hugs that showed fear and reluctance of accepting their new positions, they realized that in their eagerness to please, they’d opened themselves up to public examination, and courtly interference; there was nothing to be done for it now.

Arlun set out on a good, sturdy horse his father procured from the local horse trader; the man’s eyes positively glittered with greed at the thought of having a palace connection, and he was all too happy to accept a small deposit for a lucrative profit when the horse arrived safely; Arlun’s father’s word had proven consistently good throughout the years, and he was respected and trusted as a man of integrity, even among those who snickered at his poverty behind his back.

The animal was fine and even-tempered, and Arlun found himself relaxing as the road unfolded in its own lazy, meandering way toward the land of his bride-to-be. The afternoon sun was not overbearing, and the road was empty of everything except the creatures of habit that needed to cross it.

Seeing no real need to rush, his hands easy on the reins, he let the horse set it’s pace, and allowed his mind to wander…

She was resplendent in a gown of dark blue trimmed with gold, bedecked with a necklace, rings, ankle bracelet, and armbands set with sapphires and lapis lazuli, her raven hair unbound, but styled to frame her delicate face, and draped just so over her slim shoulders, her deep brown eyes rimmed with kohl and shadow, and when she smiled at him, his heart was bewitched beyond recall.

He heard no music, tasted no food, saw no other rival for her in his eyes, and blinded his heart to the possibility. 

Her father saw the stars in his daughter’s eyes, and the smitten smirk on the young man’s lips, and approved, for the youth, as far as he was concerned, had already proven his valor. His queen spoke to Arlun’s mother of plans, and he spoke to Arlun’s father of coin, and before the night was over, an agreement was reached.

  Arlun knew none of it, and would not have cared if told.

  As they danced, he breathed in the honeysuckle fragrance on Nahaia’s cinnamon skin, longed to taste the berry stained gloss of her lips, wet and gleaming in the festive light; he longed to hold the slender, graceful sway of her body and make it sway in other ways, and could tell by her shy smile that these were mysteries she would keep for him alone until he pledged for her.

  “Ah, Nahaia, my princess, my bride, my wife…” he rolled the words from his tongue, thoughts in the distance, and at first did not hear the rider fast approaching behind him.

When he did, it was too late.

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….?”