At the End of the Sea
A sailor stood in a little white ship. He stared up at a never ending canopy of stars, all scattered against deep blues and rich violets. They spread as far as he could see, to every horizon and beyond, and the waveless water reflected them back up. He glided on a mirror, with no sunlight or moonlight at all, only the ripples of stars cast in the wake of the white boat.
His name was Ted. There was a sail in the boat, folded up beside a mast, and a pair of oars beside that. But the sailor did not know where he was, or even where to begin to find out. There were no maps or charts, and for a while he decided to just sit down and watch. The water was black, and there was nothing to see through it, other than reflections. The stars, overhead, wheeled so slowly that he could hardly distinguish their movement.
Before long, however, he began to see other boats. Some were a great distance off, but some appeared very quickly beside him. Some slowed and spoke to him as they passed, while others blazed by in a mighty wake with their oars whirring or their sails pulled taut. Ted watched them pass with an intrigue and a jealousy, a longing to travel like that. But he had no idea where to go. No matter where he looked, there was nothing but the water and the stars.
In moments when the waves were incredibly still and he could stand on the curved hull of the boat without the slightest rocking, he could almost imagine a place. He could almost imagine land, even though he had never actually seen it or walked on it.
He paddled with the oars, finally. He felt as though he made good distance at first, even passing some other boats, which only sat and watched him go by. Still others were faster than him, and passed him on the left or the right, or crossed right before him. None of them were going the same way.
One day, a boat came nearby. It drifted slowly, and the sailor at its prow shouted to him—
“Friend! Hold your oars! Rest a moment and hear what I have to say!” So Ted stopped, and lowered his oars. The new sailor in his new boat told him all about a great place on the far horizon, about a great lamp hung in the sky to draw the travelers in. “That's where you should aim yourself,” said the newcomer. He pointed at a star, a great and bright star that hung just above the water on the far horizon. It was brighter than the stars around it, but hardly seemed the brightest star in the sky. Nevertheless the young sailor heard these words with determination. He began to paddle eagerly, and before long there were other boats close around him, all seeming to go the same way.
‘What's waiting there under the light?” The sailor heard one ask to another. But it was clear that none of them knew, for certain. They knew only a rumor of great things.
The sailor had been rowing for what felt like ages when a passing voice cried out: “Friend, rest your oars. Run up your mast! The master of the Place has promised us good winds!” This new sailor was young, like Ted. His sail was wide and pulled tight by a wind that the sailor could not feel, from where he sat.
“What do you mean he has promised?” He asked.
“The Lord of the Place,” said the man with the sail. “Why, don't you know where we're going?”
“No,” said Ted. “Not really. Only that we're going to a place.”
“To the Place! The only place that matters, really. The Lord of that place has built a lighthouse—you see it, don't you? Just there?”
“Yes,” Ted replied. “I'm headed there already.”
But the new sailor laughed. “You'll never reach it that way,” he said. “There are currents and storms and you’ll never keep straight. Besides, soon you will grow too tired and give up and you’ll turn aside at the nearest place. But run up your mast, there—hang your sail! The Lord of that Place has promised us good wind! If we only trust it, it shall bear us to his very feet!”
At this entreaty, Ted put down his oars and followed his new friend's instructions. He fixed the mast in the center of the ship and raised the sail and tied the ropes where his friend instructed, and immediately he felt the boat lurch beneath him. The wind filled the sails and dragged the ship forward, glassy water splitting away against the hull. The sailor rushed to the front of the boat with a rising joy as he felt the air against his face and set his eyes on the distant light.
Together the two sailors sped along, and soon they were joined by more boats with their own sails raised and the wind driving them on. But as time passed, and the young sailor looked around, he saw that some people were turning their ships away, sideways against the wind. Some lowered their sails completely, and took up their oars again, or just idled, coasting to a slow stop.
On and on the sailor traveled. Time passed, moment after moment, hour after hour, until the wind started to slow.
Once, while the sailor slept in the belly of the hull, the boat went still. When he awoke and looked up, it was as if the wind had gone out. He was alone, on the sea, with no other craft in sight. He took up his oars, terrified of holding still, and began to paddle, doing his best to keep his eyes on that star. For the first time since he had first heard of the Place, he wondered if maybe the other sailors had been wrong. Maybe the star was nothing more than a star. Or maybe it was the wrong star, in the end. After all, it hardly seemed brighter than the others.
For some time he sat, until even his oars had stopped. He looked up at the sky, and he wondered if that Place could even be real, or if the Lord of it could really have built that lighthouse he’d heard about. It seemed ludicrous to believe that anyone in any place could be master of the wind.
It was while he yet lay, looking up at the stars, that something struck his ship. The vessel jumped and rocked, and for a moment he was afraid that it would tip over. He sat up, and saw that to his great surprise, another boat, very white like his own, had drifted right into him. Another sailor sat at the front of this ship, with her eyes so fixed on the horizon that she hadn’t even seen his ship. Her sail was hung, like his, but full of a wind that made his stomach jump.
“I'm sorry!” She cried, rushing to the side of her ship and looking over.
(Neither sailor noticed, but the bump of one into the other had straightened both courses.)
“Where are you heading?” Asked the new sailor, and for a moment Ted felt ashamed.
“I'm heading there,” he said, and pointed. “For that star.” He told her why, and as he spoke he wondered how the joy of the words he spoke could ever have left him with any doubts at all. (As he spoke, he did not realize that the wind had filled his sail again.) He told her of the Lord of the Place, and a light came across her face.
“I have always known that the wind bore us that way,” she said, “though I've never known why!”
Her name was Lily. Side by side the two ships traveled, and as they cut through the water, they talked ceaselessly about what awaited them at the end of the sea. As they talked, the new sailor told the first of how far she had come, already, of the idle ships that she had left behind, though for a long time she had sat idle with them, before the longing drove her to leave them, to hoist her mast and see where she might go.
They talked about the star and about the Place underneath it, about whether it was truly a lighthouse or truly a lamp, or truly like none of those things at al, and about what the Lord of the Place might be like, whether he was really good or really powerful, whether the wind that moved them was really his. They talked, and the wind carried them on, with one wake behind them.
Eventually, they tied the two ships together, so that neither one could drift off in the night, or so that if the wind failed in one sail, the other might still drag it along. They tied themselves together, and they sailed.
Other ships came into view again, and those who sailed the same way came alongside them, and they shouted joyfully over—“Are you heading for the Place?”
“Yes!” They shouted back.
“Do you know the Lord of the Place?”
“I have been told great things about him! I have been told that the place is on a great hill—a great mound, like a ship, but that does not rock or stir. I’ve heard that it towers up against the stars and that there are no shadows, there!”
Other ships they passed were idling, or rowed themselves in silly circles, and they would call out—“Friends! Have you no mast in your boat? Raise your sail! Set your eyes on that star, and the Lord of the Place will bring you to him!”
Sometimes, they stopped and helped a sailor to run up his mast and string his sail, but more often than not, they continued to sail their own way and gave no heed to the word of the Place. The sailors, in their bound ships, would grow discouraged, at times. Each time, one or the other of them would feel the wind on their face, and look up at the two great sails, still full and still pressing forward, and would remind the other to look out to the star, to see if it didn’t grow brighter, the nearer they got? If it didn’t rise higher, as though soon they would approach the very foot of it and it would sit directly above them.
Sometimes, they were passed by sailors who crossed the path before them, going to one side or the other—their sails were hung, but there was no breath in them. “How do they move so quickly, with no wind?” Asked Lily.
“There is a current, see?” Ted answered. “Friend!” He cried to the passing ship, “To where are you headed?”
“To the place,” he declared proudly, “the place where the truly wise know to go.”
“What place is that?” Asked Ted.
“Why, to the only real place! The place where we shall have no need of boats, no need of wind or oars—the enlightened place!”
The sailors looked to each other in confusion, and called back—“Is the Lord of that Place good?”
“Why,” laughed the passerby, “Where I go, every man is lord of his own place! Come along and see!”
But the sailors shook their heads. “We can’t,” they cried. “We are going toward the light. The Lord of that Place has sent the wind to bring us home.”
The man in the ship laughed at them, and away he sailed.
As time went on, and more and more distance was traveled, the sailors began to pass the same sorts of people—people who had taken down their sails, or else forgot to trim them properly, and had resorted to rowing themselves toward the distant star. “Friends,” they would cry, “why don’t you hang your sail? You’ll never reach the Place that way!”
“The wind failed me,” they would often respond. “It left my sail, and I have been stranded since. If I am to reach that place, I must reach it myself.”
But to Lily and Ted, with their prows pointed at the star, it was clear that the boat had only tilted sideways, and if the sailor would only straighten out the prow, and fix his eyes on the light, the wind would rush into the sail again.
They traveled on, and sometimes the wind in one sail, or the other, would start to die. The ship would start to lean away, until the ropes caught it, and drew the crafts together again. Always one sailor would say to the other, “Only fix your eyes to the star, the Lord of the Wind will draw us home!”
On occasion, when one sail was empty, the sailor of the vessel would sit down and put their head in their hands, crying, “Oh, we’ll never make it so far,” or “How could the Lord of that Place be good? Why would he put that Place so far away?”
Sometimes it would take the encouragement of another ship, or a pair of ships, passing by, to lift their spirits. Words like, “take heart, my friends! I have heard that we grow ever nearer! Does not the star look brighter, from here, than it did not long ago?” or they would say, “Is not the wind hastening? I can feel it now, that we are moving much faster than we used to! It won’t be too long, now!” They spoke of a thirst and a hunger, of a longing that would soon be satisfied, and always the wind was faithful to bear them on.
Not long after, they passed by a peculiar sight—Here, they saw many ships turning away, for in the near distance, black against the stars, like a great smear of true darkness, an object lunged from the sea. “It is an island,” said one of the travelers, who had been beside the two for some time. “I have passed them, before.”
“Why do so many boats turn aside?” Asked the sailors.
“Because they have been rowing for many years, and their arms are tired. Or because they have come to believe that this is the place itself, or perhaps connected to it. That maybe they can stop here, for a bit, and then journey on again.”
“Do they ever leave?” Asked the other.
“Sometimes,” replied the old traveler. “But most do not, I have heard. There are currents—you must be watchful of them now, as we pass—that draw in, but do not let out, for any amount of rowing. Only those who turn their sails to the wind can escape, but once lost on land for so long, few remember the wind at all. Most remain there forever, until their ships decay or are broken. I have even heard stories that horrible creatures live on the islands. We must ever be vigilant, for how could any shadowy place be the real Place? Does not the real Place dwell in endless light, beneath that faithful star?”
Though their eyes were sharp, the current caught hold of the ships, far stronger than they expected. It began to draw them away, almost until their sails and turned away from the wind, when the old sailor called out to them. They caught the ropes that he threw, and before too long, he had pulled them free.
On, past the islands and the currents they went, treading carefully every step, until ahead of them, rising from the water, there grew a great darkness, swallowing up the stars. Thunder rumbled from within the cloud, and the wind swirled around them terribly, a cold wind that whipped up from the water. As they entered the fog, the sailors nearly lost sight of one another. The wind howled and a cold rain pounded down on them. Once, Ted shouted aloud: “The star is gone! I can’t see the star!”
But Lily peered through the cloud, and though all other stars were hidden, the star over that Place still burned. The sailor pointed and shouted, “It’s there! At the end of my finger, the star has not moved! And the fog can’t hide it, not truly!”
For long days, the rain and the cold remained. But the wind continued to fill the sails, until at last the cloud was behind them. The starlight dried them slowly, and the wind was warmer, on this side, healing the ache in their bodies. The sailors saw each other again, and they looked at the ships, and saw that the sail of Ted's ship had torn, when they had been in the thickest fog. And so they tied each the ships even closer together, and repaired the sail where they were able. The wind carried them onward, and the wake that they left behind was gentler and ever, as though the waves here were not ridges to plow through, but seemed like gentle hands, passing along the prows, gently pushing them onward.
Now that they could see clearly, and the fog was behind them, it seemed that the star was brighter than ever. There was no denying it now, that it hung higher than it had before—that they had drawn nearer, after all, and they watched it almost without ceasing, now. Other ships passed, and the sailors in those ships looked the same—their eyes were wide, and their heads tilted back. They wondered and talked together about what they would find, in that place, and how much longer the journey would be. They asked if all of the other sailors had passed through the storm as well, and many had. Some had avoided it, and some had experienced different struggles. Some ran aground, against some hidden spine of sand. Some had been attacked, by men in ships sailing the opposite way. Some had even landed on islands, and though they had wasted much time, they had finally escaped the trap of the currents.
One night, as the sailors sat together, Lily thought back to the island and the storm, and all the people they had passed who sailed the wrong current, or who drifted away. “The Lord of the Place really is a good Lord, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Ted.
“He has carried us very far, hasn’t he?”
“He has,” said Ted.
And as they always did, nestled in the prow of the ships, the sailors drifted off to sleep together. When Ted woke, and sat up, his heart plummeted within him—The ship, still tied beside him, was empty. He cried out, at first, he shouted Lily's name, but she did not answer him. Finally, he looked up—the great star seemed to hang directly over his head. “Where did she go?” He cried aloud. “Did you take her, Lord?”
The wind filled his sail again, and it was the same wind that he had felt after the storm. Though his sail was torn, he untied the empty ship, and legit drift away. He sailed on, and the wind carried him. For a while, it seemed that the star was gone—it was hidden from his eyes, and he nearly traveled entirely in darkness. But the wind was not gone. He passed another ship, maybe even two, and to each one he cried out—“We’re almost there, aren’t we?”
“Yes, brother,” they cried back.
“Do you think that she’s there, already?” He’d ask.
“Most surely,” they’d reply.
“Most surely,” he would say to himself as he went. “Most surely.” Alone, for the first time in many ages, he sat in his boat. He watched the star and he wondered how much longer the wind would carry him along. For a moment, when he heard the sound of the wind flapping through the hole in his sail, he wondered if this was all some very cruel joke, if perhaps there was no Place, and there was no Lord, if the wind simply blew where it wanted. It was harder to remember the storm, now that he was alone. It was harder to remember the time that followed it, and the warm wind. But he looked back up, and there hung the star, faithfully over him, and he said aloud—
“I know that you are a good Lord,” he said. “I know that you have carried me very far. Very far indeed.”
He fell asleep, in the prow of the boat.
What Lily Woke To:
When the two ships were yet tied together, when happy sleep settled over them, they had not been asleep long when Lily woke. Her ship had been jostled, but gently, and she sat up. She saw the great star first, and it seemed to hang directly over her head. She looked down, beyond the prow, and saw that the crystal surface of the water lapped gently against sand—she looked up, beyond, and saw that the surface around her was hard, not smooth and rippled. The wind made a strange, whistling sound, and it was the sound of the wind through grass, though she didn’t know it.
She looked around—Ted was still asleep in his ship, still tied to hers. “Look!” She called, and her heart jumped into her throat as she jumped from the ship. “Look! Look! We made it!”
Her feet touched the sand, and immediately everything around her changed—for a moment she was too stunned to speak, for the stars rolled back, except for that great one. The sky was no longer dark and distant, but bright and golden and it blinded her, but with ever moment her blindness became a different sort of sight. Her eyes changed, and she took her first steps through sand and seaside grass, with warm air all around her.
She had not taken more than a single step when she turned back to Ted, her mouth open to call after him.
But his ship had drifted away from the edge of the land. He drifted along beside it, still asleep. She took a breath, to shout for him to wake up, but a hand touched her shoulder. She looked up, and saw the Lord of the Place, smiling down at her.
With nothing but his smile, her anxious sorrow was gone. In his eyes, she saw the warmth of that wind, the faithfulness with which it had carried them so far. In his face, she saw the glow, as of that great star itself. “Welcome home, little Lily,” he said, and he took her hand, and indeed she was nothing but a child here. She hung onto his hand with both of her little ones, and he walked beside her, in the sand. She could see the water now, and that it was truly light and blue, and that the sand was white and soft and warm. She could see the sailor in his little ship, waking up. She saw him looking for her, and it made her heart cry—but he did look silly, at once, looking about. He could not see her, though she walked only a few feet away. She saw her own ship, from a distance, and she thought that it looked strange, in this light.
“Come,” said the Lord of the Place, “we shall follow along, and welcome him when he lands. His journey is nearly over.”
Lily saw then that the Place was a strangely shaped one—its sandy arms reached out, to gather in the ships as they came, but not all landed at the same time. Holding onto the Lord’s hand, she ran along the beach—she’d never run before, but her legs seemed made for it. He’d never felt sand before, but her toes seemed made to run along it. Her hands brushed the grass, and her smile was like it had never been, as she watched the sailor approach. She watched the sadness on his face, and every moment grew more eager for his happiness to be like hers, for his sadness to be taken away. The Lord ran quickly, and he laughed to see her smile, as she waved and called to Ted, "You’re almost there! Look, only a few yards more!”
Finally, the ship brushed up against the sand. The sailor, with his tired eyes looked up, over the edge. He climbed out of the ship, and Lily knew that he saw what she had seen—the tiredness fell off of him, as though a splash of cold water had waken him from a long sleep. His body was different, in the light of the Place, as different as a body in a dream from a body awake. He was younger and he seemed smaller, even as she did. He looked up, and saw that the darkness through which he had passed was nothing more than the shadows of great white cliffs, that towered above him. He saw that the Great Star shone from he highest tower of a great, white-and-gold city. He saw the Lord of the place coming toward him, yet holding the hand of she that he had loved so long. He ran—such a strange feeling, and on such strange ground—to meet them, and the light of the Lord of the Place swallowed him up.
“Come,” said the Lord of the Place, “Let’s go welcome the others, for there will be a feast soon, and the travelers are hungry. They have come from very far away. And at last, home.”
And at last, thought Lily, home.
And at last, thought Ted, holding her hand, home.