© Copyright 1998 Elizabeth Burns
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Many walls like cliffs, brick-red, stony gray, and beige, loomed alongside the narrow sidewalk, which ran across a tall and broad foothill bordering a city sprawling with tumult in a landlocked valley. On the face of the foothill and between other stone-block buildings, was a deep gray church. A flight of black-speckled granite steps crossed vertically up the hill to the black windowed church door, breaking the neat, horizontal line of two retaining walls made of varicolored stone blocks. Between the retaining walls and the church on either side were two patches of well-mown grass enclosed by sidewalks, and these were the only parts of the scene that soothed the eye, imparted the sense of a gentle world. And as for the church, it rose up in unyielding, neo-Gothic style, which was horribly jagged, hard in its symmetry. The uneducated heathen, or the unsophisticated Christian for that matter, would have a hard time believing that such a place would resonate with weary spirits and provide comfort in life. Walking on that narrow sidewalk, crossing the side of that hill, is a frightful experience because the hill is so high and steep. The roaring pavement seems closer to the walker than it is, and the only refuge from the sound and brush of feverish, merciless movement of automobiles is the vertical up-pointing church. As the cars rushed by, the walker seemed drawn alongside the church, almost pinned to the walls with only hesitant steps to take, until he made it deeper into the valley or beyond it.
The dawn of a spring day broke, vivid blue first lightened, then broken by the blossom-colored light. The light covered the church, and three young men ascended the lower flight of stairs. Standing on the eastward retaining wall was a dark-haired, steel-gray bearded old man, whose eyes were like blue flames, dressed in an untattered but nonetheless faded black overcoat. The old man's face was calm and wrung out until he looked into one of the faces that approached him coming up the stairs. Then, an expression of overwhelming purpose and determination struck into his features and he took the elbow, and then the shoulder, of one of those ascending young men. Rapidly, barely noticeably, he passed his right hand to and fro and then up and down in front of the young man's craggy face, while he held the young man's shoulder gripped in his left. The two companions walked onward, obviously indifferent, perhaps not noticing his detention.
"I have to get in there," the young man said, struggling to get the words past his throat, "It's my cousin's wedding, I must be there."
"There was a ship called She Who Forsakes, the old man spoke with enthusiasm in a medium-loud voice, and started his tale.
"She Who Forsakes was her name and we emerged from the shelter of the bay. I walked along the port side of the ship to the stern and watched as the horizon slowly changed. The church, the hills of the surrounding countryside, and last of all, the harbor lighthouse of my home town dropped below the eastern horizon, it appeared to be buried by the ocean. We were joyful at the departure; it was like being born into the vastness of the ocean. Noting the progress of the days was like living inside a giant clock. The sun would rise at the port side of the ship and set at the starboard side, and as the days progressed, its arc across the sky grew wider and moved toward the central mast as we approached the equator."
The young man and the speaker, standing between the staircases, glimpsed the bride departing, ascending the upper staircase. The Wedding-guest, now entranced by the mariner, groaned in a low voice; his last conscious expression was one of despair and loss. Now the two men sat beside each other on the easternmost retaining wall, the sun was only a few degrees higher, and the mariner had the full, however involuntary, attention of the Wedding-guest. No one came from the wedding to look for the missing family member or drag him away from his occupation.
"And then the arc of the sun moved over the after part of the ship, and we moved southward just ahead of an intense, dark, and prevailing storm. It was as if She Who Forsakes had been hurled due south and carried her stunned, well-worked and patient crew of two-hundred-one men like hostages. We passed through the southernmost temperate zones on earth swiftly. Then the storm either calmed down or moved in a different direction, because we felt and heard it no more and the ship's speed diminished, much to our relief. We were left in a sub-Antarctic, then Antarctic sea. Our objective had been to round Cape Horn, but we had no idea that we would be driven this far south; the number of crewmen familiar with Antarctica among us was small.
"In the Antarctic, we drifted no farther south than the ice rim; if there was a continent down there, it stayed shrouded. The ubiquitous icebergs were reflective at every angle of sight, white where the sun shone on them and blue or green in their shadowed regions. They dominated the field of vision of every person looking at them. It was impossible to say whether She Who Forsakes passed them by or that they floated past us. Many were as high as the masts of the ship, and looked at least as massive as its hull. I was anxious to a mortifying degree, thinking that the greater part of their mass was concealed by the sea. There were ridges and hummocks of ice that moved constantly, but not always perceptibly. Sometimes a huge piece, as huge as the ship, would fall into the water, first with a cracking sound, and then with a crash, or two ice formations would move alongside each other, or collide slowly and growl against each other, like two tigers, frequently for hours or more than a day. We encountered small, desolate islands here and there, but nothing welcomed.
"The wind carried the cold at first, and it pinched our faces like tiny, invisible crabs. Then the wind became distant, screeching, but the cold stayed with us. The cold was penetrating, and with the mist, it obscured, complicated and slowed even the shortest walk, or the simplest task. The wind, now distant, howled more furiously beside and around the constantly traveling ice. We wore the thickest clothing we owned and still complained about the cold. Lying down fully clothed either in beds or in hammocks, in cramped quarters, the cold, like a spectral hand, would creep through every layer we could set on and find us. It touched the toes first and ended up at the chest, having traveled effortlessly from the brain; it was the unwelcome, unavoidable guest in every bed and in every set of clothing. Anxiety about the cold, the desolation, grew in each man, even though all of us were silent about just how we felt.
"And then, after three weeks, on a clear day, we saw a winged shape of an earthy color break the overwhelming but subdued etheric blue and white in the sky. It was a light brown albatross. To see that bird, so soft-colored and warm-looking against the frigidly clear and blue-white Antarctic seascape, was a relief, a reminder that the earth was larger than the desolation apparent. The albatross did not seem frightened of the ship or the men, it circled the masts, flew onward in one direction, and then circled back intermittently through all the nine days it lived with us. Sailors set out bits of their food on the deck near the ship's rails, and the bird would eat it. We steered in that direction in which the albatross flew, hoping to find warmer Pacific waters. Pushed by a steady wind from the south, and rounding the hummocks and icebergs, we sensed the ice becoming less prevalent on the horizon. Our anxiety gone, we worked patiently to maneuver She Who Forsakes northwest.
"While on this journey, and at the edge of ice and mist, something happened to me. I had no reason to do a bitter thing, to cause uncertainty and suffering in my shipmates, and to allow perplexity and a sense of brokenness and imperfection into my spirit. The cross-bow was leaned, stock down, against the step of the forecastle, like a coiled snake holding back its bite. I felt, I acted upon, an impulse. Precisely, like an automaton, I picked up the cross-bow and fatally shot the albatross. As it fell silently, I kept thinking it would hit the sea, sink, and vanish. It thudded against the deck, and a good number of my shipmates shifted their gaze from the fallen, bruised body up to me. All the tension coiled in that cross-bow was gone.
"I kept asking my shipmates to throw the albatross's body off the ship, and every time I did, they would look up at me with a fierce, bitter edge in their eyes and say: "Well, you would, wouldn't you?" My shipmates tried to comfort themselves with the thought that I had killed a bird that came from a hostile place, and would probably have led us to another hostile place. But as time went on, and contemplating the future became more dreadful, my shipmates took a length of rough, heavy jute and made two nooses in it, one small for the neck of the albatross, the other larger for mine; I was thus tied to the corpse of the creature I had killed.
"We kept fresh water in large barrels in the centermost hold of the ship. But as we crossed into the Pacific, we noticed that several of them leaked, and their most necessary fluid was combined with bilge water at the fore and aft bottom corners of the ship. Slowly, the word got out that water was in very short supply, and that soon there would be none left. We swallowed reluctantly, let those last drops we drank go down slowly, as the horizon changed and we went further northward, toward the equator. There were no islands, no supplies of fresh water either charted on maps or apparent in days of searching the ocean's reflective surface.
"At the equatorial region, in the wide Pacific, the days were always the longest days on earth. No wind blew, and we filled the all-too-receptive lull with anxiety; there was a weight in the stomach, prevailing despair. The rest of the crew did not carry five-pound birds on their chests, but they might as well have been to look at them, and hear their weary conversations.
"The albatross's body was awful, it's sharp smell made eating and drinking difficult, and its wingspan seemed to cover my body from the chest down. Occasionally, I looked down at its face, at the huge bony plates, like shiny gold armor, on its beak. Its pastel brown color was not its only color. Looking close up, there were many beautiful black, gray, and white swirling patterns running like water through that earthy-brown matrix, like lines on a contour map, and these patterns could only be seen when the bird was close to the observer. Despite the coming desperation I observed the albatross. Much of the society of my shipmates was now closed to me, we almost never exchanged friendly words. So, I observed and learned about the albatross, but the knowledge was costly, and would remain so even after the body floated free.
"Thirst was a fact of life, and it was intolerable. It gored our equanimity, invaded our personalities, half our thoughts, and then all our thoughts. It became a sharpening obsession, and then an encircling dullness as it worsened. We were surrendering to it slowly, lifting our eyes straight to the sun as it met the center mast, standing, sitting, or lying still; thirst and heat bored into us, emptied us out. The body of the albatross was on my chest, and the heat could not touch me in the same way. If I had thrown the albatross off my chest then, the reaction raised by the crew would have been half-hearted. I could not, though. I still needed the albatross; somehow, I felt that there was something appropriate and respectful in keeping this morbid reality, this bird's body.
"One evening, not long after the thirst had so intensified, I stood at the rail on the port side of the ship, staring bug-eyed at the sunset, concentrating on the horizon. I could not bring to mind a pleasant memory in which to bury myself, and I had been trying for a long time. It was the sea that kept my mind from wandering, I know that now. The sea fragmented into many flakes with sharp edges, like fire in my sight, each one slimy and reflective, and ultimately unforgiving. Thirst invaded my brain in the midst of water. The thirst held my mind like a hostage to the water, the sea, which produces nothing but more urgent dryness in those drinking from it. There is nothing like a looped concept to torment and keep a person away from thinking, remembering, dreaming, and personality. While savoring my confusion, I saw a dark, humped shape on the western horizon.
"The sun was barely above the sea, and it was a soft light red color, intense only to the eyes. The air was heavy, unmoving, and this shape was quickly approaching She Who Forsakes. It was a visiting vessel, and I shouted, unthinking, 'A ship! A ship!' to the sullen, limp men surrounding me. I kept my place and raised my head higher, and hopefully out of the thirst, to observe more. What a discouraging picture we must have made for the members of that approaching crew: our faces were blanched, lips swollen, and our eyes were colorless. Our clothes were ragged, ill-fitting, faded and frayed regardless of where one was in the hierarchy of the crew. The ship's timbers looked warped and gray, the sails were taking on the thin feel of silk, and their colors were ecru darkening to beige. Now the visiting ship was closer, and it was a skeleton of a ship, a framework, only vertical ribs through which the salmon-colored sun gently glared, with a small horizontal space over the top of the sun, looking black against the coral-turquoise sky. The sails on that ship were just as thin as ours.
"To the right, and diagonal above the sun, was a golden-haired woman who possessed a snowy, unwell face and form. Across from her, sitting at a table, was a thoroughly wrapped, nondescript creature. When I looked at him or it, all I could see was death, not the corpse left behind, not the sickening shudder preceding the event, but isolated, mysterious death. The woman's form was clear and thin in the warm coral light. She had an unworried manner, an easy smile and a free-sounding though not indifferent laugh, and she wore a long dusty cotton tunic that was tossed slightly by the sea as the vessel moved. There was no need for her to introduce herself: intuitively, I knew that she was Life-and-Death, prophetess Miriam punished and sent out of a holy nation, a creature conferring horrific survival and its burdens onto fortunate or unfortunate human beings everywhere. Life-and-Death and Death faced each other over a solid-looking table on a solid-looking deck. But this platform rested on top of the vertical frame of a ship, not a worldly vessel. They were throwing a pair of dice or sticks down, the objects made a clicking sound as they connected with the table. The closer they came, the more intensely I listened. There was a clicking sound, and with a sharp, energetic motion, Life-and-Death looked down and said in a high, sharp voice, 'This game is over.' Her tone was light but final, and she looked steadily and confidently into Death's face, whistling a steady tone three times after her words. The framework of a vessel and its two passengers shot off to the horizon at preternatural speed.
"The cyanic blue, glittering curtain of night smothered closely the western horizon; the sun was long gone. My arms were folded, was I all there? I looked around me, into the eyes of my shipmates. They had not spoken to me much since my morbid necklace was given to me. One by one, they met my eyes, groaned, and collapsed, dead. I stood there awed and watched them die on the deck; their souls sped to divine destinies. After the last one departed, I ran, staggering, and checked the other rooms of the ship, half-panicked, and confirmed my dreadful suspicion. The two-hundred men were dead, and She Who Forsakes had only one survivor: a former first-mate carrying a dead albatross at the neck. I grimaced, and almost laughed in my tension; tears were in my eyes.
"Are you alive or dead now?" the Wedding-guest asked.
"Perhaps I should have died, but I did not. I am no ghost; so don't harbor needless fear."
"I was alone in an empty place, a vessel rotting in its absurdity. She Who Forsakes needed at the very least ninety living, able-bodied men to pilot her, and she got stuck with a self-pitying ruin like me. Among the dead, there were admirable men, petty ones, and strangers, and all of them seemed more fit for longer lives than me. Every face of every departed shipmate, without exception, had a look of fierce condemnation, a curse, in his eyes; and each pair of eyes had been turned like a weapon, on me. 'But how could you have read their minds? How do you know they held you responsible?' I would ask myself rationally. The questions had no rational answer so I turned back to my own misery in the night. The ship was going nowhere, my mind was going nowhere, so I crouched down against the mast, brought my knees to my chest, and stayed still to counter intermittent vertigo.
"Then the memory of God struck into my torpor. God was the creator of all I saw, I remembered, and lord of the places, whether joyful or wretched, to which the souls of my shipmates had departed. Maybe I was not alone, maybe I could call on God. So I tried, I looked up at the stars, opened my mouth, and the words I remembered could not leave my throat. I rasped, and then the words seemed to cower, to slink back into my hollow chest like alley cats into trash bins. The question begged by this event was not whether I believed in the Spirit, but whether I had the spirit to believe in anything. I had great doubts about my fitness to survive, about leaving the no man's land of horrible spiritual self-doubt between life and death. I was stuck. I could not imagine myself simply living on with the memory of two-hundred curses from just as many pairs of eyes in my mind. The albatross remained tied to me, and I could not muster my courage or even physical vitality to take it off. All around me was pollution, and I tried, unmoving and sickened, to perceive a divine intention for leaving me in its midst. And anyway, I could not pilot the ship; worldly reality and a lone struggle with the divine existed in concord on She Who Forsakes in the Pacific. Even after a week had gone by, without sustenance, I remained alive and dry, still stuck.
"The moon rose, waxing, a bright crescent illuminating the windless tropical night and the hoary half-submerged edifice, She Who Forsakes. The teak boards of which the deck was made were warped, they seemed so much older than when the journey began. Observing the bodies that surrounded me, I found that the flesh had not curled inward on their limbs or faces. These were dead bodies, pearlescent, dry, and unnaturally intense in their color, but something, maybe the salt-dryness in the air, preserved them. I remained close to a mast with the albatross around my neck and then walked back and forth between the mast and a rail toward the stern of the ship. The moon illuminated the sky and water, it made them seem like one world, like a medium blue blanket over the ship. Where the ship's shadow fell, toward the stern on the port side, was deep red. I pulled myself up and walked over to the rail, staying inside the consuming red shadow.
"There, at the rail and shadowed, I started an assessment of the cosmos left to me. There was the blackness of the ship, the dimly illuminated forms and accusing eyes of shipmates behind me. Beyond the rail was the reflective, metallic blue of the ocean, which tossed the light of the moon all over the western horizon. The only place the light did not reach was into the deep red shadow of the ship. I kept straining with the emptiness, trying to sharpen myself to perceive more; I would not abandon the effort. The roots of my future well-being, and the resolution of this emotionally twisting perplexity, I was convinced, were buried somewhere in the faculty of observation, of openness of mind.
'God's creation, God's expression, I must try to understand,' I kept thinking.
"As I surveyed the surface of the sea beyond the shadow, I saw movement that was more than the mere striking of seawater by moonlight. Sea snakes circled each other; I could not tell how many. There was a white one, and when its curve submerged, a dark blue one emerged, curved round, and then a black one curved in yet another direction, and both submerged simultaneously. It seemed like a game, and their quickness and sparkle held my attention. I felt myself drinking in the sight, and feeling relieved. The beauty of the snakes, the admirable agility of their movement through the ocean, to human beings such an alien element, and the diversity of their colors, showed me beauty and life in the midst of my forlornness and pollution. In God's name, I wished them well and expressed my gratitude for their presence at that time. Dullness and self-consciousness was lifted from me, and I could pray. In the instant that I prayed, the rope around my neck that suspended the albatross broke, its body fell with a small splash into the sea, and sank down as if it were weighted. Feeling light, but exhausted, I lay down where I was and fell asleep.
"To sleep, to have that period where all sense of time passing and movement through space is gone is a divine gift. I never felt that more strongly than when I lay down, thus unburdened. I dreamed that it was a bright morning, and that the buckets set out and lined up on the aft deck of the ship were filled with dew. Taking the water into my right hand, I drank from them, of course. Waking up, I found that it was raining lightly, perhaps the quiet side of a storm. My clothes and body were soaked through. Finding the buckets full of fresh water, I drank now in the same manner, in wakefulness. My body, at first unburdened after the rediscovery of beauty and the departure of the albatross, seemed even lighter than before I laid down. I entertained the conviction that I was dead and a spirit.
"Strengthened, I walked over the deck of the ship. I heard a distant wind, a space of turmoil. As time passed, this windstorm stayed distant, but created overwhelming vibrations that caused prolonged tones to issue like musical notes from the silk-thin sails of She Who Forsakes. Then, as my attention was turned outward, there was a shock in the air high above me. What appeared to be hundreds of shining veils, each one radiating its own light, descended to the ship, almost as if they were answering the pleading tones of the sails, vibrated by distant winds. I froze up, I was to terrified even to try to hide. The unapproaching wind, and approaching veils created a dynamic space in that region. In the sky over the top of the ship, and next to the moon, was a black cloud, the only cloud in the sky. Lightning descended from this cloud in straight lines, and rain poured down from it like threading streams. I felt movement; finally, after so many weeks of stillness, She Who Forsakes was going somewhere. The loud, distant wind kept blowing, but it was not driving the ship. The ship was being moved by an unknown, submarine force.
"In the constant illumination of the lightning and the still-waxing moon, the corpses of my shipmates were prostrate, but sighing and groaning. Then they rose up onto their feet steadily and all together. Looking into their faces, I saw they had not dropped the accusing expressions for the curses had not faded from their eyes. The bodies were not merely re-animated by their former residents, however. They had been filled by helpful spirits as the sun fills the morning sky with its light. They were used by stern seraphs who had not given up faith in my redemption even when my own faith in that possibility was rattled by fear, forgotten, or temporarily negated by bitterness.
"Now standing, the inspirited bodies went to posts on the ship, both above and below decks, to work. The inspirited crew and I piloted the ship without any sense of the rigid hierarchy, and even familial relationships that had existed in the worldly crew. They were oblivious to me and, in a verbal sense, to each other; I remember pulling a rope beside the inspirited body of my own nephew, and we never exchanged any words. The crew seemed confident of where the ship was going, however, and seemed to communicate without speech. Considerations of decorum, once so important, had either changed to an unrecognizable point or had died with the crew. She Who Forsakes was a traveler again, with laboring sailors, opportunistic traders and curious explorers now gone. I could not face those other beings to ask just where we were going; they were silent to each other, how could they speak to me? The direction of this journey, I observed, was north, because facing the bow, the sun continued to rise to the right and set to the left, but the destination was mysterious.
"Every morning, the crew would stop their work, and with a relaxed gait, approach and surround the center mast. With their accusing faces showing only slight movement, their lips parted and they sang wordless songs into the still air. When I turned away from their gathering, the songs, I found, would echo against the horizon, returning to my ears. I heard many other sounds, the songs of larks in particular, in the daylight that formed a harmony for the constant singing of the crowd around the mast. It occurred to me that the number and clarity of echoes on this barren sea were extraordinary; were there, somehow, invisible walls around the ship? Was the air as a carrier of these sounds just as inspirited as the crew?
"She Who Forsakes sailed on, but not by means of a directing wind. The ship moved because a supporting, guiding spirit both moved and stayed nine fathoms under its keel. The spirit had noticed us at the ice rim of Antarctica, and he moved the ship forward, leaving the sails limp. One day, at noon, the voices around the mast became silent. I started at this because for so many days I had heard almost nothing at daylight but the singing and the birds. She Who Forsakes swayed fore and aft twice or three times. In that instant, I was hysterical. I could be thrown against any apparatus or even over the side so easily. I became light-headed, blacked out. And then there was a profound, violent lurch forward; I fell, landing on my chest. I was unconscious, and I do not know how long I remained so.
"There was a rush, like a wall of air over my body, and I was powerless to open my eyes, move or rise up. In the rushing air were two voices. The first of them was strident, the second was patient, but both seemed to belong to focused and committed individuals; they seemed neither masculine nor feminine, as if they had passed into great age and through many places.
FIRST VOICE: Is this the one who shot down the albatross with the crossbow? The guiding spirit under the keel of that ship loved the albatross, and the albatross loved the one who shot him.
SECOND VOICE: This one has done much penance by suffering for now. He will do more penance by being forced to adopt a certain way of life. He will always live with pain not because he is hurt constantly, but because he is simply more aware of the little pains of living. They will come to him in every quiet moment he has, they will invade his dreams, and they will force him to tell his tale over and over.
FIRST VOICE: What makes the ocean drive the ship so rapidly? No vessel goes that fast.
SECOND VOICE: Even the vast ocean bows down to its creator; it is mighty but not arrogant. The moon influences the ocean easily, and the ocean doesn't ignore the distant moon for all its power.
FIRST VOICE: You haven't answered my question. What is it that makes the ship move more rapidly than any other vessel without a strong current in the water or air?
SECOND VOICE: The air is cut away, opens like a large, solid door, and the ship is pushed forward through the constantly forming breach. Let's get out of here now. The ship will slow down to a worldly speed when the Mariner wakes up. Come on.
"It was a calm night when I woke up. The crowd was still standing at the mast, and in the moonlight, I could see their faces. She Who Forsakes seemed more fit for dead bodies than for living sailors anymore. Her planks, timbers, ropes, and tools were dusty gray or simply rusted stiff. Once clean and smooth planks and posts were warped and felt lighter than they had when we sailed out of port. The inspirited men all fixed their eyes on me, and I felt the stings of all those curses again like the creeping cold, and invading thirst of those lonely days before their former selves' collective departure. My gaze was riveted by theirs, and I despaired again; I felt my life was again devoid of God's favor and care. I climbed up onto the forecastle and looked out on the ocean. It was glassy green. I was haunted by the journey. Once I started looking outward, I could not turn my head back. I felt like I was being pursued by a devouring monster, the monster communicated through the eyes of those men. I drew deep breaths to convince myself that I was alive, that I would live. Then, communicated by the breeze, I smelled flowers and grass. Wherever She Who Forsakes had been taken, it was very close to land.
"The ship kept moving and I continued feeling the breeze. Then I saw the lighthouse, the lighthouse of the port out of which we had sailed on She Who Forsakes so long ago. In the moonlight, I could see other features of the land I recognized, the hill and the church. I also recognized in the moonlight, the large rock next to which the church was built. I hoped that I was truly awake, that this was not just another state of mind. How wonderful to reach out to that place, home port, and know that it is there. I cried out my relief, and my loss, as I came back forlorn.
"She Who Forsakes was in the light-flooded bay, and there was activity that produced small crimson shadows here and there. Then I turned back toward the mast and saw that the inspirited crew behind me was once more prostrate. Standing on top of each corpse was a seraph, a being so bright that features were indiscernible on its form. Each one waved what seemed like a hand to me and ascended, creating a brilliant white light to rival the full moon. Their light signaled some men on the land. The seraphs departed slowly their silence was comforting to me. There was a sound of oars splashing the water, approaching me. The pilot of the small skiff rasped out, 'Ahoy,' and then I heard the voice of the Holy Hermit. What a strange coincidence he should be there then! The Holy Hermit lived in a deep cave that he lit very well and filled with his hymns. He would take emptiness, whether it was that in his cave or someone else's spirit, and fill it with the depth of joy, the depth of light. And he liked to talk to mariners, they came to visit him from near and far. I heard his call hopefully; he would allow me to confess, he would hope for my redemption, and he would intercede for me, like Moses for his people, and reconcile me to God's favor.
"'Now the lights are gone,' the pilot commented. 'Just what are we approaching?'
"'I felt so uplifted when I saw those lights,' the Hermit commented, 'But look at that ship. There's not a plank of it that isn't warped. The sails resemble shrouds that cover the dead. The entire apparatus of masts, yardarms, and sails looks like trees in late autumn.'
"'It looks demonic, like it would bring death. Let's get out of here.'
"Oh no you don't. We've been summoned to this ragged, rotting ship by a pure light. I trust my vision even if all I can do is remember it.
"I was silent when the skiff was close to She Who Forsakes, then I heard a sound beneath, behind me. All the levels of deck, all the posts, all the planks were buckling and breaking from bottom to top with a deafening, menacing crescendo. She Who Forsakes sank away and straight down carrying all the corpses. I must have swooned again, but not long enough to drown. When I reached consciousness again, I was floating on the ocean, and the skiff seemed to be circling me. My mind blackened again and when I woke up, I was in the pilot's skiff with a middle-aged, well-covered pilot, his son, and the Holy Hermit dressed in a thick black woolen coat, a hood over his head. I tried to speak, moving my lips, but no sound came out. The pilot, a large, gray-faced, big boned man, rain-suited, and so well-seasoned to nights on the bay, looked at my face and started sighing and laughing like a driven soul. What could he have held inside him that exploded at that minute? What could I be harboring that would drive a simple man insane? The Hermit, in that instant, just prayed, his lips moved counting on numerous formulations of words that were familiar to me.
"With heavy shoulders, I took the oars. The pilot's son, a boy of about fourteen, whose voice mimicked his father's and whose face and frame were also large, well-muscled and covered in rain gear, started the same dismissive sighing and laughing. 'I see the devil knows how to row!' the son's crackling voice cried as he looked at me. It is impossible to say just what condemned these two people to self-alienation, a profound wilderness. I pushed with the oars and listened to the discord of the Hermit's invocations, combined with that father and son driven through confusion. When the boat was moored, the Hermit stepped out staggering. Quietly, I followed him. He took the father and son, each by one shoulder, to a doctor's surgery. Then, he faced me.
"'Listen to me, allow me to be reconciled to God, whom you know so well!' I shouted imploringly to the Hermit.
"'What kind of man are you?' the Hermit asked me in a calm, patient voice, making the sign of the cross over himself.
"And then, my whole body shook, I thought I would cry. Instead of breaking down and crying, instead of throwing myself at his feet, I just started telling my story, beginning with the departure from that very harbor God knows how long ago and ending with the Hermit's question: What kind of man are you? I was suffering when I started, and felt free of suffering at the end of the telling. I divide my life into three periods now: the time before the voyage of She Who Forsakes, the voyage, and then afterward. I am still a mariner in that I can and do travel over the sea. I hear in my soul a wordless command at various times and places in this afterward era, and when I feel it, all my sense of isolation, pollution and despair experienced on the voyage creeps up on me. In these times, I know first, that I must tell my story, and second, the person to whom I must tell it. I have powers to summon attention, I use them and then I tell it.
"The wedding reception is in the cathedral's garden now; the singing of the bride and her bridesmaids, along with the chime for vespers, is upon our ears. The colors of the sunset are reflected in the dresses of those bridesmaids, don't you agree? I am on my way to evensong, a simple service where I pray."
The Wedding-guest and the mariner stood in the fading light, in the glow at the apex between the staircases, and the mariner spoke again.
"You are downcast at this day, I believe. The bride has a new life to live with her husband, your relative. You've seen that couple together, and you cannot deny that their love is genuine, that they have with it an equally genuine chance at fulfilling happiness. You harbor your feelings alone, you believe, and in that sense, you are forsaken, as I was on the sea.
"My cosmos instructed me thus: become aware, first to the wholeness of pain, loneliness, and then to the space on the stretching horizon just beyond them, that infinitely alterable spark that will become your next world. When Job suffered and was embittered, God rebuked him with questions no human being could answer. Your life speaks to you; your perspective on it does not contain the whole of cosmic wisdom, but that does not diminish its significance. Loneliness, the sense of deprivation, invades, but it rarely conquers. Love seems most alive when it is personal, shared, and close, but its profundity and capacity to change a life is felt most deeply when it is anticipated, or in the corporeal instant that its object departs. In those times, people are compelled to become aware of vastness as the expression of divinity, the precursor to and destroyer of dimension, or be consumed by a self-created, dimensionless monster."
The mariner, after dropping his voice, turned and vanished into the evening breeze, it seemed. The streetlights, bright creamsicle orange and blue-white, were shining in their lines, in a tremendous many-squared formation. The cyanic blue, glittering curtain of night was flowing down, darkening even the reflective, watery western horizon. At first, the Wedding-guest moved to join the reception, but, feeling profoundly weary, changed his mind and, with drooping shoulders, staggered home into a long period of sleep.