Finally the clouds let go, the rain fell, and the sea swelled. Little Juan raced back and forth on the deck of the boat, laughing, shouting.
“Rain, Papa! It’s raining!” The boy used the singsong of small children everywhere.
“It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring. The old man is singing in his sleep! He’s writing a symphony! Si! A symphony!”
“Put on your lifeline, Little Juan,” said Papa gently. “Did you already forget what happened the last time it stormed? The sea is a fickle woman, and already she is changing. See the waves? In a short while they could cover us with a mountain of water and then where would you be? Down among the sharks.”
“But Papa, it has been so long since it has rained. This is not angry rain. This is gentle rain. Can you smell it? It smells like rich soil, like green beans and apples, like life itself. And it tastes wonderful too, just like lemons with sugar.”
I can see I have been reading to you much too often. My son is becoming a poet. And now, your lifeline on, please.”
He watched Little Juan awkwardly attach the lifeline and felt an old, familiar pride swell his chest like the waves of the sea. The rain did smell fresh and earthy. And it felt like a billion cool caresses on his face when he looked up into it falling. And the sound. Ah, the sound was like the soothing rumble of freight trains in the distance on a Castilian summer night. And he might never have noticed, but for Little Juan.
“Shall we stand here now on this bucking deck and watch the storm, my little one?”
“No, Papa. I would rather dance, and try to catch the raindrops with my tongue.”
Papa chuckled. “Of course, my son. Of course.”
And what had brought them here to this place, this moment? Many things, both happy and sad. A father and son will travel countless miles together and what makes one moment rise up and say, Remember this always, is hard to fathom. But for Papa, this was a moment like that.
“Mama says we need to keep sailing east,” said little Juan later, after the rain had passed ahead of them and the sun had reappeared overhead, beating down on their small sailboat and sending up steam from the weathered deck.
Papa did not answer. A few brief images shimmered on the horizon where he looked—images of a woman, of dark hair flowing over copper-colored shoulders, of brown eyes filling with tears of joy as her infant boy drank sweet milk from her breast.
The boat rocked gently. “What shall we do tonight, little one, now that the rain has passed?” asked Papa, changing the subject.
“I would like to go inside the cabin and read some more,” answered Little Juan. “I wish the sun would drop into the sea right now, so it would be night.”
As if in answer to the boy’s words, the sun did indeed sink lower in the sky. It hung on the edge of the horizon behind them for a while, growing larger. At last it flamed out in an explosion of dazzling orange and yellow and purple, and splashed below the rippling line of dark blue water. In this latitude, and so far out at sea, the twilight was short, and soon the sky filled with radiant stars.
Papa checked their bearing one last time and made sure the wheel was fastened securely. The boat glided through the gentle ocean on a steady breeze. There was nothing but open water ahead, but Papa checked anyway.
They stepped inside and Papa lit the hurricane lamp. Shadows swayed and flitted across the wood planking of the tiny cabin as the boat rocked. The odor of aged teakwood filled Papa’s nose. It was a smell he had lived with at night for much of his life. A bunk on the high seas had always meant a warm, safe haven to him, and the motion of the waves had rocked him to sleep countless times. They settled in the bunk together and Little Juan snuggled his head against Papa’s shoulder.
“What shall we read tonight, little one? Shall it be Don Quixote? Huckleberry Finn? Dandelion Wine?”
“I think I would like Treasure Island. We have not read that one as much as the others. I am sure we have only finished it ten or twelve times.”
Papa chuckled and reached into a battered footlocker beside the bed. He produced a tattered copy of Treasure Island from the precious pile of books inside. He adjusted the hurricane lamp, found the bookmarked page, and began to read aloud:
“We brought up just where the anchor was in the chart, about a third of a mile from either shore, the mainland on one side, and Skeleton Island on the other. The bottom was clean sand. The plunge of our anchor sent up clouds of birds wheeling and crying over the woods…”
As he read the words, troubling thoughts hovered in the back of Papa’s mind. Why didn’t they sleep anymore? They had been lost, drifting on an endless sea, both delirious with fever. How long had it been since then? Ten days? One month? Two months? There seemed to be no passing of time any more. The sun went down at all different times and the nights seemed to be short and then long and then short again.
“Papa? Why did you stop?” asked little Juan. “Are you sleeping?”
Papa opened his eyes. “No, my son. I was merely wool-gathering. There seems to be a lot of wool inside my head these days. But let us leave that for another day. We have an island of treasure to explore.”
The boat rocked gently as Papa read chapter after chapter. This was the happiest time of all, his son safe in his arms and living out a great adventure through the awesome magic of a good story. The night passed quietly and Papa read the last chapter just as sunlight peeked under the bottom of the cabin door.
“That was a fine story, wasn’t it?” said Papa, as he stood up and stretched.
“Yes, Papa. What will we read next?”
“You will have to wait until tonight to see. And now, if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to spend a few moments alone on the deck. Why don’t you stay here awhile and rest your eyes.”
“Are you going to think about Mama?”
Papa looked down at his son, reclining on the bunk. He was so young, but he seemed to understand so much. “Yes, I think so,” he answered softly.
“Then I will think of her too,” said Little Juan. “She likes it when I think about her.”
Papa felt a chill on the back of his neck. Little Juan had been doing that a lot lately, talking as if he could actually hear his mother’s voice. But that was impossible.
The salt air filled Papa’s nose as he stepped out into the sunlight on the deck. It conjured up images of past voyages, of leaping dolphins and island flowers. The sails fluttered gracefully and the canvas made regular, reassuring flapping noises. The cream color of the sails stood out against the brilliant blue of the sky and the delicate turquoise of the sea. A gentle breeze kept them on a steady course through a rippling sea.
A course to where? wondered Papa, as he gazed towards the east. This was the time of morning, just after sunrise, that his wife had loved the best. Thoughts of her began to simmer inside Papa’s head, even though he tried to push them back down, to make them disappear. They were thoughts of Sofia, beautiful Sofia, his wife. Wasn’t this very boat, Sofia Marie, named after her?
Sofia had been a fine woman, an understanding woman. Sailing was in Papa’s blood. Ever since he was small, he had dreamed of the sea, of mornings on the ocean just like this. He had worked and studied and apprenticed on countless small ships until he had gained a fine reputation. When the opportunity came to captain a ship across the ocean, he jumped at the chance. It was what he had worked for, what he had dreamed of. And Sofia had let him go. But it had cost him so much—so very much.
Papa tried to resist the images that began to pop up again at the edge of the horizon, to shut his eyes against them, but he could not. He found himself watching scenes from his long, ocean voyage, the one where he had finally become captain of his own ship and crew. He saw again the South Sea Islands, scattered diamonds upon the sea. He saw the exotic ports and harbors where they had stopped. He saw himself standing, aching with loneliness on the deck at night, gazing at the moonlight’s rippling path upon the water, leading towards the east and home. He saw his ship cruise into the harbor at the end of the long voyage, home at last. He watched the gangplank drop onto the pier, the quiet, empty pier. There should have been people waiting for them at the harbor – wives, children, old people, but there had been only silence, and a row of fresh graves in the churchyard. Fever, that ancient foe, had unleashed its hot claws upon Papa’s village while he had been away.
Papa, lost in his remembrance, didn’t notice a dark cloud pass in front of the rising sun, and then another. The wind picked up and the water began to churn, catching the bow of the little boat in crossing waves. Wind tugged on the sails and the boat leaned hard to starboard. A raindrop splashed on the top of Papa’s head and coaxed him back to the present. There was more to remember, but for now a storm was gathering. He called to Little Juan and began to trim the sails.
“Papa?” Little Juan had come outside to stand behind his father.
“Yes, little one. Please help me with the sails. It appears as if it will rain again, only harder this time.”
Little Juan helped Papa with the sails and asked, “Did Mama talk to you?”
“No, my son.”
“I heard you talking out here on the deck before I came outside. I thought that you must have been talking to Mama.”
“No, I was not talking to Mama.” The image of a crude gravestone appeared in Papa’s mind – a grim, gray cloud like the ones forming in the sky. He muttered as an afterthought, “Besides, if Mama were here, do you think she would talk to a wretch like me?”
Little Juan looked down at his feet. There had been bitterness in Papa’s voice. “Of course Mama would talk to you,” he said. “Talking to you is what she wants to do most. She wants to tell you something.”
“Your Mama is dead!” said Papa sharply. “Don’t you understand? Dead! Now why don’t you stop asking questions? There is a storm on the way!”
Lightning flashed overhead and thunder followed – a great, bellowing crash. Little Juan’s eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open, more afraid of the thunder in his father’s voice than the rumbling in the sky.
A giant wave swelled up in front of the little boat. Papa grabbed Little Juan with his left arm, as he held onto a swinging boom with his right. The wave crashed over them like surf washing over sand crabs. Papa held on and the boat tipped, nearly capsizing, until it righted itself again. The storm spent its fury in two more towering waves and then was over, as quickly as it had begun.
After the danger had passed off to the east, Little Juan moved away from his father and wiped his face. Water dripped down his nose and onto his trembling lower lip. “I am sorry, Papa,” he said. “I did not mean to make you angry.” He turned and ran into the cabin.
Papa ran his hand through his thick, black hair. Now what have I done? Maybe I should just leap into the sea and be done with it. The world would be better off. But Papa knew he couldn’t do that. He turned towards the cabin and little Juan.
Papa opened the door and saw his son lying on the bed, his face buried in the pillow, sobbing softly. Papa sat down gently on the bed and tapped his son’s shoulder.
“I am very sorry, my little one. I did not mean to scold you.”
Little Juan rolled over and looked up into his father’s eyes. The tears still came but they were easing now, the last few drops of a rain squall. He reached up his arms and hugged his father’s neck.
“There, there,” mumbled Papa as he stroked the boy’s head. “Can you ever forgive me?”
Little Juan pulled away. “But of course I forgive you. I love you. And when people love you they forgive you no matter what.”
Papa had not been expecting a response such as this. It startled him for a moment. Then he took the child fully into his arms and wept.
Papa felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. He might have been sleeping but somehow it didn’t feel like it. He sat up in the bunk and rubbed his eyes. Little Juan sat on the edge of the bunk and looked at him with eyes that seemed much older than his years.
“What is it, little one?”
“Are you all right now, Papa?”
Papa hung his head. “I will never be all right.”
Papa glanced around the cabin. The light from outside dimmed. Taps of rain began to fall on the roof. “I must confess something,” he said.
Papa paused a moment. How was he to say this? How could he explain it to a nine-year-old?
“Little Juan, I have told you many times how I loved your Mama. Do you know that?”
“Of course, Papa.”
“But still, I killed her.”
“What do you mean?”
“It is not that I killed her with a knife or a sword. It is not that easy. But I killed her just the same. I should have been there for her, when the fever came. But I was chasing my dreams.”
The rain on the cabin roof picked up in intensity and the boat leaned to the side.
Little Juan screwed up his face. “What dreams?” he asked.
“My dreams of sailing the ocean. Since I was smaller than you I have always wanted that. And when I got my chance, I went. And I left you and your mother alone. If I wasn’t so selfish I would have stayed home. I could have taken you and her away from the village at the first signs of sickness and she never would have died. Instead I was too late. I took you in this little boat away from the fever but it was too late for Mama.”
Little Juan’s eyes brightened. “I’ll talk to Mama,” he said. “She’ll know what to say.”
“Your Mama’s dead,” answered Papa. “She will never have anything to say ever again.” He turned his head away and began to weep some more.
Little Juan stood up and went over by the cabin door. He sat down on the wood floor and hugged his knees, head cocked to one side. Rain fell softly on the roof of the cabin as Papa wept the night away.
“Wake up, Papa.”
Little Juan shook Papa’s shoulder. The first rays of morning sun shone pink through the open cabin door. Papa opened his raw, red eyes. His head ached.
Little Juan put his right hand under Papa’s chin and gently lifted his father’s head to meet his eyes.
“Mama says you shouldn’t be sad,” he said.
“Mama’s dead,” answered Papa.
“Mama wants me to ask you something,” continued Little Juan. “Did you know that the fever would come? Before you left on your trip?”
“Of course not.”
“If you had known, would you have gone?”
“Of course not, but…”
“So what did you do that was so wrong?” Little Juan looked Papa straight in the eye as he said this, and it seemed that the roles of father and son had been reversed. Papa could think of nothing to say.
“The fever killed Mama,” said Little Juan. “Not you. People sometimes die, even if their whole family is there to hold their hand. Mama wanted you to be a sea captain because it was what you always wanted. She wouldn’t have let you give it up even if you had tried. She wants you to know that it’s all right. You can stop feeling sad now.”
Papa shook his head in frustration. “But you can’t know a thing like that,” he said. “Mama is gone.”
Little Juan stood up and took a deep breath. He looked around the room as if he was unsure of what to do next. Finally he spoke.
“Take my hand, Papa,” he said.
“Take my hand.”
Papa felt a fluttering in his stomach. Every fiber in his body wanted him to turn away and lie back down. Instead, he stood up and reached out. His fingers quavered as his son’s small hand guided him towards the open cabin door.
They walked to the edge of the deck.
“Look there, Papa,” said Little Juan.
The sea was like mirrored glass. There was something in the water.
A bank of debris floated slowly on the current and approached the starboard side of their boat. From a distance it looked like simple driftwood, but as it got closer Papa saw that it was wood planking from the wreck of a small boat.
Papa stared. Something about the wreckage was too familiar. It didn’t take long for Papa to know why, and it hit him like a knife in his chest.
“See, Papa,” said Little Juan.
A piece of weathered, wood planking floated among the debris. Painted clearly on it were the words Sofia Marie.
The suspicion that had been gnawing at the edge of Papa’s consciousness for most of the voyage was true after all. The evidence was there in the water, floating in front of his eyes.
“So we died in the storm,” he said.
Papa thought of the fever that had come upon them at sea, the confusing days when they both had been delirious. And then there was a long gap in his memory. And then they were both on this boat, sailing aimlessly across the water.
“Only one of us died,” said Little Juan. “But that doesn’t matter now. You just need to know that it’s all right. Everything will be all right now.”
“One of us?” said Papa, struggling to understand. “But…”
“You can let go,” said Little Juan. “You don’t have to fight any more. Look.”
Little Juan pointed to the east. Just at the edge of the horizon was a dark blue smudge, almost like a mirage. Papa’s experienced eyes knew what he was looking at.
“Land,” said Papa.
“That’s where Mama is,” said Little Juan. “She wanted me to sail the last miles with you. And now we’re almost there.”
The Padre caressed the old man’s hand. “You can rest now,” he said.
He had given the Last Rites when the old man’s heart rate had slowed to almost nothing a few hours ago. But the old man had hung on, breathing once or twice a minute. And then, moments ago, a look of peace had come over the man’s face. He took one last, long breath and then stopped breathing altogether.
The Padre took a sip of water from a glass on the bedside stand. Sometimes life was sad. Forty years ago an English merchant ship had found this man floating on some wreckage at sea, out of his head with exposure. He’d had no memory of who he was. He spoke Spanish so they’d brought him to the monastery. He’d been here ever since.
The Padre had tried to help the man remember who he was, but there seemed to be something inside of him, a deep sadness that prevented him from recalling anything before the shipwreck. Through all the long years he never had been able to break through. Only the Lord knew what terrible memories he had been unable to face.
The men had become friends over the years, and the Padre had grown very fond of the way the man carried himself, and the grateful way he helped with anything the Padre needed done around the monastery. When the man’s heart had become feeble and he’d gone into a coma a month ago, the Padre had nursed him with care, hoping that the man could finally be free from whatever had been tormenting him. But for the past few days the man had been restless, even within the coma, and it seemed as if he must have been still fighting the battle. Now the battle was over and he was in God’s hands. At least the Padre hoped so.
The Padre pulled the burlap blanket over the man’s face. It could have been a trick of the light but it almost seemed as if the granite-like face was smiling. Was that just wishful thinking? The Padre whispered a short prayer and hoped it was not.
Papa looked to the east, a breeze from the south caressing his cheek. The sails filled and the little boat moved smoothly through the water. The sky overhead was full of stars. A soft, yellow moon slowly climbed into the sky ahead of them. At the edge of a rippling path of moonlight the land rose higher out of the water. Flickering lights dotted the shoreline and he could see the outline of a harbor.
Papa put his arm around Little Juan’s shoulder. It felt warm and solid beneath his calloused hand.
“Everything is going to be all right now,” said Little Juan.
They sailed in close to land and Papa saw a figure on the shore, waving. He recognized the silhouette, for he had dreamed of it often.
“Mama’s been waiting a long time,” said Little Juan.
Papa smiled as the sadness and the awful grief began to drop away from his heart forever.
“Help me with the sails, Papa,” said Little Juan. “It’s time to make land.”
So the man and his son trimmed the sails one last time and like a feather on the water, the small boat drifted into the harbor.
Wayne Faust has had more than 50 stories published in various magazines around the world. Ten of his stories, including this one, have been performed in staged readings for One Night Stand Theater, in Denver.
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