A Metaphor of Ships

Note: This is story number four of six so far! Only forty-six more to go.

A short story by Laura A. Freymiller

Let us imagine that we, every one of us, wake up one day, stranded on an island. We don’t know how we got there, we don’t know why, but there we are alone, totally alone, on an island.

It isn’t a desert island, not by any means. It is, in fact, a paradise. There are fruit trees in abundance, of a variety we didn’t even know existed. Durians, mangoes, and bananas in purple and red and green. The temperature is not too hot, there is plenty of shade and we very quickly build ourselves shelter. But it is also obvious that we have absolutely no means of escape.

Unless perhaps a ship will one day stop by our shores.

So there we are, stranded on our islands, keeping always an eye on the horizon, in case, just in case, we might find a means of rescue.

Time passes, who knows how long. It might feel like months it might feel like years, but we are ready to leave, so ready to return to the mainland and all that it promises.

(Funny, though, we can no longer remember what the mainland was like. We only know we desperately wish to be there.)

Until one day, wonder of wonder, miracle of miracle, what do we see on the horizon but a cloud unlike a cloud which is to say sails.

We leap and shout and holler. We kick up sand and light the biggest bonfire we possibly can and something must work, because the sails are getting closer and the ship is getting larger and sure enough there at the bow steering that wonderful mysterious miracle is another person. We are saved!

Or so we believe for a while. Yes, the ship lands, and, yes, we are welcomed aboard, and, yes, we set off for the mainland. But the storms blow in with great gray walls of fog and the waves rise and the captain of the ship is not all they seemed to be.

It might be our fault, or maybe it is there fault, but perhaps it doesn’t matter one way or the other, because it doesn’t work out.

The lightning flashes, and the captain places us on a lifeboat and sets us adrift.

We are tossed among the waves, raving, cursing the captain and ourselves and the whole damned world. We believe we will drown, but we wear ourselves out with our ranting and end up falling asleep.

When we wake up, we are back on our island. We are alone.

***

Years pass. We work on our shelter. We build an outhouse and we start a little garden. The local monkeys become our friends. We appreciate the early morning bird song and the smell of rain from a distance. We set ourselves a routine, and we explore our island, finding a new cove deep and tranquil, so blue it shames us. We climb to the top of our island’s mountain and it is from this great height that we see it: the cloud that is not a cloud that is to say, sails.

Again.

We are older now.

(Perhaps wiser)

We hesitate. We are cautious. But still, the dream of mainland is strong.

(It is where we were meant to be.)

We build the bonfire. We flag down the ship. We make contact.

And, again, the ship draws closer. The sails billow to twice their size, and fill the sky. The ship is upon us.

This time, though, the ship makes anchor. The captain disembarks. They ask if they might stop over for a while and replenish their stores.

They may, we say, if we can book passage with them when they leave. The captain agrees. We have a celebratory feast in their honor. We don’t notice is the captain drinks less than us. We don’t notice if they have a certain shifty look. We are happy once again to have company. Happy to dream of the mainland.

We fall asleep, cautiously optimistic.

We wake up the next day to smoke and ash. The captain of the ship has set our island on fire, tied us up to die. We can only barely make out the sails disappearing through the sooty air.

The captain has ruined our water supply, burnt down our shelter, razed our garden, frightened the monkeys, slaughtered the birds.

We can barely breathe through the smoke. We are choking, our lungs searing, the world is turning dark around us. We think that this must be the end. We and everything we have worked for cannot survive this.

But eventually the smoke clears. The wind dies down, and we are, again, alone.

***

Life is strong. Death is certain. Trees left barren in the autumn bear leaves again in the spring.

It isn’t easy, but we rebuild. It isn’t speedy, but we recover. It isn’t the same, can never be the same, but we grow.

Years pass, and we are aging. We can hear the soft footfalls of the next world. Someone moving in the next room. We have stopped thinking of the mainland. We have stopped looking for ships.

The only rescue we seek is the one we can give ourselves. There are great distances between us. Distances which we are beginning to realize cannot be crossed by ships.

But one day we see again, the sails on the horizon, and though we make no attempt to signal to them, they are approaching.

The ship lands, and against our better judgment we walk out to greet the newcomers.

The captain of this ship is different, though we can’t say exactly how. They are older, perhaps, and somehow familiar.

(Is it a mirror we see? Or the mirror of a mirror?)

We speak to them, and in the conversation that follows we learn that they, too, have come from an island. They, too, suffered encounters with passing ships.

But how, we ask, did they come to have this ship? And where, perchance, are they headed?

We built it ourselves, they say.

We are heading for nowhere and everywhere, they say.

We look at this stranger, we look at their home-grown ship. We think of all that we’ve suffered and all that our island has to offer. We wonder and wonder, about self-reliance and growth, about living and about loving and about the mainland and the promise of isolation.

We think and consider and wonder until the stranger grows uncomfortable.

Well, they ask, are you coming or not?

And with all the lives we’ve lived since waking up on that island so long ago, all the lives we’ve lived with only ourselves, and this profound knowledge gained from the metaphor of ships, we answer.

 

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