The Sea

© Carole Cummings

 

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He'd always thought he'd hate the sea, floating about on all that vast, wide-open water, at the mercy of the errant surge and curl of wave and wind. He should, really, knowing him, because it had, after all, taken from him in its way, could take from him even now and there would be rather little he could do about it.

There were times in his life he'd felt powerless—been powerless, but now he knows the true meaning. A person can't really know what real power is until he is adrift in the middle of it, knowing that his small craft is nothing but a mote in the eye of Eternity, for all the water itself cares. It might rock him to sleep at night, the soft sluice and lap against the hull a whispered secret it shares with him and only him. Sliding across the vast-deep until the prow slips smooth and soft through sand and silt, and finally stops, deposits him tanned and wind-chapped on shores that spark like jewels in the sun. Or it might sneak up and toss him into its salty throat, suck him down, take him deep, hold him so tight in its green-black embrace that his ribs crush and his lungs forget their purpose… which would be just as well, he supposes.

Either way, he is its to do with as it pleases or doesn't please, and he is actually—surprisingly—happy to take his chances. He'd thought he'd hate it but he doesn't, only becomes more and more convinced with each passing moment that this is where he belongs: wind in his hair, sun on the crown of his head, and a thick salt-tang on his lips, briny mist in his nose.

He can recall several times in his life when he'd stood at a crossroads, stared Fate in the eye and either spat or blinked, but each time he'd thought, 'This is it, this is my destiny, this is why I'm here, my purpose in this life.' And whether he'd accepted that purpose, walked the path set before him, or stumbled and railed against his fate, still he had never set his feet on a road that felt quite this… right.

He'd lost his belief in magic, watched white light swallow it up in the reality of sand beneath his knees, drowned it in his own disbelieving tears and cries of loss. Now he thinks it wasn't so much a loss of that belief as it was a denial, a self-defensive refusal to consider that any Power could exist that would allow such things to pass. And he still holds some bit of anger and betrayal in his heart for it all, but it's dulled somewhat over the past few years, and that's surprising, as well.

Gods and Monsters; he believes in them all now. He supposes it was somewhat childish and insolent of him to refuse them before—silly, even—when his eyes have always told him the truth of it all. But his eyes had told him many things over the years, and not all of those true, so he thinks perhaps he can be excused for allowing his heart to shade those truths in pleasing hues when he needed it so.

Not now, though, not here. He will no longer fool himself. He will see clearly only those things that are real. A different sort of reality, this, one to which he doesn't quite belong, doesn't quite know, not yet anyway, but he'll see it and accept it, even bend his neck and knee to ask for his place in it, if that's what's required of him. Pride was necessary to his own sort of magic, but it won't serve him here, and he's done away with most of it anyway. For all that it and smug confidence had carried him through his years in his own reality, here it will only serve to crush his hope and faith for good and all. And so a bent neck and supplication—on his knees, if that's what it takes—are things for which he has prepared himself. The thought doesn't chafe at him as he'd thought it might. The hope and faith are the masts to which he's bound himself against the siren-call of fear and doubt, and they will not bend nor break, not even beneath the vast-deep of sky above and water beneath him. He is at their mercy and he knows it, accepts it, time and again drops his promises in silent prayers to them both like the tender petals of a new rose.

And thus far, they have been kind to him.

The days are long and gorgeously fair, the sun rising from her bower of flame and thunder to hang in a sky blue and clear. She has marked him as hers, his skin brown as toast and rosed on cheeks and nose, and he imagines his hair must be tawny and brighter than it's ever been, though he can only get a good look at the ends.

The nights are… indescribable.

He hadn't been aware there could be so many stars, or that he could be so fascinated by something he's so feared and resented for most of his life. But there are and he is, and he has traded day for night for the most part so that he can lie on the deck beneath them and just be. They look so close in their bowl of ice and fire, and sometimes he reaches up his hand, half-expecting to draw it back with fingertips singed. He wonders if they chuckle at him, daring to think one so small could approach something so far beyond him. Or perhaps they don't even take notice, and he supposes that's more likely. Still, they are a flame-shot blanket beneath which he has taken to pondering his existence—past and present and, with luck and blessings, his future—and it's nice to think that they approve.

It's been almost too easy, thus far, his journey, and did he allow the scepticism presence, he might suspect some trick or cosmic joke and he the punchline. But cynicism was never a skin he wore comfortably and he's not sorry to shed it now. He trusts, he believes, he hopes. It’s all he has now, all he is, and he thinks it's perhaps more worthy than anything he's ever been or pretended to be before. So, by night, he sets his bow by the guide of the stars, trusts the gods to guide him true, and does not so much as entertain a fleeting chary thought. And when the moon retires to its cradle of silver and song, makes way for the sun to rise from her bed of thunder and fire, he greets her with a smile and a nod then dozes, swaddled in her warmth and comfort.

Every element that exists, he is at its mercy, and he's not sure he'll ever stop being amazed at the fact that it's fine and right by him.

Even now.

He stares at the Boundary, not at all what he'd expected it to be. It seems merely the front of a wandering storm, and for a moment, he wonders if perhaps that's all it really is, for it isn't silver and shimmering with hidden promises, but murky and thick. The bruises of the horizon's curvature are smudged with rain, a brooding squall, and he is in its eye.

Foreboding.

Still, he's trusted this far, followed the currents and the tides, only rarely set his hand to the helm, instead trusting to those gods and monsters with body and soul, faith and heart. And this is where they have brought him; this is where, even now, those same currents push him and his little craft, and so he'll trust them farther, to the end. Perhaps he'll cross that Boundary and sail off the edge of the world, or into the maw of a great serpent, snapping him up in his conceit that he could be different, that he might somehow win even now, after all that he's lost and hopes to regain. He finds he doesn't mind the possibility, for the hope is worth the risk, and if this is his end...? Well. There are worse things than meeting it with hope in your heart. There is despair, and there is rage, and there is the creeping undertow of days and nights wasted surrendering to both.

No more. This magic he will believe, and he will trust, and he will let it do with him what it will.

He lowers the daggerboard, tacks the mainsail then takes himself fore; he will meet whatever comes head-on and with eyes open. He has an absurd impulse to smooth his hair and straighten his clothes, but he has taken to wearing only shirt and breeks, and anyway, it's almost impossible to keep shirttails tucked with the constant eddy of wind and water. Anyway, it's become quite necessary to tie his hair back at the nape—and oh, wouldn't that send his father into fits of prideful outrage—so there's no real sense in mucking with it.

He finds himself smiling and is again surprised, considering that he may right this moment be living the very last minutes of his life. And still cannot credit the serenity in the underbelly of his soul.

He pulls in a great swallow of thick salt-air, tastes it slowly, savours it, before pushing it back out.

Stands tall, hands clutching the rail of the pullpit and toes curling for purchase on the slick of the deck. His heart is thudding in his ears, though he can't tell if it's anxiety or anticipation that drives his blood now; it doesn't matter, for it's been far too long since it has heated his veins this way, far too long since he's felt alive. There is still enough irony left within him to consider that it would be almost amusing if death was what awaited him, now that he finally remembers what life is.

Almost amusing.

The rain and mist have seeped through his shirt, wet him to skin, but it's warm and soft, almost a caress, and for a moment, there is a feeling of coming home, of drifting suspended as though once again enwombed. For seconds he aches for his mother, and for seconds more feels her presence… or perhaps, more accurately, he feels the presence of All Mothers, all soft acceptance and love, fierce and primal. It cradles him inside his own heart with a soft touch to his mind as well as his skin, a glance of Question, and then…

Knowledge.

Only a moment, and then it turns on him, snaps at his mind like the hinging jaws of a serpent, sinking poisoned fangs into his brain, and the burn of it sears through him. He jolts, as though a lightning bolt has pierced through his skull, jagged down his spine. Slicking through his head, peeling back layers of Self and everything he thought he was, Looking…

Seeing.

He writhes inside of it, every instinct within him warning him to back away, twist himself free, keep his mind and heart to himself. He doesn't. Because he understands.

All his life, he has sought grace, grasped for it in the possessive hold he kept on love; now he touches it, drowns in it, lets it throttle him with its beautiful/terrible world-encompassing sentience.

Opens his hands, offers his petals of promise, drops to his knees and flings his heart wide.

Please.

He's waited for this, was meant for this, and for the first time in his life, takes what Fate hands him, does not demand promises in return, does not try to twist it to his will.

He kneels before it.

And waits.

Bared.

Whispers in his mind and they hurt, crush against his skull, pressure, and it's inside.

It asks: Who are you?

It asks: Why do you come?

It asks: Are you so bold as to believe you merit?

Raindrops fall into his open eyes, sting tears from behind them. Gripped in cloud and mist, and it's tight, too tight, and he rips breath from salt-heavy wind, claws it into burning lungs. His body snaps, judders then arches, yet he keeps his hands out, supplication, as blackness begins to fleck his vision. Still, he takes it, takes it all, lets it wind around him, through him, in him, snake about his senses, as deep and dense and heavy as the endless fathoms of the Sea. He does not cry out, does not ask for mercy, even as he is crushed beneath it.

Only keeps offering all that he has.

And he answers: This is what I am, this is all I am,

And he answers: I come for a love that scorches my soul and will not let me do less, for a hope that will not sleep silent.

And he answers: I have nothing to offer but myself and my trust; do with it as you must.

It tightens, like an iron band about his mind, coiled and screwed tight. He thinks maybe he does cry out now, perhaps even screams, but not in rage, not in defiance. He almost knew that it would be like this, that his hope was not Hope enough, would not carry him through the final test, and once he would have curled his hands into fists, gone down pounding the slick teak of the decking. Not now. Now there is only bloodthunder in his ears, and a sadness that isn't new, as familiar as a lost lover's kiss, and he concentrates, brings dark hair and laughing eyes to the fore of his mind's eye, for if he is to die, it will at least be with this vision burnt behind his eyelids.

And in grief: I have failed. But only because I loved you too well.

And in love: If it was my fate to die, I'm glad to have died for you.

And in hope: We are not finished, you and I. Never. We will find each other, perhaps far away and long from now, and we will be again.

Closes his eyes.

And he is in the dark heart of Forever.

Falls to the deck.

And he sighs out a name.

Submits.

And the Black greets him as an old friend. Takes him in.

 

~~~~

 

A/N: I know it all looks dire, but he does pass the test, he does end up finding his lost love, and they do manage a more-or-less happy existence.  If I ever get around to writing the rest of the story, I'll let you know.  ;)

 

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