He is old, older than anyone I have ever known. I look at him as he rests, his pale, expressionless face seeming unfamiliar. I wonder, wasn’t it only a year ago that his balding head was thick with hair the color of a fiery red sunset? On his lap, the patchwork quilt bordered with a fringe the color of golden reeds, is one that I made for him, my fingers aching as I stitched each square using exotic cloths from uncharted islands while I watched him age so rapidly. Beneath the quilt is a frail body that once, in days when he was well, could playfully carry me on his strong back. It is his brow that most looks withered with age, lined and cracked like an oil painting exposed to excessive heat. In the tradition of our years together, I lean and kiss him there.
His eyes are suddenly opened, two red-rimmed, glassy jewels that nonetheless remind me of his ability to hold me with his stare alone. While all else is lost, his gaze is still magnetic and piercing. From the beginning, his eyes have been maps, and I have sought in them the direction to my most perplexing problems. Should I go home? How long will I live? What about the monsters beneath the sea?
He begins with memories, history lessons he taught me long ago. He speaks as if I didn’t know these things.
“The nests of El-wasr-kat are scattered among the cliffs above the waters of the Great Pearl, or Sin-so-tokar. The nests are finely crafted, made of silvery seaweed, intricately woven hairs from albino otters, brightly colored coral glazed and fired in volcanic kilns and spun-brass artifacts from sunken ships.”
His voice is not nearly as weak as the blood that pulses through his spotted, gray-purple hands. As his parchment-paper lips move and words are expelled I hear him clearly, as if from years ago, gently scolding me for being inattentive. Straightening, my back held tense and upright, I wait for just a moment, then he begins again.
“From the nests of El-wasr-kat we could see the whale graveyards just beneath the curling white foam atop Sin-so-tokar. I have known some of the greatest whales of sea history. Dandor Magnifico, the leader of the sixteenth century undersea rebellion. Bortend Tremor, the largest whale in recorded sea history. Amsar Dolphninia, the great Blue that translated and taught the language of man to the creatures of the sea. Each one, and many more, entombed in shimmering rainbows of coral, guarded by the legions of deadly striped blowfish and ever-so-watchful sea anemone.
“They come there to die, to Sin-so-tokar, those that are not slain by man, or washed ashore on distant lands, and while in their death-ritual impart what they know and have seen, and every word-song is passed on for all generations of fish and mammals of the seas.”
He leans forward and coughs, wheezing so loudly that it reminds me of the wind that curled about El-Wasr-kat during storm season. He doesn’t take his eyes from mine, and pushes aside my hand stretched out to catch the quilt sliding from his knees. He lets it fall, and each image carefully sewn into the quilt, the mating of eels, the swarming of terns, seahorses and jellyfishes, falls to a heap at his feet. As he rests back against the chair, for an instant I see him as he was, not as he is.
“I am the first of the line of Beto-Dar-tokar and my nest was decorated with gold from the sunken treasures of Atlantis.” A smile crosses his face forming and fading as quick as a shark’s laugh. “Do you remember when we first met?”
I do. I do remember.
After three rainy weeks waiting for better sailing weather, holed up in a rundown hotel in Patagonia, we played cards and caught up on sleep while fending off boredom until the it was reported that the storms at sea abated. We set sail on a day when the sun was white and threatening. Sun-browned children on the pier held their hands above their eyes and barely offered a wave. None of the adults, old men with weathered faces and striking women with long hair and dark eyes, wished us luck or bon voyage. Someone had tossed red flowers in the glassy water as we parted, and they drifted quickly out of sight as we were hurriedly carried away by a mysterious wind. We sailed south, then west, and when the storm hit, and the compass broke and the radio no longer worked, we were set adrift in the waters of the Southern Hemisphere.
When we left Patagonia there were four of us, but soon after the after the storm hit Leon sickened, and though we quenched his thirst with our precious water, and fed him our best fruit, he died from a terrible fever on a moonlit night, in the arms of Armando who loved him.
They had met six years before while both were in the Brazilian Navy, hiding in whatever places they could find aboard a frigate to satisfy their desires. It was on a white sandy beach in Rio de Janeiro that I met them. We laid on our towels beneath the blistering sun and they regaled me with tales of their previous—unsuccessful—attempts to navigate yachts in the open ocean. Leon’s quick wit and humor, and Armando’s intelligence and sincerity drew me to them and we became fast friends.
“It was Leon who knew the stars!” Armando cried as we lowered Leon’s body into the sea.
And this was true. He was the one who knew most, though it proved too little, about the stars and how to navigate in the southern part of the world. Of us remaining three only Armando had sailed south of Patagonia, but he knew nothing of stars or wind directions or currents. He knew how to handle the sails, and with those broken, tattered and in pieces, he immediately fell into despair.
“We will live through this,” Jacques told us, trying to shake Armando from his lethargy, and attempting to dislodge my feelings of impending doom. Jacques would stand on the bow of the small boat with his hands raised and his handsome, tanned face glistening, his voice would carry over the calmness of the sea. “I’ll not let you die,” he told us, “we will live to remember Leon.”
At night Jacques and I would cuddle together beneath the blankets and console one another with kisses and caresses, but our affection felt hollow and sad, and with Armando staying apart and silent but to sob in the dark beneath the stars, we couldn’t feel happy or hopeful.
Many nights we traveled slowly on the water, carried this way, then that, and it was Jacques who awoke in the middle of the night and would keep watch from the bow, while I lay beneath the blankets and tried to recall how it felt to walk on land, to see a tree or feel the dirt. Just as Armando was sinking deeper into his own darkness, forever shaken by the loss of Leon, I too was without hope, sorry for the life I would never have, immersed in my own self-pity. After Jacques would rise to take watch, I would fall asleep, tortured with nightmares till morning.
On which day or which night, what month or date, we lost Jacques, I have no recall. It could have been the fourteenth week or the fortieth day. Only Jacques was keeping a record of such things in the ship’s log. I had awoken after another terrible night of horrific images flashing in my head and found that I was alone. Armando was huddled on the cot nearby, still sleeping. I arose and dressed and climbed up from the cabin and shielded my eyes against the glaring sunlight.
“Jacques?” I called out. There was no answer. There was a slight breeze carrying the smell of distant rain, the sound of water hitting the sides of the boat, but it was quiet in only a way the sea can be. “Jacques?” I said, again. I didn’t need to lower my hand from my eyes, to look about the boat. Some intuition, some unfathomable knowledge, told me that Jacques was no longer on board. How or why I would never know, but certainly he was gone, and now it was just me and Armando.
In the following days and nights I lay beside Armando with my arm around him as he barely moved, seldom spoke, and only ate or drank at my gentle urging. We rarely climbed to the deck and though small storms came and went, we didn’t bother being concerned about our safety or worry that something needed to be secured or repaired. Together we drifted into and out of sweat-drenched nightmares, consumed with sea-fever, both unaware of days and nights, and soon too weak to go above and see if land was near, or not to be seen at all.
“We’re going to die,” Armando told me, as if it were fact.
To hear him say it aloud suddenly frightened me; I didn’t want to die. “No, Armando, we’re not going to die.”
This, my friend Armando, I pulled close to me and cradled him in my arms until he drifted off to sleep, his breathing calmed and steady, my heart beating with renewed interested in life, in living. I climbed from the cot and stumbled up the stairs to the deck. The breezes were light, soothing, warm and full of smells: earth smells. The stars were clusters of fireflies blinking in the black sky.
I strained to see out into the dark, feeling, knowing that there was land somewhere close by. I made my way to the bow of the ship and tried to see some sign of land. I watched for a coast illuminated by the thin slice of moon, or a camp fire, or a resort with lights and music. Then I heard it, faintly at first, the sound of a chorus. It was as faint as a flock of birds heard from a great distance, but more melodic. I shook my head thinking I was imagining it, but as the boat moved, the sound of the singing became more pronounced. It was a chorus. A chorus of men singing from somewhere out in the dark. I leaned over the bow.
“It was not our nature to take in humans at El-wasr-kat,” the old one tells me as his thin lips quiver and a small gem of spittle collects on his lower lip. “Once, Portuguese whalers happened upon our nests, and destroyed many of them, and killed many of us. Their ship was crushed and every sailor destroyed by whales awaiting their final breaths before burial in Sin-so-tokar. Until then we had only heard of humans, but afterward we vowed to never protect them as we did the sea creatures.”
He leans back and raises his thin hands to his face, traces the curves of his dark eye-sockets, the sagging skin of his once strong jaw, and the path from his chin to his neck. Both hands move across his skin like spiders dancing on water.
“I was warned that you would bring great harm,” he tells me, once again locking his eyes with mine. “I was encouraged to toss you back into the sea. The council of wizards pleaded with me to abandon you to what should have been your fate, the same fate as your companions.”
“Jacques,” I whisper, catching myself unaware of his presence in my thoughts.
The headlong tumble into the water, even as it occurred, somehow seemed fitting, as if it was the natural course of events that I should drown in such a simple fashion. The boat merely lurched, momentarily jolted by a strong current, and in a rush of seconds the black sea consumed me. I knew that I was leaving behind one world and entering another. It didn’t strike me that I should attempt to swim or call out to Armando. My thoughts were of Jacques.
In Colón, Panama, after securing my yacht, Leon, Armando and I had wandered around town in search of a good bar. In an alleyway we saw a sign hanging above a door with the words “Drifters Inn” on it and heard music coming from inside. It was a small saloon decorated with anchors, ships’ steering wheels, and hundreds of conch shells. There were a couple of booths and three stools at a short bar. Through the haze of cigar and cigarette smoke I saw Jacques, sitting alone at the end of the bar. His duffel bag was on the floor next to where he sat.
We needed a fourth sailor for our planned voyage to circle the bottom of the world, and without knowing a thing about him, I was certain he was the one.
“I’m from Marseille,” he said in a thick French accent within a few minutes after I approached him. “I’ve been left stranded here with nothing by the owner of the yacht I was captain of.”
I told him about our plans and while I stared into his ocean-green eyes he told me how he’d been a sailor since the age of sixteen.
We sailed from Colón a few days later, and a week later Jacques joined me in my bed.
I awoke from what seemed a very long slumber, feeling as if the world beneath me was a racing boat, speeding headlong through darkest waters. I looked up at the night sky and watched the starscape change and wondered how it was that I had landed on the boat. I expected to see Armando lean over me, or hear the creaking of the deck, but I also knew that without the sails the boat could not move so fast, and that what was beneath my back was alive.
I reached out my fingers and felt the cold, wet body of the thing that carried me. Stretching out I measured it to be more than the span of my extended arms, and much longer than my height of six feet. I rolled over onto my stomach and faced the direction of the creature’s head. I was being carried on the back of a whale, and as it cleaved the water at a dizzying speed, I felt no fear of being tossed from its back or pulled into the depths. I patted its sides in a tentative gesture of thanks and friendship, and let it carry me forward.
Of Armando’s fate, I have no answer.
“We are taught to sing even before we speak, before we learn the art of wizardry. We are taught the songs of dolphins, sea birds, and the many varieties of whale,” he tells me. He opens his mouth and his gray tongue flutters as he emits a small musical note in the c-range.
“Thank you,” I tell him, then answer back, giving two lower-toned notes in the fashion he taught me years before.
“You were a quick learner,” he says as he rests his back against the chair and allows me, at last, to put the quilt over his legs again.
“I had the best teacher,” I reply, wanting to pat his hand as if he were the old man he had become.
“Already you’ve forgotten me, forgotten who I was,” he tells me as he closes his eyes and his face smoothes to nothingness.
“Never, never,” I assure him, but I fear that he might be right. There is so much about him that is different. Only his eyes, how they look at me, are the same. A song becomes stuck in my throat and I warble a sad “I’m sorry.”
El-wasr-kat was suddenly in front of us, rising out of the dark water like a giant. It eclipsed the glow from some distant phenomena of light. My eyes were stunned by the silhouetted blackness of the large rock out in the middle of the sea. How had I missed the light before? Was it from the south, the southern lights? Aurora Australis?
And the music, the chorus of song coming from the rock, seemed to ebb and flow in a pattern that was equally enchanting and terrifying. Never had I heard such a hypnotic sound: a mixture of male voices, whale songs, flutes, and the rich texture of bows across the strings of a hundred violins. The music arose out of the dark side of the rock almost as if the rock itself was singing. I sat up on the whale and cleared the spray from my eyes. Maybe, I reasoned, I have died and am entering heaven. Or hell.
In the blackest shadow of El-wasr-kat I became instantly aware that my whale-companion was in the company of a number of other large creatures, also whales. They gurgled and hummed, sang and chattered to one another. My whale, if I could call it mine, slowed considerably. In the dark I could hear its body sliding along the body of another whale, then another, and another. I strained to see into the darkness of El-wasr-kat, to detect what, or who, was making such music, but I couldn’t discern any living things.
Then silence fell, and I lay upon the whale’s back, and held my breath.
Light from the rising sun struck the water all about me and I cried out in pain as a dazzling rainbow of light lifted out of the water and momentarily blinded me. My hands over my eyes, I feared opening them, afraid of having my eyes burned from their sockets, but I knew that I would have to look. Beneath me the whale had become very still, and the voice of El-wasr-kat rose even higher, but now it was thick with baritone and tenor sounds, as if of trained opera singers, and these lower notes were held for what seemed an impossible length of time. I removed my hands from my eyes and had my first look at El-wasr-kat and saw it bathed in light. It was a golden half-shell of a volcano covered with hundreds of glittering nests, and in each nest stood one or two men, facing the light and draped in gossamer garments of black and gold, decorated with starfish and conch shells.
Beholding the beauty of that, I also looked about me and saw that there were about twenty whales of different species all facing El-wasr-kat, and surrounding the whales were fish and sea mammals of every type and color. The water seemed very shallow, because easily seen beneath the surface was sparkling coral seemingly woven into a tapestry more elegant than I’d ever witnessed, and reflecting like a jeweler’s window in sunlight that bathed it.
For fear of missing something, I turned from one sight to another, ignoring the last shudder, the final breath, of the whale that had saved my life and carried me to El-wasr-kat.
“I don’t want you to die so unhappily,” I tell him, this time grasping his hand in mine and holding it to my cheek.
“We learn that air is the spirit of all things,” he tells me. “My air will be yours and that makes me very happy,” he says.
“We should never have left El-wasr-kat,” I answer, knowing that for all the years sharing the nest above Sin-so-tokar, I had not aged more than a few days, and that I’d heard and seen more wondrous things then can be expected of any mortal on Earth. And now he was paying with his life for the price of being carried to civilization. This was done out of love for me.
“You weren’t born of the wizards of El-wasr-kat,” he says, then falls silent for a moment before taking my hand in his. “And I wasn’t born of humans in this place you call home.”
“I could take you back,” I suggest, knowing that he is too near death to survive even a short journey to a coast where a dying whale would begin its pilgrimage.
“Sing to me,” he tells me. “A joyful passing into the realm of air is possible only with song.”
“What shall I sing?” I ask.
“Of the morning when I carried you from whale’s back up into my nest and we became as one.”
I open my mouth and from deep within me arises the song of a wizard.