The room seemed to close in as his blood was heating up. Leonard concentrated his eyes on the floor; an endless phalanx of boards stretched across the dusty view ahead of him. A pathway to nowhere. It was so hot in this room; it was so very stifling in this airless cabin.
The only noise was the constant rise and fall of his partner’s breath. The only break from the awful silence was this human cacophony of sounds, coupled with the repetitive slapping of the ocean against the side of the boat.
The two of them had set out for this journey not a day ago, or had it been longer? It seemed like forever. Time no longer sped past, but stood still, trapped under a cloud of constancy. Tensions set in early in Leonard’s own mind; differences between desire and duty had become apparent and had drawn the divide between men. The two remaining crewman sat, staring intently at each other on this still Sunday morning…far from sense or prayer, away from society and sinfulness.
Without atlas or accolade our two trawlerman continue onwards without cause. One man speaks, one man is silent. One man guides the boat, one man patiently waits. The sea lurches toward nowhere in a seemingly circular motion, taking the small boat backwards and forwards on the broad route to nowhere. Leonard was speaking in words of religion, of refinement, of salvation. He had the face of a madman; his eyes were shot with mercilessness and the pain of times past. He furrowed his brow and continued in his dialogue of the lost soul.
“Humans are wicked…they are the most shameless of all God’s creatures.” His words fell like empty confessions, occupying a place of satisfaction in his complacent mind.
The sea roared and churned beneath them as the tiny vessel drifted, unanchored with dubious navigation through the blackened sea. The waves were cold as they smacked the wooden helm and they carried with them all the urgency of the impending horror that was boiling up within the twisted confines of the small ship’s cabin.
No fish to catch today. The sea was too rough.
Woods was the silent helmsman. Woods possessed the inner tranquility that had hitherto been the most valuable asset on this doomed journey to eternity. He had no want for endless confession, he had no compassion for the pathetic. He had traveled these waters before. He sat in the quiet chamber and reflected on his life. It had been a good life, and he had not wanted to give it up. He could not recall how the two of them had met.
With a pounding like a heartbeat, the rise and fall of the men’s’ breath was like the rise and fall of the ocean. The air grew thick with breathing, with the pulse of life, with the sickly constancy of the in and out. The endless, the forever, the eternal wave of life reflected in the unending stream of breath. Breath for life. Breath for sanity. Leonard still spoke in circles, an endless stream of chit-chat that drove his partner into a stupor.
“A man has no need for eternal life. Life is all we have here. Death comes but to the man who least warrants the kiss of the gloom. I wander through this life with a determined force driving me towards my eternal salvation.” A mess of words.
“How naïve is he,” thought Woods, the ever-silent, “How destined for disappointment. What a display of innocence.” It did not really matter what he thought, anyway. Woods was not the factor in this question. Leonard was the man who had designed this journey, after all. Even if he did not remember.
Through his stream of words Leonard was thinking to himself, he had been a good man, hadn’t he? He had done his best on earth to live as he should, why was he now lost at sea in this pale ocean, longing for recompense? He would do anything to save his skin now, anything for salvation! Without a warning, the pulse of paranoia was all Leonard had left. Trickling slowly, it flowed like a poisonous gas into the confined space and it circled above his head like a vulture waiting for a weak man to fall. One moment, two…
Leonard broke his stream of spoken confession and for the first time, addressed his partner; “Where do we sail today, my friend?” Leonard asked. No reply came.
He did not understand this turmoil. It seemed as if he had ferried forever on this vast ocean. The more he thought of his predicament, the more he could not remember how he had come to be here. How had life led him to this? He hung his head with despair. Only despair was left, only this remained. Only confusion, cloudiness.
Woods, the silent helmsman looked across at Leonard and saw a ghost. White and pale, the spectre who sat before him was not the man he had known for a lifetime. Leonard was no man. This man was death himself. Woods knew the answer to Leonard’s question, Woods steered the boat.
The air grew dark above the clouds, the sky opened up and poured a torrent of rain onto the seething seas below. The ship kept the surface afloat, the will of the two men being the driving force of the ocean and everything held within.
Leonard allowed himself to meet the gaze of the silent man who sat across from him. It was true to say he did not trust him. Woods seemed like a hollow being to Leonard, there was almost no humanity left behind those eyes, not an ounce of what once was. Who was this helmsman, so strangely familiar? Leonard was starting to forget…
Woods crossed Leonard’s eyes squarely against his own. He loathed him, this pathetic excuse for mankind. He saw many of them, lost souls on the way to eternity, this spectre had passed already from life to death. Still Woods remained silent.
Leonard shook in the small ship’s cabin. He was terrified of Woods because he knew that the man did not empathize with him anymore- he was no sailor, only a crazed beast, a chained dog waiting, tethered or not. He spoke again to his friend, his captor. “ How long ‘till we reach our destination, sailor? I have forgotten where we are headed.”
Breath, breath, breath. Still no answer came.
Leonard cried inwardly to himself. He tried to think of his family, his friends. He tried to spare a thought for his job and his responsibilities in life. He was not sure how this journey had come to be. He could not remember how time began, or how it had ended. Leonard’s thoughts were tortured. The water had swallowed him up, his ship, their souls….they lay only a few breaths away from certain desecration and Leonard had no sense left. He was beginning to think that life was the mere flicker of a flame, it passed in an instant from day in to night. The two men were like specks of light in a hungry ocean that sought to claim both lives, but would only claim one. Something seemed familiar to Leonard now, he was starting to remember…
His life had been so good once, and yet it had never seemed so special at the time. “How unforgiving are we, of the little things in life that burden us?” He thought, “A life is lived, and the past is remembered as only the good, the bad fades from memory unless it serves to be remembered.”
Leonard had been a good man, he tried to remember that. He was sure that he was a fine and just being that was powered by good motivations…he wondered how he had come to be here, so lost at sea in his own ocean? This water had guided him for so long with welcoming arms, with calm seas. The sea was too calm now. He could not quite remember his life in full, he needed reassurance that he had been good and just in life. He found none, his memory was no longer clear.
Hours passed and the two men sat. Days passed and the thoughts remained the same, lurching like hollow syllables in the empty confines of Leonard’s mind. “No way back…”, “No way home…” Lost on an endless sea.
It could be evening now, Woods was not sure. He sat in silence and waited for the sunset. One more time.
In the distance, a light was seen. Neither warm nor welcoming, it held a kind of misty intrigue; at the same time comforting and terrible. It was storming. The shoreline was near, the rocky cliffs ahead were waiting. Leonard at that instant knew that that was where they were headed, and instantly that he did not want to arrive. His mind shifted back into focus and he winced at the thought of a distant memory. He remembered a time not too long ago: sharp, sharp red and white, a pain had pulsed through him, then a numbness, a blackness, a light, just like the light that now lay ahead. Neither warm, nor welcoming, at that time he had drifted towards what had seemed like…death. And here he was again.
Imploring his companion once again, Leonard made one final attempt to hear the answer to his question; “Where are we headed today? Why will you not answer my question!!?”
The silent Woods looked up to face his captor and crewmate. With a wizened face he frowned slightly and reached out for Leonard. He took Leonard’s hand in an unexpected gesture of humanity, and yet the fingers that held Leonard’s own were not soft and warm with the pulse of life, they were cold and stiff, yet familiar.
“Who are you?” Pleaded Leonard. “What is my journey here all about? Why won’t you speak to me and why can’t I remember my life’s actions. Tell me if I’m so close to the end- have I always been fair and just? Have I led a good life, sir?”
The cliffs drew ever closer. The sky trembled with thunder. The ocean seemed to melt away behind the boat, leaving nothing, no trace or past. There was only what lay ahead. Sunset was falling.
Woods lifted his head and spoke in a trembling voice that had not spoken for centuries. He spoke as if there was a finality to his words, an inevitable end. “It’s your time to go now.” He said.
The panic raced around Leonard like a shock to his skin. It sunk into his heart quickly, blackly, completely. A realization dawned on Leonard that had not been seen before. It was too late, it was all too late! So much time had been wasted thinking, rather than living the last few precious moments of life. The end was here now, life’s journey was at an end. What lay beyond those black cliffs was the afterlife, the new beyond, the great unknown. Leonard was suddenly overcome with fear at all the time wasted and all the memories forgotten. He was scared, he knew the answer to his question.
Woods the silent helmsman spoke again, and for the last time. “The Styx has ended now…what lies beyond, I cannot say. Over the cliffs, we see what we want to see…as we do in life.”
Leonard looked up to the sky. The clouds swirled above and droplets of rain fell down towards his face, cleansing him. He returned to face his helmsman.
Woods was suddenly nowhere to be seen. The ship’s deck lay before Leonard in an eerie cloud of fog and mist. There was no rain out here! The weather had produced an effect altogether unanticipated…the rays of the sun now fell within a niche of the boat that had previously been thrown into a deep shade, and a rising mist surrounded Leonard’s feet. Silence.
Silence resounded, his memory was returning.
Leonard glanced for a second into the vast ocean beyond. Facing up to the bleakness of his existence he envisioned a pool of water, clear and welcoming, warm and still. There he was, a good man for all he was worth. Neither all good nor all wicked, he was only a grain of sand along a massive beach. He had fulfilled his destiny, he had created a harmony. He saw in his mind’s eye a passageway of water that flowed from the helm of his boat in a clear path to the beyond. There was calm. Leonard was mesmerized by the beauty and astounded by the flickering light of the sun as it danced over the still conduit of water. Eternity was the only place that he longed to be.
With a gentle step he pushed his full weight onto the railing of the port side. Climbing over he cast one lonesome glance back at the deserted boat that had floated aimlessly for so long.
He would not allow himself to reach those cliffs and be judged, he could not return to where he had come from. He hoped that he had been a good man and he put faith in himself to believe it was true. He had only one chance, after all.
Leonard shut his eyes and cast himself into the great unknown. The winds howled and the rain seized over this poor excuse for humanity. His limp body plunged down, down into the open, grey depths of the endless sea. Forever gone.
The lifeless boat circled endlessly on. Without atlas or accolade no crewmen remained to steer its course. Tomorrow there would be more boats, and more men, and more questions that had no answers. What we believe to be true, is. What we want to remember, we do. We can only throw ourselves into life believing that what we have done is good, and we pray to be recognized.
Photo by Ash