The ocean spread in all directions like a blue-green sheet of undulating glass; in long, slow swells here where he hovered, vanishing into finer and finer motions toward the horizon where the surrounding water finally dropped away to form a perfect circle. The sun not so much glittered upon as glowed within this surface and the long slow waves spoke of recent truce between wind and water.
Yet, though the surface seemed at ease, the wind was not, perhaps heralding another storm as it steadily poured through him from a distant west.
As he took this in, Lance thought nothing of it at first. This was as it should be. Ocean all around, pale circular horizon far off in every direction. Then it slowly caught up with him, this new perspective, this new view: he saw all directions at once, and not only horizontally through all points of the compass, but globally too. He was surrounded by this watery, airy, weathery world and as far as he could see spread this undulating, windy stillness.
The clear blue sky above held only the occasional tatter of white cloud—busy little remnants not quite sure which way the herd had gone, looking here and there, chased by wind and curiosity—and directly below lay the watery side of the vast surface: the dark movement reached down and down.
Thoughts began to arrive, one by one, though in no hurry whatever. This was ocean. This was sky. This was wind. These were waves, though more like swells here. And this was him. Seeing. Thinking. Alive. Still alive.
Dead. He was dead then? He had finally let go? Lungs full of salty, unbreathable water.
As if fanned by these questions his thoughts—images really—began arriving with more urgency. And so he remembered the raft, yellow, slippery, set on leaving him behind, and wondered was it still around. He scanned the surface for it. Again, his vision both curious and familiar, spreading out in all directions like air after an explosion, racing for the circular horizon. But there was no trace of the raft. No yellow anywhere to disrupt the blue-green, windy stillness.
Nor was there any sign of the boat, of course not—he had seen it go down, had in fact gone down with it. Nor were there any signs of the storm, the rage that now flooded memory with violent spray and brutal wind. Only its echo still lingering in these swells.
And of the others? No, no sign, of course not. And he remembered: they didn't even make it off the boat, trapped below when the mast broke and crushed the entryway, Adam with a broken ankle, he had slipped earlier in the day, unable now to move, and Tom with a severed thumb, trying to stanch the bleeding, crying openly from the pain, looking for the morphine with his good hand.
Lance had been at the helm when that final mountain of sea bore down upon them. He had seen it coming from some distance, taller, steeper than its brothers, and had in fact known: this was it, this was definitely it. He had yelled at them to hold on, this one looked bad, had yelled at the top of his lungs, but even so, in that wind he had barely heard himself.
What was left of the heavily reefed sail abandoned him, as if it knew what was coming, then the mast simply snapped, unbendable metal made bendable by weather, crushing the cabin along with its entryway. He knew there was no hope of getting them out, but still he had tried to shift the mast to make escape possible. No use. It was firmly lodged, as if planted there, then held in place by invisible hands set on murder. He lunged then for the raft, and was tearing at its moorings with fingers already numb from gripping the helm, when the boat simply fell away from under his feet and into the liquid greed below. Still gripping the raft’s mooring, he went down with it.
Twenty, thirty feet below, the yellow inflatable tore itself loose from the final strapping and he almost lost his grasp as it buoyed for the surface. They both exploded into frothy air to see the next wave bearing down. He did not have a good hold on the raft, and what hold he did have was slipping. He searched for firmer purchase, found some, shifted, then tried, with all of his strength, to heave himself onto the raft and the safety of its harness. He failed. He could no longer feel his fingers, numbing further now from the strain and the cold. The wave arrived, submerged both him and the raft, but he managed to hold on. Up into air again. Then another, and another. Mountain after mountain of uncaring water. He lost the feeling of his hands and then his arms. Then his right hand slipped, torn and bleeding. He looked at his fingers with surprise. At his arm, his hand. They were his? He forced them back over the raft’s edge, groping, unable to grasp. A final heaving: it was as if the sea decided to vary her attack with a push from below. The disloyal raft squirted out of his grip, to soar—like some yellow, escaping spirit—thirty or forty feet above him into the jaws of the next wave, and that was the last he saw of it. Now there was only him, in waterlogged clothes, willing arms and legs to fight for surface and one more breath, watching the precipice of sea break and rush down upon him. And he knew.
And now: Nothing but sun and windy stillness. And water pretending it had never happened.
Despite the breeze, he hovered above the same spot, moving up and down with it, as if attached to the ocean surface by invisible string. Perhaps three feet up. Rocking with the swell, slowly up, slowly down, wondering still. Below him, no longer any legs fighting to keep mouth and nostrils undrowned. To his sides, no longer any arms too exhausted to serve. Nor was there a chest too numb to hurt. This, then, was death. So, how come he was still alive?
He tried to remember the moment. The moment of, of what? Of leaving. Of separation.
He remembered the raft escaping, vanishing above him, abandoning him, and then there was only fury. Fury around him with every murderous wave. Fury within him with every breath. The fury of not giving up, of not giving in. The fury of simply refusing. Refusing to sink. Refusing to drown. Refusing to accept. Still, surrounding him, above him, below him, throughout him, he knew the inevitable.
And he remembered: as every kick of his legs became a feat not of muscle but of will, then of desperation, and as the flailing of his arms first grew slower and heavier, then turned gestures, then wishes, he drew his first lungful of water.
And he remembered: no longer thrashing, sinking, at rest now. Arms of no use, legs retired. Was he still breathing at this point? No, no he wasn't. Just sinking, though still refusing. To what? Leave? Sinking through a stiller and stiller wetness, darker and darker, his perceptions swelling with death to outgrow blind eyes, to outhear deaf ears, to outfeel a body now mimicking the temperature surrounding. There were fish, lots of them, at mysterious battle stations, but enjoying the wrenching currents, by all accounts, some wondering: who is he?
And he remembered: still sinking, into the colder and darker. Then into not much to see, and not so much sinking anymore as being tossed about by a deeper, prodding and examining sea. But still refusing. It just wasn't supposed to have happened. Not to Tom and Adam and him. They had come too well prepared; the boat had been too well equipped. This should not, could not have happened.
And still not letting go, in the near dark of how deep could this possibly be, he had thought of Faith, who should have come instead of Adam. Who, too, would have drowned by now. Would have been dead.
And then, too briefly to be sure, in the near blackness, but close, was it the boat? Mastless now, had she let go of Adam and Tom, finally? A white hull being turned like him this way and that by curious water, but then he wasn't sure he had seen anything at all. Still refusing.
Why refuse? He could think of no reason. Perhaps it was just that he had grown so used to himself, to his right leg slightly longer than his left, to his missing molars, to his keen eyesight. To his canvases and paints, to his navigational skills. Together, they spelled his person, who he was, all these things, now sinking and surveyed by wet and cruel fingers.
Then he could no longer tell what good they would do, all these things that made of him the him he knew, especially down here among the now bigger and slower fishes, little mountains when near, soon lost to the dark again with a slow wave of tail. So, he let go. Bubbled up to the surface like so much air. Up into sky and wind and this vast watery stillness.
How long had he remained below, then? Days, perhaps, for here there was no trace of storm. Blown far beyond the horizon.
Here there was only silence. Despite the wind, which he could feel, there was no sound. He listened harder. There was the velvety hiss of wind sweeping water, but that was more a feeling than a sound. Still he listened hard. There was no ripping of spray to hiss and argue. No rumble of crashing waves. No thing upon the ocean surface to catch the wind to make her sing. There were no sounds from below. And there was no ear for the wind to seize and whisper in. It was so silent he could almost hear the sunlight—like him, pervious to wind—striking, then leaving again the surface and back into the air, off to some other ocean on some other Earth.
A line from a song, out of nowhere: “I don’t know where the sunbeams end and the starlight begins.”
What a strange thing to remember. Who sang that? Though he tried, he could not remember, and let it go.
Just nothing, just the stillness. Timeless but for the slow movement of the sun climbing as the whole of the sea turned in her direction.
The Flaming Lips. That’s who it was. Who sang, “I don’t know where the sunbeams end and the starlight begins.” Great concept. Something to think about.
Then: at first there was nothing. Then there was a thingless ripple—a distant flaw in the blue stillness above, then a speck, then a movement, then an angel, faintly aglow, then a bird upon spread wings. A solitary glider upon the higher winds, glowing still.
Coming his way, though still far off. Then closer. Now and then diving for the surface, gaining speed with the long fall, then banking to near vertical—wingtip almost brushing the ocean surface—and turning back into the wind, rising again, trading speed for altitude to then veer back on his original course. Closer still. He could make out long, narrow wings, white but for the dark tips, spanned and still, resting upon wind. A small, efficient, feathered craft.
Or not so small. Closer still, descending now through layers of breeze, wings still spread and near motionless. Almost directly above him now, still descending. He could make out a head, eyes looking down to see nothing but water. No raft. No boat. No him to see.
It was an albatross, spiraling down through wide and windy circles, lower and lower, into clearer and clearer view. Those giant wings. Now he was sure, definitely, and what a sight: The Wandering Albatross.
A school of silvery fish he could not name suddenly caught the sunlight and exploded the water below him, then streamed off toward the horizon. The albatross saw them too and turned its head with interest to follow the path of this glittery highway, but it did not break his landing pattern. And that was, Lance realized, exactly what it was: a landing pattern. The bird was coming for him. As if it could see him.
And lower still.
The landing was less than graceful. Large webbed feet touched, then ran—ungainly, as with little desperations—upon the surface, while the bird reined in and stowed away his large wings—and now Lance could see that they were very large, they must have spanned fifteen feet or close to it. Then in a kind of lively discussion with the water it settled with a final splash, not six feet from where Lance hovered, curious now, if not stunned. The bird—no mistaking the faint aura now, radiating from his head—looked directly at him.
“I am Widewing,” said the albatross.
This should have surprised him.
The large bird looked at him with eyes so brown they were almost black. Lance could make out no pupils within those pools, no darker within dark, as if each eye were all pupil, pure door to the bird within.
“I have come to fetch you,” said the bird.
Then surprise finally caught up with Lance. “You can see me?” he said.
“Yes,” said the bird.
“Plain as a beacon.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh yes, you shine,” he answered. “I saw you from over many horizons. First as a blush, like a little dawn, then like a glow from some distant vessel, then as a wee sun rising. Yes, you shine. That’s how I found you.”
“You shine too.”
“A little, yes.”
“And the boat?” Lance said then, though he knew the answer, “or the raft? My friends? Any sign of them? Did you see anything?”
“No,” said Widewing. “There is no boat. No raft. No friends. There is just the sea. I have seen nothing upon it, but you.”
“And I shine?” Lance said again.
Widewing said nothing in response. Just looked at him with an almost comically concerned expression, a feature of his kind.
“The storm,” Lance began.
“Quite a storm,” answered the bird. “It raged for many days.”
“One, two, many, who knows? At its worst you could barely tell day from night. It was a bad storm.”
“We lost our boat,” said Lance. “Then I lost our raft.”
“I thought as much.”
“And you can see me?” Surprise still lingering.
“Yes, I can see you.”
“And now you have come for me?”
“Yes, I have.”
“But I am dead,” Lance told himself as well as the bird.
“That would be a matter of opinion,” the bird replied.
“And you have come for me?” Lance asked again.
“Because you are here.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I will?” said Lance, but the bird did not elaborate.
The span of undulating ocean; the sky, entirely cloudless now—the stragglers apparently reunited with the herd; the giant bird—measuring perhaps six feet from beak to tail—riding the slow movement of surface: this streamed at him from all points, and pleasurably. He felt warm, luminous almost, though he was not aware of emitting any sort of light. Beacon, the bird had said. Strange. “It is very nice here,” he said at length.
Widewing looked around, inspecting the sea and the air as if all this had just been pointed out to him. “Yes,” he said, “it is.”
“I could stay here forever,” said Lance, and meant it.
“That’s probably true,” said Widewing.
The big bird seemed in no hurry. Seemed in fact to enjoy the place and the motion of the sea and the sun as much as Lance did.
“You want to keep me company?”
“For a while,” said the bird.
“Good,” said Lance.
“But then we must go.”
“Why? Why leave?”
The bird did not reply.
“Why leave?” said Lance again. “This is,” he was looking for words, “this is simply wonderful. And I can see in all directions.”
“Oh, it will bore you soon enough,” said the bird, and in a tone Lance wasn’t so sure he cared much about.
“You think so, do you?”
“I know so.”
“How can you know so? You’re a bird.”
Again the bird, instead of answering, looked around, this way and that, gazing long moments in each direction, as if searching for or trying to remember something.
“You know,” said Lance, “you don’t make much sense.”
The bird swung his head back in his direction. “Could be.”
He could not figure the bird out. But soon stopped trying. It was all too pleasing. He gave himself up to the view again, hummed with it. The bird said nothing, maybe he hummed too.
“And this,” he said after a long while, “will bore me?”
“Soon enough, yes.”
“You’re one cocky bird, you know that.”
“It’s been said before.”
“How soon is soon enough?”
“Days, years, depends.”
“Days? Years? There is a difference, you know. You make them sound just about the same.”
“Not much what?”
“Between days and years?”
“Of course there is,” said Lance. “A year is much longer than a day.”
“Not behind you, it isn’t.”
“Not behind you,” Lance said to himself. Not behind you? Then he thought of his drowning, of what had seemed like moments but must have been days. Days before he surfaced again from the dark waters below to the calm and sunny above. Moments.
“If you want to stay,” said the bird, interrupting his train of thought, “fine, I’ll leave you to it. But you had better think it through. You had better make sure this is what you really want to do.”
“And you can’t stay and keep me company?”
“No,” said the bird.
“Things to do.”
“Things.” He was not willing to elaborate and Lance did not want to press.
“I know that this is quite a marvel,” said the albatross after another spell of silence, and with that he looked around to indicate what he was talking about. “Especially considering what you’ve been through, which I know wasn’t very pleasant. And I know, too, that by contrast alone all of this is indeed too amazing for boredom. But give it a few days, a week, a year or two, and you will wish for anything but this.”
Lance found that hard to believe, but tried to picture it nonetheless: this unearthly peace forever. And ever. And ever. Then succeeded. Saw the bird’s point. “Okay,” he said.
“Okay, what?” said the bird.
“I’ll come with you.”
“I’m glad,” said the bird.
“Perhaps we could just stay a little longer, though.”
“Sure, a little while.”
Then neither said or did anything for a long and very pleasant little while. They just looked.
Then Widewing stirred and said, “Time to go.”
The bird looked up, towards the sun, now beyond overhead. Then around him at the water. Got his bearings, faced the wind. Then said, “All right, then. I would like it now, if you would climb aboard.”
“Set yourself upon my back, just behind my neck is best. Then we’ll leave.”
“Where are we going?” Lance wondered.
“It’s an island.”
Lance looked at the bird, looking at him. “How do I do that? Climb aboard?” he said.
“I’ve tried, but I can’t figure it out.”
“No, you think your way upon my back. Think your way here. Think yourself upon my back.”
Which he did, and there he was. The bird noticed. “Now think yourself well settled, so that you won’t fall off.”
“Well settled,” he said. And thought. And yes, he felt secure, nestled down among the strong, smooth feathers.
“Ready?” said Widewing.
“Hold on then.” The large bird retrieved his wings from storage and flexed them. They were at least six feet each, maybe even seven. Lance with a closer look now, had never seen anything like it. The bird’s name sure was appropriate.
Then, with another churning and lots of spray and large webbed feet running on the water’s surface to pick up pace, not unlike an old and very lively airplane taking off—lots of moving, loosely joined parts—the albatross, running into the wind, managed to wing back up into the air. “Still there?” he wondered at his cargo after some hard-won altitude.
“Good. Settle in then, this will take a while.”
As Lance had seen him do before, once Widewing had gained some altitude, he dove downwind for the surface, quickly gaining speed, only to bank to near vertical into the breeze, then soar up through layers of stronger and stronger breeze to even greater height. At perhaps fifty feet he settled on a course.
To call Norton’s Rock an island is to stretch things a bit. It was named well: It is a rock. A bald, snow-capped rock, with somewhat of a grassy tonsure.
Discovered in 1881 by Sir Alec Norton when he ran his ship aground on it in a dense winter fog at low tide, it is doubtful that it has been visited by humans since. At a generous estimate it holds about a square mile of sea at bay. The northern shore is not a shore but a precipice, the rock falling vertically for nearly four hundred feet into frothy water. The southern and eastern shores are hospitable by comparison, but only to those who like small stones and pebbles with their tussocks. The western shore is nothing but larger stones and irregular boulders, fit for nothing.
Waiting for the tide to turn and lift him free, Sir Alec took a small crew with him and explored, measured, and determined the exact position of the rock, also taking note of a population of unusually large and not unfriendly black-brown birds, each sitting upon a small mound, a foot or so high, and spaced about twenty feet apart. “The southern and eastern shores,” he wrote in his journal, “are studded with nests of some sort, small mounds, upon which sat—we thought at first—large brooding hens of sea birds, perhaps the albatross. But before we left, a few of the birds left these nests to flex their wings, and we were surprised to discover no eggs underneath them. My first mate suggested that these were not hens, but fledglings. If that is the case, then this is an island of very large fledglings. We could see no mature birds around.”
Then, once the tide returned and floated them free, now heading east with a fresh wind, Sir Alec looked back upon the large rock and proclaimed it to be “Brunswick Island,” for the not-so-recent Queen. The name didn’t last to port. By the time they tied up it was known as Norton’s Rock, christened by his crew, though not to his face. And when this spot of land eventually made it onto the charts of the Southern Seas, it was labeled according to the crew, not according to Sir Alec, much to his chagrin. His formal protest was lost, or ignored, or both. It is still, and officially, known as Norton’s Rock.
Widewing’s kind preferred tussocky, out-of-the-way rocks like this, and among them, on a small mound of nest a few hundred feet up from the restless water, sat his wife hatching her single egg. This was the sixty-first day, and she had about twenty days to go.
Lance first saw Norton’s Rock, not as an island, but as a glow over the far horizon ahead. It was their fourth day airborne and dawn was barely a blush behind them when Widewing said: “There.”