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.”
He looked beyond the bird’s smoothly sculpted head, but saw nothing but the first blush of dawn.
“No,” said Widewing, “Not the dawn. The dawn rises behind us.”
And yes, Widewing was right. Blue of night was fading into green and pink behind them. “Two dawns?” he said.
“Home,” said Widewing.
“Your home shines?”
“With a thousand birds.”
“Oh, so you do count some things,” he said.
“Figuratively speaking,” said Widewing.
“And the glow? Where does it come from?”
“We glow,” said the bird.
“Like I did? Shine?”
“Yes, like you did, but not as strongly. Of course, we wear cloaks and you don’t.”
“But many, many,” Lance began.
“Make a fine glow, yes,” said Widewing.
And so it was that toward noon on this the fourth day of flight the white crown of Norton’s Rock broke the horizon. The glow was still discernable even in the sunlight, at least to Lance’s view. It made the island shimmer with its own light. It looked a little like an iceberg with a rock heart.
“It’s beautiful,” he said as the whole of the island came into view.
“Yes,” said the bird. Then, after a long moment of silence, he added, “I wish I could see us approach. It is a beautiful sight too.”
“Yes,” he answered. “You have impressive wings.”
“No, not the wings,” said the bird, “the shimmer.”
“Yes, you shimmer too, of course.”
“No, not me. You. I shimmer with you. I am flying with a small sun on my back. I will seem to them as a winged star approaching. I will seem a golden bird.”
Lance tried to picture that, and managed. “Wow,” he said. “That is quite a sight.” Then, “How do you know?”
“Oh, I’ve seen it.”
“Yes, I’ve seen other birds fly in from the sea with the likes of you on their backs. It is a wonderful sight.”
The island grew closer still, and now he could make out the eastern shore, spotted with many white birds—all glowing faintly, some on their nests, others walking about. It was not unlike a grassy sky with many a feathered little cloud. Many, many. Probably thousands, like Widewing said.
“There,” said the bird, approaching the shore for a landing.
“That’s her name?”
“You can see her from here?”
“They all glow.”
“Not like her.”
The ground rose up to meet them a little faster than Lance would have preferred and Widewing, as it turned out, was no more accomplished at landing on terra firma than on water—in fact, he was worse. But land they did, after a fashion—had this been a commercial flight, Lance thought, he would have felt compelled to have a serious talk with the captain—and as Widewing walked, waddled would be the better word, toward Whalefriend, Lance noticed that every bird within sight stopped what they were doing and turned their heads to face them with what must have been albatross awe and perhaps a touch of albatross envy.
And so they reached a white, though dark-winged bird on the brood. She did not rise to greet them.
“There you are,” she said. “You’re back.”
She smiled then—though how he could tell, he had no idea—and said, “And, you made a very fine approach. It was spectacular. They all saw you. I am very proud.”
Although Lance could not see it, as he was still lodged among Widewing’s neck feathers, he could feel Widewing sort of gather himself up, then stand a little taller, swelling with albatross pride.
“Very proud,” Whalefriend said again, also noticing, and pouring some more fuel on the pride fire.
“You can get off now,” said Widewing after a while.
“I like it here,” answered Lance.
“Yes, well, that’s fine too, I guess, but I would like it if you got off anyway.”
So he did. Thought himself off, and now he hovered only a couple of feet above the grassy and pebbly beach, in front of Whalefriend on the brood and Widewing, the proud father-to-be, protectively by her side.
“And a fine welcome to you, too,” she said, looking directly at him.
“Thank you,” he answered. “I take it you have no trouble seeing me either.”
“None,” said Whalefriend.
Then neither of them said a word for so long that Lance just had to fill the silence. “And how are you?” he asked of Whalefriend. “How comes the brooding?”
She looked at him curiously and a little amused. “Oh, I’m fine. And the brooding, too, is fine, thank you. Not too long to go now.”
Lance could have kicked himself. How comes the brooding? That was the best he could do? The inanity. But he wasn’t done yet. As neither of the birds felt in any way compelled to continue this conversation, it was up to him, and so he did. “And the family?”
“Oh, they’re fine too,” said Whalefriend. “Mom is over there, four nests over. Dad is still on the wing, he probably won’t be back this year. And I have three strong sons. All on the wing too. At passage. Not ready yet, to mate.”
“And how are you?” asked Whalefriend, not quite mockingly.
“I am fine, thank you. Considering.”
“Considering I drowned less than a week ago,” said Lance.
“Yes,” she said. “There was that, of course.”
“Whalefriend,” he said after a while, as if this had just occurred to him. “That is a strange name.”
“Oh, yes,” she said.
“Do you mind if I ask?” he said. “I can see how Widewing got his name. But Whalefriend? Does it mean what I think it means?”
It was Widewing who answered. “All of our young, when hatched, are named Youngbird, and…” Then he stopped to cast a sweeping frown in the direction of several birds who pretended to not sort of ease up toward them, the better to see, and to not cock their heads, the better to hear. They each stopped at Widewing’s glare, straightened their necks, and soon began pretending to not saunter in all kinds of other directions, suddenly busy with better things to do.
Satisfied that some degree of privacy had been restored, Widewing picked up his thread. “As I said, when we are hatched, we are named Youngbird, and Youngbird we remain, usually for many years, until our true name grows apparent.”
Whalefriend said nothing, but she was listening and nodding in agreement.
“One day we saw her resting on the back of a whale calf. A small gray whale.”
“He wasn’t that small,” she said.
“Still Youngwhale, for sure,” he said, “or he would not have allowed it.”
“Some do even when named,” she said.
“Well, you would know,” Widewing smiled.
“So you are all called Youngbird? At first?” said Lance.
“Yes,” she said.
“Well, how—if you all have the same name—how do you tell yourselves apart?”
“The Glow,” she answered. “We all have our own glow, better than any name. Besides, how can you have a real name before you know who you are?”
He could see the logic of that. “And you are the friend of whales?”
“I am a friend of one whale,” she said.
“Whales normally don’t much care for us,” explained Widewing. “Jealous, I think, of our wings.”
Whalefriend nodded another agreement. “There is some truth to that. Birdfriend has told me as much.”
“Birdfriend?” said Lance. “That would be your whale, I take it.”
“My whale. Did you hear that?” she addressed Widewing. “My whale.”
“Am I right?” he wanted to know.
“Of course you are,” she smiled. “He is my friend still. And since it is not very common either way, for us to know the whale or the whale to know us, our meeting defined us both.”
“And how did you, well, meet?” Lance wanted to know.
“It was not planned,” she said. “No, no, far from it. The wind was fading and I was coming down to land, to rest on the water, at the same time and at the same spot where he was coming up for air. It just happened. I wasn’t looking where I was going, and he for a fact was not looking where he was going, and there you have it. Youngbird on the back of Youngwhale became Whalefriend on the back of Birdfriend.”
“You can talk? You understand each other?”
“Birdfriend and I?”
“Well, of course.”
“And you still do?”
“Yes,” interjected Widewing. “They still do.”
“He tells interesting stories,” she explained, as much to Widewing as to Lance.
“Well, yes,” said Widewing with a trace of discomfort.
“He’s jealous of a whale,” said Whalefriend. “Imagine that.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Widewing.
“And does not want to admit it,” she added.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Widewing again.
Looking around, Lance noticed that most, if not all heads were still turned their way for as far as he could see. Narrow white, glowing domes with dark dots for eyes, looking at him, at them. He mentioned this to Widewing.
But it was Whalefriend who answered. “You’re quite an event.”
He didn’t understand, and they could tell.
“Men drown,” began Widewing. “Some of them in our waters. But rarely do they surface like you did, shining.”
“Most, when they surface, simply vanish,” said Whalefriend.
“Expire,” said Widewing.
“Expire, vanish, what’s the difference?” she wanted to know. She looked at their guest. “He’s one for the fine points.”
“I’ve seen them,” said Widewing. “They don’t vanish, they expire. They go out. A faint light rises. It flickers, then it expires. Expires.”
“I’ve seen them too,” she said. “A faint light rises. It flickers, it vanishes. Vanishes.”
“When a light vanishes, it expires,” said Widewing.
“Perhaps lights expire as they vanish,” offered Lance diplomatically.
They looked at each other, Widewing and his wife, then they both looked at him, twin pairs of dark brown eyes, unflinching. “Could well be,” said Widewing at length.
“Probably so,” said Whalefriend.
“We could ask Whitewing,” said Widewing after a while.
“Whitewing?” Lance wanted to know.
“He is twice named,” said Whalefriend, as if that answered his question.
“Who is Whitewing?” said Lance again.
“He is the oldest among us,” said Widewing. “He was first named Diver, for obvious reasons.”
“We don’t dive,” interjected Whalefriend. “Normally.”
Which earned her a glance from her husband. The sort of glance which says: This, dear, is my story.
To little effect: an unperturbed Whalefriend retained the floor. “When we feed, we don’t dive. Never have, never will, more than likely. We do not like to get our wings wet,” she explained. “Except for Diver. He dove once.”
“Some say more than once,” said Widewing.
“Once is strange enough to earn the name,” said Whalefriend.
“True enough,” said Widewing with a curious glance at Whalefriend which Lance could not decipher.
“But that was a long time ago,” continued Whalefriend. “Before our time. Then, as Diver grew older and older and his wings grew whiter and whiter…”
“The older we get, the whiter our wings,” interrupted Widewing.
“…and whiter,” continued Whalefriend. “So white in the end that a few years ago, even his black tips turned white, and that has never happened before. That is when he was named again.”
“To Whitewing,” said Lance.
“To Whitewing,” they confirmed in such sweet unison that they turned to each other and laughed the way albatrosses laugh.
“How old is he?” wondered Lance.
“Well,” said Whalefriend. “We don’t keep official records, but to hear him tell it, and others mostly agree, he’s ninety-two years old.”
“Ninety-two years old?”
“But that’s as long as humans live. Longer.”
“I know,” she said.
Lance wanted to ask further questions, but could not put his finger on what he wanted to know, and so said nothing. Neither Widewing nor Whalefriend said anything either, and again he was struck with how comfortable they seemed with silence.
It was a fertile silence. While Whalefriend sat brooding her egg, and while Widewing first wobbled about a bit, then patched the nest in one spot, then stopped to look around, then looked up to study the sky, then affectionately nibbled Whalefriend’s neck for a while, then found something else to fix with the nest, Lance thought of the flight here, of the days and nights of gliding through space on strong winds, tucked down among warm feathers, so close to the bird—almost within the bird—that he could feel the heart pound, feel the blood course through the many vessels that fed the bird and his wide wings with oxygen.
And again the wonder sneaked up on him, warm and spectacular: He was still alive. Still. Alive.
He quivered a little with the realization, at the wonder of it. This in contrast to his hosts’ indifference to the miracle. They didn’t seem to give it a second thought. To them, apparently, this was an everyday occurrence, surviving death.
Finally, he said to Widewing, twice, “So, why have you brought me?”
Widewing stopped what he was doing, which was patting down some grass at the bottom of the nest with his beak, and looked up at Lance with those dark, slightly comical eyes which Lance still had a bit of a time getting used to. Then he looked at Whalefriend, would she like to field this one? No, apparently not.
“Here?” began Widewing.
“Yes,” said Lance.
“Here, yes,” said Lance.
“Yes. That’s precisely it. My question.”
Again he turned toward his wife, a hand here?
“Well,” she said.
“You see,” he said.
“We found you,” said Whalefriend.
“So that means,” said Widewing.
Then nothing for a while.
“Means what?” said Lance.
“That,” said Widewing. “That you’re ours.”
“Not just figuratively,” added Whalefriend.
“Our egg will soon hatch,” said Widewing. “And, and…”
“We will soon have a chick,” said Whalefriend.
“And?” said Lance.
“And,” said Widewing, taking the plunge, “you’re it.”
That took some sinking in.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“What do you think I’m saying?” said Widewing.
“I am to be a bird.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Good. I’m glad that’s settled.”
Whalefriend was nodding slowly. Agreed.
Still sinking in.
“Do I have a say in this?”
“Yes,” said Widewing.
“And if I say no?”
“Then you don’t have a say.”
“Don’t you see?” said Whalefriend. “These are the rules.”
“The rules,” she repeated.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Lance. “I’ve never heard of these rules.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” said Widewing.
“Or, if you have, you will have forgotten,” said Whalefriend.
“Don’t take me wrong,” said Lance. “I like you guys. Really, I do. But I don’t know the first thing about being a bird.”
“Not just any bird,” Widewing pointed out.
“An albatross,” said Lance.
“A Wandering Albatross,” said Widewing, stressing “Wandering.”
“Yes,” said Lance. “I don’t know the first thing about being one.” Then he asked, taking both Widewing and Whalefriend in with his glance, “What rules?”
Widewing looked at Whalefriend. A long, meaningful look which Lance again didn’t know what to make of.
“What rules?” he repeated.
Whalefriend made a little show of settling herself more snugly on her egg, then cleared her throat, or its albatross equivalent. “You had a fine life?”
Lance first heard this as a question, but on reflection it was more like an affirmation.
“Yes,” he said after a little while and some thought. “Yes, I did have a fine life. Too short, and the ending was not very pleasant, but yes, I had a fine life.”
“You were true to those you loved?”
Again, this was either a question or an affirmation. Take your pick.
The words—and he settled on affirmation again—brought Faith back to him, and he realized, with a pang of regret, guilt almost, that he had not really thought about her since the…, since the drowning—he could find no good euphemism. True to those he loved? Yes, he had been. To Faith. His Faith. Of course he had.
How could she have slipped his mind these many days? Death, he thought. Perhaps death does that to you.
Though now she came flooding back.
The phrase he liked to use—and in fact did use—corny and clichéd though it was, was “Love of my life.” To her face. During introductions. When talking about her. And the strange thing was that those who heard him say it thought it neither corny, nor clichéd, for he meant it so well.
They had come together, quite literally collided, at the corner of Avenue of the Americas and West 14th Street, neither looking to see where they were going. She was coming down West 14th Street with a bag of groceries in her arms, and had, while turning right onto the Avenue of the Americas, just turned her head to see what the siren coming toward her down the Avenue was all about. He was late for class and was checking his watch again while turning left onto West 14th Street.
Her first thought was: “Lucky I didn’t buy eggs.”
His first thought was: “Ouch.” Her hand had come up in the collision and her knuckles had caught his lip, which was now bleeding, if only a little. He could feel numbness rushing for it.
Her second thought was (which were also her first words): “Hey, look where you’re going!”
His second thought was: “What a beautiful girl.”
His first words were: “Sorry.”
Then, just like in the movies, as they both stooped down to collect the still settling groceries—three apples, a can of tuna (still rolling on its edge, veering toward the curb), a loaf of French bread, two oranges (one at rest, one in motion), and a plastic bag of bean sprouts—they met, head to head.
They both jerked back and up and said, “Sorry.”
She was rubbing her head, and he said, “Okay, you bend right and I bend left.”
“So we can butt heads again,” she said after a moment’s reflection.
He looked at her, then pictured what he had just suggested, then laughed, “You’re right.” Then he stepped back, just to be sure, before bending down again to collect the apples and the French bread. She got the rest while he ran after the tuna, and brought it back holding it high like a trophy, “Got him.”
The grocery bag had not survived the accident, just so much ripped paper now, and there were too many things for her to carry by herself without it. “Let me help you,” he said. “Where do you live?”
She motioned down Avenue of the Americas with her head, toward Washington Square, “A block and a half that way, on Thirteenth Street, it’s not that far.” As she did, he caught the side of her face and was struck by her profile, as regal a line as he had ever seen—a line that later would find its way into many of his paintings.
She made him tea for his troubles, and cleaned his lip with an antiseptic. It stung but he didn’t complain. She had very gentle fingers, and the cleanest teeth.
“Class!” he finally remembered, and took a scrambled leave.
They married the following spring in Vermont. There were still pockets of snow on the ground outside the church, but the sun was bright and the air was clear, and for him it was the spring of his life.
Whalefriend’s expression of concern no longer seemed comical to him. She was waiting for his reply.
Twenty-two years, he thought, and she will never know what happened. Not really. Only that he never came back, presumed lost at sea.
Twenty-two years of marriage, which, though childless—their only regret—had been wonderful. Cause of envy, in fact.
No, he had never cheated on her, had never even entertained the thought—the thought hadn’t even suggested itself to be entertained. She had never cheated on him, had never entertained the thought—this he knew. If there was such a thing as “meant for each other,” they exemplified that thing.
And to think, and he shuddered at this thought, and to think that had it not been for Faith’s innate wish to help her friends—a curator they both knew well had asked her, had pleaded with her if truth be told, to help him sort out his disastrous finances in order to stave off bankruptcy, and she just could not turn him down—she would have gone down with the boat in place of Adam, who in very much the eleventh hour managed to spring a year’s sabbatical from the university to join him and Tom on the cruise.
“Yes,” he said then. “Yes, I have been true to those I love.”
Whalefriend nodded, then: “You have been true to your word?”
“Yes,” he said. “To the best of my ability.” It had in fact been a motto of his, to be true to his word. He wasn’t sure where he had picked it up, could have been the Boy Scouts, could have been his dad, or from somewhere else. But he had always done his utmost to meet all his obligations, and a word given, to him, was the same as an obligation, as binding as any contract.
“You have not been vain?”
No, he had not been vain. Well, perhaps now and then before he met Faith, but not since. She had supplied him all the understanding and admiration he would ever need—enough to last many a life, as he had thought on more than one occasion, even said to her once or twice.
But more fundamentally, he had never really had that strange thirst, that need for confirmation so readily seen in many of his friends and acquaintances. He knew who he was and he knew what he was doing, where he was going. That was sufficient for him. So many, too many, he had often noted, found most, if not all of their happiness in the constant stroking by those around them; would not be content—would not be alive—unless constantly told, no matter how brazenly shallow the lie, how great, beautiful, smart, witty, et cetera, et cetera, they were.
To him, the observer of this, the need was sadly glaring. Admiration as oxygen. To those afflicted, however, it was more than an unacknowledged need, it was a way of life. It was how they breathed.
“No,” he said. “I have not been vain. Not for many years.”
“So you have been vain?”
“A little, now and then as a kid, and in my teens, perhaps.”
“That doesn’t count,” said Widewing.
“Not since I met Faith,” he said.
Whalefriend nodded again. Then said, “You have followed your own heart.”
This was no more a question than the others, but while he briefly wondered how she could know this, it still wanted answering, and the answer was that he had followed his own heart. Always. At least since that night his father had asked him to do just that.
That night was the eve of his high school graduation. As a surprise his father had brought him to one of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles. Lance looked around him, then at the prices. They actually shocked him. The menu itself, beautifully crafted in velvety paper and leather bound, looked wildly above their budget.
“This,” he said, replacing the menu on the table so carefully you might suspect he was afraid to break it, “is ridiculous.”
“Agreed,” said his father, still surveying his own menu.
“So, what are we doing here?” His dad was not a rich man.
“This is for you Lance,” he answered. “To celebrate a job well done. Your night.”
“But…” he began.
“No ‘buts’,” said his father. “I’ve allowed for this. I’ve set aside the money.”
“But…” he said again.
“I am very proud of you, Lance. And I know your mother would have been too.” And as he referred to her, that familiar shadow of happier times crossed his father’s features. Lance knew it well.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Anything you want,” said his dad.
He ordered prudently nonetheless, if you could order prudently at twenty dollars a dish, everything à la carte, probably even the condiments.
They then chose and ordered dessert; but the next thing to arrive was a pricy bottle of champagne, which his dad must have ordered beforehand. The waiter uncorked it with swift, practiced motions, produced a professional pop—the man caught the cork, I guess it wouldn’t do to hit other guests with it—and poured for both of them.
“Dad?” He said, looking at his own glass glitter with a light amber. It was a first.
“Oh, as if you haven’t tried it, or worse,” he answered.
Lanced blushed his confirmation. Then raised his glass in response to his father’s: “To a long and happy life.”
“Thanks,” said Lance.
“To be honest,” said his dad as he put his glass back on the table. Then he took a deep breath, “I have not had the best of lives.”
Lance made to make some sort of protest, but his father held up his hand to head him off.
“I have worked for thirty-odd years at a job I don’t really care for, and never did. And I had a hard time settling down at all until I met your mother, who was a wonderful woman, you know, if a little headstrong.”
Lance had been six when she, a dedicated chain smoker, succumbed to leukemia. He could still see her, a white landscape of monitors and tubes and troubled breathing, hard to make any sense of from his six-year old vantage: spread out upon a high, metal-railed hospital bed, almost as high as he was tall, his nose level with and pressed against its cold railing.
“I remember her voice,” said Lance.
“She was a real growler,” said his father.
“She smoked all the time. That’s probably why.”
“There’s no ‘probably’ about that.”
Lance didn’t answer.
“Still, I loved her,” he answered, “a lot. And I wasn’t sure I could go on when she left.”
“Seemed to me you held up just fine,” said Lance.
“I’m good at that,” he answered. “At seeming.”
Again, Lance didn’t know what to say.
“To be honest, if I hadn’t had my boat to keep me busy…” He didn’t complete the sentence.
Another silence. Not comfortable, not uncomfortable.
“I made one big mistake this life,” resumed his father. “One. I succumbed to the wishes of others. That one mistake made all the difference.”
When he didn’t go on, Lance asked, “What do you mean, Dad?”
His father regarded his glass for a while, then took a sip of the sparkling wine. “As you probably remember,” he said, still holding his glass and looking at it, then up at Lance, “your grandfather, my dad, was an accountant, a controller, actually, with Getty, for the better part of his life. And he enjoyed it. It was what he wanted to do. And of course—especially since I was so good with figures—there was never really anything to discuss. He and mom had it all planned, money set aside and everything for my business and accounting degrees. And I simply went along. There seemed no other choice.”
Lance was about to say something when he saw that his dad was not finished.
“My life has been a sluice.”
“Comprised of their plans—I guess they were dreams, really—their finding the best college and paying for it, dad finding an entry level position for me at Getty. It all amounted to a long sluice, pre-constructed, into which they poured me.”
Lance got the picture and took a hard look at his dad. So good at seeming, and for so long, he thought. “Wow,” is what he said.
“Wow, indeed,” his father replied with a sad smile.
“I didn’t know,” said Lance.
Dessert arrived. The richest chocolate cake Lance had ever tasted for his dad, strawberries and cream for himself. Another toast. The champagne spread a subtle glow through his arms and legs. He felt borderline giggly, but not really.
“So, when it comes to your career, Lance, when it comes to what you’re going to do with your life, I have two pieces of advice, and please heed them. Please.”
Lance said nothing, but looked intently at his father.
“My first advice is this: Discover for yourself, or decide, what you really want to do. What is it that you love doing, more than anything else—and I wouldn’t be so surprised if I knew what that was.
“My second advice is this: Find someone to pay you for doing it.”
Which is exactly what Lance had done.
His father had been quite right, he had known what that something was: Lance, for as long as he could remember, had loved to draw things, and later on to paint them. He had no trouble heeding his father’s first advice, he knew exactly what he really wanted to do, what he loved doing more than anything else.
The problem was finding someone to pay him for doing it.
Which is why he later found himself in New York, working on precisely that. After a fashion. He had been accepted at the Pratt Institute. His father was sending him all that he could spare, and along with a token Getty scholarship to pay room and board, his ends mostly met.
Life in New York consisted largely of charcoal drawings and canned food. And of the occasional, insignificant exhibition.
Once their bruised heads and his lip had healed, he got around to showing Faith his drawings. She took a long time leafing through his portfolio, saying nothing, but she knew, almost from the first glance, that she was looking at good art, true art. Lance was, she thought—and she never deserted that conviction—a genius.
She told him.
From that point forward, following his heart grew a little easier.
Faith also told him she would not rest until he was a household name. Strangely enough, she was a business major, with an accounting degree, working as the controller of a small art house in the Village. She made Lance her mission.
To be honest, he never did become a household name, but he certainly never starved either. They lived well, eventually moved out to Long Island, where he set up his studio and she arranged exhibitions, promoted his work, and managed his affairs.
His dad had come back east from Los Angeles to live with them for the last three years of his life. A proud and happy father. As heartfelt thanks, Lance and Faith had bought him a seaworthy, though not too large, sailboat to keep him busy. Yes, they could afford it, said Faith, and Lance was probably as happy about that as his father was, if not happier.
And it was his dad’s love of the water and seaworthy sailboats that had pointed them both seaward.
And for years—especially after his dad had passed away—when Lance was not actively working on something, or exhibiting, they would take the boat and head out for a couple of days, or weeks: for some glorious space, as Faith liked to put it.
“Yes,” he told Whalefriend. “Yes, I have followed my heart. Thanks to my dad, I have followed my heart.”
“Of course,” she said. “Of course you have.”
The thought of Faith, blond and freckled owner of regal profile, still lingered. He could see her eyes, squinting as they followed the mainsail rising into the sun, and her smile, just so glad to be right here right now, doing just this thing, looking back over at him, wasn’t life wonderful, and did I have the jib ready to go? How will she find out? How will she ever find out what happened?
“You have placed personal integrity above gain and comfort,” said Whalefriend.
He did not catch that. Faith intervening. “Sorry?”
“You have placed personal integrity above gain and comfort,” she repeated. Again, not really a question that nonetheless invited an answer.
Had he? He had to think about that. He scanned his life as honestly as he could, and saw that yes, yes, she was right about that, too. “I guess that would be a true statement,” he said.
Whalefriend nodded, and smiled her albatross smile. Widewing nodded too.
And it was Widewing who spoke next, “Then, just like gravity makes sure that what you drop will plummet, you get to be an albatross.”
“Those are the rules,” said Whalefriend.
“More like natural law,” said Widewing.
“Natural laws are rules,” said Whalefriend.
“You make it sound like a reward,” said Lance.
“It is a reward,” they both looked at him and spoke in unison.
“Really,” said Whalefriend, “trust me. It is a reward.”
“But,” Lance had trouble making sense of what he was hearing, “What do you mean, ‘natural law?’ I’ve never heard of such a thing. Neither has anybody else that I can think of.”
“We’ve heard of it,” said Widewing. “And, you’re here, aren’t you?” And winked, actually winked with his left eye.
“How is becoming an albatross a reward?” Lance wanted to know.
“That is for us to know and for you to find out,” said Widewing.
“No, seriously,” said Lance.
“Seriously,” said Widewing.
Lance looked to Whalefriend for help, but she just smiled, agreeing with her husband, “Seriously.”
Two weeks later he was an albatross.
Lance, the albatross. A white and fluffy bundle of bird with a sharp, yellow beak, looking out through deep brown eyes. And very much starving.
He was sitting up in the nest, getting bearings. Still tired from fighting his way out of the egg, which had been a bit of an ordeal. Whalefriend to his left, a large, a protective tower, while Widewing, to his right, was busy clearing out the final fragments of his shelly, now defunct, prison.
“See,” said Whalefriend. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“Easy for you to say,” he said.
It had been no park-walk. Getting out of the egg had neither been easy nor pleasant. Not that he was claustrophobic or anything, but that thing was a tight spot. And who would have thought eggshell could be so tough. Good thing his beak was strong and that his one overriding instinct had been unfailing: to get out!
Looking back, he had less of a problem remembering entering Lance the albatross than exiting Lance the painter. It’s about time now, Widewing had said. You’ve got to get in there.
“Same as always.”
And he had thought himself inside that large egg sweltering underneath that so much larger bird, and there he was, pitch-black and warm. Comfortable in fact, if a little constrained, or not so little.
It was all there: chest, head, legs, beak, but most of all arms, well, wings now. They, even inside the egg, were the predominant feature of this new person. As if they were the person, like the head is normally felt as the human person. As if the wings were the seat of the spirit, not the head. That was his first impression, anyway. That and hunger.
His second impression was that he was larger than that, not constrained to the wings: that he filled the entire bird evenly. That he resided throughout: in the feet, in the legs, in the chest, in the heart, in the lungs, in the head, in the wings, and damn it, he was hungry.
And not only that, it was as if he were involved throughout, with the heart and its beating—he was beating the heart, he realized, it was not on automatic; with the lungs and their breathing—he was doing the breathing; with the many millions of chemical reactions that broke down and built up proteins to form muscle, enzyme reactions, the lot.
Being an albatross was apparently very much a hands-on proposition. This was being the car you drove as opposed to being hauled around by it; and damn it, he was really hungry.
Too damn hungry to stick around, which was when he discovered the strength of his beak and the brittleness—at first deceiving blush anyway—of the shell. He gave it a strong chip with the top of his beak and it cracked a little, sounded like. So far so good. He pecked at it again, and another crack by the sounds of it. Ah, this was easy. Then again, and again. But that was it, the shell gave no further. Suddenly black turned to gray as Whalefriend got off to see what the fuss was all about. It got colder too, and damn it, he was hungry.
Lance had to take a break, and the darkness and warmth returned as Whalefriend placed herself on the egg again. For the next several hours he slept on and off but mostly just rested to summon more strength, then he started to chip away again at the egg from the inside. This time for real. He had to get out of there. He was star-ving.
It was not easy work. He had no way of telling for sure, but it took him over forty-eight hours to daylight. Two days of pecking and fighting and resting and pecking and sleeping and fighting and wondering whether these shells could actually be ruptured from the inside. By him.
Whalefriend seemed to think so, for as soon as she realized that he had begun his escape in earnest, she started coaching him from the outside, at least that’s the word that came to mind. Lots of motherly you-can-do-its and that’s-the-ways to keep him at it.
And finally, finally: fresh air, light fresh air. A small hole, to be sure, but large enough to wonder through: perhaps Whalefriend could give him a hand here, yes? But that was not something she deigned to answer. This was his task, apparently. No one else’s. No outside interference, or help. Only encouragement, mostly from Whalefriend with the occasional attaboy from Widewing.
And the egg did not lie down and die just because it had ruptured. It took him another twelve hours of sometimes near-frenzied effort to pick himself free of the thing. Who would have thought.
When he finally stepped out he was so tired that he nearly collapsed; no, he did collapse, and damn it he was hungry. He rested for a while, then opened his eyes again, filled his lungs with victorious air and looked around to get his bearings.
“See,” said Whalefriend. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“Easy for you to say,” he said.
“Like never before,” he said.
“Okay, we’ll get you something.”
“I take it I can’t get it myself.”
“You take it correctly,” she said.
Widewing removed the last little pieces of shell, and then looked down at him, grinning. Fit for a cigar. “There you are.”
“You guessed it.”
“Well, I remember,” he said.
“You be off, then,” said Whalefriend.
“Yes,” said Widewing, and off to a running start down the slope to catch some air. He rose slowly and with effort into the breeze, but soon caught a stronger wind and sailed away out over the sea looking for food. For Lance the albatross. And that was a good thing, for, damn it, he had never known hunger like this.
Faith did not find out for months. She actually never really found out, but she nonetheless knew by the lack of information.
By their most conservative estimate—allowing for many things to go wrong—they would reach Manukau Harbor in Auckland by the end of March.
By the first week in April she was concerned. Lance was not only a good sailor but an excellent navigator to boot, and Tom and Adam comprised a first-rate crew. Adam’s late arrival would not have been a factor—he was the best helmsman Lance knew, and when Faith had to stay behind he had been glad to have him aboard. Together, they made a fine team, and Faith could not recall Lance ever missing an ETA.
When by mid-April there was still no word, she contacted the Harbor Authority at Manukau. No, not a sign, not a word. And no—she had to ask—no distress calls either.
Well, that was something anyway.
But by the end of April she knew, viscerally, that something terrible had in fact taken place. They were probably lost. Or, or—a spider’s strand of hope—they were wrecked someplace remotely, without boat, without radio, without shelter.
That, of course, was most likely nonsense. Still, it was not an impossibility.
Her friends, increasingly sympathetic as the wordless days wore on, pretended to agree that there was still hope. They must be stranded somewhere. They were fixing the radio, would be able to transmit soon. Then another day. Then another. Tom’s wife called every day to see if she had any news; Adam’s sister, too. She had none. And then she stopped kidding herself. Lance was gone.
Lance was hungry. Constantly.
Had it not been for the skuas swooping about looking for quick meals—Lance potentially being one of them—he would have requested, no, demanded, that his, well, parents now, he guessed, take off for food together—to double his fare; but—as they had to inform him more than once—one of them had to stay with him for protection or the hunting predators would get him in an instant. Already he had seen a neighboring bird wander too far from the nest while her mate was away, and in a flash of brown swooping feather and white fluffy down the chick was gone, now screaming in pain and outrage as the skua took to the air with it in its claws, all the while the luckless parent still furiously waddled toward the nest to close the barn door.
Bad way to go.
So for now—Whalefriend said that in a month or so he will have grown too large for the skuas to dare bother with, and then they would both forage for him—it was a matter of enduring the hunger and waiting, waiting, waiting, while either Widewing or Whalefriend scoured the ocean for food and the other stood guard, snapping at the low-flying skuas now and then to keep them honest. Patience, said Widewing, in a fatherly way that spoke of experience, is your best practiced virtue.
He grew amazingly fast. He was probably close to a pound when he finally broke out of the shell, a week later twice that, five pounds by the end of the following week, and by the end of the third week he was the size of the average barnyard fowl, already too large for the skuas to carry away. After a month—as Whalefriend had promised—he was big enough to fight back should a skua try anything, and now Widewing and Whalefriend felt safe in leaving him to his own devices as they both set out to still their son’s voracious appetite. For his hunger, though a little mellower now, remained a steady, and very insistent, companion.
As the days grew shorter and the storms with their driving rains more frequent, both heralding winter, he grew a second coat of down, grayish and very dense, to keep him warm in the absence of a brooding parent to cover or shield him.
With Lance Youngbird quite safe now, Widewing and Whalefriend could take a little time to see to their own needs as well, and their seagoing flights grew in length until they now only stopped by perhaps once a day, delivering good-sized fish or large chunks of cuttlefish.
“Winter’s coming,” said Whalefriend one day. “You’ll see less and less of us. But don’t worry, you’re fat enough, and you’ll be warm enough.”
“Are you guys leaving?” he wanted to know.
“No, not leaving, but we may only stop by once a week or so. We’ll spend more time north of here where the storms are not so severe.”
He had more questions, but Whalefriend was off again, waddling down the slope with speed into a gust of wind which brought her airborne and away. She did not look back as she soared out over the wild, gray ocean.
By June the snows came and true to their word, he only saw his parents perhaps once a week, if that. Luckily though, he was now as large as Widewing, and almost half again as heavy, mainly with all the fat he had stashed to keep him alive through worse and worse weather and more infrequent feedings. There were days when no bird could have landed on the island, the winds were too erratic. There were other days when the driving rain or snow would have made the landing difficult at best. But when they could—or felt like it, he sometimes thought—either Widewing or Whalefriend would stop by with a morsel.
Snow continued to fall and drift and it soon covered the ground all the way up to the top of the nest, where he now hunkered down, warm within his down coat, and, yes, of course, still hungry, always hungry. His new way of life.
The next few months were not all that pleasant. Well, they were not unpleasant either. Hard to hang an accurate label on them, actually, for (truth be told) he took a lot of naps. The months flew by in a sort of intermittent hibernation with lots of snow.
Lance had no idea that down could be that insulating. It must have been thirty below the better part of the time, and even adding another twenty degrees for wind-chill he still felt quite cozy (between naps) watching the storms rage and waters froth, and then back to dozing, dreaming, sleeping, while he slowly ate away at the fat he had stored, only occasionally replenished by a visiting parent.
By October, spring not far away, his heavy down coat began to dissipate and real feathers, strong, beautiful primaries and dense secondaries, revealed themselves. He stretched his wings—part feather, part fluff still—and found them to be almost as wide as Widewing’s, at least from where he was sitting.
With a diminishing supply of fat, his old pal hunger returned with new vigor and resolve, while the food delivery service grew more and more sporadic. His parents were making a point and he was getting it: it would soon be up to him to feed himself. It was time he learned how to fly.
By November he had begun to practice. This was not—as he had thought, and hoped—a matter of stretching your wings and taking to the air. He was not a normal bird, say a swallow or a hawk, he was a glider—and a glider with very wide, and not a little cumbersome, wings. Also, his wing muscles were still weak and would take a lot of strengthening before he would be ready to fly. So he would spread his wings and flap them as his constant exercise as he waddled (there was no other word for it, no matter how ungraceful it made him feel, he was definitely waddling).
As his wings—he thought of them as long, narrow sails—gained in strength, he could unfold and flap them more easily, though he still tired too soon.
More waddling and flapping. Pushups came to mind, about as thrilling.
Widewing interrupted his exercise with one of his infrequent stops, this time empty-handed.
“How are you coming along?”
“Oh, you know, finding my wings.”
Lance spread his wings, and held them fully spanned, as still as he could—a sign of strength, he hoped. Widewing waddled around him, inspecting them, nodding. “As wide as mine,” he said finally. “Expected no less,” he added.
“You think so?”
“Perhaps even larger,” said Widewing.
“Well, I am Widewing, Junior, after all.”
Lance tucked his wings back in: it was still a bit of a strain to keep them spanned.
“They’re easier to span in the air,” said Widewing, noticing. “There’s no steady wind here to keep them up. Also, in the air you’ll be able to lock your elbows in place.”
“Yes. They click in place and stay spanned. Like having fixed wings.”
“That’s really something.”
“Yes, it is.”
Lance brought out his wings again, flexed them.
“But don’t try that down here,” said Widewing. “They’re almost impossible to disengage on the ground.”
Lance tucked them back in.
“Even I find them heavy down here,” said Widewing.
“You do?” said Lance. Then, “Do you think they’re strong enough?”
“I think it’s worth a try,” said Widewing
And so, while his dad watched, Lance Youngbird unfolded his wings to their full extent again, held them spanned, turned into the wind and beat them a few times before he sprang off the ground, and damned if he didn’t stay aloft for, well, at least five seconds. Wright Brothers came to mind. When he landed—not gracefully—Widewing smiled. “I am not going to worry about you.”
“Mind you, it will take a while before your wings are strong enough, and before you get the hang of it, but you’ll fly soon enough.”
“Soon enough not to starve to death first?” said Lance.
Widewing ignored that. “You should go a little further up the slope,” he said, “where the ground is steeper. Then you can get more of a running start. That’ll make it easier.”
“And, yes, I came to tell you,” said Widewing, “I’m not returning this year.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m taking a sabbatical. I won’t be back here for a year, and when I come, you will be off on your own somewhere else.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that we may not see each other for a few years.”
Lance was not quite ready to understand this. “How many are a few?”
“That depends on how long your passage is.”
“Your leaving this island for your own territories.”
“I can’t stay here?”
“You don’t want to.”
And in his heart Lance knew that Widewing was right. He could feel a thirst, a thirst deeper than though not unlike his hunger, that craved the open sea, strong winds, and altitude.
“But we’ll see each other again. That I know.”
“Are you leaving? Now?”
“As good a time as any. Bye Son.”
Still catching up with events, Lance heard himself reply, “Bye Dad.”
And with that Widewing turned into the wind and had soon sailed out of sight. Lance would not see him again for eight years.
It took the rest of November and half of December to get the art of flying down. Again and again he would waddle up the slope, to where the grass ceased to grow, then turn into the wind, spread his wings and then run a few steps to pick up speed to then, beating hopefully, launch himself into the air. For a few seconds at first, ending clumsily, then for a few seconds more, almost flying, ending mostly tail over beak, and finally, gliding all the way down the slope, over the nest and towards the sea, ending, well, interestingly.
But by the end of December he knew flying—he had already forayed out over the ocean a few times, not too far off, mind you, without a problem, and he had discovered that his wings could in fact lock into place once the wind carried him, held spanned with no effort at all—it was the landing that bothered him. His decidedly undignified crash-landings: there was something very unpoetic about it. There had to be a better way.
He set out to find it.
Whalefriend was back the very day he perfected it. He spotted her by their nest from out over the sea as he approached the island fully spanned. He then reefed his wings by pulling them in a little to lose altitude and then, within feet from the nest, extended his wings again and turned back into the wind. Then he quickly cupped his wings to catch more wind, an effective break: he came to an almost standstill in the air, inches off the ground, and then settled gracefully.
Whalefriend was impressed, if not amazed. “Well, I never,” she said.
“Pretty good, huh?” said Lance.
“I have never seen that done before.”
“A matter of timing,” he answered. “And cupping.”
“Did you show Widewing?” she wondered, then seemed to remember that he had been off for a while already. A shadow crossed her gentle eyes.
“He’s gone,” said Lance.
“Yes, I know. I remember.”
“I’ve never seen that done before,” said Whalefriend again after a while, still a little stunned. “Would you teach me?”
And before Lance took to the air for good, for his passage, he also taught most of his friends—same-year adolescents, some of whom had observed his new technique come to fruition with not quite disparaging comments, others in quiet awe—how to land with grace. Even some of the older birds, as they arrived back for the new mating season, saw and joined his classes.
One day Whitewing came over to watch—though he did not participate—and he seemed quite pleased with what he saw.
And that was how Lance Youngbird got his real name even before he left for his passage, a thing unheard of. Whitewing proclaimed it after watching him land a few times, effortlessly and gracefully: Lander.
At first, Lance wasn’t so sure he liked that name. Perhaps he was a little vain, for he would rather be known for his span, like Widewing (although that name was taken, of course), or for something to do with altitude. He mentioned this to Whalefriend, who must have passed his feelings on to Whitewing, for the old bird called Lance to him one day.
“You don’t like the name I gave you,” he said. “You don’t like Lander.” His eyes so dark they were black.
“It’s not that I don’t like…” Lance began, but Whitewing’s still, wise gaze made him stop.
“Let me tell you a story,” said Whitewing. And he did.
This was the story:
“When we first took to the air we were grace on wings, the freest of birds. We rode the storms with ease and alighted just as gracefully, whether on water or land.
“And Glider was our king, the best flier of all. His wings were so strong that he could rise with a single beat. They were so wide some say they once took him to the moon. His eyes were so sharp they could see the wind and know exactly when to reef, when to span, when to bank and turn. He danced the sky. He knew how to fly, like no one before him, like no one since.
“But as sometimes happens with the best, they grow a little vain. Sometimes they thirst for awe and admiration more than for food, and Glider was no exception.
“After many years of this—of Glider increasingly, in essence, showing off—some universal irony with a sense of balance (some say it was the Creator himself, or at least a not too distant relative) had seen enough of this and decided to clip his wings a little—well, figuratively speaking, more like clip his pride.
“And this is what happened: while Glider’s next son could fly as well as any of them, he could not land to save his life. Every time a debacle. And no matter how Glider tried to teach his son (who some suggested should be named Faller) to land, he could not master it. Neither could his next two daughters, nor his next three sons. All were apparently incapable of proper landings.
“Now, some will tell you that by only practicing flying we forgot how to land, but I believe the story. I think there was another hand in it, one with a sense of humor.
“One day, Glider, in an attempt to save what was left of his face, proclaimed: we are fliers, not landers. Birds are made to fly, not to land. Who cares how we land? It is an overvalued skill. It’s really not a skill at all, it’s gravity. We get down when we have to, that’s what matters. We are made to fly, not to land.
“And, to prove his point, the next time Glider landed, he landed as clumsily as his youngest sons.
“And because he still was the king, and because you should listen to your king, and—mostly, I think—because they did not want to embarrass him and his sons and daughters, others began to neglect their landings too, trying to land as clumsily as Glider. And after a while, a few generations later perhaps, we succeeded.”
“Is that true?” Lance wanted to know.
“As true as anything,” said Whitewing.
“Anybody could have figured out how to land,” Lance said.
“Yes, I know. I can see that,” said Whitewing. “But you were the one who did it.”
When Lance said nothing, Whitewing added, “In a way you have restored our heritage, Lance Youngbird, and I for one can think of no finer name for you. I would be very happy, and proud, if you would accept it.”
Then Lander said, “I can think of no finer name either.”
Faith sold their house on the Island and moved to the City. For one, it was too large for her alone, much; and for the other it was Lance’s house: he had found it, he had wanted it, he had begged her to figure out how they would afford it (and she confirmed that they could, just)—he had reveled in it; and he was still there, in every room, whenever she let herself drift, even a little. She would find him in the kitchen, stir-frying his rice and tofu dish and turning to smile at her when she opened the door, the wooden wedge he used for a spatula in hand. He would sit on the living room floor listening to his Shostakovich, or Phish, or Keith Jarrett, not even looking up when she entered, away somewhere on the music. And most of all, he would be in the studio, standing back from the canvas, palette in hand, paints all over his fingers, regarding the emerging picture with more than his eyes. He permeated the house and for her own peace of mind, if not sanity, she would have to be the one to leave, because he wasn’t about to.
With the proceeds from the sale, she bought a fifth-floor loft in the Village, along with ample first-floor gallery space, where she established a permanent exhibition of Lance’s work.
Sadly—and all too damn typically, thought Faith—now that it was more or less confirmed that Lance was lost at sea, his work had soared in value, and kept rising. No more where that had come from. Supply and demand. She disliked the principle but she wasn’t stupid.
He rose into the force seven wind. Below him the gray-black sea rolled in long swells, echoes of a recent gale. The waves peaked about two hundred feet apart slanting into fifteen-foot troughs, skimmed by streaks of foam. He reached his gliding altitude of 50-some feet and surveyed the water. Here, of course, there was nothing but. Well, that and space. And wind. And time to think.
Lander, who found it very convenient, now that he had gotten used to it, that his two names, Lance—whom he still remembered being, of course, well still was, actually, and Lander—whom he still, to be honest, after nearly two years, was getting used to being, began with Lan (just one of those little things to occupy you as you circumnavigate the world), again scoured the shifting surface for food. He especially kept a close eye on the rising back of the long waves where morsels appeared more often. Cuttlefish, small squid, just about anything near or on the surface, would do. All edible, palatable. And at the welcome flash of squid or mollusk, he would dive downwind, bank back into the wind at the surface and settle—careful not to wet the soft under-feathers of his wings, which he loathed even to dampen—close enough to his meal to reach it with his beak, snatch it, swallow, let it settle for a moment, then into the wind and off again. He was good at it. Rarely hungry nowadays.
He had left Norton’s Rock behind only a few days after receiving, and then accepting, his name from Whitewing, and after saying goodbye to Whalefriend. She was not going to brood this year, she told him, since Widewing was away, and, no, she was not going to mate with anyone else—of course not, a little indignantly.
“Whalefriend,” he said. “I still remember.”
“Lance. I remember being Lance, the painter,” he said. “Is that normal?”
“That’s what we do, Lander,” she answered. “That’s the gift nature has handed us: We remember.”
“Our last life?”
“So, you remember your last life?”
“Who were you?”
“Graybreast? That’s another albatross?”
“But you do remember?”
“And before that?”
“Yes. I confess. I dove once, for a squid that looked too delicious to give up. As you know,” she added, “we don’t dive.”
“But you were another albatross.”
“Wasn’t Whitewing named Diver?” Lander suddenly recalled.
“Yes,” she said. “But this was before his time.”
“Ah.” Then, “How far back do you remember?”
“To my last human life,” she said.
“You lived a human life?” A little incredulous.
“We all did.”
That didn’t quite register. Instead he said, “When was that?”
“It was eight birds ago,” she said. “That’s a long time.”
“Do you remember who you were then? As a human?”
Lander said nothing, waiting for Whalefriend to continue.
“I died a young girl in Southern India. About nine. I had not lived a life yet, barely started. But what there was of it was wonderful. I had loving parents, with big plans for me. I was not to be married away to serve some fat man all my life, said mother. I was to become myself, a woman, a person. And my father agreed. This was not very common then.”
“When was this?”
“I died in 1562.”
“And you’ve been eight different birds since?”
“This is my eighth,” she said.
“But that means that you must have lived to be, on the average… how old are you now?”
“That means that you must have lived, on the average . . .” he started again.
“Nearly sixty years, yes.”
“We all get that old? I thought Whitewing was perhaps a miraculous exception.”
“Not really,” she said. “He’s old, but not uncommonly. We didn’t tell you?”
“No,” said Lander. Then, “So we all live as long as humans?”
“Well,” said Whalefriend. “We are humans, are we not?”
Then it registered. “Everyone?”
“Yes, Lander. Yes—everyone.”
His head was reeling a little. “Did someone find you? Like Widewing found me?”
“And brought you here?”
“Not this very island, no. But a place like it, yes.”
“But how? I mean, we don’t fly as far north as India.”
“I drowned, Lander. As a little girl, I drowned in the ocean and traveled the dark waters south into our region. There I surfaced and hovered, until someone found me.”
“You drowned,” said Lander. Then, “The rules.” It was more of an epiphany than a question.
“The rules,” confirmed Whalefriend.
“We have all drowned, as humans?”
“Each and every one,” she confirmed.
“But why?” said Lander. “What’s the point?”
“That, my dear Lander, is for each to find out.”
“And when we do?”
“When we do, we do,” she answered.
“Have you?” he wanted to know. “Found out?”
She hesitated, then said, “No. Not yet.”
When we do, we do, he thought again, high on a new wind, close to a force ten. He was well fed, content, and rising still. This day was a spectacle of turbulent water and roaring squalls. A dance, almost. He enjoyed this more than he could state, wings strong on the air, sensing all of air’s mysteries.
When we do, we do, he thought again. Each one of us a human. Each one of us drowned. And there was a point to it, that is what Whalefriend had more than implied. There was a point, a purpose, perhaps a message to be looked for and found.
And he had looked, and looked, and looked—for the air and the sea were quite conducive to philosophical introspection—but was not quite sure what, if anything, he had found. This, however, he did know: Being Lander, and being Lance—being both in fact, or both being the same—was, if not the point, at least a point. Remembering the earlier life this clearly, and with such certainty—it wasn’t even memory, he thought, it was knowing.
And perhaps that was the point. But then again, Whalefriend remembered too, and was looking still, at least from what she had told him.
He wished Widewing were here, he would like to hear his view.
Faith could find no peace.
The gallery was doing very well. “Booming” would be the popular expression. To such an extent, in fact, that she had had to hire a manager to run it and two additional staff to act as hosts and office girls and whatnots. And Lance’s paintings were still coveted, although she had raised their prices into the stratosphere to keep them from going too quickly. Still they sold, and with each new exhibition more buyers, from farther and farther away, arrived, checkbooks at the ready.
At the core of each exhibition was a set of beautiful sea studies, reminiscent of Turner, and these she refused to put a price to. They were not for sale. Still they received offers, some quite obscene. Lance was becoming legendary only five years after his death. She should have been—if not happy—at least satisfied that his life’s work, what he had managed to complete, was so appreciated. And that she had been right, of course: he was, had been, a genius. Her genius.
But there was no peace to be found there. Nor did she find peace in her books, or in music, or with her friends, many of whom urged her to remarry and get on with her life. She took none of them seriously. She was Lance’s wife still, the love of his life, and it was as if he were still alive, somewhere both far away and near.
That was when she cast her eye seaward. To the glorious space. She bought a small but well-built blue water boat, and had it rigged for solo-sailing.
She named it Lance.
And here, finally, miles from shore, and buyers, and friends, and people, here with only sky and water as companions she found it: a measure of peace.
And it was on such a sail, just as she completed a tack to starboard and the sails found the wind again with a satisfied groan, that she decided what to do. She would complete Lance’s voyage.
It was his sixth year away from Norton’s Rock. He had begun to contemplate breeding, but none too seriously. Just inklings from somewhere deep in his chest. Gentle little spurrings. Reminders perhaps: There is a tomorrow.
He sailed a fresh strong western wind toward a sun that had begun to set, scanning the waters below for food and the horizons for land he was expecting any day now. That’s when he saw another bird on the wing. Even from this distance he could tell that it was one of his own kind, a Wanderer. And, closer now—he was approaching—he thought he recognized him, and closer still, he did: It was Whitewing.
The older bird, not a dark feather to be seen, banked and now drifted up alongside Lander and said, “Let’s rest for a while.” With that he alighted gracefully among the whitecaps below. The swells were long, the wind a force four, perhaps five, and rising. Still, the surface comfortable enough for their kind. Lander followed.
“Lander,” he said.
“Whalefriend said you would have a question.”
“Whalefriend? I haven’t seen her in over five years.”
Lander recalled their parting conversation, as he had recalled it many times since. “Yes, she’s right,” he said. “I do have a question.”
It had found its final form over the years.
“Do you remember more than one human life?”
Whitewing didn’t answer for so long that Lander supposed he had not heard the question, and was about to repeat it when the older bird said:
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I cannot, no matter how hard I try, see beyond Lance.”
“But you see Lance clearly enough?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
“Of course you do,” agreed Whitewing.
“Shouldn’t I?” asked Lander, suddenly not sure what Whitewing actually meant.
“Yes, you should. That’s what we do.”
“Yes, Whalefriend told me.”
“She would have. She’s your mother,” said Whitewing.
Lander was waiting for more, but Whitewing remained silent.
“Do you?” said Lander finally. “I mean, do you remember more than one human life?”
Again, the older bird ignored his question. “No matter how hard you try, you say. Why are you trying so hard, Lander?”
“If I can see Lance from Lander, it only stands to reason that I should see before Lance as well. I mean, I must have existed prior to Lance.”
“Yes, it does agree with reason, doesn’t it? And I’m sure you did.”
“I’m sure, too.”
“But you cannot see beyond Lance?”
“No,” said Lander. “I cannot.” Then he asked for the third time, “Can you?”
But Whitewing seemed deaf to that question. “Why is this important to you?”
“To see beyond Lance?”
“Yes. You are Lander and you can see Lance. Is that not enough?”
“It is much,” agreed Lander. “A revelation, in fact.”
“Revealing what?” wondered the old bird.
“Continuity,” said Lander. It was the word he had arrived at. It was the truest one he could find.
Whitewing nodded his sage albatross head. “Continuity,” he said. “What a wonderful word you have settled on, Lander. And what a lonely word, with so much responsibility upon its solitary shoulders.”
“What do you mean?”
“Carrying the weight of such a long story, of so much life. It could do with a great deal of help, you know. From many other words. But this word that you found, Lander, seems to manage the job on its own. Continuity.”
“Well, it is, isn’t it? I am no different now than I was as Lance. I am still Lance. ”
“And you wonder who Lance in turn might have been?”
“Precisely,” said Lander.
“Do names really matter?”
The question took Lander by surprise. He had considered many angles of this continuity, but not this one. “No,” he said at length. “I guess not.”
“But person matters?”
“Who you were. The individual you were, prior to Lance. The self you were.”
“Yes, that would matter. That is what matters.”
“Why, Lander? Is that not simply another name?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is not the person, the self you were in times past, just another name?”
“No,” said Lander. “It is more than a name. The person is more than a name. The self Lance was, the person I was as Lance, was more than just a name. More than just the word, the name, the label ‘Lance.’ It was an identity. A full person whose one leg was slightly shorter than the other. It was my paint-stained fingers that I could never get quite clean. It was my love for Faith, and our times together in New York and on Long Island. It was being raised by my father, who gave so much that I would live my own life.”
“Adding up to what?” Whitewing wanted to know.
“Adding up to, well, the person. Who I was. The self. My identity.”
“And how is that different from a name?”
“A name is just a word, a few letters. A label.”
“Continuity is just a word. A few letters.”
Lander, too caught up in his own reasoning, did not catch the subtlety of that. Instead he said, “Identity is more than a word, it is the whole person. It is all the little things that are and all the little things that were. It is everything that adds up to, what comprises him. The name is just a label.”
“And identity is not a label?”
“How can identity be a label?”
“What does the name label?” asked the older bird.
“It labels the person, the identity.”
“Then tell me, who is it that the self labels?”
“The self doesn’t label. It is.”
Whitewing said, “Oh, don’t be so sure of that, Lander, son of Widewing.”
Lander looked at the older bird, snow-white and still. Even this close, he could see no brown in his black eyes. Whitewing suddenly seemed ancient to him, and Lander had to know: “Do you or don’t you remember beyond your last human life?”
Whitewing finally answered the question: “I do.”
When Lander could find nothing to say in reply, Whitewing repeated his question: “Please think on this a little deeper, Lander. Whom is it that the self labels? Whom does identity identify?”
Lander beheld the ancient bird for a long, quiet, slightly up and down with the swell, spell. Then he looked back upon his life as Lance the painter, then upon is life a Lander the albatross, and then back upon his painter life and then he nodded his head slowly.
“I see,” he said. “He who does the looking.”
Whitewing mimicked Lander’s grave nod, but said nothing. The wind had picked up a little and now shifted and danced and had begun to toss foam about. Everything was right with the world.
After a little, or not so little, while, Whitewing said: “Let us continue this conversation. But first, I need something to eat.” And with that he faced the wind, and lifted himself into its grip.
Lance’s original itinerary was straightforward enough. She knew it well. Indeed, she had helped him plan it: New York to Nassau to a week or so in San Juan to refit and restock, from there to Port of Spain to Cayenne to Salvador and Rio De Janeiro where they would haul her up to inspect the hull and ensure all was well before heading down into windier climes.
From Rio they would head straight south-southwest to Stanley in the Falklands, where they again had planned a refit, as needed, before heading east before the prevailing westerlies for South Georgia, Gough Island, Prince Edwards, Kerguelen Islands, for Saint-Paul, and from there a last leg to New Zealand and Manukau Harbor for an extended layover. Once rested and refit again, they would head up through the Pacific to the Panama Canal, and then back through the Caribbean and up to New York. A year, give or take. Lance, between paintings, had been planning and preparing it for three.
“Why wait?” she asked him at one point. “You know the route, and the boat is ready.”
“Dad once told me that you should figure on at least three years of preparations for a long cruise such as this. ‘Why at least three years?’ you ask.”
“Yes, I ask,” she said.
“He told me that preparations for a long cruise consists mainly of sailing your boat, a lot. Of getting used to her idiosyncrasies, and of giving all those things that are going to break the time to actually do so: so you can learn how to fix them, a little closer to shore than mid-ocean.”
“Ah,” she answered. Made sense.
Her only objection had been: why so far south, why into such weather?
Lance had grinned at that and puffed up his chest like a robin: a sailor’s route, when men were made of steel and their ships were made of wood. Then he added, on a serious note, that once in his life he wanted to sail before the prevailing westerlies of the roaring forties, aided by the current, to taste the route that the large sailing ships all took before the steam revolution so devalued the currency of trade winds.
She could see the thrill of that and she did, to be honest, look forward to it. Still—though they did not talk about it, at least not head on, as if that would jinx them—their chosen route did not guarantee success, not even survival. But that, she realized, was part of the thrill; and the roaring forties had a reputation and issued a challenge which could not be ignored by any true blue water sailor—Robin Redbreast again, and she had to smile.
They were to be three on the cruise. Lance, Faith, and Tom. Until Victor’s looming bankruptcy prompted her to stay, leaving room for Adam instead. Lance had then toyed with the idea of only bringing Tom—it would have worked, he said—but all their planning had been around a three-man crew, and since Adam could come, well, that settled it.
She studied her maps and charts carefully. Her intention was to retrace his steps, to give herself to the wind, to rush after him on the gales of the south. To return with the deed done, in honor of the best friend she had ever had. To put him to rest. To earn her peace.
And to do this on her own.
Those who lined up to dissuade her were legion. Friends mostly, some family. Tom’s wife, Lilly, was the only one who seemed to understand. Would she have been of any use at all, she said, she would want to come, but apart from being prone to seasickness, she couldn’t tell the front of a boat from the back of one, so she would be useless; in the way.
But, she understood, she said. And added that she wanted to follow Tom to wherever he had gone, too. Those were her words, which Faith—while measuring the distance from Saint-Paul to Manukau—did not entirely agree with: she had no intention of following Lance all the way. She wanted to complete him. To fulfill his intention—it had been a joint plan, after all—and to live to tell about it.
But alone? was the prevailing objection. That’s crazy.
Well, not quite as crazy as at first blush. Modern equipment made it almost feasible, in fact. Autopilots were now dependable, and riggings were easily run all the way back to the cockpit for one-man operation. Besides, this was something she had to do by herself. It restored some meaning to her life, gave her something to wake up into. Alived her, is how she thought about it: alived her.
Not even her father managed to talk her out of it.
He arrived one afternoon, unannounced and concerned. Came into the gallery, tall and thin.
“Dad? What are you doing here? Has something happened?”
“Something’s about to happen,” he said.
Claire, her assistant—who would be running the gallery in her absence—brought tea and scones.
“What’s about to happen?” she said once they were seated.
“I’m about to lose my daughter,” he said. Not one for mincing words.
“Seriously, chicken. I don’t like your scheme at all.”
“It’s not a scheme, it’s a cruise.”
“Cruises are made on large ships with more crew than passengers,” he said.
“Not this one.”
“I know. And that’s my point.” He looked at her with gray, searching eyes. “What will it take?”
“What will what take?”
“What will it take to make you drop it.”
“To not go?”
“To not go.”
“It will,” she said, and she meant it, “it will take bringing Lance back.”
“That,” he answered. “I cannot do.”
“I know that, Dad.”
“So, there’s no talking you out of this?”
“Well, so be it. I just wanted to see it for myself,” he said, and dropped the subject.
Both had their fill of little squid, enough to last the rest of the day and the night. These waters were fertile, especially this time of year.
They had settled again, riding the slow rising and falling of ocean. Neither said anything for a while, just feeling content with a belly full of food, the soothing rhythm of the sea, and the fresh wind that made the world such a pleasant place.
At length: “Did you leave someone?” Lander wanted to know.
“When you died, as a human, did you leave someone behind?”
“Ah,” said Whitewing. “That was a long time ago.”
“How many…?” began Lander.
“Four. This is my fourth life as albatross.”
“So,” said Lander, “it must have been at least two hundred years go.”
“Yes,” said Whitewing. “He will have forgotten by now.”
“I was a woman then.”
“Yes, of course.”
“We are sexless, at core, you know,” said the older bird.
“But,” said Whitewing, “I know the ache of missing. I thought of him often during my first passage.”
“I think of her often.”
“What was her name?”
“Faith. Still is, I suppose.”
“You loved her well,” said Whitewing. It was a statement.
“Yes, I did,” Lander said, then added, “How do you know, did Whalefriend tell you?”
“No,” he answered. “You graduated, that is proof enough.”
“Perhaps not the best word,” said Whitewing, “but it serves. You came to us, and that means that you must have loved honorably and truly.”
“The rules?” asked Lander.
“Yes, the rules,” said Whitewing.
“What exactly are the rules?” said Lander. “Where did they come from? Do you know?”
And when Whitewing didn’t answer right away, Lander added, “Who made them?”
“I don’t know who made them,” said Whitewing. “Perhaps we all did. Perhaps we all assembled sometime long ago and said: these are the rules of the game.”
“But they exist?”
“Quite. At least as far as I can tell.”
“Whalefriend told me, though not in so many words, that I am here now as a reward for a life well lived.”
“That seems to be part of the rules, yes.”
“And you used the term ‘graduate,’” said Lander.
“Yes, I did.”
“So, what can you tell me?” asked Lander. “Why did you seek me out?”
“Are you sure you can’t see past Lance?” asked Whitewing.
The short answer to that question was ‘yes,’ but there was a longer one. There were shadows.
After considering for a long moment, Lander said, “I cannot say I’m sure, at least not unequivocally.”
Whitewing regarded him, waiting for more.
“There are shadows cast upon the life of Lance, reflections of someone not Lance. Another identity. Other persons.”
Still Whitewing said nothing.
“There were times Lance knew, in his fingers, in his eyes, in his view of what he brought onto canvas, that he had done this before.”
Again, Whitewing said nothing more, leaving room for Lander.
“And when I, as Lander, looked back at those moments over these last few years, I could see, or at least glimpse, I thought, the former painter. Light-haired, short and stocky, but all painter.”
“Do you remember his name?”
“But you remember him?”
“No. I don’t remember him. I only glimpsed him. His shadow. An echo.”
And again, Whitewing’s silence invited elaboration.
“The way I loved Faith,” said Lander. “So deeply there was not a single part of me not involved in loving her, not filled with the love for her. And I knew the feeling, knew it to be ancient. I had had it before.”
“Who cast that shadow?”
“There were many who cast that shadow. But all indistinct, not memory, only shapes, moments, partings, seeings.”
“Other shadows?” wondered Whitewing again.
“None as evident,” said Lander.
“But others, still?”
“Yes. Shadows of shadows.”
“You are having a fruitful passage,” said Whitewing. “When do you think of returning?”
“I haven’t thought much about returning.”
“Well, you will one day, and then you should. Find yourself a mate, make room for other sailors.”
“I will be off now,” said Whitewing. “But we must continue this conversation.”
“Yes,” said Lander. “I would like that.”
They both swung back into the sky, and soon Whitewing was only a speck over the horizon, and then he was gone. Lander continued his passage.
Faith made it to Rio De Janeiro without incident.
The winter months can sometimes prove a challenge, even to an albatross. The winds often reach gale strength with waves measuring fifty or sixty feet, crest to trough. Streaks of race along the surface often soar to fill the air. The sea is violently alive.
Lander’s word for it: Invigorating.
By the seventh year of his passage, he could see wind. He could more than just see it. He could predict wind, how it would curl, where it would drag or slow the most against the water’s surface. How much a lower wind-layer would slow the layer above it. How rain would temper the sheer rage of gale. Wind, the whirling trillions of particled air, became his element, his universe, his dancing partner.
He remembered Widewing’s remark long ago that hovering above the surface, doing nothing, would bore him eventually, and he now realized how right his father had been. Doing nothing, no matter how pleasurable, could never compare with doing something, and this was really doing something. The wind shifted every moment, sometimes a little, calling for only minor adjustments, sometimes drastically, calling for a dive or a bank, or sudden change of direction, but always the new: the new already arrived and the new soon to come.
Flight was an exhilarating, constantly shifting dance. Of which sailing was but a pale shadow. Yes, he thought, this is what sailing aspires to. Harnessing and taming the wind. Any wind.
Faith sailed into Stanley Harbor on the brink of exhaustion. She had expected, and all conventional wisdom had predicted, a fairly steady north-westerly wind all the way from Rio to the Falklands, but the uninformed winds would not conform to human predictions. Instead of reaching her abeam or on her starboard quarter, which she had prepared for, she found that she had to sail more or less into it for the better part of the long, grueling way. And these winds were not light.
She had slept very little, straining at the helm with a close starboard reach, or even beat, for most of the long leg. True, she had made good speed, but at the expense of sleep or even rest. She felt like stone.
The harbormaster, a substantial man named Winston (she never sorted out whether this was his first or his last name), gave her a hand tying up her boat, then helped her ashore. He had planned to invite her for a warm meal of welcome, but one glance at her told him all he needed to know, and he quickly arranged for transport to the hospital, where she remained for the better part of two weeks, mostly sleeping.
Lander spotted Whitewing miles away. He was a graceful flier, barely a flicker of wing while he rose, glided, dove, and banked. And not a speck of black. A snow-bird, ancient and noble. He saw Lander’s approach and settled on the surface. Lander settled beside him.
“I want to continue our conversation,” said Lander.
“I’ve been expecting you,” said Whitewing.
“Do whales remember?” asked Lander.
“Not past their current life,” answered the older bird.
“And men don’t,” this was a statement.
“No,” said Whitewing, “men don’t.”
“Only the albatross remembers,” said Lander. A question.
“Only the albatross remembers,” said Whitewing.
Whitewing took his time to reply.
The harbormaster did his best to dissuade Faith from continuing her voyage, but once he saw that he could not stop her, he helped her ready the boat for the extended leg to Auckland, via the islands she mentioned.
“Some of them are not populated,” he warned.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
She motored out of Stanley harbor, then caught the westerly, and before long the islands were only a disturbance of her aft horizon, then just memory.
“To be perfectly honest, I am not sure,” begun Whitewing. “We are either the final step the earthly spirit takes, or the first.”
Lander said nothing, just regarded Whitewing with his own dark, attentive eyes.
“Only the albatross remembers,” the old bird said again. “Only the albatross. Why would that be a reward? What gift does this memory give?” he asked.
“Certainty,” said Lander, who had pondered memory at length over the last year.
“Yes,” said Whitewing, “that is the gift. The reward for a life—or many lives—well lived. To remember past death and birth. To know that you are not of the flesh.”
“That is a beautiful certainty,” said Lander again.
“Yes, it is a beautiful certainty,” affirmed Whitewing.
“It is as if we are Earth’s heaven,” said Lander.
“Or Earth’s exit,” said Whitewing.
When Lander said nothing, Whitewing went on. “I remember each of my four albatross lives in clear detail. It is as if they were one life, as if death were only a shallow bruise, soon healed.
“I also remember many of my human lives clearly—as if they too were one life, extending back into history, extending forward into albatross—each me, just a different day in different clothing. Each iteration just another label.”
“Another label,” said Lander, mostly to himself.
“And I know,” said Whitewing after a pause, “that were I to remain albatross forever I would eventually remember forever.”
“Is that your plan?” wondered Lander.
“No,” said Whitewing. “No. I plan to leave.”
“Where will you go?”
“I am not yet sure. But I am sure that just as earlier human lives now cast a shadow upon the memory of Lance, so do earlier worlds now cast a shadow upon the memory of Whitewing.”
“Other oceans?” said Lander.
“Other winds,” said Whitewing. “Lighter, stronger, alive with certainty.” Then Whitewing looked Lander directly in the eyes. “I long for them sometimes, and although they are as yet only whispers, I know they are true. I just don’t know, yet, how to reach them.”
“That, then, is perhaps the lesson we have to learn,” said Lander. “How to reach other oceans.”
“Yes,” Whitewing replied. “I believe that is the lesson we are meant to learn.”
“Are there not others?” asked Lander.
“There was one, when I was what you are now,” said Whitewing.
“And you had conversations with him?”
“Yes, I did.”
“And he told you?”
“What I’m telling you now.”
“What happened to him?”
“He saw one more albatross life, but never returned from his passage. His final passage.”
“You think he had learned the lesson?”
“I am sure of it.”
“His final passage,” said Lander. The words rang true. “And you,” he asked of the white bird, “do you think your next passage will be your final one?”
“I hope so.”
“Then I hope so, too,” said Lander.
The two birds, Lander the larger of the two, Whitewing brilliant in spotless white, rode the dark ocean side by side for a long, silent while. Then Whitewing stirred.
“I am hungry,” he said, and turned into the wind. “Fly well,” he cried back to Lander.
“Fly well,” Lander replied into the air. And that was the last time Lander saw the old, white bird.
Faith thanked God that she had slept as much as she had at the Stanley hospital, for now sleep was nearly impossible. The westerlies and the current rushed the boat onward at speeds it was simply not built for. And there was no letting up. For twelve days and twelve nights straight, she had run before a force eight wind, sometimes nearly surfing on the long, majestic swell which never quite broke into storm. A hurried sea under constant wind. Conducive to sailing—and the first few days had been sheer joy—but not to rest. Even with the autopilot set, and it worked flawlessly, the motion of the boat was such, so agitated, and so inconstant, that after only a few minutes of exhausted sleep, she was again jerked awake and alive to the forward rush of her little craft.
On the fourteenth day the storm finally did break, and five hours into it—the day had turned night with black cloud and raging spray—Faith knew that she was not going to see it through. No single sailor could.
Lander saw the storm gather on his southern horizon. An angry weather system approaching from the Antarctic, looking more like something released from captivity than a force of nature.
Within hours the winds changed direction and picked up considerably. The sea turned from westerly swell to caldron. It was going to be a fierce one, and Lander rose to higher altitudes to ride this one out.
Five hours into the storm he saw the boat, so small among the towering water it looked like something thrown overboard from something larger. The boat struck him as seaworthy enough, but not rigged—or manned, he could only see one sailor—to cope with this weather. The helmsman, when he would glimpse him in his yellow oilskin, was struggling to keep the boat into the wind, facing the crashing waves. One mistake, and he remembered all too well, and it would be over for the little craft.
What was he doing here anyway, in these latitudes? And alone.
Was there really only one man aboard her? He dove downwind to take a closer look, and banked around the boat within feet. The sailor, intent on keeping the boat afloat, still could not help but notice him, and for a second he turned his face to look at the enormous bird that appeared out of nowhere in this fury of a storm.
And the bird saw the sailor. Then faced the wind and soared up into the angry sky.
Out of nowhere, as large almost as a sail, banking nearly vertically, black eyes looking right at her.
Although she had been on the lookout for them, especially since leaving Stanley, she had seen none. And this was not the moment she had expected to. But here he was, gigantic and near, in the worst storm she had ever faced, and then he was gone, up into the racing clouds.
The distraction proved almost fatal. She took the next wave on her starboard bow and it almost rolled her over. In the last moment the ballast proved just that much stronger than the tilting force and the boat righted herself again.
When the bird appeared again she did not dare look in its direction, for another wave was coming. She just knew he was there, and knew he was looking at her. A large, feathery presence.
It was her profile. It was her profile. He dove for a third time, to make sure. And now that he knew what to look for, one glimpse was enough. He was certain.
And he also saw that she was not going to see this storm through. He doubted any single sailor could.
He rose again, and now stayed aloft, following the small boat as best he could. He realized that no matter how much he might want to help, there was of course nothing he could do, and he also knew that his appearance had distracted her. She needed all of her focus on the boat, on the sea, on survival.
Then he could no longer find her.
It was curious, she thought. She had always imagined that death would hurt, but it hadn’t. Not much anyway. And now she was watching the boat and the yellow oilskins, her body within them, still strapped to the cockpit, disappear below her into the darker, deeper water.
And she should have been afraid of this eternal wetness, she thought, but it did not appear as threat to her, but as beauty. Then the water seemed to calm; the schools of fish that had danced around her settled down into longer and more stately formations, and she began to rise. Toward lighter and lighter water and then, into air.
The sun was out, the waters calm now, well, by comparison anyway, and she found herself hovering perhaps three feet above the huge, undulating surface.
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 her 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. She 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 her now, still descending. She could make out a head, eyes looking down to see nothing but water. No boat. No her 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 she was sure, definitely, and what a sight: the Wandering Albatross, just like the one, the one in the storm.
As he gracefully met the water and settled by her, he felt strangely familiar.
“Faith,” it said.
She should have been surprised.
“Faith,” he said again. “You’re gonna love this.”