Wanderer and Sailor
By Peter Nolan
They had spent all of their lives comfortably on board the ship. They each had their own cabin and their meals were regularly served three times a day. Cook quickly discovered appetite encouraging foods and, most days, they enjoyed their lessons.
Sometimes Cook was their teacher. Helmsman prepared their meals as she taught them what she knew of navigation by stars, to hold a course, how to tell the time by the sun and moon, how to listen to the wind in the sails, and how to hold a fishing rod with their toes as they steered the ship.
Sometimes Helmsman taught them. Cook steered as he taught them how to clean and fillet a fish, how to protect their skin from the sun, how to mend a sail, how to hold a fishing rod with their toes as they stirred a pot of crab and oyster stew. He taught them to keep an eye on the horizon for other ships so that they may trade and swap stories. He answered all their questions until he happily bumped the edge of his knowledge with a smiling ‘I don’t know’.
The young sailors learned to call dolphins to play, and to surf behind the ship as it pulled them whooping and whishing through its wake. They learned to read from books collected by Cook and Helmsman during their own separate journeys on other ships.
They grew strong, healthy and learned quickly because they discerned no difference between lesson and play. Sometimes they steered the course which Cook had set, allowing Helmsman to read a book in the light of a setting sun. He sipped his tea and relaxed because he knew Cook had taught them well. Truth be told they were more proficient than he at holding a course. Other times they would prepare breakfast as Cook slept late and she would wake as the delicious scents wafted through to her cabin on the salty fresh air igniting her appetite. She would snuggle deep into her pillow and relax for Helmsman had taught them well and their turtle egg French toast was the best she’d ever tasted.
Sometimes one child steered as the other cooked allowing Cook and Helmsman much valued time to tell stories, agree a new course, check on supplies and other tasks such as laughing and being alone together. It was a happy ship for more than many years as the two sailors grew up.
They became aware of a hollow feeling in their chests. As they steered the ship they loved through calm ocean waters their eyes began to search for an answer to this new feeling. At times they would express annoyance to Cook and Helmsman. They did not understand why the horizon remained clear of reasons why their home suddenly felt so small. As they listened to their children, Cook’s gaze met Helmsman’s and she gave him the smallest of nods.
He worked each evening as the young sailors completed their homework. He made sure each little boat was ship-shape and water-tight. He sanded the oar handles, packed the tarpaulin, stored ropes and tools. Each boat was kitted with a box containing a tent, a sleeping bag, cutlery, two cups, and two bowls (for a guest), a filled fresh water bag, tea, fruit, cheese, and dried fish. And matches, a lamp, a ukulele and a book. It was the same book for each sailor, their favourite book, and one he and Cook had read to them many times.
As the weeks passed Cook prepared a navigation pack – maps, compass, dividers, pencils, erasers, sharpener. She also packed a sturdy knife for coconuts.
Each young sailor longingly searched the horizon. Then, as one steered and the other cooked and Cook and Helmsman played cards, there was a loud shout. An island had appeared. They saw a necklace of sandy beach rising from the blue sea, to meet with tall coconut and fruit trees, continuing to rise from the forest to a small mountain or two. Glisteningly clear streams of fresh water cascaded down the slopes. This was a beautiful island.
Cook led each sailor to their boats introducing them to each item, explaining its purpose and how best to care for it. The sailors, after so long at sea, knew this but they patiently listened because they knew Cook was sad. They also listened as Helmsman explained how to navigate, how to trade and how to split a coconut. He also assured them that the surfing on the island would be perfect and of course they knew this too. But they politely listened because they could sense his sadness.
And so they each boarded their boats and pushed off from the ship to the island. At each pull of the oars their eyes returned to their parents, who had brought them into and up in this world, standing on the deck waving. The sailors kept their little boats close to each other so that they could shout encouragements to each other.
One shouted about the three mountains surrounding a larger fourth one on the island. The other shouted about the sea teeming with fish and crab. They laughed as the waves surfed their boats to the beach landing them onto the sandy shore. They hugged each other welcome as they sang and danced a little jig. They dragged the boats up the beach past the high tide mark and immediately set about making a little fire to boil some water. One collected tinder as the other collected water from a nearby stream. They boiled up some tea, poured themselves a cup and took out their ukuleles. They strummed a tune, sang and shuffled a beat on the sand as the sun began to set. They built up the fire and watched the stars appear in the sky. They pointed to them out to each other as each new one appeared and soon there were more than even they had names for. The night was calm and warm as they pulled out their sleeping bags and settled down beside the fire. They could make out the lights of their home ship in the distance, felt reassured and safe as they drifted to sleep.
When they woke the next morning they immediately looked towards the ship and saw that it had left. The horizon was clear as far as the blue sky and beyond. They were now alone on the island. They looked at each other, smiling broadly before running, whooping to the water for an early morning swim.
They were busy, in the days that followed, with building a more permanent camp within the shelter of the trees. Their lessons had prepared them well and they picked a spot sheltered by the stout branches of an ancient friendly tree. Its broad leaves sheltering them from the sun and the rain. Their supply of fresh water came from a little stream that conveniently broadened and deepened slightly between the camp and the sea providing them with a bathing pool. They made coconut shell lamps for use at night and made a solid fireplace for cooking. Around this they placed rounded logs to rest their backs as they ate or played ukulele at night as the sparks rushed up to greet the stars.
Their days found a gentle rhythm. Waking to the sounds of waves and leaves rustling as the sun rose outside their tents. Emerging from their tents, scratching their heads and bellies as they greeted each other a good morning. Then that split second of challenge before racing each other to the warm waving sea. After their swim they would take a run along the beach and on their way back to the camp they would pick up wood for the fire. Often the sea would have washed some new treasure to shore and they would discuss this over breakfast.
Breakfast was usually coconut, cold fish from the previous night’s meal and a cup of tea. Soon they would begin to ration the tea to once a week but for the moment they had yet to realise that their supplies would dwindle. As they ate breakfast they discussed the day’s gift from the sea. One such gift was a smooth, sea sculpted log shaped like a dog with three legs which was perfect for hanging their pots from. Another was an old newspaper which when dried in the sun provided them with stories of a world they knew little about and found hard to believe in.
As the weeks turned into months one sailor suggested investigating the woods a little more but the other sailor preferred to stay close to the beach. Shaking hands they parted one morning, Wanderer shouldered a rucksack and headed away from the comfortable camp into the woods. Sailor watched Wanderer walk and disappear into the trees.
The lush woods provided cool shade as Wanderer walked deeper and deeper through the trees. Once in a short while, Wanderer stopped to drink water and turned back to look at the smoke rising from the campfire. After a few hours Wanderer looked back and noted that the camp was lower and realised the path had been rising gently upwards. The walk had been so enjoyable that Wanderer had not noticed the uphill slope. Soon Wanderer made a camp for the evening.
As it darkened Wanderer could see a tiny orange glow from the fire below and wondered if Sailor was as well fed and comfortable. Then Wanderer looked up at the stars and counted them until falling asleep. Wanderer dreamed of climbing the mountain, of standing on the summit looking over the island and out towards the horizon. Perhaps Wanderer would see their old ship.
After breakfast the next morning Wanderer started uphill, following the stream. Sometimes cliffs made this impossible and before seeking out a new path Wanderer would cool down in the pool listening to the water falling from the rocks above.
At the end of each day Wanderer was tired. The red glow from the camp below was no longer visible as it was hidden by the tree line but a thin trail of smoke reassured Wanderer that the other was safe and cooking supper. The Wanderer wished they were together swapping stories and enjoying this adventure together.
The path upwards grew steeper slowing progress. But Wanderer persevered. Mostly it was hot as the sun beamed down through the foliage, piercing it with shafts of light and heating under the canopy so that Wanderer needed lots of rest and water. Other times it rained heavily, the water pummelling the leaves above and symphonically dripping to the thirsty earth. Then Wanderer would step under a large leaved tree and enjoy a cooling rainwater shower. Wanderer lost count of the days on that joyful climb.
At the end of each day tired muscles welcomed rest, food, drink, and sleep by a small fire. Each morning refreshed muscles, growing stronger each day welcomed the new sights to see and paths to find. Wanderer had learned to love this journey hard though it was. And then one afternoon the trees ended suddenly and Wanderer was walking on grassland interspersed with bare rock. The summit of the mountain was in clear sight, maybe half-a-day’s climb away.
It was evening when, bending over to inhale as much air as possible, the summit was reached. Wanderer had to take many deep breathes to recover from the steep climb before being able to look around. And the sight was most unexpected. Eyes widened, jaw dropped, mouth opened, precious breathing stopped as Wanderer gazed down at a city below.
Street lights, houses, office buildings, traffic, neon signs and people. At this distance Wanderer couldn’t see any people but nonetheless they were there. Wanderer did not need to hear the sounds to know that there was music coming from the cafes along the beach. It was a small city not like New York with skyscrapers but with low buildings and a harbour. The sailor looked down at the glowing lights.
It was too dark to begin walking down. Throughout the night Wanderer sat down on top of the mountain looking down at the lights as they disappeared with the dawn. As soon as it was light, with a boundless energy inspired by the enthralling, sleepless night, Wanderer started downhill.
The walk down was much easier and faster than the walk up. There was a river to follow down the slope with wide banks and fruit trees along the way. Wanderer smiled all the way down the mountain, picking fruit and berries from branches and drinking great gulps of fresh water from the river. And soon the trail flattened and the river widened and the sailor followed it right to its estuary on the seashore, crossed at a shallow, narrow point and began to walk on the beach towards the restaurants seen nights before from the top of the mountain.
Wanderer began to make out signs and, seeing that the first building was a beach café advertising breakfasts, speeded up. There were a few customers already at their tables and Wanderer walked onto the deck of the café to another shocking sight.
There were Cook and Helmsman, beaming smiles as they waved and greeted the young Wanderer. They kissed and patted a tired back and pulled out a chair to sit on and ordered the largest breakfast and watched Wanderer savour this most welcome of meals, slurping hot creamy coffee and gulping cool peach juice and crunching hot buttered toast. After Wanderer had eaten they asked how much longer Sailor would be.
Wanderer told them that Sailor had decided to stay at the camp they had built. They listened as they were told of the work involved in building the camp and about the routines of fishing, foraging for fruit and coconuts and collecting firewood. They expressed concern that the other was alone on the other side of the island and decided to leave the next morning to reunite their family, setting sail once the sun peeped over the horizon.
Meanwhile, Sailor was waking up to another new day. Smiling, running to the shore and leaping into the waves. Yes, Sailor at times thought about Wanderer but most time was taken up with the routine of running the camp. This morning passed without a single thought of Wanderer. After reading for some hours Sailor looked up to see the sun high in the sky and their old ship nearing the shore. Shouting and waving Sailor welcomed Cook, Helmsman and Wanderer; hugged them all and guided them to sit at the campfire before preparing a welcome feast.
Sailor was amazed to hear of the city on the other side of the island and expressed a desire to see it. Cook and Helmsman listened to Sailor’s reasons for staying on this side of the island. They nodded when they heard words like ‘peaceful’, ‘happy’ and ‘comfortable’. Before going to bed that night Cook and Helmsman told Sailor and Wanderer that they were very pleased, that although one had stayed and the other left, both remained happy and healthy. This was the reason for their lessons after all. They wished each other a good night and fell asleep beside the fire, under the star filled sky.