The Children Of the Open Sea
Toward the middle of that day Sparrowhawk stirred and asked for water. When he had drunk he asked, “Where are we heading?” For the sail was taut above him, and the boat dipped like a swallow on the long swells.
“West, or north by west.”
“I'm cold,” Sparrowhawk said. The sun blazed down, filling the boat with heat.
Arren said nothing.
“Try to hold west. Wellogy, west of Obehol. Land there. We need water.”
The boy looked forward, over the empty sea.
“What's the matter, Arren?”
He said nothing.
Sparrowhawk tried to sit up, and failing that, to reach his staff that lay by the gear-box; but it was out of his reach, and when he tried to speak again the words halted on his dry lips. The blood broke out anew under the soaked and crusted bandage, making a little spider's thread of crimson on the dark skin of his chest. He drew breath sharply and closed his eyes.
Arren looked at him, but without feeling, and not for long. He went forward and resumed his crouching position in the prow, gazing forward. His mouth was very dry. The east wind that now blew steady over the open sea was as dry as a desert wind. There were only two or three pints of water left in their cask; these were, in Arren's mind, for Sparrowhawk, not for himself; it never occurred to him to drink from that water. He had set out fishing lines, having learned since they left Lorbanery that raw fish fulfills both thirst and hunger; but there was never anything on the lines. It did not matter. The boat moved on over the desert of water. Over the boat, slowly, yet winning the race in the end by all the width of heaven, the sun moved also from east to west.
Once Arren thought he saw a blue height in the south that might have been land or cloud; the boat had been running somewhat north of west for hours. He did not try to tack and turn, but let her go on. The land might or might not be real; it did not matter. To him all the vast, fiery glory of wind and light and ocean was dim and false.
Darkness came, and light again, and dark, and light, like drumbeats on the tight-stretched canvas of the sky.
He trailed his hand in the water over the side of the boat. For an instant he saw that, vivid: his hand pale greenish beneath the living water. He bent and sucked the wet off his fingers. It was bitter, burning his lips painfully, but he did it again. Then he was sick, and crouched down vomiting, but only a little bile burned his throat. There was no more water to give Sparrowhawk, and he was afraid to go near him. He lay down, shivering despite the heat. It was all silent, dry, and bright: terribly bright. He hid his eyes from the light.
They stood in the boat, three of them, stalk-thin and angular, great-eyed, like strange dark herons or cranes. Their voices were thin, like birds' voices. He did not understand them. One knelt above him with a dark bladder on his arm and tipped from it into Arren's mouth: it was water. Arren drank avidly, choked, drank again till he had drained the container. Then he looked about and struggled to his feet, saying, “Where is, where is he?” For in Lookfar with him were only the three strange, slender men.
They looked at him uncomprehending.
“The other man,” he croaked, his raw throat and stiff-caked lips unfit to form the words, “my friend-”
One of them understood his distress if not his words, and putting a slight hand on his arm, pointed with the other. “There,” he said, reassuring.
Arren looked. And he saw, ahead of the boat and northward of her, some gathered in close and others strung far out across the sea, rafts: so many rafts that they lay like autumn leaves on a pool. Low to the water, each bore one or two cabins or huts near the center, and several had masts stepped. Like leaves they floated, rising and falling very softly as the vast swells of the western ocean passed under them. The lanes of water shone like silver between them, and over them towered great violet and golden rainclouds, darkening the west.
“There,” the man said, pointing to a great raft near Lookfar.
They all looked at him, and at last one understood. “Alive. He is alive.” At this Arren began to weep, a dry sobbing, and one of the men took his wrist in a strong and narrow hand and drew him out of Lookfar and onto a raft to which the boat had been made fast. The raft was so great and buoyant that it did not dip even slightly to their weight. The man led Arren across it, while one of the others reached out with a heavy gaff tipped with a curving whaleshark's tooth and hauled a nearby raft closer, till they could step the gap. There he led Arren to the shelter or cabin, which was open on one side and closed with woven screens on the other three. “Lie down,” he said, and beyond that Arren knew nothing at all.
He was lying on his back, stretched out flat, gazing up at a rough green roof dappled with tiny dots of light. He thought he was in the apple orchards of Semermine, where the princes of Enlad pass their summers, in the hills behind Berila; be thought he was lying in the thick grass at Semermine, looking up at the sunlight between apple boughs.
After a while he heard the slap and jostle of water in the hollow places underneath the raft, and the thin voices of the raft-people speaking a tongue that was the common Hardic of the Archipelago, but much changed in sounds and rhythms, so that it was hard to understand; and so he knew where he was– out beyond the Archipelago, beyond the Reach, beyond all isles, lost on the open sea. But still he was untroubled, lying as comfortably as if he lay in the grass in the orchards of his home.
He thought after a while that he ought to get up, and did so, finding his body very thin and burnt-looking and his legs shaky but serviceable. He pushed aside the woven hanging that made the walls of the shelter and stepped out into the afternoon. It had rained while he slept. The wood of the raft, great, smooth-shapen, squared logs, fit close and caulked, was dark with wet, and the hair of the thin, halfnaked people was black and lank from the rain. But half the sky was clear where the sun stood in the west, and the clouds now rode to the far northeast in heaps of silver.
One of the men came up to Arren, warily, stopping some feet from him. He was slight and short, no taller than a boy of twelve; his eyes were long, large, and dark. He carried a spear with a barbed ivory head. Arren said to him, “I owe my life to you and your people.”
The man nodded.
“Will you take me to my companion?”
Turning away, the raft-man raised his voice in a high, piercing cry like the call of a sea bird. Then he squatted down on his heels as if to wait, and Arren did the same.
The rafts had masts, though the mast of the one they were on was not stepped. On these, sails could be run up, small compared to the breadth of the raft. The sails were of a brown material, not canvas or linen, but a fibrous stuff that looked not woven but beaten together, as felt is made. A raft some quarter mile away let the brown sail down from the crosstree by ropes and slowly worked its way, gaffing and poling off the other rafts between, till it came alongside the one Arren was on. When there was only three feet of water between, the man beside Arren got up and nonchalantly hopped across. Arren did the same and landed awkwardly on all fours; there was no spring left in his knees. He picked himself up and found the little man looking at him, not with amusement, but with approval: Arren's composure had evidently won his respect.
This raft was larger and higher out of the water than any other, made of logs forty feet in length and four or five feet wide, blackened and smooth with use and weather. Strangely carven statues of wood stood about the several shelters or enclosures on it, and tall poles bearing tufts of sea birds' feathers stood at the four corners. His guide took him to the smallest of the shelters, and there he saw Sparrowhawk lying asleep.
Arren sat down inside the shelter. His guide went back to the other raft, and nobody bothered him. After an hour or so a woman brought him food: a kind of cold fish stew with bits of some transparent green stuff in it, salty but good; and a small cup of water, stale, tasting pitchy from the caulking of the barrel. He saw by the way she gave him the water that it was a treasure that she gave him, a thing to be honored. He drank it respectfully and asked for no more, though he could have drunk ten times the cupful.
Sparrowhawk's shoulder had been skillfully bandaged; he slept deeply and easily. When he woke up, his eyes were clear. He looked at Arren and smiled the sweet, joyous smile that was always startling on his hard face. Arren felt suddenly like weeping again. He put his hand on Sparrowhawk's hand and said nothing.
One of the raft-folk approached and squatted down in the shade of the large shelter nearby: a kind of temple, it appeared to be, with a square design of great complexity above the doorway, and the doorjambs made of logs carved in the shape of grey whales sounding. This man was short and thin like the others, boy-like in frame, but his face was strong-featured and weathered by the years. He wore nothing but a loincloth, but dignity clothed him amply. “He must sleep,” he said, and Arren left Sparrowhawk and came to him.
“You are the chief of this folk,” Arren said, knowing a prince when he saw one.
“I am,” the man said, with a short nod. Arren stood before him, erect and unmoving. Presently the man's dark eyes met his briefly: “You are a chief also,” he observed.
“I am,” Arren answered. He would have liked very much to know how the raftman knew it, but remained impassive. “But I serve my lord, there.”
The chief of the raft-folk said something Arren did not understand at all: certain words changed out of recognition or names he did not know; then he said, “Why came you into Balatran?”
But Arren did not know how much to say, nor indeed what to say. All that had happened, and the matter of their quest, seemed very long ago and was confused in his mind. At last he said, “We came to Obehol. They attacked us when we came to land. My lord was hurt.”
“I was not hurt,” Arren said, and the cold self-possession he had learnt in his courtly childhood served him well. “But there was– there was something like a madness. One who was with us drowned himself. There was a fear-” He stopped, and stood silent.
The chief watched him with black, opaque eyes. At last he said, “You come by chance here, then.”
“Yes. Are we still in the South Reach?”
“Reach? No. The islands-” The chief moved his slender, black hand in an arc, no more than a quarter of the compass, north to east. “The islands are there,” he said. “All the islands.” Then showing all the evening sea before them, from north through west to south, he said, “The sea.”
“What land are you from, lord?”
“No land. We are the Children of the Open Sea.”
Arren looked at his keen face. He looked about him at the great raft with its temple and its tall idols, each carved from a single tree, great god-figures mixed of dolphin, fish, man, and sea bird; at the people busy at their work, weaving, carving, fishing, cooking on raised platforms, tending babies; at the other rafts, seventy at least, scattered out over the water in a great circle perhaps a mile across. It was a town: smoke rising in thin wisps from distant houses, the voices of children high on the wind. It was a town, and under its floors was the abyss.
“Do you never come to land?” the boy asked in a low voice.
“Once each year. We go to the Long Dune. We cut wood there and refit the rafts. That is in autumn, and after that we follow the gray whales north. In winter we go apart, each raft alone. In the spring we come to Balatran and meet. There is going from raft to raft then, there are marriages, and the Long Dance is held. These are the Roads of Balatran; from here the great current bears south. In summer we drift south upon the great current until we see the Great Ones, the grey whales, turning northward. Then we follow them, returning at last to the beaches of Emah on the Long Dune, for a little while.”
“This is most wonderful, my lord,” said Arren. “Never did I hear of such a people as yours. My home is very far from here. Yet there too, in the island of Enlad, we dance the Long Dance on midsummer eve.”
“You stamp the earth down and make it safe,” the chief said dryly. “We dance on the deep sea.”
After a time he asked, “How is he called, your lord?”
“Sparrowhawk,” Arren said. The chief repeated the syllables, but they clearly had no meaning for him. And that more than any other thing made Arren understand that the tale was true, that these people lived on the sea year in, year out, on the open sea past any land or scent of land, beyond the flight of the land birds, outside the knowledge of men.
“There was death in him,” the chief said. “He must sleep. You go back to Star's raft; I will send for you.” He stood up. Though perfectly sure of himself, he was apparently not quite sure what Arren was; whether he should treat him as an equal or as a boy. Arren preferred the latter, in this situation, and accepted his dismissal, but then faced a problem of his own. The rafts had drifted apart again, and a hundred yards of satiny water rippled between the two.
The chief of the Children of the Open Sea spoke to him once more, briefly. “Swim,” he said.
Arren let himself gingerly into the water. Its cool was pleasant on his sun-baked skin. He swam across and hauled himself out on the other raft, to find a group of five or six children and young people watching him with undisguised interest. A very small girl said, “You swim like a fish on a hook.”
“How should I swim?” asked Arren, a little mortified, but polite; indeed he could not have been rude to a human being so very small. She looked like a polished mahogany statuette, fragile, exquisite. “Like this!” she cried, and dived like a seal into the dazzle and liquid roil of the waters. Only after a long time, and at an improbable distance, did he hear her shrill cry and see her black, sleek head above the surface.
“Come on,” said a boy who was probably Arren's age, though he looked not more than twelve in height and build: a grave-faced fellow, with a blue crab tattooed all across his back. He dived, and all dived, even the three-year-old; so Arren had to and did so, trying not to splash.
“Like an eel,” said the boy, coming up by his shoulder.
“Like a dolphin,” said a pretty girl with a pretty smile, and vanished in the depths.
“Like me!” squeaked the three-year-old, bobbing like a bottle.
So that evening until dark, and all the next long golden day and the days that followed, Arren swam and talked and worked with the young people of Star's raft. And of all the events of his voyage since that morning of the equinox when he and Sparrowhawk left Roke, this seemed to him in some way the strangest; for it had nothing to do with all that had gone before, in the voyage or in all his life; and even less to do with what was yet to come. At night, lying down to sleep among the others under the stars, he thought, “It is as if I were dead, and this is an afterlife, here in the sunlight, beyond the edge of the world, among the sons and daughters of the sea…”
Before he slept he would look in the far south for the yellow star and the figure of the Rune of Ending, and always he saw Gobardon and the lesser or the greater triangle; but it rose later now, and he could not keep his eyes open till the whole figure stood free of the horizon. By night and by day the rafts drifted southward, but there was never any change in the sea, for the ever-changing does not change; the rainstorms of May passed over, and at night the stars shone, and all day the sun.
He knew that their life could not be lived always in this dreamlike case. He asked of winter, and they told him of the long rains and the mighty swells, the single rafts, each separated from all the rest, drifting and plunging along through the grey and darkness, week after week after week. Last winter in a month-long storm they had seen waves so great they were “like thunderclouds,” they said, for they had not seen hills. From the back of one wave the next could be seen, immense, miles away, rushing hugely toward them. Could the rafts ride such seas? he asked, and they said yes, but not always. In the spring when they gathered at the Roads of Balatran there would be two rafts missing, or three, or six…
They married very young. Bluecrab, the boy tattooed with his namesake, and the pretty girl Albatross were man and wife, though he was just seventeen and she two years younger; there were many such marriages between the rafts. Many babies crept and toddled about the rafts, tied by long leashes to the four posts of the central shelter, all crawling into it in the heat of the day and sleeping in wriggling heaps. The older children tended the younger, and men and women shared in all the work. All took their turn at gathering the great, brown-leaved seaweeds, the nilgu of the Roads, fringed like fern and eighty or a hundred feet long. All worked together at pounding the nilgu into cloth and braiding the coarse fibers for ropes and nets; at fishing and drying the fish and shaping whale-ivory into tools, and all the other tasks of the rafts. But there was always time for swimming and for talking, and never a time by which a task must be finished. There were no hours: only whole days, whole nights. After a few such days and nights it seemed to Arren that he had lived on the raft for time uncountable, and Obehol was a dream, and behind that were fainter dreams, and in some other world he had lived on land and been a prince in Enlad.
When he was summoned at last to the chief's raft, Sparrowhawk looked at him a while and said, “You look like that Arren whom I saw in the Court of the Fountain: sleek as a golden seal. It suits you here, lad.”
“Aye, my lord.”
“But where is here? We have left places behind us. We have sailed off the maps… Long ago I heard tell of the RaftFolk, but thought it only one more tale of the South Reach, a fancy without substance. Yet we were rescued by that fancy, and our lives saved by a myth”
He spoke smilingly, as though he had shared in that timeless ease of life in the summer light; but his face was gaunt, and in his eyes lay an unlighted darkness. Arren saw that and faced it.
“I betrayed-” he said, and stopped. “I betrayed your trust in me.”
"How so, Arren?.
“There– at Obehol. When for once you needed me. You were hurt and needed my help. I did nothing. The boat drifted, and I let her drift. You were in pain, and I did nothing for you. I saw land– I saw land, and did not even try to turn the boat-”
“Be still, lad,” the mage said with such firmness that Arren obeyed. And presently, “Tell me what you thought at that time.”
“Nothing, my lord– nothing! I thought there was no use in doing anything. I thought your wizardry was gone– no, that it had never been. That you had tricked me.” The sweat broke out on Arren's face and he had to force his voice, but he went on. “I was afraid of you. I was afraid of death. I was so afraid of it I would not look at you, because you might be dying. I could think of nothing, except that there was– there was a way of not dying for me, if I could find it. But all the time life was running out, as if there was a great wound and the blood running from it -such as you had. But this was in everything. And I did nothing, nothing, but try to hide from the horror of dying.”
He stopped, for saying the truth aloud was unendurable. It was not shame that stopped him, but fear, the same fear. He knew now why this tranquil life in sea and sunlight on the rafts seemed to him like an after-life or a dream, unreal. It was because he knew in his heart that reality was empty: without life or warmth or color or sound: without meaning. There were no heights or depths. All this lovely play of form and light and color on the sea and in the eyes of men, was no more than that: a playing of illusions on the shallow void.
They passed, and there remained the shapelessness and the cold. Nothing else.
Sparrowhawk was looking at him, and he had looked down to avoid that gaze. But there spoke in Arren unexpectedly a little voice of courage or of mockery: it was arrogant and pitiless, and it said, “Coward! Coward! Will you throw even this away?”
So he looked up, with a great effort of his will, and met his companion's eyes.
Sparrowhawk reached out and took his hand in a hard grasp, so that both by eye and by flesh they touched. He said Arren's true name, which he had never spoken: “Lebannen.” Again he said it: “Lebannen, this is. And thou art. There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”
Arren clenched his hands and bent his forehead down till it pressed against Sparrowhawk's hand. “I failed you,” he said. “I will fail you again and fail myself. I have not strength enough!”
“You have strength enough.” The mage's voice was tender, but beneath tenderness was that same hardness that had risen in the depths of Arren's own shame, and mocked him. “What you love, you will love. What you undertake, you will complete. You are a fulfiller of hope; you are to be relied on. But seventeen years give little armor against despair… Consider, Arren. To refuse death is to refuse life.”
“But I sought death– yours and mine!” Arren lifted his head and stared at Sparrowhawk. “Like Sopli who drowned himself-”
“Sopli was not seeking death. He sought to escape from it and from life. He sought safety: an end to fear– to the fear of death.”
“But there is– there is a way. There is a way beyond death. Back to life. To life beyond death, life without death. That is what they seek. Hare and Sopli, the ones who were wizards. That is what we seek. You -you above all must know– must know of that way-”
The mage's strong hand was still on his. “I do not,” Sparrowhawk said. “Aye, I know what they think they seek. But I know it to be a lie. Listen to me, Arren. You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose… That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? Would you give up the craft of your hands, and the passion of your heart, and the light of sunrise and sunset, to buy safety for yourself – safety forever? That is what they seek to do on Wathort and Lorbanery and elsewhere. That is the message that those who know how to hear have heard: By denying life you may deny death and live forever! -And this message I do not hear, Arren, for I will not hear it. I will not take the counsel of despair. I am deaf; I am blind. You are my guide. You in your innocence and your courage, in your unwisdom and your loyalty, you are my guide– the child I send before me into the dark. It is your fear, your pain, I follow. You have thought me harsh to you, Arren; you never knew how harsh. I use your love as a man burns a candle, burns it away, to light his steps. And we must go on. We must go on. We must go all the way. We must come to the place where the sea runs dry and joy runs out, the place to which your mortal terror draws you.”
“Where is it, my lord?”
“I do not know.”
“I cannot lead you there. But I will come with you.”
The mage's gaze on him was somber, unfathomable.
“But if I should fail again and betray you-”
“I will trust you, son of Morred.”
Then both were silent.
Above them the tall, carven idols rocked very slightly against the blue southern sky: dolphin bodies, gulls' wings folded, human faces with staring eyes of shell.
Sparrowhawk got up stiffly, for he was still far from being fully healed of his wound. “I am tired of sitting about,” he said. “I shall grow fat in idleness.” He began to pace the length of the raft, and Arren joined him. They talked a little as they walked; Arren told Sparrowhawk how he spent his days, who his friends among the raft-folk were. Sparrowhawk's restlessness was greater than his strength, which soon gave out. He stopped by a girl who was weaving nilgu on her loom behind the House of the Great Ones, asking her to seek out the chief for him, and then returned to his shelter. There the chief of the raft-folk came, greeting him with courtesy, which the mage returned; and all three of them sat down together on the spotted sealskin rugs of the shelter.
“I have thought,” the chief began, slowly and with a civil solemnity, “of the things you have told me. Of how men think to come back from death into their own bodies, and seeking to do this forget the worship of the gods and neglect their bodies and go mad. This is an evil matter and a great folly. Also I have thought, What has it to do with us? We have nothing to do with other men, their islands and their ways, their makings and unmakings. We live on the sea and our lives are the sea's. We do not hope to save them; we do not seek to lose them. Madness does not come here. We do not come to land; nor do the land-folk come to us. When I was young, we spoke sometimes with men who came on boats to the Long Dune, when we were there to cut the raft-logs and build the winter shelters. Often we saw sails from Ohol and Welwai (so he called Obehol and Wellogy) following the grey whales in the autumn. Often they followed our rafts from afar, for we know the roads and meeting places of the Great Ones in the sea. But that is all I ever saw of the land-folk, and now they come no longer. Maybe they have all gone mad and fought with one another. Two years ago on the Long Dune looking north to Welwai we saw for three days the smoke of a great burning: And if that were so, what is it to us? We are the Children of the Open Sea. We go the sea's way.”
“Yet seeing a landsman's boat adrift you came to it,” said the mage.
“Some among us said it was not wise to do so, and would have let the boat drift on to sea's end,” the chief answered in his high, impassive voice.
“You were not one of them.”
“No. I said, though they be land-folk, yet we will help them, and so it was done. But with your undertakings we have nothing to do. If there is a madness among the land-folk, the land-folk must deal with it. We follow the road of the Great Ones. We cannot help you in your search. So long as you wish to stay with us, you are welcome. It is not many days till the Long Dance; after it we return northward, following the eastern current that by summer's end will bring us round again to the seas by the Long Dune. If you will stay with us and be healed of your hurt, this will be well. Or if you will take your boat and go your way, this too will be well.”
The mage thanked him, and the chief got up, slight and stiff as a heron, and left them alone together.
“In innocence there is no strength against evil,” said Sparrowhawk, a little wryly. “But there is strength in it for good… We shall stay with them a while, I think, till I am cured of this weakness.”
“That is wise,” said Arren. Sparrowhawk's physical frailty had shocked and moved him; he had determined to protect the man from his own energy and urgency, to insist that they wait at least until he was free of pain before they went on.
The mage looked at him, somewhat startled by the compliment.
“They are kind here,” Arren pursued, not noticing. “They seem to be free of that sickness of soul they had in Hort Town and the other islands. Maybe there is no island where we would have been helped and welcomed, as these lost people have done.”
“You may well be right.”
“And they lead a pleasant life in summer…”
“They do. Though to eat cold fish one's whole life long, and never to see a pear-tree in blossom or taste of a running spring, would be wearisome at last!”
So Arren returned to Star's raft, worked and swam and basked with the other young people, talked with Sparrowhawk in the cool of the evening, and slept under the stars. And the days wore on toward the Long Dance of midsummer's eve, and the great rafts drifted slowly southward on the currents of the open sea.