SAILING IN TEARS
By John Thomas Tuft
The old man walked along the shores of the great sea, the Greek fisherman’s cap slightly tilted to one side as it rode his white mane, tight against the stiff breeze. His step is a bit halting, the bowing of his legs marking the joints long conditioned by the rolling and roiling of the waves. The tide is coming in, washing in the detritus of faraway fantasies and dressing the sand in a veil of foam. Sea grass high in the dunes performs a melancholic dance, seeking more time with its memories and musings about sand fairies. He walks blindly, stumbling over rocks no bigger than a baby’s hand, staggering as though under the phantom weight of a great load.
He stops and looks up at the clouds, squinting as though taking a sextant reading on a distant star. Takes off his cap, runs his fingers through the white hair. “I don’t remember me,” he whispers, “without you.” He does not know if his memories are an albatross, harbingers of doomed penance or, rather, doves sent out in search of safe harbor, a home of dry land. In the distance, a squall line forms, darkening the horizon with gray mists. “Samuel,” his Emily would say in that gentle brogue from the Isle of Mull, in the Hebrides where she’d been raised, “would you be waiting for a lass who told you she had to go and dimmel the stones for a wall around her garden and then didn’t plant one? I’m not daft, you know!”
His Emily. He would always think of her as his Emily. She did put in the work. Her light brown hair tucked up in a bun above her green eyes, walking with him on this same beach, teasing him about anticipating the waves with his gait, stealing kisses underneath the old pier. He was the one who kept leaving, always promising that the next voyage would be his last. That he would return with enough for them to begin their life together. Sailing the seas was an intoxication, the mysteries and the promises of the next port a siren song easily mistaken for the melody of a life. The lure of adventure, the call of the sea, the easy camaraderie shared with those of the same passion; it all occupied a large portion of his heart.
But in his heart of hearts he knew. “I don’t remember me, without you,” Samuel says again as he pulls a picture from his pocket and holds it tight. He hunches his shoulders against the wind now coming from the northeast and steps onto the old pier. He is wearing the pea coat that she gave him, right before his last voyage. “It will keep you warm, my darlin’,” she told him. “When you’re standing watch, it will be my arms around you.” A final kiss. “I’ll be watching the stars while you be sailing on my tears.”
The voyage was to last six months. But it turned into eight, then a year. When they made port in Brisbane, he was surprised that no letter was waiting. He sent Emily a cable, but before he got a response, he was offered First Mate on a trip around Cape Horn and on to the South Pacific. Around the third bell while standing watch one night, he gazed up at the Southern Cross, steady above the horizon, and knew he needed to fix a course for home. But home was another six months away. When he arrived and came down the plank, the pier was empty.
On Emily’s front porch, the grieving mother broke the news to Samuel. “You know how Emily could get,” said the proud woman. “Always had to do for herself. She was out in the fields gathering rocks for her garden wall when a storm came up. Stubborn as she could be, she tried to get one more into the cart. Slipped and hit her head.” The mother pulls a kerchief from her sleeve and twists it as she continues, “She lingered for days. Kept calling for you, Samuel. She wanted to be here when you returned home.” With those words she turned and went back into the house, leaving Samuel alone.
Samuel never returned to the sea. His grief became his fierce mistress, the sea a forsaken child. But every night, if you walk the beach to the old pier, you will find him there. Sitting on the edge, Emily’s picture in his hand. And when the three bells sound during the first watch of the night, Samuel turns his gaze to the sky. To offer up his prayer: “I’ll be watching the stars while you be sailing on my tears.”
Words are magic, and writers are wizards.