By Sean Dempsey, 08/08/23
Seven year-old Anna was sneaking on her tiptoes to avoid the cottage flooring from creaking as she slipped out into the frosty air of the front porch. She was up remarkably early, startled awake by dark dreams she couldn’t fully remember. The morning light was just starting to dispel the night; Anna wanted to see the waves and hear the thunder. It was storming and the water surged violently and beat the rocks. As she slid open the stormdoors to the covered front porch, she saw her grandfather seated in his favorite staring into the sea.
She closed the door quietly to avoid the wind from pouring into the small cabin, and walked out on the porch.
She sat down in one of the wooden chairs. “You’re up early.” Spoke her grandfather softly.
“Hi Papa,” she said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “So are you.”
“I just had a nightmare,” Anna looked out into water. She loved storms.
“Wanna talk about it?” asked her grandpa, tapping his knee. It was the best place for stories and also the best place in the world to be listened to—really listened to, without the other just waiting for their chance to speak.
She moved from her chair and came over and plopped on his welcoming lap. He had a warm and comforting, almost salty smell, just like he always did. Truth be told, he smelled like the sea. He had once told her that the many flavors of the ocean had ‘seeped into his blood’ long ago—back when he was a sea captain, many, many decades before she was born.
“I’m fine, I just was probably dreaming about school.”
“You liking school? Still have lots of friends?” Her Grandfather looked out at the water, but held the girl close to keep her warm.
“Yea, I have good friends.” She rattled off several names he had heard mentioned before.
“That’s good. Friends, true friends, are the bedrock of a life well-lived. Don’t ever take them for granted.”
Anna was silent, staring the water. It raged and beat the rocks besides their beach without remorse. She fidgeted in her lap-chair.
The elder of the two spoke. “I can tell something is bothering you, little princess. Out with it. ‘Shared secrets are glue in a storm shared by two.’ That’s an old sailor’s expression back when I was a much younger man.”
“Haha. What’s that even mean?” Anna giggled.
“It means the bond we forge over a secret told during a raging storm brings us together and makes our love even stronger. So spill your guts, little lady.”
“Haha. Okay. Fine. Well, it’s really not a big deal…”
He tilted her in his lap so he could look into her eyes as she continued. “It’s just, like, this thing that happened at school before I left for vacation. It kinda like made me mad and sad because I don’t understand what I did wrong.”
She paused, and he waited for her to continue. “Ok, so…my friend Lily. We always would play at recess. I like don’t know her so so well. But we would like play at the swings and she likes my blue Stitch stuffy so we would share it at lunch sometimes.”
She trailed off, thinking for a second. “But then, like, I mean like a couple days ago, Mrs. Daniels, she takes me and like everyone into a room and told us that Lily isn’t Lily anymore. Not really anyway. She is Luke now. Or she said she like wants to be called Luke now. Or her parents said it, or something. And that we must call her a him and now she is Luke and not Lily. It was just weird. I laughed and Mrs D told me not to laugh! That is was very very serious and I wouldn’t have recess if I laughed. I don’t care, really, but like I mean it’s just weird. And then I told mommy at dinner and mommy and daddy started fighting real real bad. Daddy told me not to call Lily Luke. But Mommy said I should and always listen to my teachers. And so I don’t know what to do. It like is so silly. But I think I made mommy and daddy fight and … now I am sad.”
She stopped talking and looked into her grandfathers face. He, for the first time ever, seemed deeply lost in thought.
“That is a pickle, little lady.” He said. “What do you think you should do?”
Lily laughed awkwardly. “I don’t know. I don’t care really. I just don’t get it. It’s like all so funny. Papa, why would a girl think they are a boy? And why does it make everyone so angry to talk about? It like makes no sense.”
Her grandfather looked away from her piercing eyes and looked back at the storm. The wind still waged war against the water and the water waged war against the rocks that buffeted against their domain.
The sky and land fought for dominance over each other. He looked out for a while as they watched in silence. Then he spoke softly. “Child, let me tell you a story. Perhaps it will help, perhaps not . . .
Long ago there was a small life-raft lost at sea. Aboard were 10 passengers who had escaped a shipwreck. They were all that was left of their large crew. They had been adrift for many days. They lost hope and their drinking water had run out. Finally they turned on each other in their desperation and one proposed they kill and drink the blood of a young man who was sick and near to death. But a leader of their group, a Shaman—a man said to be strong with magic and voodoo—spoke up and came to a better plan. He lied to the men on the raft and said belief was stronger than reality. That they could turn the saltwater drinkable by thinking and wishing it so! They just must all believe in their hearts and believe fully and utterly; the slightest doubt, or the weakest link, would break the spell.
The men and women on the raft were desperate. They were thirsty, and wanted hopelessly to believe his words. The lack of water had warped their minds and dulled their senses. So after many hours of praying and chanting phrases the Shaman gave them to echo, they cupped their hands and lifted salt water up to their mouths and drank. He insisted as they drank to KNOW the water was fresh and cool and quenched their thirst. So it did. In their minds. They choked on the water, but they drank.
A very young boy, perhaps half your age, was with the poor group, and he clung to his mother’s embrace and screamed savagely when she tried to have him drink the salt water. The mood was restless and the passengers on the raft spoke of throwing the non-believer overboard or he would kill them all. So the mother silenced him, and told him he need not drink the water, but he must quiet himself or he would be thrown into the sea.
For a long time the Believers drank the seawater and knew it was quenching their thirst. But each sip of the water was actually poison! It dried them out from the inside-out; it made them thirstier with each gulp. Yet because of their thirst, they drank more and more; and in their delusion they celebrated their salvation!
The Shaman was lost in prayer and barely moved other than to beat his breast and shout at the sky every few hours; he drank very little seawater and conserved his strength.
Days past. Finally on the horizon a boat was seen. Rescue had come! It arrived to their floating raft in the sea to pick them up. But when it arrived there were only three living souls on board. All else had perished.
The dying man miraculously still hung to life. The young child who could not believe and rejected the water. And the Shaman. They climbed onto the boat one at a time and were rescued….
The Shaman looked back sadly at the bodies on the raft as the rescue boat departed. He claimed it was a shame the poor dead souls’ faith was simply not strong enough to save them. The sick man looked down between cracked eyes at his former friends and claimed that their treacherous spirits and murderous temperament surely had killed them. And the young boy, without tears for he could not form them, had eyes only for his mother. He did not care why they all died; all he knew was that they were dead and he loved his mother.
So ends this tale.”
Anna pulled back her head from resting against her grandfather’s hoary beard which she had been using as a pillow. She turned and looked at him; she had silent tears coming down her cheeks. She started to speak but then stopped. Finally she said in a whisper that she had never heard a story quite so sad.
“But why? Papa, why? I don’t understand. Why did the bad guy win? I thought bad guys always lose. But he stayed alive at the end.”
“The Sha-man guy. He lied and he won. He killed them all, didn’t he?”
“Oh, sweetie. There are no good guys in this story. Nor bad ones. It is just a story. A story of women and of men. It is a story of all of us; it is a story of no one. It is a story of struggling humans lost at sea.”
“But I think I hate him. He caused everyone to die. He’s a very bad man.”
“Do not judge the Shaman too harshly, sweetie; he was simply trying to do as he thought was right and give hope where it was lost. Nor judge those who followed him too harshly—a flock of sheep will follow a shepherd; they will not know his heart or his designs. Their lot is to follow.”
“Would they all have lived if they had not drank the salty water?”
“I honestly do not know, sweetie. Perhaps… Or perhaps violence and madness would take them before a boat appeared. Perhaps none would have survived at all without the lie to steal their focus. Fear and despair are as much a killer of men as thirst and hunger.”
“Papa… but what was the RIGHT way to save everyone?”
“My love. Who is to say they could or even should be saved? Do all who breathe deserve life? Do all who perish deserve to die? Perhaps doing as the first thirsty man said was right. Perhaps killing and drinking the blood of the dying man would have spared the most lives. But what kind of men would doing so make? For actions, like secrets, can never be unsung. And wicked deeds make wicked men. The life-raft, if rescued at all, would be manned no longer by men, but by the damned.”
“Papa! Don’t swear. You know better.” The girl sniffed suddenly and then giggled. The wind was starting to abate, and the wet and battered rocks by the shore seemed to have won the battle—for now, anyway.
“So, sweetpea, what do you plan to do with your friend? I imagine it was what you always planned to do anyway…”
“I don’t know. I think, though, I will always play with her no matter what. She is my friend. I don’t really care what her name is.”
“Well said. Love her, child. Love her. Despite any madness that swirls around or confuses you. When the Shamans of your life insist that down is now up, or black is now white—just find love in your heart. She is your friend. Love is clean water to a thirsty soul. You cannot beat back the sea; you cannot control the wind. But you can control what lives in your heart.”
The thunder rolled in the distance. The two of them snuggled closely and watched the storm ever so slowly fade. The light of the morning sun gradually came up behind still-dark clouds. Yet the radiating light was partially muzzled—fighting hard to break through the haze.
“My dear girl,” Spoke the grandfather softly after a long while. “I love you so much. I so hate the idea of you out in the world soon—these new seas you face are wild and dangerous. You may find times when you are surrounded by saltwater for miles in all directions. But even when you are begged to drink—when all your friends around you laugh as they swallow poison—hang on to truth. Truth and love are the only things in this world worth living for. These are tempestuous waters and angry skies. The sea is so very beautiful to travel—but only when the skies above are clear. Trust your eyes and do not allow yourself be told they are blue when they are clearly blackened by storm clouds. Even when the world would have you see and believe a lie to maintain their hopeless faith, hold onto truth; hold on to love, always…”
“Haha. Perhaps so.”
“But I still love you.”
“And, I, you. Forever.”