The small figure stood alone on the shore, gazing out across the vast emptiness of the Western Ocean. The greyness of the sky and water on this cold winter evening emphasised the desolation of the scene; and the slump of his shoulders together with the limpness of his hanging arms gave a hint of his inner desolation. It had been a long day, and as it had passed he’d gone through every emotion known to humankind, until now he was as empty as the grey waves stretching out before him.
He took half a step forward as if something was calling him to enter the water, but before the next wave could wet his feet he shook his head, and turning, walked up the sloping shingle and sand until he reached the stranded trunk of a tree which had lain on the beach for more years than anyone could remember. It was like a stranded whale, its wood bleached and smoothed by winter storms, summer sun, and the power of the countless grains of sand which, bit by bit had removed its bark together with every blemish and roughness of the underlying wood. Now it was as soft to the touch as a piece of silk, and was beginning to show one or two hollows in its surface from being constantly used as a seat by everyone who came to look out across the water. He sat down and let his fingers slip backwards and forwards over its smoothness while he thought back over the day.
When he’d woken this morning he’d been full of the thrill and excitement of adventure. Today his father would set out across the Ocean in search of the great Western Land. He wasn’t the first to attempt it; other Venturers had gone before him, but either they had failed to find anything, or they had never returned. However, his father was a great mariner, and his ship, which had been growing down by the harbour for the last three years, was the largest and best equipped Venturer’s ship ever built. There was no doubt in his heart of the success of this voyage.
As he dressed and ate his morning meal he thought of the riches which his father might find, and of the rewards he would rightly be given on his return. He couldn’t wait to be off down to the harbour, and fidgeted impatiently while his mother banked up the fire, and did each necessary chore in her slow, patient and precise way. He was hard put to it not to let his impatience burst out in rough, cruel words; but just in time he remembered his father’s patience with her, and how he’d told him one day that the worst wounds a human being could know were those made by hasty words. So he swallowed them, and since she wouldn’t let him help her, he went to sit on the wall outside their cottage.
At last she’d come out, and for his patience had given him a piece of the honey-bread she’d baked that morning. He carried the heavy basket of last-minute gifts down the hill, only stopping when they reached the top of the steps leading down to the quay. They always paused here to take in the wonderful sight of the smooth water in the harbour, the enfolding arm of the headland, the strong protecting wall of the quay, and the little boats bobbing safely at anchor, and beyond it all the vastness of the Ocean. However, today the scene was more than breathtaking, for there, tied up to the furthest point of the quay, was his father’s great ship, brightly aglow in the morning light, decked out with flags, and with boughs of blossoming winter-green fastened to the bowsprit, the railing of the afterdeck, and the uttermost top of the mainmast.
He nearly burst with pride at the sight, but he said nothing, for he knew his mother was filled with trepidation and anxiety at the thought of this voyage, and wouldn’t welcome his comments; nevertheless his heart sang within him as they descended the steps and walked through the gathering crowds. They parted respectfully to let them through, and he held his head high and thanked them graciously. They could see his father on deck, supervising the storage of the last items, checking the spare ropes and the bolts of sailcloth, the fresh fruits and other foods as they were lowered through the hatches.
The Venturer at the foot of the gangplank welcomed them and helped his mother up the steep slope onto the deck, before returning to his post – too many of the merely curious were trying to come aboard today. The boy had stood apart while his father and mother embraced and talked together quietly. She was struggling with her fears, but for his sake attempted to look cheerful and proud. However she didn’t stay long, once she had delivered her gifts to his cabin, and said her farewells she had left. She would watch the departure from the clifftop – there was a bench in a little bay in the hillside which was her particular spot.
Now his father came and spoke to him, commending his mother to his care, and assuring him of his trust in him. He was shown round the whole ship, and even allowed to climb to the crow’s-nest, where he took out the pennant he’d made in secret over the last week, and hidden inside his jacket. He shinned up the last section of the mast and tied it to the top where the winter-green hung, snapping off a twig for a keepsake, and putting it in his pocket. He had to admit he was relieved to reach the safety of the deck again, but his father was impressed with his courage and his thoughfulness, and thanking him for the pennant, allowed him to stay aboard until they were ready to depart. At midday he ate with the other Venturers in the big stern cabin, listening in awe to their tales, and their loud boasts of future deeds of daring. They urged him to come with them, assuring him they could use a handy boy, but though he longed to go, he knew he was needed at home.
At last the moment came when every preparation had been made and the tide was on the turn. The Venturers gathered on the deck to sing the ‘Song of Leaving’, then carried on his father’s shoulders he was taken down to the quay, embraced, kissed and blessed. His eyes were blind with tears as the ropes were untied, the sails lowered to catch the late afternoon breeze and the great ship turned away from home and safety and headed out into the unknown.
He’d run desperately up through the town, along the cliffs and down onto the long beach, searching as he went for a glimpse of her sails through every gap in the houses or the trees; and he’d made it in time, for she was still in view as he slid breathlessly down the dunes to the shingle. The sky had clouded over and the breeze freshened, and what had been a bright and shining sight that morning now seemed grey and hopeless. Yet still she sailed bravely on as the light dimmed, and when the winter sun had dipped below the horizon, leaving a faint tint of pink on the heavy clouds, lights had sprung up at her mast heads and on the stern.
That was an hour ago, and now she was gone. He couldn’t have said when the last sight of his pennant had finally disappeared, but it felt as if his father had taken his heart with him and all his hope and trust. In the dark desolation of the empty beach and the wide waste of water he felt as if his very life had gone with the ship, and left nothing behind for him to hold on to. How could he survive the long months – even years – of this emptiness? His spirit hovered on the edge of despair.
And then, although he’d thought he was the only soul on the whole length of the beach, a movement among the marram grasses showed someone was coming down through the dunes. He was dismayed, he didn’t want anyone to see him in this state, after the pride and glory of the morning, so he lifted his head, straightened his back and put a cheerful smile back on his face.
But it was his mother who sat down beside him and drew him into her arms, murmuring, ‘I know, son, I know. Come home now and we’ll help each other till he returns.’
Slowly they left the beach and climbed back to their cottage, shutting the door on the world outside and turning to the fire and the glowing warmth and hope of its flames. They would survive, and father would return – he had to believe that, so he took hold of that belief and drawing out the twig of winter-green from his pocket he set it in a glass in the centre of the table. It would grow roots, and eventually he would plant it by the door as a sign of hope to keep away the emptiness and draw his father home again.
These pictures were the inspiration for this story of a Venturer family on Draakoa – written for a ‘homework’ task for the Whitehaven Writers. They came from old copies of the National Geographic, but I’m unable to credit the photographer, or name the child.