I curl my hand round the taut rigging, staring into the ink of a moonless night. Fear licks along my skin with the wet, raspy breeze. Closing my eyes, I surrender to the peace and sickening silence of four hours’ watch.
I stand alone on deck—bare before the fair, dark, hollow heavens. Old thoughts rush past me in the night—relentlessly whispering into my ear, whipping at my shirt, grabbing handfuls of sticky hair, pulling, pressing. I feel the hard steel of a rusted blade at my waist, but it’s useless to me. My thoughts—the wind—are unconquerable. I could hide from them, huddled behind the mast with a silent messmate and a pack of cards, but they will be there when I return. Who can help me now? I am alone in the deepening darkness of a watery night.
Distant looms pass by the ship—I can sense them more by sound than by sight. One island slips behind us as another rises in its wake, whales lifting up from the horizon. Faint wisps of wood fire reach me, thatched roofs and dry seaweed. Familiar scents. I lean into the creaking rigging. Many of these islands I have called home at some time in my life—but only as a waypoint, never a destination. Three weeks. Two months. Eight. A year. My pack is always by the door—waiting for a change in the tides.
How many lands have I passed? I know so many—images clutter my mind, jostling and tumbling. Silted harbors, churning clouds rolling over mountain peaks, chalky spits of rock, foaming shoals, sandy paths choked with sea grass, peeling paint on fish sheds, the crash of water on a shore, bleached docks that groan in tune. And the faces—so many faces. I’m greeted with a smile in a dozen ports as I come and go like the waves on the sand. Some call me by one name, some by another.
I smile back, and they never know. What I lack can only be seen by those who don’t have it. What man can tolerate insatiate longing? How can I thirst for something I have never tasted? Does a cup know it’s empty if it’s never been full? Yes it does—yes it does. I should be satisfied with having seen so much and known so many, but if one belongs in too many places, one doesn’t belong in any at all. Each claims a little swatch from the fabric of one’s soul, a little piece that can never be taken back. I have gained in my travels, but lost as well. My journeys, my memories, they all take something from me—I am not fully myself without them, yet I am not of them.
I try to suffocate the unquenchable hope that torments me, fed by every new smudge on the horizon. Will this be it? Is this the one I can call my own? No, I tell myself—don’t hope, you have hoped before. But I never listen. The familiarity of the hole in my soul is now its own sort of home—it has become a part of me. And the waters of disappointment will lap against me once more, leaving a salty crust on the coarse threads of my heart.
A patchwork cloak covers my soul, a fabric of many lands.
I wonder if the rugged shores of all the lands I’ve seen
—if joined by a thread of circumstance, and a needle shaped like me—
would fit together as a single cloth, seeped in the water of the relentless sea?
The bow sinks deep into the languid water and I watch a constellation of blue stars materialize below the gunwale. People don’t understand this eerie, transient glimmer—don’t know where it comes from, where it goes, why it glows. Do I? I follow the shimmering cloud as it slips astern, throbbing in the gurgling wash. If they don’t ask where you’re going, they ask where you’ve been. My eyes are dark, my skin is light, my tongue is forged of many metals. Even my blood cannot point me home. Have I become the ship beneath me? A Turtle—home on her back—birthed on land but bred for the lonely, billowing sea. Her shell is a patchwork—like me.
I look up to the untouchable sky, fused to the ocean at a faint, pencil-drawn horizon. The stars are set in whirlpools and eddies, radiant crystals in a stream—yes, even they are inconstant. Nothing is fixed in the swirling darkness, even the stars of the skies shift in unceasing tides.
But any hour now, the blinding brilliance of the night will shrink away with its breathy legions. Dawn is coming—I can see it seeping into the sky and feel the warmth of a new wind in the acrid, salty air. And yes—I admit it—I cast my eyes to the horizon, weak and helpless against the hope rising. For the home I’ve long had—but never seen. A home for a wanderer like me. And there my soul will shrug off its torn cloak—an ill-fitted, patched garment of many lands.
It will bask in the light on that bright, steady shore, and my soul will go to sea no more.