An experiment in literature, philosophy, and the wonders of the internet

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Ancient Mariner

She had begun following him just a few days into his journey, but all Morris wanted was for her to leave him alone. As usual, she kept her distance, but made her presence known at night with her wailing. She seemed to be crying louder and longer of late, and he hadn’t slept peacefully in weeks. She’d been doing it long enough that he knew exactly where to find her if he went up on deck, trailing behind and off to the portside, a black silhouette hung against a blue-black sky, but despite her apparent loyalty he knew that consoling, cajoling, and even threatening her would do no good.

He didn’t know her name, if she had one, nor did he grasp the source of her grief. For some reason or another, however, she seemed to have picked him out among all of the sailors of the ocean, saving her song for him and him alone. Though he’d thought his trip would be a lonely one, she had made certain that he would not want for company, even the company of a mad-eyed and impossibly shrill mourner. It would only be a matter of hours, he knew, before she gave up her lamentations and resumed her usual daytime position just off starboard, but then he’d have to get up and tend to the sailboat, her beady and calculating eye ever upon him. He groaned and pulled the pillow over his head, but it was no use.

He’d had enough. Unable to stand it anymore, he sat up straight on his cot and wildly surveyed the darkened cabin before storming upstairs. Sure enough, there she was, trailing behind as usual. She acted as though she were tethered to the ship, only straying so far, but he’d give anything to cut her loose. He had no choice, he had to be rid of her. He scanned the deck desperately for something, anything, to discourage the bird or even terminate her completely. His gaze landed on the small but heavy compass Sarah had given him so long ago. Unbidden, his hand reached out and snatched it up. “Go away!” he cried as his bony but powerful arm hurled the compass out.

In that curious way that thoughts become muddled up so as to condense what would be a paragraph of written word into a single instant, Morris comprehended his mistake the moment the compass left his hand. This was not his first ocean voyage – more likely it was among his last – but the compass dated back to his first. He took his first trip as a young man, before he had been married, and Sarah had given him the compass with care but not much ceremony. His wife and his boat – he had clung to both, he identified with both, he allowed himself to be defined by both, and the compass had bridged the gap between the two. While on land he looked to the compass to remind himself of his wanderings, and while at sea the compass was a psychic anchor to his warm and breathing love.

Still the compass hurtled through the air. Morris was old, it was true, but his strength was still great and his aim was focused by rage. The albatross shuddered at the hit and fell, landing with its wings outstretched, an enormous white crucifix floating on the black sea. He was so tired, and now at least this was over. He would not need the compass, he told himself – there were always the stars to navigate by. He went back below deck and eased himself back into bed.

It was not an easy rest. Though sleep came quickly from exhaustion, his dreams were filled with icebergs and violent storms. There, drifting out in the distance he saw a barren rock of an island, carpeted in moss and snow. There was a singer, dressed all in white, her icy blonde hair obscuring her face as she sang of countless long dead sailors, lost loves and fathers and sons, of broken ships, and rusted anchors. Through the dreamy haze swam great monsters, a shark which made as if to eat him but through which he passed harmlessly, and a whale whose massive eye watched him, abstract and judgmental. Above him – all around him, really – he could hear the cries of the albatross mingle almost indistinguishably with the woman’s wailing song, and in some obscure way he felt the bird’s mad red eye upon him as well, though she was nowhere to be seen. Somehow he knew that the unseen avian eye was the woman’s – her hair veiled an eye that glinted unblinkingly and wept unceasingly, her song of lost souls though silenced in life was free to inflict the full force of her sorrows on this old and weary psyche. Not daring to face her, he ran from her accusations feverishly and found himself pressed against an enormous stone wall. He looked up and saw that it was the frigid island that had flashed into view earlier. He was standing on the ocean’s surface. It was freezing.

The ancient mariner woke up cold but sweating. His blanket had fallen off, and his feet, pearly translucent white and blue, were numb. He grumbled a brief curse and reached under the cot for his thick wool socks. Once he had dressed he went on deck to find the wind had died down but the still air was noticeably colder. A sea fog had rolled in, which was unusual for this far south unless the ship had drifted north in the night. He searched for his compass, and then the events of the night before drifted treacherously back. He remembered the corpse of the great bird, lain out like a cross in the water, by now probably eaten by a shark. He looked for the sun, but the fog was thicker than he’d ever seen and diffused the light far across the eastern half of the sky, assuming it was still morning – he looked at his watch, but it had ceased ticking. Its hands pointed to 4:30, stuck at the moment of his transgression. Morris cursed again, and a shadow passed over his head.

It was a seagull. It wheeled in mad loops around his ship, tracing a curved path through the mist but it kept its beady black eye upon him. It let out a malevolent squawk. Morris squinted up at it. “That other bird was a lot bigger than you. Don’t push me like she did.” The gull cawed again, and dove at his head. Morris felt a twinge of panic and fell to the deck, but it wasn’t necessary – the bird reversed its fall and arced upwards again. Finally it landed on the peak of his mast and glared down at him. “Get out of here!” he yelled, but it just cocked its head to watch him with its other eye. He charged the pole shouting and the gull launched itself into the air, made another dive at the prow of the ship, just out of Morris’ reach, before resuming its irrational and unnatural orbit.

Morris had to keep reminding himself that nothing supernatural had happened. He’d killed a bird, an act of anger and frustration, but the real loss had been his compass. Then he’d had a dream – a bad dream, an incredibly lucid dream, but just a dream nevertheless. The wind had died, but that was bound to happen every once in a while. Then the fog had descended, which was odd but explicable if he had drifted north as it seemed he had. In fact, the strangest thing was the motion of his ship. There was no wind, and miles upon miles of empty sea made it difficult to judge his progress, but based on the air, which was palpably colder by the hour, he was still moving north, and quickly. The black ocean had taken on a thin milky quality. A sharp cry drew his eyes upward and he saw that his antagonistic avian demon had been joined by two others. They flew silently now, trailing just behind him. He did not look at them, because he felt their eyes upon him. He felt as though he were being watched, and worse, accused, and he dared not look back at the birds out of fear that he was right.

The day dragged on in relative silence; Morris could hear nothing but the caressing icy waves and, if he concentrated hard enough, the rhythmic beat of sentinels’ wings – or was that his imagination? Night was falling, and for want of anything else to do Morris took out his fishing rod and set the line in the water. The gulls remained motionless in relation to the boat, but cried occasionally to ensure he did not forget their deliberate vigil. Morris attempted to remain indifferent to their presence – he could not allow them to realize how fundamentally their purposeful watch disturbed him. Darkness came quickly, and the fog lifted but a thick overcast obscured the stars. The sky was black and thick, and beneath the darkened mass hung other shapes, other clouds. As his baited hook floated stagnantly in the water his imagination took hold of the figures in the sky. There was a woman up there, gently unraveling in the wind, and there was a white dove, its head gradually turning towards the boat as it disintegrated in the air. It was the moon that truly caught his attention, however. Before the moon hung a strange skull-shaped cloud, the piercing white sphere forming a bright but blunted eye. Unlike the others, it did not dissipate. This shape was steady, it did not drift apart or even shift from its lunar socket. “It’s just a cloud,” said Morris out loud to nobody in particular, but no sooner had he said these words than he felt a change in the air. The gulls had moved, slowing down and ascending. He risked a glimpse at them and saw the first bearing down again, minions following suit. He leapt up, losing his fishing rod over the edge in his haste and bellowed “What do you want from me?” The gulls cawed clamorously in reply as the simultaneously swerved in different directions. They rejoined in mid-air, and hovered briefly before landing on the portside handrail. Morris made another charge, but the birds winged off lazily, made a wobbly circle around the ship and landed in mirror image on the opposite rail. Lacking binocular vision each could only keep one eye upon him, but they would occasionally whip their heads in the other direction to use both. “Shoo!” yelled Morris. “Get out of here!” But the birds didn’t flinch. He glared at them for a moment, eye-to-eye, but found himself overcome with shame and broke the connection. He shuddered to shake the feeling. “Damn birds,” he said, and decided to call it a night. Lord knew he wasn’t superstitious, so with any luck tomorrow would look more hopeful. Though he hadn’t expended much energy he found himself exhausted. If nothing else, a decent sleep would do him good. No sooner had he finished the thought than he found himself already dressed for bed in the voluminous darkness or the cabin, instinct having taken over his weary body. He crawled into bed.

He was so hungry, but at least he was warm. In his dreamscape he was back home, sitting at the familiar kitchen table he and Sarah had shared the past fifty-two years. The room was filled with the yellow-brown mist of history. Sarah was there too, and she was crying the way she always did when he left on these adventures. But her back was turned to him, and she would not face him. She seemed intent on something on the cutting board, and the thud of the knife meshed arrhythmically with her heaving shoulders and choking sobs. She called out Morris’ name. “I’m right here, Sarah,” he tried to tell her, “Give me some food, I’m starving to death.” She wept on, oblivious. “Turn around! Look at me! I’m right here!” Sarah looked up, but kept her back turned. Morris leapt out of his chair, and it toppled to the floor with an echoing crash. The noise reverberated and the floor fell out beneath. He scrabbled at the table, but felt himself slipping. Blackness had begun to pour down the walls, erasing most of the familiar surroundings except for the table and the kitchen window, which revealed an endless expanse of ocean – and Sarah, still unable to face him, now silent and motionless. “Sarah, for God’s sake, help me!” He was losing his grip – one of the legs of the table snapped off and spiraled infinitely out of sight. “Don’t you understand?” he cried, “I’m dying!” Slowly, she began to turn, and he was aware of a growing white sibilant sound, like a wind tunnel. Sarah was facing him now, and he saw the plate she had pulled out of the oven was empty. His eyes crept slowly up to her face, and watched in horror as his wife’s face blanched and drew gaunt, her skin crawled back to reveal a dull dry skull, its sockets windows to unending voids and he saw a miniscule glimmer from the opposite side of infinity, and Sarah’s voice continued to sob for him. Morris cried out, but his attention was suddenly drawn by a scrabbling at the window. A seagull was beating its wings against the glass.

Morris woke and glared blearily at the bird behind the glass of the porthole, one element of the dream that hadn’t evaporated upon consciousness. Sarah’s awful transformation flickered across his memory, and he made two wild sweeps about the cabin with his eyes before full recollection returned to him. He looked at the bird still outside the window. It was squawking angrily and slashed at the glass with its razor beak. He turned his back to the window as he dressed and began to hum a song from his youth to drown out the scratching. As he pulled his heavy peacoat over his shoulders he threw a furtive glance at the portal. The seagull was gone.

It wasn’t gone. He emerged into the diamond clear air and saw that there were five of them now, weaving in and out between each other, gliding as though suspended by fishing wire above the ocean’s glassy and boundless horizon. They kept their wings still, soaring on drafts too high in the atmosphere to catch his sail, five bone white specks on a field of steely gray. He could not see the sun, and with the clouds it could be dusk as easily as early morning. The wind howled high above his head, and if he listened closely, too closely, it sounded like a woman’s voice in the sky. He could almost pick out words.

It was time to be practical. Morris knew that. With his compass gone and no clear idea where he might be, and now his fishing line lost to the ceaseless ocean as well, he needed to seriously consider his food supply. Circumnavigation was a long voyage, so he had brought plenty of food. It would surely last him long enough to be rescued, if he was economical. He could boil water to drink as long as he had a pot and his generator worked. He opened the locker above his head and took out the heavy black case. It nearly covered the entire table in his crowded galley, and he clicked the latches open. Through the window of the so near bulkhead the sea and sky merged distantly and seamlessly. In the waterproof case lay several cardboard tube flares. He rummaged through his supplies and pulled out a strip of beef jerky. As he worked his jaw arduously on the tough blackened meat he gathered up the pot to collect some water.

Out of the corner of his eye, on the just discernable horizon, a light suddenly twinkled.

Morris froze, and turned slowly towards the window, staring urgently at blank neutral nothingness, and then – there, another flash. He grabbed the case of flares and hurried above.

Up on deck the drear gray endlessness felt more constraining than the claustrophobic cabin. And there, again, off to the portside and forward, the white shine flashed across the sea. He stumbled to the prow holding a flare above his head. Leaning over the edge he lit the base and the vaporous green spark burst upon the sky. He couldn’t help a moment of spiteful pleasure at noticing the gulls frantically swerve away from the minute explosion. He peered out into the murky distance desperate for a sign of recognition when the wind unexpectedly returned. He was fumbling for a second flare with frozen hands when the boom swung around and knocked Morris off his feet. He fell to the deck unconscious; his case dropped silently into the depths; the flashes in the distance shone again, closer now for comatose eyes; and a small pool of dark viscous blood began to form beneath Morris’ head. It seeped into the ocean and the spiderweb tendrils of red fanned out along the path of the ship.

Somewhere beneath the constant lapping waves a monster awoke as the blood insinuated into the water. Three sets of teeth revealed themselves horribly, yellow and jagged and multifarious.

Hours passed in absent blackness.

Morris awoke to find twelve seagulls perched on the edge of the sailboat all around him. They were all shapes and sizes, and twelve mismatched eyes looked down upon him. His head ached incredibly, and with the freezing air the pain was intensely highlighted. He gingerly sat up and the gulls launched simultaneously into the air. They began to spin about the ship again, their peripheries forming cracks on a massive invisible eggshell encompassing him. Morris achingly touched the back of his head – he felt the rough patch of caked and frozen blood where the boom had hit him.

He stumbled backwards from the pain and weariness. He eased back down to the deck and leaned against the rail. He wept, but he was not weeping for himself. He did not even feel as though it were himself weeping – but his eyes poured forth unbidden. He fought the hellish despair that crept into his consciousness, but it was no use. He was lost now, lost in time as well as space. He had no idea when the sun would set – for that matter if it had set already, or if it would set at all. All was gray, formless, boundless, desperate gray. He was crying and his tears fell irrelevantly on the sopping deck, mixing with the briny pools and washing overboard, while the distant wind wailed like a mourner at an ancient pagan funeral. Unbridled sobs shook his wiry frame as the wind’s song crescendoed, and he could not help but recall the song from that first night, the song of the wispy white ghost of his dream. The wind sang melancholic and harmonious, a morose howling phantom that seeked out sympathetic souls but destroyed that which it embraced. The song of the wind and sea! The final call heard by mariners for centuries, that wept for its own hapless victims, that warned its future lovers of its own danger. Darkness dropped.

In the moonlight, off in the distance but certainly closer now, the lights flashed again – and again! He had been spotted!

The lights gleamed intermittedly, always in sets of two but in varying frequencies. It wasn’t Morse, so what was it? A good sign in any case. The song of the ocean faded from his memory and the seagulls jeered.

It was impossible to say where reality ended and the dream began. He was still resting with his back against the rail watching the lights approach. They were shining steadily now, and bobbed up and down above the surface as they came ever nearer. Synchronously they rose and fell, higher and higher, and he began to make out the shimmery outline of an enormous figure gazing down on him with bright shining eyes. The silhouette became fleshed out in frigid white and took another massive stride towards him. The mouth of the great woman sadly, gently opened and the song began again. This time it was deafening and his wounded head throbbed in pain from the piercing beautiful cry. Her skin shimmered as though it were woven of the starry threads of comet tails, and her great and slender hand reached out for his ship. Her delicate fingers plucked Morris from his boat and lifted him up. Where her icy skin touched his Morris could feel thousands of clammy wet fingers writhing wormlike and prying at him. He twisted in distress and she drew him close to her lips. She leaned as if to kiss him, but he covered his face with his arm and kicked wildly with his feet. His heavy boot connected with her starry chin and the enormous ghost cried out in pain. Her soft wet flesh fell away as though it had turned to ash, leaving a grimy, barnacled, sea-rotten skeleton. Then, as if in slow motion, the massive glowing eyes tipped forward from the blackened skull. They fell, still twinkling, down and down. The skeleton’s great crusty fingers began to close around him and still the pure white orbs fell, until finally the first one hit the water.

Splash.

The terrible fingers were crushing him now, closed tightly in a fist around his old body.

Splash.

Morris awoke, but kept his eyes tightly shut.

Splash.

Oh God – his dream; how much of it was true? Where did it begin? Had it ended yet?

Splash.

Morris heard a chattering laugh, but it wasn’t the seagulls this time. The lights! Had his rescuers arrived? He opened his eyes. There was nothing there. And then, like a bolt from the depths a sleek black porpoise shot skyward, was framed against the sun for an instant and fell gracefully. A few feet away a second, larger porpoise leapt up and flashed in the air, and suddenly Morris knew that these two were his would be saviors, their flashing hides mistaken for a benevolent signal. The greater porpoise leapt again, mockingly jabbering as it curved a parabola in the air, jumping deliberately it seemed over Morris’ ship. The other followed suit, pin wheeling in the polar blue sky and then they were gone, the agitated energy which had brought them to that place expended with this brief encounter. They kept beneath the surface but he watched their departure until he saw one jump up a long ways off. He allowed his eyes to reach upwards and saw to his relief that the seagulls had left him, but the sky looked stranger than he’d ever seen. There was a thick cover of clouds that shielded most of the ocean from the sun’s stabbing rays, but directly above his ship, as clean as it had been cut with a scalpel, the sun had burnt an enormous circular hole. Encircling the ship, where the sun did not fall, the sea writhed and twisted darkly. All was still in his becalmed patch, and an iceberg like the molar of a giant floated serenely about a hundred feet off. There was a sudden sibilance of wings and a seagull rushed past him, and another, and another, a sudden rapid stream of birds all around him, flying level and violently curving upwards.

Constancy. Relentless, unforgiving constancy, beyond measurement, stretched on and on. The bitter ring of light, framed by a wheel of angry birds, rotated on its burning axis for hours. The waves rose up and down for miles, but the ocean extended further yet, forever and ever, constancy unbroken for centuries. Minutes dragged on like eons, and seconds uncounted and uncountable passed by like tears in the ocean.

Morris could not think of food, so he did not eat. He could not think of rescue, so he did not hope. The frigid liquid death that eagerly licked at his boat had soaked under his skin and seeped into his soul, so he could think of little else but the ocean, its fathomless depths twisting with slimy creatures and the forgotten dead, and that nearby violent surface, the black feminine curves of the waves a harsh imitation of the gentle horrible spirit that haunted his dreams of late.

The waves around him surged like the inhaling breath of Leviathan and crashed against the awful sea, but the calm spot surrounding him filled him with a greater fear. How far down did the calm extend? Was he floating in a dead zone of the ocean, or beneath that glassy surface did dark things writhe and wait, eager for his inevitable fall? Morris suddenly awoke himself from his dismal trance with a start. This line of thought would not help him – it was unlikely anything could help him, but relenting to the ocean’s constant demand for attention taxed his sanity. He stood deliberately up, scanning the horizon one last time before he turned, focusing on the small stairs leading to his insufficient refuge, the crowded and dreary cabin that rested just on the surface. He descended into his sanctuary and the gulls cawed as if on cue from up high.

Every motion was agony. His body groaned and cracked in protest as he eased himself onto the thin mattress which faced the window. He could still hear the gulls clamoring from above but by concentrating on the slanting horizon through the portal he could almost drown out their ugly noise in his consciousness. Back and forth the watery line tipped and Morris was lulled to sleep.

High above the twinkling sea he soared. His great white wings caught a warm updraft and he turned with it, dancing in the playful blowing wind. His was a limitless world, the horizon posed no boundary but was constantly renewed as he sailed unfettered onward. The ocean held no terror anymore, just a mighty backdrop to his unbelievable freedom. And now he heard the ocean’s song again, the song of his dreams and waking life, but now the song was his, and it vibrated in his air-light body with joyous force. Below he passed a multitude of ships, their awkward human inhabitants attempting to capture some humorous pale semblance of the liberation that was his element. The sailors hailed him with cheerful hollers and he flew on, laughing. He soared past the matchstick forest of wooden masts and far below he was able to pick out the silver flashes of fish beneath the waves, emerging and submerging as far as he could see. They were fleeing something, he could tell. He saw a storm riling the ocean in the distance. Then, in the water, a knife edge slicing towards the fish, he saw the triangular fin of a shark. A sudden burst of speed, the shark lunged like a torpedo and the turquoise water darkened red. Then there was another, drawn by the smell, and then a third opportunistic predator. The maroon patch widened under Morris as silver scales and bits of flesh floated to the surface. Morris watched the feeding frenzy from safety on high indifferently. But a sudden blow of unseen origin struck him – Morris reeled, thunder bellowed, and he felt an enormous weight around his neck. He plummeted down and down to the ever growing circle of blood. He saw his own shadow on the surface, growing inexorably larger, and one of the knife edges closing in. The great mouth surged above the water as he plunged into it; the blood-stained icy water soaked into his heavy wings. He was awash in bitter cold and doomed, and then all was darkness.

A great wave washed over the ship, rocking it violently. Morris woke up choking on briny water and terror. He sputtered desperately, and another wall of water battered the sailboat, violating his sanctuary and throwing him against the bulkhead. He struggled to the stair, buttressing himself with his thinning arm. Above deck the world seemed to have tilted on its side. Long sharp needles of rain hammered down upon him and another wave reared and fell on the prow like a fist. Water, water, everywhere. The ship tipped back and the prow rose high into the air, though the boat stayed stubbornly afloat. A biting wind howled through his bones and the sail snapped and tore from the mast, whipping and pointing urgently at nothing. All around him icebergs whirled, frozen jagged spearheads bobbing in encouragement of the angry sea. A wave rose up behind him and the ship was carried up backwards in painful slow motion. Back and back, like an arrow drawn back in a terrible bow, and then the tension was suddenly released. The frigid water shoved him forward and his ship plowed into one of the many massive bergs. The ice shattered with the blow and daggers of frost joined the stabbing rain. His ship splintered and broke; the deck fell beneath him. Morris was plunged into the water and he felt a fleeting sense of déjà vu amidst his terror. From the instant wreckage debris sprung outward. Morris flailed wildly and his hands grasped a hunk of wood. He pulled himself up and saw it was the tiny table from his galley. The ocean roared one final time, and abruptly fell still. The black clouds fled, revealing the bright blue sky.

The sun shone now, not warming but scornfully. All traces of the ship were gone except for him, his table, and a barrel of dried fish that floated serenely now on the opaque surface.

The crime was committed and there was no undoing it. The trial was now over, and the verdict was guilty. The punishment was decided, and his ship was crushed in the falling of the massive icy gavel. The only thing that remained was the serving of his sentence, and until justice was satisfied he was at the mercy of the supremely pitiless waves that bore him to his cell.

Had it been hours? Had it been days? The woman’s song drowned out the passage of time; an eternity was synonymous with a moment. This time the song came not from the wind, not from the sea, not even from a visible vengeful spirit. Instead it echoed entirely in the confines of his own head, her music rising from the various pains that accompanied him – the salt water ever on the not so old wound from the boom was just one part of the woman’s unholy harmony. He watched impassively as gull after gull lighted on the barrel and drew out the limp and salty fish.

Morris could feel himself slipping away in the ocean. The mighty unsatisfiable power obliterated the distinction between sailor and sea as his blood subtly, unnoticeably to most, mingled with the murky brine. Then a change, a beacon in the darkness of perpetuality, he began to make out a dark shape arrowing towards him, following the snaking vines of blood through the water. He saw the pointed fin rise above the water, he saw the blunted head and bloodied mouth, and though he knew what was coming, he welcomed it. It would not be long now. His ordeal was nearly over.

Like a submarine surfacing the shark burst through the barrel. Slats of wood and brackish fish exploded all around him. Morris watched impassively as the beast gorged itself, awaiting his turn. He watched what he assumed was a premonition of his own fate as if from far away, and merely prayed that his death would come quickly. It wouldn’t.

The shark devoured the last of the fish, and turned its onyx eye upon him. Morris did not scream, his only concession was to peacefully close his eyes – and death did not come. Suddenly the land rose up beneath him, pushing powerfully away from the man-eater. He was being carried – no, it wasn’t land but Leviathan himself – an enormous gray whale. The whale held him above the surface and he could make out its great speed from the wake trailing behind. He let his weakened neck rest and his head fell on the whale’s back. With great effort he rolled over, clutching the impossible creature like a child. He could feel the steady rhythm of the massive heart pulsating through him, and the ocean spray burst around him. The line between sea and sky was distinct now, and a dark shape loomed on the starkly defined horizon. It grew as the whale approached and Morris began to feel an uneasy sense of recognition.

A barren rock of an island, carpeted in moss and snow. It seemed like years since he’d seen it first, the night of the albatross. It was the island of his dream. The shark was simply meant to mock him, a deliberate attempt to mislead, but now he was certain – this was his fate, his final resting place. The island drew nearer. The obsidian rock was desolate except for a single white tree jutting up from the highest peak, twisted and beaten by the cold wind and desolate environment. As the whale swiftly approached this place of death he began to make out the shape of the tree on the jagged precipice. It was her – he saw her now for the first time in waking life, his tormentor, his obsession, the singer of the ocean, manifest of death, reluctant and terrible and beautiful.

The whale drew up to a low squatting rock, separate from the others. It waited patiently beside the stone, expelling a jet of sea water into the air in signal. Morris knew what was expected of him. He gathered up the last of his energy and slowly crawled from the whale to the unfeeling stone. His escort snorted disdainfully again, releasing another icy spray and resubmerged with a slap of its great tail. The wind blew, howling, singing, and the forst-paled leaves of the distant tree rustled and whispered.

Sarah was on her knees in the backyard garden of the home she and Morris had shared all those years. It was a fine spring day, the sun twinkled and a few clouds lazily traversed the deep blue sky. A robin hopped and chirped by the roots of the oak tree. A light breeze gently disturbed the branches of the great tree and squirrels tittered angrily at the elements, but Sarah just laughed and hummed a hymn as she yanked out weeds with her thick gloves. She heard the beat of wings, too heavy to be a songbird, and turned her large bonneted head in curiosity. A seagull, lost and far from the water, had landed on her peaceful lawn. It glanced around the premises, and caught her eye. “Shoo!” she said, waving her hands away. It mechanically cocked its head, let out an obscene caw, and took off again, flying back to sea.