« 1 »
There was no light nor any star patterns in the sky. The darkness has been complete at nights, and there was still over a month left of winter.
The ship rocked slightly in the wind but no gust was strong enough to make it move even a hair’s width between the ice plates. The single mast creaked tiredly amidst the howling air.
The vessel’s only inhabitant leaned back against the deck and adjusted his body to blend in with the frozen wood.
“This isn’t the end,” he thought. Once the ice plates began to melt, it wouldn’t take long to find land. He only had to last until then.
He had called himself Catayo, which was the word for “Man” in the language of the sea. He was also Hunter and Fish-Catcher, but while there were other hunters and fish-catchers in the seas, he was the only man among them.
Tales say that man’s and ship’s minds inevitably become one after a week in the open waters, but Catayo had been away from land long enough to shape-change his form as well.
His last hunt was over ten suns ago, and he’d barely left the deck since the water hardened and the endless nights began. The wind passed through his wooden mast of a body and his eyes became dark salty puddles, gleaming above the captive ship’s dreams.
Sleep was the only thing he still had control over in this tree-like state, and that was fading fast. The ship rocked rhythmically, the night was far from over, and even trees needed rest.
He tried to hold onto thoughts of fish and mending a worn-out sail, but there was not a speck of light above or below, the sea hummed his will away, and the mast creaked slowly and steadily, as if through a vacuum.
His lids lowered over all that, heavy and pulling him into a deep winter dream.
« 2 »
The city was a monument to astounding excess, bordering on fantasy. Huge glass structures sprung out of glowing cement and an ever-changing mosaic of windows lit up in tune with an almost-audible melody of the gigantic metropolitan machine. Looking down onto the serene serpent-like procession of red and white bumper lights circling the island’s superhighway, the certainty and the inevitability of the city’s demise seemed ever the more obvious.
This thought occurred to him on the sparkling car of the train, as it carried him away from the beautiful doomed giant.
The vagabond’s words rang in his ears: “The city will perish, its streets will be filled with smoke and rubble, and the war that follows will drive whoever hadn’t left before away. Leave now, abandon your possessions and go.”
And then, he remembered, the old beggar turned his wise, blind eyes to the sea.
No one had listened back then. No one believed in the dark visions. The vagabond’s words remained disregarded by the people of the city. Ignored by all but one.
The train paused on a bridge and he shifted his weight from one foot to another in a wave of uncertainty. Why was he running? Why did the echoes of the blind man’s prophecy make him walk past the door to his home and into the train station, numb hands paying for the first ticket away? His conscience, his loyalty to the city cried out against the garbled instincts to flee.
At that moment, he felt himself torn by an urge demanding an immediate return. Unable to fight it, he rushed to the train car’s glass wall, and threw his body against it.
The city on the other side of the barrier sparkled and glowed, its myriad lights so calm and innocent and gently scorning him for this treachery. He let out a cry of anguish and collapsed, his fists beating futilely against the thick glass, as the train resumed its course, taking him away and leaving his home behind.
« 3 »
He awoke in cold sweat, the boat around him covered in glittering icicles and rocking softly as ever.
“I am Catayo,” he reminded the night out loud, his voice breaking. “I am Man.” He tried to move his legs and noticed they were trembling as well. “I am Man, I am Man on Boat, on Ice, on Sea.” His entire body shook and the weight of the nightmare refused to let go.
With great effort, he sat up and willed his knees to bend, crossing his legs. Contorted into a more human position, he forced his breathing into a steadier rhythm and chanted the dream ghosts away.
“I am Man, on Boat, on Ice, on Sea. I am Man, sailing on Boat, over Ice, through Sea, through Caves, through Winter.”
The pain in his joints was subsiding under the frost in the air and an uneasy calm washed over the initial onslaught of fear. It must’ve been the cold and the sea, causing feverish visions of strange cities and escaping danger. A man, alone, on a boat, stuck on thick ice in open seas was bound to catch a frost sickness, or worse. Nightmares were common among the exhausted sea folk.
He inhaled sharply and swallowed a pinch of snow. The moon was off somewhere beyond his eyes, but he could tell the night hadn’t begun to retreat yet, and every shadow spoke of the dream demons.
He shivered, leaning back against the deck, and closed his eyes to escape them, but the strange landscape of an unknown city appeared clearer than ever. He fought the vision, fought the spider web of streets that couldn’t have been familiar, the lights that glowed without exhuming smoke, and the strange vessel made out of metal, rocking and humming, ta-dum, ta-dum, and taking him to a place he fought most fiercely against.
« 4 »
He came to as the train’s bells chimed to signal the end of the line. Barely conscious, he stumbled out of the train car, onto an empty platform. The bells chimed once more, and the train left the station, its lights off. The dream of the frozen boat lingered for a few seconds and faded, as his eyes fell on a dirty newspaper with what looked like the vagabond’s face on the ripped page.
Almost in the back of his mind, he heard the city explode. Still in a haze, he turned, and saw the sky tinted red above where the city was supposed to be, where he just was, and where a black swarm of what looked like giant birds were raining comets onto a gigantic bonfire.
He ran, not knowing where, not feeling his feet on the ground, the faces of the millions of people of the city before his eyes. In his ears rang their beautiful, proud voices, full of love and belief in their magical metropolis. Never doubting its power to survive.
The voices and the faces swerved and blended into a soul-churning hum, while he ran and stumbled and kept on running. Ahead loomed the face of the blind old man, a cut-up newspaper photo, opening his mouth and inside the mouth was him, running. Running toward a boat, the boat rocking softly over ice and twilight.
He jerked awake and sat up, gasping. It was still night and the only shape he could make out in the dark was the boat’s single mast, eerily shimmering a few feet away. He tried to speak, his tongue helpless and held captive by the spreading fever.
“This isn’t the end,” he forced his mind to remember. It couldn’t have been. No matter how bad the dream demons got, the night would have to come to an end, the fever would retreat, and the ice would let the boat pass. He felt land close-by, almost within his reach, and where there was land – there was life and hope.
Shaking and weak, he tried to reach for a handful of snow, but reality was slipping away. His fingers grew into gray thin lines, lines turned into gray patches, patches of hair, thin gray hair around the beggar’s face, and he gasped as the dream carried him back in.
All he knew now was that he was no longer running. He was standing before something black and wooden and moist and it wasn’t letting him go any further.
He dropped his head against the indeterminate obstacle and exhaled coarsely. The next breath he took brought him upwards in sudden alert. It smelled of salt.
A vile suspicion was rising up in him and he jumped back, away from the damp wooden wall. Somewhere, in the distance, he heard flapping of bird wings and soon after, a seagull’s troubled cry. And lit by the flashes of the exploding red light from behind him, the wall was no longer a wall, but a boat. The boat, the wooden boat with the single mast, the boat in the vagabond’s eyes, the boat in all his dreams, the boat he now clearly remembered getting into and sailing the best he could, away from the destroyed city. The boat he spent months on, becoming Man, Hunter, and Fish-Catcher, sailing and forgetting all about the city, and shape-changing to be part of the sea in. The boat now trapped on sea, on ice, in the night.
« 5 »
His eyes sprung open and it was early dawn. The snow was melting around him into small puddles. The memories were still there, and clearer than ever, no longer horned ghosts of the night, allowing him to stir awake. For the first time in weeks, hunger was in his stomach, signaling the fever’s retreat.
He was still weak, but standing came easier somehow in the rays of the morning sun. He rose off the deck and faced East, and even before his eyes adjusted to the light, he knew that ahead of him lay a stretch of land. The boat was at rest among the ice-plates, but the ice was moving, had been moving throughout the entire night, and it was taking him closer and closer to a now certain sunrise.