As my mind descended back into the reality of my body, I realized that what I had seen was not real…or was it?
Or was it the most real thing I had encountered in all my life?
Just as the coming of Captain Williams’ ship had expanded my knowledge of what was possible in this physical world, my experience in the water had blown away any notion of what I knew about the invisible world, that horizon across which there is no return. I had crossed it and returned. I had come within a mere whisper of reality itself.
What had I known before? What did I think I knew?
I now realized I knew nothing but fear and my tribe’s small settlement on the edge of the world. The water had brought me closer to life than any experience I had on this side of the abyss. I smiled at the irony and my father rushed down to my side, yelling a word he had called me all my life: my name. But it wasn’t really my name. I knew that now. I knew I wouldn’t be at home any longer until I was once more engulfed by the chaos and sunk inside her frigid womb.
Not even my woman’s arms would be enough for me after this taste of eternity. Yet as my mind reeled from darkness into the light, I knew I would spend several more decades with her before permanently joining the dark waters.
I slowly pushed my body up into a sitting position and looked around me.
“One of the men had to dive in after you,” said my father. “He saved your life.” My father pointed to one of the men circled around me, and sure enough, he was dripping wet in his brilliant white clothes.
Just yesterday I would have marveled at the bravery of a man who could dive into the waters, fearless. Now, however, I envied him. For a moment I felt the draw to heave the rail again and jump back into the water myself.
Finally, total coherence brought me to myself and I looked at my father. The only words I could say were, “My woman!”
He put his hand on my shoulder and delivered the news: “You cannot go back, my son.”
The words din’t register inside my head for a moment, then I felt the same sinking feeling in my stomach again. “What? But father — ”
“You will endanger our entire tribe if you go back,” he said gently.
“But how?” I asked, bewildered. I felt unforced tears roll down my cheeks before I even realized I was crying.
“I don’t know exactly,” said my father, “but Captain William and his men explained that there are very small dangers that they carry. So small we cannot see them. They will make you sick and you will carry these dangers to our people.”
I took in the news, even though it didn’t make sense to me. How could something be a threat to me if I couldn’t even see it? I began shaking my head violently, “No father! I must go back to her! She is all I want!” Then my chin finally dissolved into uncontrollable sobs. I had to tell my woman what I had seen in the abyss, tell her I was no longer afraid of the sea or even the prairie.
It was then that I looked up to the other men and examined their faces. I also became aware that the ship was moving away from my land. I scrambled to get up, but my father and several other men grabbed me and held me back, fearing another jump into the water.
Captain William made his way to the front of my vision and held his hands up, calming me down.
He pointed to the boat I had rowed out in, still sitting on the deck of the massive ship. Then he pointed to me and made a rowing motion toward land. But then he held up his hand and pointed to the sun with a finger.
This way he slowly communicated to me that I could row back to my land, but I needed to wait ten days before returning to my people. Otherwise I risked making them sick with the dangers of the ship’s men. I nodded as I understood and the plan became clear to me.
Captain William made it clear that if I became sick in those ten days, I had to stay away from my people until long after I was well. The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach began to elevate. I excitedly looked at my father, but as soon as I did, I realized what this would mean.
“Father…” I began. “You will not come with me, will you? You will not see my ceremony with my woman?” My mind raced all over again. “You will not see my sons grow strong or my beautiful daughters.”
For the first time in my life, a tear fell from the eye of my father. He went to speak once, but choked on a high note. “You will return to our people and you will lead them well.” He looked intently up and down my body, as if the outcome of his observation would determine what he said next. “You have now faced the waters. You are ready.”
I was shocked for a moment because I had not told my father anything about what I had seen under the water. The way he looked at me communicated that he too had encountered the ground of our being beneath the waves.
I nodded then, suddenly understanding the meaning in our moment.
“I will go back — ” I began, but I too was swallowed by more sobs. My father nodded knowingly and put his big, solid hand on my shoulder. Then he embraced me for a long time.
By the time he had finished embracing me, I looked up the ship and saw that other men had turned over my boat and attached it to ropes in order to lower it to the water again. I saw them putting packages of some kind into the hull, and I would later find that they had given me food and water — enough to survive the ten days apart from my people.
I knew my father and I had said enough words to one another, so I walked toward the boat and waited for the men to finish preparing it. When they had, I stepped over the edge into it. A giant metal arm lowered me by metal ropes down into the water with my food. As I descended back to the water, I felt no fear of the sea. I felt only deep sadness over leaving my father blended with uncontrollable joy to see my woman again.
It had only been a few hours since I was with her, but I realized as I began rowing that I never wanted to be away from her this long again. My rowing was fueled by this combination of excitement and grief. I laughed alone in my boat, and as I did, tears flooded my face. The laughter turned from joy into sobs, and eventually back into laughter.
My father stood on the deck of the ship the entire time I rowed away from him, watching me as I pulled my tiny vessel further from him until the waters bent us over the horizon and we could see one another no more.