'That's not fair, you know. If we knew when we were going to die, people would lead better lives.'
'IF PEOPLE KNEW WHEN THEY WERE GOING TO DIE, I THINK THEY PROBABLY WOULDN'T LIVE AT ALL.'
– Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
I met a raven last week, old and wise. She told me to imagine an ocean. Go ahead, you should too.
She told me to imagine an ocean that makes up all the world. From here to there and every horizon beyond that is just the lapping of the waves and the salty winds. You are sent off into this great blue in a rickety canoe and attempt to cross it.
The travel is tough: your arms are tired from all the paddling, your legs feel cramped inside your little box floating above the depths, and all while the sun glares down on you with a disapproving gaze you can’t shake. Others around you struggle in boats of their own – some as little or meeker than yours, and others towering in an excess of luxury comforts.
People give up and let their boats take on water. Some of them cast it all aside to lose themselves among the coral kingdoms of the reef, or the forests of kelp below, never to return. Others call out from back where you started, saying they’ve seen shortcuts across the sea and will show you the way. But you keep going.
Up ahead are the wakes of boats. Thousands of them. Trails that go this way and that, and you know that following one will lead you to the places where others have dropped anchor to rest. There are no signs telling you which way is right or where to go but people seem to have found their path on this vast ocean anyway. Clearly, the journey is possible, it has been done before. That gives you a little hope.
You follow a trail up to a ship flying a flag with a large yellow and orange fish on a sky blue field. You nestle up next to it.
'Hey where are you going and how do you know the way?' you call out.
A short woman in a yellow robe leans out from the railing above and smiles down at you like the dawn itself. She introduces herself as a priest. Then she points skyward.
'Look up there,' she says. 'The light of the Great Sunfish guides us on our path each day. It showers us with blessings on our long journey toward the Distant Shore where we can find peace forever after.'
This sounds promising, if a little confusing.
'But how does it work?' you call out to clarify. 'How does the sun give you what you need or show you the way? It just makes me thirsty and burns my back on my travels.'
'You must believe, you must pray, and you mustn’t sin,' she says in a kindly voice. 'Only the faithful will be rewarded, and if the light burns, then you must repent for your sins first. Only then can the Great Sunfish forgive you and show you to the Shore at the end of your journey.'
Sins? What does this lady know of your sins? What sins? And as far as you know, the sun burns everyone equally. No one has it easy on the ocean, right? And you’re supposed to just believe and the blessings of some big fish in the sky will come your way? How does that even work? The promise of this Distant Shore sounds enticing though, but why wait until the end of the journey to find it? Perhaps you can search for it yourself, here on the ocean.
You thank the lady for her advice and wish her lots of shade on her travels. She glares daggers back at you for that comment. You’re not sure why.
You continue onward and when you get stuck on which direction to go, you try praying to this Sunfish for guidance. Silence. In time though, you come to watch the way the wind suddenly changes, or how the clouds in the sky form shapes, or even the swirling patterns of fish darting about below in the blue. Meaning where there once was nothing. You swear it all must be signs sent to answer your pleas. What else could it be? But sometimes it leads you into bad weather, or leaves you hungry by the days end, or maybe you plead and there is no response, no pattern to see. This whole Sunfish business is more complicated than it seems.
You keep travelling.
Seeking more concrete answers, you follow the wake of a ship so large it darkens the sky wherever it passes. As the vast vessel comes into full view, you see it glittering and gleaming in the gentle light of its lanterns. There are all manner of sparkling jewels and gemstones, carefully crafted statues and paintings, and ornately arranged trophies bearing the skulls of sea beasts whose visages once haunted the imaginations of sailors. A man in eye-bleedingly vibrant purple silks paces on the deck, his gray-streaked brow furrowed deep in his thoughts. The warm aroma of incense and saffron waft on the breeze, and a melodious flute plays out from some hidden crevice.
You call out to him over the music. 'Hey where are you going and how did you find a boat with all those treasures?' you ask.
He looks you over and introduces himself as a humble merchant.
'What you see before you I gathered all by the sweat of my labours, buying and selling from morning till dusk and the next dawn again,' he says. 'In my youth I started out much the same as you in a boat twice as small and half as high. Look where I am now.' He gestures out wide.
You gaze up at the grand display. 'So all I have to do is keep working till I get a ship like yours?' you ask. 'Then I can just sit around in comfort and make new friends to talk with and admire my treasures all day like you? That sounds amazing.'
The merchant frowns. 'You will have no time for friends or comfort or admiring, you must keep working,' he says. 'There are always more goods to buy and sell, more treasures to accumulate, bigger ships to buy. Now run along and start your fortune, I’ve got work to do.' He tosses a gold coin your way and returns to his thoughts. The coin is engraved with the eye of a great sea beast. Its gaze makes you feel cold and distant from yourself.
No friends or comforts? You wonder if he ever feels lonely in the halls of that huge vessel. How many chairs sit around unsat, how many beds are unslept in, rooms unlived in? How many of those wonderful treasures grow gardens of dust upon their surface and are forgotten? It must be nice to have all of that stuff though, just in case you needed it, in case you had time for it. You’ll try working as hard as you can, but then be sure to appreciate what you get. Surely you’ll know when to stop. Surely you can ride the tides of greed and keep your head in the process.
You thank the merchant for his advice and turn to leave. As you do, you notice there are no paddles or even sails on his ship. There is however, a thick mast that spews billowing gray clouds into the sky, taking up the roads once roamed only by birds. It makes you a little sad. You’re not sure why.
You continue onward and when you get the chance, you buy a small shipment of exotic fruits that you’ll sell to hungry travelers and grow your fortune. The first person you call out to sell to passes you without even a glance. How rude? Yet over time, you learn how to catch the attention of others and keep it long enough to sell them goods they never knew they wanted. You work your way to a bigger ship with a sail. Each purchase lets you buy more stock which leads to more purchases in an endless loop. If you keep working like this for long enough, you’ll have a treasure trove taller even than your mast! But the nights start to get lonely, and the faces of strangers start to wear on you, and the skies darken by the day. You think back to that old merchant and what all his endless toiling had cost him. That won’t be your fate. You won’t let it be. Perhaps it’s time to slow down and see what else is out there. Who would’ve known how easy it was to get hooked on piling up more wealth than you know what to do with, on trading time for treasure? Greed may be a sin, but it feels damn good in the moment.
You get back to sailing.
The seas only get rougher as you set out for answers for the last time. You can’t help but focus on how vast and empty the ocean is. Storms begin to stay longer and longer, the colours feel like they’ve drained away from the world, even the air feels heavier and harder to breathe. And from the flashes of light in the warring sky, you catch glimpses of what lurks in the depths of the sea. Things that man was not made to comprehend when he first climbed out from the blue. Sunken marble titans cling to rusted bronze swords that only barely pierce the waves, ghostly eyes gaze out from the burnt husks of ancient cities now crumbling into the tides, and a great leviathan crushes ships with shadowy tendrils as it tears the very stars from the sky to swallow their beauty whole. Your mind tries to make sense of what it sees but comes up short. Despair gnaws at you. Who ever thought they could make it across this ocean? What fools. Look how small we all are to it? How easily our greatest efforts fall to the crashing waves? And worst of all, the ocean isn’t like this out of hate. It doesn’t care about us, or anything really. A fire doesn’t want to burn down a ship, it just does. What good is hope in the face of such cosmic indifference? It’s petty naivety. And no prayers or gold will save you now. Not in the heart of this storm.
But then, amidst those raging waters you see a light. It is a pinprick, but a steady one in that world where the sky is falling out into the sea. It can’t get any worse than this. So you head towards the light. Your sails are slashed open by the rain, your mast snaps from the brawling of the winds, and finally the deck is shadowed by a wave that towers up like a gaping maw. It crashes down a moment later and washes you overboard into the murky depths.
You awaken, trembling and coughing up water onto the floor of a stark metal bunker-like room. Beside you, a young man in a yellow coat adjusts his glasses to get a better look at you. His specs are peppered with rain drops that he seems not to notice. The storm. You can hear it in the distance outside, muffled by the safety of this company you’ve found yourself in. For now.
'You’re safe here but are you okay?' he asks. 'You hit your head when that wave threw you over. I only barely managed to fish you out.'
Okay? Is he joking?
'Of course not!' you say. 'Have you seen what’s out there? And my boat is gone. Not that it mattered when everything sinks into the sea anyway! But regardless you should’ve just let me go . . .'
He pauses for a long moment, watching you behind haunted eyes. He’s seen things too, you realise.
'I suppose you’re right,' he says. 'Everything we make will fall into the sea, all our deeds will be forgotten, and even the ocean itself will dry up one day.'
You feel a weight settle on you. 'We mean nothing in the grand scheme of things,' you say, defeated.
He nods. Then by some force of will you cannot understand, he smiles. 'Good thing we don’t live in the grand scheme of things then.'
'What’s that supposed to mean?' you ask.
'It means who cares if nothing lasts forever? Would it really change so much if it did? We would still be sailing on this sea, and the stars would shine just as beautifully, and chocolate would still taste just as good –'
'And mosquitoes would still be pricks,' you offer.
He smiles again. And by some miracle and a growing warmth you feel within, you do too.
'You’re either a madman or one of those obnoxiously positive optimists,' you say. 'I don’t believe in that kind of forced happiness. It’s false and naive, left for those too weak to face reality.'
'Oh I agree with you,' he says. 'Forced happiness is bullshit. The sea is not always bluer on the other side. But even if it’s naive, I think it takes a tremendous amount of strength to care about something, anything on this ocean. Hope isn’t something that weak people do. And your hope brought you here.'
'But I’ve seen what’s out there, and now I can’t unsee it,' you say. 'The sea doesn’t give a single drop about us.'
'Perhaps not,' he says. 'But people also came from the sea, and they can care about each other.'
You sit in silence together for a while before he rises.
'You were on your way to my ship when you went down,' he says. 'Let me show you what I’m actually here for.'
He leads you through tight steel-lined hallways dimly lit by faded fluorescent lights. Down the stairs. Past the tiny window that gazes out into the darkness. You are below the waves you realise. Finally you come to the lowest point of whatever kind of vessel this is. The room is a plain metal box and a dark one at that. But then the man in yellow presses a button on a benchtop off to the side, and a thin stream of blue light spills into the chamber from below. The metal floor panel draws back to reveal a glass layer gazing out into the depths.
Out there are hundreds, no, thousands of tiny blue lanterns. A night sky of glowing jellyfish bobbing to the gentle rhythm of the waves. Wonder seems too simple a word for all this. It is hope and awe and joy and wonder all bound up together in kinship.
Even here in the darkest reaches of the depths, life has found a way to make light. Somehow.
He turns to you with a wicked grin on his face, and walking over, he grabs a bottle of rum out from the cupboard and pours two glasses. You take one kindly and are lost for words.
'Cheers,' and a clinking of glasses is all you can think of.
But just before you both take a sip, he interrupts.
'Oh and I lied to you before. There is one thing that survives the unstoppable march of time, you just need to go looking for it every now and then.'
'Enlighten me,' you jest.
You both glance down and smile in agreement.
He raises his glass for a second time. 'Here’s to celebrating the light we can find, and making light where we don’t.'
I asked the raven what the point of her story was. She looked at me with those soul-piercing eyes for a moment.
'That’s 22 down, spend the rest wisely,' she said, then flew off into the setting sun.