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Tue Sep 13, 2011 10:46 am

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THE SOULS

Up ahead, a storm is rolling.

The rain lashes the rocking waves like carving whips, before becoming part of the sea again, dissolving into the columns of foam rising in defiance to meet the bright amber forks of lightning.

On the shoreline, a group of feeble excuses for human beings stand in a huddle watching their ship go down. She is a wooden masterpiece, the pride of the fleet. Now, with all the other flagships sunk, she is the last to fall.

The smallest of the 20 or so only survivors wipes droplets from her face. She isn’t crying – she is just numb. The rain on her head makes her beautifully arranged hair tumble to her waist, the pearls used to keep it in its bun bounce and sink in the wet sand.

She cranes to see the wreckage of the ship, feeling an eerie urge to watch her sink for the final time. The adults are all shellshocked, their faces ashen against the gloom, holding onto themselves as if they keep them hanging onto reality. You can almost see their flurry of anxious thoughts fly around their heads like little twittering birds, thinking of survival possibilities on this little strip of land.

This was never supposed to happen. The armada was sailing peacefully until they met the raging typhoon full-on. The passengers were awoken nearly at midnight to roaring gales and massive night-black waves that smashed on deck like hammers in a forge. Sailors ran everywhere in a fear-induced panic, professionalism abandoned when they saw that there was no hope of a safe landing in any port. This was the middle of the ocean. They had to save themselves.

Many were picked off by the torrents that swamped the decks-the powerful recoil pulled whoever was standing in it. The little girl had seen many go that way; an old man who could barely cry out for help, a young boy and his pregnant mother who got stuck in the wave. There was no hope for those souls; they were forgotten amidst the chaos. This child saw them though, and prayed for them amidst the rage of the storm.

She curls and uncurls her fingers, entwining them together to rub out the cold that seeps through her skin. She is soaking wet, her pretty dress in rags and clinging to her shivering form. The dyes have run and she looks like a bedraggled sort of butterfly, unable to take flight.

The wood of the Imperial Flagship groans and shudders violently, like a death rattle. Then with a great sigh like she is exhaling and falling into sleep, she slides gracefully into the sea.

There is no noise from the survivors, just a spreading silence as they observe this scene. The girl is not looking. She buries her head in her ragged blanket like a bewildered hermit crab without its true shell and says nothing.

One of the adults notices her amidst the crowd, one of the old veteran sailors who had clung to the wreckage of the crow’s nest to save himself. The worry lines that crinkle his face into many little ridges shifts as he smiles at her. She needs a friendly face the most out of the entire group, being the only child that has come out with her life.

He wonders about her fine clothes – there had been no noble families aboard. Had he just not noticed her on the voyage?

She looks up out of her muff and catches his eye, her eyes locking into his own. She grins weakly, showing neat white teeth. He turns away, then looks back over his shoulder, feeling sorry for her, with no family, alone on a remote beach.

The sky is still a diluted grey, and thunder roars like a caged lion around them. Their sinking vessel is obscured by mountainous waves that crash onshore, as wind whips their hair and tears at their clothes like sharp razor blades.

The old man shouts at the survivors to get away from the shore, his frantic howls drowned by the gales that whip and bite into his weather-beaten face like wild dogs.

They are picked off like little bemused rabbits-the smart ones move and follow the old deckhand on unsteady feet, but some are too shocked and cold to register his voice in their pneumonia-addled brains. One fellow just drops like a stone, dead of cold, as the seawater washes around his bare legs.

Like on the ship, the massive walls of water crash onto the passengers, dragging them down to the deep abysses of the sea. Many let them, embracing the strong rocking force of the currents, their bodily functions succumbing to the freezing ocean that penetrates down through their bones, turning the blood in their veins to ice.

The old man urges the dozen or so that are left to higher ground, still shouting, hurrying on stragglers. They are on a gently sloping hill now, overlooking the narrow, exposed strip of island. A small cave embedded into the cliffside provides a miniscule amount of shelter and they all squeeze in like sardines in a tin.

The old man ventures out into the storm and manages to bring back a handful of thin branches. Laying them on the floor, he takes out a sopping wet cigar lighter and lights the pile. A long tongue of flame leaps from the wood but it is weak, and the old man knows that this fire won’t last long.

He tries to cheer up the surviving bags of bones that sit, shivering, in front of him, but fails. He looks across at the little girl for support. She is still hanging on, and looks more comfortable than all the grownups. Clutching her muff to her heaving chest, she shudders, but manages another strained smile. The old sailor sighs like the wind and tries to warm his hands on the hiccupping fire, which still seems to be deciding whether to go out or not.

He decides to tell a story of the sea.

“Are you listening?” he asks the group, and some nod back. The little girl peeps out from her blanket and looks at him long and hard. She is interested.

“Good.

I have a story for you all. Once, around these parts it is said, a ship rather like our Lady sank just off the rocks on this coast. It was a royal ship, from Japan bound for Rio. It was a beautiful wooden dragon, perfect for leisurely sails along the coast but no match for this vile Cape Horn.”

He pauses. The little girl peers at him, her wide eyes entranced. They shine in the dim firelight which illuminates the others’ haggard faces.

“The crew tried in vain to rescue those on board, the nobles, their children, but everyone perished. The last to die was a small girl. She was a concubine, a lowly wife of the Emperor. She stood on the remains of the torn mast as it sank, clutching at it in vain, but the water swallowed her. It is said that the villagers on land at Cape Horn saw a lonely albatross, an Antarctic seabird, fly around the wreckage before disappearing into the mist.

Years later, a native man of what is now known as southern Argentina failed to return from a fishing trip to raise funds for his poverty stricken family. His wife received a knock on the door late that night, when she was just about to go to sleep. She glanced out hesitantly, and saw a young girl standing sodden on her doorstep. She looked tired and worn out, her long hair tangled around her shoulders. She carried an oriental looking old lantern, decorated with gold and silver dragons and swirling shapes. The woman took pity on her, even in her own grief, and invited her in. The girl, however, stayed where she was. Looking at the woman gravely, she spoke in a soft voice.

“Your husband is safe in the better place.”

The woman stared at this child, and burst into tears. She sobbed out all her sadness and torment and the little girl stayed and watched her cry. She stood up and sniffed.

“I am sorry, thank you. But who..?”

The girl was gone, but in the clouds the woman could see an albatross slip through the deep blue of the sky, buffeted on the wind. It sailed into the distance and the woman watched it in wonder. Her future seemed to separate, and she knew what to do, how to cope, how to get on with life. The simplicity of just one bird, the air, seemed to calm and rationalise her mind. And though she didn’t know the girl, she felt that her husband really was safe, in the sky like the albatross.”

The old man sighs again, looking at the survivors. He watches the fire until it seems like eternity, until the flames die. It is pitch black, and the sub-zero temperatures are taking their toll on the weaker group members. Their eyes are sunken and hollow, their lips a sickly lilac, hands crumbling with the frostbite, their arms flopping uselessly at their sides like unnecessary lumps of skin, no fibre, no bones. He feels so tired, but they have to hold on until they are strong enough to travel inland. He wonders how many will die before then.

The other little girl shivers again, but she alone is serene despite the appalling conditions. She huddles in a ball and rides out the cold, smiling to herself.

The storm is still not subsiding, but the daylight shines a little through the threatening clouds. The old man’s stomach is tearing itself inside out, but he daren’t eat any of the wild plants. There are no rivers or streams around, just the vast, salty ocean.

Days pass. One the third day one of the weakest just wastes away and never wakes up. In desperation, some try to eat the corpse, but the old sailor shoos them away and leaves it outside for the birds. He has made a small bow and arrow from some thin bark off the trees outside their cave. The weather is rainy still.

They shoot down birds and take down small rodents, but three die the next day. They are peaceful in death, curled around each other for warmth. There are only four left, the old man, the girl and two others.

On the seventh day, one man leaves the cave for food and never returns. His companion is deteriorating rapidly, his face hollow and devoid of life and vigour. The old man, though hardy, knows he is wasting away too. He accepts this, but is confused as to why the girl is still alive and not feeling the harsh conditions. She keeps them going, this is true. But why hasn’t she succumbed to the lack of food or water?

On the ninth day of almost no food and precious little water, the old sailor collapses. Lying on the floor in the cave, he realises that the other man’s body is next to him, cold and dead, dead, dead. The words echoed in his head. You are next, my friend.

The little girl looks into his eyes, and seems reassured that he is still alive. His breath rises and falls in puffing, hacking gasps, and his body seems like it is on fire. Frostbite has all but consumed his hands and feet, and he is painfully thin, like a skeleton draped in an ivory cloth. A death shroud.

His mind is howling at him to just end this misery. He wants the girl to just kill him with a dash of a rock on his head, but knows she won’t. Hours he spends, immobilised, hovering between life and sweet, peaceful death. The girl just sits by his side, and he doesn’t even register what she is holding; a beautifully carved, fiery red lantern with climbing, spinning dragons inscribed on it. His last sight is her dark eyes, wishing him onwards on the dreamy road.

As he slips into oblivion, the girl picks up her lantern, and turns to the cave mouth. Her dark hair swirls around her face in the slight breeze, and she looks back at the motionless bodies of the old sailor and the passenger. A sliver of light illuminates their faces, ashen and still. She smiles, and beckons with her hand to the two shining wisps hovering above them who are uncertain of where to go and who to follow. Time to leave.

High in the air, against the backdrop of a slowly brightening sky like a sun awakening from a long sleep, a lonely albatross slopes and easily flaps its long wings as it rises to the heavens, bringing the souls home.


THE END



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