Image by Winnond, freedigitalphotos.net
Someone once made the mistake of telling my Grandfather that, being the greatest shipwright the province over, he could build a boat out of anything. I remember him laughing at the man, grabbing his chest, his white beard quivering, but his eyes were starting to mist over. Something then, gripped him, and never let go.
First it was a boat made of hair. He sent my sister and I throughout the town, and then the neighbouring town, and on and on down the roads to collect all the strands. I remember standing there in the sweltering heat, holding the bucket as the old women went round shaving heads, their deft old hands working so quickly as to become a blur before our eyes. Those with the strongest, darkest hair took our money, and we gathered up the hair newly fallen from now glistening heads. We took the buckets back to our Grandfather who hugged us in excitement when he saw how much we had collected. He would comment lovingly on the good quality of the hair, what a great job we had done. He would reward us with biscuits from an old tin adorned with a smiling lady holding a bursting cornucopia. Later, when we were afloat in that other boat, I would think of her, and wonder where she had gathered such wondrous fruit, and if we would ever see land again.
The boat made of hair was not seaworthy. It pained us all to see my Grandfather abandon it, but everyone knew it was a fool’s errand. Suddenly where once we had a house full of laughter and industrious excitement, now even the walls radiated with silence. My Grandfather was thinking, he was grieving for his dream, surrounded by all the swathes of dark hair left here and there in every room that seemed to become entwined in everything. But he did not give up.
Next there was the boat made of heavily salted butter, but you know how that turned out. I think pretty much everyone heard about that one. There was not enough salt in all the land to make that ship sail, and you know it’s funny because the sea is full of salt, but there it is. My Grandfather abandoned that too, and everyone we knew said (by that stage) that it was a good thing my Grandmother was not alive to see it. It would have cut her two, they said, to watch him turn his hand to all these follies.
It was only one day, when I was sitting under the willow, that I heard my Grandfather shout from out of a window somewhere, and I knew he had done it at last. It was the most unlikely design, but it was beautiful.
“A boat made from paper! But of course! So simple, even a child could make one!”
He was leaning out of the side of the house like that, clear out of the window into the sun. I can still see him now, and yes I think he really was half in and half out of life. Each day and each new design brought him a little further away from reality.
But the boat made from paper was the greatest of all his successes. That’s what everyone said. Grandfather was so proud, he stood at the docks and beamed at it, and beamed at us and now when I remember what it was like to look upon that ship it fills me with wonder still. She had the tallest sails, ivory white, and her sides were tinged with blue. The cabin walls were smooth as glass and the bunks so soft to lie upon, I’ll never really know how he did it.
“It was all in the folds,” he told me as if that were the secret. “I folded all my dreams into every plank, into the mast; as I shaped the body of the figurehead, I thought about what it would be like to have made the ship that no one could make – and I have done it!”
We set sail one quiet autumn day and half the province came to wave us off. They all brought picnics and there was singing and dancing and fires burning all along the wharf as we drifted away like a feather on the wind. I remember having some misgivings. I was sorry to leave so many of my things behind but Grandfather said I would be able to buy new things, once we got to some new place. My sister grew dark as she heard him say this, her face became stuck, pained. She asked him how he knew where we would go and what we would do there and he just said that the boat would decide. He actually laughed at our concerns.
“I built this boat, and this boat will not fail me.”
But my sister whispered into my ear one night,
“Doesn’t Grandfather realise that this boat is made of paper?”
“Of course he does,” I said, “don’t be silly.”
She sighed, her hair glinted where the moonlight cut across it to make a path out of the darkness.
“A paper boat would sink with all of us in it. Only magic is holding this boat up in the water, and magic comes at a price.”
I thought about what she said, the thought had never once crossed my mind.
“What price?” I asked. But she never answered. Still I could hear her thinking in the dark all night.
It took a few days but soon I saw it. The change in her,
I found her down below, in the belly of the ship. She was sobbing. My Grandfather was up on deck singing, oblivious. But when I came to my sister to see what was wrong, I found she was bent over a sheet of paper, she had a pen in her hand. It may as well have been a knife. A pen. On a magical boat made of paper.
“I can’t stop.” She had, by way of an excuse. She had been writing.
“What is that?” I asked her, I felt my hands shaking, something strange was happening to us.
“It’s a page from the galley table.” She said. “But it’s just a page, it won’t be missed.”
That was what she said then. That night I heard her scribbling away again.
“What are you writing?” I asked her. But she could not reply. I found some of her notes and began hoarding them in case Grandfather might see. I tried to read them but they made no sense to me at all. They were just strings of words, some weren’t even spelt correctly. Soon her bed was gone. She had ripped it up to write a book of nonsense verse in a language she had invented. My Grandfather, who slept on deck, was still none the wiser until she started attacking the very helm. She tore the great wheel apart in her madness for paper to write upon.
When my Grandfather saw what had happened to her he fell down upon his knees and wept. Carelessly he tore a sheet from the deck to use as a tissue to blow his great nose in. He knew then that all magic comes at a price. He had been willing to pay any deficit for our sakes, he said, but no one had come asking, the magic had just taken the thing it wanted most, or what was most easily taken.
My sister went raving mad when we took the pen away and so we had to lock her in the brig. Still she ripped at the sides of her cell and so we had to restrain her. Lying awake at night I could hear her screams and I even took the pen and hurled it into the ocean but it did no good. My Grandfather and I both beseeched the ship to leave my sister be, and to torment us instead, but to no avail. You cannot unchoose a choice made by magic.
“Sink it.” He said to me one night in a storm. “Sink it and we’ll try and swim away.” The storm raged so loud that night we were almost grateful because it drowned out the cries of my poor mad sister. Every cloud has a silver lining they say.
“To the bottom of the ocean with her.” Grandfather cried, and he downed the last of the whiskey, and crushed the soggy bottle with one hand. In his ship, even the bottles were made of paper. We had run out of food by that stage, and as my Grandfather said, we could not eat the paper.
“How are we to do it though? How do we sink her?” I asked.
“Magic.” Was all he said.
The next morning I woke to the sound of seagulls and a face full of sand. I turned my head to my right and saw my sister, lying on the beach, her hair extended in beautiful honey tendrils. For a moment I felt like I was only dreaming, and I wanted only to put my hand out to touch those soft strands, to feel them under my fingers, something safe and familiar and beautiful. But I knew in my heart I was awake. It was then I saw my Grandfather waving goodbye to us, I watched him sink below the waves and rubbed my eyes because it seemed impossible. How had we come to be there? Could it really be my Grandfather sinking away into the water, leaving us? The reality hit me like the waves, full in the face, stinging and blinding and relentless.I screamed and screamed but he came no nearer to us, in one moment he was gone, swallowed by a wave, his boat of dreams, obliterated in an instant.
I turned back to my sister who was waking. She too rubbed her eyes as if emerging from a great sleep.
“Oh it’s beautiful here!” She said, as if she had quite forgotten my Grandfather and the boat made of paper.
People were coming towards us now, tall people with beautiful eyes holding baskets, some held children.
“Mermaids!” Said one.
“No, see they have no tails.” Said another.
“Please help us,” I ran to them. “Our Grandfather will drown, he’s out there now in a boat made of paper.” That’s what I said to them. I pointed out to sea but someone said.
“There’s nothing at all in the waves child.”
And she was right, where my Grandfather’s boat had once been, was now the ocean, and the long horizon.
I felt a last cry gather in my mouth and then stiffle. I saw my sister smiling and chatting to the people on the beach, I saw her take a shell out of her beautiful hair and act as if nothing had happened. I felt utterly at a loss, and so I put my hands in my pockets and it was then that I felt something crumple. It was a sheet of paper. I took it out and opened it up and saw the words my sister had written start to make sense at last.
“I had to give everything up to get anything back.” It started off, the words slanting this way and that, twirling round each other like twine.
“I had to loose everything to gain anything worth having.” Here and there the letters twisted so I had to twist the paper to follow them, like a road into a labyrinth.
“I needed to be empty, in order to be full again.” The words neared the centre.
“I needed to be wiped away, and in order to be written again.”
The words stopped. They had finally run aground. I shook my head and tried to say something to my sister, about the things she had written, and about our Grandfather, and about that emptiness in the centre of the page but she was already moving away. The sun was rising high above our heads, and above the people who led her away up into the trees. Someone was singing, the smell of food was drifting down the beach and catching me up in it.
One woman came and stood beside me for a time as I grieved for my Grandfather and his boat.
“Better that you should live, and that he should go.” She said by way of a kindness to me.
I nodded and screwed up the paper into a ball. I tossed it away from me.
“He was all we had.” I said.
“Are the kinds of dreams one makes out of paper, really worth sailing off in?” She asked me, her head cocked to one side, her eyes large and taking me in as if I were a mirage.
“Yes.” I said. “They got us this far.”
We watched the ocean for a while longer, and then she told me her name and asked if I was hungry. and I thought I may as well follow her to where the trees met the sand, to where all adventurers go eventually.