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There were just eight of us on the sailboat
along with the captain. We were having a wonderful voyage. None of us had met
before the trip but we seemed to be getting along just fine. By day, the ocean
was a brilliant turquoise and by night, the sky was awash in all the stars of
the Milky Way. We had been blessed with clear weather and a gentle breeze for
the entire week so far. The feeling of being happily lost on the endless ocean
was delicious, even though we assumed the captain had been plotting our course
All of us had answered an ad in a travel magazine for singles, so none of us was shy. Every night we'd sit on the deck under the vast canopy of stars. Moments like that, when the splendor of the universe was arrayed all around us, were conducive to talking about deep, heady things. I didn't usually say much but I liked to listen and encourage the others. That was just my way.
Ruby was a woman who had a strong belief in the power of crystals. She had quite a collection of them and even kept one in her shirt pocket, close to her heart. She said that it would protect her from bad karma and help her to live a healthier, longer life. She even gave a crystal to me on the first night, holding it out to me as if it were part of the Crown Jewels. I took it and smiled, examining it and nodding, even though I didn't believe in crystals. The last thing I wanted to do was to be negative toward a new friend.
Carlos was a man would meditate every evening on one of the deck chairs, chanting a phrase over and over. When he finished, he joined the rest of us. I once asked him if meditation made him feel better. He nodded his head and offered to teach me but I told him maybe some other time. I didn't want to hurt his feelings by telling him that the whole idea of trancelike meditation made me a little nervous.
Emily was an older woman who read tarot cards by the light of the ship's lantern. We all laughed at some of the things she told us about ourselves and some of her guesses seemed to be pretty close to the mark. I let her read my fortune one night and although it was full of generalities and half-truths, I pretended to be amazed. I didn't want to spoil the fun. And besides, she seemed to think it was more than a game, and who was I to question her beliefs?
I was very popular on that voyage. Everyone seemed to really like me because I knew how to fit right in. I had my own beliefs, of course, but in my mind it would have sounded like preaching to tell the others. No one likes preaching. I was sure the others had heard my beliefs a thousand times before anyhow and they wouldn't have been interested. The important thing was to try not to shove anything down anybody's throat.
On the third night we all stayed up until 5 AM. By then we had gotten really comfortable with each other. We did a lot of talking that night, and even some off-key singing. As things finally broke up and we stood to make our bleary-eyed way to our bunks, I glanced off to the east. The sky was already lightening and I saw a dark sliver on the edge of the horizon. It looked like an island.
It's hard to know exactly what happened next. I
went to bed of course, just like everyone else, and fell instantly to sleep. But
how we all ended up in the water, floundering around like drowning puppies, I'll
never know. All I remember is waking to the sounds of shouting, of running feet
on the deck above, of someone banging on my cabin door. I heard the terrible
words, "We‘re sinking!"
I jumped out of bed and ran up to the deck in panic. The boat tilted at a nauseating angle and as I stood there gaping it felt like I was in a fun-house, the kind where the floors heave up and down. Soon the angle got too steep for me to stand, and although I reached out to hang onto the mast, my hand slipped and I slid into the water.
None of us had had time to prepare for something like this. One moment we were all sleeping and the next we were in the water. I watched the top of the mast slide beneath the waves and we were alone in the eerie quiet of the open ocean. I grabbed at a wooden chest that was floating by. I climbed on top of it, hanging on for dear life. I looked around. Others had grabbed onto bits of Styrofoam coolers, to pieces of wood planking, to anything that would float. I counted heads. There were only eight of us. The captain was gone.
We padded toward each other and grabbed hands so we could stay together. We bombarded each other with questions. Did anyone know what had happened? Why did the ship sink? Did the captain go down with the ship? But none of us knew a thing.
"What should we do?" someone asked.
"Maybe we should stay together,” said someone else. “The captain might have sent out a distress signal before we went down.”
“I don’t think so,” said another. “If he had been able to do that, he would have made it off the boat like the rest of us. We need to figure out which way to go. There must be an island around here someplace.”
"But which way?" asked someone else.
We were having trouble staying together because the waves kept trying to move us apart. I sputtered and tasted harsh salt-water. Others coughed.
“Hold onto my arm,” said Ruby to the person next to her. With her other hand she produced a crystal from her shirt pocket. The rising sun caught its surface and turned it into a shining rainbow, making it seem like a magical omen of great power. She squeezed the stone in her palm and closed her eyes. "I can feel the vibrations," she said. "The crystal is telling us there is an island to the north."
I gritted my teeth as I hung onto the wooden chest. North? I was pretty sure I had seen an island to the east, late last night when we were all going to bed. At least I was pretty sure. But I didn't speak up. The woman was so sure of her belief in crystals, and besides, I might have been mistaken.
"Not north," said Emily, the tarot card woman. “We need to go west.” She seemed to have gone into some sort of psychic trance. She took a deep, spooky breath and pointed to the west with her long finger. I looked that way and saw only waves. I looked toward the east, where the sun was just rising out of the ocean. I couldn't see any sign of land. Maybe I was too low in the water. Or maybe there wasn't any land to see that way at all.
"South," said Carlos, the man who knew how to meditate. "The universe is directing us to the south. I can see a flaming arrow in the water." We all looked that way. I saw only more waves.
My mind was a jumble. Should I tell the others what I had seen? Each of the three who had spoken up was convinced they were right. If I gave my opinion then I would be saying they were wrong. Who was I to judge their beliefs? So I kept quiet.
"Well, it's clear to me what we should do," said a fourth person, a lawyer named Michelle. "Each of us should follow the person we think has the right answer."
We all nodded our heads. This seemed very reasonable. We all had a free choice, after all. Choice was the important thing. We would each decide for ourselves.
We let go of each others hands and began to drift apart. Michelle the lawyer followed Ruby and her crystal. Two others followed Carlos and his meditation. Another followed Emily and her tarot cards. That left me. The others looked back as they bobbed in the waves.
"What about you?" shouted Michelle.
"I'll go toward the sun," I yelled back. I couldn't stop thinking about that smudge I had seen on the horizon. To the east. The others smiled and wished me luck. We all felt proud of ourselves for being so enlightened, for letting each other make up our own minds.
Everyone drifted out of sight and I was all alone. I turned toward the east and began paddling. All I saw ahead of me was endless ocean and I felt incredibly small. I began to get thirsty.
After an hour a wave lifted me high and I thought I saw a gray smudge on the horizon. After ten more minutes of paddling another wave lifted me. The smudge had grown larger and I knew it was an island. I cheered and paddled harder.
Suddenly I thought of the others. I spun around, trying to see if any of them were still in view. But I saw no one. I shouted at the top of my lungs, but all I heard in response was the sound of the rolling waves. I shook my head and went back to my paddling. They had made their choice and I had made mine.
Near sundown, I finally reached the shore of a beautiful island. The breeze had died down and gentle waves eased me onto a sandy shore. There was a man there, standing in front of a blazing fire. He wore a simple, white robe and sandals.
As I climbed unsteadily to my feet the man smiled and held out his arms. "Welcome," he said. "You must be hungry."
I gratefully wolfed down the piece of fish he offered me, along with some bread that he had broken off from a fresh loaf. I took several swallows from his flask of wine and sat down on the sand, feeling clean and refreshed. I noticed that my clothes were suddenly, inexplicably dry, and the warmth from the fire felt heavenly. I started to ask the man where we were, what island this was, but he walked away from me. He stopped at the water's edge and stood looking out to sea. The sun splashed below the western horizon. Soon it was dark and stars filled the sky.
"What are you looking for?" I called.
"The others," he answered.
"Yes, there were seven more with you in the water."
My breath caught in my throat. How could he have known that? The man came over and looked into my eyes. His own eyes danced in the firelight.
"Well," I stammered. "They went different ways - each of them. It was their choice."
"Yes, it was," he said. "So why did you come this way?"
"I saw land to the east, a few hours before the ship went down."
"So you knew the right way to go," he said. He didn’t sound angry or accusing. So why did I feel so uneasy?
"Well...I guess so," I managed to say. "But I didn't want to judge them. They were all so sure they were right."
"But you knew the way," he said again.
I looked out at the inky blackness of the ocean. I thought of what it would feel like to be out there still, bobbing in the dark. I considered going back out, swimming all night, somehow, improbably finding the others and bringing them back here.
"It's too late," the man said.
"It's too late to save them. They're gone."
I knew in my heart that he was right. I watched the gentle waves lap the sand and felt tears well up in my eyes.
The man put his hand on my shoulder. I looked up and his smile was warm. "I'm so glad you're here," he said. "You need to rest now. You’ve had a very long day."
He led me to a soft spot on the beach where he had prepared a bed for me. I lay down on my back and looked up at the glittering stars. It was a long, long time before I was able to sleep.
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