Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Grey Ship

(EMA - The Grey Ship)

Daniel knew he was Chosen when the fog came and his mother started crying and would not stop, and his father set his jaw so tight Daniel thought that his teeth would crack.

It had been three years since the grey ship had arrived at the island, and everyone had known that if it wasn't this year, it would be the next. The fog would come, and the next day the grey ship would sail down from the north, and it would anchor in the harbour for one night. In the morning, it would be gone, and so would be the person who was Chosen. They stood at the end of the breakwater, and the fog came in, and when the fog lifted both the ship and the Chosen were gone.

"It is a wonderful thing that you do, Daniel," Anders said. "You know how we live here. Our crops grow, our nets are full of fish, the sun shines upon us and the sicknesses from the mainland never come. It is how we live here. You do a wonderful, wonderful thing. Everyone else here, your mother, your father, your sister, they are safe now. Never the same family twice, not in a lifetime."

Daniel didn't know how old Anders was but he was older than anyone else on the island. He kept the records, and wrote out the name of every newborn child in beautiful, perfect script in ink on a stone from the beach under the cliffs. The stones went into a box, and from that box came the name of the next of the Chosen. Once, it had been Daniel's aunt, once, a neighbour. It was how it was, you grew up knowing it was how it was, and you just hoped that it would not be you or someone you loved. But if it turned out to be was how it was.

"How long have you known?" Daniel asked. "That it would be me? When did you draw the stone?"

Anders looked at him. "On the last day the grey ship sailed."

Daniel pursed his lips, nodded. That afternoon he said goodbye to his mother, who wailed enough to raise the dead. His father pulled him tight, squeezed hard, then turned away as if he could not bear to look. His sister stared with big eyes, too young to know what was going on, old enough to know that something was.

The fog wrapped the island close and early that evening a shout came up from the harbour. The grey ship slid in without a sound, without a sign of life, came to rest in the middle of the harbour. No signal was given, no flag was flown, but none was needed because it was done the way that it always had been done.

Anders rested a gentle hand on Daniel's shoulder and walked him down to the harbour.

"What happens to me?" Daniel said. "When...I go."

Anders stopped, looked at him. "I do not know."

They walked on, down to the wet stone of the breakwater. The waves slapped and splashed at the side, and the grey ship sat in the harbour, silent, empty.

When they reached the end of the breakwater, Anders squeezed Daniel's shoulder. "A wonderful thing," he said, and then he turned and left, and within three steps he was hidden by the fog and Daniel was alone.

He stood for a long time, and he shivered, and he cried, and he stopped crying, and then after that he heard a scraping sound and when he looked down there was a small grey rowing boat bobbing at the foot of the old ladder on the side of the breakwater. It had not been there when Anders left him, and he did not know how he had got there.  He walked to the ladder, turned to step down, but then stopped.

"No," he said, to the fog and the sea. "No."

He stood for a long time more, and he shivered but he did not cry anymore, and he waited for something to come and take him. But after a long time the fog thinned, and the sun rose, and the harbour was empty and the grey ship was gone. Daniel didn't know what to do so he stood there a while longer. The others on the island would be very cross. Maybe they would throw him into the sea anyway. Maybe the grey ship would return the next night. No-one had ever come back, so Daniel didn't know. He clenched his fists, and he walked back down to the harbour, but nobody shouted at him there and nobody challenged him when he walked up the hill to the village, no dogs barked, no chickens scattered, no babies cried. Daniel walked the empty island for a long time, and then he went back to the harbour, but the grey ship did not return.

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