The Boatswain and the Stranger

Introduction: This is a parable I’ve written for a conference in Thailand. I’ll be attending that conference and blogging regularly about our experiences there. Since I’m prepping hard this week for that event, I’m using the story in five pieces to cover my blog. We’ll travel to Thailand Feb 10-12, and I’ll begin blogging on location when we arrive. This is section number one.

Near the mouth of the Mother River sits a common houseboat, lashed to other houseboats. Children dart across the deck, dive and splash alongside, calling out each other’s name. Older boys and girls come and go at their chores and training, or fish the waters where there’s a deeper hole in the riverbed, hoping for a trophy to make a mother rejoice and a father beam with pride.

The man of the boat sits under a canopy with a small charcoal fire and prepares a strange meal. With a roller, he pushes a pulpy starch made from pearl-colored seaweed into a flat rectangle thin as a leaf. Next, he makes a pulp out of the eggs of a fat sturgeon, rich and black, with which he decorates the leaf: he dips a brush into the pulp and uses it to draw whimsical shapes upon the leaves of whitish kelp. Finally he bakes the leaves on a flat stone placed over the coals.

A shout goes up from the children. A visitor arrives! She is strangely dressed (to their eyes) and dirty from travel by land. Over her shoulder she carries a bag, which a boy takes from her as she climbs aboard. He nearly falls down, and the littlest ones laugh at him. It weighs more than the biggest fish, but what could be in such a thing? The young man curiously reaches to open the flap, but the stranger reaches out her hand to stop him. He is embarrassed. It was not for him to see, not now. But the little ones don’t mock his shame, for they are now all the more curious, and throughout the stranger’s visit their eyes flick back to the bag at her knee.

The boatswain welcomes her in the manner of his people: He smiles, places his right hand on her forehead, and asks her name. He calls a girl to bring water, and the stranger drinks, then more water, and she washes her face, hands and neck. The boatswain washes her feet, while his wife serves her a meal, small fish sauteed with greens and nuts and topped with berries, to take off the edge of hunger in your belly. Now the Swain tips back his head and begins a chant which seems to come from his navel, at times resonating high in his sinuses, other times booming deep in his chest, and once in a while, the stranger feels that he sings two or even three notes at a time. His face turns a deep purple, he sings on. Night falls silent before he does.

The river is quiet. Lights glow from braziers on the boats. It is not a festival night, and adults’ voices murmur over the details of family life; which child is rowdy, did you sell some fish today, and what has your mother-in-law decided about your cousin’s wedding?

The Boatswain sits for some moments in silence. All that can be heard is the river patting the sides of the boat in a lullaby rhythm as if to say, never mind, I will hold you up. Eventually the stranger speaks.

The water you served me to drink. How fresh! This is not the muddy water of your river, is it? Meaning no offense to your river, which I see supplies life to you and to mama, and is full of pleasures for your children.

The Swain laughs. The water is of this river, but not only of this spot on the river. Our people bring water from five other places, and we occasionally journey to them to take water from our bend and deliver it. We mix all the six waters of the river together. This river is sweet, indeed, and rolls out to an ocean … but that is a story for later. First, you must come with me on a journey to see the other five places. Then we shall return here and you’ll see this wide place just for what it is.

The stranger protests that she has only begun to rest, and could not think to go any farther today. No, the captain says, we won’t go anywhere. But here, eat this bread, drink my tea, and with each thin loaf you’ll see what I mean to show you. He serves her a leaf of the flatbread, which she finds sweet and a little metallic, perhaps the taste of zinc.

 In the Highlands

Her vision blurs, then refocuses. She is not on the boat. They stand at a waterfall in the highlands. She looks up and sees that the water does not fall from a river above, but from a rock which looks hewn in two, a sort of spout, a spring gushing from the side of the cliff. She looks at the surrounding hills, and she is surprised to see that all the trees are dry, with one exception: from the pool, a river begins, snaking down towards the lowland from this point, and along its side grew trees which had green leaves, other vegetation, evidence of birds nesting, tracks where larger animals come to wash and drink, even clouds of insects for frogs to eat. One might say that the other land, off to the sides, is scorched for lack of rain. Some of the hillsides are on fire, the forests so dry they flame up from time to time, casting a smoky red hue to the air which colors the waterfall’s pool a shade of pinkish gold. Yet she does not hear the fires crackling, but only water, laughing as it falls, but weeping for the dryness around it as well.

He is singing again.

Our home is at the headwaters, where an ancient king, a member of our tribe, discovered the source. It is here we return to sing our most ancient songs, we drink from this stream wherever it flows.

He found the sweetest water in the pool of our waterfall, where life poured out of the rock. The people saw how he had found it, and were glad that he was to be king, for he danced under the water, allowing it to shower him so that he was soaked to the bone.

He shared the water with everyone, and anyone could come and drink for free. He sang our earliest songs. It is sweet, with the tang of rocks, reminders of our hard times in the barren highlands.

Here in this mountainous region, one of our nomadic people was chosen to become a king, and even one might say an emperor, for when he discovered this gap in the rock, a place where the sweetest water leaps forth, he was anointed and crowned.

Some say that we are at the purest part of the river when we come to the falls. That is true, in a way. But in another way, we see that by the time we come to the mouth of the river, far away at the great ocean, much more water tumbles out the mouth of that great river than the small amounts we see coming from the source. How does such a thing happen?

The pool of the ancient king doesn’t have all the water needed to fill the ocean. Other waters must come from other places, and gather as the river bed curtsies, lower and lower, until she bows deep before the great ocean and gives it all her gifts; gifts drawn from the headwaters, yes, but from many other places too, oh yes, oh yes she does.

The boatswain’s singing moves into a chant now, oh yes, she gives her gift to the ocean, yes she does, oh yes, she carries her gift, yes oh yes…  the songbubbles out of him even as he dives from a rock into the pool beneath the cliff. He draws a flask and fills it with water, business-like for a moment. Then he splashes the Stranger, and at first she is annoyed, until she tastes that water and finds it has that flavor of stone, of metal, sweet and powerful, deep and mountainous. She sighs and lowers herself into the pool, not to exert herself by swimming, but simply to float.

After some time the Boatswain says to her, are you not still thirsty?

I have satisfied my joy and sadness, content and lament, but I could drink something more, she says, her eyes closed, something … something … I am searching for the words!

Ah yes, responds the boatswain, if you are searching for the words, I know, I know. Open your eyes.

To Be Continued …



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The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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