The Boatswain and the Stranger, Part 5.

The Ocean

One day the waters shall all come into one place, and we shall all sail it together; my brothers, my neighbors, my tribesmen, the villagers along the shore, the farmers, the dusty strangers like yourself who come from afar, those who journey into the desert to deliver small drinks of water, even some of my cousins who come from the other side of the hills, beyond the canals, people you would not expect. We will see people who lived in the hills and canyons, living with us there on the ocean. We will understand the mystery of the rapids together. We will drink the waters of the ocean and find they are fresh water – not salty and unpalatable at all.

Each one will dip his cup into the water and drink, tasting the flavors he or she needs and desires the most in that moment. The ocean will fill us, surround us, complete us.

It will be a reunion unlike any we’ve ever seen, and the music! Oh! The waves themselves will splash against the boats with the heartbeat of the ocean. The gulls overhead will cry and wail. All manner of fish will leap, the dogs on our decks will bark, even the stowaway rats will squeal with joy, a cacophony of love.

I hope for this day.

I have faith for this day.

I will take joy in this day.

You will be there, too.

You will drink whenever you want though you’ll always be satisfied.

The water will be alive. The water will be free.

We will not have to travel anymore to scoop water from here and there, to mix them; along the shores mangroves will spring up,

Islands will form where we’ll dance,

And the songs will become one mighty note.

The paintings will fill the sky.

What is written in solitude will become a communal shout.

Everyone will have a place in our tribe, for each one will find that they’ve some of our nomadic blood, and they’ll join in creating all that happens upon the ocean.

That will be the day … the day that never ends. No dreaming will be needed to see another place. The light will show all there is to all who are present.



For the moment we drink this water together, she thought, as he poured from his vials and vessels. There was water from the spring and canyon, the canal and the well and the delta.

Finally, he dipped a large jar into the dark water beside their boat.

It is the freshest water we have, this water where we live.

She nods. She drinks.

They sing together, and now she knows the song by heart. She drank their water, sang their songs. She is one of them.

She goes on her way as the sun rises high. The dust quickly rises from her toes to her knees, fills her hair, and it cakes even her eyelids.

She has forgotten her heavy bag. Whatever was in it, the children can toss into the river, for all she cares. It had seemed that something in it served to protect her from getting too dirty along the way, or from getting lost, perhaps, but it only made her more tired. She cannot remember what exactly was in it or why she bothered. Instead she now carries a canteen.

She is not afraid of being dusty anymore. She knows that all the water flows towards the fresh sea, and she will be back again to drink.

The boatswain and his family will be sailing upon the ocean to welcome her.


The Houseboat-warming Gift

It is noon. The eldest daughter on the houseboat notices something.

Father, the Stranger forgot her bag, she says.

Open the bag, he says, tell me what it contains.

Father, they are nothing but rocks. She holds them up to the light. They give off a dull glow, as of polished obsidian. Are they diamonds? Or coal?

They are something in between, my little moth, harder than coal, but still flammable. Softer than diamond, yet glowing with an inner light, he says. Water cannot soak them beyond usefulness. They will burn for a year without ceasing.

Must I chase her into the desert to catch her and return them? They sound precious!

No, my tadpole, they are a gift to us. She has no need of them; for her they are plentiful. But for us they are wealth beyond counting. She does not know it, but she has given us the better end of the deal in exchange for our hospitality.

The next evening, as he prepares bread for his children, the regular coals in the man’s brazier die out. He sends a boy to look in the hold for more coal, but the boy returns empty handed, tears running down his cheeks.

Father, the charcoal is gone! Mama says we don’t have money for more. What will we do?

The man smiles. Open the bag, here, my little turtle: the satchel I would not allow you to poke last night. I will show you something new. It is a more excellent way. Perhaps someday you or your sister will wander into the desert to find this, too, for the ways of the stranger and the wanderer are sacred.      

The End

This has been published via the Dandelion Seed Company. If you’d like to purchase a paper copy, complete with artwork, an explanation, and many other cool features, please message me.



The Boatswain and the Stranger, Part Four

The Canal

The raft which nearly fell apart as they shot the rapids has been repaired, and looks more like a barge; there are sides to the raft now (what bargemen call gunwales). She still rides low in the water, but comfortably, like a blanket on top of a sleeping baby. There is no current. The boat is propelled now by harnessed mules walking a path on shore; they wait for some time as a lock behind them closes and the waters rise.

Here is where the waters of our river mix with those from another river, The Captain shouts. He dips a jar into the canal and fills it, then a second jar, which he drinks. She thinks he may even seem a little too happy about it.

But then your river is no longer pure! The Stranger exclaims.

Ah, but you see, that delicious water I gave you when you first sat down with me is a mix not only of different places on our river, but of all rivers. After all, don’t you see that all rivers flow to the same ocean, so long as they stoop low enough to deliver what they have to her?

So why not simply go to the ocean?

That’s a great question, he shouts over the creaking of the gears on the lock ahead of them, but we’ll have to talk about it later. Just think! Not only of the impact of the other river on our river, but also of the impact of our river on those who drink from the water over the hills here, beyond the canal!

Another boat meets them in the middle of the next lock, heading toward our river. A captain greets the boatswain with a coarse but good-natured sort of language: YAWP, HO THERE, YE SCALAWAG ANYWAY! BULLOCKS TO THY MANGY BARGE! SLIDE AWAY, DRIFTER! She wonders what business such a captain could possibly have on our peaceful river.

It’s not only our river, says the boatswain, as if intercepting her thoughts. Nobody owns the river. He may come and go, or he may stay! He may speak his language or learn to speak ours. But we’d see nothing of him, and receive nothing from him, if not for this canal!

Journey along a canal is slow work. It takes much time for the waters to mix and blend to the right height so that one can proceed in either direction. The boatswain seemed to love waiting for the water in the locks to fill or empty so that he could move along this way, towards a neighboring river, but, for his visitor, it was all very technical. She worried that he might be drinking too much of the water. She worried it might be tainted! He called to captains coming from the other river, and even though they were from a different country, a different watershed, at times he seemed to have more in common with them than with the villagers who lived along his own river. In a sense, the canal was a place for him to reunite with a long lost cousin-tribe. It was clear that he loved them. They could insult him all day long, and he’d just smile and say, YAWP! HO THERE, GOOD TO SEE YOU, TOO, AND THY FINE BARGE! TIE ON, NOW, COME ABOARD! Indeed, some of them do come aboard and converse with him over the many finer aspects of boating. They learn from each other, but she falls asleep again.



It is that time of night when you think the day will appear any moment. When you hold vigil, around four o’clock you begin to believe that you see the sun beginning to rise, the light in the distance to the east begin to filter through. It is a mirage, perhaps spurred by the fact that your eyes have dilated and are letting in as much light as they can. But it is not yet day. He feeds her the fifth piece of bread. This is thin, and tastes as though frosted, dusted with powdered sugar. The sweetness is a dessert so late at night, and comes with another cup of tea. She eats, she drinks. She closes her eyes, ready for the next stage of the journey in the night.


The Delta

They’re standing on a houseboat similar to his, but she sees that it is tethered now to dozens of other houseboats, forming a community on the water. She follows the boatswain as he walks across the planks of one craft, over small causeways to the next boat. The boats are not moving up or down the river. In fact, these floating houses have come to a marshy area as the river breaks up into dozens of channels, forming a delta on its way to the sea, rich silt deposits forming low islands, scattered about.

We have come to the place where my neighbors live, says the boatswain. The members of our tribe among them still float like we do, all their days, but these boats have really ceased to be boats, and became part of the villages along the shore, even larger towns sometimes. Look how they are tethered together from the shore of that island to the shore of the next. These boats are neighborhoods, bridges, a part of the larger city. Their neighbors farm these lands, growing rice and other vegetables. The members of our tribe dig wells for everyone, irrigate the crops with them, and the water they draw up. We also share in their water.

He hands a vessel across the bow to a man in the next boat, dressed very much as he is; the same shaved bald head, the same russet moustache, similar inked markings along the arms. The other boatswain takes the jar and leaps for shore, where he runs to a well, dips and draws, and returns with water.

Here you are, brother. Something for your people to drink as they sing.

These are my contemporaries. They are commissioned to draw and carry water for the farmers near their river. Sometimes we sing their songs on our boats. Sometimes they sing ours. They are not the ancients, they are not distant cousins on another river, and they are not our descendants. One day, we’ll all bind our boats together and head out on the ocean … but we’re not ready yet to speak of that.



The voyager opens her eyes again. Dawn. A breakfast in her hand. It tastes like nothing; it tastes like everything. It may have a peppery fire one moment, a sweetness, a tanginess, or a fishiness the next moment. It is, in a word, delicious.

Along with it a cup of coffee.

Coffee? She says. Aren’t we to sleep again, then?

No, says the captain, Now you may see our waters. But not in a dream – we have nowhere but here to go!


A Village on the River

She looks about and sees the same thing she saw the night before. A community springs to life, eight or twelve different boats connected, a floating village. She looks up the river and thinks of the headwaters, the canyons, the rapids. She looks to the west side and sees the canal, and downriver just a few miles she can make out the shapes of city, farms and floating boat-town at the delta. She realizes that last night she didn’t really see this place at all. She only saw a place to sit that wasn’t the dusty road. A lithe boy dives into the water, naked, splashing water on her cushions. It is time to rise!

We draw our own water on this spot, he says. We have our own songs, our little village. When I sang last night, did you think I sang alone? No, the men and women on the other boats alongside sang with me. The children even sing in their sleep, it seems. He glances with pride at his tiny ship and the vessels of his closest neighbors, his tribe. We serve our fish and make our bread for the voyagers who come aboard, and we love our spot on the river the most, though all other parts are needed, and we borrow from them. And there are many tributaries to this river we have not seen. This water beneath us comes from far and wide. We do not even know its extent. But as I have mentioned, it all flows to the same ocean.

She looked him in the eyes, and she said, and now it is time to speak of the ocean, is it not?

He nodded.

To be continued …

The Boatswain and the Stranger, Part Three


The canyon tightens as their tiny raft leaves the ancient dwellings behind. Ahead she hears a roar, she lifts her head. He sees the fear in her eyes and steadies her with a glance. His jaw is set firm, he knows there is danger, but he does not shrink back from the challenge ahead.




Spray in the face

Dropping off, then

Even lifting, almost flying over the next stone

He uses every trick in the book to navigate. On the one hand, it seems like he’s following a distinct path, off this rock, spin to that one, push away, twist, and through a set pattern to find his way. On the other hand, it seems he’s improvising; sometimes he leaps to tie a piece of the raft back together, then he dips a small jug from his belt into the water and fills it, at other moments he lets entire logs splinter against a boulder so that their raft is now narrower and lighter, then with a flick of his wrist he shoots them through a gap they wouldn’t have fit a moment before.

They come to a quiet area where the river slows gradually as it sweeps around several bends. After many minutes it broadens into a river so wide she cannot see the banks on either side; the water moves laconically while they drift through an area flecked with islands. He moves them into a channel which moves faster, and they scoot past many islands until the river mists over, fog blankets them, and she realizes that he has a sense about the islands so that even though they might change locations each time he navigates through, he knows how to avoid them. She finds peace and drifts to sleep.


When she wakes it is the second hour, the darkest moment of the night. Her host stands up and stretches.

What happened? She asks.

All will be known in due time.

Did you even know what was happening? Where we were going?

Yes, and no. I knew that we were going places I’d never seen.

But then, how is this part of your tribe’s most sacred places, if you’ve never seen it before?

I cannot explain. I have been there before many times, and I have never been there at all.

She also stands and stretches, her hands high above her head, the muscles in her stomach finding their limits. She feels now that she could pluck a star and eat it, and it would taste like the bread she ate the last time she was here.

Well, what is next, I wonder?

That, my good guest, my friend, is something I do know. The boatswain holds out another piece of flatbread.

She eats it without hesitation. She is feeling better rested tonight than any night she has had for many years. This bread tastes like it has been soaked in wine … or something stronger.

To Be Continued …


The Boatswain and the Stranger Part 2

When she opens her eyes she is seated on the deck of his boat again. Someone has brought cushions and a blanket. The night is cooler, it is perhaps two hours yet before the middle of night. He serves her another thin loaf of his bread, and this one has the flavor of black beans, a peppery taste to it, the spice they call pachikama in the desert, and the light texture gives her a prickly popping on her tongue as the bread gives way to the hunger in her mouth. She closes her eyes to feel it, to taste the spicy bread. It satisfies something in her deepest intellect, and she says, I have the words now.

 The Canyon

Then you shall tell the story this time, the boatswain says, for you, too, have some ancestry with us, and you do know this place as well. You are wiser than you think.

She opens her eyes to find that they are shooting along on a raft through a narrow canyon where walls rise high above their heads. She tells the story of the place, because she finds that she does know it.

There was a time when the nomads needed a safe place to store their thoughts, to put what they knew into sealed jars, and to store it for a time when it might be needed. They came down the river and found a way to climb the cliffs, up there, to where even now we see the caves. They dwelled here many years ago, and their songs echoed through the canyon. Everything was carefully measured and jars were filled to feed their offspring for centuries to come.

Eventually they left this place for good, yet we, their children, know how to come back, to climb the steep walls, and if we need a place to stay for the night, we rest in a place where the words in the jars feed and protect us. We can come here and climb to them.

The boatswain steers them toward the edges and finds an ancient rope, tethers the raft, dips a new flask in the water at the base of the cliff, fills it and caps it, and they began to climb. When they reached the first cave, she recognizes it, knows her way about. She knows the kitchen with its primitive ring of stones, the common area where the tribe used to sing together as they sealed clay jars. She knows the deeper recesses of the cave, where they slept soundly, knowing they were safe within it. She wanders back farther, beyond where the sun reached. Her feet find the way without a light. She reaches down and finds one of the ancient jars with her fingertips. It is still sealed.

She finds a tool in her pocket and pries at the lid until it cracks.

Light oozes out, that gossamer glow of phosphorescent recollection, she tears it open completely, and remembers her great-grandmother, sitting and singing softly, her skin shriveled and her eyes soft and dim. The song was an old familiar one, one perhaps still played at funerals on ancient instruments which wheezed and whined, but this idea, this memory, this song canned so long ago by the cave-dwellers is still a brew fresh and bold and intoxicating, that spicy scent in the air brings her to new life even now. She had forgotten you could dance to this dirge! But then, she thought she had forgotten the words, too.

The boatswain finds her in the recesses of the cave, and he weeps, for he sees that she is dancing. She dances along into an adjoining room, an armory where ancient weapons sit mummified in the dry air far above the water racing through the canyon. A steel blade lies abandoned on the floor, and she dances about it, flipping it over with her toes, then she kicks it up with her heel and catches it in her teeth. She begins to giggle. I’d nearly forgotten all that we’ve left here, all that was given us by those diligent men and women in days gone past. How good it is! But in the pot which she still holds is a dust like that fresh ground pepper, so she sneezes, and when her eyes close for that moment and reopen, she finds to her surprise…


That she is again seated on the boat. She has slept for a while, and the moon is now overhead. Midnight is very near. The boatswain’s eyes twinkle from behind the brazier, his cheeks glow from the fire, and she sits up.

It is time for another loaf, she sees that he is holding it out to her, but he says nothing.

She eats. The bread is citric, almost sour, but the freshest thing she’s ever known. She runs her tongue along her teeth. They feel clean.

To be continued …



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 …