The Dolphin

Thursday January 19, 2006 @ 06:02 PM (UTC)

There was a small island in a blue sea. It was a pleasant place, if austere, and the trees grew tall. The people were not so tall, but were merry and busy, and loved their home. Many of the men were fishermen, and the women made beautiful things from wood and cloth and bone. So things had been for many years.

But there came a time when the women would pause in their work at dusk and wait with full hearts for the returning footsteps of their fathers and husbands and brothers; for even fair weather could no longer guarantee their safe return. Pirates from a nearby island had infested the waters, and the men’s catch filled the pirates’ holds while the fishermen were sent below the waves, their blood spreading in the blue sea.

Now, the best boatbuilder in town was named Nikolaos, and his son, Mihalis, was a clever young man. He watched the boats go out in fear to win food for their families and for market, and watched fewer boats return. He shut himself in his room for a week, and when he emerged he addressed the town. “These evil men will never let us alone again,” said Mihalis, “unless we can defend ourselves, our home, and our boats. They will become more bold until they have taken everything we have.” The people murmured sad agreement.

“But how are we to defend ourselves?” said one fisherman. “We have spears, and they avail us nothing! One fishing boat cannot prevail against the pirates, and we cannot fish any closer than we already do — already the catch suffers.”

“We must build a ship,” said Mihalis, and held aloft the drawing he had made in his days of solitude. It was a beautiful thing, sleek like an arrow and raising high sails to catch the wind.

“Can we really make such a thing?” said the men of the village, full of doubt, but Nikolaos stood.

“I believe we can make this ship,” he said, “and I believe in my son.”

Nikolaos went high into the hills to find the tallest, stoutest trees. The sailmaker labored long with all his relatives to make the vast sails of the craft. The smith sacrificed two dozen spears and fishhooks to the forge to bronze the ramming beak of the ship. The carpenter, his sons, Mihalis, and Nikolaos worked without ceasing on the ship, and many others who had never before worked wood came forward eager to learn and help. Men went with great coated baskets to the pits of tar, and built catapults to launch it at their enemies and flame them into ruin. The woodcarving women of the village planed and joined, and Mihalis’s sister Sofia painted upon her side the name she had chosen: Dolphin.

When she was done, the village looked upon her in awe, and every man who could be spared from fishing hastened aboard to unfurl her sails and set her lovely form speeding through the water. Mihalis knew her best, had drawn every line of her swift hull and designed her tall sails, and so he captained her. How she flew over the blue sea in the sun! How the pirates, on their way to harry the fishing fleet, scattered, flamed, and broke upon her beak! And when the day’s danger was past, the ship sang on through the water, ‘til all the sailors laughed at the sheer joy of her speed.

Below, the Sea God stirred from his work and looked upon the ship. He liked the men of the village, for there was not one among them who failed to release his largest and best fish to carry the message of his reverence back to his Lord’s ears. He stared up at the swiftly moving ship, and sent his dolphins to race alongside it and remind the men that even they were not so fast as his folk.

The dolphins returned, laughing in disbelief. “He outdolphined us,” they reported, and the Lord of the Waves frowned. He sent for the swiftest of his nereids, and sent her to try her speed against the ship, but she came swimming back, pouting her defeat. At last, his anger swelling, he went himself, he who moves as the water does, and failed to match the speed of the windborne Dolphin.

Then all his friendship for the people of the village melted away, and he hovered north of the island, his rage creating bergs and ice floes despite the summer sun. When the Dolphin came to port that night, her sailors were greeted with flowers, fried fish, and smiles by the people of the town. It was then that the Sea God lashed out, and sent a great gout of water smashing against the base of the island, so that it shuddered.

The people cried out in fear, dropped their feasting dishes, and held on to the shifting earth, while the boats in the harbor bobbed wildly like seabirds on tempest waves. “What is happening?” they cried out, and no one could answer them but the priest Kyriakos.

The old man shook his head as he read the portents. “We have angered the Deep God,” said he, “and he will destroy our island if we do not give him what he wants.”

“How angered? What does he want?” cried the folk, and the priest answered:

“We have built a ship too swift for his liking, and he demands the ship and the man who designed it be brought to him…to be buried beneath the waves.”

Mihalis stared upon the priest, but there was no doubting his words. In a daze, he walked home, while the wise men of the village gathered to discuss what was to be done.

Sofia met him there, and studied his face. “You are going?” she said.

“What other choice do I have?”

“You could wait for the elders to discuss it…”

“There is nothing to discuss, and I would rather go myself than let those good old men feel they had ordered me to my death.” And he kissed his sister, and told her what to tell his father, and stole down to the docks where the Dolphin was moored.

Only the man who had designed her could have single-handedly cast off and guided the great xebec from her harbor. Even so, it was a slow and laborious journey. Mihalis looked out across the sullen sea and set his course towards the source of the gleaming ice. The Dolphin, slow now and stately as she nosed her way through the dangerous floes, moved silently as night fell. The stars and moon appeared, and Mihalis felt he moved through a dream, the star-studded night and the ice-studded sea one darkness about him. At last, a sound roused him and he looked upon the wrath of the Sea God, a great vortex in the water, darker than the darkness, and gnashing its teeth of ice in hatred. Mihalis shuddered, but he set the Dolphin’s sails to catch the failing breeze and bear him to their common grave.

The sound rose around him even as the current caught at the smooth hull of the ship — a roar and a crashing, a ravening sound with an eddy of cruel laughter beneath. The world began to move with him, around and around the still point at the center of the vortex, the point where dark air and dark water met to form one true darkness. His skin was wet and cold and the Dolphin’s timbers groaned.

Then all was still; the vortex itself paused, and the water gelled as sleek as the ice. Mihalis wondered if this was death, one moment which never moved rather than the end of all moments. After a time, however, the water moved again. It roiled under him, moving again, rushing in on the hollow of the whirlpool, buoying the ship and lifting her back up, up to the stars. Mihalis found himself staring across a calm sea at a host of small boats.

“Sofia,” he said as he saw his sister in the nearest boat with the priest Kyriakos. “What has happened?”

“We came to tell the Deep God he could not have you…not alone. We would rather give ourselves up than let our champion, our brother, be killed for our cowardice.” And Mihalis saw that every man and woman in the village was gathered, manning the oars of the fishing boats. They smiled gravely up at him as he stood at the prow of their ship.

“How could you do this? And more, why did he relent?”

“He said that if men and women could be greater of heart than a god,” Sofia smiled, “it was only fair that they should also be fleeter.”

And together the village folk journeyed back to their island on a breeze that rose as if called to fill their sails. Never again would they be easy prey for man or unfairly toyed with by the gods; and it was for the ship that they made with Mihalis, not for the slim creatures playing in its shallows, that the island was ever after called Dolphin Island.

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