A Course for the Open Sea

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Sylvie Loy

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We were a small procession of a few men and women rowing out to sea. Huddled in a fragile skiff, we floated on the waves. After passing the lighthouse, by general consent we had set a course for the open sea. Then, the waters were still calm. They reflected the sun with a faithfulness that was sometimes ruffled by a few little waves. Our skiff slid along with tranquil intensity. The current was benevolent. And we had the feeling that our boat was sailing between the waves. Even though we had planned to take turns rowing, from the beginning of our expedition—one hour ago—I had propelled our skiff with large mechanical movements of my arms. I felt so vigorous!

I obstinately refused to give up my spot. I rowed as if I wanted to bring back a treasure that the waters refused to give up to me. I rowed to the point of forgetting myself. With pride, I steered a boat and I was responsible for its crew!

From time to time, I stared at the horizon to estimate the distance separating us from our goal. The sun splashed me with light, and I shielded my eyes with my hand and announced to my crew, hanging on my every word, the last miles that we had to cover before reaching land.

Of course, the feeling of being able to row indefinitely was false. For I felt myself weakening: I was famished. And to make matters worse, we were going to enter an area of the ocean known to be dangerous for its countless shipwrecks and mysterious disappearances. Each of us recalled the folktales that disturbed our dreams so much at night and tortured our minds as children. The reality was that our skiff was traveling over depths strewn with bones.

Then, to put some distance between us and this accursed place, I forgot my weariness. And I rowed like a madman. Until my arms were in pain and my shoulders stiff. Until awful blisters appeared on my fingers. And then I had to give the oars to someone else.

My little sister took over. And as if by magic, a light breeze pushed our skiff in the right direction. The farther we went, the higher the sun climbed in the sky. Its burning rays promised us memorable sunburns. We were all covered with big drops of sweat. We needed shade and to quench our thirst. But none of us had thought to bring freshwater.

Even if my body was now at rest, I dwelled on negative thoughts about the future of our expedition. Memories, too, flashes of the world that we were all leaving behind. Yet I knew this was a bad time to worry about what we were leaving behind us.

Then, despite my wearied state, my bruised arms and my cracked hands, I started rowing again. To empty out my head.
Gradually, as the sunlight faded, a pale fog began to envelop us. Instead of losing my sense of direction, I stopped rowing. And in milky silence, we waited. For a long time. Darkness was about to fall when the weather became even worse. The little breeze turned into a violent wind, loading the waves with foaming froth that whipped the hull of our skiff so violently that water poured into the boat. Then, it rained.

On this immense expanse of water, we were nothing more than puppets in the hands of fate. Twisted marionettes doomed to a tragic end.

When, suddenly, an enormous wave formed right across from us. The others were as exhausted as I was. And terrified by our fate. But, moved by the same intuition, we got up and, grasping one another, facing this gigantic wall of water, in a final jolt of life, we jumped out of the boat. After coming to the surface and gathering our wits, we all came together and saw that on a shore in the distance people were waving their arms to attract our attention. So we swam toward them, forgetting our weariness and our hearts pounding in our chests. We joined them on dry land and, desperate, we collapsed on the sand of the beach. Some of us were even coughing up water.

We had failed, but we had made it through. Planted on our wobbly legs, we looked around us; and especially at the others, those on the boat before ours, astounded and stupefied that we were still all alive. Then the first signs of chill appeared. We had only the clothes we were wearing and no blankets. We were frozen and our teeth sometimes chattered. So I put together a small group and we went near the water's edge to collect some broken planks and kindling. We then made a fire and gathered around it to warm ourselves up and take stock of our situation, list our losses, and decide on our future plans. At sea, we had set a course for a port whose name I don't remember anymore. But the storm made us veer off course. At the height of the tempest's fury, in any case, our only goal was to reach dry land. So it was impossible to say how many miles we had gone off course!

However, we were all here, our fate deferred but safe and sound, on this beach littered with algae and filthy debris thrown back by the water, contemplating the sun that was disappearing behind the dark clouds. No roads and no signs around allowed us to plan the next steps of our adventure. Everything we owned was lying at the bottom of the sea. In our haste to flee the country, we hadn't imagined, out of superstition probably, what we would do afterwards. To imagine ourselves in such a future, we would have needed unshakeable faith in destiny!

I looked at my little sister. To make sure she was okay. She was staring at the dark line of trees in the distance. The foliage was abundant and looked impenetrable. She extended her arm toward the distance and I saw, behind the forest and tall grasses, rocky dunes. As far as the eye could see.

And, as if suspended in the sky, the steeple of a church.
The promise of a village.

Of a better future.

Translated by Kate Deimling


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