After a while I looked up from the book and saw another vessel approaching – neither a boat nor a raft nor a three-masted ship this time, but a sleek, smooth-lined yacht with three men aboard. As they drew near, one of them fixed me in the beam of a bright searchlight.
“Look there!” I heard him cry. “A child! A child afloat on the open sea!”
“You’re right!” agreed one of his companions. “And such a tiny child at that! How pitiful!”
“On the contrary,” put in a third voice, “how absurd!”
They went on talking in this way for a few minutes, then lowered a small lifeboat from the side of the yacht and rowed over to me. Before I knew what was happening two pairs of large hands had laid hold of me and pulled me into the boat.
“Wait!” I cried. “I want to stay where I am! Leave me alone!”
“We can’t do that!” laughed a man with a broad, kind face and a shock of thick, curly, reddish-brown hair. “I’d say we found you just in time,” he added, patting my wet head and wrapping a big woolly blanket over my shoulders.
When we reached the yacht, his companions – a neatly dressed younger man and a small, dark figure in a white smock-coat – hauled me aboard while the big kindly fellow said, “What in creation were you doing out there, child?”
“I’m making my journey to the rising sun!” I spluttered when at last I stood looking up at them, dripping and shivering, from the polished deck of the yacht. “I’m following the Firebird! The current itself was carrying me along!”
“How interesting!” smiled the broad-faced man in a kind, indulgent tone.
“How absurd!” snapped the figure in the white smock-coat, shaking his head as he stroked his sharp little bearded chin.
The neatly dressed younger man drew a pen from his breast pocket and noted something down in a black book he carried under his arm.
“I know it sounds crazy,” I continued, “but it’s true! I was instructed to let the current take me straight into the sunset, right through its flaming circle and out the other side! It’s the only way to reach the sunrise of Christmas morning! That’s where I’m going to meet the rider of the eight-legged horse!”
The young man squinted up at me from his black book. “What a ridiculous notion!” he sneered.
“Ridiculous, yes, Jack,” said the man in the smock-coat, “but it actually reflects a modicum of understanding.”
“More importantly, Dr. Roger,” volunteered the broad faced man, putting an arm around my shoulder and regarding me with an understanding smile, “it contains a beautifully mythologized representation of a deeper spiritual truth.”
“I care nothing for your literary musings, Ralph,” replied Dr. Roger with a wave of his hand. “This child’s tale is founded upon the ancient and outmoded belief in a flat earth. The scientific fact of the matter is that, because the earth is actually round, one can indeed reach the sunrise by traveling into the sunset – in other words, sail from today into tomorrow. But it can only be done by achieving a rate of speed sufficient to outstrip the rate of the earth’s rotation. This yacht is equipped to do just that.” He glared at me for a moment, then continued. “We intend to do exactly what you propose, but we intend to do it in the only way possible: through the power of science and technology.”
“It’s an inspiring concept, isn’t it?” said Ralph, one hand still resting on my shoulder. “A journey into tomorrow! A poetic image, a living symbol of the indomitable, questing spirit of man!”
“Also a very expensive concept,” added Jack, glancing up at me from his ledger book. “It requires money and planning and organization. I don’t suppose you’ve ever given much thought to that side of the question, have you?”
By this time I was so thoroughly confused that I had to fight to keep back the tears.
“No, I haven’t,” I said in answer to Jack’s question. “I don’t care about all that. All I want is to be allowed to continue my journey! Won’t you please put me back in the water?”
To my great surprise, the three men drew off to one side of the deck and conferred earnestly with one another for several minutes. At length they returned and stood facing me in solemn silence.
“It’s like this,” said Jack. “We have our doubts about you. We don’t think you’re capable of appreciating everything that’s involved in a journey of this kind.”
“Certainly not,” said Dr. Roger, shaking his head and stroking his bearded chin.
“I’m afraid I have to agree,” added Ralph sadly – “though I think you have a lot of the right kind of inspiration. I’ll always regard you as a kindred spirit.”
“In short,” Jack concluded, “we have decided that it will not be possible for you to remain on board this yacht. I’m afraid we must ask you to leave.”
With that, Ralph picked me up as if I were nothing but a rag doll and tossed me overboard into the dark, churning water.
“Goodbye, dear friend,” he waved. “And good luck!”
Then the powerful engines of the yacht began to rev. They revved and roared until the sound became deafening. In the next instant the craft leapt away, covering me in a deluge of foam and spray, and sped off into the red-gold glow on the horizon.
* * * * * * * * * *