I had drifted closer to the raft by now and could see the men more clearly. All were thin and gaunt in appearance, and seemed exhausted with the toil of rowing. Their clothes were in tatters, soaked with sea water and encrusted with salt. Some had blood-stained rags wrapped around their heads, arms, or legs. One of the company lay in the middle of the raft under a soiled canvas tarpaulin, apparently too weak or too ill to move. Never in my life had I seen such a haggard group of faces. Despair flickered in their eyes like a dying flame. The cold, hopeless expressions with which they regarded me struck me to the heart.
“How can this be?” I stammered. “I already told you – the Firebird directed me this way! The three ladies provided my needs for the journey. The Watchers in the Valley told me that he is coming and that he would surely meet me at the rising of the sun!”
“Where is the sign of his coming?” growled one of the gray figures aboard the raft.
Behind him another man laughed bitterly. “Perhaps he comes for you but not for us,” he said.
Hopelessness flooded in upon me like the wide ocean. These men are right, I thought. What they are telling me is nothing new. I have thought and felt all these same things myself. Their faces alone are proof enough of what they say. Where I am going, they have already been and have nothing to show for it.
“Will you take me with you?” I said. “Will you help me get back to land?”
Again the steersman scowled. “Things are tight aboard this vessel,” he said. “Overcrowded already.”
A sudden breath of wind ruffled the ragged sail and caused me to shiver all over beneath his stern gaze.
“Still,” he went on thoughtfully, “What you’ve got, we need. Take John here,” he added, pointing to the man lying under the tarpaulin. “That cloak of yours would do him good.”
With that, he uncoiled a length of rope and tossed the end to me across the water.
* * * * * * * * * * *