The Firebird XXIII



I sat down heavily beside the man under the tarpaulin, staring into the basket in disbelief.  But no one paid any attention to me, for suddenly an icy wind arose and filled the ragged sail with a snap like the crack of a whip.  As if from nowhere dark clouds came tearing across the sky and covered the stars.  The red glow on the horizon faded and disappeared.  Instantly the men aboard the raft leaped into action.

“Strike that sail!” the steersman shouted into the howling wind.  He was on his feet, gripping the steering oar with both hands and twisting his leathery neck to look up at the sky.  “Ship oars!  We’ll have to try to ride it out!”

Next came a blinding flash and a din of thunder, and the rain began to fall, driven into our faces by a cutting wind.  Everyone took cover as best he could.  I looked longingly at my cloak as the man beneath it stirred and groaned as if in pain.

Never had I seen anything like the sudden fury with which the storm descended upon us.  Rain, thunder, lightning, and wind I had known before, but the boiling and heaving of the sea were entirely new and terrifying to me.  As I watched, a mountain of water surged up on one side, sucked us down into a deep trough, then broke over the raft in an angry avalanche of brine and foam.  The men lashed themselves to the logs of the deck.  The steersman tied himself to a post and clung to the steering oar, trying desperately to hold the raft steady.  In terror I pitched myself face down next to the man called John, pulled the edge of my cloak and the tarp over myself, and lay there trembling beside him.

In a moment I heard him moan again.  It’s all up with me now, I thought.  If I am not drowned in the storm, I will certainly die of this man’s disease.

Remembering that my lamp was still burning on the deck, I raised myself on one elbow, making a little tent of the tarpaulin, and drew the light inside.  In the glow of its flame I turned to examine the person who lay beside me.  What I saw made me gasp in surprise.

It was not his appearance that startled me, unusual though it was.  He was rather small, and his ragged clothes were much too large for him.  Like the rest of them, he was thin and starved-looking.  He had apparently been asleep or unconscious, but did not otherwise seem to be ill.  His dark hair and beard were unkempt and matted with dirt and sea scum, but his beard was short as compared with those of his companions, and behind it I thought I could see the face of a very young man.

As I looked, he opened his eyes and glanced up.  Though the face seemed young, the eyes most certainly did not.  They were eyes that had seen much and suffered much — eyes full of weariness and pain.  For a moment I could do nothing but stare into them.

Altogether he presented a strange and arresting sight.  And yet it was not his eyes nor his face nor yet his beard nor anything else about his appearance that gave me such a shock.  It was the fact that he had been bound and gagged.

His renewed groans brought me back to myself.  Quickly as I could, I tore the rag away from his mouth.

“What does this mean?” I said.  “Why have they tied and gagged you?”

He coughed, spat, and answered hoarsely:

“I disagreed with them,” he said.

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