In a Blue Barque
by Jane Dougherty
They stole a boat from the riverbank, a blue barque with a white sail. It had been his idea, Haakli, the desert nomad’s, not hers. Two slaves on the run; nobody would follow them seaward, he said. Haakli knew nothing of the sea, but Uma had loved his eyes, the way they laughed only for her, even when his master had had him flogged, and so she had agreed. For his laughing eyes and his strong brown arms, she had chosen the barque herself, because she knew about the sea.
Before they pushed the boat into the current, Haakli placed an amulet, a pearl, fat and mysterious, around her neck. To protect her from the sea devils, he said. It was an heirloom, a trinket passed down from one desert tribesman to another. Haakli’s people were in awe of anything that came from the sea. He must have thought there was a deal of power in it. She murmured words of thanks because she would not have him think her ungrateful.
Haakli kissed her on the forehead, and the whites of his eyes gleamed bright in his tanned face. He smiled, a rare and fleeting thing, for slaves only smiled with the private, secret ripple of the eyes. He smiled, and the magic whorls tattooed in blue dye that covered his face shifted into motion. Uma bit her lip and refused to look at the pearl where it lay between her breasts, but her flesh squirmed at the cold touch of deep sea death. He thought it was for the best. She would not tell him what all the sea people knew, that pearls brought bad luck.
The desert nomads knew nothing of the sea, though they revered it and spoke of it in hushed tones. Haakli had told her some of their stories, back there, in the city where they were slaves, and she had smiled at their naivety. She did not smile now, not with the pearl lying cold and pale against her skin, and he with that eager light in his eyes, not understanding. She crossed her fingers and murmured the strongest ward she knew, hoping it would be enough.
The current carried them towards the sea, between towering cliffs of yellow ochre. Uma trailed a hand in the racing water. It was ice cold.
“What if the stories are true?” she asked her companion. She knew they were true. Deep in her bones she felt the truth in the stories, and she recalled the terror in the eyes of the fishermen who told them. She asked him because he did not know the stories, not the ones the sea people told. He knew only his own stories of fanged sea goddesses and serpents as wide as a river. She asked him because she wanted to believe, as he did, that there was nothing more to fear than monsters.
Haakli turned his face, criss-crossed, as was his whole body, with combat scars and the spiral symbols of eternity.
“The stories? About the sea devils?” He flexed his arms, clenching his fists and making the biceps leap like whales. His white teeth flashed again in a rare smile. “And if they are foolish enough to still come too close, I also have this.” He pulled a long, curved knife from his belt.
And I have an amulet, Uma thought, and the touch of the pearl made her shiver. But it wasn’t the sea devils that turned her stomach into a writhing mass of sandworms. It was the other story, the story Haakli had never even heard. His people, the desert people, thought every battle could be fought with steel or magic and won with strength or cunning. Haakli thought he could defy the ocean with a knife, that a seed pearl would enchant the sea devils. She felt a sudden élan of affection for the simplicity of his world.
All day, they let the current carry the barque towards the ocean. Scorching sun seared the blue water shot with silver. At midday it hung overhead, a fiery god that even Haakli feared, and the yellow cliffs cast no shade. Strange birds, emerald and ruby, screeched above, following in the boat’s wake. Uma squinted at them suspiciously, but at least the flat, dirty plain of the city—with its noise and its heaps of refuse, the hyenas that squabbled for bones and rotting things beyond the walls, and the hungry children that wailed incessantly—was far behind.
They were in a landscape that they both knew, Haakli because the searing light of the sun on yellow cliffs recalled his desert dunes, Uma because the light on moving water, the scream of the birds overhead, and the ripples of fish nudging the skin of the river around the barque reminded her of the village by the shore. Her thoughts turned to home, and knotted like eels in the pit of her stomach. She longed to be there, surrounded by the familiar, but at the same time dreaded the life that had been hers before the slavers came, the life lived between the terrors of the sea and the terror of capture. The familiar had not been enough to save her then. She doubted it ever could be.
She twisted the end of her long plait nervously between finger and thumb, rubbing the magic blue beads that fastened the end. The beads grew warm, and she recalled her mother and how she would rub her blue beads, and how her day was rhythmed by the murmur of the words of ward. For everything by the sea was a potential danger, from the rising wind that whipped the waves to murderous heights to the poisoned spines of the tiny weaver fish that hid in the sands of the shallows. Would the village still be there, she wondered, or would all those she knew be scattered in slavery, plucked from their rock as she had been?
As evening fell, a noise like thunder grew, faint at first then more menacing as the sun slipped lower. The cliffs receded into bloody smears caught by the westering sun, leaving the boat in the middle of a torrent rushing towards the vast ocean. She watched Haakli as he stood in the stern of the barque, balancing easily with his spearman’s stance as the craft rose and dipped, thinking only of wide skies and freedom.
Una knew the heaving waves and the power of the swell. She knew why the fishermen stayed close to the shore, in the safety of the shallows. But Haakli had only heard tell of the ocean in stories. He stood in the stern of the boat, one hand on the shuddering tiller, the other raised to shield his eyes as he peered ahead. Thunder gripped the little craft, and the planks trembled as it left the river and sped out into the ocean, smooth and green as glass all the way to the deep turquoise horizon.
Uma glanced at Haakli’s face, and for the first time she saw his strength ebb away. The magic whorls of his tattoos slowed and froze. She saw the seeds of doubt appearing, that eternity was not for men, only for stones and symbols. Haakli’s people knew nothing of the ocean. They gave thanks for a sprinkling of rain to damp the parched earth. Green was a colour he scarcely knew. He had thought to sail to freedom, but the green was too much and too wild, and he was lost in its vastness.
Her eyes, too, grew round with fear as the horizon approached. The horizon was the unattainable distance; she knew that. It was a distance not to be approached, but to be left alone where it lay, brooding, beyond the safe shallows, the line that marked the boundary between this world and the next. No one had touched the horizon, but here it was, shrinking the ocean, rushing to meet them.
The sky grew in its immensity, pouring down over the little barque like a scintillating blue curtain, pouring down exactly as the fishermen had described. Haakli stood in the stern and stared at the horizon, and his jaw was clenched so hard the muscles twitched. Uma called out to him across the roar of the water, wanting to hear the reassuring sound of his voice one last time. But the wind tore the words from her throat, and thunder throbbed, filling every tiny space inside her head.
The sky was full of the colours of sunset—indigo in the east and flame in the west. And it was cloudless. In those last instants she accepted what her blood and bones were screaming, the understanding she had tried to ignore. She reached out to Haakli, longing to see the laughter in his eyes one last time. He tore his gaze from the howling horizon and turned to her. He knew, finally. The whorls of his face were still, and his eyes were soft now and infinitely sad.
In those last instants of unbearable noise, she threw herself into his arms; the arms whose muscles could not hold back the ocean, no more than the pearl charm could give their craft wings. She whispered a last word of love that the roar of the wind and water snatched away before it could fall into his ear, and the little blue splinter of a barque shot over the edge of the world.
Lucent Dreaming is an independent creative writing magazine publishing beautiful, imaginative and surreal short stories, poetry and artwork from emerging authors and artists worldwide. Our aim is to encourage creativity and to help writers reach publication! Subscribe to Lucent Dreaming now, support us on Patreon and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.