Hours later the lights had descended from the horizon as the thing got closer and closer to shore. We could now see that it was a gigantic ship—one bigger than I ever could have thought possible, and the lights aboard it were mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe such a vessel could even exist, it seemed more like a dream than reality.
My father had told the men to take up their arms and keep watch on the shore. Meanwhile, he had gone down to the small boat where he would die and from which he would eventually sink into the deep.
I met him there, where we were finally away from the other men and the women and children who had also woken up from the commotion. I asked him what he knew about it.
My father hesitated—something I had never seen him do in all my years—and kept working his hands along the small ropes in his boat. Then he did another thing I had never seen him do: he spoke to me without looking at my eyes.
My father always maintained an intense gaze whenever he spoke to someone. He said that to look away from someone while speaking to them shows weakness and men should not be weak. At other times he had told me that men who cannot look you in the eye are often lying.
That thought passed into my head and for the first time in my life, I wondered if my father may be lying to me. He had never lied before—or at least, not that I knew of. Now I began to question everything.
“Father?” I asked hesitantly, hoping he would look up and meet my eyes with his own.
But he did not. He kept his eyes down on the ropes where his hands worked.
“What is that ship, father?” I asked again.
“This is my fault,” he replied without looking up. “I brought them here, so I will go out and meet them.”
“No!” I instinctively shouted before I could think. “I can’t let you go alone!” I continued to speak without thinking, but as the words came out of my mouth, I felt my throat sink down into my stomach. “I will go with you.”
“No, my son,” he replied. My resolve to accompany my father to the larger ship hardened. Inside my head, I thought that if he rowed out alone, I would take one of the other small boats and go out behind him.
The sky’s blackness began to crack and give way to a gray morning. The sun had not yet breached the horizon, but it was getting easier to discern shapes and people. The ship didn’t seem to have gotten any closer, though I’m sure it had. The horizon is a long way off.
My father had finished preparing his boat and turned to the rest of the tribe gathered on the shore. In a loud voice, he yelled, “I will go out to these lights on the horizon and find what they have come for. I will not let them harm you. If I do not return, it was an honor leading you, my people, and dying on your behalf. Goodbye.”
He promptly stepped into his boat and used the oars to push off from the beach. No one moved, they simply watched him paddle off into the water. Ten yards, then twenty. I waited until just the right moment to run for one of the other boats and follow him. It had to be a long enough time that the other strongmen had dispersed, but not so long that I couldn’t catch up with my father.
Eventually the moment came. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, so I slowly walked to where the other eight boats were overturned on the shore. Then I began moving quickly. I flipped over a small craft and lugged the oars inside. Then pulled it to where the waters were lapping at the sand. I didn’t look behind me, but I heard some of the men talking to me. They were not angry yet, just confused and asking what I was doing.
I pushed the boat out into the water and once the hull left the sand, I hopped aboard. It oscillated beneath me as I found my way to the bench and got the oars into their rings. It was only now that I was facing the shore and saw some of the other men had run down to the edge of the water. They were not coming after me, they were primarily just watching me row out away from them, toward my father and toward the large ship.
After several minutes of pulling at the oars, I could hear my father yelling at me. It was so faint I couldn’t understand the words, but it was clear that he did not want me to follow him.
We continued this way for a while. Every time I glanced over my shoulder, I seemed to be the same distance from the ship, as if I was going nowhere. The shore in front of me continued to get smaller though.
This reinforced my hatred of the water: it didn’t seem to align with the laws of land and math and sense that the rest of the world did.
And as much as I tried not to look beneath my vessel, I couldn’t help it from time to time. Each time I looked down at the black waters holding up my craft, I had to remind myself to breathe. I was sitting atop the chaos and for some unknown reason, it continued to hold me afloat.
At one point, I glanced behind me and saw the ship finally appeared to be closer. It was marginally larger than before. my father stayed a steady distance behind me. He occasionally yelled out for me to turn back, but I kept rowing after him.
The skin on my hands burned but every time the blisters rubbed the handles I pushed the focus on them from my mind. I glanced behind me again and the ship was closer. I could now make out multiple levels of the ship. It had lights and poles sticking up from it, and as I slowly got closer, I could detect humans on board.
Suddenly it hit me: why the ship seemed so strange to me. It did not have sails. Nor did it have oars—though they would have to be massive to propel a ship that size anywhere, bigger than a tree trunk even. I wanted to just stop and stare at the ship, but I couldn’t look at it and continue rowing at the same time.
The waves tossed me back and forth. It was not a choppy day on the waters, but with such a small boat, even miniature bumps in the ocean would toss me back and forth. Even when the boat rocked violently from side to side, I tried not to look down into the depths. I knew what awaited me there: death and chaos. I knew there were things living beneath my small craft which could withstand the might of the water without being sucked down into its stomach. Perhaps I feared these faceless creatures more than the water itself.
I was now close enough to the ship to see the faces of men and women on board. They looked nothing like me. They didn’t look like anyone from my tribe—or any of the surrounding tribes for that matter. They had light skin and their clothes were dark blue and bright white. I had never seen cloth so white in all my life. It was like wearing a cloud, but it was cut so precisely.
I saw the men throw a rope down to my father. He was now only a few lengths from the massive ship which was as tall as a tree. Taller, perhaps.
“Father!!” I yelled. I stopped rowing and watched to see what would happen.
My father took the rope and hitched it to the boat. He looked at me, then began climbing up the rope along the hull of the impossibly large ship. The men on board looked down at him and watched as he made his way up the rope. The strength of his arms still surprised me, as he was about to die and now he was climbing up a rope to a foreign ship.
I rowed my boat next to his as quickly as I could, and despite being terrified, intended to climb up the rope behind him. When I came alongside his boat, I threw the oars into mine, grabbed the rope at my feet and tied our boats together. Then, as quickly as I could—which was difficult in two flimsy boats in choppy waters bouncing in the wake of a massive ship—I stepped from my boat to my fathers, and then grabbed the rope leading up to the deck of the ship.
My arms were not as strong as my father’s, but by putting my feet on the ship’s hull, I was able to slowly walk and pull my way up after my father. He was already standing on the deck with the men, but I could not see what he was doing—or what they were doing to him. He had stopped yelling at me to turn back and had apparently accepted me coming after him.
I finally crested the deck and what I saw amazed me—even more up close than I had seen from a distance. There were poles and wheels and all sorts of colorful tools made of materials I had never seen before. I could not believe my eyes. I was stunned for a moment such that when my father spoke to me, I was still staring in disbelief at the machinery.
All my life I had only seen wooden shafts and poles and weapons made of sharpened stones. We cooked food with fire and lived in tents made of animal hides. My brain could not even comprehend the complex technology I was now trying to take in and figure out all at once.
“Son,” said my father, holding his hand toward one of the other men on the deck, “This is Captain William.”