And sail into the sunset

Three weeks ago, my brother departed on schooner Sonate as part of a crew of five, for a round-the-world trip that may not bring them back until next year. They left from the Old Port of Marseilles, on a white-skied morning with just enough wind to flap in the sails. There were two hours of hesitation and near-stillness in the harbour as families and friends took coffee on the deck, the stocks of fuel were replenished and a hundred little details nobody could see except for the sailors were fixed. Then they navigated out of the harbour, motor growling, sails unfurling little by little until they glided past the levees. Then they took out their violins and accordions, and sang a goodbye song which said something about a harmonica, even though none of them had one. They sailed very close to us one last time, waving their hands. With that, they were gone.

There are few real goodbyes left today. Usually, you hug and kiss and almost walk backwards as you leave so as not to lose one precious second together, only to storm back through the door five minutes later because you forgot your coat, blow a hasty kiss and go. Or you follow people through a window pane when they go through security at the airport, feeling vaguely stupid as you look at each other in the eyes but can’t hear anything and wonder how long the awkwardness is going to last. As soon as you’re out of view, you exchange a couple of text messages, or skype each other as soon as an internet connection becomes available. It’s goodbye, but watered down.

As that ship grew smaller on the horizon and we grew further apart with every passing minute, we knew there would be no turning back, no forgotten mobile phone in the car. It’s not the first time I’ve hugged my brother goodbye. He’s left before–to Antarctica, to Norway–and I’ve left too, and we’ve ended on opposite sides of the globe quite a few times. One year will just barely be the longest time we’ve been without meeting. And yet, there will be no skyping out on the open sea. He’ll have no solid ground under his feet for a while. I trust the sea, and yet there’s something more poignant than I imagined about a ship putting wide golden waters between you and your brother.

Before he sailed away, he came to visit my school and tell my students about his travels and his future work on sea life. He told them about young albatrosses dying of hunger after being unwittingly fed plastic scraps by their parents, about chemical pollution and the gigantic plastic maelstroms twirling at the center of the oceans. But what one of my students really wanted to know about was the whales.

‘What will you do if a whale crashes into your ship? Will you sink?’

‘Well, there are very few whales left today,’ my brother said. ‘It’s very unlikely. They also have a sonar to help them swim, so they won’t crash into us unless they have a big problem. If it does happen, we’ll sink. But then it would also mean fate is after us and we’re meant to die, so there’s no point worrying about it.’

I’m not sure this is what she expected to hear, but she was still all ears for the rest of the conference.

A few days ago I dreamt of a river, frozen over and quite still under the snow. But when the current broke again, the ice went away one chunk after another, and under there in the deep, large shadows were revealed, monstrous, quiet catfish placidly weaving under the ice.

They swam away, in one slow swarm, huge slithering shapes too large to pay attention to us.

I hope the whales swim clear of my brother’s ship.


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