The morning was damp, as though the dew had formed on the earth just as the sun rose and then flown upward to fill the air with tiny droplets. The day was bright through pale gray clouds, and the vines and autumn flowers shone with deep glowing colors.
Carl slept rather late, well into the day. Unless and Until sat together quietly in the front room with the next picture. They had toast and fried potatoes for a late breakfast, and left a large serving of potatoes warming the oven for Carl to eat when he woke. Eventually they heard movement and firm footsteps descending to the second floor and then down and into the front room.
“Hoy and good morning, good hosts!” Carl sang, with bright eyes and a bouncing step as he came through the doorway. “Good day, more like, for I have slept and dreamed a good long stretch, eh?”
“Good morning and good day, Carl” said Unless, with pleasure.
“Hoy to you Carl! Would you like some fried potatoes?” said Until.
“Seems my belly’s been passing you notes while I slept, ‘Til – I could eat a bushel of them!” With that, Carl turned and hurried into the kitchen. Unless and Until stared after him, until a few clattering noises and a happy humming made it clear that Carl was staying in the kitchen and eating the potatoes right out of the pan. Unless and Until glanced at each other, sighed, and went back to gazing at the picture.
Carl washed the potato pan and put it away and came back into the front room, patting his sides. He followed Unless’s and Until’s gazes to the picture on the easel and turned slightly so that he could join the examination without blocking their views and stood very still. After a few minutes, he patted his sides three times, puffed his lips with a half-whistle, and shifted his weight. Several more minutes passed.
Carl spoke up, “Everything lives in the ocean.”
Until stiffened. Unless pricked their ears.
Until asked, “What can that mean? We don’t live in the ocean.”
Carl twisted a little and peered back at Until. “Well, ‘Til, what I mean is that everything in the ocean is alive, though I’d also stake that most every kind of thing that’s alive is in the ocean somehow.”
Intrigued, Until focused again on the picture, looking at how the puzzling shapes suspended in the dark did seem alive, but translucent or dimmed, as if deep under water. Until cast their mind back to those dark nights on the Mirror, and the luminous writhing shapes that were sometimes visible beneath the wake of the Mirror’s hull.
Unless turned one ear backwards and sang softly, “You’re never out once you’ve been in ....”
“That’s it exactly,” said Carl. “I doubt me you two would know how I came to be a sailor at all, hey?”
“You’ve never told us, no,” answered Unless.
“As I told you,” he began, “I wasn’t born a sailor. I was a landsman born, to little parents who ran a little shop that sold little things. I had three little older brothers, who were shaping up to marry little wives. The eldest would take over for mum and dad, and the other two wanted to open new branches in little towns nearby.”
“Little?” asked Unless.
“Not me!” said Carl with toneless mirth, and he continued, “The cot that had held my brothers broke under me when I was not yet four years old. Another two or three years and I was sleeping on crates in the warehouse. And the day came when I ran off to see the big world. A big rich man hired me to stand around and be big, even though I was just a kid. Then we went off on his big yacht with this little tiny gal who had big eyes and big hair and some little tiny clothes. She flapped her big eyelashes at me, I tell you, and the big rich man frowned his big frown, so to get away from both of them I went up front where the wind was too strong for that little tiny gal to stand up in. I was up on the bowsprit when a storm came and swept me right up into the air and rain and down into the ocean and away from the rich man’s yacht.”
“Goodness!” cried Until.
“What happened?” cried Unless, “How were you saved?”
“Everything lives in the ocean, I told you,” said Carl, with a smile, “just like I lived in the ocean. At first it was hard going, I’ll admit. I am naturally buoyant, and bobbed like a buoy while the wind and the rain lashed around me. Fierce and frightening that was, while it went on. But it passed, and there I was, a big lonesome boy overboard and lost at sea. I cried and called out, and was sure I would float away gone and never know when the end came. Somehow I slept.
“In the dark of the night time, with no moon, a song woke me up. There were lights in the water, and warm waves filled with voices. The voices sang, I couldn’t make out any words, and the waves pushed me. The water was sweet, not salt, and I drank my fill. As I drank, I saw in the waves that the lights were coming from, I don’t know, things - creatures - singing fit to burst themselves and pulsing with light....”
He broke off his tale, and whistled a strange lingering melody. Unless and Until found their eyes drawn to the painting, and thought they could hear the voices in the waves as they had sung to that poor lost boy so long ago.
They were startled when Carl stopped whistling and abruptly laughed. “I don’t know about the bird though! Never saw one of those under water - but there’s more and stranger things I never saw - the old man of wooden waves, the flying rats, the magic boat that sails itself back and forth across the sea, the fish-folk who gather Hespera Delia’s bird eggs for her. Sailors talk of what they’ve seen and heard. There’s no knowing everything, friends, even when you know it’s there.”
The three were silent for a few minutes as the strange melody continued to echo in their minds.
“And so I floated. Like a dream! A dream I woke up from with the sun in my face, rocking with the deck, dry and safe on the Mirror. The hands gathered around in a sillhouette above me, and Captain yelling ‘Wake up boy! You’ve duties to tend, new hand!’ And so I did, and so I did, and many years ago that was, friends. But here I am, live and hale to tell you all of it.”
Carl had drawn himself up to his full height, his head nearly touching the ceiling, and swept his hands out to the sides as he finished his tale. He looked at Unless and Until in turn with an expression that gave them a glimpse of the lucky unlucky young boy Carl had been, awash in the sweet waves of the strange ocean. Unless and Until clapped and cheered his tale, touched almost to tears with the urge to gather up that lost boy in their arms and to comfort him, impossible as it would be now to do such a thing.
“What do you think?” said Carl, “Does that explain this picture? Things I never thought to see again – here in your front room.”
Unless murmured agreement, again wrapped up in gazing at the picture.
Until said “Certainly, Carl! You have quite brought it to life for us! You should decide where we hang it up...”
“Hmmm...” Carl said, “Think there’s room there next to the window where Hespera Delia hangs? Mysteries of the ocean, like?”
All agreed it was a perfect spot, and hung the picture on the other side of the window looking down toward the lake. The last picture was alone on the easel, a project for another day. Their minds were full of the ocean, not yet ready for clouds and birds and twisting pathways in the air.
The three turned all their attentions to ordinary chores and the sunny afternoon. Unless helped Carl do some washing. Carl’s clothes on the line turned the front yard into a miniature carnival ground of tents and flags. Until considered what should be for dinner. Somehow they was certain that Carl would be leaving soon, and Until wanted a special dinner.
They had already eaten roast and trifle, and a huge helping of potatoes. Until set off down the road with several pounds of smoked pheasant from the larder and returned with a large basket of eggs, two bottles of creamy milk, and a bag of bulk goods. What could be more special than soufflé?