Sometimes in mid-October Florida the dawn comes softly gray, gathering slowly across the cool woods, dripping from the nighttime rain. Deep greens glisten and crystal drops patter to earth with each stirring of sweet, cool Autumn breeze.
The river is a glassy, dimpled, ebony mirror, silently reflecting the blanketing sky, the cradling trees. In the rapids the mirror creases, folds, and the sky disappears, leaving only a silver frost of bubbles around the ancient rocks.
One can walk silently to its banks and listen, and look……
and God is there.
On such a morning, far upstream, I saw an old familiar craft. It seemed adrift, borne along as incidentally as the occasional Autumn leaf. On board was the pilot, a vital, strapping lad of good humor, sharp eye and great skill. He seemed puzzled, surprised.
A closer look revealed his state. The great engine, though running, could not make way, the planks were shrunken, the frames showed through, the tiller was cracked and a broken, useless rudder pushed lazy swirls around the stern.
He knew this stretch of river.
He’d taken others through….but
Always as the pilot,
A leader in a crew.
And now is he a passenger, a captive and afloat,
Aboard a tried and trusted craft, this powerlessly drifting boat.
When I could hear, he said he wanted to go ashore, but the water was too wide and no one could help him. All that could be done was to stay alongside and be of what comfort we could.
At the head of the rapids the great river narrows to a single passage and it’s hard to realize how fast it has become…
or how powerful.
It was tough to stay alongside but we managed, and even at times fended the impossibly careening vessel off of rocks and trees as it rose and fell on the surging
torrent. But greater and greater was the grief in its passage and the toll was exacted and he ran from side to side and cried, “Let me out!” and grasped at the rails and the tiller to make the old craft once again carry him over the danger.
And though the great engine would not quit, neither could it power the boat…
Nor the boat carry him over the danger.
The engine would not cease
Nor the pilot would release, and the struggle,
The Struggle was heroic.
On and on, tossed and rolling deeply, turning, rising and falling back, the inexorable passage stretched.
He grasped and clutched, pulled and tugged at whatever fell under his grip moment by moment. Seeming at times to realize the futility, he would briefly cease and be still, his eyes cast upward as if searching his beloved sky.
Again and again he redoubled the fight, but the old boat was failing and no skill, no grit, no rage or plea, no simple dogged unflagging persistence served to alter its course or condition.
He called from time to time to those he knew or had known but I heard no answer. He tired and his efforts lessened but he ceased not to rouse himself and fall and rouse himself and fall.
And the river, the benignly indifferent, silent, coursing current, bore him along unawares. Thus had it run and thus would it run, without malice or haste, favor or pause. It rolled as the ages, bearing along all that was upon it with equanimity and certainty be it fallen leaf, hewn timber or brave and broken boat.
At the foot of the rapids there is a quiet pool where the great power reaches plumbless depths, the current slows and once again the towering sky shows upon the
river’s silent face. There, at long last, the great old boat drifted silently, floating at lazy, peaceful ease, without direction or haste.
The tired and failing engine, still at work, rattled and sputtered deep inside the battered, drifting hull.
He lay quietly, no more to do. When his eyes were open they were set now upon the other shore and the cool Autumn breeze coaxed the vessel there. At some length and at great distance from us, the keel slid softly and firmly aground there, the engine was stopped, the rudder lay over in the shallows and a vast and peaceful silence overtook us all. After a moment I believe I saw him rise. He stepped across onto the other shore, standing straight, and joined a gathering of people there, some of whom, even across that great distance, I thought I knew. He was greeted all around, as though being congratulated and welcomed home and after a time no one was there.
We gathered up the spent and shattered hull and set to it a great consuming fire. It blazed briefly, giving light and warmth, and collapsed into a cooling heap of fine blowing ash which we gathered and took up to the brow of a broad sunny hill and made there its final berth.