Do you remember the stories of the light tower that signaled the return of sailors from the sea? Back then, the village only sent one ship out at a time, and the ship would be gone for anywhere from six to twelve months depending on the provisions they were sent with. Every man was expected to go on one of these trips in his lifetime, as they were made to familiarize future leaders with the world that surrounded our small island. It was, in a way, a right of passage. “Go forth and experience the sea, where every creature is a part of the continuing existence of every other creature.”
When the tower would shine, mothers and children would run to the shores, eager to catch a glimpse of their loved ones climbing from the ship onto the dock. Any leftover goods from the voyage would be removed from the deck in large wooden crates, tied up in thick ropes and lowered to the men who’d be waiting on the ground. The crates would be distributed among food houses across the village to be examined for quality and added back to each family’s store room. The men would then hold their children close and tell them stories of the magical things they’d seen in the world. Things such as squids the size of mountains, lights twinkling in the waves at night, and whales and dolphins that would swim beside the ship as if it were family. Though they never saw any more people, sometimes they would catch a glimpse of another ship that would disappear just as quickly as it had emerged from the ocean mist.
Those evenings, mothers and wives would throw large parties with long buffets filled with the best harvested grains and butchered animals the village had to offer. Sailors, sons, fathers, and brothers would get together and play music late into the evening while women tended to the fires and scolded the children for playing too close to the flames. When our little village touched a new area of the world and came back to the island, it was always a time to celebrate.
Though, sometimes, fathers and husbands did not return. Those men were said to have gone with the siren’s song, victims to the sea. Our people knew not to ask what really became of them, lest we be told an awful story of our family members succumbing to insanity, hunger, or treachery. No, we mourned them in ignorance of what took their lives because we knew it was better that way- a silent respect for who they were before the ocean had bewitched their souls.
Sometimes whole ships failed to come back, sunk right alongside the magical stories they’d been planning to share with their little ones. Often, after a year of waiting, the village would hold a mourning ceremony for the lives lost- digging a single grave, then placing a stone inside for every man who’d been on board. They buried the stones and placed a small marker over the plot. Families were encouraged to visit the site yearly to pay their respects, but many would refuse, choosing instead to hold on to the hope that their sailor would come back one day. They never did, and the village would often be tasked with building a new boat for the next generation of sailors to take over- taught by their grandfathers rather than their fathers or older brothers.
The ritual of sending men out to the sea eventually ended after another ship failed to return. The mourning ceremony took place just before our village became host to a highly contagious and deadly infection that took so many of our people away from us. In dealing with the mass shortage of our population, we couldn’t sacrifice any resources or men to the task. We became isolated, and many of us who grew to be leaders found ourselves afraid of the sea. We moved our village far from the shores, believing the sea had brought the infection somehow, and neglected our light towers. Decades passed with children discouraged from playing near the beaches, elders no longer possessing the skills to sail, and the magical tales of the ocean abandoned for fear of encouraging dangerous thoughts.
That is, until one late winter’s evening when the light tower lit itself so brightly that people believed the sun had risen early. The village leaders sought the source of the beam and found the long forgotten tower lit near the edge of the island, leading them to the shores they’d abandoned so long ago. At their arrival, they saw a dilapidated dock, swollen and covered in various forms of sea life, standing strong as several young men tied various ropes to the posts. The ship attached to the rope was larger than anything the leaders had ever seen, though the markings at the bow were written in an unnervingly familiar script. The sails were aged and weathered, decorated by tears from every direction. The wood of the ship looked just as worn out, some parts bleached white by the sun and others stained dark by the waves. The men tying the ropes, however, seemed to have just come of age- barely growing their beards from virgin jaws. They acted without notice of the leaders, moving from the freshly knotted ropes to the boat and awaiting the wooden crates being lowered toward them.
Even as the leaders called the men, not daring to get near, the men ignored them. They moved with confident strength, placing the crates at the edge of the dock in small stacks as if the act was part of their instinct. The sailors worked tirelessly until no more crates came from the ship. That was when their demeanor changed- they turned and looked toward the island for the first time, locking eyes with unknown creatures before smiling and waving in delight. They bent over and hugged invisible children, brushed hair away from invisible cheeks, and kissed invisible wives lightly. It was like watching the memories of the island reenacted before their eyes.
Just as the leaders were ready to approach the sailors and ask their business, they turned back to the docks and began untying their knots. They climbed aboard the ship once more, and disappeared into the fog. The light in the tower went out as soon as the ship vanished.
Having never seen humans come from the sea before, the village leaders were in curious shock. Who were they, and where did they come from? In the many years of our ancestors surveying the sea, never once had another village been found. They’d never even come across another ship- with the exception of a random sighting every now and then. Those sightings, though, were generally accepted to be tricks of the eye! So who were these people, and where did they come from? Why did the boat have writing on the bow similar to the script used by the village? What was in the crates?
The leaders discussed these questions among themselves for several hours before they journeyed back to the village. At their return, they held a meeting with the elders to discuss their findings and decide how to approach the crates that had been left behind. It was agreed that they would examine the items, and several of our people went back to the forgotten shores, armed with tools to open the crates, and a healthy fear of what magics had befallen our island.
The crates were filled with various herbs and fruits, all fresh and completely new to our people, and a single compass that always pointed southwest. They took the contents back to the village and stored them in a small hut to be studied, and locked the compass away. It wasn’t until a week had passed, when a familiar infection had found its way into the lungs of several children, killing some, that the we learned what the herbs and fruits were for. As each person came down with the illness that had once brought our entire population to the brink of extinction, they were treated by the salvaged bounty and healed quickly.
They say that the ship was a phantom vessel, manned by the ghosts of past sailors who had bargained with the gods of the sea to visit their home one last time. They brought with them a cure for the disease that had ravaged us before, as a gift from the beings of the deep for our years of exploration and adoration. As for the compass? That object inspired the village to build another boat- the first in generations- and set sail once more. What they found changed our way of living forever, but that’s a story for another time.