by T.S. Garp
A man takes a special trip...
New Dawn Fades
by Rick Pritchett
They started out in the early morning. The predawn light cast a soft blue tinge across the sky onto the water and across the land, not quite illuminating anything yet not quite obscuring everything. Murky, the man would have expressed aloud if he thought that would do anything. Earlier, the passenger had offered a “good morning” to his host, but instead of the anticipated, perfunctory response of "good morning to you", the guide said nothing. First securing payment from the man and placing the articles necessary for the excursion on top of a wooden box, the host finally tied the box and the passenger's items to the bow of the boat leaving just enough room for the two travelers. Arranged as such, the guide stood toward the front keeping to himself, there to ensure that they both went in the proper direction. The passenger positioned himself as the rower, occupying the back space, pulling the oars in rhythm, wondering, after several hours of travel, what kind of guide never adjusted their path nor suggested a different course. He paddled on as silently as the guide.
Uncertain of how long they had traveled, head bowed as it had been for what seemed an eternity and weary from his efforts, he dipped the oars into the water yet again and pushed forward.
“How long IS this journey actually? Are we almost there?” he asked the guide, but his sailing companion refused to break the silence, a reticence maintained since the start of their journey. The figure in front of him, swathed head to foot in a white robe and entirely concealed, continued to stare away from the man propelling the small vessel. A brief, swift movement of the robe sent a whisper of cloth against cloth. The man thought that a small gust of wind had caused the fabric to shift, but looking up he saw that the cloaked form had moved. A hand, a rare sign of humanity, peeked out from the all-encompassing garb, pointing.
“Yes, I see it now”. In front of him, and he was puzzled how he had failed to notice, emerged their destination. On a grand scale the object of their trip was insignificant, but as the sailor paddled closer, their craft was suffused with the fading light of the evening, reflected off of the now impressive object of their expedition.
The island filled his vision completely.
His first glance revealed that this island was like no other that he had ever visited before. There were no pools, no restaurants with pubs teeming with life, no tennis courts, and as far as he could tell, there was no real discernible place intended for guests at all. From what appeared before him there was nothing resembling a hotel or a condominium or any building of any kind. What he could see was rock and plenty of it. Not overly large in diameter, based on what he gleaned from his first glimpse of the so called resort (as he now thought of it), nor overly tall, perhaps five stories at its tallest point, the late afternoon sun exposed two prominent formations reaching upward. The projections vaulted skyward with one to the right and one to the left with more rock curving between the two points. The rower noted that the islet was a perfect horseshoe with the length, as measured from one end to the other, totaling roughly eighty feet, with the curve bending away from them, the water forming a cove which they now approached.
Dipping his oars into the water, he looked to the left first. This half of the small island, guarded by boulders at the base, offered no access to anyone for anything. Surprisingly, halfway up the face of the rock there were large openings cut into the stone. Slowly approaching, the man counted six such openings on that side of the island, two on what would be one the first story and four right above those two, but there was no stairway or any other method of scaling the sheer cliff to get to see what lay inside. Someone had cut a perfect corner out of the projection in front of the higher openings, a sort of ledge on the very corner closest to him, but little progress had been made thereafter, and it left the man to wonder if the owner had run out of money prior to finishing the manner of ingress into those crevices.
The right-side of the island was certainly the area meant for whatever passed as civilization there. Clearly he could see stairs, carved in the same manner as the quasi-ledge from the left side, terminating into more of the openings. Moving closer still to the landing area inside of the cove, he could see that the openings were not doors of any kind but simply huge carved out spaces, perfectly square, recessed into the stone leaving a small overhang which changed the appearance from a mere hole in a cave to a specific portal intended for use. That must be where the action is, he thought to himself. The formation was not deep either, probably no more than his living room, give or take a few feet. The only impressive aspect of the island, a cluster of colossal cypress trees planted at the base of the islet and nestled between the two horns of the shoe, soared into the sky climbing several feet above the top of the rocky formation. They were the only living things the man could see, and they continued to loom as he rowed toward what passed as a harbor.
“Is the fishing any good here? This little inlet looks like somewhere fish might like, small as it is?”
His compatriot did not turn and did not answer.
“Fine,” the man said. He needed to say something. He could no longer bare the silence, and he was curious what this resort really offered him for entertainment.
“This will be like when I was young. The fishing on our lake was fantastic.”
He pushed forward into the bay towards the stone seawall and the gigantic cypress.
“Yes, just like when I was a boy”.
Youthful remembrances of himself as a small child with his father raced into his mind as he continued to paddle.
Rowing the boat had always been his job even as a relatively small child. His father, looking for the perfect spot to fish, stood tall in the front of the boat casting his gaze out toward the lake on which they lived. Although his dad knew all of the best spots, each time they ventured out to fish his dad would spend the early part of the trip conducting his own internal analysis while the boy rowed.
On one of the trips his dad proffered this nugget of wisdom: “Boy, you have to gauge the conditions. Look at the wind, check the current, and sun. Is it spring or summer? Is there a fallen log or some vegetation. Those bastards like to hide from us, but we’re smarter. Yes, we’re smarter. And it don’t matter if it’s someone else’s home or favorite spot. If the fish are biting we’re there, understand?” As a boy he was too young at first to understand why the lake neighbors would be so accommodating. It was only later, when he was a little older, that he became aware that his father was a politician, and as the local politician he took care of his constituents. They, in turn, looked the other way when his father encroached upon their designated lake areas to do his fishing. They knew how he loved to fish, and “the old man” seemed to be able to get whatever the lake residents needed. “Symbiosis,” his father muttered at one point. The young rower did not know on that day what that word meant in general and certainly not in the context as used by his father. He only knew to keep the boat going in the direction his father wanted and to wait patiently for the fish, which they always caught.
During one of their many fishing expeditions his father mused, “People are kinda like fish, boy”, and when one of the neighbors, Mr. Conklin, joined them on their fishing excursion that day, he made room for the other adult in the boat and merely watched as his dad and Mr. Conklin talked and laughed. Casting their lines into the lake over and over, sometimes returning with a fish, more often not, the morning wore on into a blazing hot afternoon, with the two compatriots still smiling and chuckling over secrets that amused them, ignoring the sweat that poured from them. When his father came over to grab a couple of beers from the cooler, he gave the boy a wink. He patted the neighbor on the shoulder and whispered something, and then scowled, the only time either of them put on a serious face. Strangely, at least to the boy, it only seemed natural that at that moment the neighbor should pull out his wallet and hand his father several bills. “Payment” as his father called it, for some political favor needed by the neighbor. These “payments” were never huge, but the small amounts piled over time leading to a small fortune. Neither the boy nor the family lacked for any niceties in life.
“Just like fish,” he said after they returned home. “They all get caught on the hook some day.”
The hook that caught his dad came years later. One of the neighbors, someone new to the lake, did not see eye to eye with the old man. The confrontation had been short. The "Ingrate", a nickname that would unwillingly stick to him, cast his line. He explained that he had taped their most recent conversation and that his attempt at embezzlement would be reported to the proper authorities unless his father agreed to his simple demand: resign his position immediately. Just like that his father was on the line being reeled in. His father barely batted an eye.
"Sure you want to do this?"
The neighbor was sure. "This ends now. You're through here, or we'll next see you behind bars. Your choice"
"Well, seein' as I don't have much of a choice," and he left it at that.
The neighbor started to say something, but was cut-off by the door gently closing on his face. Whatever he said was never heard by the old man. And that was it. The next day he submitted his resignation letter, claiming poor health and the desire to spend more time with his family, and he was out of the fishing business. The real reason for his resignation never became public. The Ingrate was true to his word there.
The boy never saw his father get angry over being ousted from his position of power. His father never commented on the fact that the neighbor who challenged him had been working behind the scenes to take over his spot. He never scoffed as the Ingrate, who was as bullying to the constituents he represented as he was to his father, failed to get their needed items, finding out the hard way that the suppliers of their necessities had other ways of negotiating. His fellow politicians could not be bullied.
His father slowly watched the neighborhood crumble, and he did nothing despite the numerous pleas from his neighbors, his former constituents, to jump in and do something. One man replaced another in his former post, and the boy grew into a young man.
"Son," he said, "seein' as you are heading off to college I want you to remember one thing, and that's they threw me back. They had me on the hook, but they never did catch me. Keep that in mind. You can mostly do what you want and not get caught, especially if you're careful. People are all talk."
People are all talk. The boy had taken that phrase to heart and carried it with him throughout life. Drawing nearer to the cove, the old man chuckled at what that advice had taught him and how he had used it. He could be all talk and make money as a result. He had breezed successfully through school and had started his own business straight out of college using money he had "earned" by providing services his fellow classmates, friends, and various associates didn't really need, but were persuaded by him that they were essential. He chuckled as yet another critical moment of his life distracted him from his rowing.
The man leaned over the railing of the forty-eight foot Ocean Alexander and stared out at the vast ocean. This was much better than the silly party boats he had been on in college years ago. This boat belonged to his business. After twenty-five years as the owner of his own company, he no longer debated whether such luxuries were superfluous. He had earned it, but it was time for him to personally collect the niceties, and not the small stuff his father considered riches but real wealth. Turning to his right he looked at his passenger, an awkward "up and comer" named Newell Sleater, but who everyone just called "Sleater". As owner of his company he liked to know who he could best use for his purposes. Sleater was smart, really smart, and he knew that Sleater was ambitious. Two very important factors to moving his company even further and also helping him become what he always wanted to be. Taking Sleater in tow, he guided him to the railing overlooking the water.
"I love it out on the ocean, agree Sleater?"
"Yes, sir. Nothing like heading out, getting away from the office, and relaxing a bit."
"We are never really too far from work, thank goodness, but we can certainly take advantage of the resources at our disposal, right?
"You have a lovely, um, boat sir. Thank you for inviting me."
"Sleater, make no mistake my young man, we are on a ship right now, not a boat."
"Honest mistake made out of ignorance. That's fine. Relax Sleater, it is not the end of the world. You will learn. Would you care for a drink? Are you a scotch or bourbon man?"
"Um, actually, sir I prefer vodka."
"Of course you do, don't want any alcohol on your breath. Let's head down to the bar. The bartender will make you a perfect vodka martini. I am going to have a Lagavulin scotch. The water of life they say. Appropriate, yes?"
"You have been with us, what, two years now Sleater?"
"Two years and one month, to be exact."
"Liking it well enough? No plans to leave?"
"It's a great company to work for, sir."
"Yes, well, our drinks our here. A simple toast to you, Sleater. Cheers!"
"Looking to make a move, then?
"What do you mean?"
"Come on Sleater, a young man like you. Surely you want your career to progress and rather quickly I would assume."
"I think anyone who's half intelligent doesn't want to remain static where they work."
"'Doesn't want to remain static.' I like that. Like this ship. It needs to move away from the shore, out to the depths of this wonderfully large body of water. It is so blue, so calming as we glide through it, and yet, it can turn into a monster in no time at all. A change in the wind direction, a subtle shift in the air pressure, and the weather changes and this ocean becomes a beast. Yet, this vessel and all like her have only one purpose: to sail, to move forward."
"Right. Have you looked over the details of the concept I presented to you?"
"Well sir, I have, but..."
"Um, yes, well, isn't what you're proposing kind of illegal?"
"Is it? That is interesting Sleater. Let us set that unpleasant thought aside for a minute. Take a look at this painting, Sleater. Die Toteninsel, The Isle of the Dead by Albert Bocklin. Some say the painting shows Charon and a lone soul traversing the River Styx in the underworld. I'm not so sure about that, but it's dark and moody. I like that. It's dark, but not unpleasant, I mean the traveler could have a happy ending, you never know, right? Now, back to work. The really important question is can you turn my concept into reality and make it work?"
"Well, sir, I think I can."
"Think you can? Not good enough, Sleater. I need you to be certain, to know you can. So, I will ask again. Can you make it work?"
"Sir, I know I can..."
"Excellent. You leave all the rest of the project up to me. I know I can handle the more delicate issues. This is not the first project I have worked on, and I never fail."
"Right. See Sleater, we are moving forward with a purpose now. No sense in bringing out the beast during our voyage and believing that the man in the painting has an unhappy ending. You do your part, discreetly, and I will do my part, even more discreetly, of course. The work will get done, and we will be rewarded in the end. I see you going far Sleater. Now, let us relax, enjoy our drinks, and let me tell you about my family."
The rower stopped paddling. The guide did not seem to notice, and the man let a stillness fall, the last of the waves from his oars settling into a calm water. It wasn't far to the island now, but the man felt a slight feeling of trepidation as if something was off. He felt like himself but not himself. He tried to remember how this trip came about and couldn't. Wasted thoughts. Pull yourself together, man, he thought, and abruptly shoved the negativity aside. Happier thoughts, thoughts of his family jumped to him as he put the oars back into the water and proceeded forward again.
The old man had told many about his small family over the years, both the good and the bad. Now he pulled at his beard and ruminated on his good fortune. He was enjoying his retirement and there was no better way than to sit back and down his scotch. Resting comfortably at his daughter's house, having his drink or two, it was a sheer joy and the highlight of his day.
There was no doubt that he'd been a good father, certainly a better father than husband. This fact troubled him not in the least. His wife had divorced him when their daughter was young, running off with someone even more wealthy than he. She had complained that his true love was work. She had a point, until their daughter came into their lives. Once she was born, she was the star. His wife, seemingly indifferent to the little girl, signed the divorce papers with little fanfare and was off.
"Pretty sure I dodged a bullet there," he thought to himself.
"Good riddance," he mumbled aloud.
"What's that dad?"
"Oh, nothing. I'm just sitting here mulling things over."
She nodded and moved over to her desk. She had work to do.
Yes, he'd done a fine job taking care of her. To get where they were Sleater had done his job, and he had done his. Both were more than financially sent. Most importantly, no one, not even the auditors could track the money that fueled their wealth, so good was Sleater at what he did before he moved on to another company to become a Vice President, and the old man was no idiot either. Together they had pulled it off.
"Do you need another scotch, dad? I have a meeting in a couple of minutes."
She was more like her dad than she cared to admit. Driven, purposeful, always looking to better herself and others through hard work. Yes, he had done a fine job as a father. One thing he did not pass on, though, was his willingness to fish, and this was, he knew, both literally and metaphorically. Not once had she shown any desire to troll the family lake or any other body of water. Not once had he thought to train her in that other way that human beings can be caught, a way he and Sleater, and his old man before, had perfected. Regardless, her talents and acumen had guided her well into life, and as he prepared for retirement, to enjoy his scotch and the other trappings of life (“trappings”, there’s a perfect word, he thought), she took over the company and prospered. Sure, it might have been a little harder, more complicated, but he saw that she enjoyed, no delighted in the challenges, and she succeeded now even where he couldn’t. He was proud. However, he never told her how she gained her first big client as CEO or how the company managed to retain their most important customer during a downturn. He had worked in the background, using all of his available tools, finally resorting to simple blackmail to keep them in line and a part of the business.
"Hey dad, when was the last time you went someplace nice?"
He thought about it. "I am too old to go anywhere anymore."
"C'mon, you're not either. You seem as fit as when you were in your forties and bouncing around the ocean in your yacht."
"I'm comfortable in my home, visiting you on occasion. No, I think you are talking to the wrong guy." He hadn't told her about the cancer diagnosis and the fact his life would end sooner than she would think.
She glared at him, a glare he had taught her to use to put an unease into others, and to stall for time to think.
"I think you should take one last adventure, one last trip for fun before you hide away in your shell."
"I am old, and lately I’ve felt more tired than I ever have. My doctor says I should lay off the scotch. I’m thinking I need a new doctor.”
"It's OK to let go and do this, dad."
He paused again and rubbed his beard in thought. One more trip intrigued him, and he had thought of doing something to "let go" for some time. This sounded like just the thing for him. One last voyage under his own power, but he knew it wasn't possible. Although he appeared to be in great shape, he knew that he didn't have the strength. No, the only trip he would take would be back home where he kept his pistol. He would not suffer.
"Tell me more about this resort. You may have sold me after all. A boat ride calls me, and you made me wonder what this island will be like when I get there."
“The brochure says, and I quote, ‘The trip is the same for everyone, but it seems different to anyone who undertakes it. For some it appears to be over in an instant, while for other travelers they believe that the trip may never end. You will only know by commencing the voyage and seeing it through. Once you arrive, time will lose all meaning.’”
The old man looked up from the boat. He had arrived. He was uncertain where the time went. The evening sun had disappeared rapidly, almost instantly as he arrived. He moored the boat on the seawall carved from the same rock as the resort. Disembarking, he turned to the guide, "Darkness falls hard around here," he said, but he spoke to the empty air. His guide, along with the all of the items loaded onto the boat were gone.
There was only one way to go. Collecting himself he strode to the right and to the steps which led to the openings.
At first he thought it would be easy. The islet wasn't large, and the openings weren't that high up, but he climbed the stairs with some difficulty. The steep grade along with the lack of lighting proved to be considerable work, and he was uncertain how long it took him to reach the top. Before him the openings he had seen from the ground, and on this side there were only the four second story openings, loomed in front of him. Dim lighting could be seen from within. Torches, he noticed. Fire and nothing else provided the illumination to what was, in essence, a large rather uninviting cave. Steeling himself, he entered the middle door and, still taxed from his ascent, proceeded slowly towards where the wooden box which accompanied him on the trip, no longer covered with seafaring tools but now draped with a white blanket identical in color to the cloak worn by the missing guide, stood suspended by ropes. Drawing closer unseen pulleys jumped to life and the box began a robust descent downward. He hadn’t noticed the gap in the ground, concealed as most of the room was by the lack of sufficient luminescence, and the wooden crate disappeared from his view. He wondered, what madness is this? As the pulleys continued to work the box downward, he felt both light and heavy at the same time, as if he were a shell of himself.
He wanted his eyes to follow the box, but the closest torch, like a beacon, forced his gaze to a thin marble plaque in front of him mounted to the rock directly above the space recently occupied by the crate. He looked straight at it reading the block lettering.
Michael Thomas Barton, Jr.
Below his name, and the phrase indicating it was the "hour of sleep", etched in the same block lettering was his birth date, and below that, in that identical font, although he could tell that what he now saw was newly carved, the plaque listed what Michael knew was today's date.
He had heard, as almost everyone had, that your life flashed before you right before you died. Michael pondered that perhaps that final glimmer of existence didn’t happen at the terminal moment. Maybe the journey from a young man fishing, to a successful businessman, a success predicated on illegal activities, and finally to an old man sure of dying who ended his sentience with his own hand, appeared during the final transition, that moment when the essence reached the point of judgement, the moment of crossing over. The revelations of his illicit life revealed in this final instance, Michael knew his life’s verdict would be severe.
As the morning light seeped to the edge of the cave to announce another day for the rest of the world, it seemed to fade away unable to enter the rock enclosure. The spirit of Michael glanced back at the outside world and then peered into the hole. Eternity looked awfully dark to him.