A Star to Sail By
by Sarah B.
I am not sure whether I will ever actually send this letter to you, as it
contains a sentimentality I am certain you would find out of my character.
You always saw in me the mathematician, the scholar, the solemn boy not
given to romantic ruminations, and certainly not given to writing to you
about them. So perhaps this letter will never be sent. But still I feel
impelled to write these words down in any case, lest they be lost forever.
I have found myself in the deepest melancholy lately, so profound that my
friends are beginning to ask questions of me. Even Captain Pellew has taken
notice, which is a source of embarrassment to me as I always seek to be
only the self-assured officer to him, never the uncertain youth. To his
inquiring looks I have shrugged, and tried to pass the depression off as
the aftereffects of a bad dinner, partly because of my pride but mostly
because I was not prepared to discuss the real reason for my despondent
I could not tell Captain Pellew I missed my mother.
Her continued absence touches both of our lives, I know, but never does
it remark so keenly upon me as upon this month, the anniversary of her passing.
And never did it press so heavily upon me as two nights ago. This is the
reason I am writing you this letter.
We had seen action that day, with a Spanish ship that challenged us as we
were sailing through open waters. It was a heavy contest, and at least twice
I thought my own life's journey might be ended, but in the end we won the
day, and Captain Pellew ordered us to pick up survivors and tend to our
injured and dead.
It was only that evening, as the sun was setting and we began the unhappy
task of burying our dead at sea, that the sadness I had felt the whole day
grew into a great monster that threatened to overwhelm my spirit. I have
never liked to think on death - it is an inevitability with no escape, no
solution but one, and I've never liked to dwell on situations that only
have one possible outcome. But on this anniversary the spectre of death
took hold of me, and I was one obsessed.
That night after the burials were done and my tasks completed, I forsook
all offers of companionship and cards and wandered the decks of the Indefatigable
alone. It was a cool night, and most of the men were belowdecks, so I had
solitude to walk at my leisure and contemplate my black mood, which I indulged
to the fullest.
Ours is such a separate, solitary life, father. A ship is so much its own
world, yet so cut off from the world of those we love. Each of the men who
now sleep at the bottom of the ocean have lost forever the chance to die
old in their beds; their loved ones will get only a black-bordered letter
to impassively tell of their final journey. And I, so many months away from
you at sea, did that night realize that, like as not, I will one day receive
such a letter, perhaps at sea, perhaps in port after a long journey, telling
me only that you have gone, and I did not get a chance to say goodbye.
If only my thoughts had stopped there, I might have been dispirited enough,
but like a relentless storm they pressed onward, and grew more intense.
I thought of this ship, my home now for how long I can no longer tell. My
home, but someday I must leave it as I left your home, for my own command,
my own ship. It is your ambition for me, and my own as well. I look forward
to it; Pellew says he sees great things in me, and I cannot argue.
But that night all I could think of was darkness and change, of those I
would leave behind as I set out on the road destiny has plotted for me.
I could only think that I would someday be standing on the deck of my own
ship, months or years removed from the Indie, only to be given another black-bordered
letter. Perhaps the handwriting would be Bracegirdle's, telling me that
Archie had died; or perhaps Mr. Bowles, informing me that Captain Pellew
had fallen. Or, the worst nightmare of all: some unknown, stiffly polite
pen from the Admiralty, because they would know that the Indefatigable was
my old ship and I would certainly want to be informed if she met disaster
and was lost with all hands...
And I would be many miles away, with only a piece of paper for remembrance.
As you can see, father, my mood that night was as black as pitch, and I
would have sworn that nothing could bring me out of it. And perhaps nothing
would have, if I had not just at that moment looked up through the riggings
of the Indefatigable, and seen the stars.
It was a cloudy night, not given to displays of starlight, but at that time
a small patch had opened up overhead and a handful of the silver sparks
were visible, just for a few minutes. As I looked at them, I recalled a
conversation mother and I had one night as we sat together on her balcony,
looking at the bright stars overhead.
She asked me to pick a star out, just one star that was nearly always visible,
that neither rose nor set. I picked the North Star of course, and she smiled
and told me that whenever I needed to think on her, to feel her near and
know that she was safe and watching over me, that all I needed to do was
look at that star and feel confidant that it was so. That is my star, Horatio,
she told me. And now it will keep my spirit for you.
It is strange to me that I had kept that conversation only in the back of
my mind until the other night, when it lept to the fore. I think it made
an impression on me, but only when it needed to, like words to a song one
hasn't heard in years. I had not thought of that conversation since it was
spoken, but that night I remembered her words, and looking overhead I saw
the North Star, shining and constant, keeping my mother's spirit safe and
guiding me, an unchanging beacon in a world governed by cruellest change.
Her words strengthened me.
The skies cleared a bit, and more stars came into view. I leaned on the
riggings a little and stared into that indigo ceiling, found the constellations
I knew, the stars that have been companions to me since childhood. I thought
of my mother's words, and how she remained near to me though far away, and
found a solution to the dreariness that was plaguing my heart.
You have a star now, father. When next you scan the twilight sky, find the
stars of the Big Dipper, and trace the one closest to the North Star. I
have made that your star, and if someday I receive that black-bordered letter,
I will look up into the nighttime sky and see not the infinite darkness
but the small spark of life within it, and know you are with me. And if
fate chooses that it is you who receives the letter, then seek out that
selfsame star and let its steadfast endurance ease your grief.
Our world is change. We are all of us bound on this untamed sea, powerless
to stem its tides or alter the crash of its waves. It is only our affection
that remains constant, only the ties that we ourselves place, firm and unassailable,
from one soul to another, that endure. If this seems too sentimental for
you to believe, know only that I would have agreed with you until the other
night, when from the depths of my despair I looked up through the vastness
of wind and clouds and saw a beautiful spirit shining from the eternal stars.
Tomorrow I will be the practical man; tonight I am the emotional youth.
And I know my mother lives in both souls.
I must sign off now. Archie is, I'm sure, at this moment losing very badly
at whist, and will shortly be knocking at my door for help. He will no doubt
be glad that my melancholy has lifted. Captain Pellew will be likewise relieved,
although I'm sure no more relieved than I am to finally be at peace. Time
and tide may take me from their sides, but I have chosen stars for them
also, and so will never be more than a night sky away.
Take care, father. I remain,
Yr affectionate son,