The Passage

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It is the depth of the crisis that empowers hope. The power of turning, that radically changes the situation, never reveals itself outside of crisis. - Martin Buber
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The boat was just big enough for the three of us. It bobbed low when my heart got in, but the ferrywoman seemed unconcerned. She pushed us away from the dock with an oar and rowed out into the sea. Once we were away from the shore, she put away the oars and started a tiny outboard motor. I was happy when she did. The world was darkness and drifting mist, and the mechanical revving of the motor was a comforting sound.

The water was dark, but there were darker shapes moving underneath. Every now and then they broke the surface for a moment with a little splash, and I'd see a glint of scales in the moonlight. My heart perked up at every splash. I think they reminded it of the noise its dinners made when it hunted in the river.

There was a particularly loud splash, and I saw a brief slice of glinting black flesh, like a dark dolphin. My heart tried to rise up and peer over the edge of the boat. Even after everything that had happened, it was still not a terribly cautious heart, or else it didn't quite understand how boats worked. It rose too quickly. It was large enough that it rocked the boat when it moved, and the boat almost capsized. The ferrywoman grabbed the sides, and so did I. My heart slipped and wobbled, trying to keep its balance on its pointy legs.

I had this sudden, terrible vision of my heart swallowed by dark waters. I grabbed my heart and pulled it to the center of the boat, keeping down and still until the rocking stopped.

"Be careful!" I hissed at it. It gave an apologetic yip. It curled up at the bottom of the boat and held very still. The ferrywoman wordlessly started the motor again.

I tried to look ahead of us and make out the mountain from the mist, but my eyes kept being drawn back down to the black water. I was still breathing hard from fear for my heart. It was strange knowing I could reach down into the cool water and it would wash that feeling away. I could be calm, and comfortable, and not afraid for my heart in a cold misty boat with a scary corpse-like woman.

"Tempting, isn't it?" said the corpse-like ferrywoman.

I nodded.

"There is no shame in craving peace," she said.

"I guess not," I said. "But it would upset my heart if I left."

My heart whined. I put my hand on its side. The ferrywoman was silent for a time.

"I lost my heart many years ago," she said, in her thin, paper-dry voice.

"I'm sorry," I said, and I looked across the boat at her. "What happened?"

"My darkest thoughts chased me out of the safety of my old life," she said, staring past me, into the mist. "They crept into my mind and whispered that I would never catch my dreams while safe at home. Later, when my heart was stronger but not quite strong enough, they returned with second thoughts, and third thoughts. They crippled my heart and devoured it."

"Oh," I said. I looked down into the water. I thought about the woman with the shark-like smile who had taken out my heart and sent me on this journey. I suddenly regretted not taking the sword Nim had offered me.

I couldn't think of anything to say that didn't sound pale and false in response to the ferrywoman's story. I kept my hand firmly planted on my heart and thought about almost losing it in the crevice, and about the ferrywoman's gray skin. We went on without speaking for a while. The only noise was the whir of the motor.

"Why don't..." I started, then paused, wondering if it was possible to phrase this delicately.

"If you're tempted by the sea," I asked her. "And you don't have a heart, what keeps you from diving into the water?"

"Habit," said the ferrywoman.

"Jesus," I said.

The ferrywoman didn't say anything.

There were more splashes in the water. I thought they came more often now. My heart whined, and I realized I was gripping its back rather hard. I let go.

Something huge and black rose from the water, and the boat ran straight into it. There was a thump and the boat shook. I fell onto my heart. My heart barked in alarm, but didn't move, just hunkered down lower in the bottom of the boat. The ferrywoman stopped the motor.

I pushed myself up and looked ahead at what we'd run into. There was some shape on the front of the boat. Through the darkness, I could see a sliver of glinting white. A long smile full of white, sharp teeth.

"Hello, pretty girl," said my dark thoughts. Her skin was slick with seawater and she held the sides of the boat with four of her long arms. The last two reached up to pull her further into the boat. "What a pretty plump heart you've grown."

I grabbed one of the oars and swung it at her arms. There was a snapping sound. She hissed and grabbed my oar with the other reaching hand. We struggled for it.

There was a click and the sound of thunder from behind me. My dark thoughts screeched and let go of the oar. It took me a moment to understand what was going on, but when I did, I dropped down beside my heart. The ferrywoman shot my dark thoughts twice more with a large, rusty pistol, but I think she missed. Then a long, black arm came up beside her and yanked her into the sea.

The ferrywoman hit the water and bobbed, held up by her bright lifejacket. I reached over the side and pulled her back in. She was sopping wet and moved slowly and by the time she was back on board, my dark thoughts had stolen both oars and thrown them into the sea. She pushed herself up, over the boat, leering down as us with her white, shark-smile. I looked around for something to hit her with.

The boat rocked down and back as my heart launched itself up. It hit her black, waterslick body teeth first. They both went tumbling into the water, my dark thoughts clawing and flailing with her arms, and my heart hanging onto her like a bulldog.

I clung to the side of the boat as it rocked from my heart's sudden exit and the violence of the fight happening in the water next to it. I couldn't tell what was happening. There were violent white splashes at first, and then the fight sunk beneath the waves and all I could see were shapes under the water.

I was numb where I was wet with spray, but it somehow did nothing to dull the horrible, deep fear I felt as soon as I couldn't see the shapes anymore. I knelt down in the boat and waited. I wondered if my heart could swim. I could swim, in water that wasn't numbing and will-sapping. Did that mean it could swim? Had I ever seen it swim while I was staying with Nim? I wondered what would happen if it died. I wondered how long it would take for my skin to go gray and my voice to be papery.

The ferrywoman lay in the bottom of her boat, wet, but not shivering. I pulled her up, out of the damp puddles. I took off my coat and wrapped it around her. I went back to the side of the boat and stared into the water. I rubbed my chest and stared like staring might make a difference.

There was a noise from the other side of the boat. Like something trying to bark with its mouth full. I turned around so quickly I almost lost my balance.

My heart was doing a rapid doggy paddle with its pointy legs. It had a long black arm in its mouth. With a quick, hungry movement, it bit and swallowed the limb. Then it barked clearly.

"You can swim," I whispered, giggling slightly with relief.

It barked at me again. It had grown again and now it was as large as a lion. It was far too large to come back in the boat. It paddled along beside us as I figured out how to turn the motor back on and took us toward the mountain.


We reached the base of the mountain as dawn breached the skyline. The land was softer than I had expected. I hadn't seen the green of the grass and the trees from far away. But there was grass, and trees. Not a forest's worth, but enough to make the land more welcoming than barren rock. And there was the mountain. Stretching gradually, grandly upward.

My heart shook itself off like a dog and went bounding off to explore. I helped the ferrywoman out of her boat and onto the rocky beach. I didn't know how to make a fire, but the sun was rising and I hoped that would dry her. The air was still a bit chilly with the coming winter, but she wasn't shivering. I wasn't sure if that was good. I sat with her while the sun rose.

The ferrywoman reached down and squeezed the still-damp edge of her shirt, wetting her hands. She touched the drops of saltwater to her tongue. She closed her eyes.

"I am going back to the water," said the ferrywoman.

I didn't say anything.

"It is peaceful there." She sounded sad. It was the first emotion I had heard in her voice since I met her. "In the sea, it will not matter that my heart is gone. I should have gone long ago."

"Are you sure your heart can't grow back?" I asked. "Are you sure you can't find another?"

"No," she said.

A seagull cried in the distance and the sun glinted blindingly off of the water.

"No," the ferrywoman said. "I am not sure. But I want peace more than I want my heart back."

News - 12/11/12

My darkest thoughts is a bit of a bitch.


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