People have asked me about my latest book, The Oarsman, and so I’ve decided to include the first chapter in this post. I’d love to hear your feedback and comments on it. This book poured out from my heart, and I hope everyone enjoys it.
A river meandering through a wooded land in the time of castles and knights began singing out for no reason other than it was happy. Hints from a long-forgotten childhood song rose from its heart to find a Man, and they sounded out a new chapter for his old and tired life.
The Man lay in a rowboat atop the singing waves, and his color was ashen, his face etched from a life lived too long. He thought he should be enjoying the sun on his skin and the sky puffing out round clouds, but instead he closed his eyes to rest.
A faint star still visible near the horizon twinkled out a question for the Man, asking if he remembered its light from when he was a young boy. Sadly, the Man did not notice.
The Judge stood on his island before the Man, drawing himself up to his full height and looking down to the desperate life stuffed into the boat. When a cloud blocked the sun, the Judge took bets with the trees, musing when he might get this Man to turn back. But when the sun returned, the Judge cowered back into his role. He added darkness to his frown, and let his black robes swirl around to intimidate.
“I said it every hour you have been here, and I will say it again. You cannot pass!”
There to plead the Man’s case in this moment was the Oarsman, and he sat on his bench at the back of the boat holding a gentle smile instead of the oar. He looked just as old as the Man, but while the Man’s wrinkles did not let the sun into their depths, the Oarsman’s seemed to glow on their own.
“Why can’t we pass?” asked the Oarsman. “This is my passenger. He has hired me to bring him up the river to the lake and great shores beyond it.”
To answer this challenge from the Oarsman, the Judge stood tall again and threw open his spindly arms. An obedient wind came to spread his dark robes like sails on a deathly ship. He stomped his feet in a show of power, and charged ripples raced from his island to rock the rowboat to near tipping.
“Because!” he yelled. “I am the only one who can decide who passes this island of mine, this choke-point on this great river!”
The Oarsman did not answer. He only lifted the Man from prone with the tenderest of touch, sweeping grey hair from his face and leaning him against the side of the boat. The Man responded by looking away from the Judge, looking away from those dark-pooling eyes, and wishing he could feel the boat’s hard wood against his body again.
“Have you gotten a good look at my passenger?” asked the Oarsman. “How can you not let him through?”
The Judge decided to size up this old oarsman who was daring to challenge him. He made the mistake of looking into the Oarsman’s eyes, and therein he saw something shocking. He saw the full power of the river, all its waves, its life and light coalesced into a point so bright that he had to turn away.
“All right,” said the Judge, in a tone less booming than before, “I will let your wretched passenger plead his case directly. Tell me, old man, why should I let you through?”
The Man was weak, having cried buckets of tears and not eaten, both from self-imposed torture stretched over the last week. Through a trembling, he vainly searched for arguments to win this Judge over, but really only wanted to lie down and sleep.
At that moment, the river sang another precious stanza of a childhood song. The trees wept leaves at the beauty heard, and the Man started crying, for that cavern in his heart began vibrating in tune.
“There is only one ache left in me,” sobbed out the Man. “I have lived a long and winding life, and I think it has wound on too long. Now a song plays in the shadows of my ears, a song of paradise, of a place where I can rest this exhausted body and head.”
The Judge opened his mouth to argue, but the Man cut in.
“My wife has died. She was my beloved, and many days the only thing I had woken up for. Now, down from two things, my heart has only one thing left to beat for, and that is to see if those fabled shores at river’s end are real.”
The Judge was not an impossibly cruel man, and as the Man’s body began heaving under sobs, the Judge felt moved. He wanted to swirl his robes so they could block the sun for him to gather his anger, but he didn’t. Instead, his curiosity got the better of him and he looked over again into the Oarsman’s eyes.
That blinding light was there waiting for him, and it snatched whatever of his rage was still infesting the moment. “My job is to judge the worthiness of those wishing to go upstream, but I will strike you a bargain,” he said.
“Go back along this river, and this oarsman of yours will know how to use its currents in their special way. Go back and review your life and find reasons for that unworthiness I see pooled in your eyes and face. Return here a changed man, and I will let you through.”
The Man frowned at this offer, but the river sang again, and he mistook its precious sounds for permission. Sensing the Man’s hesitation, the Judge knelt on his island so he could pull the boat closer. He then moved grey hair from the Man’s face, pursing his lips to tenderly blow across the Man’s eyes.
From something in the Judge’s breath, the Man seemed to lose a decade of age. His skin turned from grey to a warm flush, and his hair waved lively to the breezes. For the first time in ages, his ears heard birdsong and a happy tear rolled down his cheek.
The Oarsman cleared his throat to speak, but the Man held up his hand to stop him. Seeing the new vigor in the Man’s face, the Oarsman backed down with a quietly accepting smile.
The Man grabbed the oar from its hook, and a grin spread across his face. He could feel his heart beating fast for the first time in months, and it was churning his mind to action.
“Yes!” he shouted, “I will do so! I will be back, and then you will let me through?”
“Certainly,” said the Judge. “If you come back more worthy, learned from your mistakes, you will be free to pass.”
With that, the Man began rowing. On each stroke, flabby muscles firmed up, his body swayed with ever stronger purpose, and rasping breath turned to echoes of a song once sung decades ago.
The Judge sat back down on his island, satisfied he had played his role and done his job. Then he disappeared, as did his island, and all that was left was the beautifully calm lake at river’s end, and the wondrous, light-bathed shores beyond.