when he’s six years old Andrew’s father buys him a toy sailboat. all that summer he sits by the pond downhill and watches the boat go from inbetween the tall grass out into the small water where he could still see the clouds. after a while it would wander downstream a little towards where the hill dipped, and he’d have to go splashing after it. if he was feeling daring he’d let the boat roll over the hill and splash the reckless journey down. one time at the bottom of the hill he meets a girl. the sun is going down and the pond is orange and black.
are you the boy with the boat? she asks him. her name is Delta.
Andrew just looks at her.
the boy with the boat, Delta says. everyone knows about the boy with the boat.
who’s the boy with the boat? he asks.
follow me, she says.
they walk down the hill and out into the long fields where his mother and his father told him not to play. his boat is in the water and they’re keeping pace with it.
have you ever heard the story? she asks him.
the story? what story?
the story about the boy with the boat.
but if I am the boy with the boat, then I must know the story because it’s about me.
Delta stops, kneels down and gives the little sailboat a flick with her finger.
cut that out, Andrew tells her and she laughs.
do you know how I know you’re the boy with the boat? she asks him.
well they say that the boy with the boat is the only one who doesn’t know that he’s the boy with the boat; that’s how you can tell him apart from all the other boys who go and play with their sailboats by the pond.
and that means I’m him?
well then why did you ask me if I’m the boy with the boat if you already knew I was and knew I didn’t know because I was already him?
cuz I didn’t know you were him until I asked you if you were him and you said you didn’t know.
what if I’d said I was him?
then I’d know you weren’t him.
you’d think I was lying?
I’d know you were lying.
does everyone else think I’m him?
that’s what they say.
Delta smiles at him in a way that makes him blush.
but who is the boy with the boat? he asks her. what’s the story about him?
it’s about you, you know, Delta tells him. are you sure you want to hear it?
why? is it mean? do people make things up about me?
you see, you must be him, Delta says.
I still don’t know what you’re talking about.
well, it goes like this: once, a hundred years ago there used to be this boy who’d come down to the pond and play with a toy boat.
a hundred years ago?
yeah. maybe even more.
but I’m not a hundred years old.
well, I know, she says. see the boy with the boat set it out adrift one day and it went down the hill and out past the fields.
where we are now.
right, but farther even. and the boy followed his boat into the pond and out into the river.
into the river?
yeah. and it kept going and he kept following it. he vanished out in the ocean somewhere and no one’s ever heard from him since.
did he drown?
nobody knows what happened. but the story has it that one summer he’s going to come back.
and you think that’s me?
I think so.
but why me? and why would I come back now?
they say that the summer he comes back will be a sign.
yeah. that the waters around the island will turn to dust.
all the water’s going to turn to dust?
and mainlanders will overrun what was once our island.
and he just wants to come back to enjoy his boat one last time. while the water’s still here.
I don’t know if I’m him.
they say that you are.
I don’t want to be him.
but you are. pause. she says, do you remember the bottom of the ocean?
Andrew stops to think. Delta kneels down to flick his boat.
I think I do remember it, Andrew says.
really? what was it like?
it was warm and like a dream because I felt like I was sleeping.
all you did was sleep?
but I wasn’t asleep. I was awake, it was just like I was asleep.
and I could talk to all the fish.
what did they say?
I don’t remember anymore. I think one of them mentioned you.
Delta laughs. don’t be silly, you’re making this up.
I’m the boy with the boat aren’t I? Andrew looks at her. are you scared? he asks.
she looks up at the clouds. yes. pause. are you?
Andrew shrugs. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be.
yeah. neither do I.
have you ever seen mainlanders? he asks her.
I’ve only heard about them.
you didn’t see any when you went out in the ocean?
only some who were already drowned.
her voice goes low. what did they look like?
fallen angels, he says.
a breeze picks up and pulls the sailboat sailing beside them a little ahead.
I’m not supposed to go out this far, Andrew says.
but you’re the boy with the boat.
I don’t see how that changes anything.
that changes everything, she says. she pouts. why did you have to come back just now?
I didn’t even know.
you weren’t out here last summer, she says.
I didn’t have a sailboat then.
how long were you out there in the ocean?
I don’t remember anymore. it feels like only a second.
I wish you’d waited until after I grew up, she says.
I didn’t know about you.
I thought you said the fish talked about me. which she says in a way that makes him blush again.
that’s true. they did. I think I timed it badly.
yes, he says, or maybe I just got my sailboat too soon.
the sun tucks away orange behind the clouds and the sky turns a rich and darker blue. Andrew and Delta keep pace with the sailboat.
it’s getting late, Andrew says.
in a lot of different ways, Delta says and looks at the sailboat.
will I still be here when the mainlanders come, he asks her. or do I go away again?
I don’t know. maybe you’ll go back into the ocean before it turns into dust.
but that wouldn’t make any sense. I’d still be around after it turned to dust wouldn’t I?
I guess so. she kneels down and flicks the sailboat. maybe there’s an ocean somewhere you’ll go to that won’t.
I think I’d like to find one.
I don’t want to meet the mainlanders, Delta decides. I’m going along with you.
I don’t even know if I’m going to go yet.
but if you do. and you should go anyway.
will you be able to breathe under the water?
was it difficult?
it was at first, says Andrew. but it got easier as the years went by.
did it take long?
not too long. the fish showed me how.
were all the fish nice?
even the sharks and jellyfish are nice if you know their language.
how did you learn it?
I listened for a long time and soon enough I could speak it.
say something to me in fish, she says.
just like that? what do you want me to say?
I don’t know, anything.
the moon starts to pull out from behind the twilight sky. the field and the pond settle dark and wide where the sailboat glides. Andrew and Delta walk beneath the small blinking stars.
I think I could breathe underwater after a little while, Delta says.
we could go to a tropical ocean, Andrew says.
that would be better anyway, agrees Delta.
for a while they’re perfectly quiet.
how would I have found out that I was the boy with the boat if you hadn’t told me?
you wouldn’t have.
then how would I know to return to the ocean?
you wouldn’t know.
would the ocean still turn to dust?
I don’t know. I think so. pause. but I’m part of the story too, you know.
you didn’t tell me that.
well, a girl tells the boy with the boat who he is.
and what happens after that?
Delta kneels down and flicks the boat. I don’t know.
well, no. except that the ocean turns to dust and the mainlanders come.
the story goes on, I think. there’s a whole saga about it. but I only know the story about the boy with the boat.
why don’t you know the rest?
because I always knew in my heart that the girl in the story was me. and so that’s the story I cared about the most.
how did you know that?
Delta shrugs. I don’t know. I just knew somehow.
did you ever feel like you were somehow special? she asks him.
I never even knew about the boy with the boat before.
not even that, she says. just different somehow.
I guess. but all I ever do’s sail my boat. I don’t play with the other kids.
neither do I, she says. because I always knew I was the girl in the story.
will we be famous?
we already are, she says. and nobody knows it yet but us.
she kneels down and flicks the sailboat.
hey cut it out, says Andrew.
the sailboat spins in a little circle and heads out across the pond.
it’s going away, she says. should we go after it? she takes a step towards the dark pond.
Andrew walks up to where she’s standing. I’m going after it.
give me your hand, she says.
they take small steps out to where the pond runs up past their ankles. the sailboat is running far out, guided by the moon white on the water.
do we keep going? Delta asks quietly, laughing.
it won’t be easy out there.
she turns and smiles at him. she squeezes his hand. say something to me in fish, she says.
what do you want me to say?
he turns and catches her eye. the sailboat passes out of view. fish don’t speak, silly, he says.
the look she gives him is like a shy and innocent kiss.
(Whit Frazier, From “Youth and the Unreal City”, 2001)