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[End Page 42]
It was my father who was the oarsman, and the last there ever was.
We believed no one could die on our island; the gods forbade it, and disaster would follow. And so when the sickness came upon one of us, the oarsman would row away with the dying islander over the horizon: my father the oarsman and his father before and his father and on and on. No one knew where he went, and no one knew what became of the bodies, but the bark was always empty when my father rowed it back to shore. Some said he floated somewhere over the horizon waiting for the dying to die and then heaved the body into the sea. But most imagined there was a place, a watery grave, a shining coral garden among the [End Page 43] darker waters, where the bodies could be released and remain. Some said the released didn't die at all but lived in peace on the Island of the Blessed, and we would meet them in the end. As for my father, he laughed at such stories and would wink at me and tell the villagers of something called the East Stream, which carried the bodies away. "Ah!" someone would say. "The East Stream!" And while the villagers would laugh, knowing that Father was a sly one, I tried not to speculate. The mind can imagine anything, but that doesn't make it so.
The villagers always expressed respect for Father, giving him gifts to win his favor in hopes of a swift and successful journey when their own day came. My father took pride in these gifts, though he knew them to be bribes. "A bribe for what?" he would say. "So I will dump their corpses from the right side of the boat, not the left?" And he would hold up his newest treasure, a block of rock salt or the finest dried haddock or pheasant eggs still warm from the roost. "You see," my father would say, "stupidity has a price, which they will keep paying their entire lives." He rarely shared these gifts. An old man must enjoy his few remaining pleasures, he said, smiling. I was a young man and would receive my own gifts in time, when I took his place. But I did not wish to wait for that time and dreaded to think of it and stole an occasional pheasant egg when he wasn't looking. I didn't think then that he noticed, but now I am not sure, for he noticed everything and enjoyed testing my powers of observation. "Did you happen to observe," he would ask, "what was different today about your Aunt Milori?" And he would point out that on her neck there was a brand new wart. That the Midwife had two broken fingernails. That my friend Crale couldn't smell. That the widow Auramine was left-handed and didn't know it. I tried to observe similar things and report them to Father: Milori's wart had grown three hairs; her husband, Stammel, was missing a tooth. This pleased him, and I felt proud, though I saw no point in observing such things. It was true that Milori's wart had grown bigger, sprouting hairs, but Milori herself was the same, who always took my hand in hers but resisted other contact, who loved to cook but hated eating, who was frequently ill but never came down with the sickness. Milori was Milori, no matter how many warts she grew. And my father was my father, the oarsman, who grew stronger and more confident with the days, the fine wrinkles beside his eyes lifting with his smile, his arms strong and taut, while other fathers grew soft and wan. Some said he might live another decade or more; others said he might live on without end, like our ancestors, and I wanted to believe them, though I knew people will say anything, [End Page 44] and for their own reasons. They say women with harelips shouldn't grow potatoes. They say you shouldn...