Mother Sea, Father Sky

A Fantasy Short Story Written By John E. DeLaughter

Mother Sea, Father Sky

by John E. DeLaughter

How far would you go to be forgiven?

John E. DeLaughter is a retired planetologist living on a sailboat with Little Sheila the cat. His work has taken him to all seven continents where he has always met the nicest people.

This story was directly inspired by his trips in the Gulf of Mexico where he failed to meet any ghosts, much to Little Sheila’s disappointment.

Other TTTV Stories by John E. DeLaughter


Each night, I hear the dead knocking on my boat. Takatakatak. Takatakatak. I do not answer them. Who knows what they will say?

The boat and I are far from home, above Mother Sea, below Father Sky. We have been here for three hands of days. Mother Sea is caring. I do not starve. Father Sky is kind. I do not thirst. But still the dead knock on the bottom of my boat.

I am of the Buluo tribe. We live on the shore, above Mother Sea, below Father Sky. We know many tribes on islands near ours. They do not catch our fish. We do not catch theirs. Each day is much like the last. We fish, we sing, we love, we share.

The dead knock because I did not share. One night, Cingren and I played in the surf. Mother Sea caressed us; we caressed each other. Father Sky looked at us; we looked at each other. Penju came. Penju wanted to play, too. But I said “Go away. This is a game for Cingren and me only.”

Penju would not go away. Penju tried to join. I pushed Penju away but Penju came back, again and again. Finally, I grew angry and pushed Penju very hard. Penju fell and hit a rock. Penju’s blood flowed into Mother Sea. Penju’s cries went into Father Sky. Cingren sobbed. Penju stopped crying, stopped breathing, stopped being. I begged Penju to wake up. But Penju was gone. And now the dead knock on my boat each night. Takatakatak. Takatakatak. I will not answer.

The elders put me in a boat. They gave me supplies. Cingren cried and gave me a fishbone necklace. This is our way. A Buluo that breaks the laws must go away for four hands of days but is only given two hands of food and water. If Mother Sea and Father Sky show mercy, if they give food and water and bring the Buluo back home then the tribe rejoices and is clean once more. If Mother Sea and Father Sky do not show mercy, if the Buluo does not return then the tribe is sad but knows justice has been done.

I hoisted the sail. Father Sky pushed me away from the island. Mother Sea slapped the sides of the boat. They were angry with me for killing Penju. I tried to go to another island but Mother Sea and Father Sky would not let me. They took me far, away from any land. Then They left me. That was the first day. The first night, the knocking began. Takatakatak. Takatakatak. I knew it was Penju and the other dead, come for me. I curled up in the bow. I cried for Mother Sea and Father Sky. They would not help me.

The next day, Mother Sea brought gap-toothed sharks to circle the boat. I could not fish. I could not cool myself in the water. I could only stare as the sharks circled. Though I had the sail up, Father Sky held His breath and would not move me. That night, the knocking came again. Takatakatak. Takatakatak.

For a hand of days, each day was the same. The sharks became as familiar to me as my tribe. I would joke with them each morning as Father Sky rose up from the bed He shared with Mother Sea. “Hello, old Laoren. How are your bones today? Good morning, little Nuhai. You have a new tooth, I see.”

The sharks said nothing. They just swam endlessly around the boat. Each night, after Mother Sea welcomed Father Sky back to Their bed, Penju and the other dead would return and knock on my boat. Takatakatak. Takatakatak. I clutched my ears to stop it. I sang songs to drown it out. I prayed. I cursed. I begged my uncles and aunts in the sky to make it go away. But the dead never stopped knocking on the bottom of the boat.

Soon the dead began to sing to me. In the daytime, I could hear their songs, faint as a whisper. En-e-em. En-e-em. En-e-em. It was not my friends the porpoises. I have heard their songs often as I fished Mother Sea. They sing happy songs, full of love and play. I would give them a fish in thanks for their song. But these songs were sad and lonely, like the dead themselves. Like Penju. En-e-em. En-e-em. En-e-em.

When Father Sky and Mother Sea saw that I was still not clean, they helped me. May you never need such help. For two days and nights, Mother Sea tossed the boat in her anger. My water was spoiled by Her tears. Father Sky raged at me in his despair. His breath tore the sail into tatters. My supplies were lost. I did what I could. I ran. I pointed the boat away from Father Sky’s wrath and Mother Sea’s sorrow and let them push me as far as they could, praying in anger and fear all the time.

When Their fury was spent, I fell across the tiller and into a deep sleep. I did not wake for many days. Not even the knocking of the dead could rouse me. When finally I sat up, my old life was gone. Instead of islands or deep blue water, the boat was surrounded by pale green fronds. I was beyond the world’s edge, floating above an empty forest. No breath from Father Sky could I feel. Mother Sea’s lusty movements were but a gentle rhythm.

Though I was beyond the edge of the world, I was still alive. The dead still sang to me by day and Penju still knocked on the boat at night. En-e-em. En-e-em. Takatakatak. Takatakatak. I grew too weary to shout. I pleaded no more. I sat in the boat, listening to the dead as they waited for my answer.

Father Sky had left a blessing of fresh water in the boat. I sipped it carefully, not knowing when I would get more to drink. I had no food. The few birds here stayed well out of reach. I could not fish. The forest was thick with fronds that would choke my net. So I did not eat. Each day, my hunger grew.

Every morning, I hauled in some of the green fronds and laid them over the sides of the boat to dry. I could not put them in the boat or they would have spoiled Father Sky’s blessing. I wove the fronds into a mat and used it to keep the Sun’s heat off of my skin. I made a sail from the leaves and hoisted it. But Father Sky remained quiet and Mother Sea never moved me away from her green forest. I knew I would die. I did not care. I would no longer have to listen to the dead singing in the day. En-e-em. En-e-em. I would not hear Penju knocking at night. Takatakatak. Takatakatak.

This morning, I saw a little crab scuttle across the leaf of a frond. With a prayer to Mother Sea, I grabbed the crab. I cracked it open and ate it. Its flesh was cool and sweet. Searching frond after frond revealed more crabs. Soon I had filled my belly for the first time in a hand of days. Though Mother Sea had been angry with me, she forgave, just as Father Sky had when he left the rain in the boat.

Their anger was hard, but it was Their forgiveness I could not bear. I wept as I ate the food Mother Sea had given me. I sobbed as I drank the blessing of water from Father Sky. I realized that it wasn’t justice I both feared and needed. It was forgiveness.

I remembered how Penju would gobble up crabs, smiling with delight. I remembered laughing as I danced in the rain with Cingren and Penju. I remembered the blessing Penju had been. I decided to face the dead and pray for justice and forgiveness. I cracked open a crab and left it for him on the bow, praying that Penju would come once more. I waited for night, when the dead would knock again.

It is night. The dead are knocking again. Takatakatak. Takatakatak. The dead are singing once more. En-e-em. En-e-em. I remember Mother Sea’s mercy and Father Sky’s blessing. This time, I do not hide from their justice. This time, I sing back to the dead. This time, I answer when they knock. This time, I call for Penju to be welcome on the boat. The knocking stops. The singing ends.

Slowly, a body climbs on board. It shines with glowing sparks like the water when you slap it. In its right hand, it holds the jaw of a shark. In its left, it has the mouth of a barracuda. It has a body made of the green fronds that shaded me. The small crabs that fed me crawl over its face. Its empty eyes glow red. Despite my terror, I recognize the body I once held, the face I once kissed. It is Penju, come at last. I fall to the bottom of the boat, fear in my heart.

I stare up at the dead. Penju could kill me; it was Buluo law. I bow my head, giving my neck to Penju for the blow. Instead, a gentle hand lifts my face back up. Penju’s forehead presses against mine.

I am so sorry,” I say. “I should have let you play with us.”

No, I am sorry,” Penju answers. “I should have let you play alone.”

Penju slips back into the waters of Mother Sea. With tears in my eyes, I see the white trail of sparks where Penju flies into Father Sky to dance with the aunts and uncles. I see the dark glow where Penju’s body sinks into Mother Sea’s final embrace. I fall to the bottom of the boat and sleep. Mother Sea rocks me in forgiveness. Father Sky cools me in mercy. They have forgiven me. Penju shines down from his new home. Penju has forgiven me, too.

The next morning, I bathe in Mother Sea. Father Sky’s breath dries me off. Mother Sea makes waves to slowly push me out of Her forest as Father Sky makes the boat’s sail flap and pull straight. I know that They will see me back from beyond the world’s edge. I will go home once more to my tribe, to tell Penju’s story, to sing Penju’s songs. I am forgiven. I am clean once more.


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