They came out of the mist: the old,
the young, the in-between,
knuckles big from rowing, palms
singing from the brine. I’d seen
it all before. Even their faces
looked the same: their cheeks
sagging; foreheads pearled with sweat;
eyes rattled by the squeak
of oars on rowlocks. Some were grey
with too much work and lack
of sleep. Some were burnt or blistered.
Some, when they pulled back
against the drift, made little moans
that made me think of men
dying on battlefields, till, on bending
forward, they cried again.
We couldn’t help ourselves but sing.
To see men’s faces lift,
hope rekindled in their eyes –
who wouldn’t give the gift
of music? We poured out our notes
and hearts, became a balm
to lighten them, until they leapt
into the ocean’s arms
to swim. The younger men laughed
and splashed each other. The old
murmured strange harmonies and talked
of home, till they shone cold
in the sunset. Their strokes weakened.
We held them, one by one,
as their hearts slowed. Our tune grew soft
and sad. Then they were gone,
like notes fading. We watched them sink.
All sailors return to the sea.
The sun tips over the horizon,
darkness pulls in, and we
are silent. Waves give themselves
to the rocks, and the rocks outlast
them, because they know nothing else –
because the ocean is dark, and vast,
and never needs to speak.