by Berlin's Brown Eyes
"All things return home again... Night returns that which day began."
The middle-aged bartender looked up from polishing a shot glass. "What's that ye say, sir?" he asked the hooded stranger who sipped his ale before him.
"All things return home again," he slowly repeated, pointing to a shelf on the wall of the tavern. Hidden among various other trifles and knickknacks, where no one would have noticed unless they already knew it was there, was a model of ship with oddly adorned sails. The ship was mounted on a disproportionately small globe at an angle that suggested its circumnavigation. The base, to which the globe was attached, read in bold bronze letters, "All things return home again."
"Aye, even the filthy sailors damned to this rottin' heap of a town," the bartender cracked.
"Might I see it?" His voice was deep and his accent unfamiliar to the ears of the bartender.
"Oh sure," he replied happily as he pulled the ship from the shelf. "You've got a peculiar eye, sir, to take fancy to such a trinket."
The stranger's eyes were indeed peculiar. They peered out curiously from behind unruly strands of sun-kissed hair like a ghostly moon shadowed by ocean clouds. His rigid mouth softened, but did not fully commit to a smile. His hands smoothed over the cryptic characters inscribed on the bow of the ship as if touching something familiar, like caressing a lover.
The bartender found his manner strange, but he had seen stranger characters pass through his tavern. It was a lonely port on a remote island: the first or last stop from someplace to another, but a destination from nowhere.
"Where did you find this?" the stranger asked softly.
"It was a gift actually, from me brother, Goddesses rest him." The bartender poured a drink for a man at the other end of the bar. Otherwise the tavern was mostly empty.
"How long ago?"
The bartender raised an eyebrow at the stranger's tenacity. "Oh, a couple years ago I s'pose it was." The stranger's eyes begged him to further explain. "Me brother was a sort of mercenary, ye see, though a cargo-runner. He traveled to places you and I might ne'er even heard of—pickin' up goods at one port and takin' 'em to another… Sometimes he'd bring in strange instruments or trinkets he'd find at port open markets or in the dead parcels that couldn't be delivered or returned. Most of 'em I keep here on me wall. And this…" he motioned toward the wooden ship, "This was the last thing he e'er brought home."
The stranger's eyes fell once more. "Do you know how he came about it?"
"Hmm… I don't quite remember. Maybe he picked it up in one of them foreign markets. All I recall is bits of a tale he told 'bout it—though knowing me brother, it's hard to tell the truth from the tale." He smiled wryly.
"Oh, it's all fairytale nonsense. Nothin' one such as yerself would be interestin' in, I'm sure."
The stranger inspected the other side of the figure where there was a similar bronze plate as on the front, only it was more weathered and written in a language with which the bartender was unfamiliar.
"I'm curious," the stranger insisted.
The bartender surveyed the near-empty tavern. "Well, I s'pose I got the time, but ye've got to promise ye won't laugh." He knew by the stranger's expression that he wouldn't. "Ye see, the side yer lookin' at now is actually the front. Me brother had the other side translated so as admirers could read it. 'All thin's return home again' is s'pose to be what it reads and then somethin' 'bout 'night and day' though that's not on here. Maybe it wouldn't fit. Apparently it's a dead language though, same as what's carved on the ship. 'Hey-lee-yan' or somethin' like that."
"Ocean gypsy," the stranger whispered.
"The name of the ship."
"Ye can read it?" the bartender asked incredulously.
"An educated guess." The stranger indicated the matching characters from the bronze inscription to the same ones on the bow of the ship: O-?-E-A-N G-?-?-S-? "Assuming that character is a 'Y', which is indicated by the third letter of the potential word 'day', I can only guess it says Ocean Gypsy—that is, if direct transcription is possible."
"Huh… That's very clever." The bartender was impressed by how quickly the stranger had translated the letters, but even more stunned at the first full-length sentence he heard him utter. "Come to think of it, I think the name of it was the Ocean Gypsy. Me brother said it was a model of a real ship that come from this land of…of…hmm. Hey-lee-ya? No, that's not right… There was a "ruh" sound in it, like Hey-lure maybe," the bartender muttered to himself. "But anyway, s'posin' the name's not too important—in a country far, far from this dismal place, there's a land so blessed it's said to have been formed from a void of chaos by the hands of the Three Goddesses who left as a token to their chosen people a gate between realms and by it…the pow'r to grant wishes."
The bartender picked up the model and held it closer to the light.
"Ye see this crest on the main sail here? The…uh, bird—I was told it was a phoenix—raising it's wings 'bove the triangles, well, that is s'pose to be the gate—the triangles, that is. Whoever wields the triangles will have granted the desire of his heart. Hundreds of years of bloodshed were fought o'er this fancy artifact, until it was decided by the wisest men in the land, that it must be hidden away. The respons'bility of guardin' the triangles fell to one family, who became the rulers of the land. From gen'ration to gen'ration the Royal Family faithfully defended the pow'r of the Goddesses without incident, 'til a vile man from the West was bent on using it to create fer himself and his people a new land. His plans required that he betray the king he had sworn allegiance to. His desires were poisoned by envy and greed.
"But the one member of the Royal Family who wasn't fooled by the man's silver tongue was the king's young and lovely daughter, whose beauty and wisdom were praised by her people. In vain, the princess tried to convince her father of the vile man's cruel intentions, which had been revealed to her in a dream.
"When the traitor tried to seize the triangles, however, they split in three. One was giv'n to him, another to the wise princess, and the last to a brave champion who 'rose from among the people. The traitor's impurity allowed the pow're to possess him and profane his heart. The princess and the champion were forced to seal him away in a chasm between worlds; so the triangles can never be reunited so long as the dark lord remains locked away, each bearer holding their piece of it in their hand. But that's only where the tale begins, ye see."
"You tell it well," the stranger commented.
"Aye, good enough, but you should have heard me brother tell it! 'Twas like he been there himself!"
The stranger smiled slightly, entreating the bartender to continue.
"The real story of the Ocean Gypsy belongs to the princess and her champion. They were in love, ye see, but she was a princess and he but a wayward wanderer, wild and untamable—a gypsy, I s'pose. Although praised as the hero of the land, the restless gypsy couldn't stay still fer long. Where danger did not find him, he sought it out. There was always a kingdom or village or damsel in need of a savior, and all the while he wrote back to his lover, tellin' her of his adventures and sendin' her the rarest treasures from the farthest reaches of the continent.
'I'm goin' to see the world,' he told her, 'and I'll send it home to you.'
"But not even the finest precious metals in the world could match the copper and gold of his hair, no diamond shown so brightly as his eyes, and all fortune he had amassed—why, even a wish from the golden triangles themselves—could not satisfy the princess. The only thing she would ever want from him would remain unfulfilled until once again he was home. Drove her damn near mad, he did, as lovers often do.
"Though the gypsy was not without sufferin'. It's unwise for a man to serve two masters: both the queen of his heart and the queen of his feet—and adventure, after all, is no gentle woman. Torn between his lover and his sword, he could not yet consign himself to choose flesh and blood to be his lady. Alas, he turned to the sea. He built of his pleasure a great ship: the Ocean Gypsy, so that he might tread the sea as he had upon the land.
'I must prove myself if I am to marry you' he told her, 'I will chase the sun and send it home to you.'
"But a thousand suns could not have made him worthy of such a noble woman."
"What was she like? …Was she beautiful?" asked the stranger.
"Aye, a goddess."
"Poised as a rose, sir."
The stranger's body tensed and his eyes closed. "With eyes full of mercy… enough to pardon a multitude of wrongs…? A voice that calls forth the sun from the cave of night… A smile so disarming the sea would lie as still as glass before her feet," he rambled softly, as if lost in memory.
When he opened his eyes again, the bartender blinked confusedly before him for a moment before breaking into laughter. "Who's tellin' the story now—you or me?" he quipped, "Don't tell me ye've heard it before, have ye?"
"No… I only imagine," he shrugged.
The bartender smiled. "Ye've got quite an imagination, sir."
"Please, continue," he insisted, taking a gulp of his ale.
"Well as beautiful and graceful and wise and wonderful as the princess was, the gypsy would not be swayed." The bartender leaned on his elbow. "Ye know, if ye ask me—not sayin' anyone would—but I don't think it was the gypsy's lust for land or thirst for adventure that made him to wander so. No, I think he was just like any other man: he wanted to be needed. He wanted to belong, perhaps so much that he couldn't belong anywhere. Fer years he roamed the sea and the countless lands he discovered there, pining always fer somethin' he could not define.
'When I find it, I'll know,' he wrote her, 'and I'll come home to you.'
"There were monuments and even temples erected in his name. There were statues and paintin's and tap'stries depictin' the triumphs of his hands. There were gifts of relics and gems and women of beauty that filled the haul, the halls—aye, even his bed, but they could not fill the void in his heart. All the vict'ries he won, every wicked creature he slain, all the bent men he set straight, and all the rightness he restored by his sword could not amend the brokenness within him. Every good deed he found increasin'ly unsatisfyin'. The lands he saved would ne'er be his home nor would the people he rescued would e'er be his kith. But tire, he did not. Instead he threw himself exceedin'ly into his quest. Trailin' the moon and chasin' the sun, he could find no rest, not even in sleep.
"Letters writt'n by his men reached home tellin' of their capt'n's growin' eccentricities. Surely he had fallen into madness. The princess was ill stricken by the news of his affliction. The last crate that was e're sent from the Ocean Gypsy contained this wooden trinket, but no letter came with it, and because of her illness, none e're returned. Perhaps it was a mutiny or a shipwreck, or… even a suicide, but the Ocean Gypsy's crew was ne'er seen nor heard from again."
The stranger gazed gloomily at the bottom of his empty mug of ale. "And the princess? Whatever happened to her?"
"Fell into a sleeping sickness. Any other mortal would have died, but it was the golden triangle in her hand that kept her alive, fore'er asleep. "
"And no word of this was ever sent back to the gypsy?"
"Though some might've tried, like I said, the Ocean Gypsy was ne're seen again."
The stranger held his chin in his hand and thought deeply. "When did your brother pass away?" he asked.
The bartender was surprised by the stranger's seemingly offhand question. "Eh…couple years ago, just after he came home with this little ship. Ne're left home again, in fact. He had a bad heart."
"No word was ever sent back to the gypsy… and his ship was never heard from again," he mulled over the facts, rubbing his chin, "So this little ship came in a crate from the Ocean Gypsy while the princess remained in a deathlike sleep—wouldn't that make it undeliverable?"
"I can't say for certain whether or not she was conscious when it arrived, sir. That's a hairy detail that only one who was there would know."
"But suppose she wasn't. What would happen to the crate?"
"Well, whoever ran it would return it to the sender's port address."
"And if the sender had no particular port?"
"Then it would be considered dead, sir, and the runner could do as he pleased with it." The bartender was beginning to understand what the stranger was getting at.
"Even bringing it home to his brother?"
"Aye, or tradin' or sellin' it or a thousand other thin's. What makes ye so sure my brother was the cargo-runner between the gypsy and the princess?"
"Their correspondence ended with his death."
"I don't know that. The only part of the story I've heard is the part when my brother was alive. Hell, for all I know the gypsy and the princess could be dead, or livin' happily together, or who knows—maybe they ne'er lived at all!" The few other eyes in the tavern fixated on the huffing bartender, whose excitement had nearly escalated to outburst. He took a deep breath and apologized.
"All right then, so you don't know," the stranger appeased him, "I'll just call it a guess." He paused before continuing slowly, as though his words were footsteps around a sleeping giant, "But suppose—just supposing—I know that since the death of your brother to this very day, there has been no correspondence between the gypsy and his lover, would you believe your brother was their intermediary?"
The bartender sighed. "I s'pose it would be possible, though I don't see what diff'rence it makes."
"To you… or me, none at all. But to the gypsy, it must mean the world—to know your love did not forsake you, but only could not reach you."
"Hmm," the bartender nodded, "that would make a world of difference—if it were true."
"If it were true," the stranger admitted. "And if it were, do you think the princess would slumber still?"
"Aye, I 'magine she's still waitin'."
"Waiting…" the stranger repeated, digesting the thought. "…Like for true love's kiss, you mean?" he asked skeptically.
"Maybe," the bartender replied doubtfully. "Or fer her lover's promise."
"To return home again…"
"Aye, it was all she e'er wanted."
"You think so?"
"I know so," he assured the stranger. "He wanted to be needed—she wanted to need him."
"I—" the stranger was stunned, "I guess that makes sense."
"Good, 'cause yer supposin's and guesses seem to be uncommonly true." The bartender winked and filled another mug.
"It just doesn't seem fair…" the stranger sighed.
"To sum up their tragedy so simply, ye mean?"
"Well, yes. You'd think such a situation would require a more complex explanation."
"Aye, I know. Remember though, it's harder to find yer way out of knot that's tied behind yer back than it is fer the man behind ye." The bartender returned the Ocean Gypsy to its shelf behind him. "Sometimes we lose sight of the real problem and go tryin' to solve the made up ones, just so we're at least doin' somethin'."
"I will keep that in mind," the stranger answered, pulling his coat around him. "And thank you, for your story and for your time."
"My pleasure, sir. Ye think we'll be seein' ye again?"
"I doubt it," the stranger replied, sliding his coins forward on the counter.
As he rose from his seat, his hand lingered there just long enough that the bartender could witness the sacred golden triangle it humbly bore. The stranger paused before the door and turned once again to the now stupefied bartender. "I wanted to see the world…" he put his hand to his mouth and bit his lip, unsure of how to continue.
"I should have looked in her eyes."
Author's Note: Thank you, BKP, for beta reading. You've been such a great friend. And Merry Christmas, everyone! I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. All feedback is welcome.