He heard it inside an inn--a young woman speaking to her friend: "I don't care what that harlot tries, I'll be the one to win his heart."
Gongora recalls a memory buried deep within his heart.
A dream has been revealed.
The loud, lonely shriek of a seagull pierces the sky, accompanied by the howl of a sudden gust of cool, salty wind. They provide the orchestration to the drama of human life at the docks. Large, muscular men haul crates on and off of ships next to hassled merchants, trying frantically to meet their deadlines. An angry taskmanager shouts for a lazy worker to get back to his job. Like a mound of ants they scuffle, this one a certain way, that one another: all going about the hectic business of living.
"This work is such a pain!" cries the young man at Gongora's left. He is seated at a table that overlooks the harbor, casually eating a cheap lunch. While his clothes might be the cheap garb of a laborer, his eyes burn with a zest for life that only one of his age can muster--even while complaining he seems to be smiling inwardly. "Lifting boxes is such a stupid job. I won't put up with it for one more day!"
"You say that now, Raash," quietly replies a voice to Gongora's right, "But you'll come back tomorrow, and the day after until you can find real employment." He is a young man of about equal age as his peer, but obviously much more reserved and introspective. He doesn't look up as he says this, keeping his gaze firmly away from his friend, almost in fear.
Far from being angry, the first man laughs good-naturedly in return. "You've got a point, Shend, as always."
Gongora met these two boys no less than three weeks ago when he took on a the menial task of hauling shipping crates at the docks. The two were eager to meet such a well-traveled man as Gongora, and were quick to befriend him, using him as a window to an exciting, exotic world they only caught glimpses of in foreign vessels. Gongora had answered all their questions, and found himself more often than not in the company of his two young companions. Raash gave another loud, confidant laugh that seemed to come so easily to him. "Shend might seem like a killjoy," he explains to Gongora, "But he's often right. Even when we were kids he was always telling me to be reasonable. My mother always said, 'There goes Raash getting into trouble, and there goes Shend getting him out of it!'"
Shend gives a small smile, vulnerable, yet trusting. "And if I recall, you never learned your lesson," he chides playfully. The two seem like complete opposites, but Gongora can tell that they share a close bond, sealed over years of companionship.
Tipping his chair back, Raash glances to Gongora. "You're leaving tomorrow, so I bet that you don't care, but don't think that I'm going to be stuck in this job forever. Any day now, when I'm just a bit older, I'm going to go into the city proper and get a real job. Then you'll see--I'll be rich and fat, and maybe own the boxes that young kids like me will haul around--"
He suddenly stops midsentence and looks into the crowd, extremely distracted. Shend does likewise. Gongora doesn't immediately see what the two young men are looking at, but he's seen the look in their eyes countless time. Men only stare that way when one of two things cross their eyes: a battle...
Or a woman.
Soon she is visible, and Gongora can tell why the young men are so spellbound. A woman of their same age saunters by, clearly in the zenith of her beauty. Even Gongora can tell that her looks are exceptional: from her long, flowing red hair to her perfectly curving body that fills out her dress in a smolderingly sensational way, she is the lily of the docks. The boys stare with their jaws dropped as she glides past, oblivious to the world around them. Gongora glances at both of them, waiting for one to break back into the world of the living. As soon as she leaves sight, Raash gives a long whistle. "She's amazing, isn't she?" he says to Gongora, "I say that she's the absolute best of the docks, hands down. And one day, I'll have her!"
Raash slams a clenched fist into his palm, a cocky grin having found its way onto his face. Shend is less eager than his friend; even when the girl has vanished, he continues to stare longingly at where she was, and only slowly responds to the situation around him. "She is quite gorgeous..." he mutters, frowning listlessly. Raash doesn't notice his friend's melancholy.
Gongora says nothing as the two remain silent for a second longer until he hears the harsh bark of an overseer, calling out that their break is over. Raash gives an overly-dramatic sigh as he stands. "A lifter's work is never done. Are you really leaving, Gongora?"
The immortal nods. "I've already packed. It's time for me to move on."
Raash puts on a jocular smile and gives Gongora a firm handshake. "Well, it's been a great time. If you're ever back, ever, give me a call, and we can get together. I'm going to hold you to that!"
Gongora nods, and the young man jogs off, ready to work more. As Gongora turns to Shend, he notices that the young man's face is still very thoughtful and pensive, as is his habit. "Gongora," he asks, as soft a mouse, "Can I... Ask you a question before you leave?"
"Of course," Gongora replies, placing a strong hand on Shend's shoulder, "Ask whatever you want."
The young man immediately breaks down into a long, heart wrenching tale that he has kept hidden inside himself for the past three weeks. Shend has been in love passionately with the beautiful girl for years, speaking with her only on rare occasions, and too shy to ever voice his feelings. Holding back tears, he continues as only a frantic lover can about sleepless nights, discarded poems, and hopeless sighs that have come and gone, receiving understanding nods from Gongora along the way. Shend finds his way to the heart of the problem, now on the verge of crying. "She's all I can think about, but my mother would never approve. In fact, she expects me to be married to a woman of her own choosing, with me having no say in the matter."
"You mother wants to arrange your marriage?"
"Exactly! She thinks that I'd do better with some 'nice' girl that she picks out, but I don't want anyone but... But her!" he cries out, sniffing immediately after. A quiet second passes. "You might think that I'm some stupid, lovesick kid, and that might be right, but I can still think," he continues, his voice now much more even, "And part of me thinks that maybe... Maybe my mother is right. Maybe I'll never have a chance with her, and I should just do the sensible thing and marry someone who'll be screened to fit my needs. At least, that's what my mother thinks. Oh, Gongora, I don't know what to do!"
Shend looks up at Gongora. His timid gaze is expectant: he clearly wants to pursue his beloved, and hopes that Gongora will justify his desire to do so. Gongora gives a firm nod and pats Shend on the shoulder once. "I know that you won't appreciate this," the elder says, kind but firm, "But I can't tell you what you should do here. You need to look into your heart as well as your mind to determine what will be best for you, and what makes you happy."
The young man is clearly disappointed in the answer. "I see..." he says, almost in a whisper.
A long, blaring horn shatters the silence between them. Gongora looks towards the sea. "That must be my barge."
"You'd better be off," Shend agrees, "And Gongora, if you're ever back in this harbor again, be sure to stop by and see me. I'll be waiting."
The young man smiles amidst a second bellow of the horn. Gongora gives a slight bow and turns to leave. Shend watches Gongora dissolve into the crowd, like the red-haired girl before him: and a second later Gongora has left Shend's world and entered a different one, one that the young harborhand will never experience.
Years pass by.
As Gongora travels, he sees the grass grow green, the trees lose their leaves, and white snow drift down from the sky, time and time again. Years slide by as his work continues. He is like a boat beating against the current of time: rowing fast enough to prevent himself from being swept into the rapids of death, but never quite fast enough to make any progress. Flowers bloom, crops ripen, the waters freeze. How many times has he seen this? How many times will he see this? The passing of the year ought to be the passing of the day.
The horn blares, but it's cry is now weary and belabored. The years have taken their toll on it: it has nearly completely rusted away under constant use. The creaking barge lands at the docks. Gongora leaves the ship. The years have not taken their toll on Gongora, one of the precious few things on the world that can deny nature's destructive decree.
Gongora starts walking down the street towards the city. Before he can get far, he hears a voice from behind him cry out. "Gongora!" it calls, "Gongora!"
He turns to find a man at the far end of middle age hoddling towards him. Perhaps he was once handsome, but age had scraped such pleasantness off his features long ago. The man takes in several deep breaths as he comes to a stop before Gongora. The immortal can instantly tell that such a short sprint shouldn't cause such exhaustion: this man's body has withered before its time, probably because of physical overuse. The misty-eyed man looks up to Gongora expectantly. "My word, you haven't aged a day! Literally!"
With a frown, Gongora tilts his head, trying to draw forth this particular man from the misty crevices of his mind. The aged man looks disappointed. "You've... Forgotten me? That's fair," he concedes unhappily, "It was a long time ago."
His identity suddenly surges forth. "Raash," Gongora recalls.
A smile spreads on Raash's weathered face. "You do remember me. I'm glad."
Moments later the two are seated back at that same table they ate at so many years ago. It has also crumbled over the years: it has perhaps a year left of service before it, too, would be discarded. Raash doesn't seem to care about the dilapidated surroundings. His age has not changed his talkativeness. "I'm still moving crates, of course," he admits, biting into a stale loaf of bread, "It might not be glamorous, but they need to be moved, you know? It's hard, honest work. More than I can say for most people, eh Gongora?"
Gongora dosen't immediately reply. It's no matter--Raash speaks enough for three men. "Maybe I'll retire, though. My back can't take much more of this. I don't have much saved up, but I'll probably find some way to get by. That's my dream, you know."
Once again, Gongora doesn't reply. Raash sighs. "But please," he implores as his voice picks up strength, "Tell me more of the outside world! All the sights you've seen and people you've met! This might sound funny, but I've fanaticized about this moment for years, to have you return and tell me all the tales you've picked up over your travels--"
Before he can finish his sentence, he suddenly stops speaking and looks out into the crowd. Gongora glances out as well to see what could've caused such a jarring halt to his passionate words. Walking in plain sight was the problem: an old, disgusting crone. Her saggy body hangs in lumps off her ill-fed skeletal frame. Children turn their eyes to avoid looking at her face, horribly riddled with pox marks and twisted into an ubiquitous scowl, despising the world that loathes it.
The lily of the docks has not just gone to seed, she has withered to the very brink of death.
As she vanishes, Raash gives a laugh. Far from the easy lighthearted laughter of his youth, it sounds hollow and defeated by the world. "She's a real looker, isn't she?"
He relates the story of his romance with the formerly beautiful woman. "I won her over. It was the only thing I worked on for a year, but I sure did it. It was great at first: all the other men envied me, and I bathed in their jealously. While I was supposed to be stacking boxes I was thinking about how she would embrace me in the evening: those were really happy days..."
Then came the illness.
"The Pox came so suddenly. No one had prepared. She caught it while we were both still relatively young. I cared for her for nights and nights as she fended off the disease. I actually remember praying for hours on end that she be spared from the deaths that had claimed so many others on the docks... And those prayers were answered, I suppose. But not really in the way I wanted them to..."
It was a miracle. She had survived the Pox. But it took a toll on the young woman; one that Raash had never expected.
"She was hideous," Raash says, his voice disgusted, although Gongora couldn't quite tell at what. "She had all those horrible scars from the illness. I mean, I was happy she survived, of course, but look at what she became. How could I kiss a face like that? I nearly wretched when they removed her bandages. I... I tried to see her as little as possible. You understand of course, don't you Gongora? How could anyone want to look at... That."
Gongora still remains silent. Raash continues his confession. "I wouldn't come home until early in the morning. I found things to do during those long nights: drinking, gambling, fighting... All were better than to come home to such a horrible face. Of course, I never touched her again. I even slept in a separate bed. I couldn't let that be the first thing I saw in the morning, you know..."
Raash's frown deepens still. "And you know what the strangest thing is...?"
"I actually started to hate her."
"I don't mean that I merely fell out of love. And I don't even mean that I didn't want to look at her. I really started to absolutely hate her. I hated her in the morning. I hated her in the afternoon. I hated her in the evening. Anytime I thought about her, I was filled with absolute disgust. Something about that face changed her as a person; I am sure of it. If not, I wouldn't've been able to loathe her as I did. You know what I mean, don't you Gongora? How could anyone not hate such a filthy creature. And I had to give it my money, my hard earned money, despite the fact I couldn't stand it. All other women, real women, were out of my grasp, too. How could anyone have stayed, if they had to share their life with a beast? It's not like anyone can judge me. They don't know my position. Life is very unfair..."
Raash trails off, for once at a lack of words. Luckily for him, someone else was going to do the talking. "What are you doing!?" an angry voice barks, "Why aren't you at work!"
The old man sinks into his seat in shame. Gongora looks up to see a new man, this one about the same age as Raash, storming near them. He looks very unpleased. "You've always skirted your work! It's a wonder that I don't throw your sorry carcass out of here!"
"I'm sorry, sir..." Raash mutters.
The taskmaster scowls. He has aged better than Raash, and his crisply pressed uniform shows that he enjoys more comforts, too. "This is your last warning," he hisses, "You pull this stunt one more time, and it's over for you, understand?"
"Yes, sir..." the defeated laborer murmurs.
"Good," the unformed man snarls. As he turns to Gongora, another memory springs to the latter's deathless mind. A young, lovesick boy spilling the contents of his heart to a near stranger, striving as hard as he could in the name of love. It is a memory that almost squeezes Gongora's heart, but the taskmaster's cold eyes remain frozen in anger. There is no recognition.
Raash gives another defeated laugh when is sure that he and Gongora are out of earshot. "But it could be worse, you know. I could've married for money like him, and I would've hated my wife from the very start. He can't even get away from his witch. See, I have my freedom, so I'm better off than he ever will be. I really believe that."
Raash stands and looks to Gongora sheepishly. "I guess I should get back to work. Will you be around later tonight?"
Gongora shakes his head. "I'm actually on my way to the capital."
A flash of disappointing realization crosses Raash's face. "Oh. I guess then I won't be seeing you then, huh?"
His voice carries a quality Gongora rarely hears. While it seems just merely let down to a casual observer, Gongora's centuries of insight tells him a different story. Raash is desperate. More desperate than most people will ever be. He is desperate for the most basic of commodities, one far more necessary than food or drink. He needs companionship. He needs human contact. He needs it far more than a starving man needs bread. It is a dire necessity deep within his heart, and one that has not been fulfilled for a long, long time. Gongora stands from his chair. "No, I'm afraid you won't."
Raash forces a smile on his face and gives one more of his weary, crushed laughs. "Well, that's fine. It was good to see you again, anyway. And if you're ever near the docks again..."
His voice is clearly hopeful, but one need only look at his rapidly decaying body to know that what he talks about is completely impossible. "I'll stop by again," Gongora reassures him.
"Well," says Raash, reaching out to shake Gongora's hand, "Until next time."
"Yes," Gongora agrees, "Until then."
The two men leave the table. Gongora walks a short distance to an ornate, gold-gilded carriage and enters it, not so much as glancing behind him. The doors slam shut, the horses are driven, and he vanishes out of Raash's world as though he were some sort of phantom. Raash watches the carriage leave attentively. Even when he can't see it, he still looks out, trying in vain to catch sight of Gongora. But it is too late. Gongora is gone.
A loud, lonely shriek of a seagull pierces the sky, accompanied by the howl of a sudden gust of cool, salty wind.