Night Sailing

Benjamin Groenewold Van Dyk’s story, “Night Sailing,” won high praise from the judges and a well-deserved Honourable Mention. Witvoet explained, “The author has a wonderful way of building up the plot of the story, from puzzlement to awareness of why a shocking event can turn into a future of liberation, not sorrow. The source of the characters’ suffering is subtly hinted at. The author has a poetic way of describing the environment and dares to juxtapose memories and current reality.”  – Cathy Smith, Features Editor


It was just after midnight when the phone rang. He had to fumble for it in the dark, and got hold of it on the tenth ring.

“They’re dead,” the voice on the other end said. It was his sister. “They’re both dead.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Can you come home?”

“Yeah . . . yeah.” He could feel his mental gears begin to spin again, to whirr. “I’ll be there. I’m leaving.”

“Good. See you.”

“Wait – how did it happen?”

“Oh – car accident. Coming home from church. The police just called five minutes ago; I don’t know what took so long. They asked if I wanted someone to come over. I said no.”

“Good. I’ll be there in an hour. Bye.”   

He put the phone down and flicked the light switch, bringing to light a cluttered dorm room. He grabbed his car keys and wallet, pushed through the door, and went down the stairs two at a time. Outside, the hot thick air of late summer greeted him like a friend.

He was halfway home before he realized he was barefoot and still in his nightclothes. He grinned. Nobody was going to be checking him for presentability tonight. So long as he didn’t forget about his speed (which was a temptation) he wouldn’t be seeing anyone but his sister, anyhow. The cornfields, broken up only by fences and country roads, whisked endlessly by, gray in the moonlight, like slow ocean waves. By day they were parcels of tillable earth. Tonight, they were his dream, the dream he’d lost when the phone rang.

They had been sailing, he and his sister: night sailing, skimming along with a sail bright as the moon. He couldn’t remember if his parents had seen them off, as they often would have in those far-away days. All he could remember was the feel: wind catching the sail, starlight and sudden speed, ship and world together coming alive.

The darkness hides things

He shivered. The only ships on this sea tonight were the small, dark farmsteads. At this hour, they rode the swells with a deceptive serenity; it wasn’t as if he didn’t know what that darkness often hid. But the dream still hovered near: all manner of fences and deceptions could not entirely command his attention. The road was ruler-straight, after all. He could afford to look for what he thought he almost saw out the corner of his eye.

Half an hour later he turned into the long gravel drive that led to his aunt and uncle’s farmhouse. Not theirs any longer, he thought to himself. Probably his. Hers. At the end of the drive he cut out the engine, and there was only the soft chatter of wind in the cottonwoods. And stars.

He stood and watched them a moment, let the prairie wind blow through his nightclothes – as it had in earlier days, when he’d slipped out his bedroom window into the night. A temporary escape, that.

It was hard to believe this deliverance could be any different.

The door opened as he came up to it, and the light poured out – warm light, always warmer at this hour than any other. His sister was silhouetted against the light, a seeming slight and frail shadow that was nonetheless nearly as tall as he. She too was still in her nightdress. She stood awkwardly in the doorframe, her right foot just touching the ground.

“Hello, brother.”

“Hello, sister.”

She held out her free hand. They solemnly shook and then went into the kitchen, and the light.

“Well,” she said. She moved carefully over to a chair by the table and sat down.

“Well,” he said.

They both laughed. She stood up again, steadying herself against the table. “Would you like something to drink? We have coffee or tea, or juice. Or,” her lip curling now, “Black Velvet. This is a teetotaling family, as I’m sure you know, but I’ve just discovered half a bottle hidden away in the pantry. I wonder how it got there.”

“I don’t,” he said grimly, then added, “I’m curious about the Black Velvet, but I’ll have milk, please. I haven’t had a quiet glass of milk here in over ten years, and I’m rather curious if I’d still enjoy the experience. I suppose milk and cookies would be too much to ask?”

“Ha. Where is your nose?” she replied, “I’ve been doing more than snooping in the pantry this last hour and a half.”

“Hour,” he protested, “I considered speeding, and then imagined explaining myself to a police officer at twelve thirty in the morning wearing this.”

Sitting at the kitchen table, they munched chocolate chip cookies and drank milk in silence awhile.

“So,” she said, “I suppose we should feel – sorrowful.”

“Shocked, too. Have another cookie.”

She took one. “If we aren’t, everybody else will be.”

“Of course, they will be anyway. Shocked is the only un-shocking way to be – I mean, to act – at a time like this.” He picked up another cookie and ate it entire.

“I suppose we should practice, for tomorrow.”

“I’ll practice tomorrow tomorrow. Tonight I feel about 10.”

“So do I. Or seven.” She seemed to hesitate, looked carefully at him a moment, but then nudged the plate nearer him. “Have another cookie.”

“Thanks. Come to think of it, that’s about the last time I’ve eaten cookies in this house.”

“I remember that.”

“A thunderstorm, wasn’t it? I ran into Mom and Dad’s room at the second crash. I kept waiting for you to come, but you didn’t, so I finally wondered aloud to Mom about it, and then came this muffled voice from beneath us – ‘I’m under here.’ And then we went downstairs into the light and we had cookies with milk and cheered the storm on.”

He picked up another cookie and fiddled with it. “I suppose we should have been in the tornado shelter.”

She made a face. “Yes, shocking for us not to be.”

“Aunt and Uncle certainly would have been.”


“No cookies, no milk, no thunderstorms,” he said reflectively, staring into his glass. “And no – ” He stopped, then began again. “I suppose I got fed up pretty quickly. And I never did know when to keep my mouth shut.”

She shifted in her seat and winced. “Yes. Well.”

“I wanted to rub their noses in it, I suppose. I wanted them to see us escape, to know we could, and not be able to do anything about it.”

He rose suddenly, gathered up the plates and dishes and put them in the sink. “I wonder who will come tomorrow?”

She shrugged again. “The Pastor, certainly, and Sympathetic People. Maybe the undertaker –”

“We’ll have to argue with him about caskets, of course,” he interrupted, “again. As if doing that for Mom and Dad’s funeral wasn’t bad enough. And then listen to the pastor about Eternity. And, of course, the World.”

“Too bad we can’t have it done at our old church.”

“True. I recall that pastor saying something else about eternity. The time when all times are present . . .  something like that.”

“And the world without end. I always liked the sound of that.”

“I didn’t. I’m sick of the world. Don’t tell me you’re not. The Sympathetic People, and lawyers, and things like property. I wonder what happens now? You’re still a minor. And what do you think we should wear? Do I have a suit?”

“You’re thinking about tomorrow,” she reminded him, “Right now that’s unnecessary.”

“True,” He turned back to the sink. “Did you want to wash or dry?”

She shoved back her chair, stood up quickly, and almost fell, catching onto the table at the last moment. She straightened. “We’re stalling, brother.”

He turned from the sink and looked out the window. From within the light, all outside seemed perfectly black. But there were shadows in the cottonwoods, he knew, and starlight overhead. And though even outside one couldn’t see the wind, one could feel it. He followed her over the threshold, flicking off the kitchen lights.

The cottonwoods remember

She stood just outside the door, balancing precariously. He took her arm, and they looked up. Outside, the sky was night blue flecked with milk white. The cottonwoods stood up against it in a line of restless shadows, and the summer wind rustled the leaves as it ruffled their nightclothes. The stiff cornfields rose around the trees, running up in parallel rows toward the crest of the nearest swell. They shuddered in the wind. He imagined how the prairie grasses would have swayed, once upon a time, before the corn took their place. Some of those cottonwoods, he thought, might still remember.

As they stepped onto the gravel drive, she winced. “Ouch – I just remembered I’ve only got bare feet on.”

“Oh hush – take it easy. We used to do it all the time.”

“Ten years ago. My feet have been in shoes since then, because – ‘Dirt is not Clean,’ as our dear aunt would say.”

“Forget! Forget! Your aunt is once again no more than a memory, a mere visitor, just as she used to be: here for a time – odious but brief – and then gone. You could be seven again . . .”

“Without the parents, however.” She paused, taking hold of the fence.

The wind gusted, leaves rattled, the long grass bent and swayed about them.

She took a deep breath, then took his arm again and they went on.

“Maybe we can get something done about that leg of yours now,” he said. She said nothing. “I mean, getting your leg broken and refusing to take you to a doctor, just to keep up appearances? I would have killed him if I hadn’t been so small. That’s – that’s –“

She shrugged. The wind filled in the silence.

“I never could keep anything to myself,” he said, morose.

“You don’t need to remind us,” she cut in with a forced laugh, “But I always admired your – your fighting spirit. Even if it made Uncle nail your window shut and lock you in every night.” She stopped a moment. “But I always thought even cornfields could make a pretty good sea.”

“Come on – not much further.”

The cottonwoods loomed up ahead, overwhelming the cornfields that surrounded them. They turned away from the road and felt their way along the edge of the trees until their bare feet found the smooth dip of the path.

She halted again. “I – I had forgotten it was so narrow. I – I can’t hold onto you here.”

“But – are you sure? You could hold onto trees – or I could find you a stick –“

“No. I can’t go.”


“The past isn’t just memory, brother. I’d almost forgotten, but – look at my leg. I can’t climb anymore. That’s the way it is.”

“Is now and ever shall be, world without end. No! We’ve got to see it again. I’ll carry you.”

“Not up the tree. And didn’t it leave us for good, that last time? You said it was going to be the last time.”

“I know that. But I’m still saying you’re seven. Come on. Piggyback.”

She balanced awkwardly while he bent before her. Her arms around his shoulders, he slowly rose, and stepped forward. No branch reached out from the darkness to touch or entangle them, but late fireflies still blinked on and off as they wove through the trees. He thought it was as if the sky had come down or, better, as if they had followed the path into the sky and now walked truly among the stars themselves.

They stopped at the beginning of a small clearing, broken down the center by a narrow creek. On one side of the creek stood a tall cottonwood, towering over even the tall trees all around. She slipped from his back and he turned in time to steady her. Together they faced it.

“It’s still here.”

“As it was in the beginning,” she whispered.

Once, very long ago, he thought, the cottonwood must have been the only tree there. Its branches had grown very far down its massive trunk. It had been an ideal climbing tree, and more. But near the ground the great stem was bare now, bare and lumpy where it had attempted to heal the places where its severed limbs had been. “I knew Uncle was angry,” he said, “but I didn’t think he was that angry.”

“I know, but – look,” she said, pointing to the wide bole of the giant cottonwood.

“But for the accident of time, there we are now,” he agreed, with a forced smile, “I always feel that way when I’m crossing train tracks. If time were suddenly to jump an hour, when the train is due, where would I be?”

“I can see you now,” she told him, “there, running, pulling me along by the hand. You know we don’t have much time. I can see you climbing quickly, branch to branch upwards, and me not climbing. Just standing there.”

“Stupid fool that I was,” he groaned, “I knew you always needed a boost.”

She was not listening to him. “You are coming back down. I can see you jump the last branch and kneel. I’m up onto the first branch –”

“But too late, by then. They were already coming, coming to knock you out of that tree and break your leg. I wish I – ”

No. See, brother? See?”

He saw then. They really were there. There was his sister, the cumbersome nightdress they made her wear tangled in branches he had just seen to be gone. And his younger self in that old pair of shorts, all arms and legs, about to catch the lowest branch. They had stopped and turned, now, to where they expected Uncle and Aunt to come bursting out of the woods.

He had thought his aunt and uncle dead. But they were still here, weren’t they? Wasn’t their work in the past as real as ever, as real as his sister’s crippled leg? For always they would be there, running up to the tree in livid haste, all their rules and appearances, cutting him and his sister’s life down to size as surely as the fences had split up the rolling prairie into nothing more than arable land.

Hearts in their throats, brother and sister waited for the disaster to complete itself again. And at the tree also, brother and sister waited. But what was feared did not come. At last, with a surge of wonder, he realized that they were standing where their uncle and aunt should have burst through.

She repeated the words. “As it was in the beginning …”

He understood then.

A new beginning

They walked slowly toward the pair in the tree, the wind coming through its branches with a deep thrumming. They stopped near its base, gazing towards their simultaneous selves, uncertain. The moon came out from behind a cloud and remade everything into bright silver and sharp shadows. Except there were no clouds, and it was a new moon night. The silver light caught in the child’s nightdress and made it glow. She crouched on the long-gone branch, reaching down a hand to them, smiling. The light grew stronger, reaching further. In a moment, the boy was illumined; he looked up and smiled too.

The two further from the tree smiled back, tentatively, still wondering. Then his sister let go of his arm and limped the last two steps to the tree and the new light on her own. And in that light he saw that the decade that should have separated the two did not: he saw her take her younger hand. Both gasped: the girl on the branch above winced and seemed to crumple; the crippled girl on the ground suddenly straightened to stand as he had not seen her stand since her fall. She leapt up; catching the branch, she swung herself easily onto its rough and gnarled surface. But as she did so, he saw the other fall hard from it.

“No!” his sister cried, looking down.

On the ground, his younger self helped his sister to rise. She clung to him, balanced on one leg.

The girl in the tree looked stricken. “I didn’t mean – you shouldn’t –” she stumbled to silence.

On the ground, her younger self grimaced and laughed.

“Quick!” the brother beneath the tree said to him, pointing toward the apparent moonlight.

He came to himself with a start. Nodding to his younger self, he caught the lowest branch and pulled himself up into the tree, into the light. Together, they saw the sailboat, running down the prairie swell, gliding along the cornrows, its triangular sail glowing silver as moonlight. The light caught in the corn too, making the tasseled tops white as ocean spray. The wind roared about them all; the sail swung a little and bellied out full and, reaching the edge of the grove, the sailboat swept upwards, as if it rode a tall wave.

“I knew it!” he said, almost fiercely.

“Glory be,” she breathed.

He turned to look at her. “You knew this would happen, didn’t you?”

She laughed. “I hoped. I hoped the last time would – would come again. World without end.”

Riding the tops of the trees, the ship made straight for the crown of the giant cottonwood. There it rested, sending dancing light down the tree, and trembling. They knew it was impatient to be gone, to go skimming over the silver-tasseled cornfields again, to go with the wind above all fences, transforming as it passed even the sleeping farmhouses into ships like itself, buoyed up once more on a single vast sea, driven before a single vast wind.

They hesitated just a moment, looking down toward the brother and sister below.

“Go on,” the sister said, “We’ll be fine.”

The light from above shone out from the faces below. With light hearts, brother and sister began to climb.


  • Benjamin Groenewold Van Dyk

    Benjamin Groenewold Van Dyk grew up among cornfields and always wanted to fly (without mechanical help, that is). In the meantime, he is working on a PhD at the ICS on technology and twelfth century interpretive practices.

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