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Ellie wriggles. She does this when she is tired and she has every right to be. I tell her, “If you don’t stay up you won’t see the Milky Way and everyone wants to see that before they die.”
Her voice sounds scared, or is she just cold? I cannot tell without looking but still I do not turn away from the view before us. What could be an endless ocean lay at the prow. Where the deep rosewood deck ends the dark water begins. We sail over it like stones skipping, like dolphins’ breach. But it is not endless and we plough on toward the end of the world.
“Yes, die. Remember, Ellie, there is no world out there beyond the cliff. There’s nothing to sail to or beach upon, just the night and the stars all around us.”
“I think I see. But isn’t that scary?”
“Not to me.”
The child sees only what I show her. She knows only what I allow her, and I will never let her be scared. Our ship proceeds. In the brightness of the peeking sun, the wall of spray and thrown-back water soars like a curtain as wide as my sight, as high as the moon, as blue and wild as my daughter’s eyes. We lurch in some hidden current. The ship stalls for a moment then grumbles back into life with a start.
“Yes, the Milky Way. Imagine you are giving each star a name. Use all names of all the people you know, all the names of people who speak like us. All names from all other languages that exist or ever have been spoken in all of time and are now lost. And when you have finished you will have named only a tiny fraction of the stars up there.”
“I know. New stars will have been born and old ones died while you try. This is how it is. There is no other way. All things come and pass, and they take their names and gift them to the ones that come next.”
“Gift? Like a present?”
“Oh! Even my name?”
“‘Yes, even yours.”
“But, I’m not finished with it yet.”
“Nothing. I’m happy.”
The sea is boiling. A side-on swell kicks our ship on a slant and we slide in our chairs toward the rail, rattling over the boards as we go. Our faces are sprayed with salt water. For the first time I look to her and offer a broad grin. She must never feel afraid. At once, uncertainty in her face is replaced with a matching smile. We plant our feet on the deck and roll into the waves as they come.
We are close to the End and I can hear its music. In the day before morning, when the apparatus of the world grows warm, the grinding of chains underwater or the toll of some submerged bell in its tower can be heard. The tides surge. Things locked in mountains stir. The ocean will end and its water will become the rain that falls on her much later.
“Ellie, can you run an errand for me please?”
“Can you go tell the captain it’s time to turn the ship around? I think we’ve seen enough, don’t you?”
She nods again and runs off, skittering across the deck with each roll of the waters. I know she will be fine and do as she is told. I stand and grip the rail, drag myself to the prow and look straight down into the turbulent dark waters below. The ship is turning now. It tilts into the fast current and rolls away from the sheer cliff of spray. I hang on tight, feeling my fingers slip along the wet metal bar.
I could let go now and fly. I could wave to her and smile and dive into the End, but I don’t. I hold on for another day and deliver on my promise. As the ship reverses its course and sails on into calmer waters, we see it. The Milky Way is a river of stars, a silver ribbon glinting like frost on a mirror.
Ellie runs back to me. I crouch down by her and point.
Ellie gasps. I put my arm around her shoulder. Her face is glowing with wonder, as mine must when I look at her.
“Thank you, Daddy. It’s lovely.”
But my mind is already dark. I must now think of tomorrow’s wonder to share with her, my only reason to stay afloat; the only way to stay and keep her unafraid.