“Don’t go near the sea you fools. Don’t you see the waves lashing?” shrieked the old man with the wooden staff in his right hand.
“What’s your problem if the children are enjoying themselves on the beach? Why don’t you just mind your own business?” said the snooty young woman accompanying the children.
“I speak for their benefit young lady. I foresee a storm brewing deep in the waters.”
“Storm? Have you lost it old man? The sea has never been calmer than this. I think you just have a problem with the children playing here.”
“Why would I have a problem lady? I just don’t want the children to get hurt.” Said he, spitting on the sand in frustration.
“Do you know who you have been talking to? I am the wife to the home minister at the royal court. You know not who you mess with.”
“Do as it pleases you young lady. I thought it my duty to warn you. Rest it up to you.” Said the old man, as he dragged his limp left leg on the sparkling white sand, his weight rested entirely on his wooden staff. The children and the lady watched him in disgust as he exited.
The next morning the old man was summoned to the royal court, thanks to the woman’s exaggerated account of the previous day’s event to her husband.
“This man is too intrusive your majesty…he hath the audacity to challenge women of nobility for their use of the state’s facilities.”
“Is this true old man?” questioned the young king in a mild tone.
“No your majesty” uttered the old man, moving his wooden staff away from his side to the centre of his chest, as if in defence. “I was merely warning the young lady and the children on the beach to stay away from the sea. I could sense a massive wave approaching which could have ended up claiming their lives.”
“What made you think that way? Was the sea rough yesterday?”
“Not at all Sire.”
“I just knew it your majesty. I had my ears all glued to the sea since yesterday morning. The unusual blend of gentle hissing of the waters, the hue of the sky and of course, the extraordinary calmness of the sea was enough to tell me what was coming.”
“Were you the only person who heard that sound?”
“Of that I am not sure Sire. But I think that most of the time, it’s only me who hears these.”
The Court began to giggle.
“Is it not enough to conclude that this man is senile, your majesty?” said the royal minister, whose wife had complained to him of being humiliated at the hands of a pauper.
“Wait, don’t conclude as yet!” exclaimed the king.
“Something does not seem right here old man. The point is that after the women and children finally vacated the beach, there indeed was a massive wave that swept off at least a dozen houses off the shore. Ministers who visited the site today morning gave accounts of how they saw vessels and planks of wood floating in the waters where till yesterday, land existed. Having said that, I ask again, how did you know?”
“Ahem ahem” blurted the old man, coughing out a large mass of phlegm from his throat. “My connection with the sea Sire, is longer than most people believe. I, from the family of fishermen, have been a fisherman too all my life. I have spent most of my time in the sea. In fact, both my father and grandfather have had watery graves Sire. I have seen my father perish. Since I knew I would have one too, I chose to never marry. Anyway, talking about the sea, every sound the sea makes and every slight movement of the waters seems to speak to me Sire.
I have seen fellow fishermen drown under herculean tides on full moon nights and witnessed massive destruction one can rarely associate with something as serene as water. In fact, having begun to understand the language of the sea, I have warned people over time, but on most occasions, I have been scoffed at. The sea I tell you your majesty, is like a naughty young girl. It has its own tantrums, its moods, feelings. All it takes to please the sea is to bestow it with your attention and that’s what I have done to it all my life. It repays by letting me understand its next course of action. It’s like family you see.”
“The sea is your family! Is that what you’re saying old man?”
“Not only family Sire. The sea has been my best friend too. It has always come up with ways and machinations to prompt me to the best spots to fish. It’s not as much my skill in fishing as other fishermen have always believed, but the sea’s cooperation in everything that I have done that I have always had the best catch.” He said, holding his wooden staff close to his chest, as if in gratitude.
“Now see old man, this is getting more and more bizarre. Not only do I have no faith in what you say, I have begun to doubt your sanity. However, given the fact that your advice saved several lives yesterday, the Court will show mercy.
Minister, I hereby order the health expert in the royal court to keep this old man in his supervision till he has regained his sanity. It may not be advisable to let this man go home till he has recovered from his hallucinations.”
“As you say your majesty” said the royal minister. In less than a minute, four armed men marched into the court and took the old man by his narrow arm into a small room adjacent to the king’s court. The minister smirked to himself. Good riddance, he thought.
The old man was put into a small room equipped merely with a thick-mattressed iron bed and a wooden table and chair. Since his sanity was doubted, he was to be under constant supervision. For that purpose, the room had no door but iron bars, and across the room sat a fat, round-faced security guard, armed with a sword. Only the medical expert was allowed inside the room to check on vital readings once a day. Food was sent in thrice a day, and on most occasions, ended up being rejected by the prisoner.
The old man spent most of his time curling up on the wooden chair. He had managed to push the chair against the damp, yellow wall of the room, where he sat day and night, his left ear pressed tightly against the wall. Guards laughed at him as they passed by the prison. Day in and day out, this was all he did. On most days, he refused to talk to the health expert.
Nearly two months later, he expressed the desire to meet the king. Being in the royal prison, he could not be denied this request. Frailer than before, he was dragged into the king’s court, his wooden staff in his hand.
“What is it this time old man? I am told that it’s almost time for you to get out of here and be a free man again. What brings you here then?”
“I must confide in you Sire. I have news that may be of interest to you.”
“What news? Have you not been in the royal prison for months now? What news can you possibly have?”
“I have all this while, been receiving signals from the sea, which has been desperate to communicate something. To be able to decipher that, I have spent all my time in prison pressing my ear to the wall that faces the sea on the other side, trying to hear sounds and find signals. It is only last night that I have been able to decode the entire thing.”
“What?” exclaimed the king, only to be followed by the sardonic laughter of the ministers and the royal staff.
“Exactly eight days from now, on the night of the full moon, the sea will undergo turbulence of the kind never witnessed before. The pull of the moon will drive the surface of the sea high up into the sky, till the clouds and sea have fused into one. Anyone even remotely close to the water will be thrown deep down on the rocky surface of the water with a force that will crush his bones to powder. You are the first person I tell this about. And trust me the sea never lies to me.”
“This man has gone nuts your majesty. I am telling you, he is a sorcerer with magical powers. Only to establish his supremacy, he casts spells on the water to make his mischievous prophecies come true.” Said the Minister who had made it a goal of his life to rob the old man of his peace.
“Get this man out of here first. Put him back in prison and this time don’t ever give him the chance to get out of there. I don’t know about the sorcery part of it, but he is mentally unstable for sure. Take him out of here, now!” yelled the king.
The old man was forcefully pushed away into the corridors yet again, his bony hands cuffed in iron chains. He wailed, cried and pleaded, drooling from the corners of his mouth. But his fate and that of the ruler had already been determined.
Exactly eight days later on the full-moon night, waters went berserk. Giant waves, the size of mountains rose and fell in quick succession. Angry waters lashed against the rocks producing sounds of death knells. Something was terribly wrong. A disaster was waiting to strike.
The next morning, the royal minister walked into the king’s court, his held hung low.
“What’s the matter? Why do you behave thus?”
“I have some bad news your majesty…pardon me for breaking it to you.”
“What is it…speak fast. My heart beats anxiously.”
“Your sister Sire…your sister had set forth from Scotland in the royal ship to meet you with her family. They…they perished in the storm yesterday. I just heard from the royal minister in Scotland.”
“What are you saying? Do you know that I can seek your life for what you tell me? This cannot be true. The royal ship is almost infallible”
“That it is Sire…They had set sail only five days ago and the waters looked perfectly calm then. In fact, the weather forecast was also perfectly favorable. God alone knows what happened. Last night, their ship was struck by the storm and except the mast of the ship, nothing else remains for identification. And look at the irony of it all Sire, the waters are now as calm as if nothing ever happened.”
The king held his head in his hands and began to wail inconsolably. In no time, he was beating his chest and lamenting the death of his only sister and her family. His two-year old niece and five-year old nephew were also in the waters with her. A watery death? What had they done to deserve that? he thought to himself and began to weep again.
“With your permission your majesty, I think it’s the sorcerer again.”
“Which sorcerer? That useless old man?”
“Yes Sire..I think he used his magical powers to stir up a storm in the seas, only to be able to avenge his insult the other day. You remember his wooden staff with the forked end? I am sure that is what he uses to cause magical menace. All he must have wanted was to punish you for having put him back in prison without believing his words. He has killed your sister’s family Sire. It’s definitely him.”
“Yes, yes it’s him” yelled the crowd in support. “Such a man should be hanged to death in public”.
The king was too stunned to say a word. He contemplated to himself and finally blurted out “You are all right. He does deserve to die. But hanging to death is too simple a penalty for what he has done to me. I shall drown him till he hits the sea-bed and bleeds to death. He says he desires a watery grave, doesn’t he? I’ll give him one.”
“Minister, take the old man to the seas, tie his lifeless legs to a heavy rock and set him forth in the waters. And do not leave the site till he has drowned completely and there’s no sign of him. That’s what that rascal deserves.” Said the king with eyes as red as rubies and face swollen with teary moisture.
The command was carried out with full pomp. The old man, by now bearded, was ferried to the sea shore and pushed into the sand. He lay there on the cool sand with arms stretched out, as if on his bed. They had not seen him this comfortable even in prison. They brought his skinny legs together and raised them as high as they could. He bellowed in pain. A dark grey piece of rock was tied to his legs using a crude white rope. He bled as his legs chafed against it, to the amusement of those who watched.
“So are you scared now old man? Can you prophecise your own future now?” jested the crowd as they clapped with excitement at the prospect of the old man drowning. For a long time, capital punishments had not been awarded in Bercinia and thus, this event was being witnessed by the royal staff, their families, their children and other residents of the small town, with indescribable excitement.
The minister held the old man by his head and yet another royal staff member held the man’s feet, along with the stone dangling below. They walked with great difficulty to the shore and one last time, looked into the old man’s face. It was too calm to be true, eyelids covering the eyeballs in perfect peace.
“Scared, huh?” said the minister.
“Scared of going home?” Said the old man with a childish smile, revealing but two yellow teeth in his entire mouth.
“He’s acting smart again. Throw the bastard in” yelled the minister, as they hurled the old man’s half- limp body into the sea. Immediately thereafter, the enthusiastic minister lifted the old man’s wooden staff from the sand, broke it into two on his thigh and hurled it in the water. The crowd cheered. What a dramatic end it was to a sorcerer’s life, they thought. Well done!
Witnesses thereafter whispered to each other to ask if they too saw the old man smiling as his face was being pulled under waters, never to be seen again.
As they stood there in a ceremonious mood, ready to go home and make talk about what had happened, there was heard a huge roar, as if of a hundred elephants trumpeting at the same time. The white clouds turned black and it felt like a dark night right in the middle of the day. The men on the beach froze in their places. Suddenly a wave that seemed to cover the breadth of the sky rose from nowhere and before people even knew it, they had been carried away by the waters. Some of them saw others fighting for breath on the sea floor, but that was the last thing they remembered before salt water gushed into their lungs to replace the air, and breathing became impossible. Little did they know that it was not them alone that had been put to this deep, eternal sleep, but the entire kingdom of which they were once a part. The kingdom of Bernicia had now ceased to exist.
Several hours later, when nothing that even remotely resembled a civilization remained, did the waters get calm down. The sun shone with full gusto as if after decades of cold, rough winter.
Hundreds of years later, historians began to explore the possibility of any civilization that may have existed on that barren stretch of land, surrounded entirely by water. Despite hours of deep-sea excavation, all they could find was a glossy wooden staff with a forked end. The only difference was that it was not broken.
Image taken from Google images.