The Red Boat

Oh, carry me safe to the farthest shore,

Carry me there, my sweet Lord.

—Negro spiritual

Were she to tell the story, she would begin with pleasant details, sweetness on the tip of the spoon, followed by what’s hard to swallow. It was her way.

There were three of them that day, three friends on a holiday at the Cape. First came the picnic from the wicker basket, then stretching out on the sunny beach she loved so well, with one friend on either side. After a time they rose, walked the sand to the lip of the ocean and waded carefully into the warm waters.

Those days she did everything carefully, having lost sight in one eye and all except a small circle of light in the other. “A small miracle,” she said, then laughed a little and added, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” She felt close to the blind poet.

Still, she could see well enough what lay in front of her, always had—the path to the Sisters of Mercy, the teaching at the academy, the journey to serve the poor in Africa, the retreat house she established for the weary, the AIDS children whose fathers were long gone and whose mothers slept on the streets of Boston.

But this day she was on holiday at the Cape with two friends and wading into the Atlantic. A warm summer day, a playful surf, a red boat slowly passing across her circle of light.

She had no peripheral vision, but no matter, she had a compassionate heart and was a beloved spiritual director. She could discern wheat from chaff, could see the priceless gold thread in the warp and weave. What she could not see that night on holiday was that the door she opened did not lead to her bedroom.

All doors were alike to one with dim vision. She went by touch, and there was a brassy feel to one doorknob. This opened to a pantry, the comfort of pots and pans, cups and saucers, with parties out on the porch, watching a red boat anchored in a small circle of soft light.

The door to the porch was really a metal handle. A click down and it opened to wicker chairs, yoga mats, and a ginger cat taking the night air that was also rustling the curtains where the woman’s companions lay nestled in beds like birds in aeries. They dreamt of sandy beaches and a red boat leaving the circle and dragging the light with it.

The closet doorknob was blunt wood with an easy turn and this was the one she took. The door opened to more darkness. She confidently entered and blindly fell down a steep flight of stairs, banging her way to the cement floor below. A fall of three seconds. Her right leg smashed and curled beneath her.

There was no cry, no angel come to minister. No sleeping friends or rousing winds. There was no sudden rush of curtains. No ginger cat pawing dark rooms. Only a red boat, slipping over the edge of the horizon.

Published in the 2011-03-25 issue: 

Joan Sauro, CSJ, is the author of several books, including the forthcoming We Were Called Sister, whose title essay was awarded the prize for Best Essay 2014 by the Catholic Press Association.

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