As I make my way to the docks darkness is falling. There’s a full bright moon already up and illuminating the few clouds surrounding it. I’m slightly concerned that I’m going to reach the dock and there’ll be no-one there, as I am running fairly behind, but as soon as it comes into sight I see one barge, close to the pier, with a lantern shining and the figure of a woman waiting. I quicken my step, not wanting to keep her waiting, and reach the barge puffing slightly. The woman looks at me intently for a moment, then smiles slightly and nods and steps onto the barge. I follow her lead, and am surprised to realise that the rear of it is covered with cushions and silk material. I quickly sit down, thinking it’s likely I will fall out – I don’t want to spoil the beautiful material by getting it wet, and I don’t much fancy making the entire journey across the river shivering on the wood bottom of the barge. As I settle myself in, I can hear my guide quietly singing. Her voice is pure and clear, as it weaves it way up and down, dancing around the melody of a song I do not know and cannot understand, but find incredibly comforting nonetheless. She does not speak to me across the river, but continues to sing the whole way. I nestle in amongst the silk and cushions, and as the gentle sway of the water rocks me like a mother cradles a child, I stare at the sky and listen and wonder who I will meet and try to think of what I should ask them. I am actually disappointed when I feel the gentle swaying motion stop as the barge runs aground on a small beach. My guide is already on the sand, looking at me expectantly. I step off the barge and look around, slightly bewildered.
“Where do I go” I ask her.
She smiles at me and nods her head toward a path in a nearby grove of trees.
“but-“ she gently lays a finger across my lips, telling me to hush, and nods towards the trees again, then turns and starts singing again as she moves back towards the barge.
I look at the trees somewhat hesitantly, and slowly start off. Soon I pass through a doorway and down a corrider into a great stone hall. There is a fire in the centre, and two benches either side. One is already occupied by a figure wearing a long cowled robe, it is thick, soft material and deep purple. I cautiously sidle around the fire to the other bench and sit down and wait. I’m not certain if I’m supposed to speak or wait to be spoken to, I still don’t know who it is as they are looking at the ground and the hood is shadowing what I may be able to see of their face. Minutes pass as I wait. I am beginning to think that perhaps I’m in the wrong place after all, maybe that is why the hooded figure is not speaking to me, when I hear a small noise. I look around the cave – it sounded like the growl of a small animal. Again!! Where is it coming from? The noise slowly gets louder and louder until I realise. It’s not a small animal after all!! It’s snoring!! The hooded figure awakes with a start at my sudden laughter and looks around quickly. “Papa!!” I exclaim and jump over the fire to grab him in a fierce embrace. My grandfather lets out a hearty laugh and gathers me into him.
“Oh I’m so sorry dear! I must’ve dozed off as I was waiting” he says as he kisses my head like he did when I was a child.
Suddenly he becomes serious and looks hard at me.
“You have a question. I need to tell you some things first though. I cannot tell you what you don’t already know, so ask carefully child.”
I look at him and think hard. All that I can think of is the morning he left, I was called to rush the hour to where he was to say goodbye, and I didn’t make it. The hundreds of other questions floating around my mind disappear, and all I can ask was
“You know I tried, don’t you? You know I tried to get there to say goodbye to you”
He smiles at me, his serious face suddenly gentle and nods.
“I know princess. I know you tried.”
“Now, a question for you that you must answer honestly. Are you doing all you can with all you have?”
I look at him slightly puzzled. “what do you mean?”
“Are you doing all you can with all you have?” he repeated. “Are you doing all you can to make your life what you want it to be? Are you doing all you can to make your dreams come true? Are you doing all you can to be kind and generous to other people? Are you doing all you can to be honest and truthful? Are you doing all you can to cultivate and share your talents? Are you doing all you can, with all you have, to live your life well and kindly?”
My eyes drop from his gaze. I know the answer to this, but I cannot say it looking at his face.
“No” I whispered.
His hand lifts my chin to look at him again. “There’s no wrong answer princess, only a lesson to be learnt from the question, so go and make sure you do all you can, with all you have, from now on.”
As his hands move away I realise he has put a necklace around my neck. It is a St Christopher medallion he had given to my Nona, then to me when I was a child, after she died. I carried it for years and had thought for long that it was lost for good. “We are all travellers princess, whether we ever leave our homes or not. We are all travellers, we are all students and we are all teachers.”
I remember that I can give Papa a gift too, and let out a cry of dismay when I realise I have left my bag on the barge. Frantically I search through my pockets to find them empty.
“I haven’t got anything to give you!” I wail, tears streaming down my face.
Papa reached out his hand and caught one of my tears, and instantly it crystallised into a solid drop. “You have many gifts Lisa, for now I will take this until you come again. When you go back into the world, you can find a gift you feel suitable, but I do not want material trinkets. Every song you sing, every story you write, every act of kindness, every picture, every sunset you allow to take your breath away, every heart beat you let yourself feel, every dream you realise, every truth you tell – they will be your gifts to me, it is up to you what you give me, and how generous you are. In the meantime, you must return. You have a journey to make and your ferrywoman awaits you.”
I fiercely grab on to him one last time, trying to etch every detail of his embrace in my memory. Gently he peels me off and steers me to the door through which I entered.
“Go princess, the fire burns low and the night passes. I will see you again”
Nodding dumbly, and clutching the St Christopher pendant I stumble back up the path to the ferry, tripping and meandering because of the tears blurring my vision. I feel the ferry womans gentle hands on my arm and she guides me to the barge and helps me sit down as we begin our return journey. This time she is silent, there is only the sound of the water. I’m still not sure how I get back to my quarters at the hermitage, but when I wake the sun is shining brightly through the window and I am positive that it was all just a dream, until my hand moves tentatively to my neck and I feel the pendant. The emotion and grief of the night before have given way to comfort and certainty, and a smile crosses my face as I jump out of bed to go find a gift for Papa.