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Water


"Pacific Portrait"
Image provided by James Lahey.
To see more works by James Lahey click here

For days on end, the waves beat evenly against the ship's planks. He combed his hair, bleached by salt and sun, with his hand. At the first attempt, bad weather had forced his return. At least, that is what the gentlemen of Bristol had written to the king. But everybody knew that the crew had refused to hold his westerly course. Their fathers before them had followed the Icelandic vessels, they said, to fish off the shores of the country he sought to discover. It lay further to the north, they claimed. He spoke to them about the heat, which could change colours and scents, and they called him the mad Venetian.

For the second attempt, the Bristol gentlemen had provided him with a faster, smaller vessel, with fewer hands. They hurried to find the coasts teaming with fish. The Venetian named the ship Mattea after his wife. Off the southwestern tip of Ireland he had them set a western course, and this time, nobody dared question his calculations - what with the envoys of powerful merchants aboard. The Venetian dreamt about the glassy flicker hovering over the desert. One morning, he was woken by screams. The ship's roll was different than in the days before and he knew they had sighted land. Through his eye glass, he recognised the grey rock. Towards noon, they could see the forests with their naked eyes and for a while they sailed alongside the flat white coast. He had expected to smell the spices in the offshore breeze and that the sand in the bay would be as fine as the surface of the roads to Mecca. The men showed him salmon in the stream and the remains of a grass roofed building. They claimed to have seen the same houses in Iceland. The soil around the rotten posts was red. It was the day of St. John the Baptist. The Venetian realised at once that it was not the country he had sought.

They continued to sail around forelands and through bays. At night, stars sparkled in the sky. The men spoke of a raven haired woman they had seen on the shore. The Venetian thought of his childhood friend. A few years ago, he had met Columbus again in Valencia. They said he had discovered the coast of Asia and seen China from afar. But the colourful birds he brought back came from another world and they both knew that he had discovered but an island. The Venetian had felt contempt for his friend telling lies to the Spanish queen and for the honours he allowed to be heaped upon him. And now, he had discovered his own island.

When they returned to Bristol, the crew claimed to have found the passage to Vinland, known only to the Icelanders, and the envoys related how they had hoisted fish from the water in baskets. The merchants were content. The trainy gold from the bowels of the sea would make them as rich as Spaniards. The king gave him ten pounds, and after a while, the Venetian himself started talking about the wealth of the new found land.

Now he sailed west with five heavy ships and provisions for a year. "Third time lucky", the English said. The Venetian's clear blue eyes scanned the horizon. This time, he was convinced, he would find the country smelling of spices from afar, with sand as fine as the roads to Mecca - the land he dreamt of since childhood.