The Great Explorer

Entry by: Phidgers

7th October 2016
The Great Explorer

If wonder lay first in diversity, then Francis had lived a wonderful life indeed. In eighty years, he had walked, flown, climbed and swum across every continent in the world. His hands, now gnarled with arthritis, had played countless instruments. They had been extended to world and religious leaders, and the native people of hundreds of countries. When asked where his home was, his sun kissed face would crease in wrinkles bestowed by a lifetime of warm smiles.

‘My home is the planet I was blessed with,’ he would reply, in whatever language the question was asked. ‘As for my heritage, I was born in London. But my life truly began in Yorkshire, at the Strid.’

It was a warm autumn afternoon, and Francis had returned to the Yorkshire Dales. It was a pilgrimage he made often. He took his favourite wooden cane, a gift from a friend in Budapest, and walked by the banks of the river Wharfe. He welcomed his creaking joints and bent back. They were the price of decades of adventure, and he had paid the cost gladly.

He travelled slowly, exploring his surroundings and treating his senses to the joys of autumn. The scent of the season’s first fallen leaves. The smooth feel of conkers that he found along his path. The taste of ripe blackberries from nearby bramble bushes. The sounds of birds, still weaving tunes before their migration began. And the sights. Those he liked most of all. Rolling meadows of grass, hills swathed in purple heather, trees with leaves turning golden and crimson.

Francis hummed as he travelled. The tune was his own. It was of the American spiritual, but also of the pentatonic melodies of China. It would remind a listener of Holst, Shostakovich, Debussy, Mozart or Beethoven, whichever music they favoured. It drew on everything he had learned from the vast styles of the world, and danced on the line between familiar and new.
Before long, he found himself approaching his destination; the Strid Wood.

‘The explorer comes back to his cradle,’ he said to himself. He had moved away from the river, among pale beech trees and the occasional tree stump, covered in moss and fungi. He heard the flow of the Wharfe nearby, and journeyed back towards it. More autumn leaves were falling, red and yellow specks swirling upon the river’s surface. He nodded to them, fellow pioneers ready to explore.

As he walked on, the ground around the water became stonier. Francis stepped back once more, avoiding the wet mossy shore. A smile was never far from his lips, and it appeared easily as his eyes marked his ultimate destination. The Wharfe narrowed, flowing suddenly through a small channel in the rocks. He had reached the part of the river that the wood took its name from.
He had reached the Strid.

It was narrow enough to jump over. However, Francis had never attempted such a thing, even in his youth. The placid looking water was far deadlier than it appeared. Raging currents crashed through a deep gorge beneath the calm surface, guaranteeing the demise of anyone who fell in. He showed as much respect to the Strid as he had done to the lions of Kenya, the crocodiles of the Nile.

Francis stopped and sat on a raised rock, a short distance from the water. He took a sip from a small flask. Evening was relieving afternoon of its duties, and the area was bathed in a gentle halcyon glow. The sun was behind him, but the light seemed to intensify off to his right. He peered round and saw a shimmering figure approaching. They wore a white robe, and had long silvery hair. Their bare feet walked easily over the slippery stones next to the Strid.

‘Welcome, spirit,’ Francis said, as the being stopped in front of him.

‘You know me?’ it asked. Its voice was slow and melodic, deeper than Francis’s baritone speech.

‘My guess is educated by many legends,’ Francis replied. ‘I believe you’re a guide, an escort to the life that follows this one. What should I call you?’

‘I have many names,’ it replied. ‘To some, I am Charon, ferryman of the river Styx. To others, the archangel Michael, provider of a final chance at redemption. I appear as my charge expects me to. But to you, I am simply your guide. You have practised many faiths, and favoured none.’

‘I’ve spoken with too many wise leaders to choose one faith over another,’ Francis replied, his face still ruled by cheer.

‘Indeed,’ the guide replied. ‘My words intend no criticism. You have honoured every deity whose lands you have travelled in.’

‘It’s strange,’ Francis said. ‘I expected death to feel different, but I only know it’s occurred because you’re here.’

‘Your time among the living is short, but it is not yet over,’ the guide said. ‘I have arrived earlier than is usual.’

‘To what purpose?’

‘I wished to meet you. Your name is esteemed from Mount Olympus to Valhalla. Few mortals have achieved such a thing. What is it that has steered your life on such a course?’

‘I’m an explorer,’ Francis said. ‘My thirst to see the world has guided my actions.’

‘Many can make the same claim, yet lack your grace.’
‘I was taught much about life from this very spot,’ Francis replied. ‘I first came here when I was a lad, not more than twelve. In those days, I had only seen the darkness of the world. The blitz had claimed more lives than I could imagine, and brought fire to the house I was born in. The only songbirds I knew were the Luftwaffe, and their tunes were bombs and death.

‘After the war, my parents took me on holiday to Yorkshire. My eyes were opened to a world I couldn’t have imagined.’ Francis gestured around him. ‘The greenery, the abundant life. Each new thing I saw thrilled me. But the pinnacle was the Strid.’

He laughed. ‘I remember my mother telling me about it before we approached. Warning me of its deadliness. I magnified it to mythical proportions in my mind before I saw it. I imagined a monster, more terrible than even the threat of the Nazis. Instead, I found this beautiful place.’

‘And that is what inspired you?’

‘In part.’ Francis pointed just to the left, where the river started to flow differently. ‘You see just there? On the day we came, there was a duck. It was in the water, and battling against the current. It swam hard enough to avoid the Strid, but not enough to escape. My father laughed and wondered why it didn’t just fly away.

‘I was mesmerised by it. I saw a kindred spirit. Even once the bombs stopped, I had been convinced that I could only make do, and never escape the tumultuous despair that had bloomed inside me. Eventually, the duck did indeed take wing, and I knew that I had to do the same. I gazed on the world with renewed wonder, and a question took hold in my mind. If a simple creature could show me so much, what could the rest of the world teach me?

‘As soon as I was old enough, I began to travel. I had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, for understanding how such beauty came to be. It was easy for me to attribute the natural world to the gods. I had seen the cruelty of humanity, so I believed only the divine could create such wonders.’

‘Do you still hold your kind in such severe regard?’ the guide asked.

‘No,’ Francis replied. ‘I learned my mistake early into my travels. I spoke to any and all that would converse with me. I soon realised that most people sought to see the world with the same awe that I did. And that there were many ways to do that. I was taught a variety of ways to meditate, the means to honour the gods of every continent, and the glory of hundreds of cultures’ music. Music was always important to me. It’s a response to the world, maybe the closest we can get to portraying our emotions.’

‘First and foremost, I sought to give thanks to those that had made such brilliance for me to wonder at. I always gave thanks to the creators, in whichever land I traversed. I was, indeed I am, sincere in that gratitude. Whatever awaits me in the next life, I can go there knowing that I’ve savoured a world of divine masterwork. Flawed yes, but only by the actions of humans that missed the important lessons that life offered them.’

‘I see why the deities praise you,’ the guide said. ‘It shall be my privilege to help you ascend to the next life.’ He placed his hand on Francis’s shoulder. Francis felt a small jolt in his chest, and then a great warmth spread through his entire body. His aches evaporated, and he felt young again.

‘I have crossed over,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ the guide replied. ‘The drum that is your heart gave up its beat.’

‘A fitting place for its final recital,’ Francis said. ‘Where do I go now?’

‘This is a rare occasion,’ the guide said. ‘You have pleased the deities to such a degree, you would find yourself welcome in a myriad of heavens. I could send you to Valhalla, or to drift in peaceful sleep across the tides of the stars. The choice is ultimately yours.’

‘What of reincarnation?’ Francis asked.

‘That door is open to you as well,’ the guide said. ‘But why would you choose such? Eternal bliss is already yours to take.’

‘I’m an explorer, first and foremost,’ he replied. ‘For eight decades, I’ve fallen completely in love with this world. But I’ve only seen it from one perspective. To have the chance to see this planet anew, that’s a more exciting adventure than any other I can think of.’
‘I can respect your choice,’ the guide said. ‘Know though, that I can offer no guarantee of your new life’s quality.’

‘I know that,’ Francis replied. ‘In that sense, I’m like the duck again. Perhaps it knew it could fly away at any point. But the risk of the raging waters made its existence so much more meaningful. I’ll brave the dangers of uncertainty, and I believe it will make the taste of my next life sweet, whatever it may be.’

‘Very well,’ the guide said. ‘It has been an honour to meet you, Francis. I wish you well.’ He clapped his hands, and Francis floated upwards. He hovered over the waters of the river, and then plunged down into them.

‘One more adventure before my new life,’ he shouted, his tone gleeful. ‘I can see the bottom of the Strid! It was the wonder I had never thought to know.’ His figure dispersed, his essence flowing freely through the water. In time it would reform as a new life, ready to explore the world once more.

The guide nodded, with a small smile. The mortal’s choice had been unexpected. But, he believed that Francis had chosen well.