The woolen boat

A holiday perhaps, or a party. Something with a bustling crowd gathered around the supper table, family and friends, that rolls on to the leisurely adult after-dinner conversation - and which, in turn, outlasts even the hardiest children. Finally the young ones collapse on foreign beds or pyramids of coats and furry shawls awaiting the parents' retreat.

I recognized his shadow in the doorway. As always, my father would lift me into his arms for the walk home. Curled in the bow of his embrace, he would hoist the trailing woolen tail of his overcoat to tuck and blanket his blank-eyed sleeping son. That was the gangplank of my boat. We nosed the prow windward, and with great strides we set sail.

The smell - not salt and sea-brisk, but man-dark and bittered with smoke and musk, yet strangely sweet and comforting all the same. My cheek on the silk sheen of the vest as it bellied like a topsail, we two filling and emptying in unison as the night breeze caught us. Buttons: capstans; buttonholes: portholes to peek out at the street's black waves and the moon-white wake of our passing. Foresail/lapels gripped in a half-conscious hand as we paced through the night's currents.

Pairs of comets blazed across our path, but unflinching and steady, we navigated them. Flying sharks crossed our bow in red arching leaps, but we quietly dodged them. Dangers and threats of all sorts and sizes - pirate galleons, collision courses, ship-scuttling shoals, ghostly curves and blaring foghorns - but we steered our course and fear never touched on the tiller.

What if we fail? Only once do I remember even considering such an idea. But what if we are rammed and run aground, broadsided and capsized? What if this mast-high man of a shipmaster tripped, with me locked in the hold of his arms, and we drowned in the loss of all balance or shape?

Well, (I had thought at the time) let his chance and mine dare the same waters. Maybe that would be the best way to fall, together, arms locked, in the sea-black bottom of the night. But it never happened. And the lulling pulse of the waves, the bursts of crisp night air, ushered our barkentine home to port, to anchor, and to bed.

Oh, how I hated to sacrifice the coarse wool decks of my boat for the slick white shroud of bedclothes, cold and smelling only of laundry. Always, even from the deepest rest, I woke to resist this transfer, this blank mooring. And the mutiny would have begun in full, with pistols and broadsword, if it hadn't been for the sovereign doctrine of the warm palm, cupped beside my face; the holy proclamation of ''goodnight and good dreams;'' and the captain's seal, warm and moist, marked like a promise at the center of my forehead.

The woolen boat drifted off in the bedroom shadows toward the dawn-dim hallway light, and was gone, the captain's drummer beating a slow cadence like footsteps on a stair.

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