When it was time for Fergus to move out of the ship’s sick bay and into a cabin, there was no hesitation about where he would go to continue his recovery. He simply went with Dashiell to his family’s cabin—Mrs. Pierce’s old room.
And he went in a wheelchair.
You see, while on his longer-than-expected sea voyage to the Scottish isle of Skye, Fergus’s feet had gotten wet and stayed wet the entire time. His shoes, leather brogues, turned out to be a wholly unsuitable choice; they were quickly compromised by the salt water, the salt had eaten holes through the thin leather. He had tried to be barefoot while his socks dried, but they never did dry, and doing so only embedded splinters in his already sore feet.
The doctor had said it was “trench-foot,” and talked a bit about soldiers from the olden days being afflicted with such a condition. Fergus couldn’t understand what the poor man was on about since soldiers fought on horseback, and certainly not in the toilets. Nonetheless, he could see his feet were covered in open sores, and the clean bandages and medicine were helping matters greatly.
Dashiell pushed the wheelchair, which just fit through the hallways, taking care not to bump Fergus’ feet on any corners.
“Wait till you see this place, Fergus,” he said, excitement in his voice. “My dad and I got your bed all fixed up for you.”
As you know the suite was on the outside of the ship and featured a balcony, but it also had a small but comfortable sitting area, a bed for parents, bunk beds and a spacious bathroom with a bathtub. But the thing that really made it really remarkable was that ceiling of the cabin was covered in a hand-painted mural that depicted the skies of both night and day. The bright sunny spots were near the balcony, and the night sky was over the beds.
This mural had been painted by an important Norwegian artist, Thorvald (Thor to his friends) Dahl, who had spent many hours aboard the ship as a young person, traveling between two homes, the homes of his separated parents—one who lived in the south of the country and one who lived in the north.
Now as it turned out, Thor did not enjoy sea adventures—in fact, he loathed the open water. He didn’t like to swim and didn’t understand why anyone would want to explore or splash about in water of any depth. This position made his seafaring journeys torturous. To make the time go faster, he’d lock himself in his cabin, and get lost in his sketchbooks, drawing other landscapes—vast deserts, drought ravaged savannahs, high desert mountains. He invented new worlds in his drawing from which he could escape if only in his mind, the constant wet of his environment. Thor’s ultimate dream was space travel, and so when he was asked to commission a piece for the 20th anniversary of the Friendship, he knew he would depict objects from the solar system–and instead of using a canvas, he would paint a mural, to transform a watery cabin into another world, and in this way, help a traveler forget where they were.
Dashiell opened the door and maneuvered the wheelchair inside, just enough for Fergus to pull himself up out of the chair, so he could hobble around while using the walls to support himself.
“This,” he began, looking around in a daze, “is your cabin aboard this vessel?”
“Yes,” replied Dashiell. “It is a pretty fancy room. But even the regular cabins are pretty nice. Let me show you everything…here is the balcony. Come see the view! And here is the TV, and the TV remote, and here’s the phone. But don’t worry you probably won’t need that. And here’s my suitcase full of toys. We finally got our luggage today! I brought lots of Legos, and puzzles, and cars, so we can play with those later if you want. Oh and my mom told me to make sure you knew where the bathroom was. Come see!”
Fergus leaned on Dashiell, who flipped on the bathroom lights. Fergus blinked, unsure of what had just occurred, and looked into the starkly white, bright, strange room.
“From your bed, you should be able to get here pretty easily, I hope, if you need to go potty in the night.”
“You mean, that’s the water closet? It’s…in…here?”
“Well, sure,” replied Dashiell.
“And why are there 2 taps there?” Fergus pointed to the sink’s hot and cold levers.
“Huh? Oh, well one is hot water and one is cold water, silly.”
“You mean you have hot water, in here, in pipes, on a ship?”
“Fergus, yes. How else would you wash your hands, or take a bath?”
“Well at home we only got hot water flowing through the pipes when I was 5. When I was younger the maid would heat up water for me, over the fire, and bring it to my bath. ”
“Here you just turn it on. You’ll see when you take a bath. Do you want to take a hot bath now?”
“No,” said Fergus, turning away. “Maybe later though. I think I need to sit down now.”
“Let’s get your feet propped up, then,” said Dashiell, who motioned to the lower bunk bed. Fergus reclined slowly into it as Dashiell held up the pillows behind him to support his back. Although Fergus was 10, he was about the same height as Dashiell, and so the bed was perfect for him. Dashiell fetched 2 pillows from his parents’ bed and used them to elevate Fergus’s wounded feet, then he pulled the soft wool blanket over his body.
“How do you like it?” asked Dashiell. “Are you comfortable? Would you like to watch TV?” Dashiell switched on the TV and began to flip through the channels pointing the remote at the infrared sensor. Although limited in choices, as they were at sea, even 1 channel was a shock for Fergus, who started at the flickering images with incredulity.
“What….is this?” he managed to ask.
At that moment there was a knock on the door. “Room service,” called a distant voice behind the door.
“Oh that’s right,” said Dashiell, heading to the door. “I forgot. My mom ordered us a little treat!”
The waiter came in and placed a tray with two large mugs on it, that contained something steaming and white.
“Hot chocolate, with whiiiiipppped cream!” exclaimed Dashiell. “Now Fergus, don’t tell me you don’t know what whipped cream is.”
Dashiell moved the tray closer so Fergus could make an inspection. He took a small sip, then a second, healthier swallow.
“Ah,” he replied, smiling. “Yes, I know what this is. Drinking chocolate. With clotted cream.”
“That sounds weird. While you’re here, you might just want to call it ‘whipped cream’.”
“Aye,” replied Fergus.
“And you know,” said Dashiell, turning away to locate the TV remote, “my Dad doesn’t like it. Isn’t that crazy?” Dashiell switched off the TV and unearthed a book from his suitcase.
When he turned back he was surprised to see that Fergus had fallen asleep, while still holding his mug.
Dashiell gently removed the hot drink from his new friend’s hand and placed it on the table. He glided over to the balcony curtains and pulled them closed, then switched off all the lights, tip-toeing as he went.
A chink of amber-colored hallway light flowed in from under the cabin door, and now that his eyes had adjusted, it provided just enough illumination to see Fergus’ face. Dashiell pulled up a chair closer to the bunk bed, and watched Fergus’ chest move up and down, and listened to Fergus breathing. Now that it was quiet in the room, Dashiell could hear muffled chattering, and an occasional laugh, from elsewhere on the ship. People were enjoying themselves on their holiday and playing and probably even running, but Dashiell was content to be right here instead, keeping guard over his friend as he slept.
Dashiell leaned back into the large armchair, and looked up at the painting on the ceiling, studying the stars. The painter had used a slightly metallic paint on the outline of each star, and so even in the dim light, they glimmered just enough. He became aware of the movement of the waves under the ship, moving them back and forth, cradling them. He could picture the waves, like hands, mighty hands, holding up their ship, keeping them afloat, so they would never fall. He thought: the ocean delivered my brother to me. It wasn’t how he’d expected things to happen. Would Fergus ever leave them after the ship docked? And what about Fergus’ own parents–were they, in fact, looking for him right now, and would they come aboard to get him? It seemed unlikely since if they could have found him by now, they wouldn’t have let him drift at sea for all those days.
In relief, and weary now, he tucked his legs under him and lay his head on the armrest, then he too let his eyes close, and when he closed them he saw the faint glow of each star on his eyelids.