Continuing from where I left off yesterday, there is another scene that came to mind immediately while reading about the cushion of the sea. In Michael O’Brien’s epic novel The Island of the World Josip Lasta, a boy of twelve, awakes to find himself in almost inhuman conditions. He is in Sarajevo. It is the 1940s and WW2 has ravaged Europe. He is from a small mountain village in Croatia named Rajska Polja, or “Fields of Heaven.” He is his village’s lone survivor of a massacre perpetrated by murderous partisan soldiers. He’s lost his parents, his best friend Petar, his childhood sweetheart Josipa, and his friend and priest Fra Anto. He’s witnessed atrocities and seen things no human being should ever see. Stumbling in a stupor, he makes the long walk to Sarajevo where he is miraculously found and rescued by his mother’s sister. Working in a factory to help with money he has fallen ill with fever. While in this cement dwelling among the sick and the dying, he befriends an old man without arms. A few years before all of this has taken place Josip had journeyed to the coast with his father to see the Adriatic Sea. While enjoying an idyllic day in the sun and lying on the beach with his father Josip had watched with childlike wonder the swallows, or lastavice, who flew around the beach. One of them had landed on his outstretched arm and they had held each other’s gaze for a time before the lastivica had flown away. He had whispered three questions to the bird: “Who are you? Where have you come from? Where are you going?” It was one of his favorite childhood memories.
Now, in the bowels of this hospital, Josip again encounters the lastivica, only he has taken a different form. For five pages the two hold a conversation. For brevity’s sake I’m going to skip ahead in their dialogue.
On the first day Josip asks the old man his name. The man refuses to give it.
“Can you not tell me your name?”
“I can tell you my name, and I will tell you if you choose it. But I ask you to choose a higher way.”
“Why is it higher?”
The man lifts his arms—the stumps performing their task instinctively.
“It is higher because it will take you upward.”
“To where the lastavice fly?”
“You do not have to tell me your name. You have already done so.”
“I have already done so? Tell me, Josip, what is my name?”
“You are the Lastavica of the Sea. I am the Lastavica of the Mountains.”
“Yes, you have understood. But you are more: you are the Lastavica of the Fields of Heaven.”
The next day, Josip asks the man about his family. The man refuses to answer, only telling Josip that he has lost his wife, son and daughter to the war.
“They are forever the family of the Lastivica of the Sea. That is their names.”
“If we meet again, will you tell me their names?”
“I will tell you, if the wind decides we are to meet again.”
“What if it doesn’t?”
“It is not our task to question it.”
“I do not trust it.”
The man sits upright, leans forward, and speaks intensely:
“Josip, above all things you must trust it. Trust where it will take you.”
Josip covers his face with trembling hands.
“Are you afraid?” asks the man.
“In your life, Josip, you will have much to fear. In time, you will come to a length of days, and wisdom, and goodness. You will suffer, and this suffering will bring much good to others.”
“I do not understand what you are saying.”
“You do not need to understand. Only remember: you will be afraid. But do not be afraid.”
“What can this mean! Tell me what it means!”
“You will be afraid. But when you are afraid, do not be afraid.”
Josip is choking back his sobs; he is no longer the Lastivica of the Fields of Heaven. He is only a boy with nowhere to go, other than a place where a wolf wants to kill him.
“Look, Josip”, says the man of the sea. “Look at the wall.”
With his one good foot he nudges Josip, pushing him gently, making him turn to face the opposite wall. The bar of light is climbing higher now.
“Do you see?”
Josip shakes his head.
“Surely you see”, says the man.
“I see the light, but the walls imprison it.”
“The light has entered the prison. Nothing can keep it out.”
“If there is no window, the light cannot enter.”
“If there is no window, the light enters within you.”
The parable of peace and this tale of trust have in common another element: the sea. These three elements together reminded me of another story. And that will be the final installment of this little series.