It was tradition. On the last day of Autumn before the oncoming death of Winter, lights are set adrift on the sea to carry prayers for the safe return of our men, lost on far-off waves, far-off shores.
The women lining the beach are here for different reasons, and many think terrible things about the others. Maybe her man didn’t return because he didn’t want to. Maybe she should give up, when her father is clearly dead. Maybe she doesn’t deserve to be here… her son hasn’t been gone long enough to bother the gods with.
When we sing, though, we sing together, and our voices ring strong and true, each of our singular devotions combined in a harmonious plea for our loved ones.
The tune dies down and the women gather together, tell each other their story, why they stand on the sand and set lights on the tide. Who they are praying for. How long they’ve been gone.
Eventually, as the lights float like glowing flotsam towards the horizon and disappear or go out, one by one, the women drift away as well.
“Come, Nali,” my mother says, her touch light on my shoulder. I pretend not to hear her, though. I don’t turn away from the lights, so small on the water now. I can’t just yet.
This is not our first light festival. My father is almost always on a fishing voyage during this season. But it is the first time I have had two lights to light.
“Freezing to death on the beach won’t bring Kole back to you any sooner,” she says, her voice gentle. My mother understands the waiting and the wondering, but an unfair part of me wants to yell that at least she’s had my father. At least she’s borne his children. All Kole left me with was a promise.
I’m ashamed to be thinking such thoughts of my mother and father, but still can’t take my eyes off the lights in the distance.
“He’s been gone months longer than planned.” I say, my voice leaking out doubts that I didn’t even know I had buried in me.
My mother’s strong arm wraps around my shoulders and she holds me to her side. “Maybe he’s trading for supplies for your new home. There are things we can’t get on our island.”
But maybe he’s dead. Maybe his ship crashed, overturned, sank to the depths of the sea.
“Tonight is not a night to doubt, Nali,” my mother says, her voice still gentle, but with a firmness to it now. You’ve sent a light to lead Kole home, you musn’t dim it with your doubts.”
She turns to head home, and I know that I will follow her soon. I picture Kole’s face. Smooth skin, angled features, dark eyes alight with intelligence and laughter.
Far out to sea, a light I have been watching since it left my hands, suddenly flairs—then disappears. I don’t know if this means that my prayer has been answered, or not.
This story is inspired by a real (but different) island ceremony.