I was about halfway between the grey port from which I had embarked and the warm, crackling tongues of my fireside. The ship I had booked passage on paused at a desolate port, stopping only to dry the sails and offload some simple folk, no doubt shuffling off to wherever they called home. I stepped down to visit with them and stretch my legs, which I felt had become stiff and unsure on the old wooden vessel I was on. It was a sturdy boat, but it appeared as if it was thousands of years old; cracked paint streaked across the hull like so many scars on a soldier’s face, and the sails—strong as they were—always seemed about to tear.
I stood on the dock and shared a pipe with a fellow passenger; I was puzzled, for he had one of those faces that I was sure I knew, but could not place. We had both had set out from the same port, intent on making our destination as quickly as possible, but he mentioned now that he fancied stopping off for a while. I told him that I didn’t know when the ship was coming back. He smiled through the smoke twisting around his eyes and said in a deep German accent, “Friend, I’m not sure whether or not I wanted to go where it was taking me. The men defer to the captain’s guidance too much, and I do not trust him.”
“Where will you go?” I replied.
“I think I’ll go for a walk. If I like what I see, maybe I’ll stay. If not, I’ll wait for the ship to come back.”
“What if it never comes back?”
“It will. I’m told it always does.”
At first, I thought I would let him go on his way, and I would continue on mine. I started to jog back up the gangplank, but seeing the German disappearing amongst the trees, I stopped halfway up and turned around, almost knocking a heavy, mustached man into the water as he walked up behind me. If I hadn’t been in a hurry, I would have thought it curious that he smelled of pine and had streaks of earth on his clothes. As it was, I apologized, and he acknowledged me by removing his hat with such a ridiculous solemnity that I almost thought to follow him up the ramp instead of the German, who was by now almost swallowed up in the crossing arms of the trees. But the wind made the ramp rock, and dreading another bout at sea, I hurried down the decline, my momentum carrying me after the receding figure.
I caught up with him after a moment, short of breath, cold air nipping at my throat and eyes as I sucked it in through my mouth and nostrils. I asked where we were going; I received no answer—my guide merely glanced around as if everything around him was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He looked as if he was seeing things he had never seen before. All I could see were dark trees and thin mist.
“German, where are we going?” I finally asked, tapping him on the shoulder.
“I’m not sure, but I feel it is somewhere worth being.”
“How do you know?” I asked incredulously.
He paused, as if he was tasting the air. “Because of the air—the way the wind moves amongst the trees and through my hair. That is how I know.”
I stared at him, beginning to think I had followed a lunatic.
We walked on for a while, amidst the deep wood. My guide seemed to be moving with a sense of purpose, following the tickle of the wind. Soon enough, the trees began to thin. Looming stone caught my eye over the reaching tips of the wooden towers, and we emerged into a relative clear field, upon which a large stone fortress had been erected. Golden stalks of wheat buttressed the castle on every said, and these waved and tossed their heads to and fro. The German walked towards the building without hesitation, hands running over the ends of the stems.
I followed behind him tentatively, curiously.
“German,” I called out from a pace or two behind, “Why are we going towards that castle? We don’t know what type of men are inside.”
“They are decent men.” He replied with the same conviction. “The wind blows here as it once did on the decks of the ship.”
I became more and more convinced to the man’s mental health.
However, after a moment, I noticed what he had said; the air had grown stale during moments on the ship, and also during certain places amongst the wood. Now, it flowed with the same surety as it had amidst the waves and out over the deep. The same wind that filled the sails of the ship swirled around the fortresses walls and seemed to hold them up.
We approached the gate through a path worn into the grass from countless feet. The wooden gate looked strong and weathered—not as weathered as the timbers of the ship, but old nonetheless. My guide walked up to the gates with that same curious certainty he had displayed since we had disembarked. He laid his hand on the heavy wood, and it swung upon to the soft touch, as if on perfectly balanced hinges.
He took two steps in, and looked around as a knowing smile played across his face.
“I’ve been here before.” he said. “If I did not know any better, I would say I was born here.”
I wanted to ask him how he knew, but a man in a flowing scholar’s robe strode up to the two of us; my guide—the German—in front of me, and I lingering a pace or two behind.
“Welcome,” the academic spoke from behind a long beard that reached down to his collar, and with deep eyes that showed a lifetime of listening and learning “Will you be staying long?”
“I believe I will be, but I cannot speak for my companion,” my guide responded.
“It is as well either way,” the bearded man said, “That sturdy old boat is as good a refuge as this fort. We just had a gentleman leave us for a life at sea; it is all the same in the end. Each must follow where the wind leads him.”
I noticed then that our host had a depiction of a large ship—the very ship I had departed—stitched into the fabric of his cloth; it seemed to twist and toss amongst the flowing fabrics at the slightest movement. Around me, things began to show that the fort had been built from pieces of the ship I had left. The crank to the gate was an old ship’s wheel; iron-banded barrels, caulked with pitch and salty brine, lay stacked off in one corner. A couple paces off, a man and a woman were laughing together—one wore water-tight boots; the other leaned on a staff fashioned from an old oar.
“In some way or another, we all came from that ancient ship,” my guide continued, “And we have no qualms if they should return, although some may have grown overly found of our home.”
“That’s quite alright,” the German responded, grinning, “Some have grown overly fond of the ship.”
I stared at the man with gaping eyes and slack jaw. I now knew him—not from my journeys or my old life, but from my reading—the German was none other than Martin Luther. I marveled at him, bewildered at what sort of providence had crossed our paths.
Just then, a man walked up and was warmly greeted by our host.
“John Calvin, it is good to see you!” he remarked warmly, “You have done wonders with the place.”
Calvin grinned and extended his hand in greeting, which was firmly grasped and shook, causing the ship on his cloak to pitch and toss. He looked around at the high stone walls, a nostalgic sweep of those contemplative eyes. I noticed then that the stones seemed to have been chosen, not for their homogeny, but for their impurity and color, which created a kaleidoscope of mineral color and spark.
“Ah, Jonathan, I did not build it, as you well know. Yes, when I arrived, there were not as many residents, but this castle was standing long before I ever arrived, and it will stand after I am forgotten.”
“Well, me and Wesley simply love it here. We weren’t raised to sailors.” I picked up on the name Calvin had used—this man speaking could be none other than Jonathan Edwards.
“Ay, but we must never forget that some are,” said Calvin, “And we must never forget that the old boat is what delivered us here, even those among us who have never seen it.”
I looked around me in wonder. I wondered to myself, “Just how old is this place?”
I must have spoken aloud, for the man called Calvin turned to me and said, “As old as time itself.” He smiled, “As old as the ship we rode in on.”
“Who could make such strongholds as these?” I managed to choke out, finding everything around me so new, and yet so familiar, as if I was recalling a distant memory or a forgotten dream.
John Calvin leaned forward, as if he was sharing some mystery with me, “The craftsman is one and the same. He entrusted the ship to a captain—I believe the current one is an Argentinian man named Francis. The fort is led by many men, though the wind holds it together, just as the wind drives the ship.” When he had said this, he smiled knowingly and winked at me.
The wind stirred the air around us. It filled the ship’s sails, and it held fast the walls of the fort; it danced and twisted across the wild sea and through the dark wood. I suddenly felt compelled to leave my companions, and strode out of the gate, pausing to marvel at the strong walls and shimmering rock. The wind pushed at my back and played with my hair and I strode back through the forest, following the still, small breeze.