Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The narrator arrives at the Yann, where, as prophesied, he finds the Bird of the River. Singing sailors swing the ship out into the central stream, while the narrator is interviewed by the captain about his homeland and destination. The ship sails from Fair Belzoond, whose gods are “least and humblest,” not very threatening, and easily appeased. The narrator discloses that he hails from Ireland, in Europe, but is mocked, for captain and crew deny the existence of any such places. When he reveals the lands where his fancy dwells, they compliment him, for these places are at least imaginable, if unknown. He bargains for passage to the Gates of Yann.
As the sun sets and the darkness of the adjoining jungle deepens, the sailors hoist lanterns and then kneel to propitiate their gods, five or six at a time, so that no god will be addressed by more than one man at any moment. Meanwhile, the helmsman, holding the ship in midstream, sings the helmsman’s prayer, common to all helmsmen of whatever faith. Not to be alone, the narrator also prays, but to a god long ago deserted by humankind. Night descends as the prayers die out, yet the sailors feel comforted in the face of the Great Night to come.
During the night, under the guidance of the ever-singing helmsman, they pass a number of cities and tributaries with exotic names. Finally, shortly after daybreak, they harbor at Mandaroon. While the sailors gather fruit, the narrator visits the city, silent, moss-covered, and apparently deserted. A sentinel at the gate informs him that questions are forbidden, because when the people awake the gods will die. When the narrator inquires further about these gods, he is driven off.
The ship sets forth again under the full sun, accompanied now by choirs of insects, including the butterflies, whose hymns are beyond human ears, rising to pay homage in flight and song to the vivifying sun. The sun works otherwise with people and beasts: It puts them to sleep. The narrator himself is lulled into dreams of a triumphant but mysterious return.
He awakes to find the captain buckling on his scimitar; they have arrived at Astahahn, where an open court surrounded by colonnades fronts the river and where the people follow ancient rites of dignity and solemnity; antiquity is the rule. The people ignore the passing...
(The entire section is 957 words.)
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