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Once an old man dreamed of the sea.

He put off the journey for a long time because no one knew just how long the road to the sea was or how long it would take to get there.

The prospect of an unending journey with an unknown destination scared the beeswax out of him.

So he tucked the idea away for a very long time. Instead, he fought wars that toughened him inside and out. He grew old, living mostly alone, not unhappy, but not exactly happy, either, all the while thinking that there must be something more.

Until the day when he knew it was time — the way you feel the weather in your bones — and he began to walk the road to the sea.

Along the way, he complained. (Complaining was his favorite pastime when he had nothing better to do. It’s a habit you do even when it hurts, like chewing the inside of your cheek.)

“This road is too long,” he said. “There are rocks in my shoes.”

“I’m lonely by myself. What if I forget how to speak without anyone to talk to?”

“It’s too hot and the sun is too bright.”

He went on like this for some time until his complaints became masterpieces.

“The sun is so hot it’s rays are like a blazing hot coal scorching all the way down to the bottom of my intestines.”

“The ground is so hard my feet ache like walking on spikes.”

“I swear my spine is going to shatter into 9,999 fragments of bone, impaling all those lousy prairie dogs watching me from their burrows.”

His complaints grew so outrageous that he began to laugh at himself.

“Who knew it was so much fun to piss and moan?”

As the man laughed, the weight of his journey got a little lighter. He stopped to take the rocks out of his shoes and wrapped a shirt around his head to shade his eyes.

The road stretched on and on. The old man wondered what the journey would be like with a companion.

So he invented a dog named Kitty.

“Kitty,” he said to his imaginary dog, “this is the longest road I’ve ever walked. How about you?”

The man imagined Kitty wagging his tail and circling him with excitement.

“What do you think about some water?”

He held out his canteen to imaginary Kitty and chuckled at the idea of the dog tossing his head back and drinking like a human.

A sudden clap of thunder made the man jump. In a moment, the skies opened and he was drenched.

“Well, this is a fine kettle of fish, isn’t it, Kitty?” the man said to his imaginary dog. “Let’s find somewhere to get dry.”

The man walked over the next hill, dripping with rain, and saw what looked like a building in the distance. He ran towards it as quickly as he could until he reached a rickety little shed.

“Looky that, Kitty. Just what the doctor ordered.”

The man pushed open the door and shook water droplets onto the floor. His imaginary dog Kitty did the same.

A fine layer of dust covered the pots and pans on the wall, a chair beside a table, a lantern and the floor.

“What’s that, Kitty?” The man pointed to a set of footprints leading across the floor to a pile of rags in the corner. He put his hand on the gun in his sack. He’d sworn never to use it again, but it was nice to know it was there, just in case.

The old man lifted the rags to reveal a small girl curled into a ball, sleeping. She coughed and stirred.

“Where did you come from?” he asked.

“Where did YOU come from? I was here first.” 

The girl turned her face towards him. The man flinched, noticing that she had no eyes, only tightly stretched skin where her eyes should be.

“Quit staring. It’s rude,” the girl said.

She was no more than fifteen years old and thin, with greasy dark hair. Her collar bones jutted out beneath the neck of her muslin dress.

“Me and my dog, Kitty, got caught in the storm. Don’t suppose you’d like something to eat? I’ve got a can of beans here somewhere,” he asked.

The girl licked her lips in spite of herself.

“A dog? I may be blind, but I can hear and smell. No wet dog in here.”

“I forgot,” the man chuckled. “Kitty is my imaginary dog. Made up to keep me company, you know.”

“Are you crazy?” the girl asked. “No. Don’t answer that. Not till after we’ve eaten.”

While the storm raged outside, the girl and the man shared a can of cold beans.

“So, how did you get…?” the old man began.

“You want to hear my story,” the girl sighed. “Everyone does.”

And she began to speak.

The girl was born with eyes, ears, mouth, nose and all her limbs, like a normal person. But when she was only a few months old, a blight fell over the land.

Every crop in town withered and died. The townspeople began starving. There was talk of angering the gods. A sacrifice was needed to appease them.

“So my parents carved out my eyes and fed them to the crows, as a sacrifice to Lopola.”

The man flinched again. “Did it work?” he asked.

“Did what work?”

“Did it cure the blight?”

The girl gave a mocking laugh. “You are as dumb as you look. The blight ended the following season — but not until the townsfolk had sacrificed the eyes, ears, tongues and fingers of most of their children. Yeah, the blight ended, but not because of the sacrifices. The gods are dead.”

The old man snorted. “You’re a little young to be such a cynic.”

“And you’re a little old not to be,” she retorted. “The storm’s lightened up. Maybe it’s time you got out of my shed.”

The girl brushed off her dress and pointed a skinny finger towards the door.

The man looked at his imaginary dog Kitty sitting with his head on his paws at the girl’s feet.

“Kitty’s taken a shine to you. Even with that sharp tongue of yours. How ‘bout you join us?”

And so it was that the eyeless girl joined the old man on his walk to the sea. She never did ask where he was going, which made the man feel glad that he’d invited her along since he figured that meant she didn’t have anywhere else to go. 

It was funny how much easier walking became when the old man had someone to look at, even if she couldn’t see him smiling.

The eyeless girl was a peculiar traveling companion. While she couldn’t see, she also wouldn’t let the man help her. She was more than capable of finding her own way with a long stick. Even when Kitty the imaginary dog fetched a cactus fruit and dropped it at her feet, she refused to accept it.

The trio walked for many weeks, and gradually the terrain began to shift from long stretches of desert sand to tufts of hardy grass and eventually short brush and trees.

“We must be getting close!” the old man said, describing the changes that the girl could not see.

“I can smell the ocean in the air,” the girl sniffed. “I don’t need you to tell me about it.”

Still, the girl’s step seemed lighter and what was perhaps a flicker of a smile crossed her face later that day when Kitty left a bouquet of daisies beside the spot where she was sleeping.

Within a few more days of walking, the air was moist. Sea gulls and terns flew overhead.

“I hear running water,” the girl announced. “I’m taking a bath.”

Both the man and Kitty offered an escort, but the girl wouldn’t hear of it. She could find her way there and back on her own, thank you, and if she needed them (ha!) her voice would carry.

The eyeless girl pushed her stick through the grass, following the sound of running water, till she felt the dirt and gravel of a creek beneath her feet.

The girl finally allowed herself to really smile. She took off her sandals and set them on the bank, set her stick beside it, and then carefully counted the steps to the water, calibrating her position by the warmth of the afternoon sun on her face, the sound of running water, and the shrieks of ocean birds in the distance, so that she could find her way back.

Meanwhile, the old man worried. He knew the girl could take care of herself — more than once she had guided them to hidden water sources or set snares to catch rodents when they were nearly starving — but it just didn’t seem right to leave her alone like this.

Kitty paced and whined at the man’s feet.

“We’ll keep our distance,” the man said to Kitty. “She’ll never even know we’re there.”

The old man took extra care to step lightly, for the girl’s ears were sharp enough to detect the quiet snap of a twig, even over the rush of the creek. He and Kitty followed the imprints of the girl’s steps through the grass.

An osprey chirp-whistled a series of cries overhead.

The girl stepped into the creek and turned her head to listen. The cool water rushing past her thighs felt glorious, but a strange chill went through her. 

A six-legged creature with the long body of a crocodile and a scorpion’s tail watched from the shore. 

“Who’s there?” the girl demanded. 

The creature launched itself into the water towards the girl, gnashing its teeth.

The girl backed away from the creature’s splashes into the deeper water.

“Hey, you ugly excuse for fish,” the man yelled from the shore. “That’s no way to treat a lady.”

The man charged into the water with Kitty close at his heels and grabbed onto the creature’s tail. Pulling with all his might, he dragged the beast backward out of the water.

It whipped around, chomping its yellow teeth, and the scorpion’s stinger struck the man right between the eyes.

“Blasted!” the man fumed. “Kitty, fetch my pack.”

And with that, the man reached into his sack to withdraw the gun. He shot the creature three times in the head. It writhed in agony.

The girl, armed with large stones in both hands, waded up onto the shore. She dove onto the creature’s back and pounded it with stones until it stopped moving.

“Where are you, old man?” the girl cried, catching her breath. “I told you I could take care of myself.”

“Here.” 

The old man coughed a few feet away. He lay on his back, paralyzed from the scorpion’s venom surging through his veins. A trickle of blood ran down his nose from the wound between his eyes where its tail had struck him.

“You’re such an idiot,” the girl said, making her way towards him. She held the man in her arms and choked back the wail in her throat, for she knew the creature’s poison acted fast.

The old man smiled. “You’ll have to take Kitty to the sea for me,” he said. “I promised him an ocean swim.”

“Damn you for making me care. I’ll take your fake dog.” The girl touched the lines of the old man’s face, as if memorizing them. “You never told me why you made this fool’s journey to the sea in the first place.”

“When I started, I didn’t know.” The man gasped, his breath coming short now. “But now I do. It was for you. For this.”

The man smiled up into the girl’s beautiful eyeless face and died.

The girl sat for many long minutes with the old man’s body in her arms, moaning in her sorrow.

When she was done, she dragged herself over to the beast and felt her way down its body. Drawing out her knife, she carved out its heart and organs, spilling them onto the bank.

“I sacrifice you to the nature spirits of this place,” she said. “Your blood sanctifies. May all who touch this water know their strength.”

It was a prayer she had learned in her village long ago, recited after taking the life of an animal. It was said that the blood that was spilled would give life to the living. The girl didn’t know if it was true, but she felt a shiver of hope that it was so.

The girl called her imaginary dog, Kitty, and they continued their walk to the sea where they stood in the ocean waves and thought of the old man. The eyeless girl made a vow to walk those shores all her days.

And you can find her there still, walking along the shore, sensing from the shadows. With a sharp beauty in her eyeless face and a knife in her hand, she brings courage to all those brave souls who meet the good death that can only be found when walking your own path to the sea.

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