It was like building a great ship in a land where there was no sea.

To labour over many years, in a dry country — but seeking to make the ship magnificent, to ensure it was sound, and beautiful, to build it alone.

Now, towards the end, the ship is done. It stands, towering over the mean wooden buildings on the outskirts of a lacklustre town, prow pointed into the desert, and the desert stretching away for hundreds of miles, until it reaches the mountains, and enters vanishing.

Townspeople sometimes lean out of their windows, or, while watering flowers up on the their roof-gardens, pause, and stare at the vessel, and the huge curved pool of shadow it casts over derelict shacks, broken fencing and stony wasteground. The hull gleams, the masts strike up into the blank, heated blue of the sky: the propellers’ massive petals are frozen, and the rudder steers motionless through the sand.

A wonderful vessel: as elegant as it is gigantic, as graceful as it is imposing — perfectly suited for the ocean, sculpted for the waves, honed down in design by necessity for sailing: anything superfluous, any feature that would have added weight without purpose, or increased resistance and impaired passage through the water, all was removed, until the finished form was reduced to pure, essential nautical lines.

Yes, yes — a miraculous vessel.

And the people wonder. Living here, weeks’ driving from the nearest coast, they have only ever known dry land — for centuries, for millennia, all the inhabitants of this town, all they have ever known is dry land. A bare earth, rock, a few trees, and then the desert, the creep of dunes, the shifting dream the wind makes in its sleep: dry, dry, hard, ungiving — land forever.

And so they wonder. Why?

The years begin to pass.

For decades, perhaps, they were sceptical: but the ship was so great, and so beautiful, built to last. The houses came and went, the fires, the famines, the years of plenty, governments changed and rebels marched, the economy collapsed and revived, the town thrived and declined, and through it all the ship was still there, and the people couldn’t deny its presence. And eventually, they began to feel that, by some obscure process of identity, they belonged to the ship, or it belonged to them; and, eventually, they felt themselves drawn closer to it, as if it offered a kind of home; and then, eventually, they began to believe.

And with the belief came understanding; and with the understanding came deeper belief.

At dusk, at sunrise, at noon, in odd moments of the day and night, they peer over at the ship, silent and enduring, poised on the desert rock, prow pointed into the dunes: sometimes they stare at the black rows of portholes, sometimes they crane their necks and look up at the rail: sometimes, they admire the anchors, visible at the bow; sometimes they glance in passing at the towering masts glinting in the moonlight.

And they no longer wonder, Why? They understand.

And so they settle themselves down, and wait for the sea to come.

•DUSTLESS-FIN-1

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