The Sun Chasers
By Richard Fife
I have only once felt myself a stranger. I have been a stranger to others, and strangers have crossed my paths. But the very concept of being a stranger, of thinking of oneself as a stranger, is unnerving. It would be, at the fundamental level, to be unsure of who one even was. And so, the day I awoke on the deck of the Solar Wind and realized I was, indeed, a stranger, sticks out in my mind above all my long years.
I say the day, although I am unsure of how to quantify it. Is it still the same day if the sun never sets? It is not likely a question that has perplexed the scholars, nor made them lose sleep. Is a day the time between when you need sleep? If so, then it was many days indeed that I was a stranger, and not once during any of them did the sun even move to kiss the horizon. It stayed, frozen in time, just to the west, ever ahead.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. It is easy, when so much happened in that eternal moment the Solar Wind and her crew made. I guess I should start with the beginning, which in this instance, would be when I woke. I wish it could be the circumstances that ended with me on this miraculous ship’s deck, but that would, as well, be getting ahead of myself.
I awoke with the sound of wind in my ears and the feel of rough wood against my cheek. I lifted my head, and it was then that I saw the crew. Two young men, one at the helm, and one casting about the rigging. Neither seemed in a hurry, and for all that I was laying in the middle of their deck, neither seemed to notice me, even as I sat up. The men seemed familiar to me, but I could not place from where. It was then that I realized, with a slow dread that starts in the knees and works its way first to the arms and then finally the gut, that these men were far from the only thing I could not recall.
“Ahoy,” the younger, who was about the rigging, said. “And who might you be?”
I stifled the dread and looked at the young man. “I don’t know. How did I get here?”
The younger man shrugged. “Haven’t you always been here, stranger?”
“And where is here?”
“This is the Solar Wind,” the man said. “The ship of the Sun Chasers.”
As if to make a point, he pointed to the fore, and there I saw it, that golden ball that has so long been a companion in man’s coursing of this mortal coil.
“Oops,” the man said. “Wind’s changing.” And with that, he was off into the rigging.
I warily stood and moved over to the railing, where I looked over the edge and saw the endless white of clouds, and out from the sides of the ship, wings that slowly flexed against the air currents.
I moved away from that unnerving sight and walked to the aft of the ship, where the older man was manning the helm with a calm assurance of an experienced sea-, or I’d supposed in this case, sky-captain.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“And for what shall I excuse you?” The older man said. “Perhaps I should be begging your forgiveness. My brother can be of his own mind at times.”
“Who are you?” I wanted more to ask who was I, but the question felt thick on my tongue, and the dread still lurked there, in the darkness of my mind.
“My brother and I are Sun Chasers,” he said. “Doesn’t that explain it easily enough? There is the sun, and we chase it.”
I shook my head. “But, why am I here? Am I a Sun Chaser?”
The man laughed. “You’re old.”
“I may have my share of gray hairs, young man, but I’d hardly say I’m old.”
“You’ve seen many nights,” the man said. “No, I don’t think you are a Sun Chaser.”
“Then why am I here?” It felt strange, asking that of such a young man. I meant it simply to speak of my presence on the ship, but somehow, I meant it far more profoundly. A glimmer that was too ancient for that young face sparkled in its eyes. The man knew what I meant, too.
“You’ve always been here, haven’t you?”
I sighed and gave voice to my dread. “I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“There’s a bunk below,” the man said. “You look tired.”
I weakly nodded and found the ladder to below deck. It was then that I realized yet another oddity of the Solar Wind. Panes of glass lined the hull and bulkheads, all with the singular purpose of allowing a person to see what lay ahead of the ship, no matter where they were in it. And as such, the sun.
I thought this might have made it hard to rest, but as soon as I was under the covers of the narrow bunk, I found the warm light that seeped through my eyelids a boon, and I was soon soundly asleep.
* * *
I have no clue how long I slept, but when I finally came too again, the sun was exactly where it had been when I closed my eyes. And, to my great joy, I remembered going to sleep. I had been somewhat worried that I’d wake up without my memory again. It is an odd thing to feel thankful for, and yet, it made me feel ever so much less a stranger to myself.
I went up onto the deck, and the two brothers were still hard at work, the older minding the helm, and the younger dancing about the rigging. Over the railing, the cloudscape had given way to a vast ocean which stretched to a horizon that seemed more of a smudge than a line. Where the ocean ended and the sky began was uncertain. The only true constant was the sun.
“Ahoy.” The younger brother swung down from the rigging and landed next to me. “And who might you be?”
“The same man I was yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” The man wiped sweat from his brow. “Why worry about yesterday when we have today?”
He looked out towards the sun and smiled, and I stood there with him for some time, looking at the unmoving, golden orb.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“I think you’ve just proven that you can.”
“Why chase the sun?”
“You’re a Sun Chaser, right?” I waited for him to nod. “So, why chase the sun?”
The man laughed and pointed to the sun. “Because it’s running away.”
“We chase it because it runs.”
“But, what kind of answer is that?”
“You’re the one who asked a Sun Chaser why he chases the sun.” And, with a laugh, he leapt back into the rigging, checking and adjusting knots and jibes as they needed it.
I moved to the fore of the ship and sat down cross-legged, facing the sun, and thought about what the younger man had said. Something about all of this seemed familiar, just like the two men, but the memories continued to elude me, like the morning fog of days gone by. I sat there, in that eternal day, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my face and the wind in my hair, for more time than I care to think. Or was it no time at all? I did not eat nor felt any hunger, yet surely I would need to eventually. I sat, unprotected, under the sun, feeling its warmth on me, yet my skin did not darken or burn. What a strange beast, this Solar Wind, I thought.
One day, I’d have to ask the men if they knew why I was never hungry, or why I did not burn. But not today.
* * *
And such passed my days, or day as it were, on the Solar Wind. I would sit on the prow or sleep in my bunk below. The older brother was always at the helm, and the younger always amongst the rigging or taking a moment’s relaxation to enjoy the view himself. I never saw them sleep, and there was only the single bed besides. And, the truth be told, I only slept anymore for the experience of it. I did not feel tired, but it was simply a different way to enjoy the everlasting light.
The weather and scenery changed from time to time, always while I slept. Sometimes unending clouds were below, and sometimes an ocean. Occasionally, an endless tundra or prairie, and once, at least, a forest. Sometimes it was a little chilly, and sometimes it was muggy. None of these seemed to be of import to the brothers. No, they reserved every ounce of reaction for the storms.
They were not often, and in fact were only as often as the brothers’ own interaction. In those rare moments of my wakefulness when the younger would pause from his duties in the rigging to go back and talk to the elder. Then, without fail, the storm would come.
They rose up out of a cloud sea below, and fell from a scattering of clouds above. They surrounded the Solar Wind, but for all they tossed her about, there never seemed to be any real danger. But the brothers would scream and wail.
“The sun,” the older says. “We have lost the sun!”
The younger only lets out a wordless wail of agony.
It was in these moments I felt that I had purpose. In these moments, I was more than just a stranger. I would walk back to the helm and put my hands on the younger’s shoulders, gentle yet firm.
“It will be alright,” I say. “Just be calm, and get through this. It will be alright.”
“No,” the younger says and points to his brother. “He has lost the sun!”
“You’re the one who lost it,” the elder says. “The night will have us, and it is all because of you!”
“No,” I say. “The sun is there. Just stay true, and you will have it again. You can find it, for me.”
They look at me, and the older gains his strength back, and the younger quiets himself. And then they are back to work, and soon enough we have outraced the storm, and there, sure enough, the sun is right where we had left it, hanging in the sky, running from us, and I would then go below deck, eager to enjoy the sun on my closed eyes.
* * *
After one particularly bad storm, I did not venture below deck. The sun had changed somewhere along the way. It still did not burn, just as I still felt no hunger, but something about it irritated. It was like a sore on the side of your tongue that rubs against your teeth no matter how you try to not let it.
I did not hunger, but I remembered hunger. There was no tomorrow or yesterday, but I knew what these words meant. We lived eternally under the sun, but I knew of night. It was on this day, the same day as it had always been, that I asked the older brother my question.
“Why chase the sun?”
The older brother gave me a smile that reminded me of the younger when I had asked the question, but then his eyes grew somber.
“One cannot chase without being chased,” the man said. “Just as we chase the sun, the night chases us.”
“And if it catches us?”
“Then today ends, and then our quarry has escaped.” He gained the smile again. “We wouldn’t be very good Sun Chasers if we let that happen.”
I nodded absently and went below to sleep. But, for the first time, I slept with my back to the sun. The light was still there when I closed my eyes, and nothing I could do, from pulling my sheet up or putting my head under my pillow, could make it go away.
* * *
The day passed, and yet did not, and the brothers began to notice the change in me. I still sat at the prow, but I faced the aft. I slept less, and I asked after food, only to receive confused looks from the brothers. The storms came more often, and I waited longer and longer to bring peace between the two men. I often thought of simply going below and falling asleep again, to see what would happen, but I could not. I was driven with purpose to save them from themselves, and I could tell: they wanted me to.
Then, one time when an ocean was below us, the younger came up to me.
“Why don’t you look to the sun?”
“Because I know who I am now.”
“So, that’s a good thing,” the man said. “Who are you, then?”
“I am the man I was yesterday, and yesterday is behind us.”
The man frowned and followed my gaze. “Night is behind us, and tomorrow. You may be the man you were yesterday, but will you be that man tomorrow?”
I looked at the man and smiled. “Would you?”
He left me, a troubled look on his face. The next three times I woke after that, there were storms.
* * *
After calm returned to the Solar Wind, I sat on the aft, looking behind us, trying to imagine the thin, dark line of night that the brothers so desperately ran from, the night that the elder was so sure chased them as surely as they chased the sun.
“I realize I asked you the wrong question,” I said to the older. “Earlier today. I asked you why you chased the sun.”
“And what is it that you meant to ask?”
“Why are you a Sun Chaser?”
The man laughed. “That’s the same question.”
His laugh cut off, and he simply stood by the helm, occasionally moving the wheel this way or that, and I sat, my legs folded under me, and looked to the past that I could not find. Perhaps he hoped I would tire and go to bed. Or perhaps that I would forget the question. I did neither.
“When I was a child,” he said. “My father told me the story of the Sun Chasers. They were a people who knew what night truly brought, and so they built ships of fire and light, and they fled from the night by chasing the sun. So long as they chased the sun, they were happy, for they forever had today. There was no need for tomorrow, and yesterday became a myth. They truly lived for the moment.”
I took a deep breath. “That isn’t how the story ends.”
“Of course it isn’t,” the man said. “The story never could end, just like the day the Sun Chasers had captured.”
“The story does end,” I said. “All stories must, even ours.”
“Our story can’t end unless the night finds us,” the man said.
“Because the sun will never be caught,” I said.
I turned and found him staring at me with an unshed tear in his eye. His hand slipped from the wheel, and the younger brother quickly swung down from the rigging.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Long ago,” I said. “There was a people that could not stand the thought of tomorrow. Tomorrow brought death and change. It brought the unknown. And so they built their ships of fire and light, and they sailed ever to the west, towards the sun. They outran night and tomorrow, but forgot of yesterday, and soon the never-ending day was all they had. So frightened they were to lose that precious day that they had squandered it forever. And so, after sailing in that space between moments, the people turned away from the sun and faced the darkness of night with only the hope of a new day to carry them through.”
“But not all of them made it,” the younger said. “For some of them, today was the last day.”
“Yes,” I said. “But for others, the day dawned, and that day was the first day for even more.”
The brothers looked to each other and then to the fore. There, finally, the sun had moved, now ever so close to the horizon. I glanced behind, and finally, the thin darkness of night was visible.
“No,” the younger said, turning to the older. “You have lost us the sun!”
“It was you!” the older said.
They then looked at me, longing in their eyes, and I shook my head. “This you must do for yourselves.”
It ached in every strand of my soul to say that, to finally refuse when they so clearly yearned for me.
The older, who had always been the calmer, the stronger, bit his lip. “But, we need you.”
“You’re grown men now,” I said. “My day has passed, and yours awaits.”
The younger fell to his knees, heartbroken. “But why? You’ve always been here.”
“And, in some part, I always will be, but not like this.” I looked behind, and the night was closing in fast. “You are my boys, and I will always be there for you and love you, but not like this. It’s time to let me go. It’s time to stop chasing the sun and find a new day.”
“But,” the older said. “We need you, dad.”
And now I knew fully how I had come to be on the Solar Wind. I had told them this story so many times, but, as I now realize it, I had never accepted the ending myself. No matter whose last day it is, there is a new day for everyone else.
“No,” I said. “You don’t. Not anymore.”
The sun slipped below the horizon, and darkness enveloped the Solar Wind for the first time in a still eternity. The last thing I saw was their pain-filled faces, and then there was the overdue night. They would grieve, but they would carry on. This was my night, not theirs. Still, they had finally learned to stop chasing the sun, as had I.