They’re almost at their destination.
They can feel it in their bones, delicately attuned to the pitch of the deck and the snap of ropes and the creak of the canvas. They are on small boats now, barely more than rafts, made many summers ago by their own hands. The voyage began on foot. Caravan followed caravan on the way across the burnt plains. Then a ship, large enough for their number, chartered with the money earned over the year. No need for crew. The skills were passed down generation to generation, boys apprenticed out at tender twelve and returning at seventeen, full of salt air and eyes deeper than when they left. They crew the ship themselves, not born to the sea, but born to a life of eternal movement. And then to the river, to the raft boats built in the summertime, narrow boats like native canoes, floating houses. They string lights and coloured fabrics, play music, sing, dance defiant of the currents that sway the boards. They’re a fixture now. The people who live static beside the river expect them at the same time each year. The kinder ones prepare food baskets and are invited aboard for an evening to drink and dance, to fill the night with laughter that breaks the undulation of the day to day. Others throw insults, throw stones, but they are tolerated. Sometimes the younger ones throw them back, and every so often one of the lads will jump the short distance ashore and lock tempers. But that passes, too.
The final few days are reverent. The nearer they get to the lake, the clearer the atmosphere grows. The river narrows. Mountains loom as silent guardians as they make their way to their destination, through the valley of trees, floating opposite the clouds.
Poles are brought out to push along the river. Lanterns of incense are burned; they travel by night. The work is long and hard, the waters surface-calm but deep-fast.
And then the lake opens before them. The muscles relax. A collective unrealised breath is released. They have arrived.