The Great Sea
The Great Sea
by Patrick Thomas Henry
I was trying not to think about Campbell and Teagan, my two-year-old tortoiseshell cats, when my brother and I stopped at Game Over Videogames in Houston. We were setting out for Glenn’s new home in Cincinnati by way of the National Video Game Museum in Dallas. I insisted that we needed an appropriate mascot. So, we bought a plushy Toon Link from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, called it “Little Link,” and sat it on the dash of Glenn’s Focus. It stared back at us with cat-wide eyes, a feline smirk.
The visit to Game Over was retail therapy: to raise our spirits for the museum, to alleviate Glenn’s anxiety over his cross-country move, to distract me from Campbell’s recent diagnosis of an aggressive kidney cancer. Merging onto I-69, Glenn gushed about our haul—Little Link, and games for our old Nintendo consoles. He couldn’t wait to test out his new DS games that night. “With packing and work,” he said, “I haven’t been able to play games for months.”
“Mm-hm,” I said, stroking Little Link’s felt hat. I stared out the window, at the congested highways and the sweeping grasses. All that summer I had traveled such endless seas—roadways and country sides and skies—and now my thoughts gravitated toward the voyage back home to Virginia, to my wife Karen and our cats, to the storm front of Campbell’s illness.
Glenn cleared his throat. “I’m surprised you picked up Little Link. They had Twilight Princess Link there.”
“It’s not Little Link I have a problem with.” I hesitated. “The gameplay of Wind Waker just, well, there are better Zelda games.”
From Houston to Dallas, we veered around armadillos and over-sized pickup trucks. Whenever we hit a milestone or survived Texans who drove like Mad Max extras, I worked Little Link on the dash like a marionette. I cheeped Link’s celebratory call from Wind Waker: “Yaaa!”
When we finally coasted into the National Video Game Museum’s parking lot, Glenn rolled down the windows and flagged his hand through the breeze. Little Link jigged. Glenn laughed, that we could’ve gotten there faster if Little Link came with the Wind Waker, a mystical baton that conducted the winds.
I patted Link, envied his cheer. But worry was drumming in my mind. While I was at this museum, Karen and a friend were driving Campbell to her oncology appointment.
I launched my maiden voyage into Wind Waker in 2009, six years after the game’s release on the GameCube. I had just rescued a complete-in-box Wii from my sister, who didn’t give two figs about the console’s backwards compatibility or its utility as a Netflix player. I needed a few games for the Wii, so I plundered the languishing EB Games in Altoona, Pennsylvania, for GameCube and Wii titles. I delved into the discount bins and recovered Smash Bros. Melee, From Russia with Love, Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, and more.
At my apartment, I slipped the GameCube mini-disc into the Wii, listened to its motor purr, and selected the disc channel. The GameCube logo plinked square by unfolding square onto the screen. I clicked start and raised anchor on this chapter in the Zelda franchise.
Here’s Wind Waker’s plot, in brief. To forever imprison Ganondorf, Hyrule’s creator goddesses flooded the ancient kingdom. Only the mountaintops remained above water, and there the survivors built villages. But, energized by the Triforce of Power, Ganondorf broke free of his submerged prison. (We never learn how, exactly. Maybe he became amphibious during his incarceration. Maybe he’s an Aquaman cosplayer.) Craving the full power of the Triforce, Ganondorf began abducting blonde girls who resembled Princess Zelda, whose bloodline controlled the Triforce of Wisdom. He first kidnapped Link’s sister, then captured the Pirate Queen Tetra. (The latter—shock!—is Zelda’s descendant.) So, alone and silent and without thanks, Link voyaged the Great Sea with love and rescue in his heart: for his sister, for his friend Tetra. His only companion was a talking sailboat, the bearded King of Red Lions. (We later learn that King of Red Lions, with its quasi-Sean Connery vibe, was a transfigured King of Hyrule! Quelle surprise!) To rapidly convey himself and King of Red Lions across the waves, Link would draw the Wind Waker from his D&D-style bag of infinite holding and conduct the winds.
My first play of the game was spent sailing. And reading King of Red Lions’ lines aloud in a Sean Connery impersonation. And sailing. And getting lost. And sailing. And thinking that Wind Waker was the shittiest abuse of the water-world trope since Kevin Costner in Waterworld.
And that was my opinion on Wind Waker until July 2016—the summer of Campbell the cat and, because of her, the summer I revisited Wind Waker.
After tramping through the National Video Game Museum, Glenn and I spent another day and a half in the car. Little Link bounced on the dash and buoyed us along. His eyes could so easily have been Campbell’s: green as the sun glistening on the sea.
On my iPhone, I charted our course, while texting with Karen for updates on Campbell. Campbell had received a critical cocktail of chemo drugs, but the oncologist advised Karen that we should temper our optimism. It would be a week before bloodwork could accurately reflect if Campbell’s body was tolerating the treatment.
Glenn bobbed his head toward my phone. “How’s Campbell?”
“We’re still in the woods.”
Voice hollow, Glenn talked about his stint as a pharmacist at a children’s hospital. He said that sometimes children’s vitality could make cancers more malignant. “It could be the same for young cats. But I hope it’s different for Campbell,” he said.
Karen was texting me that Campbell had already become a minor celebrity at the vet clinic: she was popping out of her carrier to greet other pets, and she leapt into the arms of the nurses and techs. They had, Karen reported, never seen so extroverted a cat. And the cruelty of this disease—of all the cats, why ours? Why Campbell, who ran to our apartment door and hugged our guests? Why Campbell, who entertained toddlers during our building’s fire drills?
In response to my silence, Glenn pivoted drastically. “Wasn’t it cool, though, seeing those dev kits at the museum? Man, and the chance to play all those consoles and the arcade games!”
“You crushed my Galaga score,” I said. Glenn gave a toothsome grin.
I cranked down the window. A rush of wind hit me. We were rolling over the hills of Tennessee. I thought of the hours remaining in the car, of setting anchor at Cincinnati, of the exploring and item-seeking that awaited us there as Glenn outfitted his new house, and then of my flight back to Virginia. My chest ached. I felt stranded; I felt Karen and our cats were adrift on an infinite ocean; I thought, Stop this Odyssey-grade shit right now, Pat—it’s getting maudlin.
I said none of this to Glenn. I picked up Little Link, readying his dance for the Kentucky border.
A delayed flight from Cincinnati, an aircraft problem at Newark-Liberty, dusk, the dark of night, and then I was back at Washington-National Airport, where the concourse’s fluorescent lights gave every passenger the look of the shambling dead. Karen had texted me that there was pizza and beer in the fridge, and the cats still needed their treats.
By the time I arrived home, Karen was long asleep, and the lights were doused. Shadows rippled toward me: the cats, scampering. Teagan leapt into my arms, grabbed me by the beard, and mashed her face against mine. Campbell rubbed against me, sprang off her hind legs, and meowed. I set Little Link on the kitchen island, then rewarded the girls’ affection with a handful of treats. Teagan gave me a final head-butt and retreated to her cat tower.
But Campbell stayed on the countertop; she chattered, purred, and chirped, as if telling me about her trip to the oncologist.
With Campbell watching, I unfolded the futon and powered up the Wii. I glanced over to the kitchen, to Campbell’s and Little Link’s silhouettes. “Well, Cami,” I said, “what should we play? I need to unwind a bit.” She tilted her head, then grabbed Little Link by the hat and dragged him to the futon. “Cami, I’ve been traveling all week. Haven’t I suffered enough?” She mewled, bopped her head against Link. “Okay, if you insist.” I found Wind Waker’s case and popped in the mini-disc. When the GameCube logo tumbled onto the screen, Campbell hopped onto the futon and rested her head on my lap.
I had been prepared to hate Wind Waker all over again. But the game’s sunny, cell-shaded, cartoon graphics mesmerized Campbell. Whenever Link’s eyes mooned at an event (say, the abduction of his sister, his first encounter with the King of Red Lions on a beach, his brief time in the service of Tetra’s pirates, and so on), Campbell mirrored his saucer-eyed shock.
Usually, the graphics inspire gamers’ first gripes about Wind Waker; they grouse that the designers cheapened the Zelda brand when they abandoned the Tolkien-esque gloom of Ocarina of Time or the Lovecraftian horrors of Majora’s Mask. But the warm graphics generated their own reality: a purring cat, who could—however briefly—feel safe from the pain of drawing blood and infusing chemo meds.
In the days ahead, Karen would go to work and I would revise my dissertation; Teagan and Campbell would play, as much as Campbell’s energy would permit. On appointment days, we would shuttle through the D.C. traffic, Campbell wailing each time the car’s suspension squawked over a pothole. On a few occasions, we arrived at the vet and discovered that Campbell had smuggled Little Link into her carrier.
But by night, after the apartment went dark, I returned Campbell to the tropical flashes and azure waves of Wind Waker. Together we forayed with Toon Link, sailing between islands, performing small tokens of generosity for the islands’ stranded residents, exploring the caverns on Link’s sea charts, delving into the Atlantean stronghold of Hyrule castle.
July passed, then August, then the first week of September. I updated Glenn on Campbell’s progress: her oncologist was impressed by her increasing appetite, the numbers in her bloodwork, and the reduced swelling in her kidneys. Campbell had finally regained the stamina and speed necessary to play chase with Teagan.
“All good signs,” Glenn said. “And you’re keeping up with Wind Waker?”
“Beat it a week or so back.” I scratched Campbell between the ears. She mewled in her sleep. I thought back to the final battle with Ganondorf, the TV illuminating Campbell and me. With the legendary Master Sword, Link held off Ganondorf and his flailing scimitars; when Link stunned the sorcerer, Tetra/Princess Zelda loosed a barrage of light arrows. When my palms got sweaty around the controller, I paused, wiped my hands, and stroked Campbell’s chin. She chirped and glanced from the screen to me. Get on with it, she seemed to say.
Not long after I hung up with Glenn, Karen got home from work. We made dinner, watched some TV, and played with the cats. After Teagan slinked off to nap, we dimmed the lights. Campbell hopped onto the side table and meowed.
Karen said, “What’s wrong, Cami?” In the corner of my eye, I saw her reach to Campbell, and then she grabbed my elbow. “Pat. Pat, take a look at Campbell.”
One of Campbell’s pupils was dilating normally in the dim light. The other pupil, however, remained slender, as it would in full light
“Jesus,” I said. I grabbed my iPad, took a picture, and emailed it to Campbell’s oncologist.
By the following afternoon, we had received the worst possible diagnosis: the cancer had metastasized to her eye and, in all likelihood, her brain.
Some journeys must be borne in silence, even if your companion is a talkative sailboat or a very chatty tortoiseshell cat.
Only during those last weeks did I learn to appreciate Wind Waker’s hours of sailing. It took our frantic voyages over D.C.’s highways, the hours burned in the fluorescent lobbies of animal hospitals, and the hunt for some palliative for Campbell. Because, I told myself, this is the nature of love: Link traversed every square inch of the Great Sea for his sister and his friend Tetra; we would do no less to comfort Campbell, our wide-eyed and ebullient cat.
On September 18, 2016, Campbell passed. I took Little Link to my office and placed him on my desk. I didn’t lint roll him, did nothing to remove his now-faint aroma of canned cat food, just let him moon at me from atop a stack of short fiction anthologies. Karen and I talked briefly on the phone; we spoke not to say anything, but to hear something other than our own grief.
A quiet, still evening came. We lit candles and held hands. Karen scooped up Teagan and cried; Teagan grunted a bit, confused at her sister and littermate’s disappearance. We told each other Campbell stories: how she liked to sit in pie crusts, how she was terrified of brown paper bags, how she sang to the birds who visited the windowsill.
Near midnight, Karen and Teagan fell asleep on the futon. I kissed them each on the head before sitting on the floor. I fired up Wind Waker, sailed back into the blue, and for a moment felt Campbell’s weight on my lap.
Patrick Thomas Henry is the fiction and poetry editor for Modern Language Studies. His fiction and essays have recently appeared in Clarion, Longleaf Review, CHEAP POP, Massachusetts Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Millions, amongst others. He is the Coordinator of Creative Writing in the English Department at the University of North Dakota. You can find him online at patrickthomashenry.com or on Twitter @Patrick_T_HEnry.