“He kicked holes in the sand for the boy’s hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”

Upon arriving at the coast, the boy becomes ill and the man’s care for him takes on a religious aspect. He’s not sure what form of worship he’s following, since he’s making it up as he goes along, but it is definitely a worship of sorts of the boy’s life. He values the life of the boy above all else in the world. He will go to any length, and even adopt any faith, to save his son. This demonstrates the purity of his paternal instinct. Here the roles of father and son are clear. The father is meant to protect the son and nothing else. The complexity of their relationship is reduced to simple care. The man cannot stand to see the boy ill and cannot stand the thought of the boy dying before him, so he creates a religious ceremony to help the boy recover. 

“You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? he said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.”

After the father is extremely sick for a time, the boy makes this startling announcement. He claims he is the one who must worry, not the father. The boy has never before taken control of their journey. He has left everything up to the man. Now that the man is sick, the boy knows he must take over someday, and maybe someday soon. He admits this to the man in so many words, saying that he is the one who must worry, and not the man. This is the boy admitting his father will die, and it signals a great change in their relationship. The boy is taking up the mantle of leadership. He is becoming a man just like his father, and no longer a little boy who only follows. The complexity of their relationship has taken on a new aspect. 

“He looked across the water to the country beyond.
What are we going to do Papa? he said.
Well what are we, said the boy.”

Just before the man’s death, after he has been sick for some time, he makes a slip up in his words. He calls his son “Papa.” While this could be merely the rambling of a feverish man, it takes on a strong symbolic resonance due to its placement in the story. The father has become the son, the one that needs taking care of, and the son has become the father, the leader of their expedition. Even if the son doesn’t recognize it, a change in their power dynamic has occurred. This must happen before the father dies, so that the boy can become the man the father is training him to be. The complexity of their relationship has reached its height in this quotation. The roles of father and son have been temporarily reversed. It is a reversal that will become permanent when the man finally dies.