Second Assistant Night Watchman by Bisha K. Ali

It was my third time on the boat. The first time, I was thrilled. Ecstatic. Father had finally found space for me, now that I could be put to work. When the sun ground into us, I helped prepare meals for the crew. Every day I boiled countless gallons of water and every evening it was pissed back into the endless sea.

At night the sea was grey or black, but never blue. When the sun falls out of the sky, it takes the world’s colour with it. Last week, after the sea had changed from khaki green to iron grey, Father and the Lieutenant clapped me on the back while they drank and told me I was being promoted to Second Assistant Night Watchman. I knew they were fooling and wanted to humiliate me, but I have to admit that part of the flush that lit my face was thanks to pride.

I took to my new duties with diligence and absolute focus. I kept my eyes open wide, in spite of the waves of vertigo that crashed into my mind when I looked to the horizon. If you look at the point where the sky meets the sea for too long, the lines blend and quiver, and soon you’ll be overcome with an unpleasant sensation—as though your brain is expanding in your skull and might spill out from your eyes, your ears, and through the sliver-thin gaps between your teeth.

On the sixth night, I found that my eyes no longer ached from the exposure to salt and cold mist, and the rawness in my fingertips had faded. That week I had wavered between being full of pride and being full of self-pity. I suppose I was more likely to see the creature that night, as I had finally stopped listing all of the reasons why I deserved better from my Father, from the Lieutenant and from the crew. Instead, I listed the names of the constellations and the stars that I had memorised.

I was looking up, naming a star that winked in time with the steady rocking of the ship, when the creature darted out of the water to my right. It dove back in immediately, and the sound of water splashing echoed into the black night.

I walked over to the side of the ship and stared intently into the grey. There, beneath the surface, a green glow thrummed through the water. The glow was the same colour as copper on fire, but it did not have the ferocity nor the haphazard motion of an open flame. Instead, the glow was a steady stream, about half a meter wide and a little longer still, and moved in circular waves beside the ship.

My first instinct was to run to Father, shake him awake and bring him to the edge to peer into the light. I imagined touching his shoulder under his long, cream tunic that mirrored the sails of the ship, and dragging him here—only for the creature to be gone. My ears burned at the thought, and so I set about trying to capture the thing.

As I neared the creature with the scoop net, I heard it speak.

“Can you hear me?”

It was a sensation that was at once familiar and alien, and while it spoke to me in my own voice, inside of my head, I knew that this voice belonged to the creature, just as I know that every day the sun rises and annihilates the stars and every night the stars fight their way back with their ally the blackness.

“I said can you hear me?”

“I can hear you,” I said. “What are you?”

I held the scoop net in place, below the creature, but did not move it forward to imprison it.

“I’m here to show you the way back.”

“The way back where? We are not lost. What are you?”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but you and your vessel are utterly lost, and are trespassing on our space. I have been trying to talk to you for the past few days, but your mind has been too busy whinging.”

Its voice rattled my head when it complained that I was too busy.

“We are not lost. And if you refuse to tell me who or what you are, I will have no choice but to imprison you and bring you to the Captain.”

I gripped the rod a little tighter, and felt the cold bite into the tense muscles of my arms.

“Very well. I would much rather speak to the Captain than to a look-out consumed by shame.”

“I am not a look-out. I am the Second Assistant Night Watchman,” I said, and scooped the creature into the net.

When I brought it up into the ship, it shone brilliantly for a brief moment, before disappearing. The net was empty, and it left no trace – no residue, no light, and no burns in the rope. I rubbed my eyes and wondered if my mind was playing wicked tricks. I had been awake the whole night after all, and the sun was beginning to spill colours back into the sky and the water.

I did not speak of the creature to my Father, or the Lieutenant, or any of the crew, though the exchange of the previous night played on repeat in my thoughts throughout the day. I took a nap when the sun was staring directly down on us, and when they asked if I wanted a break from night watch duties that evening, I snapped rudely in response. I regret my tone, but I was glad of the punishment—I was to take the watch every night for the next eight nights, with no nights off.

As soon as the un set and the decks were cleared, I began labelling the stars in the hope that repeating my actions would summon the creature. There, to the side of my oval of vision, was that same brilliant flash.

“So you are still here, and you have not taken me to your Captain,” it said.

“You disappeared! I scooped you and was ready to take you to Fa- to the Captain, and as soon as I did, you disappeared, like a coward.”

“No. You stated your duties, attempted to imprison me, and ran away, out of sight.”

“That’s enough. What are you, creature?”

“I am a star, and you are in our space, and I am here to take you and your ship back to the sea, where you belong. You are of no use to me if you cannot steer or give commands to your crew.”

If I weren’t so sure that the creature had a voice, completely separate to my own, I would have found a way to convince myself that exhaustion and cold and salt-water had made me lose my ability to distinguish between truth and fancy.

“We are on the sea,” I said. “In fact, you are in the sea.”

“That is impossible. If you look above you, you will see the black of your oceans, the grey, frothing crests of waves, and the edges of your precious planet in your peripheral vision. If you look close enough, you will see your own reflection—a ridiculous ship, suspended in space, upside down and out of place.”

Before I looked up, a deep dread settled into my stomach. What if the star was right, and we had crossed over the lines that blurred at the horizon? I steeled myself, and looked up. I saw only stars, white hot and glimmering in black pitch.       “I think that you’re the one who should look up, little star.”

I sensed its movement, and then its surprise, and finally, its quiet sadness.

“If you can show me the way home, surely you can get back up to the sky, too,” I said. The silence was terrible.

“I don’t know,” said the star. It was softer now, its edges dulled.

“I don’t think it works the other way,” it said.

“I can help you.”

“I thought you were just the Second Assistant Night Watchman.”

“That’s right, I am the Second Assistant Night Watchman. But one day I’ll be the Captain of my own ship, and if you stay with me, I can steer you wherever you need to go.”

“How long will it be until you’re Captain?”

“I suppose it will be a very long time. I’m young now, and if I had to guess, I would say at least ten years, maybe more. Can you wait that long?”

It laughed, then, because though it was young for a star, it was very, very old for a person.

“Yes, I can wait that long.”

Bisha K. Ali is both a writer and an award-losing comedian from London. Bisha writes for Standard Issue Magazine and has had short stories and creative non-fiction published in several publications, including Knock Back Magazine, HYSTERIA, and Spontaneity Magazine.

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