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The Stars are Wonder
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
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The Stars are Wonder, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

4.
Ascending Valley


My clothes are very filthy but the laundryman died after all his teeth fell out, and we were obliged to put his carcass overboard. This rather informal ceremony was presided over by the second mate, Mr. Valley, who hails from the east. His accent is swinging and hypnotic. Mr. Valley kindly loaned me some fresh laundry from his own supply and I took off my rags for burning.

Mr. Valley has shown a generous interest in me lately, though only when the other officers aren't around. He has discouraged the other crewmen from beating me or stealing my rations, and now he says I can use the dead laundryman's hammock instead of sleeping in the bilgewater between the bunks.

I am very grateful to Mr. Valley.

He is a lean man with ropey arms and a long neck. He has scars across his back from somebody's whip, translucent pink stripes of healed meat interrupting the cocoa flesh. He has logos of the magic tattooed upon his chest. He has no fingernails on his left hand and he blinks more often than most people do. He speaks quietly, and he smiles only with his voice and never his face.

The other day he had an argument with the first officer, Mr. Bailiff, which ended only when he tore Mr. Bailiff's mantle and thereby exposed the bottles of wine he had been denying stealing to augment the captain's horde. Mr. Valley declared that the first officer should be thoroughly searched, which the crew did with a kind of reckless abandon.

Afterwards Mr. Bailiff was no longer fit for duty, and the sight of his injuries returned me to the queasiness that characterized my first weeks at sea.

Mr. Valley has declared himself the new first officer, and Captain Stay has not emerged from his quarters to disagree. Onion War seems tense. The magician marked the occasion of Mr. Valley's promotion with magical fireworks and dazzling feats of holy prestidigitation. The men applauded and laughed, kissed the magic and sang. Despite the air of gaiety I am nervous.

I try to have a word with Captain Stay but he is busy drinking wine, and pauses only to throw up on my sandals. He reaches for his beating rope so I back out of his cabin, stumbling at the threshold. Mr. Valley catches my elbow and helps me to my feet. He closes the door and shackles it.

He wants to know if I'm okay. I tell him I'm fine.

He catches me looking at the barred companionway and says, "We are going to have to make some hard decisions around here soon."

"Yessir," I agree, and Mr. Valley walks away.

What a strange kind of courage it takes to carry civilization across the savage wastes of the open ocean.



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