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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

9.
A Spot of Inclement Weather


I miss Onion War. I miss Captain Valley. These are the days of decision by committee -- the days of blood on the deck and unmagical desperation. These are the days the burnt pork aroma of the third officer has oozed into our rags and refuses to vent, reminding us with our own pall of stink the abscess of our nobility.

We are depraved. Mr. Spice has broiled the calves of the dead into a soup, but if anyone tries to take any he cuts off their fingers. Then he puts the fingers in the soup. I have eaten my shirt, and like many I find it hard not to snack on stringy clods of the tar that keeps our hull fast against water.

Some songs are sung but I dare not repeat the lyric.

I do my best to steer. Come nightfall I awkwardly position Onion War's instruments on his floating tripod so that I can squeeze the stars between the tines of the register and thereby take numbers from the sky to flex into the vulvic triangulator with my sundried fingertip.

For the first time in my life I find myself staring into the heavens and really asking myself what it all is -- why are the stars concentrated in a winding river from north-east to south-west, and why do some appear orange while others seem to be blue? I think of the blue gas fires in the swamps of my father's province, and wonder whether there could be any connection...

Is it a mystery the magic wants me to penetrate? Is the world, in fact, a riddle?

(Then again, were I to awake in a prison cell why would I assume the designers of my circumstances to be anything other than men? Captured by happenstance, would I not imagine authors rather than rail against mindless chance?)

It is only by remembering the glory of the Empire that I manage to push on. I am so certain it lies just over the horizon that when I first see the black line of devil's weather cresting the sea ahead I am able to convince myself I see a bank of dark conifers. "We have somehow drifted north," I reason.

The apparent conifers are backlit by spasms of silent lightning. They rise on spires of inky cloud, ascend upon a mountain of blue-grey shadow that begins to merge with the water at the horizon. I discern a curtain of rain lazily blurring the way between the storm and our ship a split second before we are punched by a fist of wind.

I yell orders but no one will help me. Captain Valley stands at the prow of the ship like a statue, hands clutched behind his back and thighs quivering with exertion as he fights to keep his feet against the pitching deck. A skeletal crewman tries to reef in a flapping sail but discovers he is too weak, and settles down to tie himself to a canoe.

"Captain Valley!" I scream, but he cannot hear me. When the wind rages in the right direction I catch snippets of his hymn. His range is good, and it occurs to me suddenly why he is so very private: Valley is an exiled magician, a castrato on the lam.

As I consider this a wave smashes across the foredeck and washes Captain Valley away. His song stops abruptly.

The ship is picked up by the next surge and balanced high. As I cling to a boom lightning flashes and illuminates my world: I see the heaving sea below, the cliff of frothing water on which we teeter, and the wall of jagged rocks upon which we are about to drop. I experience some horror.

The lightning passes, thunder rolls. I am grateful to be unaware of my circumstances again. Everything is black and wet and then, briefly, very painful.

I elect to take a nap.



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