It watches me with those strange eyes. Even you, love, cannot imagine such eyes. This is the third night I have been assigned to watch it—him, I’ll call it “him.” The creature deserves that much dignity. The first night, I did not look toward him. I thought I felt him watching me, but I admit to you and only you, that I was afraid. I am a rational and curious person. That’s why I asked to be given watch over him. But my imagination can run as wild as that of the most superstitious sailor, especially out here in the vastness. We are farther now from home than any ship has sailed since before the war. After so many days, my excitement has waned, and my restlessness has waxed.
The crew’s whisperings about the creature, about it bringing bad luck, about its deadly powers, had seeped passed my rational mind and into my fears. Being on watch means actually watching and yet, I am ashamed to say, if not for my partner, the creature could have set himself on fire, or levitated the cell key toward himself, or done any manner of tricks and mischief that first night because I wasn’t watching him at all. To make matters eerier, the lights are so dim. We must keep them so, for we are rationing our fuel. Someone miscalculated. But then who can tell when it’s night and when it’s day when trapped in the bowels of the ship? I keep watch in the whale’s belly, while the captain and officers watch from its eyes.
So to make up for my lapse, I have really watched him these past two nights. I have observed. I have scrutinized. And that is how I came to realize that he was more than the simple beast our first mate would have us believe him to be. Ah, the first mate. Have I told you about him? A strong sailor, he. Stronger and more confident, I daresay, than our captain. He is not rash or ill-tempered, but he is rather superior. I have heard him casting doubts on the captain’s decisions, in language veiled in obedience and concern.
This creature, with his strange eyes, and his strange symmetry, he is one of those decisions with which the first mate has disagreed. It is a wonder that in the vastness in which we sail, we found him at all, just drifting. The first mate wanted to let the creature be. He said it would be folly to bring it aboard, that we were welcoming danger and disaster, that at the very least, it may harbor some disease that might ravage us. And for the first time in the voyage, I agreed. Some of the crew wondered if we were dealing with trickery. We have not been at war for many years, but one never knows. Grudges last longer than truces. Sometimes. But the captain believed the creature would not survive and that we were obliged to help it. When we found it—him, he was barely moving.
As soon as we brought it aboard, there was a press to see it. It had a skin or hide that glittered like starlight and a hard shell about its head. I saw this, but I did not see what happened next. The captain ordered everyone back to their duties and sequestered the creature in the medical bay with only the ship’s doctor and a few sentries. I was on kitchen duty at the time. Do not let anyone tell you that officer’s training is strictly intellectual. I am expected to know about this ship’s operations from bow to stern.
I spoke to those sentries later and asked them what they had witnessed. The doctor peeled off the glittering hide to reveal folds of rather dark and dull skin beneath, and he cracked open the shell about the creature’s head. Who could tell if it could even breathe our air? The shell must have been protective. But the creature seemed to breathe more easily and move more vigorously once the shell was removed. One of the sentries had to help the doctor hold and tie the creature down, and he said it was stronger than it looked, for the creature is much smaller than us.
The doctor had one of the other guards send for the captain and the first mate. The three locked themselves into the medical bay for such a long while that the sentries broke with propriety and knocked to assure that the ship’s top three officers had not come to some untimely end. For the rumors exaggerating the creature’s strength were already started.
When the captain, first mate, and doctor finally emerged, they appeared shaken. The captain and first mate returned to the bridge and the captain gave orders to change course. He pointed out an unremarkable star in an unremarkable corner in the sky and ordered the pilot to bear toward it. And it was clear to most that the first mate was not happy with this order.
The captain also ordered that the creature be moved to the brig.
All natural creatures need water, and so that we gave him first, and he grasped at the tumbler we offered and drank sloppily. The design of his mouth seems not sophisticated enough to drink from a vessel. For some reason, the captain forbade us—doctors and naturalists alike—from using our instruments to study the creature. I was glad for the orders this time. But were I not so foolishly apprehensive, I would have learned much and done so without harming him. I surmised that the captain had orders concerning some things we might encounter in the vastness of creation that we lowly sailors knew nothing of. Orders concerning unlikely but vital situations, such as the finding of lost treasures, diplomacy with ships from rival nations, and what to do when encountering undiscovered primitive cultures, or creatures.
Or perhaps the captain simply knew already what it took me a few nights to realize, that the creature was not primitive at all, that it was in fact intelligent and even conscious of its own existence in the way that I am. I began to observe how he responded when he was brought food. The doctor had feared that we might inadvertently poison the creature by feeding it our food, food that his body might reject. The first mate insisted that any natural creature would reject any food that is unhealthy for it. The creature ate everything we set before it, which I must say, impressed me. None of the food seemed to do him any ill. But I learned that he does have preferences. He would struggle through certain items on his dish, his face contorting in what I first thought was mastication, but later realized was displeasure.
I was recording such observations when the two guards from the next shift entered. My partner is a quiet sort and barely gives greeting when we meet and part. But these two, they are good friends. They entered that night with a ruckus, carrying on about a game of chance that they were in the middle of, and gambling on from the sounds of it. They saw me sitting at the table and nodded their greetings, and I must share our conversation about the creature, for I am certain the topic would be of more interest to you than then his masticating habits.
“Hey there, you’re not dozing on the job, are you?” the first guard said to me.
“Don’t fall asleep, apprentice,” said the second, “unless you want to wake up blind.”
“And don’t dare speak if you’re alone with it, unless you want it to steal your voice,” the first guard added.
I glanced at my partner, who was obediently watching his prisoner. “I am confident our brig is strong enough to contain this fellow,” I said, “so long as I don’t do something stupid, like toss him the key.”
“Well and you might do that if you let him mesmerize you.”
I frowned and I must not have hid my confusion well enough for the two surrounded me and continued on.
“You know what it is, don’t you?”
I frowned again and glanced at the cell. “That’s uncalled for.”
“Oh come, apprentice, don’t be insulted. It’s not as if I called your mother an ogern.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, love, but are ogerns those creatures who hide beneath bridges and near crossroads to kill and eat unwary travelers, or are ogerns those ugly dim-witted creatures who…also kill and eat unwary travelers?
“Ogerns are a myth,” I said. “This is likely some new kind of being. And if so, we are fulfilling our primary mission of exploration and investigation.”
“Myth? No, no, apprentice. These ogerns are no myth. Our people used to catch them back in the day. Tried to study them. But we stopped.”
I smiled. “We just gave up studying them, eh? Why would we do that?”
“Look at him,” the first guard said. “Some creatures just don’t make sense.”
“As if nature took an off day,” the second added.
“As if she twitched while painting on the canvas of creation and made this one tiny mistake.”
“It mars the painting, but not enough for her to bother correcting it.”
“There in an unnoticed corner, a tiny little ogern, peeping its tiny little head out a dark cave.”
They laughed. And I couldn’t help but to smile and shake my head at their jesting. Though you perhaps would frown at their meanness and my own, for being amused by such ignorant thoughts. For who are we to act superior, you would say, would you not? Who are we to act so superior? We were once beasts. We were once ignorant. We did not always have ships and culture and clothing.
The creature, by the way, is most definitely wearing clothing. I’ve seen him take some of it off when it grows hot in the hold and when he tries to clean himself with the water we give him. And he dons it again when he sleeps. He sleeps and I wonder if he dreams and what he dreams about. Home, as I do. I wonder…does he have a sweetheart, as I do?
After several nights of guarding the creature, I tried to speak to him. I pointed to myself and told him my name. I believe he understood and he struggled to make the sounds I made. But as I have said, his anatomy is not developed enough to make the proper sounds.
He struggled for a bit and then stopped. And wonder of wonders, he then pointed to himself and made a sound that I think must have been his name. But when I listened more closely, it sounded as if he were saying “ogern.” I thought that was our crude word for these creatures.
Could that be what they call themselves?
He was not saying “ogern,” but I can’t make out what he is really saying. It would seem that my voice is as poor at pronouncing his words as his is at pronouncing mine. So perhaps he is not so undeveloped. We are merely developed for what nature requires us to be developed. I can imagine you smiling at this epiphany of mine, proud that I came upon it myself without any guidance from more civilized influences. Then again, you would not be so condescending. Whatever else can be said about this creature, he is making me more thoughtful.
There was a hull breach near the cargo hold. We nearly lost a dozen sailors. I may have been lost too. But we are all still alive, thanks to the first mate’s quick action. He is harsh, the first mate. It may seem he is a bully to some among the crew, but I saw his true measure when his crew was endangered. The captain ordered us to seal the breach, but it was too big by the time we reached it. The first mate countermanded the captain’s orders, forced us to evacuate, and had us seal the cargo hold from the outside. We lost our cargo. But we did not lose any crew. We have since sealed the breach and secured the hold. The first mate ordered that we should recover the cargo that was lost. But the captain ordered that we continue on our previous course. And again the first mate was displeased with his captain’s decision. I checked the ship’s manifest. The cargo was not terribly precious, but not was it worthless. And we might have recovered at least some of it.
The captain does not seem to see it. A good first mate would be remiss not to disagree with his captain now and then, but the tension building between the highest-ranking officers on this ship is like a thick cord of iron. And I fear that if that cord should snap, it may slice this ship apart.
I must be careful what I record now for there has been a mutiny and the first mate is in control of the ship. The captain is in the brig. I am in my quarters, but still assigned to guard duty. I hope to speak with him then. Think of me what you will, dearest, but I did not side with the captain when we were asked to choose. Nor did I side with the first mate, not overtly. He asked each of us who we served, and only a few supported the captain. They now share the brig with him. I answered that I serve the captain of the Wandering Star. The first mate said that he is now captain.
“Then I serve you, sir,” I said. “Though I will not harm any of my fellow crew.”
And to my surprise, he placed his hands upon my shoulders and arms, gave me a look of respect I have never seen from him before, and nodded. He then ordered me to report to my post.
When I reported to guard duty, my partner was there already, still silent, but looking tense and conflicted. He watched the creature and avoided the eyes of his crew, especially his former captain.
The creature too was more attentive. He knew something had happened. Perhaps he even knew what. He had seen the captain, maybe even understood the ranking among us. I could not imagine what he must have been thinking about his fortunes at that time. For I was more concerned with my own and that of my crew’s.
I wasn’t sure why, but the first mate hadn’t changed course. It was the first thing I’d expected him to do after sending the captain and his supporters to the brig and securing his position on the bridge. I reported this to the captain, but he seemed in a strange mood.
He spoke of how the Wandering Star was once a great vessel of great renown. It had been gathering dust for ages, but before the war, the Star was a vessel of exploration and wonder, when he was a young officer’s apprentice.
“It was always bright and now it is always dark,” he said. “I only served aboard for a short while, a few missions. Then I was transferred off because of a promotion. And I aimed to return to this ship one day, but never got the chance until now. I had hoped this old ship still had some glory left in it”
“I am sorry, sir.” I knew of nothing better to say.
“I should have stayed on that merchant vessel that I was sailing around the old trade routes, but when the chance came about to bring the Star out of retirement, I could not pass it up. Still, when I first came aboard, I should have felt excited, but it all just felt off. Everything must have an end, I suppose. This ship…” He wrapped his hands around the bars gently. “This ship should have been cleaned and polished and put on display in a place of honor, for generation after generation to gape at.” He sighed. “The ship’s time to rest had come, but I had to force it back into service. And this mission has been one mishap after another. The hull breach. I almost got my sailors killed. The fuel shortage. Even finding this creature and rescuing it has been a disaster.”
Listening to the captain list all of our woes, it suddenly occurred to me. “Captain, we might have a saboteur. All those mishaps.”
The captain took a deep breath and exhaling he smiled at me.
“You’ve already thought of that,” I said.
“We have performed our investigations. We found no sabotage.”
Typically, it is the first mate who investigates suspicions of sabotage. “The first mate has used all these misfortunes to justify mutiny. Could it not be possible that your first mate is the saboteur?”
“Captain, he’s right,” one of the jailed sailors said. He and the others had been glaring at me for betraying the captain, but now he stood before the cell door. “The hull breach was started from the inside. It could have been natural strain, but it could have been done on purpose. It was too hard to tell, and now we’ve covered it up. We’ll never know.”
“Anything is possible,” the captain said, raising his hand, “but there is no saboteur. There is no ill luck coming from our creature friend here. The ship is old. Too old. I should have turned around for home. I’ve asked too much of the Star. Perhaps I’ve been a soldier too long. I have forgotten how to be an explorer. How to listen to my crew and my ship. I have forgotten that we need not push on and push on until we break.”
“If that is so, the first mate should have done his job,” I said, “to help you come to the best decisions, not to overthrow you and make those decisions himself.”
“He believes he is doing what is right for this crew, including those who disagree with him, including me,” the captain said.
I balked. “It is wrong to disobey.”
The captain chuckled. “This mutiny was inevitable.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“Careful, don’t not let him hear you speak so. He is in charge of this ship now.” The captain sighed. He did not seem interested in taking back his own ship.
“When we return home, he will be punished,” I said. That had to be the reason the first mate had not yet turned around.
“Not if he can prove that my actions would have endangered the crew, the ship, and our mission. Then it would be I who is punished.”
The captain shook his head. “I know why he doubts and suspects. He did not directly accuse me. But he thinks I might be a smuggler, a pirate, or perhaps even a traitor. He cannot fathom the real reason for the decisions I have made, even after I have explained them.” He looked at me past the bars of the cell. “We have been mired in war and anchored so close to home for so long that we have forgotten what wonders there can be in this world.” His eyes shifted. And I followed their direction to the cell beside him. The creature was listening to us attentively and watching me. He was trying to understand anything he could, my expression, my posture, my tone.
“Did you know that this is not the first time we have encountered such creatures?” the captain said, and I turned my gaze back toward him. “Once upon a time, a time when we traveled far from home, exploring all the world around us, we found their home, and we were enthralled by them. We used to capture them in our nets, and study them. We could not even claim that we were doing so for some grander purpose, say to find a cure for some disease we had. No, it was mere curiosity. Even if we had discovered they were only beasts, we had not the right to cut and probe and paw at them as we did. We rarely killed them, but they sometimes died of terror in our keep. Barbaric times those. An enlightened age came when those who were once silent began to speak up. What reason did we have for troubling these creatures? Were we helping them? Were we helping our own society? How long before some unscrupulous charlatan began convincing people that these creatures’ blood or skin or bones were medicinal? How long before we began to hunt them for their limbs or their entrails?”
I sat back, fascinated and troubled.
“So we passed laws forbidding ourselves from troubling these poor creatures any longer. They were not beasts. They were like us, they had reason and feelings and memories. Laws can be strong, but superstitions are stronger. For laws only appeal to our logic. Superstitions…”
“Appeal to our emotions. To our irrational minds.”
The captain nodded. “And superstitions are also more interesting. So stories abounded, about these creatures, perpetrated by those who wished to protect them. Myths and legends arose, most of them casting the creatures as monsters to be avoided.”
“Ogerns,” I said.
The captain gave me a questioning look.
“That’s what some of the crew have called him. They say he is a mistake of nature, what with his disproportioned features, and ungainly limbs, and eerie vocalizations.”
The captain looked thoughtful. “Perhaps he’s trying to learn our language. Trying to figure out what’s going on. I was going to release him.”
I started. “We are going to his home, aren’t we? It’s somewhere in this region.”
“I did not ask permission,” the captain replied. “In the last report I sent, I did not mention the creature. I feared we would be ordered to return home, that he would be claimed by our leaders. I gauged that we were only days away from the creature’s home. I aspired to build some goodwill with this fellow’s people, assuming he has a people. Your first mate—your new captain, I should say—disagreed. He was troubled that I did not report such a significant finding, that I acted with mistrust of the authorities that govern us. To him, I am the mutineer. I don’t know how this creature came to be so far from his home without a vessel. This troubled our first mate. Surely, the creature met with some accident. By some wonder he was still alive for us to find him. And we found him, because we have begun to explore again, far, far out in the farthest regions of creation. And yet, I was afraid when I saw what he was. Afraid for us and for him. And so was the first mate. We argued about what to do. And when I decided, he did not agree with the decision, but he agreed to carry out my orders.”
“I don’t understand.”
“This creature could not have survived just floating in the cold for so long unless he had only been there a short while. He must have been in a vessel. He must have been thrown from it somehow. But there were no vessels anywhere nearby. And we had not the fuel to go searching. Done was done. I had brought him aboard. And I knew what he was and where he came from. And it was within our means to reach his home and return him to it and sail away. But the first mate feared one thing. What if the vessel was still out there? What if this creature’s people were in it? What if in the time that we have let them be, they have advanced to have ships and weapons?”
I and the rest of the crew in the brig were silent. Myths and legends were one thing to fear, but after having just ended a war with one people, it was terrifying to think we might make an enemy of another one, one we had never imagined. I looked at the ogern in his cell. He looked different to me now. Dangerous, not for bite or sting, not for what pain he might bring upon me, but what he bring upon my people.
“This creature’s home is an island so remote that we have not sailed past it since those barbaric times,” the captain said. “We have let them be. It is a wise directive, do you not think? To let them be, let them rise up from ignorance into wisdom on their own, from barbarism into benevolence, from one island to the world.”
“You are assuming they would rise to their better natures,” I said. “Civilized peoples do not always do so. We did not.”
“Perhaps this is our second chance,” the captain said.
“You were hoping to establish relations with these people? But you didn’t even come to see him.”
“I had planned to ask you along. I knew you were building a rapport with him. The climate of their land should be benign to us.”
“My first mate stopped trusting me, you see,” the captain said. “He thought I was being reckless. We do not yet trust ourselves to be reasonable and rational, appropriately cautious, appropriately noble. And if we do not yet trust ourselves, how can we trust others?” He looked over at the cell containing the ogern.
“Myths never change. But this creature is no myth, no beast, no ogern from the depths coming to steal our souls or eat our young.”
“He is like us,” I said. I looked at the creature. How much like us? How far have his people come? Have we just encountered another rival nation? We have to know. Perhaps we can no longer let them be. But nor can we repeat our mistakes. The captain was right not to report this. The first mate was right in wanting to report it.
I made a decision then, one that might determine the course of two people’s destinies. I looked at my partner, the guard who was on duty with me.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, startling me. He put his head down then. “I’m just a sailor.”
I took that to mean I would meet no resistance from him. I freed the captain and the sailors who had supported him. I gave them weapons and the captain ordered them not to actually use them. Then I freed the ogern, who looked at me in what was certainly his people’s look of suspicion. I did not, of course, give him a weapon. He wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway. But neither did I shackle him as we had when we first moved him to the brig.
No one stopped us on the way to the bridge. We encountered many a shocked face, but no one stopped us. Perhaps they would not have, even if we were not waving our weapons around. Perhaps the ogern was threatening enough. Or perhaps the sight of their captain was enough.
There was a ship coming alongside the Wandering Star as we reached the bridge. It was smaller and appeared far less sturdy. We could outrun it, and we probably outgunned it. And I prayed that the first mate would use reason and diplomacy first, for whatever this ship was, it was not an enemy we knew. It was not pirates. It was not a rival nation. At least, not yet.
“Ready weapons, but do not fire until I command it,” the first mate said.
“Belay that order and stand down!” the captain commanded as we rushed onto the bridge.
The first mate and all the bridge crew turned around.
The ogern saw the vessel from the bridge and he began to point and call out.
“Could that be his vessel?” I asked.
“Then we were right about these ogerns,” the first mate said, no shock or surprise on his face. “They have come a long way since the legends of old. They have crawled out of the ocean, jumped off the land, and learned to fly.”
“They are only here to recover what is theirs,” the captain said. “And even were they to try and overtake us, they cannot. You all see how simple their vessel is?”
“The captain is right,” the pilot said. “We can outrun their vessel. Should I set a course away from here?”
The first mate and captain looked at each other.
“Lower your weapons,” the captain said to the sailors who were behind him, supporting him.
The first mate nodded to the captain and stepped aside.
“Pilot, keep to our present course,” the captain ordered. “Go around the vessel. Gauge its speed and double ours accordingly. I have a notion from the looks of it, that we will not need to waste our energy going at our maximum speed.”
The first mate stepped beside the captain now and I tensed up, my hands on my weapon.
“You mean to go deeper into their territory?” the first mate asked. “Will that not agitate them? Serve as a sign of aggression?”
“If we make landfall, say our farewells to our friend here, and leave before that vessel reaches us, then I am hoping that he will explain our motives to them.”
“You are assuming he understands our motives.”
The Wandering Star surged ahead and around the vessel that was before us, so quickly that that the ogern vessel had no time to even come about. I saw bays in their vessel that looked as if it might house weapons. We did not have to travel fast or far before we left the ogern vessel out of sight. Either they could not travel as fast, or they did not want to show us how fast they could travel. As we were headed toward their homeland, I guessed it was more likely that they could not keep up.
The ogern looked agitated. He was breathing hard, but he was no longer calling out. He looked behind us to where we had left behind his vessel, or at least the vessel of his people. Then he looked forward and up and his breathing slowed. He must have recognized the markers that any sailor would, for sailors do not use landmarks. Sailors watch the skies. He must have known that we were taking him home.
We could have said our farewells to him on the ship and lowered him down to the earth. But after all that happened while we was with us, after treating him like a monster and a prisoner and a beast, it was agreed that we owed him the dignity of making landfall.
As we disembarked, he seemed happy but also apprehensive. He wasn’t sure of our intentions, any more than we were sure of his and his people’s intentions. And we had all made a sloppy start of it.
The captain and first mate and some of the crew were with us. We had our weapons, wary in case we had been detected, in case at the last moment, we were to discover that the ogerns were even more sophisticated than we thought. There was dense forest ahead of us. The scout we sent ahead returned and confirmed that there were ogern villages not too far. Our friend would not have much of a walk to reach them. It was then that it occurred to me that ogerns may have rivalries among themselves, and we may have delivered our friend to enemy hands.
But he seemed content to be where he was. The captain, first mate, and crew bowed to him and stepped back to show they were taking their leave. I approached him. I was actually considering embracing him, but thought better of it.
He spoke then to me then, despite knowing I could not understand, and he raised one of his forelimbs to me and waited. I raised one of my arms to him. When he grasped it, I nearly pulled away, but then he slowly raised my arm and lowered it and raised it and lowered it, and repeated that pattern once or twice more before releasing me.
I stood agape. It was a gesture of farewell.
He pulled off one of the metal strings that hung around his head. I had thought it might be a decoration. It seemed I was right. There were flattened squares of metal that hung about the string and there were markings on the squares. I took it that this was a meaningful gift he gave me.
I wanted to give him something in return, especially if it might lead to our people being allies and friends. I looked at his gift and thought for a moment.
Then, I gave him my journal.
Perhaps his people would find some way to translate our language and know what happened on our ship. I felt a twinge of worry as I feared they would mistranslate and think we were planning to invade. We were the more powerful nation after all. And though the crew of the Wandering Star had vowed to leave the ogerns be for now, there was no telling what the authorities of our nation would decide once they learned the ogerns were not mythical monsters, but a civilized people, even if their ships were not sophisticated enough to reach us.
I hope to one day know the name of his ship and tell him the name of mine. I hope we will know each other’s languages and speak as friends. I hope our peoples would be ready to be friends, though for now I only hoped that our peoples would not be enemies. For my own people still had much to learn about friends and enemies.
I smiled at him and his mouth made a shape that I hope is his version of a smile. He waved to me with a single arm, as must be his custom. I waved to him with all of mine, as is my custom.
And he watched us leave with those strange and now familiar eyes.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel