Spring had come sooner than expected.
It had been a year of strange occurrences – we’d already had an eclipse, a rainbow without rain, a minor earthquake and no weddings whatsoever -, so when the cuckoo cried out his usual song in February, nobody thought much of it. Plus, my sister found a shark in our well (I don’t understand how that could’ve happened – the only thing I ever found there was the reflection of a star, which I always carry in my pocket). Not an average year then…
Still, I tried to continue my daily routines the best I could, being careful not to let all these strange occurrences distract me from more pressing matters. You see, I was in the process of building a boat. Not a big one, of course; just a small wooden one, with two slender paddles painted yellow. Since spring had decided to sneak its way into autumn, my plans had to be somewhat altered.
According to my notes, the maiden voyage was to be on the first week of spring – which meant I now had two days to complete my work. Thinking I would not let the seasons play me around, I set to the task at hand with fierce resolution. I cut, rubbed, painted, growled (well, my stomach did), nailed, perspired, stretched and finally rested – my body’s aches only soothed by the river’s quiet flow, where I floated in the evenings.
On Sunday, while everybody was still sleeping, I went to a place in the river where some of the surrounding willows had fallen. Underneath their serpentine branches, I had moored my boat, ready for departure. After carefully placing my provision-filled rucksack under the boat’s bench, I paddled my way into the narrow river, the current whisking me away as if I were a dandelion blowing in the wind. As things seemed to be going smoothly, I soon became quite sleepy – I had never been much of an early riser anyway… After a while I closed my eyes and nestled between the tucked paddles, my spine bent and burned by the midday sun, the moist hum of splashing water rocking me to sleep.
I don’t know how long I was asleep, but it shouldn’t have been too long because it was still daytime when I woke up. Strange thing was, when I looked around I couldn’t see any land; just water, everywhere. The sun was way up, stretching itself to cover all the sparkling blue. At first I didn’t understand what was happening – had I ended up in a really big lake? No, I thought, that would be silly. It was obvious where I was, but I guess my mind had some trouble adjusting. However, I couldn’t dismiss the situation much longer – yes, I was lost at sea.
I was still getting used to the idea, looking out into the vastness with a puzzled (verging on drooling) look on my face, when a deranged albatross swished past me like he was trying to aim for my teeth. I crouched down with fear, tumbling over the paddles, which made the boat rock like the bells of a church at a wedding. When I gathered the spirit to look up, he had left – without the slightest apology.
It was then, while I was still dwelling on the bird’s rudeness, that things started to get a bit confusing. I remember suddenly noticing a big shadow, crawling quickly up my body like it was about to eat me; and then, as if a waterfall had appeared in the middle of the ocean, it did.
I woke up once again not knowing what had happened. My feet were standing in what appeared to be a mushy, sticky and quite probably icky substance; or material, or something else entirely – I really didn’t know, because I couldn’t see a thing. Everything was pitch dark, like at the bottom of a tightly shut well. The place was also completely silent, except for a droning sound which seemed to hug my entire body. I thought of being inside a clock, but with no tick – or tack, for that matter.
Then, as I fumbled through my pockets in search of my old lighter, I caught the sound of a light sneeze. My ears pricked up instantly. I was hallucinating, surely. Nevertheless, I said (or politely asked) “Hello?” No reply. “Tchí” again, more hushed. I decided to take a look at the situation myself, and tried to flick my newfound lighter. Nothing – it was soaked.
I tried the other pocket, and felt something prickle my fingers. I still had the star, or its reflection, which was good enough. Taking it out, I breathed into it and rubbed it between my hands. It started to emit a dim, shimmering light, and I could finally make out where I was. I’ll be sticking with the word icky to describe it. I still couldn’t understand what it was, but at least I could see. I was trying to find the shy sneezer, but all I saw was… more icky stuff, red and slimy.
When trying to touch it, I heard “Don’t!” resonate throughout the place, in a firm yet soft voice. I turned around to see a red-haired girl crouching in a corner flooded with multicolored cushions, wearing a purple dress with seashell patterns, staring almost casually at me. I said hello again; no reply again. Different approach, if not entirely original: “What is this place?” “The belly of a whale” was the swift reply.
That was definitely surprising – swallowed whole by a whale – and rather unfair. What was I supposed to say to a girl who lived in the belly of a whale? I had enough trouble talking to girls in dry land. However, another question quickly arose in my head: how would I be able to get out? I tried asking the girl about it, but she kept staring straight at me. I stared right back at her, until I noticed she was actually gazing at the star’s reflection in my hand.
I opened my hand in her direction, letting her take a good look. She opened her left hand, but remained quiet. I then kneeled in front of her, and gave her my starry reflection. Apparently, it was the first time anyone had given her anything – I was glad I hadn’t put a rusty screwdriver in my pocket instead.
She had bright green eyes, and must have been around my age; maybe a bit older, 16 or 17, I couldn’t really tell. I stayed watching her play with her gift for a while, feeling a warm pang in my chest whenever she smiled at me.
However, by this time my stomach was persistently growling, which I was finding very embarrassing. I asked if she had any food, but she kept playing with her lambent present and grinning at the shape-shifting shadows it made. I rose up and looked around again. Beyond our now luminescent corner, everything was still drowned in the most absolute darkness. I couldn’t take the star’s reflection away from the girl, and my lighter was still useless, so I thought of just venturing into this massive organism and feel my way into some sort of exit.
I told her I needed to leave, or my hunger would become unbearable. She stared into my eyes now, and after a short moment waved at me, saying “Bye” and “Thank you” as she held the star’s reflection in my direction. She pointed it to her left, which was where I went. In the brief pause between dimness and darkness, I caught a last glimpse of her, raising her arms in play and fully immersed in her own radiance.
As I let myself be swallowed by the unrelenting shadows, increasingly apprehensive of the outcome of my journey, my mind brimmed with the intensity of one single thought: how I would return; how I would be able to see once again the smile of the red-haired girl who left a star in my belly.