The Vessel This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

March 13, 2018
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He has always been a boy for wild, vivid dreams. One night, he could be an astronaut, soaring into the depths of skies as unfathomable as dark waters. Another night, he could scramble through the tangled undergrowth of a jungle, feeling the rain splatter over the brim of his hat as he searches in vain for the tiger he hunts. Then, in his favourite dream, he is a sailor, captain of a one-man ship with white sails gleaming in the sun as he strides up and down the deck, his trusty telescope in one hand and a treasure map in the other.

It is during one of these dreams when he first meets her.

He spots a dark shape off in the distance that he thinks might be a porpoise, but as he sails closer, the dark shape turns into a figure, and the figure into her. She waves her arms and he nearly leaps overboard to save her, only to realize that instead of legs, her torso ends in the dull gleam of a smooth-skinned tail that keeps her afloat as easily as any lifejacket. She grins at him and dives into the water with hardly a splash, popping up again a few metres away. He follows, transfixed, and they play this game until morning, when his alarm clock jerks him out of sleep.

--

Most of his dreams fade away like morning dew in the sun upon awakening. All the dreams of his ship, however, stay clear in his imagination after he encounters her. It’s as though they’re engraved into his memory; the smell of sea salt, the whip of the wind through the sails, the reflection of sunlight off water, and the grainy texture of the wooden wheel as he grips it to steer in her direction.

They keep up this playful act of cat-and-mouse over the next few nights, but he soon notices that she looks less happy with each one. Finally, one night, she refuses to dive and only floats in the shadow of the ship, unmoving. He drops his hands from the wheel, and, after a moment’s hesitation, leans over the side to speak to her for the first time.

“What’s wrong?”

“You leave a lot,” she says without looking at him. Her voice is as young as his own, but holds an ethereal undertone that somehow demands complete attention. “Why do you do that? One moment we’ll be playing, but then the ship will be empty, and you’d be gone. Why can’t you always stay to play with me?”

He shrugs. “I have my own things to do outside of here,” he says. “I can’t help it. I can come back every night, but when the sun starts setting, I’ll have to wake up in the morning of my other life.”

She is silent for a moment. “I guess that makes sense. But can’t you at least, well…”

“What?”

“Say goodbye?”

It’s a simple request, and one he more than owes to this strange being that he now considers a friend. “Of course I can,” he says. “I might not be able to every time, but I’ll try.”

That seems to suit her fine, and they resume their game. Only now, the ring of their voices sounds out over the splashes of the waves and the whistling of the wind, and the days – or nights, in the waking world – are just a bit warmer for it. And as promised, whenever the sun sets on the ocean of his dream, he stops and says goodbye, and wakes up to the shrilling of his alarm clock, and his mother’s commanding tones ordering him out of bed.

--

He feels himself getting more comfortable with her. He finds her baffling, and almost always difficult to understand, and he has no doubt that she feels the same towards him. But he finds comfort in her curiosity and bright smile - she is a constant in a way that others aren’t, in the waking world. He looks forward to their nighttime jaunts more and more as time goes on.

Their routine is unexpectedly broken one night when the wind dies and refuses to return. With the sails hanging limp from the masts, the ship is effectively becalmed, but he finds that he doesn’t mind this as much as he expects. Even his new friend is surprisingly patient, and keeps herself amused by blowing bubbles on the ocean’s surface.

For a while, the air is sleepy and peaceful, and he leans against the ship’s railing and enjoys the warmth of the sun on his back. Then, before he can stop himself, he asks the question that has been nagging him ever since the two of them first met.

“What’s your name?”

She doesn’t reply, but the faint splashing below him stops.

“I’m Ryan,” he says, when the silence stretches out for several long moments. He fidgets, then adds, “You don’t have to tell me your name if you don’t want to.”

He waits. Then:

“But we’re the only ones here.” He looks down, and her puzzled expression is clear as she peers back up at him. “Why do we have to use names when we both know we’re talking to each other?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Just – friends usually know each other’s names.”

She looks as though she is considering this, and he waits again, expectant. Then he yelps as she suddenly shoots a stream of water at him through cupped hands, hitting him right in the face.

“You’re weird,” she says, and laughs at his spluttering. He can’t get another word out of her besides more laughter, and she doesn’t use his name after that. But during French class the next day, he comes across an old folk legend that immediately reminds him of inquisitive eyes and a ship in an ocean dreamscape.

“Melusine,” he says to her that night. “Luci for short.” She swims off without answering, and he gets the feeling that she’s trying not to laugh at him again. But she doesn’t protest, and he follows Luci through the night with his heart strangely lightened.

--

His other dreams begin to die away. He had enjoyed them, but doesn’t mind the change all that much – he’d rather spend his nights playing with his new friend than float in space or explore the jungle alone. Besides, there never seems to be anyone else in the ocean with her – maybe he’s the first person she’s ever met, and the only person there for her to talk to. It’s a lonely thought, and he vows to sleep earlier each night so that they can spend more time together. If his parents are surprised by this change, they don’t show it, and don’t say anything when he stops complaining about his early bedtime.

He discovers one day that if he dozes off long enough, he can end up at the ocean again. During one long class, he suddenly finds himself on the deck of the Vessel, his newly-named ship, with his usual map and telescope in his hands. He drops both as he hurries to the railing, and Luci, swimming listless circles around the ship, notices his presence and brightens. She cheers, even leaps out of the ocean like a dolphin would, and immediately starts bobbing in and out of the water further and further away as he hurries to catch up. He only manages a few hundred metres before his teacher raps on the blackboard and returns his attention to the classroom, but he considers this newfound discovery a success on his part.

“I never used to dream when I took naps before,” he tells her that night. “But I’m not complaining. This is way more fun than math.”

The reply he’s expecting doesn’t come. Luci starts at his presence when he peers over the side, as though she’d been lost in thought. “That’s good,” she says distractedly, and her excitement from before seems missing. “That will make it easier.”

“What do you mean?” But she swims off before she can hear him, and he resigns himself to not understanding yet another one of her cryptic statements.

They begin to speak more in his dreams. Whenever the breeze is too weak to ruffle the sails, he runs down to the tween deck and sticks his head out a porthole so they can talk more easily that way. They talk like any two children getting to know each other; they exchange favourite colours, observations on anything and everything, and he tells her about his life in the waking world, and of his family - though he suspects she might not have a family, for she always listens so attentively whenever he chatters about his.

“I wonder how time passes here,” he says during one long standstill. It is hot, blustery weather, and he dangles his arms through the porthole and envies Luci drifting in the cool water below. “It always seems to be daytime when I arrive, but the sun only travels when I go to bed at night.”

Luci pauses and considers this. “Maybe it has to do with how long you visit and not the actual time in your own world.”

He always wonders what it’d be like to spend a night in the Vessel, after that.

--

He begins to feel more tired each day.

His friends in the waking world notice this and tease him about it, and his teachers eye him disapprovingly when he struggles to keep awake in class. His parents become concerned, and take him to see a doctor who declares him healthy, only prescribing more rest. His bedtime is moved from nine to eight, and most days after school, he drops directly into bed and sleeps all the way until dinner. Each and every time, without fail, he ends up on the Vessel, with Luci slipping through the waves as deftly as any seal as he urges his ship after her.

Perhaps he should be irritated by this unchanging routine, but he isn’t. Any lingering tiredness immediately fades once he feels the sea breeze in his hair. The thrill he experiences is more potent than any medicine.

--

He sleeps earlier and wakes later. Once, he even sleeps through his alarm clock, and has watched the sunset over the ocean for a good few minutes before his father shakes him awake.

“It’s a funny thing,” he remarks once, tipping his head back against the railing. There used to be gulls and white clouds that scudded across the sky, but the open blue is now empty, and has been for some time. “I love coming here, but each morning, I’m finding it harder and harder to wake up.”

“Oh?” Luci says. “Maybe you should go to bed earlier and sleep more.”

“Real funny,” he says back, but she ducks into the water without another word.

He doesn’t think twice about it. And yet, he notices one day that the sky seems darker than usual, and that the air is a bit chillier. He has never known the visibility to be anything less than clear, but faint mists now surround them at all sides. He scours the ship and finds a ridiculously long overcoat in the bilge, which he settles over his shoulders before going to the tween deck. Luci is floating on her back like an otter when he leans out the porthole to look at her.

“You sure we’re going the right way?” he asks skeptically. In all honesty, he isn’t sure what “the right way” even means anymore. His treasure map may appear in his hands whenever he finds himself onboard, but without landmarks, it is useless.

“You’ll see,” Luci says mysteriously, and laughs at the look on his face. For the first time since meeting her, he feels uneasy. But there’s no chance to continue, for the sails billow and she’s off again like a cannon-shot; it’s all he can do to sprint for the upper deck and go after her, following that inexplicable tugging in his gut. He awakens at eleven that day with a raging headache, having slept fifteen hours the night before, and his parents call him in sick at school.

--

Luci grows more quiet with each visit, and he runs through everything he’s done to try to figure out what's wrong. He hasn’t offended her, to his knowledge. He says goodbye each night and visits her everyday; he’s been away from school for three days now, making sleep all the easier, and they’ve travelled more in these most recent dreams than ever. It has grown colder and darker over the ocean and fog is now ever-present, rendering his telescope useless. His overcoat is joined by gloves and a knitted cap, but Luci never shows any signs of feeling the cold, even if she is more pensive. At last, one windy night, he can stand it no longer. He abandons the helm, choppy waves notwithstanding, and runs over to the railing.

“What’s wrong?” he shouts over the vast ruffling of the sails. The biting air slaps colour into his cheeks and rubs them raw. “You’ve been so quiet these past few days.”

She doesn’t answer at first. The waves have grown heavier and rock the boat at any given moment, but they don’t hinder her speed as she cuts a line through the water. He thinks she’s ignoring him until her clear voice, unusually subdued, floats up from below.

“There’s nothing wrong. We’re almost there.”

“There for sure is something wrong,” he yells back. “And where the heck is ‘there’?”

She remains silent. He can barely see her small shape in the dark waves, and suddenly imagines her disappearing, leaving him alone in the fog and the gloom with no one there to guide him. His heart skips a beat at the thought. “Hello? Can’t you hear me? Where have you been leading me all this time?”

“Ryan,” she says unexpectedly, tremulously, and it sounds as though she’s speaking right into his ear despite being all the way down below. “I’m sorry.”

A block of ice colder than the frosty air forms in his chest. “What do you have to be sorry for?” To his alarm, he realizes that the faint glimmer of the sun behind the clouds has sank to the horizon – it is sunset. He hasn’t been keeping track of time.

“What are you talking about?” he shouts. “This isn’t funny! Stop it!”

“I’m so sorry,” she says again, and something in the air just snaps. Suddenly she’s crying, breath catching in great heaving sobs, and her voice sounds like it’s coming from right inside his head, filling his whole being and drowning out even the sound of the howling wind. The gale turns from forceful to monstrous; barrels, crates, and cannons from all over the deck careen into each other with splintering crashes from the lurching of the ship, and he’s shouting and pressed against the mainmast in complete terror, and then out of the chaos Luci begins to sing, and her voice is unlike any sound he has ever heard before. It is high and tuneful and absolutely beautiful, but is also inexplicably painful, like icepicks being driven into his ears. Something in his chest wrenches and chokes off his breath. He tries to force himself to awaken, can even feel in that incomprehensible way his body in the waking world twisting and jerking in the bedsheets, but she only sings louder, and any sensation of the waking world is yanked away from him entirely. Then there is an awful crack, and a pillar of jagged rock looms like an avenging soldier out of the mist, smashing into the hull of the Vessel and tearing it asunder with a shuddering boom.

The masts fall like tumbling trees in the wake of a cyclone. He goes flying, suddenly weightless, and crashes into the water with a shriek frozen on his lips. It’s like falling into liquid darkness, and the frigidity of it burns his skin, shocks him into gasping and choking. In an instant his dream has become his worst nightmare – even the sea itself is foul and tainted with what tastes like thousands of years of utter filth. But that is hardly the most horrifying thing, for when he forces his eyes open through the stinging brine, he can see what appears to be countless pairs of little yellow lights blinking on at the bottom of the void that the ocean has become.

They – they’re all watching him, he realizes far too late, a feeling of unspeakable horror rising in his throat, and at the same time he kicks desperately upwards, the weight of his sodden clothing nothing compared to his fear. For one high, exhilarating moment, he breaks out of the water and feels for the last time the stinging wind on his face, but he’s hardly been at the surface for a second, has barely caught a moment’s glimpse of the setting sun disappearing beneath the horizon, when two iron fists grab hold of his collar and drag him downwards into the night.






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