TWA #7 – Short Story “The Stars Also” by Albert Berg

The Stars Also

 

Once upon a time there lived a man who loved a star.

Each night he looked up into the sky through the window of his house and watched her shining in the darkened sky. Each night he would lay in bed and talk to her for hours upon hours until sleep overwhelmed him.

Each morning the sun would rise and chase away the star, and the man would rise from his bed and gather his nets and launch his boat out into the deep waters where the fish swarmed in glittering shoals. He would cast out his net, bring the fish up in great heaps and take them ashore to sell to the fishmongers. But all the long day his mind was fixed on the evening and the twilight, when the sun would hide himself and his star would rise in the east once more glittering and bright.

One day the man cast out his net as he always had and drew in his catch. But when he had emptied the net into the bottom of the boat he saw that one of the fish was not like the others. Instead of scales it had black leathery skin, and its eyes were as the eyes of a man. When he drew near the fish spoke to him in a low gravelly voice, “Fisherman, fisherman. Let me go.”

“Why should I let you go?” asked the fisherman. “A talking fish might bring good value at the market.”

“I have great power, such as you cannot possible imagine,” said the fish. “Release me into the sea and I can grant you whatever your heart desires.”

“If you do as you say then I will gladly release you,” said the man. “My sole and only desire is to live among the stars, for there is a star in the sky that I love more than anything in this world of earth and water.”

“It is a hard thing you ask,” said the fish. “The stars in the sky are great and powerful, and they could scarcely be persuaded to let a mere man such as yourself rise to their station. Surely there is something else you want. I can grant you the riches of the world. I can give you great kingdoms. I can make the all of the most beautiful women in all the world love you and you alone.”

“A rich man must tend carefully to his purse,” the man replied. “A king must concern himself with matters of state and wars and diplomacy. And as to love…I will never love any earthly woman so long as my star shines in the night sky.”

Three times the black fish offered to bargain with the fisherman, and three times, the fisherman refused saying, “I have everything I want in this life save for the star that I love.”

At the third refusal the skies darkened with black storm clouds and lightning crackled in the air. The fish transformed so that it was no longer a fish, but a woman with skin the color of polished bronze and terrible eyes that flamed with fire. “Because you have refused me these three times,” the woman said, “I will cast you into the pit that lies at the foundation of the earth, where the sky and stars are less than a forgotten memory, and there you will live for a thousand lifetimes. Let us see if you still hold true to your precious star at the end of that time.”

Immediately the fisherman was transported from his boat into the great cave that runs below the foundation of the world. And in the dark he heard a voice saying, “Who are you, and why have you come here?”

“I am a fisherman,” he replied. “And I seem to have lost my way.”

“How did you come to be here?” the voice asked.

“I offended a great sorceress by asking to be wed with a star.”

“What is a star?” the voice inquired.

“Surely you know what a star is,” said the man.

“I have lived in this pit since the day that the foundation of the world was laid. I have never heard tell of this star you speak of.”

It was then that the fisherman began to be truly worried, for if this creature had never heard of a star, perhaps this place was cut off completely from the world above.

“Is there a way out of this darkness?” asked the man.

“Foolish man,” said the voice. “These caves go on forever. They are the whole of the world. This talk of ‘stars’ and ‘sky’ is ridiculous. Best forget it now before it drives you to insanity.”

“If what you say is true then I care not for sanity,” said the man. “I will find the way out of this place. I will stand beneath the night sky and look upon my star once again.”

And so the man wandered the dark caves searching for escape. For a while he peered into the darkness hoping for some sign of light, but before long he was barely aware of the darkness, just as fish are hardly aware of the water that surrounds them.

Without the sun and stars in the sky, the man had no proper sense of the passage of time, but as he stumbled ever further through the darkness he knew the seconds were piling up into hours, that the hours stretched into days. And the days turned into weeks and months, and those added one upon the other until they became years.

And as the man searched for the end to the darkness the voice followed him wherever he went. “Give this up,” said the voice. “There are no stars. There is no sky. Your search is madness.”

And always the man answered, “You lie. I know my star still burns through the night, for my heart still burns with love for her. It would still burn thus if she hid herself behind a cloud, or if my eyes were blind, or if the whole of the world crumbled away beneath my feet. I will find her once again.”

And so the years passed. The man lived out a lifetime searching in the darkness for his star and when that lifetime passed he did not die. Another lifetime followed, and another after that, and still the man searched, and still the voice in the dark mocked his efforts.

Lifetime upon lifetime upon lifetime upon lifetime, until he had lived a hundred lifetimes in the darkness and still he searched on.

A thousand lifetimes of darkness the sorceress had said, so the fisherman went on with nothing to see but the darkness, and no one to keep him company but the voice that mocked him.

At first he thought from time to time of his home, of the people he’d known, of the fish he had caught. But as the centuries turned to millennia, he forgot what the faces of men looked like and he could not recall the smell of the salt spray of the sea. He began to doubt that those things had ever existed at all. Had he ever been a fisherman? Had his eyes ever looked upon the sun? Had he ever heard a voice other than the one that mocked his search? He did not know. He only knew he was searching for something that he loved, something that burned in his heart. Something called a star.
For a thousand lifetimes he searched, and did not find it.

But at the end of all that time he became aware of something far ahead that he did not understand. So long had he walked in darkness that his eyes had forgotten what light was, but now, here, at the end of his journey he saw a faint glow in the distance. He stumbled forward as the light grew stronger. His eyes hurt from disuse, but in spite of that he began to run until at last he had reached the source of the light.

It was a candle, burning in the dark, blowing and guttering from a soft breeze that came from somewhere beyond. The fisherman did not stop at the candle, but kept running, until he found the mouth of the cave and stepped out, standing beneath the night sky once again.

With trembling heart he looked up to the place where his star should have been.

But there was nothing there. Only a place of empty blackness in a sky filled with a hundred thousand other stars.

The fisherman sank to his knees and began to weep. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder.

He turned and looked up into a face that even after a thousand lifetimes of darkness had etched itself indelibly into his mind.

“You,” he said to the sorceress. “What have you done with my star?”

And in a voice that was gentle and kind the sorceress replied, “Let me tell you a story.

“Once upon a time there lived a star who loved a man.

“Every night when the sun had gone, she would rise in the night sky and every night she heard the man whisper to her from his bed far below. He would complement her on how beautifully she shone that night, and tell her of the day’s catch or the storms that had tossed his tiny boat on the treacherous seas.

“The star yearned to be with the man she loved, but the Council of Luminaries, that court of the great lights that rule the heavens, forbade it.

“‘The minds of men are fickle,’ said the sun.

“‘He will grow tired of you,’ said the moon.

“‘We stars live so much longer than the children of men,’ said the constellations. How can you believe he will remain true to you?”

“‘I will prove it to you,’ said the star.

“And so she made herself in the form of a fish, and allowed herself to be caught in the fisherman’s net.

“‘Let me go,’ she said to the fisherman, ‘and I will give you the power and riches of all the world. The most beautiful women will love you without reservation.’ And this she said to test him, for if such transient things tempted the fisherman he could never truly be worthy of the love of a star.
“The star’s heart swelled with love when the fisherman refused her offer. But then it broke with the knowledge of what must come next, for there was only one way to be sure the fisherman’s love would last for as long as the life of a star.

“So she banished him to the caves that run below the foundation of the world, to wander in darkness for a thousand lifetimes.

“But she did not leave him alone. For all the time that he wandered she walked beside him. She tried to convince him to forget about her, tried to make him believe that there were no stars and that there was no sky, and every time the man reiterated his determination her love for him grew ever greater.

“If you had relented, even once,” said the star, “I would have released you from that place and given you everything a man’s heart could desire. But you never faltered or wavered. And now no one can doubt that your love will last for the life of the stars and beyond.”

So the fisherman took the star’s hand and together they ascended into the heavens.

And on the darkest of nights, those whose love exceeds their reach may look to the skies and see them burning together, two lights that shine as one.

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6 Comments

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  2. DAG NABBIT, ALBERT BERG. You always make me cry.

  3. So…I guess this is where I fess up and state once and for all that I…..feel things…….like…..emotions and stuff.

    Geez, and I can tell you EXACTLY in this story where I had to stand up, walk away from the screen and take a break for a few minutes before coming back to finish reading it through *slightly* blurred vision.

    Geez, Albert….you cut me deep, man. Deep!!!

    Okay, so….yeah, the trope is timeless. “Once upon a time….yadayadayada.” It’s been done before.

    But it’s been done because when it’s done well…IT WORKS, and Mr. Berg works it so well here.

    This is a story of patiently loving monotony – a thousand-lives-long journey to the very edge of despair….

    ….and even though I KNEW WHAT WAS COMING…

    …she speaks the line, ““Let me tell you a story.

    “Once upon a time there lived a star who loved a man.”

    and BLAMMO!!!!

    You hit me right here, man. Right here.

    Because the words were so expertly crafted.

    And they are beautiful, right through the very end.

    I’ve read it a few times over the last 2 days, now. And it’s had the same effect on me each time. Words can be powerful like that.

    Mr. Berg, this writing is poetry.

    Bravo.

  4. Oh Al, you of the silver tongue and the golden typing fingers. You are making the rest of us look bad.

    I’m always astounded what you can pull off with these prompts. I would have heard about this prompt and immediately resigned from the contest. I don’t really do the love thing.

    This story was fantastic. Just solid all the way through. I sort of saw the ending coming, but that didn’t change my enjoyment of it at all.

  5. The way this story is told invites comparisons with Neil Gaiman; there’s the same feeling of being retold a tale that you should know about from mythology, or classic fairy tale lore, but at the same time the understanding that the story itself is new.

    I think there’s a dreamlike quality to this story. I really enjoyed it, was captivated by the style and although I felt I might know what was coming, I was wrong and delighted to be wrong.

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