by Michelle Azam Mairaj, Age 17, Pakistan
The fiction prompt for August was “starfish.”
There he was in the middle of the sea, with just a humble looking boat and an oar. The sea waves crashed at the boat’s mast, darkening the wooden hue. The menacing tides collided from the right leaving the boat trembling. Then they hit from the left making the boat beg pitifully for mercy.
Ahmed was a young Egyptian boy who was now the sole commander of his family’s boat in the Red Sea. A few days back he was just a protégé of his father. His father would dictate the steering of the boat and would adjust the sails. The sea seemed altruistic then. The sea waves seemed placid and docile then. Then they seemed like gentle escorts of this inexpressive vessel. He recollected that then the sea did not seem menacing. It did not seem to be mocking the miniature existence of the boat. The sea seemed like a deity blessing them with a good catch. But now it seemed like the wrath of the gods.
He had to take his father’s niche when his father, the sole bread earner fell severely ill, and as fishing was the only livelihood of his father, he had to mount the boat and go in search of an adequate catch. He had drifted quite far from the shore. He wanted to retreat, but now when he looked around he could see only the lucid blue horizon and was apprehensive that if he moved any more he would just end up drifting even further away.
The raging tides and the sound of the bellowing gales paralyzed his mind. Ahmed started trembling, and his lips started to quiver.
The vicious tides kept rising. The wind sighed at his desperation. He had to come up with a plan soon. He wanted to think like his father.
And then he remembered he just had to find a starfish. He had heard folklore from his grandmother that the starfish is a guide and protector of those who travel over tempestuous waters and, like him, seek their livelihood on the sea. In his grandmother’s fantastical tales, the tempest-swept fishermen or sailors were rescued after finding a star fish. The star fish was an emblem of salvation.
The illiterate boy, whose only connection to the world was the mythical and mystical stories of his grandmother, started to oar and make his way through the watery tremors to find a ridge where a starfish would be resting.
An old man had oared nearer to him comprehending him to be an amateur. He signaled with his hand. Ahmed was grateful to see a fellow human being. And when he came closer, Ahmed realized he was the experienced fisherman Youssef. And quickly he explained his situation and how now his only hope for survival was finding a starfish.
Youssef giggled, alternating the sobriety on his countenance and making the crows feet around his weary eyes prominent. He laughed not at his helplessness but at his naïve disposition. The old man said that is what his grandmother also had told him: to look for the starfish during troubled times at sea.
“But over the years I have realized it’s never the starfish that helps us fishermen survive. It’s the way we comprehend these waves, the sky, and the direction of the wind, and at night time the moon. It is about the experience. It is about the low tide and the high tide. It is about changing the sails to cope with these winds.’’
The wind moaned loudly.
The old man continued, “You my child are not in the right place. A fisherman can never find fish in these waves no matter how strong the vessel or fishing net is. You need to learn and observe. The sea gods also help those who show perseverance, who thrive to survive, and not those who wait for destiny or as, in your case, wait for a starfish to help them.”
The venerable fisherman turned away continuing to steer his boat and ushering Ahmed to follow him so that he could lead him to safer waters where he could catch fish to take back home.
Ahmed gladly followed, marvelling at this living paradox: that even though the sea is mystical and inspires folklore, seafaring men never survive on these waters by clinging to fantasies; they survive by the knowledge about the sea passed from generation to generation. The silhouettes of the seafarers could be seen as they disappeared in the fiery red horizon created by the setting sun. The diminishing rays looked down upon the thoughtful mentor who was being followed by an adolescent.
Michelle says: “Every time I finish writing a story it makes me feel good about myself, and I think that is what matters.” Visit Michelle’s blog Utopia.