Nereus thought he heard a ship’s bell ringing. Somewhere far off. Fairly sure he wasn’t dreaming because he felt the heat of the sun on his back and the sand in his face he concluded that desert madness was upon him.
He let out a dry chuckle. The whole trip being dragged into the desert behind his horse after the bandits had tied him to it had cost him dearly. His body ached all over from bruises and scrapes and sand in his wounds and now it was his mind’s turn to fail.
The bell rang again, a little louder this time. And there were faint noises of wood creaking, water splashing.
He coughed. He was going mad for sure. There was no water this deep in the desert, never mind a ship.
The noises grew a little louder.
Going mad he figured he might as well face whatever mirages were coming and he opened his eyes the little he could. His horse laid motionless before him. Died of exhaustion in this heat. He wanted to cry but there was no water in his eyes to give to the dead.
A moving blur in the distance caught his attention. It also seemed to be where the sounds of the mirage came from. Something made wild reflections of light underneath the blur. It reminded him of the reflection of the sun in water. He smiled a little. He wouldn’t mind seeing a mirage of water. He loved hearing the stories told by his grandfather about the wide open sea and the ships sailing to and from the ends of the world.
The noises were clear now. The bell he heard could only be from a ship, the way it had been described to him in the stories. And there was definitely creaking of something big made of wood. And a noise like dozens of children were splashing in water.
He wanted to cry again and shut his eyes tight. The noise grew ever closer. He was dying. There was no doubt. He would die without ever seeing his family or his friends again. Without the chance to become a man.
With the loss of everything he might as well embrace the mirage as the last thing he’d see and opened his eyes slightly again. And saw the blurred shape of a ship heading towards him through the dunes.
He smiled a little, ignoring the pain from his chafed lips. At least he got to see a ship in the end.
The blur became less as the ship came closer. The light underneath it was a mass of water moving along with the ship, sunlight reflecting in the waves rippling across it. The ship went down behind a dune and only the sails could be seen. Then the sails shot upward and a great and roaring wave of water splashed over the top of the dune with the ship sailing on it. The sails bulged from a strong wind that wasn’t there before, the wood and the rigging groaning and creaking against the forces pulling on them. Spray drifted across him in a salty scented cloud.
The ship slowed down as it came closer to him and he opened his eyes further in astonishment. The mirage was overwhelming! The wood of the ship was bleached from what must have been ages spent in the desert sun giving the ship a ghostly look. And there were voices! Men! It did not sail without its crew.
The ship drifted closer on its mass of water, turning its side towards him. Through clear spots in the water he could see little shapes swimming in it. Fish. He coughed a chuckle again. He got to see fish too in the end!
The ship halted close to him. Its hull also looked like a giant fish with the two slanted fins on the side in the water. Above them were balconies where some of the rigging was attached and several men standing there.
‘Told you I saw it right!’ said one of them.
‘Finally something else than fish!’ another said.
Laughter became coughing in Nereus’s mouth. The madness was perfect.
‘Oy!’ said the first man. ‘That boy’s alive! Call the captain!’
Nereus listened to the voices chattering among themselves until they went quiet. The figure of a man that appeared at the middle of the ship seemed to carry a wide hat.
‘Well?’ the low voice asked. ‘Is he alive or not?’
Nereus coughed again. He wanted to say he wasn’t sure of that himself.
‘Looks like you’re not dead.’ the captain said. ‘Alive is another matter though.’
Nereus closed and opened his eyes again.
‘I will give you a choice, boy. You can die here in the hot sands, or you can serve the rest of your life on this ship, sailing the deep desert.’
Now he remembered. A story his grandfather once told long ago but which his mother didn’t want to be spoken of ever again. The mirage ship that sailed in the deep desert where nobody returned from. Unless completely mad. This was the mirage ship! It had to be!
He coughed again instead of laughing. But it didn’t matter. If he was given a choice to be part of this mirage as his afterlife he’d take it.
With all of his remaining strength Nereus stretched out his hand to the ship.
He could see the grin on the captain’s face. ‘Welcome to the Sand Shark, boy!’
Mirror, mirror on the wall..
What have you done for me lately?
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