Mali, the Magic Bed, and the Night Sea (a short story)
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
I wrote this story over the summer for submission to a children's magazine publication. It was an exciting process -- their submission guidelines included a wordcount and theme (adventures at sea) -- and a great challenge to bust me out of a case of writer's block. While it wasn't accepted for print, it was a fun little story to write.
I'm happy to share it with you here! We all need a little more magic in our days and nights.
Mali, the Magic Bed, and the Night Sea
Mali awoke with a start to the sound of waves whooshing around her head.
She kept her eyes closed and counted out three long breaths.
One. She breathed in, the smell of salt-water, tangy and sharp.
Two. She breathed out, moisture clinging to her skin.
Three, don’t be the sea.
She opened her eyes slowly, knowing it was futile to wish it away.
It had happened again.
Her bed, the new bed her mom had just bought her at the market, the one she’d decorated with twinkling lights, was floating, floating, like a pillowed, plump raft in a swirling sea of dark, quietly whooshing water.
Gone was Mali’s bedroom, with it’s clutter of crayons and books. Gone was Mali’s little sister Kate, who shared the small room. Gone was the steady tick of the wall clock. Gone were the walls altogether!
Instead, a dark sea stretched out around her in all directions. The night sky above was moonless, as dark as the waves. The only light at all came from the strand of twinkling bulbs she’d woven around the bed’s tall posts, their thin glow eerie and unsettling as the bed bobbed up and down and up and down in the water.
This was the third night Mali had woken up at sea.
Three nights ago, Mali and Kate and their mom had purchased the antique bed frame frame from a vendor at the city’s Night Market. The market was held every evening at sunset during the hot summer months, so that local artisans and farmers could sell their wares to families during the cool night hours, after the heat of the day faded.
Mali had loved the bed at first sight. It had four big posts, shaped like boat masts, and a poem carved into the old wood in cursive:
‘Wide and wondrous, is the night, when darkness fades, into the light.’
She wasn’t sure what it meant, but she’d thought it was beautiful and very grown up.
Each night since, Mali had fallen asleep in her room, atop the new frame, only to be woken up by waves.
It could hardly be a coincidence.
She’d been scared the first two nights and had tried to stay awake to watch the water, to understand what was happening, but both nights the waves had rocked her back to sleep before she could discover anything helpful.
In the mornings, she’d wake up back in her room, her hair damp and salty from the humid sea air, the bedsheets stiff with salt water.
But tonight she was prepared.
Mali reached under her pillow and pulled out a large flashlight and a mason jar she’d found in the kitchen. Holding the flashlight under her arm so that its beam fell on the surface of the water, she unscrewed the lid from the jar and carefully leaned forward over the edge of the bed.
She pushed away thoughts of what might be lurking in the dark waters below, tentacled beasts with silvery jaws stretching wide in the shadows, and dipped the jar into the sea. When it was mostly full, she leaned back and tightened the lid. Even with the flashlight, it was too dark to make out the jar’s inky contents.
Mali held the jar to her chest and shivered slightly in the damp air, determined to stay awake until daybreak. But again, as she watched the sky for signs of morning, the waves rocked her gently to sleep.
Mali was jostled awake by her sister jumping up and down beside her and squealing, not an uncommon event in the sisters’ room.
“Maliiiii!” Kate shrieked, her foot landing dangerously close to Mali’s head as she reluctantly opened her eyes.
“Kate, calm down,” Mali groaned, but it was pointless. Kate was only three and was rarely calm.
“What time is it?” Mali rubbed her eyes, trying to remember if she needed to get up for school.
She was about to remind Kate it was Saturday when she caught sight of the jar clutched in Kate’s small hands.
The jar! The night’s events, and her plan to solve the mystery of the sea, came rushing back.
The dark contents of the jar sloshed and swirled as Kate spun around, happily bouncing from one foot to the other. “Mali, look!” Kate yelled, holding the jar out inches from Mali’s nose.
That’s when Mali saw she’d brought back more than mysterious sea water.
Something else was inside the jar.
It flashed brightly. Once, then twice, then again. It sparked and shimmered like a tiny star, lighting the water from inside.
A tiny white fish.
Mali gasped and reached for the jar. Kate began to cry.
“Sorry little Kate,” she said, quickly tucking the jar under her pillow and out of sight. “Let’s get some breakfast, ok?”
Kate’s cries soon quieted with the promise of cereal, the jar forgotten, and Mali coaxed her out toward the kitchen.
When the day’s chores were finished, Mali told her mom she was going for a bike ride. The sun was low in the sky, and Mali knew the market would already be bustling with vendors setting up their booths for the night. With the jar secured in her backpack, Mali pedaled into town.
The market space was noisy and exciting, the air filled with smells of fresh fish and freshly ground spices, soaps and candles and bundles of herbs. There were tents with tools and books, jewelry and leather belts and handmade furniture. Mali wove her way through the boisterous crowd until she found the stall where they’d purchased the bed.
Under a bright blue tent, an elderly man with friendly, careful eyes was arranging a pair of carved wooden bookends shaped like dolphins. He looked up as she stepped closer and smiled curiously. She was certain he recognized her.
“Hello,” Mali said nervously. She pulled her bag around and reached inside, her fingers touching glass.
She’d filled the jar to bring here, hoping the man could tell her why, and how, her bed traveled out to sea at night. Where did it go? Was it real?
What was she to make of all this magic?
“May I help you?” the man asked, still smiling.
“I was here a couple days ago with my family. We bought a bed frame, a wooden one, with words carved on it. Do you remember it?”
The man’s eyes sparkled. “Yes… Is everything… alright?”
His expression told Mali he knew why she’d come back. Still, she had to be sure.
“I was wondering...” Mali hesitated. She didn’t know how to ask her question, how to ask what was happening, how to describe the sea, stretching on and on.
So she pulled the jar from her bag, set it on the counter, and waited.
The man’s eyes grew wide when he saw it and he lifted it up quickly to peer inside. He began to hum, and as he did, the fish inside flashed a bright, brilliant white.
Mali jumped in surprise, but the man only laughed and held the jar out to her.
“So you were there!” he said, smiling widely. “It took you! I wondered if it would.”
Mali nodded, relieved she wouldn’t need to explain a thing. He seemed to know it all, already.
“The Night Sea,” the man said and laughed again.
The fish sparked and sparkled as Mali placed it carefully back inside her bag.
“It’s the bed frame, right?” she asked, and the man nodded. “Where does it go? What is that place?”
“The Night Sea. It’s very far from here, very hard to find. I haven’t been in a long time, it’s a place for younger folks than me...” He paused, as if remembering days past. “The frame isn’t just a frame, but a ship, a ship that only sails the Night Sea. It won’t take everyone there, and I wondered if it would take you. And it seems it has!”
“But why? It’s so dark! And spooky. Why go there?”
“Ah! Did you not sing up the moon?”
Mali shook her head, confused.
The man laughed again. “Ah, yes. I suppose you might not know, and then might not see. To find your way around the Night Sea, you must first sing up the moon.”
Suddenly Mali understood. “The words on the posts!” she said quickly. “Are those to sing?”
The man nodded. “Yes, the masts, yes that's it! Sing those words tonight. And when you’re ready to return,” he said smiling, “it’s easy. Simply drift back to sleep.”
Mali had lots more questions to ask, but just then, a couple walked into the tent, talking loudly. The man grinned at her and turned to assist them. Mali left the tent and hurried home to prepare for bed.
That night, when she was awakened by the whoosh of the waves, Mali sat up right away. Clutching the wooden posts, woven with twinkling lights, she began to sing the words carved there.
“Wide and wondrous,” she sang cautiously, her voice quickly carried away in the salty breeze. “Is the night….”
Suddenly, things began to shift. Inside the jar, resting on top of the blankets, the small fish began to spark and flash brilliantly, and she reached down to free it. Then, around the edges of the bed, more small points of light appeared.
First dozens, then hundreds, then more than she could count. Down through the depths of the waves, sparkling like thousands of tiny stars. And then, stars appeared above, too. The night sky began to sparkle, each of the flashes below mirrored above, until both sky and sea alike were shining.
Eagerly, Mali sang louder. “When darkness fades…” The wind pushed her voice out across the water, “...into the light.”
As she sang the last line, a moon larger than any she had ever seen rose up from the distant horizon.
Full and fat and dimpled white, it rose higher and higher. Moonlight glinted along the tops of the waves, cutting through darkness and shadow, turning the world a soft silver. A pale shoreline appeared in the distance, not too far away.
Beams of moonlight draped themselves along the tall posts of the bed and hung like ghostly sails, gauzy and thin, and were puffed up by the breeze, pulling Mali and her bed slowly forward.
Along the shore, Mali saw small campfires burning white and purple, and the shapes of people dancing in the moonlight. The welcoming sounds of laughter and music spilled out joyfully over the water.
Mali took three deep breaths, in and out. She didn’t know what would happen when she reached the shore, but it would be an adventure, she was sure. As her small ship drew closer, she heard someone singing.
“Wide and wondrous, is the night…”
The end (for now)