Chapter Two: The Star-Ship, Silverbarren
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are!” Simpian sang the song to himself and kept time with a dandelion stem. He stopped after that line of his song and thought for a while. Why did people wonder what stars were? He knew what they were. They were jewels—pirate jewels. And if he had could get a ship to sail among the stars he’d soon be the richest fellow in the world. Simpian flopped down on the grass in the Soft Patch with a sigh. The problem was getting the ship. Every night he was able come away to Cottleston Pie, Simpian thought about the star-ship and wondered why no one had ever invented one. A proper star-ship would have billowing sails made of wax-paper which would cause a lovely crackling in the wind. And it’d have a tiller made of a peppermint sticks you could lick if you got too hungry, and a rudder like a pocket-knife to cut through the clouds if it got too foggy up there.
As Simpian thought, he rolled over onto his stomach and took his dandelion stem and drew a picture of the ship in a bit of dust nearby. There. Such a lovely ship! If only! If only he was quite clever enough to build such a star ship and go sailing in the night sky! He would bring back gobs and gobs of the star-jewels and never have to go home again. He could live at Cottleston Pie forever an’ always! It seemed like such a good plan if only he were a little more Grown-up and a deal smarter, that Simpian sighed again and almost felt like crying.
“I say! What’s this?” a voice boomed.
Simpian yelled—a great big yell that felt like it would rip his throat in half—and did a somersault out of sheer surprise. When he came right-side-up, he saw a strange man—a grown man—standing in front of him. The man wore a long red robe all edged in white and black-speckled fur, and long purple slippers with the toes turned up at the end. On his head, cocked to one side as if he’d just finished an Enormous Sneeze, was a golden crown.
“Are…are you a…king?” Simpian asked when he found his voice again. (He’d dropped it when he’d done the somersault and had only now got it back.)
“I’m not a king. I’m the King.”
“I understand.” (only he didn’t.)
“I’m the cleverest King,” the King said, as if to convince himself and Simpian both.
“Aha.” There—he remembered to say it this time. Simpian felt less frightened, saying it, so he did it again, just to make certain. “A very good ‘Aha,’” he said.
“And a very good Aha to you, too,” the King said with a strong handshake. He shook Simpian’s hand so hard and his robe was so very red that Simpian thought he looked and felt rather like a lobster—his face was red too, and his nose was very large and lumpy, and his eyes were little and black and shiny like blackberry-seeds. But for all this, Simpian thought he liked the King pretty well.
Simpian stood up, brushed his pants off, and stuck his hands in his trouser pockets. He paced back and forth for a little while like he’d seen his Papa do a time or two, and hummed to himself.
“What is that you’re humming?” the King asked. His voice was so loud.
It startled Simpian again. “Don’t do that!”
“Shout like that.”
“I’m not shouting,” the King shouted.
“I am not. THIS,” he yelled, “IS SHOUTING!!!!!” and when he said it like that, Simpian had to admit that his first voice was not shouting at all.
Simpian took one hand out of his pocket and shook the King’s hard, lobster-y hand. “I’m sorry, Your Majeshty. Welcome to Cottleston Pie.”
“Is that what this is?” the King asked, looking about with a pleased expression on his fat face.
“Yes. And I am Master of it.” Simpian wondered if the King might pick a fight like Sylvi had, but the King just chuckled to himself in a jolly way and patted Simpian on the back.
“It is a very good place, I think. There are stars here.”
“You mean you like the stars too?” Simpian asked.
“Love ‘em.” The King plopped down on his royal bottom with a “ploooooosh” noise, and flicked the ends of his robe out on the ground behind him till it looked like a river of red velvet in the starlight. Simpian joined him on the ground and together they looked up at the stars for a while. No one spoke. Simpian wasn’t sure if it was all right to speak to a real King. He wondered where the King was from, and how he’d ended up at Cottleston Pie.
The King whipped out a long cardboard tube and squinted at Simpian through the end of it. “What is your name, Master of Cottleston Pie?”
“Simpian Grenadine.” Simpian puffed his chest out when he said this, and felt proud.
The King laid aside his tube and took a pencil from behind his ear, and licked the tip. “Simp-ee-an…Gren-uh-deen,” he said, while writing it on his cuffs.
“Why are you doing that?” Simpian asked.
The king raised one of his red eyebrows. “So I don’t forget to remember.”
“And a very good Aha to you too,” the King said with another of his pinching handshakes.
Ouch. Simpian wrinkled his nose and pointed to the sky. “Do you ever wonder what it’s like up there in the stars?”
“Never,” the King replied, and again he stared at Simpian through the end of his tube.
The King flipped onto his ample stomach. “Why should I waste time wondering when I know? I’m the greatest ‘stronomer alive!”
“What’s a ‘star-nimer?”
“A ‘stronmer’s a man who studies stars.”
“And you’re the greatest one alive?”
“And shouldn’t I be?” The King gestured to the dark, jewel-filled sky. “If I stare hard enough at any part of the sky I can find the Big Dipper. That takes talent, my boy. It takes talent to find the Big Dipper where all the silly ‘stronomers say it can’t possibly be. They think there’s only one way to see the Big Dipper. That is silliness, my boy.”
Simpian hugged himself—the air was a teensy bit chilly. “You say you’re the cleverest King and the greatest ‘starnimer alive?”
“Holy-moly, yes, my boy.”
The King was almost shouting this time, but Simpian didn’t wish to test him again—his ears still hurt from the Demonstration. Simpian had an idea. If this King was so clever—and furthermore, if he really was the greatest ‘star-nimer alive—perhaps he could help him build the star-ship. “King?”
“Yes, my boy?”
“What should I call you?”
“Yes, my boy? (Marvelously done!)”
“Have you ever wanted to go sailing among the stars?”
“You mean in a space-ship?”
Simpian coughed and laughed at the same time, and felt like choking for a minute. “Goodness, no.”
“Then what do you mean?”
“I mean building a star-boat. And scooping up all the jewels in the sky.”
“What do you mean?” the King asked, and his eyes were very sharp and black in that moment. “What do you mean ‘jewels’?”
Simpian pointed to the sky again. “The stars are made from jewels.”
The King peered through his cardboard tube. “Oh. That. Yes they are. But how do you know? Are you a ‘stronomer too?”
Simpian thought about this. He supposed he was, in a way. He liked to look at the stars quite a lot. “I think I am a ‘star-nimer. Listen, your Majeshty. Will you help me build the boat?”
The King scrambled to his fat feet and stood at attention. “Holy-Moly, ‘course I will, my boy! Where do we start?”
So Simpian Grenadine and the King set to building their boat with the sails of waxed paper and the tiller of peppermint, and the rudder like a knife-blade. It wasn’t easy—not one tiny bit. Once in a while that evening and the several following it, Simpian thought he’d like to give up. But every time he got hot and sweaty and angry over the King dropping the hammer on his toe, or licking the peppermint sticks meant for the tiller, or doing any of the number of annoying things the King did, Simpian would take a deep breath and ask him nicely to stop it.
“But I’m a King,” the King would say. “I’m a regent. And a royal.”
“So I can do what I want. And what I want to do is lick the tiller. You said we could. You said that was why you are making it out of peppermint.”
Simpian rolled his eyes and snatched the handful of peppermint sticks away from the King. “I said we could lick them when we were up in the sky. Are we up in the sky? No. So stop licking them.”
“You could say please,” the King huffed.
“I could say lots of things.” He left it at that, and continued to glue the peppermint sticks together with the paste he’d made of some flour and milk from Tottles’ kitchen. He’d taken the peppermint sticks from his own Private C’lection he kept buried under the roots of the Cottleston Pie tree. He kept them in a battered coffee-tin and consequently they smelled half like Christmas and half like Early Mornings. Once the sticks were glued together, Simpian moved the tiller into the body of the boat.
It was a square-ish shape which looked more like an orange-crate than a ship, but the King assured Simpian it was correct.
“This is how all the ‘stronomers build their star-ships,” the King said, holding his hand up to show Simpian how serious he was. “It is the Best Sort of ship.”
“But it looks like a box.”
“And haven’t you seen boxes fly?”
Simpian thought about this. Then he remembered a very windy day not so long ago when a box had blown out of the barn and tumbled down the hill. It was almost flying then. Perhaps a box-boat was the proper sort after all.
So together they worked on the star-ship. Every evening after Only Allister’s dinner, Simpian returned to Cottleston Pie and waited in the Soft Patch for the King. And every evening the King came and stood by, tasting the tiller when he thought Simpian wasn’t looking, and offering advice in between. Now and then he hammered with the hammer, or sang in a very loud voice that was almost a shout.
Then the final evening came—the evening Simpian and the King had agreed upon to go sailing in their star-ship. Everything was ready. The tiller was in place, the King had donated his pocket-knife for the rudder-blade, and Simpian had spit-shined it till it gleamed in the faint light of the stars. The King climbed into the rear of the ship. It listed starboard.
“Careful, my boy!” the King roared. He tipped his tipsy crown back to the other side of his head. It looked worse than ever.
“I’m not doing anything,” Simpian shouted back.
“You breathed on it.”
Simpian clenched his fists and tried not to lose his temper. It would do no good to be angry with the cleverest King alive, and the greatest ‘star-nimer on top of that. “I’ll try not to breath. But if I faint you’ll have to steer.”
“Sounds fair enough, my boy,” the King boomed. “Anchors aweigh! Stars ho! All aboarrrrrrd!” He bounced in his half of the ship, and slapped his hand against the side. The boards wiggled, and Simpian was glad all of a sudden that that they would only be sailing in sky, not sea. He wasn’t certain their ship would hold water if put to the test.
Simpian stepped into the boat and reached above his head to attach the waxed-paper sails. They snapped and crackled like fury in the faint breeze that whispered through Cottleston Pie. “We haven’t named her yet,” Simpian said, sitting down with a plop in the bottom of their ship. He almost crunched the tiller, and had to scoot over and rest his elbow on it instead of his buttom.
“Easily mended, my boy! Easily mended!” The King stepped out of the boat and it listed to the other side. “WHOA!” he roared. “Stop your breathing, my boy! You’ll sink our craft!”
“It’s not my fault,” Simpian growled.
“IT’S NOT MY FAULT!” He had lost his temper now. He looked fearfully at the King and wondered if he would be very angry.
The King just pushed his crown back the other direction once more, took his pencil from behind his ear, and scribbled something on both sides of the star-ship. “There,” he roared, getting back into the ship. “AND QUIT BREATHING!”
Simpian held his breath just in case, and the ship only rocked the slightest bit. “What did you name her?” he asked after a bit.
“The Silverbarren.” The King breathed loudly through his nostrils, a bit out of breath, and his eyes defied Simpian to challenge the name.
“It’s a good name,” Simpian said, trying to think how best to put this. “But what does it mean?”
“What does it MEAN, my boy?” the King roared. “It means we’ll strip the silver and jewels and what-not right out of the skies! That’s what it means! We’ll be the best, richest ‘stronomers the world has ever known!”
Simpian licked the peppermint tiller in a contemplative way. The King spoke as if they were taking every star-jewel out of the sky. He licked the tiller again. He didn’t think that was the way to go about it. “Your Majeshty,” he said.
“Are we taking all the star-jewels out of the sky?”
“Every last one!”
“Every last one?”
“Yes—and every first one too. And every one in between! The whole Big Dipper full of ‘em. Holy-Moly! It’ll be an adventure, my boy!” The King hugged himself and chuckled and his whole red face quivered.
Simpian bit his lip. He peered through the leaves of the Cottleston Pie tree and could see the star his Papa called Venus, but he called the Beautiful One. Would they steal that too? It would make a lovely ring to give to Mum, and that smaller one right above his head would be perfect for Tottles. He’d take some of the others and make them into buttons and cuff-links. But he didn’t need all the star-jewels. Perhaps once they got up in the sky, the King might agree to take just a few and leave some to make the darkness look pretty. The business at hand was getting up there.
“How do we get started?” he asked.
The King scratched his bald head and the crown bounced. “How d’you usually launch a ship?”
“By lifting the anchor, I suppose,” Simpian said.
“Yes, but you only need anchors if you’re in water—isn’t that right?” the King asked. His breath was coming hot and fast and his nostrils were very big indeed now.
“That’s right,” Simpian replied.
“So if we are to launch this ship, we can’t do it by lifting an anchor.”
“Nor by tug-boat, I presume?” The King looked hopeful over this suggestion, and peered around Cottleston Pie. It didn’t help—there were not star-tug-boats there.
“Not much.” Simpian lounged back in the ship, then sat up. “We could sing! Maybe that’d help!”
“ ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star?’ It’s about ‘star-nimer things, at least.”
“Very much so. Holy-moly, boy! Let’s do it!”
So the two of them sat there in the Silverbarren and sang and sang. They sang through all the verses Simpian knew, and made up a several more. Some of them rhymed, and some of them didn’t, and one finished with a very loud “HOW WE WISH YOU WEREN’T SO FARRRRR!” sung by the King himself in his loudest shouting-voice. Yes. That was the problem. Because the star-jewels were so far away and the ship wasn’t moving.
The wind rattled the waxed-paper sails merrily, the peppermint tiller gave off a pleasant, chalky aroma, and the King and Simpian still sang their sailing song. But the ship would not budge. Not an inch. They sang long and longer and left off from “Twinkle, Twinkle” and moved on to “Ninety-nine-cartons-of-milk-on-the-wall” and went all the way through that, and still nothing happened. At last Simpian broke off a piece of the peppermint tiller and handed it to the King.
“Many thanks, my boy, many thanks,” the King said, then snapped off the end of his peppermint stick and chomped it like a cow chomping hay.
Simpian ate his peppermint stick, then another, and another. Pretty soon the whole tiller was gone except for one stick, and the King was asking for his pocket-knife back. There went the rudder.
“Do you need to keep that?” the King asked.
“The last peppermint stick?”
Simpian looked at it lying all lonely in the bottom of the box. “No.”
“Then wrap it up in the paper. I don’t wish it to get my robe sticky.”
Simpian wrapped the last little piece of the tiller in the sails, and sighed. “Well, we’re home, I suppose.”
The King sprawled on of his fat, lobster-y legs over the edge of the boat and settled his head against his arms which he crossed behind him. “Yes, we are. And do you know what, my boy?”
“What, your Majeshty?”
“We can be very good ‘stronomer’s here. Right here. Without the troubles of tillers and rudders and things.”
And as Simpian lounged in his end of the Silverbarren and watched the star-jewels wink in the sky, he figured the King was spot-on. They could be wonderful ‘star-nimers. Right here.