Every Last Star

Night in the desert is a dangerous thing.

That’s what my father told me when I was a little boy, when our town built the watchfires to keep out the darkness. He said it again years later, when they built a wall around the town to keep out the jackals and sandcats. He said it when his turn came to stay awake all night and patrol the top of the wall—right before he fell off it and broke his neck.

Now it was just me and Mother running the Inn for Lost Travelers. It was the only inn in town, since we didn’t get many travelers in the middle of the desert. Few were brave enough to cross the ocean of sand between cities. For those who did, our town was a lantern in the vast and perilous night, the only source of food, water, and shelter for miles. That’s why our town was called Beacon.

Tonight there were two guests staying with us, traders ferrying their wares between cities. As soon as they arrived, they dropped their heavy packs and sank into the armchairs by the fire to exchange stories of their travels. I sat with them and listened. One had lost his arm to a snakebite in the desert; the other had lost a comrade to thirst.


Mother’s voice startled me. I looked up to see her standing in the kitchen doorway, a stub of carrot in one hand and a knife in the other. I could tell by the way she pursed her lips that I was in trouble. I trudged into the kitchen, my head hung low.

“What have I told you?” she whispered. “Don’t listen to travelers. They’re fools who are afraid of the dark.”

I rolled my eyes. “Why shouldn’t they be? Night in the desert is a dangerous thing, that’s what Father always—”

She silenced me with a glare. Talking about Father was another thing I wasn’t supposed to do. “Don’t you have chores to do?”

With a sigh I left the room. Mother seemed to hate all our guests these days. She treated them with gruff politeness while she brought them stew and took their coins, but she never wanted to talk to them or listen to their stories. She hardly talked to me anymore either, except to scold me. She’d been distant and cold ever since Father died—like her heart had fallen over the wall with him and never come back.

I had already prepared the guest rooms; the only chore I had left was to water the camels in the stables. Light from the watchfires flickered on the street as I walked to the well and filled my pail with water. Being afraid of the dark didn’t seem foolish to me. I thought of all the wise things my teachers had told me. How the desert air turns ice-cold as soon as the sun goes down. How every dune looks the same under the cloak of darkness, making it easy to get lost. How you won’t hear a sandcat until it’s close enough to sink its claws into you.

I opened the stable door and light from the watchfires spilled inside. Our guests’ camels dozed in a mound of straw, near our own two camels and the baby that had been born last year. I had named him Anwar—luminous—because his coat was unusually pale. He was growing fast; he would soon be big enough for me to ride.

“Shut the door, would you?”

The voice startled me, and I nearly dropped the bucket. My gaze darted around the small room until I caught movement in the corner. A figure stirred amid the straw.

“The light,” the man said, in a voice like wind through sand dunes. He waved a feeble hand at the door. His skin was dark, darker even than the travelers who visited us from the south. “Please.”

I shut the door, throwing the stable into shadow. It seemed darker than usual—so dark, I could no longer make out the humped shapes of the camels or the strange man in the corner. For a moment I wondered if I had imagined him.

Then the voice spoke again. “You are the innkeeper’s son.”

“Y-yes,” I replied. “Who are you?”

“A traveler.”

I squinted, trying to find the traveler’s feet and hands, the top of his head, the outline of his shoulders. But he seemed to meld with the shadows of the stable. All I could see were his teeth and the whites of his eyes. They were so bright, they seemed to shine with a light of their own.

“Your mother has kindly let me stay here,” he continued, “until I am well enough to travel again.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering who would want to recover in a stable. “Are you ill?”

“Injured. I hurt my leg this morning.”

“I’m sorry, um… What’s your name?”

At this, the traveler gave a small laugh. “My name? I cannot tell you that. No one in this town can know my name.” He straightened suddenly. His eyes widened, twin pinpricks of white that cut through the shadows. “You won’t tell anyone, will you? You won’t tell them I’m here?”

There was such urgency in the traveler’s voice, it frightened me. “No. But why—”

“Thank you.” Straw rustled as he sat back with a weary sigh. “You are like your mother. You are not afraid of the dark.”

I was about to say that I was indeed afraid here in the eerily dark stable, but then the traveler’s bright eyes closed and I realized he was trying to sleep. Leaving the pail of water for the camels, I stepped out into the warm glow of the watchfires.

As I walked back to the inn, I wondered why Mother had put the traveler in the stables when two of our guest rooms were empty, and why she hadn’t told me about him in the first place. I could have asked her, but I doubted she would tell me the truth. More likely, she would forbid me from visiting the mysterious traveler and listening to his stories.

No, I decided. She didn’t need to know I had met this traveler. She had kept a secret from me; it seemed only fair that I keep this secret from her.

The next morning, the two traders left the inn. After I washed their sheets and dusted their rooms, I returned to the stable. Even in daylight, it remained black as ink inside.

“Excuse me,” I whispered as I slipped through the door and shut it quickly behind me. “I just wanted to know if you needed anything.”

The traveler gave a small, brilliantly white smile. “Thank you, but no. Your mother has already brought me some stew.” He held up a bowl and spoon.

A group of children scampered past outside; their voices carried through the stable door. They sang a song we all learned in school:

The night is an animal

It will chase you down

Snare you in its snapping jaws

Never to be found.

The night is an animal

It will eat you up

Bury your bones in the sand

Never to see the sun.

As their voices faded, the traveler shuddered. “It is so noisy here. I hope my leg heals soon, so I can return home.”

“How did you hurt your leg?” I asked.

“I wandered too close to this town. Your wall guards tried to arrest me. I escaped, but I twisted my ankle in the process.”

I frowned. “Why would they arrest you? Were you…doing something wrong?”

“To them,” he said, “I am wrong. I stumbled in here, and luckily your mother recognized me and let me stay.”

I inhaled sharply. “My mother? You mean… you knew my mother?”

“Oh, yes.” My eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness. I could barely make out the shape of the traveler, nestled in the mound of straw, his bright eyes fixed on me. “I knew her when she first came here, before she met your father. I remember when she built the inn. She would work long into the night, by the light of the stars.”

“Have you seen the stars, then?” I asked. “Before Father died, Mother used to talk about the stars. But I’ve never seen them. You can’t see them from Beacon, with the watchfires going all the time.”

The traveler laughed, his teeth casting a pale silvery light over me and Anwar. “Have I seen the stars? What a question.”

I didn’t get the joke, but I pressed on. “What do they look like? How many are there?”

“They look like diamonds in a tapestry of black velvet. There are so many, you cannot count them. They go to the edge of the horizon, and then they spill over it.”

It was difficult to imagine something so numerous it could not be counted. Then I thought of the grains of sand in the desert, and I understood.

The stable door creaked open and a blade of sunlight cut across the floor. The traveler cringed.

“Sorry,” whispered Mother’s voice. Her back was turned; she had a camel by the reins and was leading it inside.

Before she had a chance to see me, I ducked behind Anwar’s hump. I heard the padding of Mother’s footsteps and the clip-clop of the camel’s hooves as they crossed the room. I caught a glimpse of the camel—a strange-looking beast, with shaggy hair and two humps on its back instead of one. I had seen such creatures before, when travelers visited us from the far east.

“How is your leg?” Mother asked as she settled the camel in the far corner of the stable. I heard her fumbling around in the darkness.

The traveler stretched his bandaged leg. “A little better. A few more days, I think.”

“Take all the time you need.” There was a kindness in Mother’s voice that I hadn’t heard in years. “You’re safe, as long as you stay in here.”

Then she left. I stared at the stable door for a long moment after it shut behind her. Why was she so kind to this traveler but not the others? What was different about him?

When I returned from the stable, I found my mother soaking lentils for dinner and a new traveler taking off her coat at the door. Like the strange camel, she looked like she came from the far east. She dropped her sack of supplies and several objects clattered out onto the floor.

“What’s that?” I pointed to a large, funny-shaped piece of glass and metal.

“A camera,” she said in her strange accent. Seeing my expression, she laughed. “You’ve probably never heard of such a thing. It’s a new technology—lets me capture images of the world as I pass through. And this is a magnifying glass, so I can look closely at things.”

I frowned at her sack. “But where is your gun, your ammunition? Your maps and compass?”

“Child, I’m a scientist, not a soldier.” A scientist was another thing I’d never heard of. “Besides, I don’t have room for those things. My camel is weighed down enough with all this.”

“But aren’t you afraid of getting, you know, eaten? Or lost?”

She tapped a finger on her temple. “The key is understanding how things work. Learn how to spot jackal paw-prints in the sand. Cover your scent so the sandcats can’t track you. Memorize the stars, and you’ll never lose your way.”

“You’ve seen the stars?” I asked.

The scientist’s eyes got a misty, faraway look. “Oh, yes. Night in the desert is a magnificent thing. You can see every last star.”

Mother’s shape appeared in the doorway, and I prepared for her usual scolding. But she didn’t purse her lips this time. She didn’t tell me to get back to my chores. She sat down beside me on the hearth, and together we listened to the scientist’s stories.

Over the next few days, the traveler in the stable told me tales of the desert. Beautiful sunsets and starry nights. Brave explorers who survived sandstorms. Towns that were built, towns that were abandoned. How my parents met and fell in love.

But he never told me his name. When I asked, he always managed to change the subject.

The scientist told me stories too, about her observations. Of all the places she’d traveled, she said, the desert fascinated her most. She’d learned how to dig burrows in the sand to sleep in, how to cut the spines off a cactus and drink the precious water inside. She spoke of beautiful moonflowers that bloomed only at night, and all kinds of nocturnal animals—graceful owls, bat-eared foxes, and scorpions as big as your hand.

One afternoon, while Mother was out visiting merchants to restock the inn’s pantry, I asked the scientist why she had stayed with us for so long. Most travelers stayed only one or two nights.

“That’s because most people travel by day,” she said. “I travel by night.”

I gasped. This was unheard of. Night in the desert was a dangerous thing—everyone knew that. Travelers crossed the sand dunes by day and spent the night sleeping restlessly near the light of a watchfire, rifle in hand.

“It’s the best way to travel,” the scientist said. “It’s cooler at night, so my camel can move faster, cover more ground.”

“I suppose that makes sense…”

“Problem is,” she continued, “the night’s gone away. One day, about a week ago, night didn’t come after the sun went down. The sky never went dark, the stars never came out—and without them, I can’t find my way home. That’s why I stopped here.”

I tried to imagine night not falling. But the truth was, I had never really seen night anyway. In Beacon, with the watchfires always lit, it never got dark after the sun went down.

She shook her head sadly. “Something is wrong. I fear something has happened—something terrible has happened to the night.”

I stared at her. There was something in her voice, in the way she said Night—as if it had a capital N.

That’s when I knew.

I leapt from the hearth and ran outside. When I threw the stable door open, the traveler gave a cry and shielded his eyes with a hand.

“I know who you are,” I said breathlessly as I shut the door. “I know why you can’t stand the light, or the children’s song, and why the guards tried to arrest you. You’re the Night, aren’t you?”

The traveler looked up at me with his eerie twinkling eyes. “It is not an easy name to have, in a town like this.”

“You need to get out of here,” I said. “I can help. Is your leg better yet?”

The traveler stood shakily. He took a reluctant step through the straw, then another, testing his ankle. “Yes. Yes, I think I’m ready.”

The guards at the gate would never let anyone leave Beacon after sundown, so we left early, before Mother returned. The scientist rode her strange, shaggy camel. The Night, wearing a long thawb and a scarf to hide his face, rode Anwar’s mother. I rode Anwar, gripping the reins in trembling fingers.

Thankfully, the guards didn’t recognize the Night this time. The gates swung open, and the camels lumbered into the desert.

The sun was sinking below the horizon, its molten orange light dripping over every grain of sand. In the distance, I saw the blurred shapes of cacti and heard the ululating cry of jackals. I swallowed my fear. The gates swung closed behind us.

“Ah,” said the Night. “No walls, no guards, no fires, no songs. Here, I can breathe.”

I took a long breath of the desert air. It smelled different on this side of the wall—fresher, clearer. More alive.

From behind me came the creak of the gate, the dull thud of hooves against sand. I spun around. Another camel was trotting to catch up to us.

“Hakim, what do you think you’re doing?” my mother called.

I groaned as she pulled her camel up beside us. “I just wanted to go part of the way, just to make sure the Night gets home safely. I was going to come right ba—”

“I know that.” For the first time in a long time, Mother smiled. “I mean, what made you think you could go without me?”

I blinked, startled, then smiled back. “I’m not afraid of the dark anymore.”

As Mother reached down to lay a hand on my shoulder, the sun dipped below the horizon. I glanced back at the Night’s camel, but her rump was empty except for a discarded scarf. I looked up at the sky. The glimmering gray of twilight had given way to inky blackness—and in it, I saw every last star.

Rachel Delaney Craft