Imagine you’re a star collector. Imagine the sound of your oars in the water and the shimmering surface of the lake. Your parents are back on land, hunting through the paperbarks. They’re not far and you’re not worried. It’s calm tonight. Behind you, you can hear your fishing cat in the bow, scooping out stars with a paw. They make a gentle squishing sound as they slide down the hull and into the pile. There are so many tonight.

It doesn’t matter where you row. You will do your best. You trust your cat. Your mother told you it’s just feral, that’s why its paws are so big, but you know better. The night slides over you. The stars wheel sideways and you watch more fall. They drop fast but hit the water with barely a sound. Like the cormorants, they take an age to come up.

Imagine how your breath falls with the oars—in, out, in, out. Imagine a night sky with an infinity of stars, slowly coming unstuck. It didn’t used to be like this, that’s what they tell you, but you are too old for bedtime stories now. Instead you settle yourself down just after the sun peaks and you wake when it’s dark and then you push your dinghy out onto the lake. Sometimes you are alone, like now, but sometimes your mother comes too. She sighs a lot. Imagine the black around you—the sound of a paw hooking through the water. A star slides from the pile and hits your achilles. You feel it tremble.

Soon, the grey will seep in along the horizon. The black will start to blanch. Then, as day comes, you will stroke hard back to the beach. You will light the paper lanterns and send the stars back. Imagine them all, rising into the sky. There are always too many.

Later, as you crouch to build the campfire, your cat will come and sit at your heel. You will toss it a star. As the water starts to boil, you hear the wet sucking sound of tearing flesh.

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Read the other winners from the 2019 Swinburne Microfiction Challenge here.