The Ship in a Bottle

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
May/June 2009

Emmy J. X. Wong

Sarah stared at the detail in the rigging of the tiny ship inside the glass bottle the window of the Chandlery had to offer. She hoped someday it could be her personal vessel. If it were hers, oh, the marvelous adventures she would send it on! But the time for daydreaming was over. The day was becoming eclipsed. She surveyed the horizon where the pale blue cloudless sky sank swiftly into inky surf. Down by the docks, she knew her father, an earnest fisherman in the short summer months, was probably whiling away the cold, hard afternoon whittling a small piece of ash. She could picture him in his work, humming sea-faring ditties to keep himself company. Newfoundland could be a desolate place in the stark winter months. She would finish her daily stroll along the deserted rocky shoreline hunting for rare treasure or a treasure map, as was her daily custom, and meet up with her father before heading home for supper. She knew her mother would have a thick meaty stew simmering on the woodstove, while Jordy, still only a toddler, would be amusing himself in his high chair with a tarnished silver spoon dangling from his mouth.

But today was not like any other. At once Sarah spied the translucent bottle holding pieces of sea and sky, bobbing up and down on the near cresting waves. It was the most curious thing she had ever seen. Standing on the shoreline and being careful not to get her only pair of shoes wet, she picked up the indigo bottle and emptied its foamy contents back into the sea. Upon doing so, the bottle’s smooth glassy surface caught her fancy. It appeared to be a very ancient bottle, not at all like the kind found in the local Pierce’s Mercantile and General. Inside its neck sat a bloated, saturated piece of cloth-like paper that had markings on it resembling tightly curled letters. Sarah knew from her home-schooling that the first bottles were invented by the Egyptians millennia ago, and likely the scrawl it held could not be hieroglyphics. Still, it looked like cuneiform. Could the bottle be one that originally held spirits, perhaps tossed overboard by a sailor from a Spanish galleon? Or could it have been discarded by an English vessel, possibly by a ship’s doctor, having already outlived its medicinal purpose? And what story lay buried in the mysterious code being held captive in its hull? She was enthralled with the bottle’s curved, frosted appearance, and its wide, long neck. Along its shaft, it appeared pitted. Yes, this was a stalwart mariner of sorts which had sailed nobly and durably upon the high seas, possibly for centuries.

The Ship in a Bottle girl finding a bottle

It was the most curious thing she had ever seen

Upon eyeing the curious bottle, her father had an idea. Although Sarah was reluctant at first to relinquish the treasure back into its briny home, she also recognized an opportunity to own a twin to the tiny ship making its home in the Chandlery. So, after much deliberation over a supper of moose-and-carrot stew and buttermilk biscuits, the plan was decided upon. After the evening meal, Sarah chose one of her father’s best hand-carved miniature orca whales, the more acclaimed inhabitants of Newfoundland, to slip into the fluted neck of the bottle. She and her father carefully corked the bottle and sealed it with hot wax from the cabin’s only light source. With the next changing of the tides, the vessel again was launched.

*          *          *

On a sun-drenched afternoon, with the reflecting rays so strong as to be blinding, Michel was intrigued by what he saw just meters in front of him, swirling in an eddy. It could be a small grayish-blue sandpiper or it could be a fluid bottle, the color of sea. From a distance, he was not certain which. Michel’s feet burned from the sand as hot as embers leading down to the shoreline of Cote d’Ivoire. He painstakingly made his way to the lapping waves to retrieve the ancient relic, which had appeared as if by magic. At once, he brought the glistening bottle back to his father to study. There was no doubt; this bottle had been put into the vast sea with purpose. It had a message to deliver. The twelve-year-old boy twisted the cork out of the bottle with keen interest. The contents were surprisingly dry. Looking inside the walls of the bottle, he spotted the hand-carved whale and smiled. Carefully constructed, it seemed it had been fashioned just for his amusement. His father, who knew some other languages in addition to his native French, was able to decipher that the carefully penned alphabet on the accompanying note was in fact Arabic. The name inscribed at the bottom in English was “Sarah” and the date recorded as eight months previously. The writing above it was primitive and resembled pictograms. Sarah’s penmanship in comparison was well developed next to the small picture of the cetacean with its signature spout. Michel and his father thought long and hard of an appropriate response and after three whole days of devoted consternation chose two small items that would represent their proud country and tossed it back into the sea.

The Ship in a Bottle family finding a bottle

Carefully constructed, it seemed it had been fashioned just for his amusement

*          *          *

When Keiko discovered the bottle on the rocks overlooking Yokohama Bay, she was enchanted. Without hesitation, she uncorked the aqua frosted vessel. Immediately a scent of cacao and coffee wafted from its portal. She closed her eyes and pictured coffee beans picked and roasted from a plantation set back under a canopy of lush leafy trees. The scent was pungent. This was very different from the smell of fish escaping from the local cannery and the scent of green tea which filled her nostrils, rising from her mother’s teapot at each morning and evening meal. Keiko pondered over which item to put next into the experienced seafaring vessel. Her grandfather was a master of porcelain, which had become fashionable in Japan. And he was overjoyed when she asked him to donate one of his tiny porcelain dolls which effortlessly slipped through the wide throat into the vessel’s cavernous belly. Keiko added her name to the list in carefully inked characters and the very next day tossed the mysterious bottle from the highest point she could find into the eagerly awaiting waters below. She kept her treasure, the original contents held by the bottle, in a jar in her top drawer and counted it among her most valuable possessions. Each time she peeked at the jar, she fantasized about the bottle’s long journey into the globe’s east corridors and the barracuda, leatherback turtles and giant squid it must have swum past in order to reach her.

The Ship in a Bottle family house with cherry blossoms

Her grandfather was a master of porcelain, which had become fashionable in Japan

*          *          *

When alas Sarah spied the bottle with all the enthusiasm brought about by the unbridled sails of a homebound ship awaiting its much needed sabbatical, she was not surprised. Every day, since its heroic departure, she had checked for its return. So today, she was more delighted than surprised. Like a daughter waiting for her sea captain father’s return, she was overjoyed with the reunion. But she wasn’t sure whether it held new cargo from distant ports, or whether she’d be disappointed and find only the original contents she had sequestered in the vessel with a world of anticipation. Had the bottle been out there in the sea biding its time in the North Atlantic, or had it in fact found currents and streams that took it to distant shores, and somehow only now found its way back to her through the same channels? It had been five long years since that translucent bottle first appeared in the dead of winter. Sarah decided to uncork the bottle ceremoniously over supper that night.

When the bottle was unhinged, a light scent of ginger wafted from its sanctuary within. It was a healthy sign. Out slipped a small daintily carved jade figure of a Buddha. Investigating the rolled cloth more intently now, Sarah could make out at least eleven different signatures written in all types of languages in varying shades of ink. Her entire family was captivated by the little unassuming passport that lay open before them, seated tonight as the special guest of honor.

Jordy, now almost seven, was old enough this time to appreciate the adventurous tales the guest had brought to the Doyle home. This time, Jordy reached inside his pocket and took out his best variegated cat’s-eye marble. It rolled through the bottle’s gateway neck without hesitation. He reached for the dwindling flame from the shrinking ivory paraffin candle in the middle of the table. With his father’s help, the task was soon complete. Before it was even tossed again back into the frigid black North American waters, he began daydreaming of tropical Tahitian sunsets and the land of kangaroos down under, scenery he was familiar with only through the well-worn atlas that sat atop the cabin’s bookshelf. He couldn’t wait for its next homecoming and the handsome tales it would surely be poised to tell.

The Ship in a Bottle Emmy J. X. Wong

Emmy J. X. Wong, 12
Weston, Massachusetts

The Ship in a Bottle Stanislav Nedzelskyi

Stanislav Nedzelskyi, 13
Keller, Texas

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2 Comments
 
  1. Leni Haller January 6, 2017 at 10:57 am Reply

    Wow. The illustrations are amazing and the storyx idle brilliant

  2. kathleenhemsey@yahoo.com April 25, 2018 at 1:02 pm Reply

    Totally enchanting!!?

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