Ship in a Bottle


by Gwendolyn Kiste


She trapped our ship in a bottle. She trapped us just because she could.

We were out at sea when she saw us. Out at sea when she extended her hand to the horizon and grasped one palm around the sails. Against her clammy skin, there was no water left for us to battle, no tides to guide us back.

“What do we do?” the first mate asked me.

“To hell if I know,” I said. My seafaring plans had entailed pirates and treasures and alcoves where we could hide from the world. No chart or map or distant dream ever included a gypsy of a girl who captured us on a whim.

A bead of her sweat hit the rudders as she dropped us into our new dusty home and stuffed a cork in the spout. Three men died on impact. We had no sea to bury them in, so we interred them within that single drop of sweat. The stench tormented us for days until the decay itself seemed to surrender.

In the house all alone by the sea, the house where the ocean still called to us, her lullabies kept us awake at night. Not that we could have slept in silence. Not that we could have slept at all.

Some days, she carried us outside and left us on the sand while she collected seashells. One evening, the seashells overflowed in her arms, and she forgot us on the beach. Overnight, a tempest of green rain descended, and we all hoped the squall would be enough to steal us back to sea. But the bottle wasn’t meant for the ocean, and neither were we. Not anymore.

She found us again the next day and with nubile fingers, she returned us to the window sill in her bedroom where we watched the water ripple in the distance. Despite the bottle’s fingerprint smudges and seaweed residue, that ocean was so close the salt still burned our nostrils and the waves still haunted our dreams.

After two weeks of yearning for the lilting rhythm of the sea, our rations dwindled, and another two men died.

“What do we do?” the first mate asked me.

“To hell if I know,” I said.

But I did know. I knew if we wanted to survive, we’d need to talk to her. I’d need to talk to her.

So I tapped on the glass.

“Ma’am?” My voice echoed in the translucent tomb.

One eyebrow raised, she inspected me. “I didn’t think you spoke,” she said. “You’ve had weeks to talk to me, and you never bothered.”

My hand drifted to the sword on my belt. It was a fool’s gesture. Even if I could reach her through the glass, the miniscule weapon would have done no more than annoy her.

“We’re running out of food,” I said at last.

She sighed. “And what do you want me to do about it?”

I dug my splitting boot into the bottle and scowled. “Maybe a crust of bread or something would be nice.”

“You needn’t be rude,” she said and stuffed leftovers through the spout. “Those should keep you for awhile.”

The storm of breadcrumbs knocked me to my knees while the wheat and fresh yeast brought half the men to tears.

That night, we dined like kings.

Smiling at the moon in the window, the girl hummed long into the evening, but for once, we were able to sleep.

The next morning was another seashell hunt, and she brought us and a wicker picnic basket along for the revelry.

“Isn’t the beach a lovely place?” she asked, skipping to the shoreline and dipping her pink toes into the water.

“The ocean is lovelier.”

“I don’t know why you’re so foul-tempered,” she said and rummaged through the basket, producing a sandwich twice the size of our ship. “You’re safer in that
bottle than on the ocean.”

I kicked the glass. “Several of our men are dead.”

She tore off a piece of yellow cheese from the mountain of food and shoved our lunch into the spout. “Isn’t death expected anytime you go to sea?”

I sighed. She was right. We had lost more men on a routine reconnaissance last spring than we had in that bottle, but I wasn’t eager to admit it to her.

“Why did you take us from the ocean anyhow?”

She shrugged. “I’ve never had anything that’s mine before.”

A tiny wave crashed to the sand and caressed either side of the bottle. For a moment, the ship appeared as though it was at sea again. Then the water receded and with it, the illusion.

“But we’re people,” I said. “We’re not meant to belong to anyone.”

“People sometimes belong to others.” Her fingertips danced on the glass, smoothing away the seaweed that had come to shore with the sea. “I was supposed to belong to someone once.”

“Poor fool.” I broke the cheese into proper rations.

“Poor me,” she said. “My parents tried to give me away, give me to a man I didn’t like.”

I tossed the crumbs to the first mate who passed them down a mealtime assembly line. “Did you put them in a bottle too?”

“Nope,” she said brightly. “I ran away to a cottage by the sea. No one will ever find me here.”

So no one found us either.

But we ate well enough, and for special occasions, she even procured us a thimbleful of whiskey. During the day, we went to the shore and pointed out seashells beneath the sand. In the evenings, her lullabies became the only music we craved in the world.

“She’s the ocean now,” the first mate said in his sleep.

“Just as capricious too.” I squinted into the darkness that cradled her in bed a thousand miles away.

#

Since I was captain of what remained of the ship, I became the emissary. When we needed food, I tapped on the glass. When a man was ill, I requested an extra square of fabric to keep him warm.

“You all seem well enough in there,” she said one night between lullabies.

“We’d be better if we could give our men proper funerals.”

I pointed to the pile in the far corner of the bottle, which teamed with plagues unknown to anyone but us.

“We’ll do it at sunrise,” she said and nodded once to confirm it. “That would be a lovely time for a funeral.”

At dawn, she buried them in seashells and cast them out to sea. We hung our heads in reverence.

The first mate watched her dance to a dirge on the shore.

“Do you think she’s a goddess?” he asked me.

“Naw.” I waved one hand at him. “She’s no goddess. She’s just a girl.”

“What’s the difference?”

I shrugged. “Don’t know. But there must be one.”

To celebrate our departed comrades, she gave us an extra thimble of whiskey. By noon, the rest of the men were passed out below deck.

I abstained, drunk instead on the tune of her latest elegy.

“I like that one,” I said, kicking off my boots. “Where did you learn it?”

“I didn’t learn it.” Though she tried to hide it, I saw her blush. “I invented it.”

“I suppose you have lots of time to invent things here,” I said. “How long have you lived at this cottage?”

She rolled onto her back and stared at the sky as if all the answers awaited her there.

“Years and years,” she said. “Maybe an eternity.”

“Don’t you miss people?”

“Sure,” she said, one finger pursuing a cloud across the blue canvas. “But that’s why I brought you to shore.”

I watched her eyes swirl gray. “And what if we all die in this bottle?”

“Then I’d be alone again.” She clutched the white cumulus from the sky and presented it to me. “For you,” she said and smiled.

“I don’t know much about clouds.” I pressed my hands into the glass and pretended to caress the fluffy white lace that lingered outside the bottle. “We only know the water. We miss it too.”

Her fingers pulled the cloud apart like cotton. “Well,” she said, “maybe I could help you with that.”

In the center of the bedroom, she filled a wooden tub with seawater.

“For authenticity,” she said.

We tittered amongst ourselves as she placed rocks and seaweed and other marine obstacles in the makeshift ocean. When she was done, it looked like the most fearsome sea we’d ever seen.

“Now are you ready for the worst part?”

I nodded. “Whenever you are.”

Her lithe fingers maneuvered into the spout and wrenched the ship from the glass. The sails bent, and the bow shrieked while several men toppled from the deck and into the water.

“Man overboard!” the first mate hollered, and the girl giggled.

I glared at her. “Could you help us?”

Still laughing, she plucked each miniature figure from the water and placed him back on the ship.

“Yours is the best toy boat ever,” she said.

I glared again. “It’s not a toy.”

She smiled. “Whatever you say.”

So compasses aligned, the ship set a new course. We were the first to survey this new sea, intrepid explorers eager to memorize each stone and crevice. And thought it was no Atlantic, whenever our auspicious ocean became predictable, she slipped a few new rocks and gold coins into the water.

“There’s more treasure here than all the other oceans combined,” I said, and the first mate agreed.

But the real water called to us again, the salt whetting our appetite for the sea. Every few nights, one of the men would escape, and the morning after, the girl would laugh and recount how she discovered him riding a mouse or a chipmunk in the garden.

“He was clinging to the poor creature’s back and bellowing orders, but it wouldn’t listen.” She slapped her knee like a hysterical child. “A mouse is even more disagreeable than a Kraken I bet!”

Grinning wider than I meant to, I stared up at her. “Aren’t you going to bring the men back?”

She shook her head. “If they’re eager for a new adventure, who am I to argue?”

One by one, all of the crew left for higher water until it was only me and the first mate.

Then even he packed an extra set of rations and climbed to the edge of the wooden tub.

“Aren’t you coming too?”

I gazed into the darkness. The girl sang a lullaby I’d never heard before. A sad little tune about how lonely the sea feels at night with no one around to sing back.

“Captain?”

I swatted at him. “Naw,” I said. “I think I’ll stay a little longer.”

He inspected me, the moonlit reflection from the water illuminating his arched brow.

“What do you plan to do?”

With a smile, I reclined on the deck. “Enjoy the open water, of course.”

The first mate disappeared into the darkness, and around midnight, I was sure I heard a mouse scurry in the walls and a voice call “Easy now.” But I didn’t care so much about other voices. I only cared about one voice. The voice that sang the most beautiful elegies in the world.

Elegies meant now for me and me alone.

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