The Book in the Bottle
The spring wind rushes over our house, sweeping away leaves that have clung stubbornly to their branches all winter. “The wind is really Time,” I announce, “and it blows away our memories.” Violet digs in the ground with a child's garden spade, her only reply a contemptuous jab at the dirt. She has not asked what the wind is. She does not question the wind or the ground or her name. These things just are.
I don’t remember Violet or her brother ever asking ‘why is the sky blue?’ or ‘where does rain come from?’ Never ‘will you always love me?’ nor ‘does the sun burn out?’ It is mostly grownups that dig and jab at reality with question marks.
The wind just is. And today it is a river of air, flowing over us. Violet pulls a marble out of the hole where she has been digging for secret messages left at night by the Raccoon people.
“Hmm,” she says. “This is a very important message.”
“What can a marble say?”
She considers. “It doesn’t say anything. It’s just a message. The Rac people use marbles as money. “
“What do they buy?”
“Corn, mostly, and candy. “
“We could go to the toy store and get a Rac fortune in marbles.”
Trembling branches shake the evening sunlight. Shadows of leaves flying away touch us, caress us like they know us, like they understand exactly how hard we would hold on to what we must at last let go.
Violet shakes her head: no. “There’s only one marble. Rac people only use one marble and this is the marble. They share it. It's always, always, always been this way. This way is fair. It is Raccoon law that you have to have a hole in your pocket so that the marble rolls right out.” She repeats that to the wind. “Rolls right out, rolls right out.”
"Let's check the fairy ring," I say. I stand up from the grass, going ‘oof’ as I unbend. Violet, in her turn, becomes upright in a process of bends and twists which imply she is a boneless creature from a low-gravity world. "Maybe the ring has gotten bigger or turned blue or something."
We walk to the back of the yard, dodging leaves to reach a circle of toadstools that seem absurdly over-painted in the subtle evening light. The grass in the center looks beaten down.
"Do you think fairies dance here?" I ask.
Violet considers. "That's crazy. Fairies are fake. No, it's cats. They dance here to tease the dogs. Dogs aren't allowed." She stands on one foot and swings the other above the ring, as though daring herself to enter. "Not, allowed, not, allowed."
I turn and look at the house. From the study window come flashes of mage fire and alien glow. Violet's older brother Jay sits in the dark and the flame of his video game. I think of a wizard sealed in a cave while the stalactites slowly, slowly lengthen, perfecting his book of spells. Looked at from outside it is a lonely ambition, safe from the living wind and the evening light.
“What shall we read tonight?” I ask.
For us, it is an important question. More weighted with consequence than what movie to watch, or what will be for dinner. We read from a book at bedtime, and what we read colors our jokes and games and preferences for days. It's always been this way, always, always, though Violet is seven and Jay twelve. It will always be this way, though Jay is growing tall and taller and the wind is blowing hard and harder.
Harry Potter, Nicobobinus, Hound of the Baskervilles, Seven Day Magic, The Princess Bride. Goosebumps and Animorphs, Tales of Moominvalley. The Neverending Story. Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The Chronicles of Narnia. Curdie and the Goblins. The Black Cauldron. What shall we read?
After dinner, I wash up while Kay initiates the ground-work to preliminary negotiations for bedtime. I listen to the usual conditions, counter-proposals and compromises concerning time and teeth, homework and pajamas. Beyond the kitchen window the back yard is dark, but the wind still shouts in the branches like an excited crowd. I slip out the door into the night. I walk towards the toadstool ring, reciting titles to the crowd like the lines of a spell.
Lud in the Mist. Dread Companion. A Wizard of Earthsea. More Goosebumps. More Animorphs. Wayside School Is Falling Down. A Wrinkle in Time. The Phantom Tollbooth. James and the Giant Peach. The Wind in the Willows.
Eventually I join the upstairs bed-time conference. There is a strong lobby for The Hobbit, but rules of precedence and sanity say that since we just read it we should read something else.
"What makes a good bedtime story?" I ask.
"You always ask that," says Jay. He is in a bad mood for being pulled from his video game.
"You always answer that," I say.
He skips the fool's gambit ‘do not’. Instead he begins lobbying. "A good story to read at bedtime has more Han Solo, less Luke, no Leia, lots of storm troopers and a dragon. Also a war."
"No no no no no no no," says Violet, who knows the rhetorical power of repetition.
The Last Unicorn. The Prince and the Pauper. Half Magic. Wolf Tower. Sherlock Holmes. Seven Day Magic. Eight Days of Luke. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dragonsong. Peter Pan.
"Where did you disappear to?" asks Kay. She is staring at me suspiciously. She’s a clever wife. But my hands are clean, my deeds are pure, and my eyes show that I have nothing up my sleeve. Metaphorically speaking at least, which, granted, is how I usually speak.
"Sorry," I reply contrite. "Thanks for getting the prisoner out of his cell." I nod towards Jay, who bares his teeth like a wolf.
"Did you brush those?" I ask.
The Hero and the Crown. The Keys to the Kingdom. Redwall. Matilda, A Series of Unfortunate Events. The Adventures of Robin Hood. Skellig. The Sword in the Stone. Momo. The Big Friendly Giant.
"I’m not sleepy,” Jay yawns. “I need to work on my flame spells. Can I skip listening to a story and just - "
There is an explosion in the backyard.
Pajama-clad and bath-robed, we peer out the kitchen door. In the far corner of the yard where the fairy ring lurked is now a small crater from which creep tendrils of smoke or mist. Drops of green glowing liquid are splashed about. Streaks of ground are carved out from the crater to form a sort of star.
"Hmm," says Kay. She is strangely unimpressed by the eldritch horror and glowing mystery. She covers her mouth as if to stifle a yawn. She hangs back, but the kids and I dare to approach the smoking crater. Within it lies… a large bottle.
I pick it up, straining at the weight. "Hot," I complain, and we take it into the house and put it on the kitchen table. The sides are streaked with mud and a glowing syrup which we carefully wipe away.
We peer through the thick glass into the bottle. Within is the gray-green rectangle of a book. It looks dusty and rather abused, as though it had come a long journey. No title is visible on the stained cover. The pages between look crumpled and ragged. "It came from outer space," I declare. Kay chokes suddenly, no doubt in terror.
Jay and Violet are tapping at the glass as though hoping to startle the imprisoned book into jumping or twitching.
"How do we get it out?" asks Jay. The top is sealed with a fire-singed cork. The opening is far too small to reach through.
"Break it break it break it," says Violet. I have always admired her sense of direct action.
"Not so fast," I say. "Aren't we supposed to tell the government if we find something that falls from space?"
"Who says it fell?" asks Jay. "Supposing it came up from the ground? Or from another dimension?"
"Oooh, good point," I admit.
When we shake the bottle some of the pages come loose enough to tease us with glimpses of the writing within. "What kind of letters are those?" asks Violet. "It's not raccoon letters." She being the inventor of Rac Script, she would know.
"Looks gothic," I declare. "The first books were printed with letters like that. Seems old, but I bet this was done on a computer. The letters look too even."
"How did the book get in the bottle?”
“Maybe it was built piece by piece inside it, like a ship?”
“Break it break it break it.”
“Not in the house,” says Kay. She thinks about it. “And not outside either. Someone will cut themselves.”
I consider. "Let's keep it as is for now. Maybe government scientists are going to demand we bring it to NASA. We'll get to ride on a helicopter."
"It was in our back yard!" argues Jay.
"Ours, ours, ours," agrees Violet. "It's Rac law." If you are wondering, yes, she invented most of the Raccoon legal system. Sort of a raccoon John Marshall.
"Ours," I agree. And with that we head back upstairs and do a quick chapter of 'The Wizard of Oz' and turn out the lights.
For a week The Book in the Bottle is an object of fascination upon our kitchen table. "What was it, why was it, from where was it?” are the subjects on the surface. Deeper down lurks the existential question: to break, or not to break. Should we trade a satisfying mystery for a probably unsatisfying answer? It’s bad enough at Christmas to open a magically wrapped present only to discover a box of socks and underwear.
Then again, we all knew from bitter experience: horde your Halloween candy too long and it goes hard, goes bad. Bugs breed within the once-shiny wrappers. At least with the book sealed away we could savor the anticipation, choosing our own time to trade a thousand and one possible stories for one final ending. At least, we thought we could choose.
So the bottle sits on the kitchen table before us, at meals, at homework sessions. We tap at the glass, turning it round and round and speculating.
"Is there a title on the front?" asks Kay. "It looks like very faint letters."
"It’s just a stain," I say. I peer myopically. "Well, maybe a picture of a face that's been scratched out. Or a hand?"
"No, it’s letters," Violet counters, sharper eyed. "It says 'City Of'. The rest is all blurry.”
"Maybe it's from a lost city under our back yard and they sent it up to the world above," suggests Jay. We all think about that. The idea has a strong appeal. A lost city under the grass of our back yard is very, very cool.
But as leader of the ‘It Fell from the Sky’ faction I am forced to disagree. "No, I conclude after much study, that it is the diary of a space explorer. His ship is called 'The City Of ' something. But he's stranded in space. So he put his ship's log into a bottle and dropped it down on us."
“Maybe it is directions on how to build a space ship,” supposes Violet.
“Why put that in a bottle?” I ask.
“So we would find it and build a space ship and rescue him,” she replies, speaking slowly and carefully to step around the obvious holes in my brain.
“It’s a story,” announces Jay a week later. He has pried away the charred wooden top and stirred the pages within with a coat hanger, writing down what words can be read in the parts of pages revealed. “There is a wizard and a shoemaker and a duke and a hill and a burning tower and some monsters in a castle. And a ring and some kind of evil crow.”
For the next few days we make up dozens of quick stories that fit those things together. It is hardly a challenge.
But the Extraordinary grows old at the same speed as the Ordinary. Wedding cake goes stale as quickly as any loaf of bread. The bottle with the book shifted to a place of honor under the living room coffee table. Visitors remarked upon it, and when they were told that it fell from space to crash into the middle of a fairy ring in our back yard, they nodded impressed, then said ‘No, really, where did you get it?”
"What makes a good adventure story?" I ask at bedtime.
“You always ask that,” replies Kay.
“You always say that I ask that,” I reply. Which isn’t true but it feels true.
I watch her weigh the counter 'you always say that I say that you ask that,' which isn’t true and is a dreary tangle besides. Instead she asks "Are you keeping a list?"
I laugh. "I made that list a long long time ago, in this very same galaxy. No, I am just checking if anything new has come along."
"What's on your list, then?" asks Violet.
I consider. "A good adventure story has a chase through a graveyard. There shall be a duel on a cliff by moonlight or firelight or lightning. There must be treasure. A magic ring. A haunted tomb and a ruined castle. Guards tricked, villains confounded. A lost heir, disguises, an assassin, ghosts, revenge, mutant tigers -"
I ignore that, "- mutant tigers, an ancient battle between good and evil, an execution, a daring escape. There must be a prophecy that actually surprises, a final battle with an unexpected ending. There must be dull villagers, street-smart orphans and an impossibly clever-but-wicked noble villain."
"What book is this?"
I brush that aside. "No one book. It is my list of pieces from the best. Adventures by night in a graveyard are in Tom Sawyer, in Great Expectations, The Horse And His Boy, in Harry Potter. Duels are in The Three Musketeers and The Princess Bride. The Westing Game and The Three Musketeers have mystery and disguises. The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn and The Hobbit and Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer have treasures and a mystery. The High King and The Mouse and His Child have a prophecy that actually surprises. Lord of The Rings has magic rings and ghosts and the lost heir and mutant tigers -"
" - and The Beggar Princess and The Prince and The Pauper have the clever street-wise kids. Harry Potter and The Black Cauldron and The Sword In The Stone and Momo and The Wizard Of Oz all have the crazy wizard and the orphan with a destiny and The Last Unicorn and Lud In The Mist and The Thirteen Clocks and Three Musketeers and The Princess Bride have the sly noble villain."
I stop and think. What did I leave out? It's all pieces that overlap. I should make a spreadsheet with everything cross-indexed, maybe on a projector with a power point presentation. "Ghosts are in Harry Potter and The Last Unicorn. Assassins are in The Princess Bride and The Three Musketeers. Dim villagers in Last Unicorn, The Hobbit, The Princess and Curdie and Tom Sawyer. Duels, got ‘em. Did we ever read Scaramouche for bedtime? Haunted castle in Curdie, in The Book Of Three and The Last Unicorn. And every good adventure has a mystery, from Sherlock Holmes to Tom Sawyer to Harry Potter…"
I have to stop for breath. I must be getting old.
By summer the bottle is out from under the living room table. It begins wandering nomad-like about the house to camp in corners where it can observe us, as though we were the oddity. Beside the kitchen door, then dodging into the bathroom closet with the spare towels. It studies us from the top of the stairs and under chairs, before finally retiring to the upstairs closet to trade observations with the vacuum cleaner and Violet's stilts, my broken sword-cane umbrella and a remote-control robot that has no controller.
Somewhere along the way it acquires a label fixed to its thick green glass: Break ONLY In Case of Emergency Need of Something To Read. It seems an unlikely emergency.
Autumn comes, and the leaves turn and burn red and yellow and leap into the shouting wind, free at last from their over-protective branches. Jay twists on the hook of a question-mark: is he too old to trick-or-treat, or just too old for an un-cool costume? Violet has formally dismissed the Raccoon Congress and now rolls her eyes at the mention of Rac culture.
“What makes a good adventure story?” I ask.
“A talking cat,” suggests Violet.
“Good one,” I agree. “Time Cat. Alice in Wonderland. The Last Unicorn. Manxmouse.”
Jay is sulking. His request to swap story hour for online game time has again returned from the Department of Parenting: request denied. But he knows the bureaucracy is wavering. He merely needs to find the right button combination to push, and he will be free to rove video elf-land with strangers and artificial intelligences who are his best friends forever.
He offers his suggestion for what makes a good story: “A dead dad."
“What?” That, from Kay.
“Seriously,” he replies. “Harry Potter. Frodo. Aragorn. Superman. Batman. Spiderman. Wizard of Oz, The Lion King. Tom Sawyer. Treasure Island. If a father is alive in a story he is either locked up, evil or worthless. Luke Skywalker's dad. Uncle Vernon. Cinderella's dad. 'A Wrinkle in Time's dad. All the parents in Goosebumps. All the parents in Animorphs.”
“Berenstain Bears’ dad is a doofus, just a doofus,” agrees Violet. “He tries to teach Brother Bear to ride a bike and to get honey and fly a kite, and he can’t do any of those things.”
I struggle for an exception. Tarzan’s dad. Taran’s dad. Mowgli’s dad. Peter Pan’s dad. The Baudelaire’s dad. Katniss Everdeen’s dad. Peter Rabbit's dad. Bastian Baltazar Bux’s dad. Yep, all dead, absent or worthless. What story has a father who is alive, competent, and on the scene?
I think of one. It's a movie not a novel but it’s something. “What about the dad in “Finding Nemo”?”
“Clown fish,” says Jay simply. It is a crushing argument.
We read a few chapters from Matilda, which has a living doofus dad and a dead good dad. I sulk late to bed and in the morning there is a knocking at our door.
It is a kite. It hangs from the roof by a tangled string, and the October wind swings it back and forth like the pendulum of a clock, banging lightly against our door, tapping, tapping, at our chamber door. Well, our front door but anyway.
The kite itself is torn paper with scorch marks across a picture of an eagle. An old iron key is tied to the tail. I bring it inside and lay it on the kitchen table. It rests there like the body of some sea creature storm-cast upon the shore. Kay picks up the key, disentangling it from the tail. “Benjamin Franklin wants his kite back,” she says.
“I always wanted to try that experiment,” I admit. A thought occurs to me and I turn to Violet and Jay “No flying kites in lightning storms. Lighting is electricity. This is already established.”
“You think it was hit by lightning?” asks Jay. He pokes the key, careful of a shock yet hoping for a shock. “What is it a key to?”
While I drive the kids to school we speculate on secret doors, treasure chests, cupboards and magical mechanisms that might require a lightning-charged key.
Per Jay’s request for the last few weeks, I drop him off half a block away from the school gate. This distancing decreases the probability that he will be embarrassed in front of his friends by being seen with any clown fish.
A week later it is Halloween's Eve. We carve pumpkins. I have bought four, one for each of us, and prepped the kitchen table with spoons and knives and markers for the operation. But only three surgeons show for the procedure. Jay remains in the study in the dark, practicing complex video game spell-casting that requires pressing six buttons in different sequences with the precision usually reserved for Stradivarius strings.
I tell him we are carving pumpkins. Three times, I enter the dark and stand beside the chair in which he slouches, and inform him we are carving pumpkins. He nods and shrugs, bored with the repetition of my words, the repetition of my existence. The third time I kick at his chair angrily and stalk out.
Violet draws a shaky cat face on the largest pumpkin and I begin carving it out for her. The knife hits an object. I look puzzled at the noise. I remove the pumpkin top. We peer inside. Tangled in the messy pumpkin guts and goo is… a box.
I pull it out. Violet wipes it off and we both try to open it. It is heavy, wooden and firmly locked. An old-fashioned keyhole sits on the front like a mouth going ‘ooh’.
“This just gets weirder and weirder,” observes Kay.
“Can a pumpkin grow around something?” asks Violet.
“I don’t think so,” I answer thoughtful. “But you could open up the bottom and put something inside and then maybe close it up with glue again. I found a kitten in my pumpkin once. How else could it have gotten there?”
“No you didn’t, did you really?”
“No, not really,” I admit. “But I wish I had. It would be a witch’s kitten. A black kitten with big spooky eyes.”
“Maybe there is a kitten in the box,” says Violet doubtfully. She knocks on the top. “We'd better let it out. But we need a key to –“ and then her eyes grow big as a witch’s kitten’s eyes.
By sheerest coincidence the key from the kite is in the study on the desk behind the video game console. We rush in and turn on the light and get in the way of the game and grab the key. The pressure of curiosity forces Jay from his cave to follow after us into the kitchen, angry but interested. I hand Violet the key. She puts it into the lock and gives a twist. It clicks. She opens the box.
Within the box is a hammer.
It is a small, heavy hammer and it has been painted a bright sticky gold. We stare at it in puzzlement. “What can we do with this?” I ask, hefting it.
“Oh no,” says Kay, who is clever, clever. “Not in the house.” And then all our eyes grow big as the eyes of the previously mentioned young of cats.
We rush upstairs. The bottle with the book is no longer under the stilts and the broken umbrella. We check the bathroom closet, under the living room table. Everyone is sure that they remember tripping over it and moving it somewhere else, but exactly where or when or who is not agreed. It wasn't me.
“The garage,” says Jay. “I bet you carried it out with the stuff for the garage sale.”
“I wouldn't sell a bottle with a book from outer space at a garage sale,” I retort. “They would never give me what it was worth.”
But we rush out to the garage and there under a pile of old clothes and chipped plates and picture books and broken toys is the bottle. I pick up one of the picture books. “The Soldier and the Tinderbox”? I ask, outraged. “I said I wanted to keep this.” I start going through the other books marked for sale. “Oh, no, no. Not ‘The Water of Life’. That’s Trisha Sharp Hyman illustration.”
“Can I smash the bottle?” asks Violet, who has stayed on target, stayed on target.
“I’ll do it,” volunteers Jay. When it's time to take out the garbage or wash dishes, nothing. Now he volunteers?
“Nuh uh uh,” I say in my most grownup and authoritative voice. From the pile of old clothes I take a stained towel and drape it over the bottle so no shards will fly. “Stand back,” I say. What a great thing to get to say. I repeat it, savoring the words. “Stand. Back.” And everyone stands back.
“Don’t cut yourself,” warns Kay, spoiling the moment some. “How about you wear gloves?”
Bah to all that. I bring the hammer down on the towel, right at a stain that looks like the pop-eyed face of the Berenstain Bear doofus dad.
“We only have these little kid’s band aids,” says Kay. “I think you need something bigger. You need stitches. I think we should go to the emergency room.”
I wince and examine my lower arm, which is now crisscrossed with a crowd of Little Mermaids and Lion Kings holding back the blood red tide. “I’m fine, all better, who has the book?”
Jay is holding it. Kay takes it and carefully shakes it over the trash can to remove any last shards of glass. “Do we read this tonight?” she asks dubiously.
“Let’s give it a try,” I shrug. “Might be worth a laugh.”
Jay hesitates. It is Friday night. He can skip bedtime and stay up playing online games till gray-fingered dawn smears the windows of his cave. If he wants. I stare with careful disinterest at the half-finished jack-o-lanterns. Violet’s cat-faced pumpkin has one slanted eye complete, but the grin is only penciled in.
Finally blood and curiosity moves Jay to agree, so long as there is no nonsense about ‘bed time'. I grin a crooked jack-o-lantern smile. The pumpkin winks back at me, maybe.
We settle in the living room with blankets and pillows and some Oreos on the coffee table. I sit down, then stand up again, moving around the room restless. This is what I usually do when Kay reads aloud, so it does not surprise anyone. But my arm is on fire and I am holding a wet red towel to it, and I am shaking slightly as though I had finished a long, long task. Which, of course, I have.
Kay glances at me in worry, shakes her head, grins, opens the book and begins to read.