Ship in a bottle

by Darla J. Bowen

Thomas saw a list of ships displayed prominently in the harbor. Among them: Tide Chaser, Porpoise, and Destiny. “What are those?”

Robert kept walking. “Ships lost at sea.”

“That won’t happen to your ship, will it?”

“I’m sure it won’t, son. Captain Morrow has sailed over twenty years and is very experienced at sea. I sailed with him before you were born.”

At the edge of town, they found the narrow path that led up to the lighthouse on the cliff. Thomas kept pace with his father. He peered down at the Majestic below, watching men climb the rigging, preparing to leave on the evening tide. He held tighter to his father’s hand.

Reaching the lighthouse door, Robert knocked. A voice from within called out, “The door’s unlatched. Let yourself in.” They entered a circular room strewn with nets, ropes, poles, and hooks. Shelves displaying bottles lined the walls.

A man with a grey beard stood over a table, moving a stick inside a dark glass bottle. “One moment.” Squinting, he moved the bottle in the lantern light . He grunted in satisfaction. “Robert. It’s been a long time, son.” Then, turning to Thomas, “Ah, now this must be my grandson. Thomas, isn’t it?”

Thomas nodded. He had never met his grandfather. “It’s nice to meet you, sir.”

“Sir?” The man snorted. “No need for all that formality. Call me, Grand-dad, or Pappy. Hell, call me Harold.”

“I wish I didn’t have to burden you, but I need to go out with this voyage. I’ve avoided too many since Marianna passed.”

“Understood, Robert.” Harold took Thomas’ trunk. “I’ll stow this in the smaller bedroom upstairs.” He climbed the winding stairs.

Robert knelt. “I should only be gone a month or two. Once I get back, we’ll make other arrangements.”

Tears welled in Thomas’ eyes. “I understand.”

“I know you do.” Robert kissed him on the forehead. “Listen to your grandfather, do your chores, keep up with your studies, and watch the horizon. I will be back.”

From the doorway, Thomas watched his father leave. The breeze was cool. The sun hung low over the ocean. It had never seemed so vast.

“How old are you, lad?”

“Seven.” Thomas came inside to find Harold back at the table working with the bottle. Intrigued, he came over. “What are you doing?”

Harold smiled. “Haven’t you heard of ships in bottles?”

“I guess so.”

“It’s an art, Thomas. Don’t think over wise.” Harold waved him over to the shelves. “Feel free to look, just be careful. I’ve put many hours into each one.”

Thomas examined the tiny ships through their glass encasements, careful not to bump them. He stood on a chair to see the dark glass bottles on the higher shelves. “I can’t see the ships in these.”

“Those are a little different.” Harold grabbed the lantern. “You can’t see the ships in these unless you have a strong light. Prepare yourself for something amazing.” He held one of the dark glass bottles with the lantern behind it.

Inside, Thomas found a perfect replica of Tide Chaser. Everything, from sails and rigging to the figurine on the bow, even the crew, was exact. He wondered what was so different and amazing about these when the sails seemed to billow in a breeze and the crew began to move about. He gasped.

Harold chuckled. “You saw it, didn’t you?” He returned the bottle to its perch.

Thomas nodded. “How’d it do that?”

“Don’t have the slightest idea.” Back at the table, he resumed work on his latest creation. “A friend of mine brought me a crate of those dark glass bottles. Claimed he salvaged them from a wreck. When I ran out of my other bottles, I decided to try one, even though the glass is so dark.”

“But how’d the things inside move? They did move, didn’t they?”

Harold shrugged. “An illusion? Magic? That first ship was so fascinating, I decided to do others.” He glanced out the window. “If you want to watch your father’s ship, you can get the best view up in the tower. I’ll be up shortly to light the beacon.”

“Thank you, sir.” Thomas blushed. “Sorry, Grand-dad.” He ran up the winding stairs. The room at the top was large enough for the beacon and a walkway around it. He looked out to sea. Making way toward the horizon was the Majestic. He knew his father could not see him at this distance, but he still waved.

“Don’t fear, lad. He’ll be back before you know it.” Harold held a torch. Very carefully, he touched the flame to the beacon’s wick. Bright light engulfed the room. “When you’re ready, I’ve got something for you downstairs.”

Thomas spent a few moments alone in the tower. The beacon made him sweat. He watched the Majestic, but the bright light made it hard to see the ship in the deepening darkness. No longer able to distinguish ship from sea, he sighed and reluctantly went downstairs.

“It can be hard on a boy to wait for his father’s return.” Harold was placing bowls of chowder and thick hunks of bread on the table. “I remember all too well.” He retrieved the bottle he had been working on. Now corked, he handed it to Thomas. “I hope it helps until he returns.”

Gently grasping the dark glass bottle, Thomas held it up to the lantern. Inside, depicted in miniature, was the Majestic. The ship sprung to life. The sails filled with a breeze and the crew performed their duties. He squinted, making out his father speaking with the captain at the bow. A chill went through him.

“Do you want to put it in your room? I can make a shelf for it tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Grand-dad.” Thomas held the bottle protectively to his chest. “In my room. I want to keep it close.” He sat it gently on the table.

As he ate his chowder, he remembered the list of ships lost at sea displayed in the harbor. In his mind he saw the list again, this time with the Majestic added. He ate in silence, not really hungry, but knowing it was only polite to do so, and stared at the dark glass bottle on the table.

The End