Thursday, September 24, 2009

Message in a Bottle, pt. 5, 656 words

And not just that. As I came closer, I saw that it wasn't some single pile being battered by the surf. Like some strange spit of land, the bottles continued out into the water, held stable by their sheer mass. I clambered over them, overtaken by curiosity, and they shifted little under my weight – there were just so many that they held remarkably stable, even if the glass wet by the ocean spray was also extremely slippery. I fell a few times before I made a slow, crabby crawl across the bottles.

My hand closed around a different shape, after a few painfully slow minutes crabbing across the bottles. I looked down and found, nearly buried by the bottles, a brownish jug – also glass, so far as I could tell, and also stopped with a cork. I squatted down to tug the cork free, and a scroll of paper fell out when I upended it. The paper looked older – more discolored, stiffer, tattered at the edges. Very, delicately thin. But still the same message.

The bottles mounded higher as I went, now safely above the waterline, and they compacted together to create a more even surface. I could walk over them, with a little care. Gradually, they changed from bottles to jugs, a rolling wave of green giving way to brown, like a healthy plain bleeding into drought and blight.

The brown glass jugs gave way eventually to old, dirty clay jugs. No fine ceramics, they were rough under my feet compared to the glass, and I kicked up a lot of dust. The ocean was a joke now, with no hope of cresting this mass. If I looked hard and carefully to either side, I could just make out a glimmer of silvery-gray light that might have been the setting sun reflecting off the water. The causeway – no, the peninsula of bottles and jugs stretched as far before and behind me as I could see.

Had I really been walking so long, that shore was out of sight? I shook my head, dismissing the question, and continued on.

Jugs became amphorae became wax-sealed pots, and eventually clay became leather. Waterskins, some rigid and others flexible, sealed with wax or pine pitch, plugged up with clay or wood stoppers. And even these disappeared at the last. Soon, I walked not on glass or clay or leather, but bone.

White surrounded me, like being caught out in the winter. And a ghastly, macabre winter, as a chill wind picked up from nowhere I could tell. The ground under my feet was composed entirely of skulls. Human skulls.

Many were bleached white, as if left out in the desert sun for years. Others looked fresher, with a more natural color than the glaring white, while others had the tarnish of time spent buried. All were intact, though none had their jaw bones.

One caught my eye. Where the thousands – no, millions of skulls around me were all about adult-sized, this one was much smaller. A child's skull. It had all its upper teeth, tiny little things that had yet to fall out and be replaced by permanent teeth. I remembered when my own baby teeth had started to fall out, and realized the skull's owner couldn't have been more than six years old when he or she died.

Something shifted inside the skull as I turned it about. I looked into the hole at the base, where the spine goes up to meet the brain, and shook another little scroll out. I don't think it was paper – it didn't have the right feeling, the right consistency. If I'd had to guess, it was probably a scrap of vellum. Incredibly old, and falling apart even as I unrolled it. Pieces broke off and fell away in my hand, leaving nothing but the tiny shred upon which had been written the words:

help me

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