Last year my wife Janis and I were walking on the beach near our house. We’ve been married almost twenty years and still hold hands wherever we go, so my first awareness of the bottle was when she started racing ahead and dragging me across the sand.
“Hey Matt! Look at the size of that shell!” she said, simultaneously blocking my view of it as she ran ahead.
“Oooh wait. Is that what I think it is?”
“Probably. Assuming you think it’s a piece of trash.”
Janis let go of my hand to drop to her knees, allowing her skirt to pool around her on the sand. “It’s not! It’s a treasure!”
“It’s probably some homeless man’s piss pot.”
Anyone who has been married knows exactly what look she gave me. Sort of an ‘I’ve known you long enough that I don’t have to pretend you’re funny anymore’ look.
It really was a beautiful bottle though, despite the erosion and clinging barnacles countless years had stained its surface with. It seemed to be made of some type of ceramic, and the fat base was surrounded in intricate geometrical designs. A leering face was carved into the neck, and a moldy cork with a pungent smell was wedged in the top. Janis wasted no time trying to pry it open with her nails.
“It looks like something that might have been on an old ship,” she said, grunting with the effort like an offended farm animal. “How can you not be excited by this?”
I shrugged, looking out to sea. “I like to save all my excitement for the big things. Like weekends and pizza night. Speaking of…”
But she had it opened now. She’d turned it over to shake the contents into her outstretched palm. I expected a rush of water and nothing else, but the thin rolled parchment which slipped out was immaculately preserved. Janis unrolled it and studied the page. The wonder in her face gave way to amusement, then incredulity, her brow continuing to furrow into a bitter anger.
“Well don’t leave me hanging! What’s it about?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Ask your girlfriend.” She shoved it against my chest and turned to stomp back toward our house without another word. Bewildered, I opened the letter and read:
Dear Matthew Davis,
I miss you. I need you. How much longer will you make me wait? If your love endures as mine has done, what keeps you away from me?
“Janis? Honey?” I called, unable to tear my eyes away from the note. The paper — the bottle — even the smooth archaic penmanship, all seeming ancient and untampered with. So what were the chances that it would be addressed to someone else with my name?
My wife was already gone though. She didn’t talk to me until late that night when I finally got frustrated enough to snap at her. It was either a coincidence or a practical joke played on me, neither of which were my fault. She wasn’t convinced, but at least she opened up about her fear that I was cheating on her. She thought that someone hid the note near my house where I would find it as a romantic gesture. Eventually, she came around, but it was an uneasy peace at best.
And it only got harder from there. There was another bottle almost every morning, wedged in the sand at the high tide line as though it had washed up overnight. Sometimes my wife would find them, other times I would. I posted pictures online of a few of the bottles, and the closest match I was able to find were potions used by 17th-century alchemists. That seemed like an important clue to me, but all my wife ever focused on were the notes.
The ocean ends, though we do not see it. The summer fades, though the sun seems unassailable in the sky. Only our love will never grow old. I will not give up on you Matt.
How long has it been since we’ve made love? Do you still remember what it felt like to be with me?
Janis did her best to play it off as a joke, but I could tell that it was getting to her. She kept making excuses to spend more time alone, and when I pressed her to talk about her jealousy she’d only treat it like an accusation and get defensive. We’d start fights over nothing until by the end of the night we were screaming at each other and the next morning not remember why.
One night all it took was me coming home late from work and she was yelling before I even opened the car door. I couldn’t take it anymore. I just slammed the car into reverse and left without a word, driving down to the beach to be alone. All the bottles were arriving within about a hundred yard stretch, so I resolved to spend the whole night there until I caught whoever was really leaving them.
Despite living within walking distance of the ocean, I’d never spent any time there after the sun went down. It’s amazing how alien a familiar place can feel when the night closes in. The gentle rhythm of the waves seemed less innocent somehow like I was listening to some colossal creature slowly breathing beside me. The reflection of the moon cast strange shapes into the water and the cresting of each black wave seemed like it was being distorted by unseen creatures just below the surface.
I maintained my silent vigil until just after midnight when the moon was masked by a thick layer of clouds. My phone had run out of batteries, and it was so dark that I don’t think I would have seen someone drop the bottle ten feet away. It would have been completely black if it weren’t for the reflection in the ocean. I was getting ready to give up, or at least go back to the car and look for a flashlight when a thought occurred to me.
If the moon was completely obscured, how was its light still reflecting from the water? The longer I stared, the surer I was that the light wasn’t a reflection at all: the soft luminescence was coming from below the waves. I raced back to my car to check for the light, but I didn’t find one. There was a snorkeling mask in the trunk though, so I took that instead and returned to the beach.
I stripped to my underwear and took a step in. The water was ice around my ankles and I almost turned around, but the light was even stronger now and I was drawn like a moth to the flame. By the time the water reached my knees, my feet were so numb that I couldn’t even feel them. The light was moving too, twisting and dancing like a living thing, one second drawing close, the next leading me out a little deeper.
Deep breath before the plunge and I flung myself into the oncoming waves. The cold water closed over my head, but the thrill of my discovery made it feel like liquid energy washing over my body. The light was coming from a woman, shining out through her translucent skin. She was gracefully twirling through the water, her slightest movements propelling her more easily than a practiced stroke. At first, she looked like she was swimming, but as I drew closer it quickly became apparent that all the movements were wrong.
Her elbows and knees moved in unnatural, double-jointed arcs. Her neck appeared to have no bones at all, and it turned fluidly to track me independently of her turning body. In her right hand, she carried a bottle, just like the kind that had washed up on shore. If my mouth hadn’t been full of water, I might have screamed. I also might have said, “Hello Janis,” and she might have said, “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I don’t know how long I followed her for. She’d let me get almost close enough to touch her before drifting back just out of reach. I was mesmerized by the light and couldn’t resist trying to get a better look. If it weren’t for the eldritch radiance and the strange movements I would have sworn it was Janis, and I thought if I could only get close enough to catch her then I’d know for sure.
I was getting tired though, and stretching for the ground and feeling nothing I suddenly realized how deep I had actually swam. I surged to the surface in a panic. The lights of houses on the shore were so far away that they looked like stars. I spun helplessly in place, trying to get a bearing of where I was when a hand grabbed my ankle. She didn’t try to yank me down. The caress was gentle, but as soon as I tried to pull away, her grip tightened. I felt her fingers climbing up my leg, the incessant pressure building like a constricting snake slowly strangling its prey.
I tried to start swimming back toward shore, but the more I fought against her, the harder she pulled. A moment later and I was underwater again, bending double to vainly try and pry her hands off with my fingers. Water was flowing into my nose and mouth at this point, the bitter salt igniting my throat and flooding me with fresh waves of panic. The more I panicked, the harder I fought, and the harder I fought, the deeper down I was dragged. The last thing I remember was Janis wrapping her whole body around me, her limbs and spine completely encompassing me as though she had no bones at all. I remember the icy waters giving way to numbness, then the suffocating pressure giving way to oblivion.
It was early morning when I woke on my back on the beach. There was a bottle still clutched in my hands.
Can you forgive me? it read. I forgive you. As long as you visit me every year, I can wait a little longer for you to be mine again.
Even when I went home, it didn’t feel like home anymore. I found Janis’ body lying in bed with nothing but an empty bottle of Jack Daniels and two empty containers of sleeping pills. I was sick of notes, but there was one left for me to read on the night-table.
I saw you with her in the water, and I’ll never forgive you. Will you forgive me?
It’s been a year since my wife died. Maybe when I go back down to the water to visit her again, she’ll finally understand.
It’s only her that I’ve ever loved.