By Anna Schwab
Image: “9 x klingeln,” by Johannes Geuer, 1976.
It was July. The afternoon light was slowly sinking behind the sand dunes. She was standing alone in the ocean foam. She was whittling away at a piece of driftwood, the woodchips falling with the wind. She was watching a catamaran slowly circling its mooring.
A knock at her ankle. A flash of light. A whisky bottle. Jack Daniels, with the label peeled off. She picked it up. There was a message inside with wet ink stretching spiny spores on the page. “We have figured everything out,” it said. She read the words aloud. She tossed them around in her mouth, said them one by one, said the syllables two by two saving the last for the rush of hot air and the cool snap of the t.
There was no number, no address, no name. Just “we.” She knew she did not belong to that we. The knowing we the everything we the we that wrote these words in a cheap bottle of whisky and threw them into the sea. A message in a bottle! The moment was taken by the importance of it all, by that sometimes illusion of future prospects.
She went home. Her father was sitting at the dining room table, grading summer-term papers. She told him about the message in the whiskey bottle, about the mystery of the we, of the we have figured everything out. Send one back, he said. Try sending your own message, he said, see if you can reach someone. At that idea she felt the shift, the maybe sea change of her life in watercolor.
So she went back to the beach with the whiskey bottle but this time it contained her own message sealed tightly in a plastic bag.
I am here
it said. At the bottom:
19 North Road
West Tisbury MA, 02575
And she sent the words into the ocean. Now I must wait for an answer, she thought, and felt a relief from the lonely, slow heat of the summer.
Lily worked at the post office. Summer days spent in a room cluttered with shelves and shelves of boxes and lines and lines of people waiting to send off words and things. Sometimes her job was to sit at the desk and attend to people shipping packages off the island, taping them up, scanning their barcodes. Taping them up, scanning their barcodes. Sometimes her job was to sort letters for the postman. Sort letters for the postman who drove the mail truck, arranging them by zip code, then town, then street name.
She was the junction at which the senders and receivers of the world made simple communion with one another. She pretended to share in their intimacies, sometimes imagining that she was the mother, sister, wife, daughter in a far off exchange.
All the while she waited on her own correspondence, for her letter back. The letter was the thing. She felt its possibility, the textured shift. Who would write back? brought to her life in a manufactured coincidence sort of way. The letter with its beam of light reaching out and catching hers for just an instant, a sudden flash.
In late August on the cape, everything settles. Light falls to gold, tilting angles with the fade of summer. The air settles salt and cools down, opening up for the evening breeze. Lingering tourists leave at the last breath of summer, at the closing down shops that board their windows with promise signs. Until Next Summer, or, See you in June! Those messages shine out through the windows in deep winter, lighthouses of snowy banks.
It was a Sunday afternoon in late August and Lily noticed these signs up on her favorite chocolate store, marking the near end of her wait. Like an hourglass her summer had seemingly stretched out unnoticed, the last of it quickly falling off. All the while waiting for someone to respond to her reaching out, all the while hoping for the sea change of her life in watercolor. Soon she was leaving the summer and to another fall.
When she arrived home, she checked her mailbox, like everyday. This time! there was a letter inside for her, small and unassuming. The saliva sealed lip perfectly flat. She ripped it open, paper tearing under smooth fingers.
Hello from Nantucket!
We found your message in a bottle on the beach off of Walwinet Road not
far from the lighthouse. We were all very excited to find your note.
You made us happy! Many thanks.
Ed, Terry, Liz, and William
Email us back! firstname.lastname@example.org
A family from Nantucket.
Truthfully, Lily had imagined her letter to brave the Atlantic, arrive at the coast of Portugal or better yet fall into the hands of a beautiful young Spaniard who would then strike a romantic correspondence. This was the illusive daydream tossed around in her imagination, riding the surf of her waiting.
But the Bradleys@bbs-law.com?
She wriggled against the slippery disappointment. From the making contact with a regular family like hers on a beach not too far away from her own with names like hers and probably jobs and a car like hers and a black lab like hers. This was not the we-have-figured-everything-out. This was not what had fueled her long time all-day everyday waiting.
Lily left the summer with her response unwritten. She missed the flash. The reaching out, taken by another’s hand. The small opening up. The we-are-all-here.
Read an interview with Anna Schwab here.