A hundred and ten years ago, a British scientist threw a thousand and twenty messages in bottles into the sea. They were designed to sink to the bottom, to roll with the currents at depths so deep that it was almost unimaginable at the time that man could ever manage a personal visit. The idea was that the bottles would occasionally be dredged up, that the finders would let the British Marine Biological Association know where it had been found, and thus the unfathomable currents could be mapped. It wasn’t even the currents that drew his interest, so much as the bottom-feeding plaice, an odd flat sort of fish, whose migratory patterns fired his curiosity.
So, he placed a postcard within each bottle, complete with mailing address filled in and a set of survey questions in three different languages. The note promised a shilling to anyone who returned a postcard. Some 600 were gradually found, mostly by fishermen pulling up nets that dredged the bottom of the North Sea. Another 400 have never been seen since, lost or buried or sunk, or even pulled up and discarded by the sorts of people who don’t dream or know what poetry is for.
But one emerged last week, after a century and more in the waters. A German woman found it on an island, broke open the sealed glass, and dropped the postcard in the mail. The British Marine Biological Association had not seen one of these in living memory. Even the name of the researcher on the postcard was recollected only dimly, and then because he later became the president of the Association, dying before most of the current members were even born.
It bobbed around the bottom of the North Sea, while the navies of two world wars tore apart the waters above it, as their broken hulls and men plummeted to the black depths around it. A hundred million died in war and revolution, we split the atom, we walked on the moon, we invented the Internet. In an ocean of blood and fire, we changed in a century from a place just emerging from pre-electric darkness to a pulsing thing hardly recognizable to science fiction. And still a wee bottle bounced along the sea floor.
Immortality is a vicious god. Most only know it through their children, knowing that some part of them will be remembered for a bare century or so, even if second hand. Knowing that genes, while blind and anonymous, are some poor form of immortality, a piece of you living on into the dim distance of the future even as you yourself are unremembered and unremarked upon. The ambitious among us torture themselves, building in science and art and lines upon the map desperate bids for a more literal immortality, or at least one that still remembers their name. Most of us fail, and terribly; there are only so many names that are ever added to that list of immortals like Einstein and Shakespeare and Caesar.
All the small ways that we try to shift the world, that we try to leave our mark, they’re all so many bottles thrown into the sea. But they sent Ms. Marianne Winkler a shilling, though the coin hasn’t been used in nearly half a century. Because there is honor in keeping the promises of dead men.
(article about the bottle’s finding here)
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.