When I was six, I developed a spiritual disorder. I started believing that someday, I would find a message in a bottle. Over the years, the condition mutated from the gnostic persuasion of a 6-year-old into a belief system more commonly found in those who have seen Jesus in their toast.
The conviction broke out on the one warm holiday our family ever took, in a beach town called Le Lavandou, in the South of France. It was 1987: the summer of palm trees. There were palm trees on my new short-sleeve Mickey Mouse button-up shirt, and there was a palm tree on my head with a trunk made of scrunchies. The palm trees that cordoned off the beach parking lot were boxed in gleaming white planters.
That week, I stepped on my first ever yellow jacket and ordered a different shade of sorbet each day. I posed next to a bronze statue and thought maybe we were rich. The beaches were crowded, topless, and full of smokers, and perhaps for those reasons, we spent future summers up North, catching colds in the Atlantic and using WWII bunkers as windbreaks.
The gift shops in Le Lavandou sold green plastic flasks with screw caps and a rolled-up wish-you-were-here note inside. They were pre-stamped and designed to fit through a mail slot. Out loud, I voted them repellent, but secretly, I wanted one.
At the end of the week, I conceded defeat to bad taste, and asked my parents for ten francs to buy a souvenir message-in-a-bottle. I remember my dad saying, “Just wait until you find a real one,” but I can’t be sure I didn’t make that up.
It would be just like my heathen father to force another faith on me. I attended a Catholic school because it was a convenient drop-off next to his office.
It took all of six years for me to find a message in a bottle. Six years, in which I combed every beach from Plozévet to Douarnenez, and spelunked inside sinking blockhouses, even as my faith enfeebled.
On the afternoon I found the bottle, I was patrolling the mile-long beach with a small army of much younger, influenceable relatives, all of whom I had educated in my mission. (I sometimes think of what would have happened if one of them had found the bottle. I fear it could have ruined life for me).
The beach had a name but we called it our beach. It was one of those hostile northwestern French beaches with sticky sand and jutting rocks that slice open your feet. There were tar stains on the pink sea lichen from a 1979 oil spill, and the tide sent dead medusas towards our towels like a coin pusher.
The receding tide exposed a fraying barnacled rope. At the end, said my dad, was the Flying Dutchman and a crew of zombie-sailors, perhaps fossilized. We’d found syringes on the soft pebbles before, and the seaglass there was never quite blunt enough to be safe.
The bottle had washed up on the stones, and was stopped with a cork. It had a seaweed skirt and George Washington’s face was peering through the green glass. I had seen the air and sun disintegrate ancient frescoes in Fellini’s Roma, so I took the miracle home, for a more controlled autopsy.
From what I can tell, no one has taken a serious crack at estimating the odds of what happened to me. Equally unquantifiable are religious apparitions and other miracles. The closest thing I found to a statistic hinged on fiction, in a website that compared happening upon a message in a bottle to finding a golden ticket inside a chocolate bar. By this measure of faith, the equations place the odds at 1 in 7.32 million.
The particulars are less than reliable, but one thing that was precise was the latitude and longitude scribbled on the note, which placed the point of the toss a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida.
Look at Florida on a map. Now find the Pointe-du-Raz, France’s westernmost tip. (You won’t see it on the map, but there is a windswept virgin there, dangling the son of God over a cliff.) Trace with your finger a line from one to the other, and add in whales, ocean storms, the abyssal plain, and assorted monsters of the pelagic zone. Hell —look at the last thirty feet of the journey, with its granite obstacle course and deadly current, and tell me your existential compass comes out unscathed.
In the end, the biggest coincidence of my life was also the most deliberate. It compromised years of Catholic education, shifting my personal accountability to chance, rather than to God. The bottle turned every accident thereafter into prophecy, every nightmare into augury, every whim into prognostication. For some reason, it also gave me an uncontrollable fear of deep water.
There was a Florida address on the note, and a message. “In our country, we elect idiots to high office. What do you do?” I wrote to the address, and soon got a reply from a retired couple. They told me they had thrown the bottle out at sea during a pleasure cruise on the Atlantic. They told me they liked to go on cruises, and holiday in warm places.
I get really nervous around wishbones. I crack open fortune cookies like my life depends on it. I avoid looking at my tea leaves and wish carefully when I blow out birthday candles.
I am trapped in a one-person cult of fortuity, with a god I found on the beach. It is a faith without ethics, and with no sustainability. There is no conversion, no communion —only a drunken, sea-fearing trust in practical miracles with no practical application.
Sarah Françoise is a translator/writer who lives in New York and sometimes in Maine. Her writing has recently appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Hobart. She recently wrote the screenplay for Vacationland, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Boonies International Film Festival, and a children’s play called The Line.
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