To the Satellite Beach
I keep the pieces on my desk, fitting them together as an opaque, incomplete lens. Collecting them from one and another shore and soul across the world they merge into a single story like a flawed memory. I like flawed memories because they can be unintentionally hilarious, often misdirected, sometimes tragic mistakes. The heaviest violent waves beneath the bows pounding onto the beach in Indonesia after an earthquake. The serene and gentle ripples lapping like green tea on the lip of a cup kissing the edge of an island in the Indian Ocean.
The perfect bottle is boundless like the ocean but the pieces all have an edge.
Far From Haputale
Ranjan wishes his family was all still perched up safe and high in the tea estates amid the bungalows of Haputale in southern Sri Lanka. Where they could look out from the edge of precipitous hills across the green baize smoothing down slopes in an undulating coruscation of leafy hips and thighs. Then through the haze, see just the faint blue line of the sea on only the best of days.
The pieces of glass were opaque from wear, his fingers and thumb rubbing them, worrying them into something he hoped would have meaning. Ranjan kept them arranged on the chess table in the sitting room with the planters chairs and the tall art deco lamps of cracked old teak. It was like they were scrubbed into a diffuse scar tissue that would forever hide what was inside if all the pieces could be reassembled. Now they were just broken pieces, amounting to nothing.
“Ranjan,” his wife Srini would sometimes say, “it’s late, no? You can’t just sit out here on the verandah every night drinking arrack. Shayamali wants help with her homework. The Superintendent from Colombo called again asking after the accounts and when would they be sent.”
“He wants me to bring them myself to Colombo. He wants me to come out to report to the head office.”
“Then you must go! You don’t want to lose your job, no?”
“No,” he would always reply. “I don’t want to lose my job also.”
But what did he most not want to do? Leave the confines of the estate again, as they had when they went on holiday to Trincomalee all that time ago.
It was seven years after the tsunami wiped the coast clean and two years after the war had ended. The hotels had been rebuilt and the tourists were back and the holiday-makers were all eating hoppers and curry and drinking arrack and scotch and Lion Lager. The sea was once again calm and welcoming.
Ranjan remembers the beach as particularly vivid that day. With an arm on his son Jaya’s shoulder, they stood watching the sparkle, the boundless ocean rolling in to shore past Pigeon Island, the threatening dark of rock shelves, the sun’s tyranny and the monsoon’s promise. The hushed sounds of water spinning in the cataracts lurking in the shallows as always. The sand soft and pliable between their toes. So unlike the craggy and rocky slopes of Haputale.
Then in the evening when the adults were clustered under the lights in the café the young people were all down by the water, yelling, singing snatches of popular songs. And then the snatches of voices turned from throaty and happy to edgy and panicked. With a couple of other adults, Ranjan leapt up and started toward the cries that escalated from the beach now like a menacing tide.
“Migod! Migod migod—”
Ranjan reached Jaya’s girl friend Niroshi by the water’s edge, pointing, crying. But there was no sound issuing from the ocean despite its reassuring measure of hope and foam dissolving on the sand. And that was just the problem.
“They’re out there, they’re out there—” Niroshi choked out.
One of the adults, Manilal, plunged into the surf. Ranjan could not swim and waded back and forth in the water like an agitated animal presented with an open cage door but too terrified to go through it.
It soon became clear what happened. Jaya and some other drunk friends had tried to swim to Pigeon Island, and as Ranjan looked around the beach he picked up one of the empty bottles, staring at its ripped label. Then Manilal struggled out of the water, pulling a limp teenager with him; one of Jaya’s friends made it back to the beach but he, too, was drowned.
They never found Jaya’s body. Ranjan held onto that bottle as if it was some lifeline that could be ever present, unstoppered, ready to accept any wisp of life ready to flow back into it. Finally, two years after they returned home to the bungalow, he smashed it.
The pieces, fingered into well-worn but still jagged shards, just move around the chess board now. And whenever Ranjan finishes his bottle of arrack, he looks inside, listens to its hollowness for a moment, and then banishes that small, contained emptiness from the household.
Knowing Where It Always Will Be
Once Norma knew that she and Leonard were finished – that now and forever they would always be with others – it did feel at first like a relief.
It just seemed like in their early thirties their lives were opening out, they were living in places and selves beyond their own safe and sealed world. The world they had built for themselves since their early twenties.
First there was the Peace Corps – they weren’t married but somehow, seeming like fate to her then, they met when they both wound up in the same hard patch of a bone dry country in West Africa taking a breather between its civil wars. Based in nearby villages, sharing an intensity of experience they tried for years after to recreate, they drew to each other over bottles of warm beer in local cafes, sharing all the same stories, the laughter and the awe of where they were and the people they felt lucky enough to be working with. Dancing the nights away with all their friends desperate to love instead of fight.
Maybe it was because they were so hermetically sealed for so long. They had been a binary star system revolving around each other so tightly they thought other astronomical phenomena were distant and all that gravity out there wouldn’t work its centripetal will upon them.
But then in their righteous graduate school bubble plunging on in intellectual discovery and marches against apartheid, immersed in but guarding against the cold and rainy mist of the Pacific Northwest, Norma could feel the beauty, the expansiveness, the release washing over them.
Appearing in naked chiaroscuro black and white avant-garde films set in abandoned mental hospitals.
Dancing to the Rolling Stones’ Midnight Rambler at the Burning of the Winter Witch Party in a Sodo/Georgetown loft with a black woman artist in a tigerskin outfit then Norma sitting on Willie’s lap and stroking his soft beard while Bob Prime filmed.
Camaraderie and friendship and casual flirting with Lydia and Franklin even as Norma recalled the couple of times they all went to bed together.
And so it was. Just the way it seemed it was going to be perpetually as they reached into their thirties. Then Norma finally realized she could stretch out beyond what had become a way to keep both of them bound into a relationship at once seemingly safe and transparent.
When they split it did feel at first like relieving some pressure, an awakening, opening a sealed container.
But now a decade on here’s Norma at Third Beach near La Push at the edge of the continent on a punishing gray day with a storm coming in off the Pacific. Massive ancient trees roaring in the wind above her are the Northwest’s real sound garden. It’s the very spot she put that ring Leonard gave her in Freetown in a wide-mouthed bottle, closed it tightly and threw it into the surf, burying it in the gray cataracts beyond the driftwood and gleaming tide pools.
She scans the gray mirror of sea and sky, looking for that bottle to wash back in to her right at this spot. Like her first love in those villages in Africa, a place she has always promised herself to return to but has never—
Percy used to think: “If only I could get back to that Johnny Walker Blue Label. Just one more touch.”
Presenting the golden liquid with the Norwegian and French engineers to the generals sheltered in their huge villas in Yangon and Naypyidaw. Flying to Singapore and Malaysia in smooth business class. Acting as the window for foreign riches and professional respect into. . .
The well-appointed parlors and cossetted mansions of the dictators which were the only relief from the sleazy and murderous regime that suited them quite well and produced—
A capitol city of buildings looking like worn and weathered pilings of old rickety docks held together by seaweed and mildew and fungus.
The wash and stink of corruption, neglect and decay like a tide breaching the second and even third stories and reaching into people’s not-so-private lives.
Lifelines of rickety stained baskets thrown over the windowsills to dump waste into the streets and haul up food on worn coir ropes.
Avoiding the broken pipe-like stairs inside the rotting hulks, the land-bound wrecks of a sinking Burmese State.
Unavoidably hobbling up those stairs now, Percy limps and winces because of the untreated abscess on his ankle spread now to the heel.
Percy was deft and lucky enough to bypass all this detritus for years, until, as a pilgrim stranded in a hostile land, his Christian God seemed to have forsaken him.
First it was losing his position as an expatriate engineer in Singapore because of the Asian Economic Crisis in 1998.
Then it was the foreigners who stopped coming and investing, pressured by their governments to boycott the Burmese regime.
The very things that gave Percy and his family hope were now the weapons used against him: contact with foreigners, being a Christian, a surname that indicated long ago that Percy’s family migrated to Yangon from elsewhere in the pan-British colonial possessions of South Asia.
When their savings ran out and Percy couldn’t get a job, the family plunged into a pit of scraping, half-starved desperation.
“No! Absolutely not! I forbid it!” thundered Percy when his eighteen-year-old daughter told her parents she had taken the last of their savings to a recruiter and now had the promise of a job in Malaysia. He grew even more ashamed when he learned his wife had helped make this so.
But of course it had to happen. The year his daughter came back from her job as a maid in a wealthy house in Kuala Lumpur to give birth to a baby he grew even more bitter. As soon as she was able, she left the baby and was gone again, and it had been two years since Percy and his wife lost contact with her.
Living now for his grandson’s future after his daughter disappeared into Borneo, all he hears in the mornings is toddler laughter and the thunder and rumble of empty steel barrels rolling along the waterfront being unloaded from the rusting steamers on the river.
But then one day a mysterious package arrives via courier. The oblong box bears the name of the last Norwegian company Percy worked for. It sits on his dining room table for a good three days as he and his wife are afraid to open it. What if it’s a trap, a gift of guilt and entrapment by the security apparatus?
Finally Percy opens it to find a short note and a liter bottle of Johnny Walker Blue. The Norwegians did indeed send him the bottle.
But he can’t open it. If he does and its contents trickle out, he will possess just one more empty vessel.
So the bottle sits on his shelf, a warning to visitors, an illusion, he realizes, he must do without.
The 14th Street Electric Slide
The bottle Bill Fern uses on his electric guitar that was the last bottle Beryl emptied that night.
Doesn’t matter if it’s a café in Bologna, a cheap hotel in Malaga, a group of friends late at night in a taverna on Crete. He’s trying to recreate that bottle every time he plays that song. . . He asks someone in the audience to empty a bottle of Stella Artois and then he seizes the glass vessel and the music he creates from the contours of the bottle are all about that night, of her.
But he can never quite do it. He cannot play the song that same way ever again.
Once he can find all the moments, the timbre, the phrasing, that particular keening edge of the glass on the strings against the frets and he can put that moment back together, he will be able to drink again.
He really misses the drinking. The swinging, wide arc of his arm with a bottle in his fist, a benediction of the beach air. The exultant certainty in conversation, now expansive, now exasperated. The proud good feeling and cameraderie welling up all warm and overwhelming as he and Beryl set the twilight ablaze from one club to another. All the delicious make-believe tragedy and drama. The moments indelible. “Mr. Joyce is Leaving Paris” Off-Broadway as a gift informing the frisson of leaving for Spain and giving up New York. Forever.
Forgetting the last moments of slippage but of course not really forgetting but putting them away in a place so they can pretend to be exceptions.
The acidulous assessment early in the evening, feeling the anger rise watching the bobbing and weaving and slurring, of how many acts they’d get into playing their seemingly favorite party game, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The endless repetition of the rancorous throat-aching rage as they fought themselves down into a spiral of retribution.
Tearing her hands off the wrought-iron bars of the fence on 14th Street to drag her to the subway at 1:30 that morning to keep her safe because soused and obstinate she refused to do so herself.
All because he wanted to go and she wanted to stay.
And now has she?
When Beryl finally smashed the bottle of Stella Artois on the sidewalk between them and stormed off across Union Square, it was the last Bill saw of her.
Beryl is strong. She’s independent. She can take care of herself. She’ll come back to the apartment when she calms down. These are the phrases, the exceptions, that still go through his mind.
He doesn’t know to this day if she disappeared, was abducted, left him for another musician, faded into a Lower East Side loft, drank herself to death, went back home to Tulsa. His memory of her now is mainly a shatter of glass and a torn label that he feels forever that he’s trying to sing back together.
Sons of Soeharto
The shaman left the clay bottle for Sohib when he was forced out of the village last year. The rumor was that a young woman from one of the garment factories near Jakarta had been hurt under his care. She had been brought for an exorcism or a love spell and something had gone badly, dangerously wrong. Some people talked of rape. Some talked of what other unattributable misdeeds the shaman might have committed.
“Take this—” The shaman passed it between slats of the worn bamboo wall to Sohib late one night when torches had once again started to roam around midnight. Sohib felt the trembling fingers and grabbed the narrow fluted neck, pulling it to him. It felt light. “What is—”
“Don’t look in it—” were the last words he heard from the shaman that night or any other night.
But of course after some weeks Sohib had uncorked it, and aside from some disagreeable smell, found nothing inside. And shortly after that, it broke. He wasn’t even sure how but one morning he found shards in the sewage ditch outside his hut.
And then of course it was right after that the killings of the “witches” began.
First it was Noor, a seventy-year-old widow who lived in Sohib’s lane. One night a gang of young men took her from her hut, accused her of sickening one of the group leader’s sisters, and proceeded to hack at her with machetes, making sure to separate her head from her body.
Because witches can come back to life.
Next was Izzah, a sixty-ish woman who owned a tea warung in the village who had most certainly cast a spell on a prominent young couple, forcing them to split up. Before lopping off her head, the crowd gouged out her eyes and severed some of her limbs, which they tossed into the street.
Sohib, his wife Gemi, and his neighbors came to the conclusion that this misfortune was being visited on their village because the shaman’s bottle had broken and released some dangerous, insidious magic. Sohib told no one, not even Gemi, that he had once opened it.
Fortunately, Sohib had collected the bottle shards and kept the pieces together in a worn coconut shell in the corner of his hut. In a quiet and closely observed ceremony by the village headman and a raft of onlookers, Sohib, Gemi, his daughters and friends carefully glued the bottle back together again, stoppered it, and everyone hoped the evil now was contained at the very least.
It did seem that way for a few weeks, as no witches were found and the village started to calm itself.
But despite his keeping a close eye on the bottle, after the quiet interregnum it somehow disappeared and a few days later Sohib once again found shards at the entrance to his tiny shack.
Except there were fragments missing.
The killing of the elderly witches resumed.
When a crowd confronted him outside his door, he implored them: “I did nothing! Someone stole the bottle and smashed it!”
“You’re the vessel of evil that the shaman left behind!” shouted the village moneylender.
“Someone stole pieces from the bottle! Help me find them so we can put it back together!”
But none of his neighbors stepped forward, afraid that if they involved themselves in this quest to complete a bottle that clearly was tainted with an evil spirit, they, too, would become victims.
At first Gemi was patient as Sohib spent most of his time scouring the neighborhood’s ditches, picking through the garbage dump outside the village, asking perplexed strangers if they had found his precious bits of burnt terracotta somewhere in their houses. But eventually Gemi and their two daughters grew first anxious, then irritated, then angry when Sohib increasingly refused to sweep the common area, fix the nets, help patch the fishing boat.
“Sohib, where is your head?” Gemi would moan, trying to take his gaze between her hands, staring into his eyes to see him wrinkling his brow, uncomprehending, desperately but failing to find a way to tell her what he had to do. That finally it was his responsibility and no one else’s.
It felt to everyone that the malevolence loosed from the bottle roamed around the village, striking people and families at random. Sohib kept the remaining, incomplete shards in the old coconut shell, piecing them together at night, looking closely at the missing shapes, the empty outline of the missing fragments he would look for all the next day. And the next. And the next.
Though his family grew steadily poorer as he ignored work to pursue his quest, he knew where his greater responsibility lay.
On the day his oldest daughter finally told Gemi and their youngest daughter that she had made a momentous decision and Gemi collapsed to the floor, weeping, Sohib was tussling through a garbage heap with the dogs when he came across a significant find.
Racing home, he burst into the shack to find Gemi weeping as if to sweep their lives away in a flood. He also felt the sting of her sorrow, but he shouted out, “Stop your crying! I’ve found it!”
Snatching the coconut up and spreading the pieces on the table, his fingers manipulated the new fragment, feverishly rotating it, visualizing it falling into place.
It didn’t fit.
The next morning Sohib and Gema’s oldest daughter boarded a bus to join the tide of young women rushing toward the jobs in the archipelago of garment factories surrounding Jakarta.
Timothy’s fiction has appeared in Folio, STORGY, Here Comes Everyone, The Write Launch, Fine Madness, and the Clinton Street Quarterly. Non-fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Foreign Policy, Thomson-Reuters, Northern Lights, The Christian Science Monitor, Swamp Ape Review, and High Times among others. “AE-35”, a science fiction graphic novel was inked by Neal Adams and published by his Continuity Associates in New York. Timothy is also the Executive Producer on the soon-to-be-released feature-length documentary, “Knots: A Forced Marriage Story.” Currently Timothy is the Asia Director for the labor rights organization Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C. and Chairperson of Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi’s Global March Against Child Labour.
If you enjoyed ‘The Perfect Bottle’ leave a comment and let Timothy know.
You can read more of Timothy’s writing below:
“Knots: A Forced Marriage Story,” feature-length documentary, Executive Producer, November 2019
“Four Noble Diet Recipes,” article, Swamp Ape Review, Spring 2019
“Parking Lot,” short story, The Write Launch, January 2019
“Artificial, Intelligible,” short story, Here Comes Everyone, UK, December 2018
“Loaded,” short story, STORGY Literary Magazine, UK, June 2018
“What We Would All Be Missing,” article, Thomson-Reuters, May 2, 2017
“Child Rights: Laureates And Leaders Step Up,” article, Huffington Post, January 13, 2017
“Political Justice Is Not Enough to Rebuild Sri Lanka,” article, Thomson-Reuters, September 28, 2016
“It Takes More Than a Village,” Chapter 5 in Building Global Labor Solidarity, edited by Kim Scipes, Haymarket Press, April, 2016
“Burma: Will International Financial Institutions Get It Right This Time?” article, Huffington Post, April 14, 2016
“Labor Justice for Migrants – And Malaysian Workers, Too,” article, Thomson-Reuters, November 13, 2015
“Labor in the Habibie Years: The Third Act”, chapter in Democracy Take-Off? The B.J. Habibie Period, edited by Dewi Fortuna Anwar and Bridget Welsh, Sinar Harapan, Indonesia, 2013
“Bangladesh’s Next Best Chance,” article, International Business News, UK, October 2013
“16 Ways to Fix Burma,” article, Foreign Policy, March 30, 2012
“Seeing Georgia Through Rose-Colored Glasses,” article, Huffington Post, May 16, 2011
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