The Old Man in the Bottle

It had been many years since he’d been back to the bottle. How long had it been? He wondered. Twenty-five years? Thirty? It looked old now, but everything looked old now, even the things that were young. The mouth of the bottle was worn smooth by years of flying sand and its rim was pocked with nicks and chips. But the bottle was still the bottle. He remembered. The warm amber glow of sunlight through the glass. The way the wind would moan across the open mouth, when it was blowing just right. Sometimes there would be fifty, sixty others huddled inside for the night. Of course those were the bad times, but they were the good times too. They had each other and that was something. Inside the bottle it was cooler in the summer and there was safety. Inside they couldn’t be seen by them. And they couldn’t be taken. There were other things to worry about, but they were protected against the worst. Inside the bottle.

They came and went steadily in those first days. But he was the only one who stayed on. There was talk of other places, other shelters, but if any of them made it to those places he never heard about it. None of them ever came back. Once there was a boy and his dog. The dog was a fine Labrador with a great square head and he could understand English like a man. The boy was lucky to have that dog. His name was Farlo. He was an excellent watch-dog who always knew when they were coming and would fight them off if they got inside. It had the heart of a lion, that dog. He forgot the name of the boy.

On another occasion there was a man. He must have been in his eighties. Could hardly walk. He kept repeating the same thing over and over with that faraway look in his eye. Matilda, he said. You didn’t listen Matilda. You didn’t listen to me. He wouldn’t come inside the bottle. He insisted on standing out near the mouth. Always looking up. Always watching, as if Matilda might come walking by any moment and somehow miss the entrance. She didn’t come. He vanished on the third night. Gerald was his name.

They were always coming and going. They seemed to only have first names. It no longer mattered who you were anymore, what you were. There was only in here and out there, and he was the old man in the bottle and sometimes they’d come and call him by that name and they’d ask him things whose answers he only guessed at but which they took as gospel truth. They took him as some sort of mystic, some desert sage, but he was neither. He was just an old man with a bad hip who had a lot of trouble walking in the sand, let alone running, and the bottle was the easiest option. He stayed on for many years.

But now the birds are gone. Everything is, that lived. Insects. The larger animals. They all just died and he could go where he wanted, live where he wanted. But he didn’t have much time. He knew that. And what he wanted was to spend the last of his days in the bottle. It was warm inside. He liked the color of the light. And that hum, when the wind came up. It made him think of owls, and train whistles far, far away.

o O o


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