Buried Bottles

Beneath the shivering white cedars and staggering red cliffs that tower over the sun-washed beaches of Lake Huron, my older brother Jack and I would often play at pirates. Shy ospreys, with their golden eyes hidden behind black masks, watched us mutely as we buried bottles in the soft sand and whispered of treasure and adventure. As adolescence encroached on our timelessness, our private myths of sailing and salt-water larceny grew fewer and farther apart. Over the years, our dreams divided like a fork in the river; flowing from a common font, but exiting to the sea at very different points. He pitched himself headlong into the studies of a sommelier, and spent years memorizing wine regions and grape varietals. I chose to become a professional diver, and lost myself in the ancient skeletons of those wounded ships that spotted the bottom of the lake we spent so many summers dreaming upon.

Jack announced his engagement to Bonnie just three days ago, the same day I set out to dive the  shattered remains of the SS Regina, a package freighter sunk nearly a century ago during the Great Lakes Storm that claimed more than a dozen ships. As I drifted eighty feet below the placid surface of the lake, flashlight and cutting torch at my side, Jack’s words echoed in my mind.

“Adventure was always your passion, Daniel, and mine was always treasure. Bonnie’s the greatest treasure I’ve ever found.”

I envied him in that moment, as I drifted past the broken shards of china and shattered bottles that littered the belly-up body of that great dead beast of a ship. Regina had been efficiently looted over the years, but I wasn’t after antique spoons or turn-of-the-century razors like most salvors: I was seeking the captain’s quarters. I had told Jack of my intention to find something no one else had ever seen, and he had shook his head and laughed a little, then squeezed my arms and looked at me somberly.

“Be safe, and come back. You’re to be the best man, after all.”

In remembering his concern, I laughed and bubbles escaped the confines of my mask to drift upwards and roll away through the confines of the ship’s hull. In a way, I resented his safe happiness, and wondered if we’d ever truly shared the same dreams on those dunes overlooking the clear blue water.

I twisted my body through sideways hallways and weaved through broken doorways. My flashlight cut a brilliant white beam that caught a hint of brittle brass hanging clumsily on an old cabin door, and I turned my head to read it. Captain Edward H. McConkey. I gasped behind my mask, and quickly checked my oxygen supply. I still had plenty of time.

I pulled with all my might against the corroded door and it tore away, suddenly heavy in the weightlessness of Lake Huron’s grasp. The white spear of light cast by my flashlight searched fervently as I kicked my legs and propelled myself into the captain’s quarters. Everything inside was askew, frozen in time and space by the dark clear water like a surreal photograph. I felt like an intruder; the rotting chairs and broken gauges stared back at me indignantly. An empty picture frame, it’s photo long-gone, clung from a rusted nail to the wall near the blank staring eye of a wall safe.

My underwater cutting torch flared to life, a rich flow of bubbles cascading upwards as its ruby arc licked the edges of the century-old safe. As the torch cut, the flashing arc reminded me of our beach bonfires in summer, of my brother’s words when dawn once intruded on our myths.

“We might never find buried treasure, Daniel, but I’ll treasure the adventures nonetheless.”

As the torch cut, I mused that Jack was somewhere above, probably describing to his bride-to-be some Old World sparkling wine as having a hint of lime-blossoms or toasted oak. The safe finally gave and I shut my torch off immediately. The door lifted away effortlessly, and I scrambled with hesitant hands to search the forgotten lock-box’s contents. Languidly resting, unbroken and undamaged in the dark cold water, was a single glass bottle.

I checked my oxygen gauge and knew it was time to go. I grabbed the bottle and swam hastily out of the captain’s cabin, gripping the bottle tight to my stomach and rising upwards through the Regina’s husk. Maybe it was the changing pressure or a hint of nitrogen narcosis, but as I drifted closer to the bright light of the water’s surface I felt giddy, lighter than weightless, and I could almost see my brother’s face in the oncoming sunlight.

When I finally breached the surface and signaled the dive boat, I pulled my mask back and inspected the bottle. What remained of the tattered label read “Champagne. Reims, France. 1907.” As the dive boat approached, a white-stomached osprey flew overhead.  It was bound for the sighing white cedars and rust-red cliffs that mutely watch the sandy beaches and dunes. That bandit-masked raptor was careening over where we’d buried countless bottles as boys, and I laughed out loud. When they pulled me from the bright waters of Lake Huron, I was almost in a fit; I was laughing like the boys who left that beach years ago on divergent adventures. I was laughing for joy and sadness of times long past. I was laughing at my brother’s jokes, at our shared dreams, at the time we used to be pirates together and at the treasures we’d shared.

I was laughing because I had found the perfect wedding gift.


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