My family moved to the coast during the summer when I was six years old. Our house
was adequate if unremarkable, but the house next door was something astonishing. The
architect had been given one instruction, and that was “Ensure that everyone who sees it
thinks ‘Whoever lives here is obscenely wealthy’.”
I overheard my parents discussing our neighbor, speculating about his background and hoping
to make his acquaintance, when we first moved in. After the first month, though, we hadn’t seen
him, and the conversations stopped. My speculations, though, kept going. I imagined that a
secret king, deposed from a foreign land, was in hiding there. He never showed sign that he
was there for fear of being found out.
Or else it belonged to a scientist who was always away, sharing his new inventions and
selling patents. He had no time for the coastal life, for he needed to be in a city with proper
laboratories. I had dozens of explanations, but no evidence for or against any of them.
For several months I saw no sign of him, until one day, Christmas Eve as it turns out, when I
was out collecting shells on the beach in front of his house. Our house had no beachfront, so I
spent quite a lot of time near our mysterious absent neighbor’s home. A shadow fell over me as
I dug through the sand for intact shells.
I looked up to see a large, imposing man with a thick black beard and a scowl. “Get out of my
way,” he growled, “and get off my beach.”
A small, easily intimidated child, I obeyed immediately. I didn’t pause to gather the shells I had
already collected, rather, I stood up and ran up the path to the street and my own house. Once
my feet were no longer pounding against sand, I ventured to look behind me. Only then did I
notice the man’s most distinguishing feature: His wooden leg. I’d been so focussed on his face
staring down at me that I hadn’t even seen the rest of him. I watched from a distance as he
seemed to throw something into the sea, and then I thought he was about to turn around again,
and rather than let him catch me watching, I ran the rest of the way home.
Upon asking the other children who lived nearby, I learned that all of them feared my neighbor,
to the extent that they would hardly dare visit my house. Though he was traveling (to where, no
one knew) most of the time, his schedule was erratic, and they preferred to stay away, for they
never knew when he would appear, shouting and growling and threatening horrible things.
I, too, learned to stay away from my neighbor’s property. Over the next few years I learned
something of his patterns: He would leave for months at a time, and rarely spent more than a
week at home. During the month of December, though, he would be home the entire time. That
month was a fearful one for me. The bright lights and extravagant dinner of Christmas did little
to lighten my mood. Every time I caught sight of my neighbor, he would fix me with his cruel
eyes, and I would lose a little more of my childish, carefree outlook.
Nothing caused me to revise my opinion of my neighbor, or my fear of him, until I was
fifteen. Early in December of that year, I was alone in the house when I heard a knock at the
door. Opening it, I saw my neighbor on the other side. Even at that age, I was still frightfully
intimidated by him, and I couldn’t bring myself to speak. Luckily, my neighbor seemed to have
no issue with speaking first.
“I’ve got a request ter make of ye,” he said, “that is, if yer up fer earnin’ some spendin’ money.”
“Er.” Was all I could get out at first. “Wh... what is it?”
“I’ll give you this coin.” My neighbor held up a large gold coin of a design I didn’t recognize.
It was either foreign, or very old. Either way, it was certainly valuable. “And all ye need to do
is take this bottle,” in his other hand, my neighbor presented a clear glass bottle, sealed with
a cork and containing a scroll of paper, “and throw it into the sea on Christmas Eve. I’d do it
meself, but I’ve been notified of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I just can’t pass a thing like
that up. But, I can’t bring meself to let this year go by without honorin’ the old tradition. Do we
have a deal, lad?”
“Um... Yes. Of course we do.” My greed overtook my fear for long enough that I accepted
possession of the bottle, and my neighbor dropped the gold coin into my hand. It was heavy,
presumably quite pure.
“Good lad. I’ll be on me way now. Oh, but there’s one thing: Don’t you dare read that letter. It’s
not written fer you, and it’s none of yer business what it says. Got it?” As he said this, he rose
up in front of me like a bear that was about to attack.
“Y-yes, sir. Got it.” I said, shaking from the confrontation.
Well, after a warning like that, what was a young man like me to do but read the letter? Though
the man terrified me, I couldn’t imagine that he’d have any way of knowing what I’d done. So I
pulled the cork out of the bottle, followed by the letter, and read my neighbor’s oh-so-important
letter. It was addressed to someone with a strange name, who seemed to be a good friend of
my neighbor’s, but who hadn’t seen him for some years. It described his life over the course of
the previous year, and referred to other, preceding letters, for information going further back.
It ended with, “I wish I could hear of your children. By now they must be accomplished and
respected. I should hope they’ve surpassed their father by now. I can’t say he gave them much
of a standard to hold up. Still, at least one of us has a family to carry on his legacy, eh? There
are times I regret not finding a wife, but then the sea calls to me and I remember that I’m a man
who answers to no one but his own ambitions. Of course, I say ambitions where you might say
greed, but that’s a matter for another discussion. I end this letter, as I end all of these, by saying
you were the best friend a man could hope to find, and I don’t regret a thing about the time we
spent together. Your faithful friend,
Long John Silver”
Before I read the letter, I had never considered my neighbor to be a man of depth or
compassion. I saw a new side to him now, a side that was friendly, that cared about others and
was dedicated to reaching out to them, even if the only means available was as notoriously
unreliable as a message in a bottle. Part of me was dying with curiosity, and I wanted dearly to
ask my neighbor about this friend of his and how they knew each other and why they were no
longer in frequent communication. However, to do so would have revealed my trespass, and I
was far too frightened to risk it. I threw the message into the sea as I was asked, and tried to
forget about it.
I couldn’t help but discuss it with friends, though, and it turned out they already knew of my
neighbor’s annual message in a bottle. One of my friends even proved useful. He dug around
in a trunk for a few minutes before coming up with four messages in bottles, just like the one I’d
sent out for my neighbor. “These turned up when I was fishing. I think the current swept them
into the same place,” he explained.
I read these letters, and they were much like the one I had sent out, but describing different
years. One seemed to be from the year I arrived at the coast, another from just two years ago.
They all expressed hope and optimism, things I had a hard time believing that my neighbor
Another year passed, and when Christmas Eve again came round, I walked out to the beach
to find my neighbor casting his habitual bottled message into the sea. When he’d done that, he
turned around and walked back toward his house, passing me without a word. This time, I would
have to speak first. “May I ask you some questions?”
My neighbor didn’t change his pace. “Ye can ask. Can’t guarantee I’ll answer.”
I followed him. “What are those messages you send out every year?”
“I won’t answer that,” he said.
“Fine then. Why do you send them that way? Why not just post them?”
He glared at me. “I’d need ter know the address if I wer gonna post ‘em, wouldn’t I?”
“Okay.” I thought for a moment. “So you don’t know the address. Can’t you look it up
Now he looked away again. “It’s a mite more complicated ‘an that.”
“Do they reach the person they’re for?”
This question stopped him in his tracks. He turned to look me straight in the eye, and for the first
time I wasn’t frightened of his gaze. “I don’t know. There’s a chance I’ll never know. But I ‘ave
faith that one day, one of them will reach its destination.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t understand. Why would you keep doing this, year after year, when
you don’t even know if it’s working?”
“Because,” and now was the first time I ever saw my neighbor smile, “if even one of ‘em makes
it through, after all these years, that’d make every single wasted letter worthwhile.” I stood in
silence, thinking about what I’d just heard, as my neighbor opened the door to his house and
disappeared inside, saying, “Good day, lad. Happy Christmas,” as he closed the door behind
My day wasn’t over, though. I’d had an idea. Some of the messages definitely hadn’t reached
their intended recipient, but I realized that, given another chance, they still might. I hurried to my
friend’s house and asked him for the messages he had. In order to obtain them, I traded him the
gold coin, which I’d been keeping for the past year without any idea what to do with it. Holding
the four bottles, I ran awkwardly down to the beach, nearly dropping one of them every other
step I took.
Then I tossed them one at a time into the sea, paraphrasing my neighbor’s words to me:
“If even one of you makes it through, then all the rest will have been worthwhile. Godspeed.”
Dryunya wrote:It was touching.
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