The Swedish Bottle
By Sue Cowing
©copyright 2016 by Sue Cowing
Illustration by Jui Ishida
© 2016 by Jui Ishida
A gently curved bottle of sky blue glass, rough and powdery-looking, like beach glass, its stopper topped by a yellow star cut from the same sort of glass. Blue and yellow. Swedish colors. For many years that bottle lay forgotten in a dusty box on a closet shelf in the Ellifson house, though it was a wonderful object in many ways, and not just to look at.
Nellie lived in that house with her mother and grandmother. But Nellie’s mother became ill and died very suddenly, and Nellie cried every day all day. Her grandmother, trying to comfort her, remembered a gift given to her long ago, and brought the box to Nelly.
“What is it, Elfa?” she asked. Nellie had called her grandmother Elfa ever since she was too small to say “Grandma Ellifson.”
“Open it and see.”
Nellie sniffled and lifted the lid, then took out the bottle. She couldn’t help saying, “Oh, how pretty.“ She reached for the star-stopper to look inside, but Elfa placed her hand on hers.
“First let me tell you a story.”
Elfa told wonderful stories, always with something mysterious in them, so in spite of her sorrow, Nellie set the bottle down and curled up to listen.
“When I was just about your age,“ Elfa began,“a terrible war was raging in Europe, and in the middle of it, I thought I had lost both my parents. We lived in Sweden at the time, and Sweden did not take part in the war. But my Mother and Father wanted to help the refugees, the people escaping from that war, so they went to London and they took me with them.“
“Wasn’t that dangerous?”
“Yes it was. More than they expected. Only a few days after we got there, many, many bombs fell on London. When the bombing stopped, I couldn’t find Mama or Papa anywhere. Grown-ups I didn’t know gathered me up with a bunch of children who were being sent out to countryside to be safe from the bombs.”
“Didn’t you tell them about your parents?”
“I tried, but no one could understand my Swedish.“
“Oh Elfa, what did you do?”
“As soon as the train stopped, I ran away. There were so many children leaving in such a hurry I don’t think they noticed. I snuck onto another train that I hoped would go back to London, so I could look for Mama and Papa. But the train didn’t go to London. When it stopped I got off and hid. I was tired and scared, and I didn’t know where I was. A lady found me shivering under a bridge, and she marched me straight to an orphanage. No one there spoke Swedish, either.“
“To make things worse, it was Christmas time. In spite of the war, the owners of the orphanage had thought of something to wrap as a present under the tree for each child. They quickly found something to wrap for me.”
“Yes. I cried when I opened the box. The other children pitied me, I think, for getting nothing but an old bottle. But I was crying for joy. A Swedish bottle, of all things. I believed it was a sign that Mama and Papa were alive and would find me, wherever I was.”
“Were they? Did they?”
“Yes, but it took some time. Meanwhile every day I made a wish on this bottle’s star and sent my thoughts to Mama and Papa, saying, “I’m here! I’m here!” Then one day they came to the door and hugged me hard and we all went back to Sweden.”
Nellie smiled. “And you’ve kept this bottle ever since!” Then she thought to herself, at least she got her parents back, and her smile fell. “But Elfa, Mama isn’t just lost.”
Nellie’s eyes burned. “Well, thank you, anyway. For the bottle.”
“Ah, but if it is going to be yours, there is more you need to know about it. I did keep it, as you see, but I almost forgot about as I grew up. That is, until I married your grandfather and we moved to this country.
“I was excited to be in America, but a little homesick for Sweden. We didn’t have much at first, but I wanted to make our little apartment look beautiful. One day I found some sprays of starflowers at a flower stall, and they made me think of the Swedish bottle, so I bought them. I took the bottle out of its box and. . .”
“This same box?”
“Yes. It was old even then. Anyway, I thought the flowers would look lovely in the bottle with the yellow star-stopper sitting beside it on the shelf. But guess what happened when I tried to put water in the bottle?”
“Yes, it was truly very odd. I poured and poured water into the bottle, but it never filled up. I tipped the bottle to the side, then upside down, but nothing came out. When I looked into the bottle, my mind was suddenly filled with happy scenes of my childhood in Sweden, and of my future happiness in America.
“My skin shivered, but I put the flowers in anyway. And do you know, they stayed fresh on the shelf for almost a year? Then they dried and still looked bright and beautiful.“
“To this day, I can’t explain it, Nellie. Well, after that I decided this must be a very special bottle. I got the idea that I should write my truest thoughts and wishes on little pieces of paper and put them into it. I felt that the bottle. . . understood me somehow. It never did fill up, and I must say many of my wishes did come true, in one way or another.”
Nellie picked up the bottle.
“When did you last put something in here, Elfa?
She smiled. “Oh, many years ago now.”
“And all of your thoughts and wishes are still inside?’
“I would imagine so.”
Nellie removed the star-stopper, turned the bottle over and gave it a little shake. A few glittery flakes came out.
“Do you think I could put my own thoughts in, Elfa?”
Nellie sighed. “I have only one wish.”
“I‘m sure your wish is the same as mine, Darling.”
Nellie placed the bottle on the windowsill in her room. She took a piece of notebook paper from her desk and wrote on it, “I miss you Mama. Please come back,” then pulled out the star, stuffed her words into the bottle, and waited. She didn’t know what she expected to happen, but the bottle just sat there looking like a cheery, pretty. . .bottle.
The Swedish bottle was the last thing she saw before she went to sleep, and the first thing when she woke in the morning. Each night and each morning she wrote down her one wish and stuck it inside. The bottle just sat there. This bottle doesn’t understand me, she thought. It’s not even trying.
Finally one evening at bedtime, she said to Elfa, “The Swedish bottle doesn’t work for me.”
Elfa stroked her hair and adjusted the covers. “Things take time, Darling. You need time.”
Suddenly Nellie felt too angry to answer.
Time. Of course. That was exactly what she needed. More time with Mama. Years and years and years. As soon as Elfa left the room, she jumped out of bed, grabbed a pencil and wrote: “It’s not fair! You shouldn’t have left me, Mama. Why didn’t you warn me? I HATE you for dying. I hope you are very, very sorry!” She stuffed all those words into the bottle and jammed on the stopper.
Instantly she felt terrible and pulled the star out again. She had to get the paper back. She could touch the edge of it with her finger, but when she tried to ease it out, it dropped down out of reach. Gone. She turned the bottle over and shook it. Nothing.
“Mama, I didn’t mean it,” she wailed. I love you. I miss you.”
The bottle sat on the sill, as silent and cheerful as ever. Nellie lay back on her bed and cried and cried until there was nothing left to do but sleep.
She woke in the middle of the night. Something in the room had changed. Was the bottle glowing, or was that a trick of the moonlight? No it was glowing, as though it had a light inside. It was warm in her hand when she picked it up, and the star shone. She eased the star out and the perfume of flowers filled the room. Jasmine. Mama’s favorite.
Nellie looked into the bottle and could see water, lots of it, but at a great distance. An ocean. She felt herself becoming lighter, and before she knew it, she was soaring over that flower-scented water, flying on and on until she landed without a sound on a small green island. From behind a tree, she saw a barefoot woman picking jasmine flowers along the shore and pinning them in her auburn hair.
Nelly tried to call to her but couldn’t say the word Mama. She wanted to run to her, but she couldn’t make her feet go. Finally her mother looked up.
“Nellie! Is that you? Oh, I’m so happy to see you!”
Her mother rushed to her and held her. It was like being hugged by a cloud.
"Oh Mama,” Nellie cried. “Please, please forgive me for what I said.”
“Don’t cry, Darling,” Mama said into Nelly’s hair. “It is a natural thing. There’s nothing to forgive.”
Nellie looked up into her mother’s face. “Mama, can I stay here with you?”
She sighed. “I’m afraid not, Darling. You need go back to Elfa and have your own wonderful life.”
“But Mama, how can I have a wonderful life without you?”
Mama took a sprig of jasmine from her hair. “Keep me in your thoughts,“ she said, “and remember that I am with you, thinking of you every minute.“
As soon as Nellie took the jasmine from her mother’s hand, she felt herself whooshed back over the ocean until she landed again in her room. She could hear Elfa down in the kitchen, filling the teakettle for breakfast.
Nelly stared in wonder at the Swedish bottle on the sill.
“Thank you,” she said to it. “Thank you.”
“Elfa!“ she called down the stairway. “I have the most. . .mysterious story to tell you!” She ran downstairs, with the jasmine still in her hand.
The Swedish bottle sat in its place on the sill. Glowing blue. Glowing yellow. Or was that a trick of the sunlight?
from Cricket Magazine, Nov/Dec 2016