Martha woke up on a beach. Around her, scrap metal and random clothes tumbled in the surf at the edge of the water. After stretching and finding she wasn’t injured, she walked around the entire island in an hour. It took her a full day of waiting, hoping, to realize there were no other survivors from the plane crash.
The morning she left her daughter’s house for the airport, she knew her daughter thought the departure time was a few hours too early in the morning. The sun wasn’t even up yet. What Martha didn’t tell her daughter was that she felt her departure time was a few days too late. She wanted to hurry home to her pristine garden, her interior decorating magazines and sweet tea. Then she got on the doomed plane, and she could think only of the things she’d left unsaid.
Her daughter’s house had been cramped. It wasn’t clean, either. Her daughter and son-in-law both worked. Their kids were in daycare. She asked why, if no one was ever home, the house couldn’t stay clean. If she’d have married a doctor they’d be able to afford a maid. If she’d have been a homemaker, the kids wouldn’t be the latchkey kind. But she had found a colony of birds and a source of fresh water and fruit. She hoped the food and water source could last until she sent someone a message.
It didn’t take her long to capture three of the island’s birds and begin to train them with short trips between trees. She taught them to read hand signals, and within a few weeks she could give them extensive directions to other islands. They always came back to her, and she rewarded them with a roasted piece of one of the other birds.
After studying the local marine life, she found that the poison in a certain kind of jellyfish was sticky enough to cement dried leaves she’d ground into pulp. It took months of experimenting, but she created perfect waterproof parchment.
Each morning, she plucked and carefully braided four strands of her hair into a strong, silken fishing line. She used decaying bird entrails to wave through the waning tide and catch tiny clams, yanking them up and spearing them on bent sewing needles she’d found in washed up luggage travel kits. She caught different kinds of fish and saved the blood, writing experimental samples on the parchments to see what kinds of fish blood stained the the best and didn’t dissolve in rain.
During the evenings around her campfire, Martha whittled twigs into bevels to build the most precise, mechanically engineered trap. After covering it in sand and leftover food, she caught a seagull who’d tried to steal her food over the months. She didn’t even bother to roast it and eat it; she only needed the feathers for quills.
When Martha created the perfect writing utensils, and the last remaining bird on the island had flown and returned with such precision from the different islands she’d sent it to, she knew she was ready for her task. She’d used nearly all of the jellyfish glue, and had nearly run out of the best kind of fish blood for writing. All of the rigorous training of the birds she’d caught caused multiple deaths, yielding her one chance to get her letter into the correct hands.
The last morning with her homing bird, she fed him large portions of fruit, from her hand, for his long journey. She’d written her note days ago, making sure it dried properly in the sun before she rolled it into a tiny scroll. She used a sturdy twine of her hair to tie the short message on her hand-crafted paper to his sinewy leg. At long last, she moved her hands in the repetitive patterns, making sure his beady eyes were trained on the directions she was giving. She whispered a prayer, and flung him into the air, her last hope of communication.
Martha stood on the beach a long time, praying the last message she ever sent would reach its destination. Her legacy depended on it.
Claire was sipping coffee at her kitchen table, still checking the paper, six months later, for any more news on the plane that had disappeared with her mother on board. They’d found no survivors, but she’d hosted a small memorial in her hometown. She heard a faint tapping on the window, and lifting the blinds, she saw an odd bird perched on the sill with a tiny piece of paper attached to its foot.
To her surprise, when she stepped outside and extended her hand, the bird flew right to her and let her untie the scroll.
She opened it, unrolled it, and sending the bird off, stroked the rough paper between her fingers. She had a sense of awe, as she’d found a message in a bottle on a beach, sent to a lover from a foreign land.
But she recognized the handwriting on the outside immediately. ”Read me.” Her hands began to tremble. It had decorated her brown paper lunch bags, signed her permission slips. When she was older, it was scribbled in margins of ripped out magazine articles she’d gotten in the mail that were titled things like “Ten Things Millennials Don’t Understand.”
The scroll paper was yellowed, crispy almost. As usual, she followed her mother’s instructions, so Claire unrolled the curled parchment. The ink had a dark brown tint to it and smelled faintly of iron and salt.
“Lose a bit of weight, darling.
Cut your son’s hair—he looks like a girl.
Try to be more like your brother.”