They must be something they wanted to be rid of, the mermaid decided. But they were encased in glass, sealed with such care. Why did they throw them away?
She had tried returning them. But when the men found them on the tideline at dawn, they would utter despairing cries, throwing the bottles away into the waves again. They did not want them back.
She opened a few, but the ink bled into the brine under her questing fingers, and the flimsy paper revealed no secrets.
So she collected them, kept them. She caught them as they drifted down into her depths, plucked them from the reach of the sunlight, and slowly her collection grew.
The currents swirled around the glass, gently teasing it. Sometimes the sealings would crack and break, the brine eagerly sweeping in to seize the ragged contents. But most stayed intact, and their contents were sealed beyond the grasp of the years or the sea.
Even when she no longer returned to it, her collection remained; and over time the seaweeds and the shells took over, claiming the bottles as their own.
It was days, weeks, years later when light finally came to the depths. A bright, stabbing beam swept across the gloom, sending fish darting away in flashes of silver. All except for one fish; a diamond flash, somewhere in the weeds.
Thick-gloved hands paused, brushed away the weeds; paused again. The beam hovered and then gently played over the bottles, curiously and wondering…much as the mermaid’s hands had done when the bottles first floated on the waves.
The bottles were lifted to the surface, examined and opened with exquisite care. Glass and paper had kept the tiny part of the past hostage, cast adrift on the waves by those hoping desperately for rescue.
They were opened, examined, displayed. Eyes traced the faint ink and gloved hands gentle caressed the now-flimsy parchment. They were declared treasure; so wonderful, so interesting. The glass sparkled under golden lights, polished to a gleaming brightness next to the scraps of words.
There were theories, lectures and questions. Discussions were held over the contents; the paper was analysed, the ink traced. Artists were inspired to frenzies by the glassware, and scholars seriously debated the creation dates, setting down their thoughts in long tracts, arguing over the details of each chip and line.
But despite the mermaid’s longing, despite the scholar’s passion, the messages could not be understood. They were in languages long forgot, written by hands long dead – waiting in vain on their shipwrecked coasts.