I found her note while hiking. It was just as I had sat on a stone off the main trail, stopping for a drink and a chance to listen to the forest without my footsteps. I had come to the forest to lose myself, and was growing frustrated at how relentlessly that self followed anyway. I’d just finished my water, and was cursing myself for having not brought enough. As I took my rag and wiped the sweat from my face I saw a glisten of light reflected from under a set of ferns nearby, daring me not to notice it. I walked over and picked it up. A slender bottle, stoppered with a cork, and a bound note inside. The outside of the bottle was covered with dirt and detritus, wet from the humidity of the afternoon air, but somehow had a patch clean enough to send a glint directly into my eye from across the clearing. Aren’t these meant for the sea? My parched throat scratched at the thought of water. Mist reached me from the unseen ocean, just past the treetops, and taunted me. I opened the bottle and fished out the note.
The note was a fine paper, unspoiled by the moist air. Bound around the note was a single red thread, tied in a bow. I unrolled the paper to see a small elegant script in the centre of the note, as if the message were trying its best not to bother the paper it was printed on. In tight cursive, coiling like ringlets of hair and black smoke, it read:
Oh Pirate of the Forest,
Oh Baffled King,
Do you have a map and still feel lost?
Have the waves brought you here?
Are you looking for me?
I’ve waited for you.
I spend my Sundays at Hallelujah Point.
Play for me your secret chord,
That David played, I’ve grown so bored.
That was all. A cryptic puzzle in a bottle I never asked to find. I sat for a minute and read it over again, the sweat from my fingertips leaving marks and soiling the thin paper. I had plans for Sunday. Work to be done. There was a thin leather notebook on my bedside which could attest, to the precise minute, the windows in which that work would be done. Just then, if you looked in that book you would see I was currently in a window marked “Exercise: 1:00 - 4:45.”
I put the note in the bottle, and bottle back in the fern and began to hike down the trail before doubling back. I took my lighter out of my pocket and lit the top of the note on fire, watching as the fire burned quickly down the inside of the bottle. Once the note was nothing but ash and smoke in the bottle, I left again and did not come back.
I don’t know why I did that.
I see him walking down the pier. I just know it is him. He has that walk - purposeful, but trepidatious - that I’ve always imagined a man chasing a bottled mystery would. Like he knows where to be generally, but not specifically. I’ve already been here awhile reading, like any Sunday. Why would he show up on this one? Why not? Stanley Park is my favourite part in Van, and Hallelujah Point provides the best view of the city. Apparently it got the name because in the 1880s, the Salvation Army used to come here on Sundays and call out Hallelujah so loud you could hear it across the harbour in downtown Vancouver. Some people prefer the other side of the park, facing out towards the ocean. Not me, not anymore. I prefer to sit here on my regular bench, back to the ocean, facing east. Facing inland, reading and waiting. Although today, for once, it appears I’ll be doing neither.
I wait until he faces my direction and then wave. He notices and checks over his shoulder, as if checking whether I’m waving to some friend behind him. He sees I’m not and speeds up, before immediately slowing back to an intentional casualness. I set down my book, and wipe my palm sweat onto the thighs of my jeans. I’ve set this path in motion, and yet suddenly I feel silly, like a child caught playing pretend when she knows she’s too old to play that way anymore.
“Hi,” he waves, as he walks up to my bench. “Are you the one who wrote the note?”
“That’s me.” I say, turning to sit cross-legged on the bench and inviting him to sit. He does. His shirt looks freshly pressed and is buttoned to the very top. He puts his left ankle on his knee, and I see his shoes look cleaner than anything I own.
“I’m David.” He says, and I’m pleased. Serendipity.
“Bethany,” I reply, pointing to myself.
There is a silence, and despite how much I’ve thought about this moment, I can’t remember what I’ve thought to say. Thankfully, miraculously, he is the one to break the silence.
“I didn’t think you’d actually be here. Or that it’d be a joke or something.” He looks at me and I catch his gaze only for it to break, and he looks back over the harbour. “But here you are. Your poem… Note? I liked it. And well, it felt like it was written for me.”
“Thanks,” I say, smiling. “And you’re here, so I guess it was.”
He scratches his chest, and I imagine he’s digging for what to say next.
“And so, what is here? I mean, what is the note for?”
“Well, sometimes living in a big city makes me lonely,” I say. “And lost. And I thought maybe there’s someone else out there who feels the same way. Someone who’d follow an adventure on a whim. So I wrote a message in a bottle hoping someone would follow.”
“Right,” he laughs, stealing another glance at me as he points to the water in front of us. “But aren’t you supposed to throw the message in a bottle into the ocean? Not in the middle of the forest?
“Oh I’ve made plenty of those too,” I admit honestly, and I see him deflate a little. “The problem with messages in the ocean is you can’t control where they go. For all I know only fish have read those. I guess if I drown one day, I’ll finally have plenty of company.”
He laughs, and I laugh too.
“But I decided I wanted a message that stayed in one place.” I continue. No point hiding yourself now. You’ve waited this long, bare it all. “I didn’t want my message to find someone anymore. I wanted someone to find my message. Does that make sense?”
He nods, but I wonder and worry whether he’s just nodding to move the conversation along. How can he know? And how can I know whether he does? How does anyone know anyone’s anything? I can feel my tongue swell with a practiced panic, so I push to get him talking.
“So now that I’ve met you, tell me about yourself. What did you do yesterday?”
“Well, in the afternoon I went for a hike, which is when I found your note. In the evening I was working but that’s… boring. Oh well, in the morning I fixed my watch.” He holds his wrist out to me, and I admire it. It looks fancy, an old analog watch with several hands and a neat silver chain. “I noticed it was running a little slow.”
“You noticed it was running slow?!” I ask, incredulous.
“Yeah,” he looks at me, squinting. “What’s so weird about that?”
“I just wouldn’t begin to know how to tell something like that. For me, the time is whatever the clock says it is. Who am I to argue with a clock?”
He holds the watch aloft in front of him and rotates it around, sending flashes of light off its polished face.
“Well you can always tell eventually,” he says. “The lost time will add up, until eventually the watch is way off. Sure, you could just reset the time every morning or whatever, but it still just bothers me I guess. Losing time like that. So I have to fix it.”
And at once I feel exposed, as if I’ve just been turned inside out. As though suddenly his glances see right through me. He spoke innocently and meant no harm, and yet I feel it. I don’t like that he’s so good at spotting broken things. He’ll sniff out my broken parts, find the gear that turns too slow, and he’ll know there’s no fixing it. I imagine a queue of hikers, each finding my message in the woods and coming here to see me laid out on the grass, my internal machinery laid bare, and they’ll know too. What a stupid idea it was to write a message in a bottle. A childish, stupid idea.
I steal another glance at her as I lower my watch and I see that she’s frowning. She seems upset about something, and although she doesn’t move she looks like she’s growing smaller on the other end of the bench. Shrinking into herself. She reminds me of the flame of a candle, threatening to go out at the smallest breeze. I don’t know what I’ve done, but I’m sure I’ve done something. I always do something. It must have been when I was going on about watches. She couldn’t care about watches. I really should spend my time with machines, because I’m not fit for this. What was I hoping for in coming here? A genuine human connection? That ship has sailed for you Forest Pirate. My mind shouts at me to run, to make up some excuse and leave. Let my departure be her hallelujah. And yet something inside, some internal fortitude I don’t remember constructing, keeps me on that bench. Tells me to foster the flame.
“You write really well,” I press again, wondering if that was even grammatical. “Your note, I mean. Are you a poet?”
Her eyes lift to meet mine.
“You think so? Well thanks. It’s only part mine though. Old Leonard did most of the heavy lifting.”
I nod as if I understand, and she smiles in a way that tells me she knows I don’t.
“Leonard Cohen,” she says. “He’s Canadian, actually. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him. He wrote a poem, a song called ‘Hallelujah’, and that’s where I took some of his phrases. It’s his most famous. It’s been covered a bunch of times by different artists. Hell, it was even in Shrek.”
“Oh, I think I know it!” I say, and oh how immediately I wish I hadn’t. Thankfully she laughs, and I can feel her flame burn brighter. I feel less like an idiot.
“Well I liked your poem nonetheless.” I say. And then, despite myself, I add, “It was the bit about being lost that stuck out to me. I feel that way sometimes.”
I’ve never said anything like that before. Not to friends, not to family. All my life I’ve been a closed person. A “Hi - How are you - Good” kind of guy. But somehow today feels different, that internal fortitude is unrelenting, and I feel compelled.
“Well, I’m happy to say that part was all me,” she says, twirling her wrist and giving a mock bow. “I may not know anything about watches, but I know a thing or two about being lost.”
She reaches down to the grass beside her, picks up her bag, and shows it to me.
“I lose things in my bag. It’s not even a very big bag. I’ll know my glasses are in there, but I still won’t be able to find them.” She sets the bag back down on the grass. “And of course half the time I end up losing my whole bag, and I can’t help but laugh thinking about the glasses. Lost inside a lost bag.”
She pauses, looking out over the harbour.
“Sometimes I feel like that. Like the glasses. Doubly lost.”
“Yeah,” I say, and I hope that my dumb syllable conveys the wholeheartedness with which I agree. In an instant she’s described a way I’ve always felt, but never put words to. I feel what I imagine patients must feel after finally receiving a proper diagnosis.
“Doubly lost,” I say.
We sit in silence, but it feels like a shared silence. A silence in solidarity. I break the silence by asking what she’s reading. She tells me, excitedly, about this and the several other books she’s reading. And then we’re off, talking about nothing and exploding quickly into talking about everything. Big things and very small things. Things which I normally wouldn’t talk about with anyone. Things I tried to hide away from myself. As we watch the boats move lazily around the harbour, I feel the wind move through me, finding corners and crevices long shuttered tight and opening them wide. As if all the little windows that I built my life around were being thrown open, one by one. Finally, the light starts to dim, and we know we have to leave the park.
“Thank you,” I say, as I rise up from the bench, bending my stiff legs. “This was a better day than I could have dreamed. I hope you weren’t too upset that I interrupted your reading.”
She packs her book in her bag and stands as well.
“Hardly,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.”
The park is quiet now, free of most other people and it’s just us and the birds now. We make eye contact as the waves lap softly against the shore.
“Would you mind if I joined you next Sunday?” I ask.
“I’d love that,” she replies.
We turn and begin to walk together out of the park. After a few steps, she slips her arm in mine and continues her story about a book she’s finished reading. And, if at that moment you stood across the harbour in downtown Vancouver and did your best to shut out the din of the city, listened beneath the low rumble of boats puttering around the docks and the cries of seabirds flying overhead, you could hear a soft, but unyielding hallelujah.