It was raining on the day Sash found the bottle. Fresh water met salt in the tide pools, bruised the sand and made the steel surface of the ocean spit like a pot over the coals. Further up the beach, the distance made the rainfall a curtain of static grey.
Sash was one of a dozen children on the beach, each with a sack in hand and their gaze on the sand. They were all there to pluck the red-blue crabs that came to feed on the bounty offered up by the rainstorm. Blinking water from her eyelashes, Sash tightened her grip on the sack and darted forward. Her thumb and forefinger hooked under the carapace and she snatched the crab up. It went in her sack and she twisted the neck shut. One crab she hardly felt the weight of, but if the rain held up, in a few hours she could collect enough for the family to enjoy. Her mother would cook them up in the big iron pot over the fire, and Sash would watch as her clothes and hair steamed dry. The crab scratched against the canvas and she felt the tickle of it against her leg.
The rain drummed insistently, working through the weave of her hat. She blinked errant drips from her eyelashes, wiped her hand on her shirt kept dry under her oiled coat. The carapaces were slippery, and for that they nearly glowed in the rain-dimmed light, but once the crabs went back in the sand they would be impossible to catch. It had been raining for around an hour now. Crabs continued corkscrewing from the sand, while more children picked their way through the spinifex dunes onto the beach.
The sprites came soon after. It took a mature rainstorm to bring them out, but when they did, one rode in every tenth drop. Sash watched them land around her feet, almost too small and too translucent to have form. Inches from her bare toes, a little sprite started peeling its filmy wings from its back. It was no taller than her thumbnail. A crab screwed up from the sand and caught the sprite in its claws. Sash was just as swift. The crab’s legs waved furiously but the claws stayed clamped around the sprite. Sash brought it up to her ear to see if she could hear the sprite sing. Belatedly, she reflected that it probably did not feel like singing now. She tossed the crab and its prize into the sack.
The ocean rose from a simmer to a boil as swift mackerel darted up to snatch the sprites who landed there. Sash wondered if they were poor pilots or if the raindrops were simply hard to steer. More crabs came up to feed now and her hand moved as fast as her gaze could spot the bright carapaces. Her sack had a comforting weight to it. Her hand darted down to snatch a dash of red from the sand. They closed on cold glass.
The bottle was stoppered with bright red wax. Sash tilted her head and brought the bottle close to her face. She set it down carefully on the sand and tied a knot in the neck of her sack. With two hands, she turned the bottle over and over, rubbing her thumbs over the hard smoothness. She only knew it was glass because her sister had described it for her; the mayor’s house, where she cleaned, had two glass windows.
Inside the glass bottle a curl of mist twisted and coiled. Like a dog in a pen, it circled up to the stopper, then down to the rounded bottom, up the side and back. Sash followed it with her finger. Her eyes were wide, and her lips slipped open. The little mist nudged at her finger through the glass. It followed her finger as it skimmed around the widest part of the bottle, stopping when she stopped, twisting in place.
Her lips turned up in a smile. The wax cracked beneath her thumbnail. Some embedded itself under her nail and she winced, bringing her finger to her mouth. She used her other thumb to pick at the cracked wax. The mist swirled around the stopper. It looked impatient, like her mother’s cow waiting at the paddock gate in the early morning for milking. She thought it had grown thicker since she picked up the bottle. With the wax flaked away, she gripped the stopper and pulled but her fingers slipped off the shiny surface. She took the cork in her teeth and pulled. Her jaw hurt with the strain of it and the bottle was slippery in her grip. But the cork came free and Sash eagerly tilted the bottle over her hand.
The mist blossomed from the neck. It ran over the lip of the bottle and across her wrist. It felt cool, even in the rain-drenched air. The drops passed through it, rippling its form. Sash’s eyes were wide with delight. The little mist grew tendrils and one wrapped around her wrist while it’s body leaned over. It appeared cautious as it let go and drifted slowly away. Sash dropped the bottle and cupped her hands and the mist returned, hovering cool over her skin. She wriggled her thumb and it coiled around.
It seemed an inquisitive creature, for it drifted down Sash’s forearm until it met her body, then followed the line of her leg until it reached the sack at her feet. The mist circled it, nudging at the damp canvas. Then it darted away. Sash gasped; she wanted to call it back, but by the time she formed the words it was already skimming back to her, a crab caught in its middle. Sash grinned as the mist deposited its prize in her open palm. She noticed, as she put it in the sack, that the crab was already dead.
Lucy is studying a masters of editing, publishing and creative writing. She enjoys long walks on the beach and brutally murdering her characters.
The Mist is one of the many short-fiction pieces selected for the University of Melbourne’s Publishing Students Society’s first student-run publication Publish or Perish. Follow the Publishing Students Society on Facebook for more information!