Tell me a bed time story.
A bed time story. A proper one. The kind that starts 'Once upon a time' and is full of mystic places and magical things.
You want me to tell you a bed time story? Now?
Yes. And after that I want you to hold me in your arms while I sleep. Is that too much to ask?
Once upon a time there was a bottle. It wasn't much to look at - just an ordinary glass bottle - plump waisted, green tinged, with a sour old cork blocking its mouth. You couldn't tell that it was a special bottle, though it was, of course. A special, magic bottle. What made it so special was that inside it was the most exquisite emptiness that anyone had ever seen. An emptiness made out of sunbeams and glimpses from the corners of lonely eyes, handcrafted and shrunk to miniature. A vision of emptiness, preserved perfectly under glass.
No one was sure how the emptiness had got in there in the first place. It was clearly too big to have fit through the bottle's narrow mouth. Some people claimed it was a trick - that there was this thing you could do with vinegar and a match that would make the mouth expand. Others said the bottle had been built around the emptiness, just wide enough to hold it. Still others said that there was no emptiness, that it was all an illusion, that someone had just painted the image of the emptiness on the inside of the glass (though that of course led to the question of how one could paint inside a bottle). At any rate, there the emptiness was, and everyone who saw it either admired it or felt sorry for it, depending on whether they imagined themselves outside the bottle or inside.
They had a name for the emptiness. They called it Thirst.
One day a young man was wandering through the bazaar in a little Eastern town, when he came upon the bottle. There were many other things at the stall, amulets of emerald and tiger-blood, quills of ostrich feather and unicorn bone, a pair of dice made from the Prophet's teeth, but it was the bottle that the young man fell in love with, buying it from the stall-keeper without even bargaining for it, carrying it home wrapped in a towel he borrowed from his hotel, convincing the security guard at the airport that it didn't matter, that it wasn't dangerous at all, because it was empty.
Once home, he would spend hours staring at the bottle. He would hold it up in front of his eyes and turn it very slowly, watching the light reflect off its surface like a secret morse. He would leave the bottle on the window-sill, watch as it changed with the changing light of the day. He dreamt of opening the bottle someday, of pressing that precious emptiness to his mouth, tasting the bitterness of it on his lips. Meanwhile he spent more and more time with the bottle, even leaving his school work (he was a student at the University) so as to be with it.
Are you awake?
I'm listening. What happened then?
One day the student finally plucked up his courage and uncorked the bottle. With trembling hands, he tilted the neck of it earthward, watching the emptiness pour out of it, puddling around his shoes at first, then starting to flow towards the door. It seemed to fill everything. His bedroom, the apartment, the building, the city. Everywhere he looked people were wading through it, trying not to let it soak into their clothes. And yet the amazing thing was that when he stopped pouring from the bottle and put the cork back in, there it was again, the emptiness, as delicate and beautiful as it had always been. He had drowned the world with it, but the bottle was still full! The thought of the power the bottle contained staggered him, and he hid it away at the bottom of his cupboard, vowing never to open it again.
In a few days the emptiness evaporated, though, taking his fear with it. What remained was the floodmark of his curiosity that left its stain on everything. How could so much oblivion fit within a single object, he wondered. And it began to occur to him that his bottle was not alone in this. Every door had an infinity of absences locked behind it, every clock was a trapped eternity. Every bottle of ink contained a sea of ideas. He experienced this realisation as a kind of vertigo and it made him understand how destructive and melancholy a weapon he had in the bottle, and yet the temptation to uncork it again grew stronger and stronger, until despairing and tormented he pulled it out from its hiding place, admired its smooth symmetry for one last time, and then, closing his eyes to keep the splinters of glass from blinding him, smashed his magic bottle against the wall.
Afterwards he never found an emptiness so complete, so absolute, again. Though sometimes, standing on the beach and staring out to the horizon he would imagine that he saw it vanishing in the distance, like a great ship sailing just out of his reach. He donated the shards of the bottle to the local museum, which confused them with the Pharoah's jewels and put them on display in the Egyptian section. For a while he went around putting notices all over his neighbourhood, asking if anyone had seen Nothing, but if someone had they never came forth. Eventually, the memory of those brilliant days spent staring at the bottle buried themselves away in his heart, like pieces of brilliant glass under the sand of a tide-washed shore.
Did he never find solitude again?
Not solitude, but emptiness. See, I knew you weren't listening. No, he never did. Though after he died the pallbearers who carried his coffin would swear that he carried the weight of that emptiness to the grave with him. But it could have been just his heart.
What a sad story.
You never said it had to be a happy one.
But bed time stories are always happy!
No. Bed time stories are always about the things we have and others don't. Safety, innocence, lack of courage. They are the storm that howls outside the wall so that we can snuggle into our blankets and feel safe.
All right, all right. Have it your way. I think I need a drink.