One spring day in 2002, a French woman whose name we may never know, stood on a cross-Channel ferry and threw a bundle of clothes into the sea. After it, went some lilies and a bottle in the shape of a teardrop. The clothes had belonged to her son, Maurice, who had died at the age of 13, and the bottle held her letter to the boy “that no wind…no storm…not even death could ever destroy”.
“Forgive me for being so angry at your disappearance,” the letter went. “Forgive me for not having known how to protect you from death. Forgive me for not having been able to find the words at that terrible moment when you slipped through my fingers…” The bottle vanished, the ship docked, the 1)mourner went home to get on with her life. She never dreamed the letter would reach shore, let alone that someone would read it.
Karen Liebreich, a London-based author, did just that a few weeks later. The bottle had washed up on a beach in 2)Kent, where it caught the eye of her friend Sioux Peto, who was walking her dogs. Inside, Peto found a thin 3)scroll tied with a ribbon and enclosing a 4)lock of hair. The handwriting was in French and, as Liebreich is fluent in the language, Peto sent her the letter for translation. This was tougher than it might have been, with the anonymous writer addressing now her son, now an imagined reader, and piling watery 5)image upon watery image. “You can't just skim it and understand it,” Liebreich says. As far as she could tell, the boy had died early one summer, probably by drowning. “For a long time,” his mother wrote, “he travelled between two waters, between two lights, trying tirelessly to use up the strength in his outstretched arms. He submitted to the silence, the terrors and the cold…” She had, of course, been devastated—“My life started when he was born, and I thought it was over when he left me…life is precious. I promise you to live it to the full, to savour each instant in richness and serenity. I know that we will find one another, when the time comes,” she wrote.
As she translated, Liebreich found herself crying. “I'm not a 6)weepy person,” she says, “but the letter was very beautiful and very moving.” Liebreich couldn't sleep that night. In the days that followed, she found herself becoming more protective of her own children. “When your children are young, you can get lost in all the7)banality,” she says. “The house is full of toys and laundry and stuff from school, and in the boredom of the domestic routine you forget how precious they are. Something like this reminds you how important they are.”