The Empty Sail

Hi welcome to my collection of short stories.

Most recently I entered the NYC Flash fiction challenge. The challenge to write a 1000 word story based on a given genre, location and object within a 48 hour period.  My challenge was:

Genre: Historic Fiction

Location: Psychiatric Hospital

Object: Ship in a bottle

Title: The Empty Sail

Synopsis: A man and his sister are separated by a new surgical procedure. They each reach for the other, across an ocean of obstacles.


“You’ve been starin’ at the horizon all mornin’, Capt’n.” said Smith, Master Gunner. “Lot of ocean to look at; but you ask me, one patch o’ water looks much the same as the rest. So I gotta ask ya Jim, who is she?”

“My sister.” Chuckled Jim Tarper, Captain of the Typhon “I was just wondering when I would see her again.”

Smith grunted “This weather can’t last forever.”

The Typhon had been dead in the water for the last three days. She was trapped within doldrums, without a hint of wind to take her home. The crew lay on Typhon’s blackened deck like pregnant seals, enjoying the sun. Without wind she was impotent, a play thing for the tides. There was nothing for them to do.

Jim missed the activity, the chaos of men shouting over the top of each other, climbing over the rigs, swabbing the deck, running around plugging leaks and repairing damaged hatches or sails.

The doldrums had stolen the life and soul from the Typhon.

“When’d ya last see her?” Smith asked.

Sally was Jim’s elder sister. When they were children they had been inseparable.

Jim grew up in South Danvers, Massachusetts. Their father had him working for a carrot farmer when he was only eight years old. It was a three mile walk, each way, every day. But, day after day, Sally would come and meet him half way. Jim couldn’t remember any time of life when she hadn’t been there.

“I can’t remember. But it’s funny, even now” Jim said “When I look at the blue horizon I feel like, if I could just peer that little bit further, I would see her. She would be standing on a beach at the world’s edge, waiting for me.”

Smith slapped him on the back. “Fear not, the winds’ll come tomorrow.”

“Yes, tomorrow. She’ll be within reach then, tomorrow.”


Sally Tarper, held her brothers limp hand in her own. She tried to catch his eye, hoping that he would awaken. But his gaze remained fixed on a point on the floor.

Sally hated the ward. Every room looked the same. Cream coloured walls and tiled floor, windows with wooden horizontal bars across them, casting long shadows across the room. Vagrant men in straightjackets or hospital gowns populated the room. They sat in white chairs or wandering about the floor without purpose or reason.

It was astounding that such an archaic place could exist. It was 1936 for God’s sake, not the dark ages.

Matron Clarke, Head Nurse to the Danvers State Hospital marched toward them, a forced smile on her face. She stopped just in front of them, her smile never fading for an instant.

“How is our star patient?” She asked. Sally said nothing. “Do you mind if I join you?” Sally still said nothing, but Matron Clarke sat down anyway.

“Your brother’s rehabilitation is progressing very well. Both Doctors Freeman and Watts are please. All signs of the panic attacks have disappeared. It truly is remarkable. Your brother is completely cured.”

Sally didn’t respond. “You must be very happy.” The Matron probed.

“Happy?” Sally breathed. Taking out her handkerchief she wiped drool from the corner of his mouth. Then from her bag, she picked up a small comb and began to neaten his hair into a style she knew he liked, carefully avoiding the scars on his scalp. He needed a shave. She would have to speak with the nurses about that.

“When Jim and I were little we used to visit old man Moore’s hobby shop. Do you know it?”

Matron shook her head.

“I remember on the mantle, Moore kept this beautiful pirate ship in an old rum bottle.

“There were six sails on the front mast and a huge sail on the Main mast. The long wooden bowsprit stretched in front of the ship atop the head of a skull. Tiny ropes and rigging hung from each mast and at the top of the main mast, the Jolly Roger! It had been painted with such obsessive detail, we both stared at it for hours, day after day.

“Jim never understood why anyone would put a ship in a bottle. ‘A ship deserves to be free,’ he would say ‘sailing the seven seas and discovering the world. Not trapped in a bottle’ ” Sally continued fussing over Jim “He used to dream of hopping on a boat and visiting far off lands.” She turned and looked the Matron in the eye. “Do you ever think he will be able to do that Matron? Leave this horrid place and sail the seas?”

The Matron fidgeted with her white belt. “Well, we knew there would be side effects to the pre-frontal leucotomy. Dr Watts is still exploring rehabilitation techniques, but he believes the effects are transitory.”


“Yes, we are trialling the treatment with a number of other patients. Your brother, Mr Tarper was the first of course, but the treatment is revolutionary, they are calling it the Freeman-Watts technique. They could get a Nobel Prize. It has happened before. Think of the good we can do. We can’t just… stop.”

Sally said nothing. The Matron sat awkwardly in silence for a long moment before making her excuses. Sally wasn’t sorry to see her go. She wanted to be alone with her brother.

She looked into Jim’s vacant eyes and a tear rolled down her own cheek. “Where are you Jim, and why won’t you come home to me?” She whispered.

As a nurse passed by, Sally reached out and grabbed her hand.

“Nurse, I would like to take him outside tomorrow. Let him feel the wind on his face.”

The Nurse nodded. “Of course.”

Perhaps a change of weather would do him good.


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2 thoughts on “The Empty Sail

  1. Hi there, I just wanted to say well done! You have a great command of dialogue and your exposition doesn’t feel forced. I liked how you brought the ship in a bottle in, in such a poignant way. I think you really succeeded in capturing the two different viewpoints. A sad but great story! Good luck!

  2. Hi Sean, thanks so much for the feedback. Hope your stories are going well.
    All the best.

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