The man was so old he did not notice at first that it was missing.

He rose, as he always did, at the first breaking of the day, a gnarled staff of wood unfolding itself from the heap of blankets on the narrow bed. Breakfast was a withered strip of dried fish, eaten with long slow chews on the porch. His glazed blue eyes never tired of watching the fishermen of the village setting off to sea for the day's work, some of them wearing snips of metal sewn to bands around their arms - light-catching beacons to ease the seeking gazes of wives and daughters, and to ensure a safe return home.

The fishermen themselves were used to the sight of the weathered man on his weatherd stair. Some of them might have noticed a slight downward bend to his face, perhaps a tiny crease between his brows among the hundreds of lines incised by time; but otherwise today was as all other days.

The sun was shining clear and bright through the east window of the old man's cottage when he felt the first dim pang. It rolled over him like a wave as he sat mending nets; and he felt it roll across his face, too, tightening his usually slack features for just a moment before passing.

Vaguely disturbed, the old man's hand flicked nervously to his breast. His roughened skin caught on the loosely-spun fibers of his cotton shirt, and pulled them away like cobwebs.

Abruptly he put aside his mending and went to a crooked chest at the foot of the bed. He lifted the lid and took out a small box. It was perhaps the only straight thing in a room filled with crooked furniture and a bent man, and its wood had been carefully planed and sanded and fitted together with joins like dove's tails.

It was empty.

The man blinked once, as if surprised that he could still feel surprise, and shivered. His hands, steady enough to knot nets even in his age, trembled like a breeze across still water. He did not drop the box, though, but replaced it as carefully as he could.

Slowly, but with mounting energy, he began to fumble through his meager possessions, heaped so long ago into the chest. He brushed aside crumbling scraps of of paper, blank and yellowed - photographs? - he could not remember of whom. He moved past a curved plank of splintered pine, waterworn and smelling of the sea. His hands dug deep through folded shirts, a scrap of faded ribbon, another layer of brittle paper that cracked and crumbled at his touch. Finally he reached the bottom of the chest.

It was not there.

His lips opened, cracking with the effort, so long used to silence.

A word escaped, vanished.

The old man died.