Friday, August 19, 2005

Secrets of the Hidden Trunk


"What kind of treasure is this?" Marcus asked in sheer disgust, as he sifted through the contents of the tin trunk we found in the old mine workings. It was just exactly where the old map had indicated, except what we found inside was a far cry from the gold coins, jewelry, and nuggets were hoping for. "I can't believe someone would go to the trouble of hiding a chest in an old mine, and then to draw a map to show where is was."

Marcus rolled up the sleeves of his thick cotton twill khaki-colored shirt. The muscles in his thin, wiry arms twisted like rope as he lifted the metal chest and brought it to a flat place in the arroyo.

"There's some sort of water barrel in there, too," he said. "Should I get that out, too?"

"I have to say it's pretty weird," I said. "I wonder why someone would pack silk skirts, slips, and blouses in a trunk."

So far, all we found in the trunk was women's clothing. I found it to be interesting, and I suspected that the owner of the trunk had not been much older than I was. Perhaps she was 16 to my 15. Still, it was clear that whoever had packed this trunk was a teenaged girl. There was a card, a silk heart, a little journal with doves and flowers on it, and a daguerreotype of what appeared to be her mother and father. They were a grim set of individuals. The technology was to blame, though. Who could possibly look spontaneous while sitting frozen in one pose for 15 minutes at a time while the chemicals congealed into the patterns of light and shadow?

"Look at this pink silk blouse," I said. "Is this what they used to call a "mutton leg" sleeve?" I asked.

"How the heck would I know?" said Marcus.

"Marcus, you don't have to get testy with me," I said.

"Oh, no?" His voice dripped sarcasm.

"Look at this map. It clearly indicates treasure. It does not indicate used clothing, or a Goodwill store in the side of a ravine."

His negativity was getting on my nerves. I lifted another heavy silk skirt. It was black, with gray velvet trim. The articles of clothing were well-made, and were, in my opinion, quite beautiful. I was shocked that they were in such good condition. It must have been due to the arid climate, I surmised.

"Marcus, it's not all clothing, diaries, and photos," I said. "Here's a jewelry case."

"What?" Marcus lifted up another skirt to see if there might be something else secreted away in the depths of the chest. He sucked in his breath as his investigations revealed something even more startling than the jewelry case.

It was a dagger with a heavy gold sheath encrusted with colored gemstones. It was spectacularly beautiful and I could not believe a young teenaged girl would have such a thing.

"What on earth do you think she was doing with this?" I asked.

"Maybe she was getting to ready to run off with her boyfriend to get married. Maybe this was something she had inherited and she wanted to have it in case they ran out of money," said Marcus.

"Why did she leave it behind?" I asked.

"Maybe she died in the flash flood that happened here during the California Gold Rush," said Marcus.

"Or, maybe she was kidnapped," I said. "Perhaps she just simply never got away."

"Well, whatever it was, she did not come back to the old mine diggings. It must have been too dangerous," said Marcus.

We both sensed that to enter into the Scheherazade territory of a thousand and one narratives would save no one's life. It would merely extend our journey in this ambiguous land -- a territory that was painful in that occasionally the stories we spun came all too close to nerves and real pain.

I turned my attention to the small jewelry box. I opened the delicate black lacquered lid quite cautiously.

Inside was a tiny trove of treasure, of colored gemstones, gold chains, gold jewelry. It looked like a dowry chest, except for the clothing, which made it look like a girl preparing to elope. The jeweled knife was, to put it mildly, an oddity. It was inexplicable.

"Could it have been a girl from a local brothel?" I asked. "Was the owner a prostitute? Was she planning to run away?"

Marcus looked at the skirt and blouses with a strange expression. It approximated sadness and compassion without being obviously so. A breeze ruffled his dark, longish hair, his finely cut jaw was not yet hardened into adulthood. It occurred to me again that he could easily be on the cover of a teen heart-throb magazine. My stomach trembled and I looked down at the jewels.

"What bothers me most about this is the fact she never got away," said Marcus. "My mom was an amazing cook."

It was a jolting non-sequitur.

"I don't get it," I said. It wasn't true. I understood it perfectly.

His mom had dreams, but she never had the opportunity to pursue them in a form that made any sense to anyone but herself. So, she traveled in her mind, and she hunted treasure in the far reaches of her imagination. She would never have admitted that, however. For her, the work she did to detect "sympathetic vibrations" on a map, with rutilated quartz crystals accompanied by chanting was very real.

"There has go to be something here," said Marcus, grimly. "Something more."

He grabbed up his flashlight and returned to the old digging. Crashing through the brush, he used his rock hammer to clear more space. While he crashed about, I placed the small items of jewelry in the palm of my hand and contemplated them.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Fugue State


January 7, 1974.
I lay down on the x-ray table and tried to maintain a cynical, tough-as-rawhide attitude. The effort was exhausting and ultimately pointless since I had little or no recall of what had happened. Palm Springs General Hospital was decorated in desert pastels. The walls of the x-ray room were a pale sandy rose, and I wondered what they would find. My neck muscles ached from where I had clenched them tightly. "Take a deep breath, dear," said Raylene, the x-ray technician whose nameplate was also in a desert pastel color. "Now release."

Repeating the sequence several times, the x-ray machine clicked and whirred. I tried not to think of what they might find. Something was causing blackouts and whatever seemed to be happening to me. I could no longer deny it, nor could I conceal it. It was no wonder I was considered a freak and a nerd at school. Since I could never remember the "episodes," I shuddered to think how many I might have had in class or in the hall.

"You are a very pretty girl, Ophelia," said Raylene. "You look just like a painting I saw in a book once. Actually, I think it was called, 'Ophelia,' too. I'll bet you have lots of admirers back home."

"Not really," I mumbled, trying to be polite. What boy would possibly like me? I was an embarrassment, a blot on society. I thought briefly of Marcus, and wondered with alarm if I had suffered a brief "episode" in his presence.

In the doctor's office, I fixed my eyes intently on the reproduction of Marcel Duchamps' modernist painting, Nude Descending a Staircase. The fragmented, angular arms and legs, the multiple images of a body in motion made me think of frames of a film superimposed upon each other. It was the record of discrete moments in time frozen onto a single moment in time. It displayed repetition of an action, but with gaps, and with the color effectively bled from it. The painting effectively represented in visual form the condition of my memory.

"We can definitely rule out a brain tumor, aneurism, or any other dramatic organic cause for what is happening," said Dr. Spangarten to Dad and myself.

"It is a shame her mother cannot be here at this time, too," said Dad. "This is going to be a great relief for her."

It was not much of a relief for me, though. At least they could do something about something like a tumor or an aneurism. It would be an explanation.

"We could do more tests, but I don't really see the point," continued the neurologist. "I will recommend following up when you get back home, and I will make a few referrals. Do you have any questions?"

Dr. Spangarten looked at me. Dad responded instead.

"That should do it. We will definitely follow up," he said, then stopped suddenly as he noticed me starting to shift my weight and squirm in my chair.

"Sorry, Ophelia," he said. "Did you want to ask a question?"

I looked up, paused, and looked into Dr. Spangarten's ruddy face, thinning and well-groomed hair. He looked like he spent some time on the golf course, I thought. He probably had one of the houses I saw while riding my bike to the canyon horseback riding place. They were white stucco with ornate desert gardens and pools in the back. Or, it was possible he lived near Marcus. The thought gave me a small knot in my stomach.

In addition to Duchamps, Dr. Spangarten's wall had a reproduction of Giacomo Balla's painting of the multiple, superimposed moving images still painting of a dachshund on a leash. It, together with Nude Descending a Staircase, perfectly represented my emotional and cognitive states.

I nodded slightly.

"Yes. What is it that has been happening, then?" I asked. "I know we don't know why."

"I think that you have been having mild seizures. It could be a very mild form of epilepsy. Or, it could be a hormonal or an electrolyte imbalance. Those are things you can find out when you get home," said Dr. Spangarten. Despite the grim news, his voice sounded kind, non-judgmental.

"Oh. Is there anything they can do?" I asked.

"Yes, there are any number of things. I would recommend that you speak to a therapist as well. There may be something precipitating them as well that is not organic," he continued.

So he did think I was a nut case.

Oh well. That made two of us.


On the drive back to the hotel, I made a suggestion to Dad.

"I think we should call Marcus and see if he wants to go check out his map," I said. Dad nodded his assent.

"That's a good idea." He rolled down the window. The day was surprisingly cool, and the Santa Ana winds had died down. The air was crisp and so clear the colors stung the eyes.

"This weekend?" I asked.

"Good." He smiled. "Let's do it."

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Hidden Temple

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The sickness was upon him again. It penetrated his bones and made him shiver with a dread so intense it felt like a fever. It was not precisely physical, nor was it completely psychological. However, like malaria, it recurred whenever he felt the slightest weakness.

Captain Harville had achieved the rank of captain. With his new rank came orders to go to a place he could never divulge. Harville was required by law and by protocol to deny he had ever flown over this land. Needless to say, he was not able to mention that he had also landed his helicopter on an awkward strip of land next to a rice paddy, nor could he describe the small cluster of bamboo huts on stilts where monsoon rains rolled down the palm frond thatched roof. The flat leaves kept out the rain, for the most part, but not the small animals, and certainly not the brown snakes that dropped from trees and coiled themselves around the bamboo rafters, waiting for the Burmese mice, the gold and black-striped salamanders, or even a bat or two.

At first, Captain Harville was well. He thanked the skies above that he was able to land, despite taking fire, some of it undoubtedly friendly, thanks to the secrecy that shrouded what he understood to be his mission.

Laos was beautiful, even magical, thought Harville. He might even enjoy it here.

However, the day he took the boat down the dark green waters of a tributary of the Mekong River, he knew his mind and his body had come under the thrall of something terrible and inexplicable. The jungle changed hue from lime green to dark, shadowy brown and green, and a humid, dank canopy covered the entire river. The sense of foreboding was as clammy as the sweat on his arms. Monkeys chattered, birds sounded shrill alarms, and the unearthly sound of a woman’s scream, which he knew to be a tiger, not a woman, made him question the wisdom of taking the boat alone.

Waterfalls flowed from underground channels and conduits. Where they encountered escarpments, the water cascaded out like water shot from spigots or bizarre horizontal fountains. In the gloom, Harville made out the three mounds of vines he had been looking for. Tying the boat near a small path cut through the jungle, Harville made his way toward the largest of the three. As he approached, he could see that the vines had been chopped back, and three almost identical structures revealed. Carved of limestone, with intricate patterns, the largest of the three was a stupa, a Buddhist temple.

Slashing some of the vines out of his way, Harville bared a small expanse where he saw the outline of a door. There were no visible knobs, but his instructions were clear. Clear the vines. Push the limestone block to the side, pull the iron ring, push the wooden lever. He did so, and a section of the wall moved smoothly inward, revealing a dark passageway.

It was not a gratifying success, Harville noted. This was the Golden Triangle, after all. Whatever was hidden here was likely to have a host of interested parties. He dreaded what he would find. The most likely possibilities were opium, arms, ammunition.

He saw nothing, however. Instead, he saw white smoke and sensed an overpoweringly sweet smell that generated a bitter taste in his mouth. The limestone walls seemed to bend, waver, and melt, when the sight of a man made him catch his breath in surprise. An impossibly small Buddhist monk in a crimson robe appeared in front of him, and addressed him in an impeccable British English.

“You must respect the fact that I have no choice in this matter. I am one of the last remaining Guardians,” said the tiny Buddhist monk.

Back in his base camp, Captain Harville awakened with no recall how he got back, nor why he was here. He lay in bed, vaguely nauseous, and he looked above into the bamboo beams and palm fronds. There his eyes followed the actions of 6 brown snakes as they coil, turn, writhe in the rafters.

Clutched in his hand was a small carving of iridescent green jade that, when turned a certain direction, changed colors and turns as peach as transparent flesh. It was a coiled dragon. Its eyes were black garnets, and there was a blood-red droplet of something on its tongue. Upon close examination, one can see that it was a fiery red garnet.

The impossibly small Buddhist monk appeared in the room with Harville. Harville heard a voice, a monk’s voice, imagined the monk perching somewhere on a bamboo rafter. The monk’s dark red robes glowed, brightened, darkened, faded. He wavered, then faded.

“Be not deceived. You cannot enter the temple without becoming one of us. You will be forever bound to the Bao Luong Min Temple.” The voice seemed to come from three places at once.

“Bao Luong Min,” said Harville. “What does that mean?”

High-pitched laughter came from the rafters. Instead of six snakes, there are now at least two dozen. The are writhing and coiling frantically. More high-pitched, cackling, hysterical laughter.

“God’s Hostage.”

Harville closed his eyes. He felt the bitterness in his mouth turn to pepper, then to licorice.

The sickness rose in his brain like a fever. The dragon in his hand crackled with energy, glowed, burned, seared images into his mind.

Later, when he awoke, a full day and a half later, nothing remained to indicate that anything at all had happened, not even the trip down the river.

Then, Harville looked down upon his hand. The carving was gone, but what remained were blood-red lines – the tattoo of a dragon.