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.