Jon came home from college for the summer. That Sunday, after church, we hauled a basket of ham sandwiches and deviled eggs to the river bank, just beyond Wilson’s Bridge, to find a soggy mess instead of a cushy seat for a picnic lunch.
Jon pushed up the brim of his cap. “River’s high, mom. I know you said rain all week. I’d hoped the sun this morning dried it all up.”
“Oh, we’ll give it a chance,” I said. “Here. I’ll fold up the blanket in half and we’ll manage. Take that checkered cloth out. It’s plastic. That’s it. Now let’s spread it out. We’ll have lunch and avoid a wet behind.”
As we ate, Jon told me all about his studies that semester, and I shared all the nothing I’d been doing since the New Year. The house had been empty with all my boys gone. It was good to have one back for a while, my handsome Jonathan, raven-haired and husky like his dad.
I didn’t realize we were creeping down the river bank at a snail’s pace until I found my feet hanging off the end of the blanket. So I propped up my hands and pushed back, and my left foot slipped on something hard and pointy. Jon flipped over the corner of the blanket. The joined end of a dark wooden box jutted from the turf.
We nudged the box with our feet. We pushed and yanked at it. But the box wouldn’t come loose.
“That’s a big box right there, ma. I’ll bet it’s a good three feet across,” said Jon.
“Maybe. But I’ll bet bigger.”
I gasped. “Not a coffin, Jon.”
Jon chewed his lip. “I’ll go back to the house for some tools.”
“Bring a wheelbarrow, honey,” I told him. “Oh, and here. Take this basket with you if you’re going.”
I stood over that box fretting for a good twenty minutes after Jon ran off to the house. Who in the Lord’s name would be buried unmarked next to a creek of all places? Jon returned with a rickety wheelbarrow full of tools. We went to work.
The bank was soft and the shovels dug through the mud like a spoon through jam. Soon we had the lid exposed. I leaned on my shovel and caught my breath while Jon dug out the rest. He was right; the box was about three foot square, and to my relief, not a coffin.
The lid came loose in segments. Most of the nails were rusted through. As Jon flung piece by piece away and behind us, what was inside became clearer and clearer.
“Another box!” I said.
“A chest,” said Jon. “Look at the hinges.”
I grabbed Jon’s arm and shook him. “What a happy mystery we have here!”
The chest was nestled in a layer of cork lining the inside walls of the box. We chipped away some of the cork around it, which was already mostly rotten, both got a good handle on the bottom and hefted the chest into the wheelbarrow.
Jon wiped his brow. He shook his head at the mud hole we’d dug.
“Boy did we make a mess,” I said.
“You always did want to plant some iris down here,” said Jon.
“I did. Yellow and violet. For Easter.”
Jon grinned, the very ghost of his father. “Well, I think we just got you started.”
“Nevermind that, now,” I said. “We’ve got a buried treasure to open.”
Jon wheeled it straight through the back door into the basement. We fiddled with the latch a bit, and while there was no padlock, rust had fused the latch shut. It was no use unscrewing the hinges or the base of the latch; all that was rusted through as well.
“It’s solid,” said Jon. “We could just pop it. I’ll bet the latch is real brittle.”
As much as I didn’t want to wreck it, curiosity got the best of me. “Fine, but let me do it.”
I worked a flathead screwdriver in the seam under the lid until I got a bit of leverage just under the latch. I gently moved the tool up and down, feeling it give way bit by bit until – pop! – the lid snapped open. Dumbstruck, Jon and I watched as a thousand little grey pages fluttered about us, settling on the stairs, the shelves and the workbench.
Jon bent over and picked up a handful. “They’re all written on. By hand.”
The paper was soft to the touch. “Look, this one has a little picture. A cute little rabbit. And a sparrow.”
“Mom, look in the chest.”
A fountain pen, an inkwell and two long white candles sat under dozens of little wooden figurines. I plucked the figurines out one by one and stood them on the floor.
“Let’s see what we got here,” I said. “A little boy and a little girl. Three little pigs?”
“Maybe boars? All those lines look like fur,” said Jon.
“Maybe. A scruffy dog, a couple of kitty cats, a raven? A crow? And a… raccoon?”
Jon grinned. “Not a raccoon. A red panda.”
“A red panda,” I said. “My, my. Never knew there was such a thing.”
There were a dozen more figurines inside. By the time we’d cleared out the chest completely, the basement had dimmed, though it was no later than four o’clock.
“Storm’s coming,” said Jon. “I’ll turn on the light?”
“No. Hand me those matches.”
Jon helped me turn the chest over. I lit the candles. The old stone basement flickered to life. I picked up a page off the floor and read the first lines to my son, “…a withered meadow stretched out beyond the maze, breaking on the banks of a creek. Beyond the creek, a dark wood loomed, gnarled and ancient. In the wood, a single ghostly light flickered in the window of a dilapidated farm house…”
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