The Floating Box

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Action and Adventure  |  House: Booksie Classic

The Floating Box

When school let out for the summer my mother marched me through the streets of New York. Her high heels clicked on the pavement as I raced to keep up. When we reached the platform by the train, she gave me a stiff little hug. “Mind your grandparents, Henry,” she said as she checked her watch.

I settled into a seat by the window and leaned my head on the glass. Back then there was the smell of cigars and polished leather. The sun was warm through my eyelids as people whacked newspapers into place and the train jolted into life. The wheels clacked slowly over the rails until we reached the river, then the whistle blew loud and free.

We slid through a mountain gorge and a wide open valley. Old white farmhouses sat back among the trees. Shirtsleeves waved from the clotheslines. Dogs raced the fields beside us and, when we hinged into the grey rock station, my grandparents stood looking up.

Grandma pointed and waved. Her work dress hung nearly to her ankles and she wore those sturdy black shoes. Other than that she was an older version of my mother with the tight little shoulders and the worried face. Grandpa was dressed in overalls and a ball cap, and I was soon squashed between them on the seat of the hay wagon.

The horses ambled as Grandma patted my arm, “Soon you’ll be roaming the hills.” She always felt I needed to walk out over the hills to clear my head. And when we arrived at the farm she handed me a sack of sandwiches like she did every year, and her eyes widened in disbelief. “You’re taller than I am,” she said.

I was thirteen that summer and because I knew what was coming, I waited. “Henry, don’t go near that log jam on the creek where everything washes down.” She took a deep breath as fear creased her forehead. “It’s bigger than ever! There’re broken bottles in there, boards with giant nails, old tractors that could fall on you – everything’s caught in that rat’s nest.”

“I won’t go there,” I promised. I’d promised her every year since I was eight so her eyes would relax. Then I hugged her. I hugged her because she was little and old and I was headed straight for that log jam, but she wouldn’t know so she wouldn’t worry. “Thanks for the sack,” I cried.

“Fried chicken for supper,” she said – another ritual because it was my favorite. And I ran out feeling the excitement of being there with the summer before me.

The farmyard was wide and shaded by a great tree. They’d hung up a tire swing the first year I came and it waved in welcome. Behind the barn there was a split rail fence and the cornfield began. The corn was knee high and Grandpa was hoeing between the rows. “Be back by supper,” he said.

“I will, sir.”

He straightened, held onto the hoe, and looked at me. I nodded, accepting his promise which didn’t have to be spoken. For just as I knew that Grandma believed I wouldn’t go near the log jam, I knew he didn’t. I also knew he wouldn’t say anything unless I hurt her. But if I gave her grief or worry in any way, he’d come after me.

Beyond the cornfield, the path rose steeply up the meadow. A few hours before I’d left the crowded streets of New York and now I climbed to a solitary ridge where mountains waved in every direction. The farmyard fell away and I stood on the crest of my own tiny kingdom. Grandpa hoed peacefully below in this hazy picture. The year was 1955 and I felt my toes growing in the earth of my own little world.

On the other side of the ridge, the pasture fell sharply down to the creek. The stream was a shining trickle as I spread my arms and ran, soaring with my paper sack flapping the wind, on down till I skidded beside the creek.

Water gushed over the rocks and I followed it quickly down, rushing, racing the valley floor until I stood at the base of three hills that formed a funnel.

An uprooted tree had wedged there years ago. Rocks had washed down, limbs and branches stuck out. Every year when the spring rains melted the snow, everything from the fields and rubbish heaps flooded down. Miles of runoff got caught in that clog jam. You never knew what; I’d found all kinds of things. And it was bigger than ever – just as my grandma said – towering over my head like a giant bird’s nest.

I crawled quickly inside, worked past a broken ironing board and a mailbox bulging with mail. A barn door, old plow, rusted kitchen sink, a tire was wedged in the branches of an uprooted tree.

The creek gushed gently underneath; I could see it shining through the branches. A man’s overalls were snagged on a stick. A tin cup was buried in leaves. The handle was bent but I could fix that. If all else failed, I’d build a house from the rocks and take what I needed from my treasure pile.

I wiggled down through the branches, past a car bumper and a screen door. There was the smell of deep earth as I crawled into an open space in the middle. The limbs parted and the sun shone warm in my own little circle. I was happy and home and ate my lunch as the creek washed gently underneath. A leaf floated on the water like a little boat. It caught on the rock and swirled.

Everything was peaceful and safe and the sun so warm. I still remember how good I felt as I fell asleep, how everything was right. But I slept a long time; when I woke up the sun was almost gone.

The shadows glowed. I stood up quickly to start home – and there was the little box. It floated quietly in the stream, caught against the rock. It wobbled shiny and black, about the size of a schoolbook. I picked it out of the water and found it wrapped with a chain. I shook it and there was a deep clunking rattle.

Not a tinny rattle, it was more like rocks, like something solid. The box was wooden and covered in black tarry pitch. I smacked it hard on the rock excited to know what was in it. Not a budge, not a crack or a dent, and it hurt my hand. The chain was wrapped so tightly it embedded into the wood.

There was a strong lock and it looked old. Handmade, like it was built in another time. Like it was buried deep in the earth and when the rains came they washed away the hillside. All the hairs on my neck stood up because it was beyond everything I knew, and maybe incredible. I wiped the lock with my fingers and read the initials DMS. Then I whacked it again – my heart pounding to know what was in it – not a budge.

I needed a hammer, wire cutters, a pick or a saw like Grandpa had in the barn. I needed secrecy and time to think out a plan. Then I heard the bell Grandma rang for me to come home. The hills were deep in shadow. It was close to that point where Grandpa would climb the ridge and start down the creek.

The box was too big to be tucked under my tee shirt. Could I take it back and tell them, trust that whatever was in it would outweigh the grief? It was the beginning of summer and I had hope of endless days there. Could I hide it, leave it till tomorrow and think of a plan?

The bell rang for the second time and I heard the jittery clang as she rang. I pressed the box to my ear. There was sound of clunk and thud, the smell of water and rocks, but more than that there was the whiff of treasure beyond anything I knew. It could be diamonds, silver, coins, jewels – anything! Inches away, I closed my eyes willing it to tell me when the bell rang again, frantic now as the sun dropped below the horizon.

There was an uprooted tree three feet above the stream bed. It had a hollow place and I tucked the box inside and covered it with leaves. The tree had an odd limb that pointed to the right and I carefully aligned my position. There was an old mattress, then a large rock. I calculated every inch of my surroundings. When I crawled back through the tunnel, my treasure was tucked tight in the middle of my treasure pile.

But there was a dark gloom, a shiver in the wind as I ran up the creek bank. When I crested the ridge the lights were on in the house. I smelled fried chicken and biscuits. And there was – treasure beyond treasure – waiting for me tomorrow.

* * *

That night I awoke to a flash of lightning. From the attic window I watched lightning crack over the fields. The old house boomed with thunder as a smattering of rain came first on the tin roof, then hell broke. Torrents of rain lashed the house and the great tree.

A light appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “Henry,” Grandpa called, “I need you.” His voice was quiet but at the same time urgent. I peered down the stairs; he was already dressed in his yellow slicker and boots. “Quickly,” he said.

I ran down the steps and pulled on my rain gear. Grandma was pulling on her old pink bathrobe. Her hair had sprung from its bun. “Be careful,” she said as her eyes filled with dread.

We stood on the porch, blasted by the wind. Rain lashed my face and ran in my eyes. Lightning jagged the hills like flash bulbs popping all around. Thunder crashed; the wind howled. I turned sideways like treading a current.

Grandpa stepped boots ahead of me to the barn. He looked back, his face fierce with delight as he waved me on. Mud slopped. Water ran in tiny rivers as we staggered inside where the cows mooed restless. The young foals whinnied as the mares thudded the sides of their stalls.

“A little wind, girls,” Grandpa said in his calming voice. The light of the lantern spread on big eyed cows standing in water now trickling throughout the barn. He started stacking hay bales around the inside perimeter and I ran to help. The water gushed freely in places until we blocked it. “We’ll need another round to hold it solid,” he shouted and we started stacking a higher row. “It’s a thrasher, son,” he grinned as he hoisted, “a gully washer.”

“Will the creek rise?’’

“It’ll be six feet high in the morning.”

I felt sick with horror. I saw a giant wall of water crashing through the darkness, arcing like a wave on top my box. “Hold on,” I prayed as we stacked. “Hold on.”

The timbers of the barn groaned as the wind surged. It rained so hard I thought it couldn’t be harder, but then it bore on the roof like a train. At barest dawn Grandpa and I stood dripping with sweat as the rain slackened and the fog descended. We couldn’t see to the house.

Grandpa stepped straight into the fog and I followed, my boot steps sucking the mud. It was cold and dark but when the fog shifted I saw Grandma through the kitchen window. A pan of biscuits sat on the table. Coffee bubbled in the pot and there were sunny side eggs all shining with grease. When we stepped across that threshold there was the warmth of frying bacon.

Butter and strawberry jam got spread on hot biscuits while coffee steamed in our cups. Grandpa worked straight into his breakfast but every part of me worried. “Eat up, Henry,” he said. “When it’s light we’ll check on the farm.”

* * *

Dawn came. After the sweeping rain it was muggy and close. Grandpa and I climbed to the top of that ridge in a cloud of fog. The hillside oozed wet as I slipped and slid, hunched inside my jacket until we stood at the top encased in fog. Then suddenly, the clouds whisked free, and that creek was a raging torrent! It was red thrashing mud crashing its banks.

Slipping, sliding, tripping and rolling over, I reached the frothing water. It was up many feet from yesterday. Grandfather threaded the hill behind me as I bounded straight for the log jam.

My heart pounded in terror as the water surged beside me. “Be there,” I commanded all the elements to stop and my box to be safe. To my horror the funnel was a cauldron of whirling water clear to the top, only the tip of my log stuck out.

I heard a cracking sound as the log shifted. “No! No!”I screamed and stretched my hands to stop it, but the log tilted, held for a second as my heart stopped. Then it shot down the creek like an arrow.

I raced to keep up, ran with every hope and strength as it whisked out of sight. I ran until my foot got caught on a root and I sailed through the air. Whacked face-first in the mud and sobbed, gasped, pounded my fists in fury as my treasure box swept away.

“Are you hurt?” Grandpa hollered. I hurt in every part of myself. I gulped and cried and told him everything about my treasure box.

“All this fuss for a box,” he said. “All this crap for a broken plate or a busted watch.”

“It was a treasure box,” I cried. I’d held it in my hands and it was gone!

* * *

My foot was broken. Grandpa had to bring a horse up the creek to get me. I had surgery and was in the hospital eight days. My foot was in a cast and I had to limp on crutches and was beside myself till I could sit a horse well enough to get to the creek.

By then it was a trickle all sweet and calm. I saw my face in the quiet pools. My clog jam was bigger than ever. Parts were swept away but much was added. I found an old stove, a tombstone, a broken rocking chair. I scooted on my backside throughout the tunnels. Once I saw a wooden corner in the mud and dug my fingers raw to find a fence post.

Can I tell you the number of times I’ve walked that creek in the last sixty years. Do you know how many hours I’ve sat there on summer evenings to hear the secret? All the mornings I’ve fished that river where it all washed down, slid my canoe over the water just hoping to find it.

I kept hold of the farm all these years because I loved my grandparents and I loved the land. That’s mostly true. My wife and I raised four children there and it was good. But – every single day – there was the possibility I’d find that box again. And I did!

A few years back there was an estate sale at an old white farmhouse twenty miles down river below the farm. There was a sign about the sale on the main road and cars were turning in, so I followed them. The entire yard was lined with tables. It looked like they tilted the house and everything fell out.

There were tables of dishes, old silverware, all kinds of tools. Everything lay sprawled in the sunshine. Quilts waved on the clothesline as people milled up and down. Then, as I walked down the very back row, everything got still; everything got quiet inside my head. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as that box gleamed in the sunshine.

I grabbed it and shook it. There was the clunking sound. It was free of its chain and I opened it to see the chain inside with the lock. The initials DMS were visible as before.

“There’s a story that goes with that box,” a voice said. A woman sat at the end of the table folding a dish towel. “My father told me about it the night he died. Supposedly his older brother found that box in 1955. It washed down the river after a terrible storm and his brother found it lying on the riverbank. It was bound with that chain and he worked all day to get it open.”

“What was in it?”

“Gold!” she cried. “Dad said it was purest gold he ever saw and quite a lot of it.”

“What happened to the gold?”

“Dad’s brother took the train to New York City and had it assayed. They told him it was from the gold rush in 1849. Somebody brought it all the way from California and buried it in that box. Supposedly it was such a fortune Dad kept quiet about it. His brother left New York and went all over the world. He sent back letters from Spain and Morocco. He bought a silver Mercedes and everything he ever wanted, but then his letters stopped. Nobody heard from him till Dad got word he was dead. They said he died from too much living.”

I held that box to my ear – this close to the gold and everything I ever wanted.

She threw back her head and laughed, “Of course, Dad was out of his head by then and said all kinds of things. Maybe he made it up.”

But I held that box to my ear. I breathed in gold rush fortune, a silver Mercedes, and adventures all over the world. I breathed in hopes and dreams and shining treasure – it was in there. “I believe it,” I said and I do.

 


Submitted: March 29, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Suzanne Mays. All rights reserved.

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Comments

D Mays

Thank you. This story takes me back to many summer adventures. Well written. Thank you again.

Sun, March 29th, 2020 1:07pm

Author
Reply

Thank you, D. It was fun to write. I'm hoping this summer will have some adventures, too.

Mon, March 30th, 2020 3:38am

Criss Sole

Oh what a fortune!
Takes me back to my childhood when my imagination would run wild.
Great story!

Sat, September 5th, 2020 11:15am

texasjane

Fun story. Reminds me of the adventures I had with my grandmother.

Wed, November 4th, 2020 3:55am

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