This story is the second in a series of adventures from my childhood. You can read the first installment, The Contingency Plan, here.
Dedicated to Sarah Engelman.
If you followed the creek downstream, it eventually led to our neighbor’s property. Her log house perched atop the ridge, nestled so far back among the trees you couldn’t see it from the road. In the summer, when the trees budded out and the sweet peas were blooming, it was easy to drive right past her gravel driveway without even noticing it was there.
The underbrush along that part of the creek was thick with brambles and nearly impenetrable, unless you were very small or very determined, of which we were both. We didn’t have a choice, really. She was the only neighbor within walking distance, which meant that whenever my brothers and I needed to practice spying, we had to endure the perils of stinging nettles and mosquitoes and head downstream.
We spent countless hours gathering intelligence from the safety of the bushes by the edge of the water. Our neighbor’s life was so mundane and predictable, it could only mean one thing: she was working for the Russians. Her accent was impeccable and she made chocolate chip cookies better than Betty Crocker. Just like a spy. She poked her head out of her house occasionally and called for a co-operative with the code name “Mittens.” His cover was impenetrable. We never saw him. But we did get lots of pictures of a calico with a pink collar.
In between reconnaissance missions, our adventures took us upstream, to the edge of our property where the Mohican Memorial Forest began. Here, the crackle of fallen leaves and crunching branches changed to the muffle of pine needles. Our soles were black with sap all summer, until it was time to put on new tennis shoes and head back to school.
It was called a memorial forest because a single, solitary pine tree had been planted for each Ohio soldier who had died in World War II. The years had passed and the trees had grown, but still they stood in solemn rows as if in constant formation, remembering.
Sometimes, when I walked up the creek alone, I sat by one of the trees that had grown too weary to stand anymore. It had fallen across the path, blocking the trail. We often scampered over it and practiced our balance by pushing and shoving our way across it. But when I came alone, I sat on the trunk and wondered about the soldier who had already fallen once. I thought maybe being quiet for him was almost like remembering. I didn’t have the memories. So I was quiet.
But the creek, like a child, cared nothing for the quiet or the boundary lines between properties. It ran laughing right through the stillness, and we followed, out of the brightness of the field where the deer liked to graze and into the softness. The air cooled immediately. Broad beams of verdant sunshine filtered through the rows of trees and onto the ferns below. It was quiet here, except for the sound of the water and the occasional rough caw of a tattling jay.
It was the perfect play to play, and in the afternoons when my best friend came home to my house, it was the first place we went. As soon as we hopped off the bus, Jessica ran down to the creek and put her feet in. I ripped off my socks and splashed in after her. The freezing water stung my skin. I sucked in my breath and counted the painful seconds until my toes went numb. Our skin looked strangely pale and yellow under the water.
Jessica was my best friend. At least, she was my best friend whenever she wasn’t being best friends with the other Jessica. The other Jessica teased me for eating peanut butter and jelly on homemade bread and told me I had lice in hair when it snowed and wouldn’t let me play on the parallel bars.
But when we were best friends, my Jessica and I brought notebooks to the playground and wrote stories and talked about what we’d do when we were famous. When we were best friends, Jessica shared her pepperoni sticks and told me all about her trip to Myrtle Beach and said she’d bring me along next time, maybe.
Jessica was a teacher’s kid, but her mom taught second grade so no one really cared. It wasn’t as bad as J.R., whose mom taught the sixth grade. J.R. had to call his own mother “Mrs. Henry” during school hours, and she never let him have a hall pass, no matter how badly he said he had to go to the bathroom. “You should have gone at recess, Jeremiah Rutherford,” she said just like a mom. We cringed. “Now, who was the twenty-third US President?” It was the worst thing ever.
Fortunately, Jessica White’s mother was safely tucked away in another building where she couldn’t call Jessica by her full name or threaten to ground her if she ran in the halls. Mrs. White kept candy on her desk, and when we were best friends, Jessica would go right in and grab handfuls of it for us to share as we walked back to her house after school.
But Jessica’s house didn’t have a creek and a river and a secret spot, although in truth, the secret spot at my house wasn’t all that secret. That was because whenever Jessica came over, my brothers didn’t have to spy on the neighbor. It was much easier to spy on us. But we ignored them and talked about how stupid boys were and they couldn’t do anything about it because spies can’t talk.
While David and Michael watched us from the bushes and communicated with each other using bird calls, Jessica and I worked on our log cabin. It was more of a lean-to, really, about the size of a Barbie mansion. But we were still in Phase 1. If everything went according to our sketches, it would be spectacular.
On that particular day, we were gathering thick pieces of bright green moss to use on the roof. It came up in long strips as I pulled it away from the soil, leaving bare worms wiggling in the brightness.
Suddenly, I saw something in the ground. It was dark and flat like a thin piece of stone, but I could tell by the shape of it that it wasn’t just an ordinary rock. “Hey! Jessica!” I called. “I think I found something!”
Jessica hurried over and peered over my shoulder. “Holy cow!” she gasped. “It’s an arrowhead!”
Jessica knew a lot about arrowheads. Her father had a whole collection of them. I had seen them one day when Jessica and I got to her house before Mrs. White had finished grading papers. We sneaked into her dad’s room where he kept his collection of Indian artifacts. They were in a dresser guarded by a Styrofoam head wearing Mr. White’s Sunday toupee.
Jessica got right down on her knees in the soggy moss, clawing at the outline of the object with her fingernails. It soon became apparent that we were not digging up an arrowhead. It was far too big.
“Oh my,” Jessica gasped. “This could be a spear tip. It’s way bigger than anything my dad has.”
We dug until our fingertips burned. Soon we could see an arched shape emerging. The stone was perfectly smooth and nearly black, with a curved end. “Maybe it’s some kind of machete, or a sickle. Did Indians use those?” We had no idea. At the arch, the piece was broken. We could see the layers of stone under the polished surface.
“Someone spent a lot of time on this,” I said.
“No doubt,” Jessica agreed. “None of my dad’s weapons are this smooth.”
“It must be really rare. Maybe it belonged to the chief!”
“You know, I’ve seen things like this at museums. It could be worth millions.” Her eyes were wide. We looked at each for a moment. Then we began to dig even more furiously.
“We’ve gotta find the rest of it!” Jessica gasped, pulling up the moss and looking for signs of another section of smooth rock. “We’re going to be so famous. Imagine, two kids finding something like this!”
In point of fact, I was the one who found it, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to bring it up now that Jessica had ruined a perfectly good pair of shorts by helping me dig in the dirt. I’d be happy to have her name follow mine in the write-ups.
Soon, we’d found the other half. It was a mirror image to the first half. Both pieces were perfectly smooth and formed something like a giant “U” when fitted together.
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Jessica admitted, and I remembered how she rolled her eyes whenever her dad talked about his artifacts. It wouldn’t have killed her to be a little more attentive. “Let’s show your mom” she suggested. “She’ll know!”
“Let’s go find her!” I shouted, but Jessica was already bolting down the trail with one half of the artifact.
“Don’t drop it!” I yelled, scooping up the remaining piece and running after her. “You’ll break it!”
“It’s already broken!” she called back. We scampered over the fallen tree and splashed through the creek, turning the dirt on our knees into muddy streams that ran down our legs.
I started yelling before I even got to the apple tree. “MOM!”
“Mrs. Barnhill! We need you!”
My mom came running to the door. “What is it? What’s the matter?” She looked at our mud and pine needle-covered selves and gasped, “What on earth have you girls been doing?” She couldn’t yell at me now because we had company, and she wouldn’t yell at me later because of what we’d found.
“We found something in the woods,” I explained, panting hard from the sprint.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and my dad has tons of Indian stuff,” Jessica said. She wasn’t panting at all because she was on the swim team and would be going to the Olympics someday.
“I think it’s pretty rare to find something like this. I mean, have you ever seen anything like it?” I had stubbed my big toe on a root and it was bleeding all over the grass.
My mother didn’t notice. She opened the screen door and stepped outside.
Jessica grabbed her arm and pulled her in for a better look. “It’s in two pieces, but that’s okay. My dad says that signs of wear are important because then you know it’s not a fake.”
“It’s still going to be really valuable because we have both pieces,” I assured her.
“I bet it’s worth a million dollars, at least. We’re going to take it to some museums and see who will give us the most money. We’re not going to take the first offer,” Jessica explained. I didn’t know she was so savvy, but it was thrilling. We were about to be rich beyond our wildest dreams.
“Well, let me see what you’ve found,” my mom said taking my dirty half. Squinting her eyes, she gave it a careful examination.
“Do you see how precisely it has been crafted? It shows amazing skill.” I liked the authoritative sound of my words in the air.
My mother had a funny look on her face. I could tell she was having trouble getting her mind around it all. She was probably wondering how she would feed the team of National Geographic photographers when they came to take our picture. Moms always worry about stuff like that. You come home carrying the greatest archeological discovery of the decade and all they can think about is whether or not you brought mud into the house.
“Let me see your part, Jessica.” Jessica handed over the other half.
Suddenly, my mother began to laugh. Jessica and I exchanged a smile. It was good to see my mom so happy. Our lives were about to change, and she knew it. I would never have to clean my own room again.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked.
“Yes, we do,” Jessica said confidentially. “At least, we know it’s old.”
“It’s probably an Indian tool or something,” I added.
“Have you looked at it?” she asked. Her attempts to limit her chortle to a mere chuckle resulted in a very unladylike snort.
“Of course,” I said, trying not to be offended. “We discovered it.”
“Here, here, let me lay it out.” Then she put the pieces together in a horseshoe pattern on the porch boards and started laughing even harder at the sight of it. “What does that look like?” my mom asked. She had developed a bad case of the hiccups.
Jessica and I stared.
“I think it goes around a horse’s neck,” I offered. This sent my mom into hysterics. Tears streamed down her face. I made a mental note to buy her some waterproof mascara once the royalty checks started rolling in.
I cleared my throat and continued as professionally as possible, even though some people had no decorum. “It appears to be made out of some sort of stone. Based on the, ah, stratif-er-cation you see here,” I said, desperately wishing I had a real pointer, “I would say it’s slate.”
My mom was giddy with excitement. She laughed so hard, she had to lean against the house to keep from falling over.
“We’ll have to miss some school,” Jessica added, “while we’re making public appearances and giving interviews.”
My mother could not answer. No sound came out of her open mouth except for an occasional “Hee….Hee…” as she gasped for air. Black rivers of mascara streamed down her crimson face. It was not her best moment.
“Look…at…it…” she said pointing at our prize while she tried to regain some sort of composure. If she acted like this every time I made an archeological discovery, imagine how she was going to behave when I became President.
“I guess it’s more valuable than we thought,” Jessica said, watching my mom with a look of awful fascination.
“There’s no way I can invite her to my inauguration,” I muttered. It was the honest truth.
Jessica put one hand on my mother’s shoulder and said gently, “Mrs. Barnhill? My dad knows a lot about Indian artifacts. He collects them, you know. Maybe we should just take this to him and he can tell us what it is. Do you have any bubble wrap?”
My mom succumbed to a new round of spasms. Three minutes later, she composed herself enough to wheeze, “I’ll give you a hint.”
Now we were getting somewhere.
“Your word is ‘commode.’” Then my mother, a grown woman, collapsed onto the porch in hysterics, frightening the cat out from under the bushes.
And then I knew. My mother had always said that one day, I’d thank her for making me look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary ad nauseam.
This was not that day.
Jessica’s words broke into my thoughts. “What does that mean? Is that good?”
You’d think a teacher’s kid would have a better vocabulary. I looked at the horseshoe shape on the porch and wondered how I hadn’t seen it before. Clearly, my mother had been wondering the same thing.
“Well, what is it?” Jessica demanded. “You know I don’t speak French!”
“Oh, stop, stop!” cried my mother. She was amazingly merry for someone who was still poor.
It was hard to say the words out loud. “It’s a toilet seat,” I said, still a little stunned by the truth of it.
Jessica stared at our relic. “What do you mean?” she cried. “The Indians didn’t use toilet seats!”
There was no saving my mother at this point. She writhed around on the porch until I wondered if I should call the paramedics. “Oh, my! I can’t breathe!” she gasped, fanning her face like Scarlett O’Hara.
Jessica looked wounded. She held her piece of the toilet seat and refused to let the boys throw it on the trash heap. “I just know it’s real,” she sulked. Lovingly, she brushed the rest of the dirt off her piece. The words “American Standard” appeared in raised letters underneath. Her mouth dropped open and I saw the fillings she had gotten the week before.
“What kind of person buries a toilet seat in the woods?!” she shouted at me.
Those were the last words Jessica said to me for at least two weeks. Somewhere between my house and hers, she remembered that I was the one who discovered it in the first place, which made it all my fault. She ran off with the other Jessica and talked about Myrtle Beach and drew pictures of palm trees and Olympic rings all over her writing notebook and laughed about the fact that I had toilet seats buried in my backyard.
I found a spot on the cold metal bleachers at the edge of the playground and watched them on the parallel bars. I didn’t bother asking if I could play too. Instead, I opened my notebook and grabbed the pencil from behind my ear. Genius is born out of adversity, I thought, thankful that I had my career as a world-famous writer to fall back on. Someday, my mailbox would be full of royalty checks.
And when that happened, I’d make sure at least one of them cleared before I told my mother.