The Treasure Box

When she got inside, she went to her kitchen table and sat down with the box. It was a small grayish-brown box, about five inches square and two inches deep. It had been in the garage, with some stuff in jumbled packing boxes that she had from her Grandfather’s house. Finding this again was like finding hidden treasure.

She touched the crumbling label, which announced in faded red letters, “Jonas Brothers, Taxidermists, Furriers and Supplies, 1037 Broadway, Denver Colorado”. The lid fit snugly down over the box and it made a soft sighing sound as she lifted it, accompanied by a whiff of air as it released that had a musty smell like an old library book. Inside, there was a tangle of metal wires, some rusted, each wire tipped with a glowing animal eye, the half-spheres of molded glass used by taxidermists. Most were the golden color of a bobcat’s eye when you caught it reflected back to you in campfire light. Two large glass eyes were clear, but with a wide cat’s eye pupil, narrowed at the top and bottom. Some were simply rich black buttons of glass on the end of the wire. Bird’s eyes. There must have been forty eyes all together, in gold and amber tones which made the box look as if it were full of glowing embers flaring and fading as the light caught them. She shivered at the strangeness of it. She lifted the box and smelled it. In the fading afternoon, she sat on the edge of her bed and clearly saw her grandfather’s face and his hands.

“Schreaaaaggh!” Fingers like iron poked her on either side of her ribs, hard enough to make the skinny nine year old jump half out of her skin. The double rib poke was always paired with the cougar scream for maximum effect. She laughed and yelled at the same time, “Pawpaw!” Her grandfather laughed back at her from a brown, crinkled face. “Scat cat, you’ve faded!” he said. It was the summer of 1965. Her mother, sister and baby brother, had moved in with Pawpaw while her dad was stationed in Thailand.

She rubbed her sides. No one in the family was safe from the double rib-poke. She was sure that when archaeologists dug up her bones a thousand years from then they would wonder at the two indentations in her ribs on either side of her ribcage. “A genetic abnormality”, they would say. “See, the rest of the family has them too.”

She had always called her grandfather Pawpaw.  He was a little less than six feet, but looked taller to her. He was dressed, as he always was except on Sundays, in starched khaki work clothes with a white T-shirt glinting at the collar. His face was a brown mass of wrinkles from working in the Texas sun, topped with a thin sprinkling of white hair and gray-blue eyes. His face had an Indian stoic fierceness to it, which fit his personality. A man of few words, he accepted life and people straight-on. Things were what they were. Pawpaw wore thick black work boots, steel-toed, a habit hard-learned from his years of brick laying and building houses. Outside, he always wore a metal construction hat, faded green, with gray metal showing through the paint. It never seemed odd to her that he wore that hat everywhere now, long past the time when he worked in construction. It fit him.

“You kids come see what I found.” he said. She smiled and they followed him, knowing a treasure had been discovered in the yard, in the big pile of sand that lay in front, the sand he mixed into his potting soil. You could tell he had been digging into the pile and had stopped. He said, “Dig down into the sand here.” My sister and I looked up at each other. Now with Pawpaw, that invitation was a loaded proposition. He was always and forever saying, “Open your hand.” and from his curled fist onto your palm would appear an empty bird’s egg shell or a ripe mulberry. But occasionally, it would be a scorpion, with the stinger pulled off, or like yesterday, a cicada that would whir up into your face screaming and just about make you wet your pants. You could never be sure. But we always held out our hand anyway. It was like riding a roller coaster, the scare was part of the fun. Pawpaw would laugh, “That bug is more scared of you than you are of him.” Then he’d show us the holes where the cicadas crawled up out of the ground; the crunchy brown shells left attached to the tree trunks as the cicada emerged, split in two and left clinging  on the bark, a crumpled suit of clothes outgrown. Pawpaw had once forgotten a destingered scorpion in his shirt pocket and handed it to the checkout clerk at the grocery store with his money. She went on break every time he came into the store after that. Pawpaw chuckled about that as he shopped.

This morning, the sand on top of the pile was hot, but as we dug with our hands down into the sand, it was cool and damp. A few handfuls in, pearly white eggs came to the surface. “Oh!, we exclaimed, “They are beautiful! What kind are they?” “These are grass snake eggs, or maybe lizard, we’ll have to see. Put them in this Mason jar and let’s bury them back in the same place. We’ll check them each day until they hatch.” And we did, until the day we discovered the glass jar was full of green baby lizards, which had a rough start to life when I dropped the jar on the way to the yard. Lizards scattered like green quicksilver. “They won’t hurt you and they’ll eat lots of bugs.” he said. Pawpaw was our authority on any kind of plant or animal. His bedroom had an entire wall that was lined with years of National Geographics and nature books of all kinds. He had only gone to school through the eighth grade, but his life was filled with the learning that comes from working on the land. He was the second child of ten. His parents were poor, dirt farmers, ranchers and at one point, beekeepers. He had worked the ranch with his brother, worked a fur trap line and had learned taxidermy. My grandmother had died in 1960, from complications from rheumatoid arthritis and its enlightened treatments. Pawpaw didn’t think much of doctors.

His day began long before ours did. He was up before it got light and drove a crotchety green pickup truck to Mrs. Conley’s house. Mrs. Conley’s elderly mother lived with her and Pawpaw would help her before he began working in the yard. He always lifted the heavy wooden garage door open and carried her newspaper to the porch. On sunny days he would lift the older Mrs. Conley into a wheel chair and roll her out to the patio to watch him work. When I was up early enough to go with him, I watched him tear up bread for the old lady to toss to the birds. He would weed the flowerbeds, brimming with pink and red begonias, and let me pull the leaves out of a waterfall he had built in the backyard. The yard was canopied by twenty year old pecan trees, full of racing squirrels. He would mow front and back once a week and trim the edges of the lawn with a smelly gas-powered edger. The manicured Bermuda lawn in the front was a perfect four inches thick, the edges a sliced piece of chocolate cake with green grass frosting. He would return in the afternoon to close the garage and water the backyard. Steam would rise from the sidewalks as he watered, accented by the whine of mosquitoes and spiraling songs of mockingbirds.

“Did I ever tell you about the time my brother Harry and I ate with the Indians?” said Pawpaw. We sat in the shade at the stone picnic table in front of the house. “No, really?” we asked. This was a favorite time; you never knew what story would follow.  “We were working a trap line one fall and Harry and I got lost. We had been riding for about three days and were running out of food. Things were not looking good. Luckily we came on a couple of Kiowas that were sitting down to dinner at the campfire. They didn’t speak much English and we didn’t speak any Kiowa, but with grunts and hand motions and such we understood that they were inviting us to eat with them. Well, we were hungry and since it would have been impolite not to accept, we sat down with them around a big pot they had on the fire. We all ate out of the same pot, you know, with our fingers. It was pretty tasty, some sort of stew. One of the Indians did know some English though because he kept on saying “Dig deep.” and smiling. Well I thought he was just saying that to make sure I got enough to eat, Kiowas are polite folks you know, but he kept on saying, “Dig deep.” So I dug way down to the bottom of the pot and pulled out a big handful of stewed grasshoppers. Seems the Kiowa just love them grasshoppers. They were pretty good, but a little crunchy.” “Ehwwww, Pawpaw!” we cried in disgust. He cackled with laughter. Weeks later he would create chaos at the dinner table by leaning in to us and saying in his best Kiowa voice, “Dig Deep!”

That summer we learned how to climb the mulberry tree in the side yard that was surrounded by prickly pear cactus. We learned what to do when you fell out of a mulberry tree into a patch of prickly pear. Pawpaw calmly lit a candle and bit by bit poured hot wax on the little spines on my hands. As the cooled wax was peeled away, the spines came with them. “Hush”, he said to my protests over this medical procedure. “Get things that hurt over quickly. Blow on it as soon as the wax hits your hand and it will cool faster.” He also taught us to suck the honey out of the wild honeysuckle flowers that grew in profusion over the fence in his yard and to recognize the wild onion and garlic plants on the side of his garden. He planted a garden that summer for us. We planted radishes that seemed to sprout in fifteen minutes and he planted yellow pear and red cherry tomato plants. These sweet little tomatoes he kept in a wooden bowl on the kitchen table with a salt shaker. We would run in the house and eat them warm by the handfuls. Many evenings were spent at the stone picnic table, learning how to spit watermelon seeds, although I thought that Pawpaw had a distinct advantage because he could remove his front two teeth. Sticky and laughing we would count the railroad cars as they rushed past the house and listen as the clacking noise dimmed to mournful train whistles in the closing dark.

Late that summer a city water pipe burst underground behind the house. Rather than gushing up, the water seeped slowly up into the right of way between the house and railroad track and formed a little marshy pond. Pawpaw didn’t see this as a nuisance, but an opportunity. One morning he took me out to the pond to catch tadpoles in a butter tub. He showed me the silvery long strands of frog eggs attached to the stems of Johnson grass and the tadpoles with little legs forming at the back of the older ones. “These will make frogs soon.” I was astonished, having never thought about how frogs got to be frogs. I held the tadpoles in my hand and felt the velvety soft wonder of them as the wiggled through my fingers. After that, I watched them swim around the plant stems for hours. They were not just any tadpoles at that point, they were my tadpoles. Eventually the city sent a crew to drain the pond and fix the pipe. I remember being awakened by the rumble of trucks and a backhoe. “Pawpaw, what are they doing? “ I asked in alarm. “Honey they have to fix the pipe and drain the water because of the mosquitoes.” said Pawpaw gently. “But they can’t!” I said. “My tadpoles!”  So Pawpaw quietly negotiated a truce with the disgruntled city workers until I carried as many tadpoles as I could by the butter tub full into the concrete birdbath. I couldn’t save them all, but tearfully regarded my brood as the best I could do. For weeks, I carefully tended the birdbath, filling it with fresh water each morning and counting the family. I remarked to Pawpaw one evening that they were sure turning into frogs fast. He regarded me silently. The next morning he woke me early. “Come with me.”, he said. We walked to the back yard where the birdbath was. Pawpaw put a finger to his lips to warn me to be quiet and pointed to the birdbath. With a sense of something unsettling in his look I watched the birdbath. Slowly a large form emerged over the edge of the scalloped bath. It was a tarantula, as large as a man’s hand creeping slowly to the edge of the water, two hairy legs raised as if in a weird salute… and then, quick as a flash, a tadpole was caught in its jaws and was carried off down the birdbath stand, into the grass below; breakfast it seemed. It was an indescribable horror to me.  I could not speak. I dropped Pawpaw’s hand and ran to my room, crying. Later that morning, Pawpaw sat down quietly on the edge of my bed. “It was better that you knew the truth.” he said. The tarantula has to eat too you know. Maybe she has babies to feed. I was not to be consoled that easily, a mother tarantula was not warm and cuddly enough for me to empathize with.

“Did I ever tell you about the time your cousin caught a tarantula in a jar out at the Cemetery?” he said. “On the way home your Aunt Linda told him that he could not bring that bug into their house so David and your cousin Carolin got out to turn it loose. David took the lid off the jar and threw that tarantula into the air. The wind caught it and blew it right back onto Carolin’s shirt. I thought she was going to beat David to death.” We were both laughing now. When I quieted, Pawpaw handed me the box of glass eyes from Jonas Brothers. “Say, I know you like looking at these. I want you to have them. Tonight I’ll tell you what animal each one belongs to. Eyes are important you know, to see things clearly. You understand?” he said. I nodded and looked at the eyes. To see things clearly. Things are what they are.

That year with Pawpaw ended and we moved on, but some indelible part of my childhood echoed along those railroad tracks. Whistling trains still bring these memories close. Pawpaw lived a long life and died at the age of ninety-one. I have my box of treasures, each glowing eye a reminder to see things clearly.


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