Treasures Lost

July 30, 2010
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All knowledge comes at a price. Upon first reading this quote, an image of the classic Eve, all soft curves and fair hair, comes to my mind. In my mental picture of her, her hand extends frozen above her head, as if eternally caught in the act of reaching up to pick an apple; the original sin. The forbidden fruit; the original cliché. But, being an avid seeker of knowledge myself, I felt that surely such a generalization as all knowledge comes at a price applied little to practical life. My life. Yes, learning was a wrecker of blissful ignorance. But if blissful ignorance was the natural trade-off, then—well, I considered it a price well paid.
Sloping up and away from and above the playground, surrounded by black chain link fence hot with sun, was the field. I think it was this elevation above the rest of the school yard and this fence, this separation, which made all the difference. It turned it into an easily accessible area that was leagues away, and cut it off from the rest of the playground, leaving it virtually unvisited. In our eyes, a frontier.
The field was large, large enough that I had to stoop and catch my breath after running across its longer side. Coarse grass expanded out across it, dotted by the occasional patch of clover flowers, attempting to invade this stout green army that had colonized everything. Third graders at the time, we decided that this unused field was the perfect place to start what became a multi-year project, and we set about exploring and exploiting the various nooks lining the outer edges. Neighboring yards pressed up against the back fence were hidden by clusters of oaks, conifers, and stubby palm trees, and these became forts. Palm fronds, stooped trees, and matted vines combined to enclose small rooms behind tangled curtains. Inside, a musty taste skulked around the ground. For all our cleaning we could never quite clear out all the decaying ivy that grew on it.
Reminders of the fact that the field became public property after school lay scattered in the form of litter. Half filled water bottles lay, mud- encrusted, in the dirt. The sporadic blinding glint of sunlight signified a can. Strangely though, these didn’t diminish the place. As those with any sense at all could see, plastic bottles were not trash; they were storage vessels for carefully collected water from watering holes, just as shattered bottles were glass cutting tools, and boards with rusty nails were shelves. At some point an agreement was made that we were only to use materials that we found on the field in our endeavors, so we pioneers scoured the land for treasures. That way, we said, we would truly be making our own civilization. Stepping over brittle, rustling branches into our fort, you would see it filled with the great finds of a day’s scavenging, and a gloriously motley cache of prizes and our newest innovations—mud pottery, perhaps, or wickedly curved “machetes” torn from a palm.
These machetes were curiously versatile things, for as my brother discovered, the talon-like spines that protruded along their edges also functioned as rakes. My classmates and I sat out in the grass on sunny days and pulled the spine-toothed palm frond stalks through the grass, gathering up the loose hay fermenting among it.
“We have enough hay here to feed a cow!” we said jokingly, pleased with the idea nonetheless. But our hay was not for consumption: no, we diligently collected the small individual piles of an hour’s work and added it to the main stock, a teetering stack of straw that threatened to fall over if it got any higher.
“Wow, we have a ton of hay.” I once laughed.
“Yeah. You know, we might actually have enough to feed a cow, for real,” A friend replied. Merritt, I think.
“I don’t know, cows eat a lot.”
“Okay, maybe we could feed a cow for just a couple days, then.”
We paused, sizing up the lofty piles before us. Piles, plural. The first one had indeed fallen over, so we had divided it into two smaller ones.
“Yeah, maybe for just a couple of days.” I replied, smiling.
I, along with everyone else, was captured by the alluring potential of the field, saw the glorious trade enterprise that we would found, as if it were already peeking out of the creeper-covered oaks, a grand vision winking in the sun just a little bit away. As the first step towards our improvements, it was agreed that we would cover the insect- infested ivy with something pleasanter to sit on. I imagine how we would have looked that day from the perch of the chickadees that watched us with peppercorn eyes—eyes like individual blackberry drupelets, shiny and plump. I always frowned as I imagined myself squeezing the eyes like I would a blackberry, watching as they burst and oozed out purple ink. We must have resembled a line of worker ants, clutching armfuls of hay as we rotated between a heaping main pile and our fort, all the while craning our necks to see over the straw we carried. By the time lunch was over the interior of the fort echoed an overgrown horse stall.
To the neighbors, it was simply a fire hazard.
I remember its jowls, heavy-set, brown, whiskered. Wide set eyes flanked either side of nostrils perpetually flaring; whether drawn back anger, fear, excitement, or all three, we couldn’t tell. Occasionally this dog would saunter up and snarl at us through the wire at us from his yard. By some unfortunate fate of events, our fort happened to be pressed right up against the opposing side of that fence, and despite the cobwebbed ivy that meshed this chain-linked border we could see through at the dog, and him, it seemed, to us. Undeterred by our attempts at coaxing it into silence, and eventually half-hearted ventures at just scaring the barking thing away, it regarded us as intruders on its rightful territory. When it appeared, most of my friends fled the fort—I didn’t see the point to this, as, after all, the dog was behind a fence and couldn’t hurt us. But I ran away with them anyways, if only because I was hesitant to be left out of the drama.
One afternoon, when the sun nested high above the fruits of a day’s toil gathering hay, an elderly woman hobbled up to the fence by our fort at hearing her dog’s incessant barking, and demanded to know what we had been doing to provoke it.

“Scram! Go back to your schoolhouse! This is my property!” These were the exact words she yelled at us across the fence. She also told us that she didn’t want us piling hay near her yard— it would start a fire and burn her house down, she said. We had no idea how to respond to so blunt a confrontation. After the old lady returned to her house, were left to come to the indignant consensus that she was being unreasonable.
The angry dog and the angry lady merged into one, the faceless antagonist of our adventures. To our dismay, we were forced to remove the hay. We found a new fort. In a couple weeks the old one sat silent, left once again to the musty ivy and the contemplations of the spiders.
I wonder if she had any grandchildren.
“Someday they’ll grow, even if we have to wait a year. Someday.” I said, pausing. A year seemed a shorter wait then, yet inexplicably longer at the same time. Anything could happen in a year. I added as an afterthought: “And if they don’t, then we’ll make them!”
“…Someday rhymes with Sunday,” Alexandra remarked.
“Someday rhymes with Sunday.” We looked at each other for a second, and then burst out laughing.
“No, that’s not a rhyme!” I protested. “Someday almost rhymes with Sunday.”
“Whatever.” We fell silent as we focused on the straggly sunflower sprouts we were watering with carefully filled watering vessels, found next to the drainage grate at the far corner of the field. These were the last of our stock, which I had taken earlier from where we hid them inside the sprinkler control nook. The plants had looked pale and wilted ever since we had transplanted them, so we lavished attention and water on the immutably parched and cracked dirt. Someday our ailing sunflower garden would bloom, and then we would plant their seeds anew.
I stepped up the eroding grey soil to the grass, taking care to tread on the road painstakingly flattened into the slanting ground, all six feet of it, even though this meant taking a rather indirect route. Our new fort was flourishing, and countless somedays shimmered in the early May heat like a mirage. I stooped over what we declared the beginnings of amber, lying in the form of weighty globules. Like a melted candies congealed, I always thought. On a stump adjacent to them nested three particularly large cutting tools crowning the pile that comprised our glass shard collection. We planned to trade them with the other fort for some woven mats of palm frond strips—as a rule, no trade offer was ever turned down, and little haggling was involved, for as long as a trade of some nature was made everyone was satisfied.
Years later I was in the vicinity and revisited the field. I found myself gazing across a large but otherwise unremarkable rectangle of grass, where the clover flowers still persevered, battling the markedly disorganized green legions. A shattered bottle lay crushed near my feet, and I noticed with distaste that no one had bothered to clean up the various specimens of trash that littered the field. Silhouetted in the distance lay a mangy knitted blanket. A useless candy wrapper contorted helplessly in the breeze, a discarded bit of plastic writhing wildly in protest as it skimmed across the grass. And what once would have been a precious paint rock—rouge that was the beginning of our very own line of cosmetics— was now just a soft reddish pebble in the dust.
I walked to the area where our second fort used to be. Part of the road still remained as a crumbled outline, and I would imagine that a faint footprint of it does now, too. Our garden was but a patch of desperately parched dirt rent by cracks, but I was surprised as my eyes caught on a withered husk of a sunflower still partially rooted in the dry soil. Someday, someday. Someday almost rhymes with Sunday. The words wafted lazily, ghostlike, through the tunnels in my head, making my mouth twitch upwards into a smile. Someday has come and gone.
I was tempted to pluck a couple of the sunflower seeds and bring them back with them back with me as a sentimental keepsake, for I have always been a hoarder of mementos; they give me a physical link to those intangible moments that I can’t keep, the ones that slowly crumble in my hands the tighter I hold on to them. But this time I simply picked the sunflower up. I watched as its brittle petals disintegrated into dust on the wind at my touch, to mingle in the air with those palm frond machetes, that gleaming trade enterprise, the beginnings of amber, those joys of the imagination that seem to have drifted away when I wasn’t looking.

Ashes of the past.

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