The Secret Compartment!
I was a retired architect and Emily, well; I don’t think she ever retired. True, she retired from the company that made wedding dresses, but oh how she was active. It seemed the telephone was always ringing and it was for her. Some shop, confronted with an impossible bride whose dress was a mess. As for me, I was an avid golfer. Though I Walked slowly on the greens, I kept my edge or so I believed.
It was inescapable that stress had put two hearts to the test on so many occasions. But we never crossed that line of hitting each other or saying those unkind words that made love’s flame flicker and burn out. When we did disagree, there was always forgiveness and tears, cuddling and when we squeezed each other’s hand, love’s flame rekindled within our hearts. Emily and I were both 72 in 2005 when we took a month long vacation to Mesa, Arizona.
I remember how cold it was to our bones in Portland, Oregon that December. The warmer weather made that arthritis go away, at least temporarily. Incredibly, our birthdays were just 4 days apart. Mine was February 12th and hers was the 16th! Neither of us could lay claim to being a valentine baby, though I’d conceded and let her win. After all, with 31 years at my side through some of the roughest of times, she was truly my valentine.
Emily and I were traveling east down Highway 101, headed for Mesa, California in my 1965 mustang convertible. She was the happiest it seemed when she was holding my hand and her eyes sparkled at me. Her smile was as beautiful as the many cactus flowers we had stopped along the way to see. But this would not be the vacation we had hoped it would be.
The sun was bright that morning, but the air cool when my mustang began to shudder. The engine stopped as Emily squeezed my hand tighter and looked at me frightened. But I kept the wheel steady and coasted to a stop near a house along the desolate highway. A house in the middle of nowhere. It was a beautiful, but simple one story home with a huge flowered front yard complimented with cactus.
It was our hope that the family living there would have a telephone or at least drive us to the nearest town where we could call for a tow truck. Had the luck been with us, I could have turned into their driveway, off the main road. But as luck would have it, I was perhaps 10 feet from their driveway, but off the highway. As we both got out, I popped the hood and I tried to reassure Emily not to worry.
I lifted the hood and looked, hoping to obviously see what the problem was. Emily asked me in a shaky voice if I knew what was wrong and I shook my head no. I eased the hood back down, gave her an encouraged smile and pointed to the house. “Well, looks like we’re gonna call on some folks.” I said. Hand in hand we walked up the driveway, watching for rattle snakes or scorpions in the sand.
I don’t know who was listening for a rattle louder, me or Emily. When we reached the front door, we found it open and the room turned upside down as if there had been a struggle. Emily pulled my hand back and her eyes told me what she was about to say. “Harold, let’s get out of here, I don’t like this a bit, something’s not right.” Emily was right about that.
But we didn’t go back to the car. “Darling, we’re stranded, and it’s only gonna get hotter. Maybe there’s an explanation. Heck, maybe they just moved and no one’s here.” I said. Emily pleaded in a whisper for us to leave and perhaps we should of, but we didn’t. I decided to call out loudly to see if anyone was home, but not a sound was heard. So I told Emily we’d look around out back, just to make sure.
I didn’t like the idea of standing out on a lonely deserted desert road, trying to flag someone down. Since we had broken down, not a car had come along from either direction. Reluctantly, Emily gave in and slowly we made our way around to the back of the house. Still, we found no one and saw no car. Emily was all for returning to the car and taking our chances there, but I persisted that we should go back inside the house.
I saw how frightened Emily was and did my best to console her. She was shaking badly and I pulled her into my arms, kissed her softly and whispered, “Trust me love, I know we’ll be okay.” As I stepped through the broken door, Emily hesitated for a moment, before following me inside. Though the outside of the house looked absolutely normal, the inside the house was an entirely different story.
It looked as if a group of teenagers had literally tossed the room upside down. I had never seen a room in such a shambles. The odd thing though, I saw no graffiti sprayed on the walls. Furniture was literally ripped apart and anything breakable had been smashed. Burglars would find nothing of value to sell here. I glanced back at Emily, whose hands were on my shoulders, pinching them unintentionally and her eyes were large and afraid.
I placed my hand on top of hers and patted her hand and whispered, “It’s okay Hun, no one is here to hurt us.” I was hoping my words would give her some reassurance but I saw I was wrong. One room at a time we tip toed amongst personal belongings, now barely recognizable. When I looked to my right on the floor and saw what was once a framed photograph, I bent down and picked it up.
When I turned it over, I saw a picture of a Mexican family. In the picture were a husband, wife and their two small children. They were all smiling and it looked like a happy moment, not like what we saw now. Why would anyone destroy a house and all they owned so terribly? This wasn’t just vandalism, this was sheer fury. When we came to the last room, I saw the door had been ripped entirely from its hinges.
The door blocked my entry, so I carefully moved it out of the way. But I found that wasn’t easy. It was made of a very hard and heavy wood. It had a different feel to it too as if it was made from ancient wood. When I finally had moved the door and looked inside, I was shocked. This room hadn’t been destroyed like all the other rooms. Just the door had been torn off as if someone or something had wanted to get out of or in this room.
I quickly brushed off that thought. But the way the door was positioned and the angle of the hinges torn outward made that impression stay in my mind. This room was some sort of workroom. It reminded me of one of those rooms you might see used by an archeologist. There were four tables. On each table were old pieces of pottery, artifacts, arrowheads and rocks with designs or scribbling on them.
But the fourth table had nothing on it except a very old thin box. It looked out of place setting there away from all the other items. There was a heavy layer of dust on all of the tables and materials we had seen, except for the box. The box looked like it had just been placed there. At that moment, it was the oddest thing I had ever seen. Why wasn’t the box just as dusty as the other things I thought.
By now, Emily had relaxed enough that she was no longer clinging to me and she stood at my side. “What do you make of this room Emily? Everything in this house is destroyed, like a hurricane hit it, all but this room?” I said curiously. Emily just looked back into my eyes and shrugged her shoulders. We began to take a tour of the room, one table at a time. Though Emily was against us picking up anything and looking at it, I did.
I commented many times to her that the artifacts looked authentic, not reproductions. Finally we stood before the table, with the box, perhaps two feet wide, by three feet long and four inches thick. As I turned the box over and examined the sides, I nervously whispered to Emily, “This reminds me of a puzzle box darling. Emily replied curiously, “What’s a puzzle box Harold?” I laughed and told her it’s a box that has no obvious way to open it up.
I got that deer in the head light look from Emily as she replied, “Then how can anyone open it?” Emily asked. Before I began to speak, I shook the box gently, holding it closer to my hearing aide, but heard nothing rattle inside. Yet the box felt heavier than it should be for some reason. I was about to place the box back down on the table when I noticed the symbols on one corner of the box.
I saw Native American symbols. I took my glasses from my shirt pocket and put them on to see better. Whatever the symbols were, I didn’t know what they meant. That was when Emily pulled on my arm, almost making me drop the box on the floor. “Maybe we should just go Harold, there’s no one here and I’m scared. Maybe someone on the highway will stop and help us.” Emily said in a hopeful voice.
Any other time I would have agreed, but the box captivated me. No one would make such a hand crafted box unless first, there was a way to open it and second, there might be something important inside. I nudged Emily gently and told her I wanted to open the box. “You can’t open it Harold, there’s no latch, let’s go please.” she pleaded. But I shook my head no. As I tried and tried to see some form of opening, Emily jumped and startled me. “Did you hear that Harold?” she said as she looked nervously around.
”Hear what darling, I didn’t hear anything?” I told Emily. “I can hear the sounds of men chanting, you must hear it too.” she said. I strained and listened, looking into her eyes as I shook my head. “Darling, I don’t hear anything but your voice. You’re probably imagining it.” I said. But I saw tears flowing from her eyes as she whispered, “I want to leave this house now, Harold, now, please.” I conceded and nodded my head yes, but when she saw I wasn’t laying the box down on the table; she placed her hand upon my chest.
“You aren’t going to take that box are you? It doesn’t belong to us. Leave it where we found it.” Emily said. Though she persisted, I stood my ground and kept the box. It held my curiosity. I wanted to know how to open it and I wanted to know what was inside. Finally she gave in, perhaps just relieved that we were going back into the sunshine. To the right of a palm tree in the front yard was a clay bench and I went to it and sat down. Emily sat beside me. It was a surreal moment.
Not a sound could be heard. It was if we were the only two people on earth. I fumbled with arthritis fingers time and again, until by fate, chance or destiny, a corner piece of wood moved. As my finger moved, I looked at Emily with wide eyes. “See! I told you it was a puzzle box.” I said with excitement. Anxiously I moved the piece of wood one way, then the other until it slid open easier. As it opened, dust escaped like a mist and the odor was musty and old.
When the piece of wood had slid open as far as it could, I held one end upwards toward the sun to see better. I could see a parchment like piece of paper inside. It was wrinkled and yellowed and wouldn’t fall out when I tipped the box. Emily wanted me to leave the box and paper there on the bench. I told her I just wanted to pull it out to see what it was and she relented. My two fingers barely fit inside and barely could brush against the paper just out of my reach.
I had almost given up when my fingers held the parchment perfectly. Gently, oh so gently I pulled left, then right to loosen it. That was when Emily heard a stranger’s voice and looked to her right. She saw the figure of an Indian dressed in deerskin, wearing turquoise beads and a large leather pouch. He seemed angry and his words she didn’t understand.
Emily tried to speak, to warn me as he quickly approached and pointed to the box as he spoke. He spoke with authority and immediacy, but she couldn’t speak. At the last possible moment, she knew that I was in danger and she grasped the box from my hands, causing me to fall off the bench onto the ground. She now stood between me and the Indian, with her hands outstretched, offering him the box.
It happened so fast all I could do was stare. My heart was beating so fast, I could hear my heart pounding. I was too far away to protect Emily and all I could do was watch. The Indian closed the distance so quickly between he and Emily there wasn’t even enough time to beg Emily to run. In that final moment the two of them stood inches apart from each other. I will never forget how he looked.
He was the guardian of the box. A medicine man or elder I assumed. The anger in his eyes changed to one of kindness as he looked first at Emily and then me and finally to her outstretched hands. He spoke to her for maybe a minute and I can only wonder what he was saying. But I would like to believe he was telling us that we had opened that which did not belong to us.
He took the box and held it toward the sky, reciting words I believe were part of a ceremonial prayer. Suddenly he and the box began to turn into a smoky mist and the winds brushing against my cheeks sent his spirit in all directions. He had been a ghostly spirit. We didn’t know what had happened to the occupants of this house, but were sure that the box was the reason for all we had seen today.
Emily came to where I was laying and struggled to help me up, anxiously asking me if I was hurt. I laughed and told her that I was just shaken. She helped brush the sand off my clothes and kissed me in a way she hadn’t kissed me in a long time. Her arms hugged me as if we were twenty years younger and she whispered in my hearing aide, “I never want to lose you Harold.” I kissed her lips softly, and we walked back to our car.
We waited maybe twenty minutes and heard a car in the distance approaching long before we could see it. We both waved excitedly and the young woman in her blue Toyota stopped and rolled her window down and asked if she could help us. I told her, a lift to the next town would be wonderful. She smiled, leaned over and opened the passenger door to Emily, while I opened the back door.
As she was about to drive away, I looked at the house that would forever remain a mystery to me. I saw the Indian one last time with the box in his hand, waving goodbye to us. When we reached the gas station a few miles further, I paid her $20 against her wishes and the tow truck driver took us back to our car. He towed it back to town and it turned out to be a worn and frazzled battery cable. We were on our way again in no time. That trip was filled with pictures and memories and as we sit at our table and reminisce about our exciting trip to Arizona, we remember the box and Indian spirit.
©2006 Raymond Cook (All rights reserved)
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