by Melissa Forney ©2005
In a mountainous, woodsy wilderness lived five gold miners. They lived in Old Hawk’s roomy cabin and spent most of their lives looking for gold. Each miner had his own ways.
Sam chipped away with his pickaxe in a dusty cave. Occasionally, he found a speck of gold, which he carefully swept into the pouch that hung from his belt.
Ed panned for gold in a secret stream he had discovered once while hiking with his dog, Amos. Gathering up a pan of water and gravel from the bottom of the stream, he swished it around in his pan, looking for a sparkle. When he found tiny chips of gold that sunk to the bottom, he dropped them one by one into his leather pouch with tiny tweezers.
Lars and Pongo, the two brothers in the group, used a more dangerous method. They blasted with dynamite and then ran the mounds of freshly turned earth through a series of water troughs. Sometimes they found a pebble of gold here or there, and into their pouches it would go.
Old Hawk had tried all of these methods and a few more. He, too, had a pouch of gold dust. Nowadays, however, he mostly enjoyed cooking for the others, sitting on the porch, or remembering the way his wife had gathered wildflowers and plaited them in her hair.
The gold miners were great friends and stuck by each other through thick or thin. When Sam broke his leg late one fall, Old Hawk tended to him like a baby until the leg finally healed. Sam passed the winter listening to Old Hawk’s stories and eating sourdough biscuits with wildflower honey. He knitted warm socks for Old Hawk in return.
Sometimes Lars hiked into town and picked up an occasional side of bacon or sassafras tea for Old Hawk and a fresh skein of yarn for Sam. He bought a small sack of peppermint sticks for the others. When Ed’s dog, Amos, took a swipe from a grizzly, Pongo stitched him up prettier than any city slicker doctor ever thought about doing.
Once, after an avalanche, Ed and Lars helped dig Pongo out of the outhouse. There was Pongo, warm as toast in a pair of Sam’s woolen socks, reading the Sears and Roebuck catalog.
And so it went.
Life in the wilderness wasn’t too bad. If Pongo wanted to bathe in the creek after a hard day’s work, he shucked off all of his clothes and jumped in the clear, icy water, skinny dipping to his heart’s content.
Ed and his dog, Amos, mined for half a day and fished for half a day. Since he knew the stream so well, he also knew where the biggest fish liked to hide when the sun was overhead. He brought stringers of fish home for Old Hawk to fry up in his giant skillet.
Lars enjoyed reading, and his favorite spot was a sunny knoll that overlooked the green valley below. Sometimes Sam joined him. They swapped good books and laughed out loud at the funny parts.
The miners enjoyed friendly arguments, and they disagreed on many subjects. But on one thing, they all agreed: raspberry cobbler.
Old Hawk was famous for his raspberry cobbler. He picked plump, juicy berries from the bushes that grew in the woods behind the cabin. As the cobbler baked, the smell of butter and sugar and raspberries went straight up the chimney and wafted out over the trees. The minute the miners smelled the cobbler they came running.
Most evenings, the miners came home to Old Hawk’s cabin to eat barbecued bear ribs or moose-kebobs. They washed down gallons of iced tea. In the evenings, they played Tiddlywinks or listened to Old Hawk’s stories. If he was feeling frisky, Pongo wiped his violin off with a red bandanna and played a few of the old songs. He liked “Pig in the Parlor,” but “Waltzing with Nannie-belle” was everybody’s favorite.
When dinner was especially tasty, Ed and Lars danced. Ed put on the flowered apron that had belonged to Old Hawk’s wife and tied a scarf around his head. No matter how many times the men saw this, they laughed until their bellies ached.
Old Hawk always said, “Ed, you are almost as pretty as my Mrs.”
After the fire burned low, the miners sat around, dreaming of the day when they would strike it rich by finding huge chunks of gleaming gold.
“Heck,” Ed said. “We ain’t found enough gold to fill a thimble.
“Not even enough for a gold tooth,” said Lars.
The five of them would sigh, shake their pouches, and shuffle off to bed.
One spring day, a stranger hiked over the mountain and through the wilderness.
Sporting long white hair and a snowy beard, he was dressed in buckskins and tall leather boots. For an old geezer, he could move.
As it happened, Old Hawk was taking a fresh raspberry cobbler out of the oven, and the smell drifted out over the tops of the trees and down the trails. The stranger followed the aroma until he was near the front porch.
“Hallooooooo!” shouted the stranger.
Opening his door, Old Hawk called, “Hallooooooo!”
“Could it be that I smell raspberry cobbler?” asked the stranger.
“You’ve got a good nose,” replied Old Hawk, pleased. “Would you join me for some?”
“I was hoping you’d ask,” said the stranger. He stomped the trail dirt off his boots and climbed the steps into the cabin. More stamping was heard outside.
“Cobbler?” asked Lars.
“Raspberry?” asked Pongo.
“Fresh from the oven,” said Old Hawk.
The miners were delighted to have a visitor. Savoring bowls of raspberry cobbler, they enjoyed his tales of adventure. Old Hawk was especially glad, because for once, he could be a listener.
The stranger fascinated the miners with stories of dining on the banks of the Nile, hot-air balloon rides over the Great Pyramids, and something about a 17 foot purple python. The best was how the king of Zamboanga had once saved his life.
When the cobbler was gone and the stories were told, the six men sat contentedly by the fire, picking raspberry seeds from their teeth. The stranger rested in Old Hawk’s best chair, the maple rocker his wife had brought out in the wagon.
A comfortable silence fell. The fire sizzled and popped.
“Shucks,” said Pongo. “My toothpick’s busted.” Sure enough, the broken toothpick hung from his fingers.
“Useless,” muttered Sam. “Just like my bum leg. “
“Useless,” agreed Old Hawk. “Wore out and old like me.”
‘Useless,” said Lars. “Never struck it rich,” He shook his leather pouch to make his point. The gold dust barely whispered.
“Useless,” agreed Ed, and Amos echoed with a pitiful whine.
The stranger pulled his hands through his long, snowy beard.
“Useless?” he said. “Nonsense. I don’t believe it.”
The miners quieted.
“What’s that you say?” asked Pongo, cupping his hand up to his one good ear.
“I said, my good fellow, that you’re not useless. No one, no thing…is ever really useless,” answered the stranger. “Not if you look at it right.”
“But we’re five old miners who never got rich,” said Sam.
“And I tell you, you’re rich, and you don’t even know it,” said the stranger.
He looked from face to face in the flickering light. “Put that broken toothpick down on the table, Pongo.” Pongo did as he was told.
“Now everyone do the same. That’s it. Break those toothpicks right in the middle. Good. Put them together like so…” He demonstrated. Taking the five toothpicks from the miners, he made sure each one was snapped in the middle, almost broken in two but still together. He placed the toothpicks in the center of the table so they touched. They looked like the spokes of a wheel.
The stranger straightened up to let the men see.
“Get close, Gentlemen.” The miners scootched their chairs up to the table and leaned in. The only sound was the gurgle of Amos’ stomach.
“Why, that ain’t nothin’,” said Pongo. “What’s so special about that?”
“Ah,” said the stranger. He spooned a few drops of water in the center of the toothpicks.
The toothpicks started to twitch. Slowly, steadily, they spread and widened, pushing against each other. They pushed and widened until they formed…a star.
“Tarnation,” whispered Pongo.
“Wouldn’t Elenora have loved that,” said Old Hawk.
“Why, I’ll be hornswoggled and dipped in molasses,” said Lars
The stranger spoke.
“If a broken toothpick can create something beautiful, imagine what the five of you can do.”
The miners were confused.
“No, no, my friend. We’re poor miners,” said Lars.
“We’ve never struck it rich.”
“We’ve been mining for 40 years, and all we ever got was dust, pebbles, and a few itty, bitty specks.”
Ed lifted his pouch as proof.
“Who needs gold when you have such wonderful friends?” Asked the stranger.
The miners looked each other. They thought about good times and bad. They remembered Old Hawks wife. They recalled picnics by the river and playing horseshoes on sunny afternoons. Patching the cabin roof together and finding honey in the hollow tree. Each memory brought smiles.
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for any one of you,” Ed said, looking at the faces of his friends.
“You’ve all stood by my side through thick and thin,” said Pongo, blinking back tears..
The miners agreed, nodding their heads and patting each other on the back. They almost didn’t notice that the stranger stood at the cabin door to leave. His eyes twinkled.
“Little treasures in a cup, have a way of adding up,” he said.
And before they could wave, he was gone.
The miners sat looking at each other. The fire crackled and a log fell in half. Bright sparks shot up the chimney. The men chewed on the stranger’s words, their ideas stirring like a pot of water about to boil. Suddenly, Pongo slapped his leg. “Little treasures,” he said, pointing to his pouch.
“Little treasures?” asked Old Hawk.
The miners opened the leather strings that held the pouches shut. They poured the dust and specks and chips and flecks onto the wooden table. Forty years of gold mounded up into an enormous, shining pile. Their mouths hung open and their eyes widened.
“We’re rich!” Ed shouted. He spun Amos in his arms.
The miners slapped their thighs and kicked their legs. The cabin rocked and thumped. Sparks shot up the chimney again and again.
“Did you see that little bitty pile of broken toothpicks turn into a star?” Asked Lars.
“Amazing,” said Sam.
Pongo untied his red bandana and reached for his fiddle. The friendly, toe-tapping tune of “Pig in the Parlor” filled the cabin. The men kept time with the stomp of their boots and the clap of their rough, gold miner hands. Soon Lars and Pongo danced to “Waltzing with Nannie-Belle.” Amos thumped his tail and howled.
The pile on the table was all but forgotten, but the faces of five friends gleamed brighter than gold.
From Submerged, by Melissa Forney
Dr. Nyaga invited me to tea in her apartment, and served crustless sandwiches, petit fours, clotted cream, and scones.
I was impressed with the dainty food. “But how?”
She fiddled with a fold of her dark green gele and smiled. “Chef Sal and I are old friends.”
The hot tea was delicious, but the sweet surprise at the end was the Crème Yvette in tiny crystal goblets.
“You have it with you? Here?” I remembered the story of her childhood.
She smiled. “It reminds me of my mother, so I keep it close.”
I sipped. It was like drinking springtime.
“Isn’t it delicious?” she said. “Exotic.”
I held it up to the light to admire the purple color.
This pleased her. “Made from violets,” she reminded me.
Life in the OSCAR community was good. For me, all of life’s oysters included pearls.
About a week after our lobstering trip, Dan was teaching a lesson on Scuba tank maintenance.
“It’s important to rinse your tanks with fresh water before you put them away,” Dan said. “The refill team will refill oxygen for your next dive, but they don’t want to work with tanks that are covered in salt crust.”
My wrist comm flashed. The message on the screen said Coltrane, Violet, REPORT TO CC.
Central Command. Why would they call me? Have I done something wrong?
I’d have to get Julian’s permission. He was already looking at me nodding for me to go. He must have received the same message. What’s going on? No one likes getting called to the principal’s office.
At Central Command, someone ushered me in to a small conference area. Captain Jasper, the LC, Dr. Nyaga, Dr. Prumb, and a man I had seen but occasionally but didn’t know, sat at a round table.
Are they sorry they picked me? Will they ask me to go home?
“Violet, welcome.” It was Captain Jasper. “I apologize for taking you out of class, but we need to discuss something with you.”
My stomach tightened.
“This involves your father.”
Oh no. What’s happened?
“Nothing’s wrong with your father,” Dr. Nyaga said. She frowned at the captain.
“Keith, you’re scaring her.”
“Nothing’s wrong with your father,” Captain Jasper said. “We need his help.”
What? Dad’s help? Why?
“Here at OSCAR we have a swine herd of 350 hogs, and we farrow all the time, so that number is flexible. They were bred under the strictest of conditions, and they’re in prime shape. However, all hogs in the United States must now be tested to prove they are not carrying or have not come into contact with the SSV virus. If not tested, they’ll have to be destroyed. Even though our hogs have been submerged here for 10 months, the USDA says we must comply like everyone else.”