Treasure for the Taking
by Edna C. Horning
Dr. Rappaport was a smart man, very smart indeed, the youngest to make full professor at the university, or so Leonora had heard. Truth to tell, she herself was developing a bit of a crush on him.
Nonetheless, he could be, as one might say, snide. He admired Diderot and his ilk, he of the last-king-strangled-with-the-entrails-of-the-last-priest fame, and on a number of occasions expressed a keen interest in artificial intelligence, predicting that at some point in the future science in tandem with technology will most assuredly develop robots that see, hear, touch, taste, feel, think, behave, and even reproduce so precisely as humans do that the two will be indistinguishable. Identical. One and the same.
“Sadly or not, we ourselves are nothing but genetically programmed, protoplasmic robots,” he declared while tossing a piece of chalk high into the air and deftly snatching it back from the ether on its way down. “Nothing but.”
Leonora considered it a safe bet that an individual so inclined would give her words a frosty reception and that practice in front of a mirror would be advisable. It probably wouldn’t make her more credible but might help forestall a nervous tremor in the voice.
Prior to class, she double-checked the hours posted on Dr. Rappaport’s office door, easy enough as it was in the same building and on the same floor. There it was in indisputable black and white: 2:00-4:00 Tuesdays and Thursdays. Immediately following, she asked to speak with him in private.
“I’ll be very brief, sir, I assure you. It won’t take but a minute.”
She followed him down the hall and into the high-ceilinged room that added truckloads of fuel to the stereotype of a professorial preference for clutter. He left the door ajar and gestured for her to sit and. though she would have preferred to stand, she had no wish to appear contrary.
Leonora cleared her throat partly from anxiety and partly from the waning throes of a spring cold and said, “I have a message for you.”
Dr. Rappaport raised his eyebrows. “Who from?”
“Uh, I’m not sure. I couldn’t quite make it out. It... it sounded similar to ‘Sylvia’,” she explained, “except that it wasn’t ‘Sylvia’. It was longer.”
The raised eyebrows lowered themselves into a vague frown. “And, ah, what message does this Sylvia who isn’t Sylvia have for me?”
Leonora cleared her throat a second time. “She said, ‘Tell my brother I hope he’s forgiven me for throwing that silver dollar down the well because I forgave him long ago for ratting us out’.”
For a few moments, Dr. Rappaport was silent, but in those few, Leonora saw something flicker in his eyes. No, behind his eyes, if such is possible.
* * *
Sylvestra Louisa Weir, nee Rappaport, had come out first, recorded by the attending nurse as five minutes prior to the emergence of her brother Stefan, and from the time she could talk regularly reminded him that she was the older twin. Stefan didn’t mind. He adored his sister.
During the school year, the two city kids were hemmed in by rules and reinforced concrete but, within hours of the final dismissal, they arrived at their grandparents’ rural homestead where the avid explorers shed their winter doldrums and re-submerged themselves into the glories of nature.
Parents and grandparents were of two minds regarding the advisability of such. They recognized the risk inherent in unsupervised explorations but conceded that, save for the normal number of scrapes, scratches, and bug bites, the kids always came home relatively unscathed, and so they found themselves reluctant to forbid these free-range undertakings.
They exhorted the youngsters to exercise “good judgment” and “common sense” and “not take unnecessary risks” while simultaneously declaring certain areas and activities off-limits, proscriptions Stefan and Sylvestra had few qualms about ignoring should an alluring adventure beckon.
This noncompliance generated the occasional close call. There was the time when, traversing a swampy stretch, Sylvestra was almost bitten by a cottonmouth the size of a man’s arm, a species evidently untutored in the conventional wisdom that snakes are more afraid of people than people are of them.
And the time Stefan, not fully familiar with the signs that a tree limb is rotten, had climbed up and out to seat himself at its farther end when it gave one loud, awful crack, just enough warning to send him scooting back to the trunk before it gave a louder, even more awful, and final crack.
And the time they crawled upwards, Sylvestra in the lead, through a crevice going from the bottom to the top of a sandstone escarpment and, upon finding themselves stuck in the increasingly narrow passageway, had to fight off claustrophobic panic as Stefan inched downward, pulling his sister with him by her feet.
And so forth and so on.
In successive summers, they wandered a little farther afield than in the previous so that by mid-adolescence few brooks or nooks, caves or crags in the valley or on the near mountainside had not been investigated à deux.
In their sixteenth summer, eagerness for new vistas steered them for the first time to the other side of the ridge. There, the twins beheld a single-story house that, by appearances, could have been regarded as rather fine in its day. The roof still held, the windows were large, and front steps led to a porch that extended to half its width.
While the steps appeared sturdy, the teenagers ascended gingerly, testing their strength. They reached the front door without mishap but found it locked.
“Let’s go around to the back,” Stefan suggested.
They returned to the semi-wild yard, trampling a curving swath through the weeds with their hiking boots and, as soon as they rounded the corner, they saw it.
At the rear of the house was a well. From a distance it was so classically picturesque, so utterly Jack-and-Jill, that initially the twins adjudged it entirely decorative, a landscape piece resembling those adorning the sodded suburban yards they were more familiar with.
Though keen to get inside the house, they could not resist first giving this curio a closer inspection and found it to be not a prop but an actual, functional well complete with an oaken bucket attached by a stout rope to an iron hand crank. Waist-high masonry composed of stones and mortar encircled the shaft, and a conical roof of wooden shingles supported by wooden posts sheltered it. The whole thing was a good four feet in diameter.
Its general condition surpassed that of the house, and Sylvestra suggested that, despite its old-fashioned design, the structure might have been built more recently. Together they lifted its hinged, lid-like cover and leaned over to peer into the depths but could see nothing past a few feet except darkness. With hands cupped around their mouths, they yelled downwards, but their efforts elicited nothing except bizarre, muddled echoes, and they returned their attentions to the house.
A large window missing its pane provided the way in. Brother and sister lost track of time as they wandered from room to room, their progress obstructed by nothing stronger than the gossamer tickle of cobwebs on their arms and faces. The musty smell of mice was pervasive, and the wee animals, who had had the place to themselves their entire existence, could be heard pattering away in fright.
They poked into mostly empty closets and the drawers of abandoned furniture, sometimes together, sometimes apart, until at one point, when Stefan realized he had not seen his sister for several minutes, he called out, “Syl?”
Getting no response, he tried again, louder, a touch of concern in his voice. Seconds later she materialized in the doorway carrying with difficulty an object she hugged to her body with both arms.
“I think I’ve found something,” she said, and drew closer before setting it on the floor.
It was an enclosed, ornately decorated, rectangular case slightly larger than a shoebox. A metal handle dangled from each end. Wordlessly, the two began picking and pulling at the knotted, unyielding twine tied all around till Stefan reached into his pocket and produced his Swiss army knife, a prized possession given him by his grandfather for his most recent birthday. With several swift cuts he ended their frustration and removed the box’s lid.
Beneath it was a layer of crumpled paper that could not possibly account for the item’s weight. Beneath the paper was a jumbled hoard of large coins.
The stunned trespassers gasped simultaneously until, with Sylvestra kneeling on one side and Stefan on the other, they began repeatedly digging their fingers into the cache, raising handful after handful of the shiny pieces and letting them rain through splayed fingers back into the container.
“What do you suppose happened?”
Stefan shrugged. “I dunno. Somebody left them here long ago and, I dunno, just forgot about them.”
“Or couldn’t come back,” Sylvestra suggested. “Or died.” She voiced this latter possibility in a lower, subdued tone.
Silently, the two began to examine their find more closely. As far as a quick canvass could determine, all were silver dollars. Most had been minted between 1921 and 1935 although a few bore more recent dates.
“What do you suppose they’re worth?” Sylvestra asked.
Stefan didn’t answer immediately. He gave it thought and then said, “Syl, it goes far beyond their face value. There’s the collectible value, the precious metal value, the, the...” Here he hesitated, his ideas reaching their limit.
Sylvestra said, “If we keep them, we can’t tell Mother and Dad. Or Grandmother and Granddad. We can’t predict what they’d do.”
“Of course,” Stefan answered, a bit irritably.
“Of course what?” his twin replied. “Of course we can’t predict what they’d do, or of course we’re going to keep them?”
He gave his sister an arch look. “Both, silly.”
Agreeing they’d had more than sufficient excitement for a single morning, they decamped, this time through the front door which had been manually locked only from within. The box they carried between them, each grasping a handle. They were almost to the trail when Sylvestra suddenly stopped.
“Put it down,” she ordered.
“Just do it.”
Copyright © 2017 by Edna C. Horning