Pirates of Pamlico Sound: Chapter 6
🏴 Present day * Nags Head.
Along with twenty others at the heated auction, Collin immediately shouted, “One thousand!” It must have been overwhelming for Elsie Girard to have selected a bidder to point at in recognition of the opening bid. But Collin’s shout had bested the others by a fraction of a second. She pointed at him and said, “I have one thousand, who’ll give me two?”
Again, the shouting exploded. She pointed at a scholarly looking man in a tweed sports coat. “I have two thousand, who’ll offer three?”
Collin raised his ticket in response, but a heavyset woman nearby shouted, “Five thousand, Elsie!” This caused a bit of a stir.
The scholar cried, “Seven!”
The woman shouted, “Eight!”
Collin had been taken aback momentarily. He’d not attended as many auctions as Bernice, and had not yet experienced the thrill of being swept up into a bidders’ war. However, he identified with his inner soldier and made it known that his presence was to be respected in that room. “Ten thousand dollars!” he shouted.
The older husky woman hesitated, but the scholar stood his ground. “Eleven!” the man cried.
“Twelve!” said the woman, this time out of anger. She realized that she’d been priced out of the market and had entered that bid out of pure spite. From there, the crowd grew silent as Collin and the old scholar went head-to-head. Even the spectators in the rear who couldn’t see the two men stood silently to listen.
There was a gasp at twenty, which Collin had uttered with the same gallant determination as his first bid at one thousand.
Mentally, this milestone must have given pause to the old scholar. His next bid proved fatal. “Twenty thousand, five hundred!” he said.
Collin knew he’d won. He delivered the coup de grace in a gentlemanly and confident manner. “Twenty One,” he said. Bernice had practically broken a sweat during the interchange.
Elsie was beaming. “I have twenty one thousand. The bid stands at twenty one thousand for this beautiful mariner’s chest from the early 1700s. Twenty one thousand for this one-of-a-kind time capsule from the eighteenth century. Are there no other bids?”
The room fell silent. “Going once… Going twice… Sold!”
A loud round of applause broke out among the attendees as Elsie stepped down from her stool and approached Collin, handing him the small shiny key. A number of younger men in tee shirts began clapping in unison and chanting, “Open the box! Open the box! Open the box!”
Bernice put a stop to that right away. She took the key and, with an overstated wink and a rather sexy gesture, tucked the key into her bra. This drew a few whistles and catcalls from the crowd, but they understood her meaning. The chest would remain closed for now. She said to Elsie, “We just paid twenty one thousand dollars for this. I think we’re entitled to peer inside without an audience.”
“You certainly are, my dear. You certainly are.”
Collin took care of the paperwork, and two of Elsie’s assistants loaded the chest into their SUV.
On the way home, Bernice could hardly contain herself. She bounded out of her bucket seat and smothered him with kisses. “Collin, I can’t believe you did that! Can you believe you did that?”
“I may spend a bit too much time away from home, but sometimes it’s good to be the boss, don’t you think?”
“Twenty one thousand dollars,” she said, as though in shock.
“We can handle it, Bernice. We can’t make a habit out of this sort of thing, of course, but we can probably absorb this sort of expense once every, oh, twenty years or so.”
“Well then,” she said, “maybe we should keep it locked for twenty years. Can you imagine… We’d have twenty years to spend time imagining and speculating about what might be inside.”
“That’s a good idea, hon. Let me have the key.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, mister,” she joked. “You’d open that box yourself some night. You’d come home from work late, have three or four Budweisers, and just crack the thing open on a whim. Besides, you bought the chest for me, right?”
“The chest I obtained for you, yes. But, if you recall correctly, I purchased the key.”
“Well, that’s a fair point. I tell you what… Let’s drop off the chest off at home, and swing over to Hurry Curry for a quick bite. Then we’ll take nice walk on the beach and head back home. And, if you still want that key, maybe I’ll let you take it back yourself. You recall where I put it, I’m sure…”
He looked at her and smiled. “That sounds like a plan.”
Arriving at home had never been a big deal to either of them. But, arriving at home to drop off a rare, twenty-thousand dollar mariner’s chest padlocked shut and vaguely resembling a treasure chest proved to be a bit of a challenge. Normally, they couldn’t care less about any neighbors watching them come or go. But today, they did all they could to conduct their business privately.
“Make sure to back into the driveway, Collin,” Bernice instructed him.
“Gotcha,” he said, indicating he was thinking the same thing. “We’ve got to get this thing into the house quickly and without the old bat noticing.” The old bat in question was Mary Beth Pipistrello, the retiree next door who seemed unable to mind her own business.
“I’ll tell you what, let me grab a beach blanket from the carport and we’ll wrap it up in that. On the off chance she’s outside and says anything, we’ll just make something up.”
“I’ll tell her it’s a coffin for her damn cat,” Collin said.
“Awww,” Bernice said disapprovingly, “I like Patches.”
“Yeah, but Patches thinks our lawn is a litter box, Bernice. Seriously, we can’t even have a vegetable garden with that thing around. Who’s going to eat a bunch of tomatoes with cat crap all over them? I’m not.”
“Collin, you work sixty hours per week. When are you planning to do all of this gardening all of a sudden?”
“It’s not that I want to do it. It’s that I couldn’t do it if I wanted to do it. See what I mean?”
She laughed. “You need some time off, Collin. You have some weird issues brewing, I think.”
Thankfully, old Mary Beth wasn’t home when they arrived. Bernice held the door open for Collin as he moved the chest into their living room and placed it on the coffee table.
“Seriously, hon,” he said. “Can we really just go out and eat with this thing here?”
But they decided to leave it for now. It would be fun to head over to Hurry Curry, their friend’s restaurant, and possibly tell Jayne and Jaya about their find.
Over curried potatoes, they discussed what might be in the box. “Well, now that you’ve lifted the thing,” Bernice began, “you should have some idea about what’s inside.”
“It’s tough to say,” Collin said. “It could be anything.”
Throughout dinner — which was excellent, even though their friends were away for the evening — the pair fantasized about every imaginable scenario — relics from the famous “lost colony” of Roanoke, a cache of gold nuggets from the North Carolina mountains, the bones of Blackbeard, even Sir Walter Raleigh’s head. And then they considered the markings. The inscribed cross brought visions of everything from religious chalices and so forth all the way to speculations about the holy grail.
During the walk on the beach, they considered the inscribed initials. Who could “HG” be? They could think of no one famous from the eighteenth century who would have had these initials, although they did manage to recall a few names that were clearly irrelevant such as the nineteenth century newspaper man, Horace Greeley; the twentieth century Nazi, Hermann Goering; and even the twenty-first century fictional child witch, Hermione Granger. Collin also reached way back to high school chemistry class to recall that “Hg” is also the elemental symbol for mercury — a piece of useless trivia that seemed to contribute little to the conversation.
As they walked hand-in-hand along the shore, Bernice said, “I think we’re just going to have to accept that HG was probably just an ordinary person — probably affiliated with some church over in Bath, and that this is most likely his or her stuff. I mean, if it were a bit older and said ‘V. Dare’ on it, I think we’d potentially have something of greater historical value.”
“If it said that, I think it would have cost us a couple hundred thousand to look inside,” Collin quipped. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a large paper napkin in which he’d wrapped some bread at the Hurry Curry. Some seagulls were approaching and he decided to toss some pieces into the air for them. They had an amazing talent for hovering in the breeze just overhead and diving for the bread.
All things considered, it had been an excellent day. They returned home still filled with wonder and excitement, their relationship somehow feeling renewed as well. As Collin locked the door for the evening, Bernice stood on the stairs and said, “Now, about that key… Are you still interested?” She didn’t wait for an answer, and didn’t have to leave a two-word note with a large heart.
Collin joined her without hesitation. They stood in their bedroom looking at each other for a moment. It had been a while since they’d committed time for one another like this. Bernice, though she went to bed angry only a few days earlier, still had a favorite slow, instrumental CD in the stereo and a few candles positioned around the room. She flipped the music on, lit the candles, and dimmed the lights.
In an instant, they began kissing and fondling each other rather passionately. Quite by chance, Collin located the twenty-one thousand dollar key in exactly the same spot she’d placed it earlier in the day. He took it and held it up between them, and they both watched the candle light glint off of the shiny metal. Bernice found herself so utterly aroused at the moment that she said, “Collin, I…” She repeated this. “Collin, I…” She couldn’t seem to finish the sentence.
“What, honey?” he said. “What do you want to say? You can say anything to me.”
“Collin, I… I… I think we should open the box.”
That, of course, wasn’t what he expected to hear at the moment. It was one of those sudden moments that change everything — one of those moments that, if it were broadcast as a scene within a television show, there would be a sound effect played where the soft music abruptly stops as though a needle had been forcefully scratched away from a vinyl record album. The call of the box was too much for Bernice; she’d completely snapped out of the mood.
Collin protested. “Honey, but we were…you know. It’s been ages, and now we’re finally here, and everything’s perfect, and I thought we were going to…”
“I know, Collin. I just can’t stop thinking about it. I want us to be together — and, you’re right, it has been ages and everything’s perfect. But, I just think I need to see what’s in the box.”
“But, I thought I was going to be in the box.” Yeah, this was a bad line; he realized that almost as soon as he said it and quickly added, “Just kidding.”
Bernice took on a sarcastic tone and said, “Nice, Collin. I mean, yeah, I did want to go downstairs and do this amazing, magical thing with you but now that you’ve said that, you’re right… We should stay up here so you can be in the box.”
“I said I was kidding,” he said.
“I know you were,” she said, sitting up and buttoning her blouse. “Now, come on downstairs and bring the key. We need to do this.” With that, she got up and walked out of the room. Collin paused for a moment, trying to recall the last several things that had happened. But, he decided not to over-analyze it. He took another look at the key in his hands and walked out of the room.
* * *
In the living room, they paced back and forth in front of the box; they walked in circles around it; they sat and stared at it.
“What’s the right way to do this, Bernice?”
“This is a rare, sacred event, Collin.” She began pacing around more, giving the matter additional thought. They should expose the contents of this rare chest to the light of this century with extreme care, she thought, as though the box were a patient opening her eyes for the first time after a delicate procedure — after wearing gauze and bandages for months. “We need to turn the lights down. We need to burn candles. We need wine and soft instrumental music.”
“How about a pizza?” he asked.
She shot him a slightly disgusted look.
“Kidding,” he said. “All right. I’ll handle the music and the wine. You get the lights and candles.”
Bernice switched off the lights and lit several candles as Collin tended to his responsibilities.
“Honey, what kind of music do you think?”
“Umm… try to find something from the period.”
“Something from the period? You have all of these Cher CDs here. I know Cher’s getting on a bit, but she’s not that old.”
“Well, I don’t know… Look around,” she said. “Maybe a soundtrack, or something classical.”
He continued to search their CD shelves. “Well, we have one Bach and Beethoven. That’s about it, though. Heck, I didn’t even know we had these.”
“Well, which one’s older?” she asked.
“Hang on…” He began flipping through the liner notes to each of the CDs. “Well, Bach was considered Baroque… uh, he lived from 1685 to 1750. As for Beethoven… Hang on…” He began shuffling liner notes again. “He was a Romantic, and he lived a little later. 1770 to 1827. Technically, that’s eighteenth century as well. So, which one? Bach?”
“No, I think Beethoven,” she said.
“Yeah, but Bach was earlier and, you know, wasn’t he was pretty much a church organist? If that chest belonged to a priest, and from that time period…”
“I know,” Bernice interrupted, “but this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Anything could happen. So, I think the drama of someone from the Romantic period is more suited to the evening, don’t you? Remember all of Beethoven’s letters to his ‘eternal beloved’? That’s drama and mystery, which is what we have here.”
“Okay, okay,” he said. “Sorry, Bach, it’s back on the shelf for you.”
He put in the Beethoven CD and fired up the first track, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Soon the distinctive opening permeated the room. He read aloud from the liner notes. “Beethoven reportedly explained the significance of the symphony’s message to his secretary Anton Felix Schindler. He approached a copy of the manuscript, pointed to the opening phrases, and remarked ‘That’s fate knocking at the door.’ ”
Bernice liked this. “That’s why we needed Beethoven for this.” She handed him a glass of cabernet as they stood in listening to the symphony and watching the glow of the candle light reflect from their eighteenth century mariner’s chest.
Collin handed Bernice the key and said, “It’s time.”
She looked him in the eyes and kissed him as she took the key. She could feel her heart beginning to race as she sat on the couch in front of the box. Three hundred years and it had all come down to this moment in their living room. She slowly raised the key to the lock, inserted in, and turned. The new padlock snapped open with a crisp click and one end of the chain fell to the floor. Collin stepped over and took hold of the lock and chain, pulling them over the other side of the chest.
She reached for the lid, and then remembered an important detail. “Collin, the lid’s nailed shut.”
“Oh my God, I completely forgot!”
She sat back on the couch. “Yeah, well, how are we going to open it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Let me have a look.”
Upon a close inspection, Collin identified three nail heads. They looked to have been slightly countersunk originally, but filled in with dirt over the years to appear smooth with the surface of the lid. “If this is going to be done, Bernice, it’s going to have to be done with care. Let’s take a closer look.”
He ran outside and returned in a minute with an old tooth brush from the carport. Bernice kept a number of them down there for various detail cleaning that she felt compelled to do before Collin’s family would visit. Collin scrubbed at the nail head for a minute, clearing away centuries of accumulated dirt and grime. After attending to all three nail heads, he believed he had formulated a plan.
“Well, there are a number of ways we could do this,” he began. “We could insert something thin — like a screwdriver — in between the boards, pry it open a bit, and then try to get a hammer claw in there to pry it open fully. Or I think just maybe I could grab those nails with a pair of pliers and try to pull them out.”
“Which way would be the least damaging?”
“Probably the pliers.”
Bernice seemed to think the pliers made more sense, at least for their initial attempt. Neither considered the option of seeking some sort of professional assistance. Within a few minutes, Collin had retrieved the tool box from the carport and had gone to work in the candlelight, accompanied by the Beethoven symphony.
It took Collin until nearly the end of the fourth movement to extract the third nail, the symphony building to its victorious fortissimo ending. Bernice subconsciously let the music guide her at this point. She kept one hand on either side of the chest during the finale and, as the symphony reached its climax, she opened the box for very likely the first time in three centuries.
Though they were in a dim, candle-lit room, Bernice removed the lid extremely slowly, exposing the contents to their first light with the utmost care just fractions of an inch at a time. There was no hiss or other similar sound one might expect to hear if the container were pressurized. In fact, Bernice’s first bit of sensory input from the act was a light scent — a curious earthy smell like old peat moss in a whiskey barrel.
She glanced at Collin as she smelled this to see if he might return a look indicating that he smelled it too. A few more inches and the faint candle light began to seep into the box a bit. She began to make out what appeared to be a highly textured, jet black fabric. But, then again, perhaps it was something more elaborate such as a feather boa. But, that didn’t make sense. One wouldn’t expect to find a feather boa among a colonist’s sea chest.
She continued to inch the lid away from the box as the object continued to come into focus. After sliding the lid fully half-way off, her mind pieced together what it was in the box and she let out a blood-curdling scream, shoving the lid completely off and jumping back nearly three feet.
Though Collin stood only a few feet away, in this light he was still too distant to have realized yet what it was. He shouted rapidly and extremely loudly in response to her scream. “What’s the matter? What is it?!” He edged in for a closer look and saw what appeared to be a grotesquely large dead raven. It had the tail-end of an arrow sticking into its chest, as though someone had shot the bird through-and-through and then broke off the pointy end of the arrow so it could fit into the box.
Bernice had made a beeline for the light switch by the time Collin had taken a good look. She then switched off the stereo and approached the box with caution. In the bright light, there was no question of what they had in front of them. It took a minute or two before either one could speak. What does one say, after all, upon finding a centuries-old item such as this?
“Collin, I don’t like this,” she said. “Get it… Get it out of here.” Clearly, the dead bird made her skin crawl.
“You mean the whole box or just the bird?”
“I don’t know,” she said, feeling rather unsettled by the grim scene.
“Because, you know, there’s no reason the throw the baby out with the bathwater, right? I mean, that box is worth a fortune still. Just because there’s a dead bird in it…”
She interrupted. “Just take the bird away, okay?”
“Well, now, hang on a minute, hon. If this crow is like three hundred years old, it’s probably of some use to scientists. It could be some extinct species or something, you know?”
“It looks so real. It’s creepy.”
“Yeah, you’d think it would be more decomposed or something.”
“Put it outside, then.”
“All right,” he said. “Be back in a minute.”
Collin ran out to the carport again, this time returning with a pair of thick leather work gloves and a cardboard box. He approached the box and stood over it for a moment.
“It looks like the bird was originally wrapped in this muslin, so I’m going to grab that too and put it in the box. One good thing, of course, is that this bird can’t weigh more than a few pounds, so there’ll still be a lot of surprises left once I get this out of here.”
“That’s true,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll be good surprises this time.”
“I tell you what. You sit down there, and I’m going to put the bird outside, and I’m also going to put the lid back on. I’ll take just a quick peak under the bird to make sure there aren’t any other dead animals inside. And, then you can dim the lights again and do this right, okay?”
“Okay,” she said. She sat down on the sofa as he put on the leather gloves. He then gently grabbed the edges of the muslin sheet and wrapped the bird, lifting it up and placing it into the cardboard box. He then put the cardboard box onto the floor so that he could replace the lid to the chest. In doing this, he got a sneak peak of what was to come and had an idea that Bernice would be pleased.
As Collin tended to the bird outside, Bernice did as he had suggested. She dimmed the lights and cued up the Beethoven again. It was all a bit anticlimactic at first, but she was now ready to try again.
Collin returned. “The raven,” he said, “is nevermore.”
She simply looked at him.
“Come on, hon, that was funny. It was Poe — you know, the whole ‘midnight dreary’ thing?”
“I got it. Now, let’s continue our evening if you’re done quoting poetry.”
“Hey, at least the old guy’s still got it, right? I mean, I still remember that stuff from high school.”
“Come on,” she said, patting the seat next to her. “Let’s take another peek.”
Collin sat beside her as she removed the lid for the second time — this time somewhat quicker and less ceremoniously than the last time. Thankfully, her shriek of terror at the last opening did not return. However, she was instantly overcome by an equally powerful reaction.
“Oh my God, Collin. It’s breathtaking.” She pulled out a large, rather ornate dress made of green linen and vibrant hunter green silk. She held it up and then draped it over the sofa to inspect. It had quilted Vs along the bottom, some of which had fallen off, and other areas where the silk had either ripped, dry rotted, or had been missing altogether. But, there was no denying the overall beauty of the dress, nor the craftsmanship. “It’s a treasure, Collin!”
She looked back to the box and became quite excited. “Pirates!” she yelled. She pulled out what appeared to be a rather fancy long vest, straight out of a swashbuckling pirate movie. It was brown with black leather trim along many of the edges. Inside, there was also a long sash made of dark brown silk with a faded gold trim.
“You have got to try that on,” she said.
“Try it on?” he said. “This stuff should probably go to a museum or something, don’t you think?”
“No, these things are right where they belong,” she said, having unfolded the pirate clothes completely and placed them on top of the dress. She then looked back in the box and, reaching inside, said, “It’s a book. No, wait a minute. It’s not a book. It’s a diary!”
She pulled the small leather-bound book from the box and opened the diary to the inside cover page, which read, “The Private Thoughts of Aithne Reade of Salem.” It was a bit fragile, but still perfectly legible. She handled the volume with the utmost care. “This is going to be amazing,” she said.
“And, look at this!” she said. A small piece of folded and weather-worn parchment was tucked inside.
“What is it?” Collin asked.
“I don’t know. It’s different from the diary — a different paper. But, it’s almost completely worn away. Looks like it fell into water or something.”
Bernice began unfolding the paper, reading what she could by candle light. “I just can’t make out too much of this. But there is a legible part at the top.” She began to read the writing extremely slowly, as it took some time to decipher the handwriting. “It says, ‘…ancient power dispersed around the world, entrusted to those who have been gifted with sensory powers of vision beyond sight, of hearing beyond sounds, of sensations beyond touch, of fragrances…’ That’s all I can make out.”
“Vision beyond sight,” Collin repeated. “Is that really what it says? Sounds odd, doesn’t it?”
Bernice nodded. “Hey, flip the lights back on,” she said. “I want to read through this book. Maybe there’s a date in here somewhere.”
He hit the light switch. “You want anything from the kitchen?”
“No, I’m going to page through this book.”
Collin went into the kitchen for a Budweiser. He grabbed the newspaper from the kitchen table and brought it in next to Bernice, pausing near the couch to examine the clothing a bit closer. He then sat next to her and began flipping through the paper. “Maybe I’ll look over the auction section — see if there’s another locked chest on the market soon.”
Bernice had become completely absorbed in the diary. She’d even gone to fetch her reading glasses at one point, an action that usually meant she was up to serious business. After twenty minutes of perusing the pages, she said, “I just can’t find a date in here.”
Collin looked up from the paper. “That’s funny. Neither can I.”
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“I mean I can’t find my date, either. I thought we had ourselves a little date going this evening.”
She paid him no mind.
“Come on, hon,” he interrupted again. “Why don’t you put the book down for a while?”
“Collin, this is important. I’m going to stay up and research some of this stuff on the Internet. This is fascinating material here — all of it… the written material, and the material material.”
“Yeah, but it’s been there for three hundred years. It’s not going anywhere, right? But, you and I, we’re not getting any younger.”
“I’ll make it all up to you, don’t worry,” she said. “But, for tonight, I’m going to research this.”
☠️ Jim Dee maintains his personal blog, “Hawthorne Crow,” and a web design blog called “Web Designer | Web Developer Magazine.” He’s also contributes to various Medium.com publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. “Chapter number” background photo atop piece is adapted from “Light Reading” by Martin (Flickr, Creative Commons).