By: Maddy D.
I poured over dusty layers of books, some leather-bound with crackling, disintegrating pages; others paper or hardbacks some thirty years young with premature, yellowed pages- so thin you had to be careful not to blink too quickly lest they ripped like fragile leaves. Each book was met with a headshake and a snap of the spine closing, each one set into a towering stack on a sinking, cluttered desk as a new one materialized in its place.
I was looking for an adventure. A treasure map forgotten ages ago, tucked away behind the pages of history for some future generation to find. It wasn’t meant to be easy to discover; it took some digging, dozens upon dozens of dead ends all covered under layers of the ever present musty book smell. I didn’t mind. The hunt, the learning, the failures only made me more determined to find what I sought. I was lost in my world, ignoring the ever growing stack of books, ignoring the mark of the hour on the shadows of the library wall- or even the hard glares of the librarian at the mess I was making. Some people didn’t appreciate the good old fashioned book fort as much as the next. None of it mattered. I wanted my prize. My adventure. My treasure map. Nothing was going to throw me off the scent. Eventually after all those dead ends, I emerged from my makeshift book fort and its towering, crumbling walls with a folded page clutched triumphantly in my fist.
It was a plain map, tattered and creased from being hidden for so long. Curious stains, tears or blood drops, I don’t know, weathered one corner. A simple line of dots and slashes looped around the page, marked off with a forgotten style of cursive notes and a massive “X” at the end. It held two obstacles: triangular scribbles that were supposed to be trees and a splash of vertical wavy lines that was supposed to be a waterfall. The other side was a picture of a pristine forest; trees all shades of brown and green with a full crown of leaves. Healthy grasses and wildflowers dotted the space between the trunks, ivy fingering its way up one of the corner trees. Sunlight ran in streamers from the canopy to the floor, beckoning from the depths of the wood.
I kept the map picture-side up as I packed for my adventure, studying it from where it was paper clipped to the corkboard. I was decked out in classic safari gear, all subtle beige and green; the look completed with the sun bleached wide brimmed hat. I had a machete in my belt, a backpack slung over a shoulder as I stepped out the door, a compass and the map clutched in my fists. To find the “X” I had to complete stages, just like any good treasure hider would create. I didn’t think I’d have to hunt through a jungle infested with snakes or jaguars, outrun giant boulders or try to solve puzzles while the walls caved in or the ceiling lowered, but you can never be too careful. The whole point of an adventure was the challenges, after all.
I greeted a smog covered sun with a grin, excited to be off, to find my adventure like men and women ages back once did- when the world was untamed and secrets still waved from far off places. After a quick adjustment of my pack, I marched down cracked and broken sidewalks; condos and apartments huddled on their tiny lots. Some were owned, some were abandoned, and countless others were being built. Dogs barked in hidden places; the flash of one dashing down the lane of a lot was the only challenge. Everywhere I saw the ghosts of the past peeking out. It was like a prism, clear as day until you tilted your head just right to reveal fragments of color underneath. There, an old paper birch once stood on the corner, all brilliant in its white cloak, where a community mailbox now butted up to a sidewalk. Here, where an apartment complex is being built was a meadow- off some miles behind it were wetlands, where red winged blackbirds darted in tall grasses and tadpoles wriggled between reeds.
Cars charged past and construction sounds abounded. Vacant lots were steadily being devoid of trees; houses that once held a life behind their windows destroyed- their only crime was being built in the first place a good century ago. Land that was once those homes’ acreage was being further subdivided, farmland leveled to become cheap apartments; history lost and forgotten. The face of progress was layered in economical siding and tiny strips of manicured lawns.
Still I marched on, intent on finding my first obstacle: the forest. I followed back alleys and trailed down side streets, finding nothing but concrete slabs and rectangular boxes with dingy glass eyes. Lifeless, full of dust, grime and motor oil creating faux rainbows on the asphalt. Dogs stalked me from houses away, growling and warning me away from their death plots; cats peeked out from under blocked cars, children watched me from the stoops of their houses, little plastic toys scattered around. Electrical cords snaked from building to building, and air conditioning units hummed as I passed them by. Pigeons fluttered from house to house overhead. Somewhere in one of the back corners, I glimpsed a pack of rats picking off a stray cat amongst all the refuse and garbage bins. Its yowling followed me down the block. At some point all I could hear was the higher pitch of a screaming rat. I ignored all of it; the warnings, the stares, winding around block after block and street after street, only to find another line of buildings in its wake. Always when I hit a fork in the streets, I’d check my compass and set myself West again, the direction that was always of promise and hope. There was a time when it never failed. It was a golden word, dripping with expectation, joy and fear, regardless of the voice that uttered it. That was generations in the past, tucked away on the scribbles of a fading lithograph, or crumbling under a stone slab in some forgotten backwoods, one that someone, once, had gone through the effort to carve a name into. Now only the butterflies know the place, alighting the stone with kisses in some summer’s warmth.
I only paused once when a teenager stopped me, leaning on the hood of his car; he had oily black hair streaked with blue, and a gold nose ring. He looked up from his flatten brick of a phone as I passed, an earbud looped around one ear.
“What are ya doin’?”
“Looking for the forest.”
He stared at me, trying to decide if I was real or not, insane or not. “There ain’t no forest here. Try a park, try the zoo, that’s where they let it be, but there’s no forest here.” I shrugged and he turned back to his phone, light behind the screen splashing across his pale face, the nose ring glinting as I turned away.
The taller buildings gradually gave way to suburbia, sprawling lots of nice cookie cutter homes, strip malls and neat little shops lined in perfectly squared off shrubs. I looked back at the edge of the city, watching the buildings huddle around each other, staring down at me with baleful eyes. Whether they were challenging, hopeful or sorry, I couldn’t be sure. It all looked the same. I turned away, looking to my map and crossing the forest off with an invisible “X”. So, no forest. The little punk was right. That was okay. I could still find my treasure if I found the waterfall.
I gave the smog covered sun a reassuring grin and set off again, orienting myself West with the promise of untold riches spreading in my heart. Down slabbed sidewalks and around chained maple trees I marched; the reflection of a determined, ageless adventurer mirroring me in the souls of the small shops I passed by. Suburbia was less destitute than the city, a little brighter, but it was cracking and wearing thin, smile lines tiring from constant use.
Cars trundled down the street and people skirted around me, some pausing long enough to give me a brief stare before hurrying on their way. I carried on with my quest, compass in one hand and the map fluttering in the other. Here the sidewalk was bordered with perfectly manicured shrubs, squared off on the corners with not so much as a leaf out of place. Unnaturally perfect. Fake. It was a group of people, placed so perfectly in front of a coffee shop they could have been mannequins, with their sugary coffee drinks and small pastry delicacies, which stopped me once more.
“It’s a bit late for Halloween,” one commented while another filled the undertones with the question of what I was doing. I chose to answer the latter, leaning on a decorative white picket fence lined with flower boxes. They were perfect too, pansy heads snickering and bobbing in the light breeze. Not even their leaves breached the straight lines of their boxes.
“Looking for the waterfall.” My answer was met with derisive snorts and the sound of straws sucking on plastic. They stared me down over their sugary drinks and I stared back, equally defiant.
“There’s no waterfall here-” the one that spoke, a young entrepreneur with thick rimmed glasses and a man bun was cut off by a platinum blonde woman at the end of the table.
“-Now hold on, there was one here. I remember my great grandfather talked of there being one right over there.”
I followed her nod to a vacant lot nearly directly behind us a stone’s throw across the road, surrounded on three sides by ramshackle apartments and headed with a tethered, lonely looking maple tree, still too young and thin to warrant being cut down.
“Or at least, my father mentioned it. It used to be over there, fed by a river that got dammed up some time ago. It went dry; they leveled it to make way for the city. You’re a few generations too late.”
Without a word I left them to their floofy drinks and midmorning snacks.
Moments later I stood next to the maple and stared at the vacant lot, nothing more than a barren patch of weedy asphalt and empty promises. I sighed to myself, rolling my shoulder to swing the pack around and stuff my compass inside.
“What are you doing?” I turned to see a business man, carrying a black briefcase and a top hat made of 100% real beaver fur, approaching. Somewhere out there, in the untamed wilds of the imagination, beaver fur waddled around, pristine, premade into shape for a hat. They moved around soulless and boneless, just pelts, chewing on trees that lacked bark and roots; were just there to be turned into pencils and paper and other human things. They had no use beyond that. No life beyond that.
“Looking for treasure. Beyond the waterfall and the forest.”
He studied me for a moment, glancing at the expensive watch on his wrist. “There’s no treasure there, Kid. Unless you count property investments.”
“It’s supposed to be there, beyond the waterfall.”
“There’s no waterfall there.” He turned and started away, 100% real beaver fur hat bobbing with each step. After a few feet he stopped, turned on his heel and started back. “Look, Kid, there’s your waterfall.” He pointed to a concrete fountain in front of one of the apartments, cracked with wilting concrete flowers and a trickle of water from the spout to the basin. Not even the imitation flowers could be kept alive. “There’s your forest. There’s your treasure.” He pointed to the city behind us.
I shook my head, not believing it, not wanting to. “That can’t be right.”
He shrugged. “That’s how it is.”
“That’s nothing like the treasure at the end of this map.” I waved it for emphasis, watching him shake his head.
“That’s just a dream, Kid. Just a dream. Treasure maps are just fantasies, along with forests and waterfalls. They don’t exist in this world, in real life.” He motioned to the concrete maze I had just wandered through, the boxes in various states of decay and repair, to the weeds and the manicured lawns, before he dug into his pocket and pulled out a green bill, stuffing it into my free hand. I could only stare, speechless at the gesture. “Here. Get yourself something nice, buy yourself a new treasure. Just do yourself a favor and get off this dream. It doesn’t work here.” He shook his head, turning on his heel to walk away again. I stared after that beaver hat, wondering if he knew the creature it came from, the tangible dream it existed in, before staring down at the money in my hand again. It doesn’t work here.
I turned my treasure map over to study the picture of the forest, the wildflowers growing haphazardly amongst the grasses, not manicured, not contained. The trees weren’t tethered to supports; they were allowed to grow old and knotted with gnarled, weathered bark. I flipped the page over, traced the treasure route, then back at the picture, at the bygone era. Just a dream. It had no place in this concrete, money driven world. It would just be in the way, unless it conformed to the wants of the many. I sighed to myself and leaned on the tree, trying to imagine what the looping scrawl on the map referred to. But all I could see was the lot, a perfect square that was not from nature, surrounded by an ever expanding rectangle. The only thing real was the tree, and that little maple, I knew, would be cut down the minute it outgrew its tethers and became too rowdy- tried to thrive in the world it was placed in.
Just a dream.
It doesn’t work here.
“Where did the dreamers go?” The breeze rattled its leaves, but the little tree had no answer, no whispered secret. It was lamenting as much as I was. I turned away, pocketing the map as I started to retrace my steps. The money was a weight in my hand; the leaden, ironic loss of my treasure, whispering at the potential for the new. I wanted to burn it, but I knew I couldn’t.
Edited By: Rebecca Fox