A tiny, ramshackle structure consisting of five pallets is miraculously still standing after twenty years in the northern woods of Western Pennsylvania. When you follow the trail it rests beside to its end, you will discover two more identical misshapes down by the stream at the bottom of the mountain. The stream will lead you to the Allegheny River, but the boxes will lead you to the faded cave paintings of four kids who spent much of their childhood fighting for imaginary territories, and much of their adult life arguing about who won.
But those are the stories that happened after the story. Those are the stories that have been retold from too many parts of the country over too many years, so the echos have not yet met up to confirm or deny what is true and what is wishful boasting. And you will have no luck gathering those four in one room to eat a meal they can agree on, let alone to get facts straight. So the pre-story is that one resourceful father took his youngest daughter down the opposite side of the mountain, closest to civilization, to see about the pallets.
History as I remember it says that the pallets were abandoned from long ago, and my dad stumbled on them with some sort of omniscient woodsman know-how. The reality may be that he had left them a couple short years before, and was simply reclaiming them for their new purpose. But, as this is my corner of literary fabric, and I am nestled in middle Tennessee with no Western Pennsylvanian critic for miles, we will presume it happened that the pallets were abandoned from an unknown source, the weather was temperate but cloudy, and we drove down in my dad’s hand-me-down red pick up truck with the white cap on it to find the rare and useful wooden slabs to build three forts for three kids who were already aging beyond reconciliation.
I’ve never been particularly useful in these situations with my dad, but I am always particularly fond of them. As I waddled in my duck boots, trying mostly to get out of the way, unhelpfully pointing at which pallets looked most prime for our new forts, it happened. The bottom pallet was removed, and the ground below was sunken, like a small meteor had planted itself. And it was still glowing. I stared at the ground with my thoughts caught on the back of my tongue, and waited with the wide brown eyes of my mother staring down at this inexplicable phenomenon for my father to exclaim to me that we have stumbled on something sacred. That we need to drive to town immediately to call scientists and the US government. Or that we need to hurry back to gather all the burlap sacks we can find (of which we had none), and gather this beautiful, archaic garden of jewels and hide it, dispensing it only gradually throughout the years for things like college educations and castles in Ireland, so that no one will suspect that we have just become the wealthiest family alive. Or that we need to strip to our skivvies and rain dance around the masterpiece the earth has created or thank our stars that someone has so foolishly left what could be the next chapter in world history here! At the edge of our property! I needed him to exclaim “Finders keepers, Mallory! We are rich with ancient secrets!”
But my dad did none of that. Taking note of my recent, wide-eyed paralysis, my dad calmly walked to the edge of the indentation and whispered, “Well would you look at that.” He leaned down slowly, for magic’s sake, and pulled up one of the glistening pieces of our future, turned it twice in his hand for dramatic effect, and dutifully placed it in my own 8-year-old hand.
“Quartz,” he said. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
The rest of the day was spent nailing these treasure pallets together under a pregnant sky, which eventually burst into the casual cold drizzle that unifies Western Pennsylvanians as a people– the Other Season that occurs when it’s not The Heat or The Damn Cold. It was gently explained to me that the quartz really had no value, but in my childhood responsibility of cleaning up the messes grown-ups make and seizing opportunities they always miss, I grabbed a few of the rocks and placed them strategically around my new fort, my cupboard in the cabin, and my bedside table at home, two hours south of where they were found.
When the scientists or kings or pirates or witches come looking, my parents will thank me.