Everyone loves a secret. Sometimes you keep secrets and sometimes they keep you. My secret and I held on to each other for years, but our tale is so fantastic that I have to tell it. Maybe you will believe me, or maybe not - you will have to decide for yourself.
I will start at the beginning, on June 30 - back in the summer when I was fourteen and my brother, Joel, was twelve. My name is Celestine Bridges, by the way, and our particular adventure began when my father retired from the navy and celebrated his birthday all on the same day. My mother planned a day of festivities for him, ending with a party at our house.
My Bridges grandparents drove up from New York for the special event. That evening, when most of the visitors were gone, Grandmother presented Dad with an extraordinary gift. “Raymond, this belongs to you, now that you are out of the service and will be staying in one place,” she said, handing him a round, carved block of wood. “This has been passed down through our family since they lived in Africa. I have saved it all these years in a safe-deposit box, so make sure you keep it secure.”
Joel and I leaned over Dad’s shoulder as we examined it. The wood heirloom was the shape and size of a small tin you get cookies in at Christmas. The dark brown wood was almost the color of my father’s hands and covered with intricate carvings. Etched on the top was a sun surrounded by an eagle, a fish, and a leopard. Mountains, trees, flowers, and vines adorned the sides. “All these years, Mother, and you never said a thing. Do you know what country it is from?”
“I’m sorry, dear. I don’t know much about it at all, except that when my mother gave it to me, told me to keep it safe, and to pass it down to my child with the mark. Since you are my only child, I suppose you must carry the mark, though she never explained what it was. At any rate, I hope you will put this in a safe place.”
“Don’t worry, Mother, I understand that it is irreplaceable. I will take it to the bank on Monday.” My father took the object out to the porch, where Dr. Oba Tutuola was talking to my mother, Valerie, and her sister, Lucy. “Oba, have you seen anything like this?” Dad asked, as he passed it to his friend. Dr. Tutuola held the item carefully, the light overhead reflecting in his glasses. He was Nigerian and taught history and African studies at a nearby college.
“This is an unusual box and the carvings are quite detailed. I have never seen wood quite like this before,” he commented, studying it.
“It’s a box?” Joel asked. “How does it open?”
“Well, I am guessing that it is a box, because of its size and the carvings on it. Sometimes, people hide important things in small boxes, and there is a trick, like a puzzle, to opening them. Perhaps if you study it, you will figure out how to get it open.” Dr. Tutuola held it gently as he traced a fingertip over the surface.
“May I see it?” asked Mom, and we passed the heirloom to her. Even though she is not of African descent, she worked in Nigeria and the Republic of Benin after college, and was always interested in everything African. She and my aunt exclaimed over its beauty as my grandmother hovered nearby. The only one who was not curious was my grandfather, who settled in the living room and read the newspaper instead.
When my turn came, I cradled the box with a sense of wonder. What country did it come from, and how many relatives of mine held this box in their hands? Why did they make it and want to pass it down? If it were a box, what could be in it? Diamonds? Gold? A treasure map? “Now, dear,” my grandmother instructed as she took it away from me, “this is not a toy, but a delicate artifact that has great sentimental value.” I did not say anything, but knew that once my grandmother was gone, Dad would let me study it as long as I wanted.
Our grandparents left the next day, cruising up the street in their big Cadillac. The atmosphere in the house relaxed a little, without their stern presence. Joel and I scrutinized the carved wood object, and talked Dad out of putting it in a safe-deposit box until we had a chance to figure out if it opened.
We picked it up and puzzled over it many times, but it was summer in Maine, and the secret of the box became less of a priority as each day went by. It was turning out to be the best summer ever with our parents. Dad was waiting until fall before he started his new job at an accounting firm, and Mom was taking a break from her work designing and sewing costumes. She kept sewing for the rest of us though, making Dad some new shirts, a new dress for me, and some costumes for Joel, who was still young enough to dress up as a Samurai, a genie, or an alien.
Dad worked on the motorboat and when it was ready, we went out on the river in the evenings, to cool off after hot July days. He also started scraping loose paint from the house, keeping my brother and me busy picking up chips off the ground. We were looking forward to helping him paint after the scraping was done, because he was going to let us stand on the scaffolding.
One night at supper, Dad announced that he would be taking the heirloom to the bank the next day, for safekeeping. After we cleaned up the kitchen, Joel went into the living room, to study the box one last time. “You know what doesn’t make sense to me?” he commented. “The eagle should be in the sky, the fish should be in the water, and the leopard should be by the trees.”
I put down my book and went to study the carvings again. To the left of the sun were some mountains, a blank area of sky above them. On the right, tall trees stood, curved along the edge of the box. Below the sun were small ridges, which looked like waves. It did not make sense that the leopard was standing on the water, the eagle was flying in the trees, and the fish was by the mountains. “Do you think those animals can move?” I asked.
Joel put the box down on the coffee table and started to shift each of the carved animals on the lid. Nothing happened. I tried pressing the sun, pushing against it with my fingertips. When I lifted my hand away, my brother put a finger on each animal. He had to stretch to touch all three, so I put my pointer finger on the fish. “Push down on all three at the same time,” he ordered. We pushed hard, and there was an almost inaudible click as the sun moved up a tiny bit. “Wow-hoo! Did you see that, Sis-tine?” He pulled on the sun, but it did not budge.
“Here, try this.” I turned the sun like a knob. It did not move, but the animals did since they were connected to each other on a circular disk. I dialed them to the right locations and when they fell into place, the whole top of the box gave a click. I rotated it around, but nothing happened. For the next ten minutes or so, Joel and I fiddled with it, until both of us stopped trying and just stared at it.
“I thought it would work like a dial and open when we got to the right place. I wonder what we’re supposed to do next,” Joel said. We sat unmoving, for several minutes and thought hard. I was beginning to think of going back to my book when my brother jumped up and grabbed the box again. “Maybe it works like a combination on a safe,” he exclaimed, moving it back into the position where the top of the box was realigned. He dialed it several ways, finally lining up some faint markings on the top and sides. He found the correct sequence and the sun popped up even more. Joel grasped the sun like a knob and the top of the box came off.
We hollered for our parents to come as we peered inside. There was a recess in the middle where a purple fabric bag lay, about the size of my fist. Mom and Dad arrived on the scene, gasping as they saw Joel holding the lid. “You figured it out. Good for you two!” Mom praised us.
Dad beamed at us as he pulled the bag out. It had gold drawstrings and gold script on the side of it. “This bag looks brand new,” my father observed. He loosened the drawstrings, opened the bag, and poured a gold necklace into his hand. “Wow! Who would have guessed that this would be in there?” As he held it up, the thick chain gleamed. There was a pendent attached to the necklace, a gold cage of sorts around an oval, brown stone. “This is strange. What type of stone is this?”
“What kind of writing is on the bag?” I asked, as Mom and I studied it.
“I have no idea,” Dad replied, “but I think I will take it to Oba in the morning and see what he says. In the meantime, you have to show me how you opened this.”
Joel and I demonstrated how it opened, which lead to an animated discussion until Mom noticed the time and sent us off to bed. The next morning, Dad hustled our discovery to Dr. Tutuola and then came home with another piece of the puzzle solved.
“Dr. Tutuola is sure that the writing is Arabic and is asking a colleague to translate it for us. While I was there, one of the geology professors looked at the rock and thought it was a type of sandstone, though its dark brown color is unusual.” Dad shook his head. “This box is a mystery. Oba said he would drop by later and tell us what he found out, so I invited him to stay for dinner.”
“Oh good, I know just what to make,” said Mom, and she went to the kitchen. Dad phoned his mother, shocking her with the news. My father explained to her, step by step, how to open the box. He refrained from telling her that Joel and I were the ones who discovered the secret.
That evening, my brother and I hung around outside, so we would know the instant when Dr. Tutuola arrived. We ushered him into the house the moment he got out of his car, then Joel asked, “So, what does the writing say?”
Dr. Tutuola smiled as he searched in his pocket for a piece of paper, which he unfolded and read. “Translated, this is what it says: ‘Take me away to my heart’s desire/ Deepest secret, my divine gift/ For me, for all my chosen descendants/ Land that we rule, subjects we love/ To the world where I am The One/ Take me away to Fahdamin-Ra.’”
“I wonder why it is in Arabic and not one of the African languages?” my father inquired. “Where is Fahdamin-Ra? I have never heard of it.”
“No one has ever heard of it though, translated, it means ‘followers of the sun’,” Oba said. “We guessed that the writer used Arabic because many tribes in Africa had only verbal languages until recently.”
“So there is no way of knowing where the writer came from originally?” Mom asked.
“No, but I find the phrase, ‘Where I am The One,’ fascinating – because in my Yoruba language, ‘The One’ is Olodumare, the Creator.”
“What are you going to do with the necklace now, Dad?” Joel looked at him expectantly. “Are you going to wear it?”
We all laughed at the idea of my quiet, reserved father wearing something so large and flashy. “No, son, I won’t be wearing it,” he said, “But I must admit that I am curious to know why my ancestors didn’t use the gold to buy their freedom.” He and my grandmother had worked for a year on our genealogy, tracing back to a farm in Maryland where our ancestors, a woman and her daughter, had arrived as slaves from West Africa.
“Perhaps they did not know what the box contained,” Dr. Tutuola suggested. “Maybe, when it was passed down to them, no one told them the secret.”
“We can talk about it some more while we eat,” Mom broke in. “Oba, you will be happy to know that I cooked your favorite, chicken and peanut stew.” We trooped off to the dining room, and discussed the box and its mysterious contents all through the meal, which we ate with our hands, Nigerian style.
After supper, we showed Dr. Tutuola how we had opened the box and then my father dropped the chain and the stone in the little bag and placed them inside. He added the translation and then closed the lid. “This box is much more valuable than I realized, so I will take it to the bank tomorrow.”
The next morning, I woke up and saw that it was raining. Disappointed, I washed and dressed, then went downstairs to the kitchen. There was the smell of bacon, and a bowl of fresh strawberries was on the counter. Mom got up from the table where she and Dad were sitting, and cooked some bacon for me while I toasted an English muffin. Joel appeared, so Mom added more bacon to the pan while he fixed the rest of his breakfast.
When we finished eating, my parents sat on the porch and sipped coffee, while my brother and I cleared the table. “Why is the box on the counter?” I asked, spying it as I loaded the dishwasher.
“Oh, I was cleaning it with a little lemon oil,” my mother responded. “I wanted to polish it before your dad takes it to the bank today.”
“We won’t see it again, Dad?” Joel asked.
“No, son, it needs to be stored somewhere safe.”
“Can we see the necklace again?” I asked. At my dad’s nod, I opened the case, pulled out the bag, and put the piece of jewelry on, feeling the gold cool and heavy on my neck. “Wow, this weighs more than I thought it would. I have to go look at myself in the mirror.” I went into the bathroom and stared at the heavy gold chain with its mysterious pendant.
“Here, I want to try it,” Joel said, and I put it on over his wooly head. He was too short to see himself in the mirror, so I got a footstool for him to stand on. Next, my brother went out on the porch to show our parents. “I look like a king.”
I called him to come into the kitchen as I picked up the piece of paper with the verse on it. “Wait, your majesty, let me sing you the song that comes with your royal necklace.” Using a theatrical voice, I sang, “Take me away to my heart’s desire, deepest secret, my divine gift. For me, for all my chosen descendants, land that we rule, subjects we love, to the world where I am The One, take me away to Fahdamin-Ra.”
I bowed deeply and then stood, grinning at my brother. Something bright caught my eye. It was the stone, which was glowing, getting brighter as I stared at it. “Joel, look, look!” I shouted, pointing at the stone.
Joel glanced down and gave a yelp, and then yanked at the necklace as he cried, “Help, I can’t get it off, it won’t move.” I grabbed the chain too, which was becoming warmer and felt so heavy that I could not pull it off either.
Seeing us from the kitchen window, my parents jumped up from the table and ran to help. The stone gave off a white light so blinding that I could not see them and did not know if they were near us. I stumbled, falling against my brother, as if a carpet had been pulled out from beneath my feet. The light isolated us and my hands could not let go of the chain, which burned like a brand in my palms. For a few moments, all I was aware of was the light and the heat from the necklace. Although I sensed only air beneath my feet, I did not have the sensation of falling. I could hear Joel panting in my ear, his breath warm against my neck.
It was a relief when there was something solid under my feet again, though the light faded away, leaving us in blackness. As I blinked my eyes and slowed my breathing, the necklace lost its warmth and I could let go of it. The darkness started to recede, and as my eyes adjusted, I was able to see again, but I was not familiar with my surroundings. Joel and I were standing in the middle of a warm, humid jungle, and we had no idea how we had arrived there.