Hills and Valleys
Accidentally brushing her paper-thin skin, he takes the skeleton key from her hand. He can feel the hills and valleys created by her veins.
She says, “Alex, please open the trunk for me.”
This is his favorite part; this is why he visits his grandmother instead of playing with the other young boys in the neighbourhood. Instinctively, he twists the key slightly to the left anticipating the sound of the hinges as he lifts the heavy lid. Inhaling deeply, the smell of paper, leather, and pipe smoke wafts from the interior of the trunk transporting him, in his imagination, from his grandmother’s small bedroom to the salon where W.B. Yeats wrote these lines: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”
He can picture the dark paneling in the room where Yeats sat at his desk and wrote the words to the poem he loves. The young boy wonders if the man was happy with his words. Alex’s head is always full of words, images, and ideas that most pubescent boys could never conjure. He is different. He knows it; he accepts it, and he’s even starting to like it.
“Alex, are you listening?”
“I’m sorry, Theo. What did you say?”
“Why do you call me Theo? Why can’t you call me granny like my other grandchildren?”
“Because I’m not like your other grandchildren,” he replies.
She smiles at him. No, she thinks to herself, you certainly are not.
He grins back and asks, “Where should we start?”
“Why don’t we start with the handkerchief,” she suggests.
He removes the monogrammed square from the trunk, and traces the beautifully stitched M with his index finger before placing the fabric in Theo’s hand. He watches her wipe the soft, cotton handkerchief across her wrinkled cheek. She’s remembering when Alexander did the same thing for her after he told her he’d be moving away with his family. The more he talked, the more her tears fell. Eventually, he pulled the handkerchief from his back pocket, and used it to dry her tears before kissing her. He never moved away; he married her, and she carried her small wedding bouquet wrapped in the monogrammed handkerchief. Alex, named after his grandfather, has heard the story many times, but he doesn’t mind hearing it again.
Next out of the trunk is a battered pair of baby shoes. Each of Theo’s three boys had worn the shoes. She has vivid memories of their first teetering steps as children. She was an anxious mother with her first child, Alex’s father, but by the time the third boy was walking she was no longer anxious; she was overwhelmed. She often wonders how she survived those early years of motherhood. She damn near didn’t survive when she got the news her middle boy had died a hero in battle on foreign soil. Fingering the frayed shoelaces, she has a faraway look in her eyes. Alex knows that look. He’s had the same look in his eyes when his father fails to show up for his piano recitals and school award ceremonies.
Alex has noticed his grandmother has that look in her eyes more and more often. That’s the main reason he makes it a point to visit as often as he can. He tries to help by reading to her, and basically just keeping her company. Pulling the next item out of the trunk, he laughs out loud; she glances in his direction, and asks, “What’s so funny?”
“I found a drawing I made for you years ago. I think it’s a horse, but I’m not sure.”
“Oh, I remember that,” she says. “You were obsessed with horses. You were convinced you'd get a horse for Christmas; you were inconsolable when that didn’t happen.”
He doesn’t show her the drawing. She’s blind now, so he describes the horse in vivid detail as he does with most of the other keepsakes she’s saved over the years. By the time he pulls the last treasure from the trunk, it’s time for him to leave. He always tells her the same thing before he goes. “Theo, please don’t forget; the trunk is mine when you go.”
She didn’t forget. When Theodosia Miller passes, five years later, her grandson, Alexander Miller, inherits her trunk. After the funeral, he momentarily panics when he can’t find the skeleton key right away. Eventually, he calms down enough to remember his grandmother always kept the key hanging from a hook in the kitchen. The trunk and key will travel with him across the sea on 10 April, the day after Theo’s funeral, and the day his life will really begin.
Alex has looked forward to this trip for a long time. He watches the crew load his trunk. Patting his chest over his heart, he can feel the outline of the skeleton key in his breast pocket and he smiles. Theo would be so happy for him.
Dr. Robert Ballard smiles broadly in the early morning of September 1, 1985 when the debris field comes into view on the screen he’s been staring at for hours on board the Knorr. The first thing he sees is one of the boilers from the Titanic embedded within the sandy surface of the ocean floor. Argo, an unmanned submersible he engineered to aid in his search for the Titanic, floats past the boiler relaying images to him and his crew as it rises up a small hill 12,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Near the top of the hill, Ballard spots a trunk scattered among other debris including elegant plates and teacups, crystal goblets, a beaded purse, and a baby's shoe. The Argo dips silently down in the valley between two hills relaying more images from the ocean floor: a man’s pocket watch, a violin, one glove, and a skeleton key.