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“It wouldn’t really be grave-robbing,” Nicolin was explaining. “Just dig up a coffin and take the silver off the outside of it. Never open it up at all. Bury it again nice and proper—what could be wrong with that? Those silver coffin handles are going to waste in the ground.”
The five of us considered it. Near sunset the cliffs at the mouth of our valley glow amber, and on the wide beach below, tangles of driftwood cast shadows all the way to the sandstone boulders at the foot of the cliff. Each clump of wood could have been a gravemarker, and I imagined digging under one to find what lay beneath it.
Gabby Mendez tossed a pebble at a gliding seagull. “Just exactly how is that not grave-robbing?” he demanded of Nicolin.
“It takes desecration of the body to make it grave-robbing.” Nicolin winked at me; I was his partner in these sorts of things. “We aren’t going to do any such thing. No searching for cuff links or belt buckles, no pulling off rings or dental work, nothing of the sort!”
“Ick,” said Kristen Mariani.
We were on the point of the cliff above the rivermouth—Steve Nicolin and Gabby, Kristen and Mando Costa, Del Simpson and me—all old friends, grown up together, out on our point as we so often were at the end of a day, arguing and talking and making wild plans … that last being the specialty of Nicolin and me. Below us in the first bend of the river were the fishing boats, pulled up onto the tidal flats. It felt good to sit on the warm sand in the cool wind with my friends, watching the sun leak into the whitecaps, knowing my work for the day was done.
“Why, with that much silver we would be kings of the swap meet,” Nicolin went on. “And queens,” he said to Kristen. “We’d be able to buy anything there twice. Or travel up the coast if we wanted. Or across the country. Just generally do what we pleased.”
And not what your father tells you to, I thought to myself. But I felt the pull of what he said, I admit it.
“How are you going to make sure that the coffin you take the trouble to dig up has got silver on it?” Gab asked, looking doubtful.
“You’ve heard the old man talk about funerals in the old time,” Nicolin scolded. “Henry, you tell him.”
“They were scared of death in an unnatural way,” I said, like I was an authority. “So they made these huge funeral displays to distract themselves. Tom said a funeral might cost upward of five thousand dollars.”
Steve nodded. “He says every coffin put down was crusted with silver.”
“He says men walked on the moon, too,” Gabby replied. “That don’t mean I’m going to go there looking for footprints.” But I had almost convinced him; he knew that Tom Barnard, who had taught us to read and write (taught Steve and Mando and me, anyway), would describe the wealth of the old time as quick as you might say, “Tell us—”
“So we just go up the freeway into the ruins,” Nicolin went on, “and find a rich-looking tombstone in a cemetery, and there we have it.”
“Tom says we shouldn’t go up there,” Kristen reminded us.
Nicolin laughed. “That’s because he’s scared of it.” He looked more serious. “Of course that’s understandable, given what he’s been through. But there’s no one up there but the wreckrats, and they won’t be out at night.”
He had no way to be sure of that, as we had never been up there day or night; but before Gabby could call him on it, Mando squeaked, “At night?”
“Sure!” Nicolin cried.
“I hear the scavengers will eat you if they can,” Kristen said.
“Is your pa going to let you leave doctoring and farming during the day?” Nicolin asked Mando. “Well, it’s the same with all of us, only more so. This gang has got to do its business at night.” He lowered his voice: “That’s the only time to be grave-robbing in a cemetery, anyway,” laughing at the look on Mando’s face.
“Grave-robbing at the beach you can do any time of day,” I said, half to myself.
“I could get the shovels,” Del said.
“And I could bring a lantern,” Mando said quickly, to show he wasn’t scared. And suddenly we were talking a plan. I perked up and paid more attention. Nicolin and I had outlined a number of schemes before: trapping a tiger in the back country, diving for sunken treasure on the concrete reef, extracting the silver contained in old railroad tracks by melting them. But most of these proposals had certain practical difficulties to them, and we let them slide. They were just talk. With this plan, however, all we had to do was sneak up into the ruins—something we always swore we really wanted to do—and dig. So we talked about which night the scavengers were least likely to be out and about (full moon, Nicolin assured Mando, when the ghosts were visible), who we might ask to come along, how we could chop the silver handles into tradeable discs, and so forth.
Then the ocean was lapping at the red rim of the sun, and it got a good deal colder. Gabby stood up and kneaded his butt.
“We’re really going to do this one,” Nicolin said intently. “And by God, I’m ready for it.”
As we walked up from the point I took myself off from the rest and followed the cliff’s edge. Down on the beach the tidal puddles streaking the sand were silver banded with red, little versions of the vast ocean surging beyond them. Behind me was our valley, winding up into the hills that crowded the sea. The trees of the forest blanketing the hills all waved their branches in the onshore wind, and their late spring greens were tinted pollen color by the drowning sun. For miles up and down the coast the forest tossed, fir and spruce and pine like the hair of a living creature, and as I walked I felt the wind toss my hair too. On the hillsides not one sign of man could be seen (though they were there), it was nothing but trees, tall and short, redwood and torrey pine and eucalyptus, dark green hills cascading into the sea, and as I walked the cliff’s edge I was happy. I didn’t have the slightest notion that my friends and I were starting a summer that would change us. As I write this account of those months, deep in the harshest winter I have ever known, I have the advantage of time passed, and I can see that this excursion in search of silver was the start of it—not so much because of what happened as what didn’t happen, because of the ways in which we were deceived. Because of what it gave us a taste for. I was hungry; not just for food (that was a constant), but for a life that was more than fishing and hoeing weeds and checking snares. And Nicolin was hungrier than I.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. As I strolled the steep sandstone border between forest and sea, I was excited by the thought of an adventure. As I turned up the south path toward the little cabin that my pa and I shared, the smells of pine and sea salt raked the insides of my nose and made me drunk with hunger, and happily I imagined chips of silver the size of a dozen dimes. It occurred to me that my friends and I were for the very first time in our lives actually going to do what we had so often boastfully planned to do—and at the thought I felt a shiver of anticipation, I leaped from root to root in the trail: we were invading the territory of the scavengers, venturing north into the ruins of Orange County.
* * *
The night we picked to do it, fog was smoking off the ocean and gusting onshore, under a quarter moon that gave the white mist a faint glow. I waited inside the door of our cabin, ignoring Pa’s snores. I had read him to sleep an hour before, and now he lay on his side, calloused fingers resting on the crease in the side of his head. Pa is lame, and simple, from tangling with a horse when I was young. My ma always used to read him to sleep, and when she died Pa sent me up to Tom’s to carry on with my learning, saying in his slow way that it would be good for both of us.
I warmed my hands now and then over the coals of the stove fire, as I had the cabin door partway open, and it was cold. Outside, the eucalyptus down the path blew in and out of visibility. A clammy puff of fog drifted onto the house, smelling like the rivermouth flats.
W-whooo, w-whooo. Nicolin’s call startled me from a doze. It was a pretty good imitation of the big canyon owls. I slipped out the door and hurried down the path to the eucalyptus. Nicolin had Del’s two shovels over his shoulders; Del and Gabby stood behind him.
“We’ve got to get Mando,” I said.
Del and Gabby looked at each other. “Costa?” Nicolin said.
I stared at him. “He’ll be waiting for us.” Mando and I were younger than the other three—me by one year, Mando by three—and I felt obliged to stick up for him.
“His house is on the way anyway,” Nicolin told the others. We took the river path to the bridge, crossed and hiked up the hill path leading to the Costas’.
Doc Costa’s weird oildrum house looked like a little black castle out of one of Tom’s books—squat as a toad, and darker than anything natural in the fog. Nicolin made his call, and pretty soon Mando came out and hustled down to us.
“You still going to do it tonight?” he asked, peering around at the mist.
“Sure,” I said quickly. “You got the lantern?”
“I forgot.” He went back inside and got it. When he returned we walked back down to the old freeway and headed north.
We walked fast to warm up. The freeway was two pale ribbons in the mist, heavily cracked underfoot, black weeds in every crack. Quickly we crossed the ridge at the north end of our valley, then narrow San Mateo Valley immediately to the north. After that we were walking up and down the steep hills of San Clemente. We held close together and didn’t say much. On each side of us ruins sat in the forest: walls of cement blocks, roofs held up by skeletal framing, tangles of wire looping from tree to tree. We knew the scavengers lived up here somewhere, and we hurried along silently. Fog licked over us as the freeway dropped into a broad canyon, and we couldn’t see a thing but the broken surface of the road. Creaks emerged from the dark around us, as well as an occasional flurry of dripping, as if something had brushed against leaves.
Nicolin stopped to examine an offramp curving down to the right. “This is it,” he hissed. “Cemetery’s at the top of this valley.”
“How do you know?” Gab said in his ordinary voice, which sounded awfully loud.
“I came up here and found it,” Nicolin said. “How do you think I knew?”
We followed him off the highway. Down in the forest there were more buildings than trees, almost, and they were big buildings. They were falling down every way possible; windows and doors knocked out like teeth, with shrubs and ferns growing in every hole; walls slumped; roofs piled on the ground like barrows. The fog followed us up this street, rustling things so they sounded like scurrying feet. Wires looped over poles that sometimes tilted right down to the road; we had to step over them, and none of us touched the wires.
A coyote’s bark chopped the silence and we froze. Coyote or scavenger? But nothing followed it, and we took off again. The street made some switchbacks at the head of the valley, and once we got up those we were on the canyon-cut plateau that once made up the top of San Clemente. Up here were houses, big ones, all set in rows like fish out to dry, as if there had been so many people that there wasn’t room to give each family a decent garden. A lot of the houses were busted and overgrown, and some were gone entirely—just floors, with pipes sticking out of them like arms sticking up out of a grave.
Nicolin stopped at a street crossing filled with a bonfire pit. “Up here.”
We followed him north, along a street on the plateau’s edge. Below us the fog was like another ocean, putting us on the beach again so to speak, with occasional white waves running up over us. The houses lining the street stopped, and a fence began, metal rails connecting stone piles. Beyond the fence the rippling plateau was studded with squared stones sticking out of tall grass: the cemetery. We all stopped and looked. In the mist it was impossible to see where it ended. Finally we stepped over a break in the fence and walked in.
They had lined up the graves as straight as their houses. Suddenly Nicolin faced the sky and yowled his coyote yowl, yip yip yoo-ee-oo-ee-oo-eeee.
“Stop that,” Gabby said, disgusted. “That’s all we need is dogs howling at us.”
“Or scavengers,” Mando added fearfully.
Nicolin laughed. “Boys, we’re standing in a silver mine, that’s all.” He crouched down to read a gravestone; too dark; he hopped over to another. “Look how big this one is.” He put his face next to it and with the help of his fingers read it. “Here we got a Mister John Appleby. 1904–1984. Nice big stone, died the right time—living in one of the houses back there—rich for sure, right?”
“There should be a lot written on the stone,” I said. “That’s proof he was rich.”
“There is a lot,” Nicolin said. “Beloved father, I think … some other stuff. Want to give him a try?”
For a while no one answered. Then Gab said, “Good as any other.”
“Better,” Nicolin replied. He put down one shovel and hefted the other. “Let’s get this grass out of the way.” He started stabbing the shovel into the ground, making a line cut. Gabby and Del and Mando and I just stood and stared at him. He looked up. “Well?” he demanded quickly. “You want some of this silver?”
So I walked over and started cutting; I had wanted to before, but it made me nervous. When we had the grass pulled away so the dirt was exposed, we started digging in earnest. When we were in up to our knees we gave the shovels to Gabby and Del, panting some. I was sweating easily in the fog, and I cooled off fast. Clods of the wet clay squashed under my feet. Pretty soon Gabby said, “It’s getting dark down here; better light the lantern.” Mando got out his spark rasp and set to lighting the wick.
The lantern put out a ghastly yellow glare, dazzling me and making more shadows than anything else. I walked away from it to keep my night sight. My arms were spotted with dirt, and I felt more nervous than ever. From a distance the lantern’s flame was larger and fainter, and my companions were black silhouettes, the ones with the shovels waist-deep in the earth. I came across a grave that had been dug up and left open, and I jumped and hustled back to the glow of the lantern.
Copyright © 2020 by Francis Spufford