by Kimberly Lojewski
It’s common enough to hear about the finding of buried treasure, but the real trick is in the hiding. The finding is easy. You just need some head lanterns, a pick axe, an old sea-worn map, waterproof matches, and a rune decoder. Possibly some dynamite and trip wire if you are being shadowed. But hiding it, that is another story. It is a lifelong toil. And trading doubloons in this economy is almost more trouble than it is worth sometimes. Don’t even get me started on grapefruit-sized emeralds and rubies. Vials of diamond dust are sure to raise an eyebrow or two.
Our island is chock full of treasure. It is bursting at the seams with plunder and booty, trap doors, trick caves, and rocks marked with big mossy X’s. Pop has trained Jezebel and I to keep it hidden. We scrub the X’s off the rocks, cover hidden entrances with branches and hornets’ nests, and fill up the sunken mounds of old pirate graves until the earth is smooth. In the winters, when the ground is frozen, and the waves are funnels of salt ice, we practice ice surfing in crowns and tiaras, check our booby traps to make sure they are not frosted over, and search the island for new treasure. It’s just us and the polar bears. We throw secret carnivals and glittering parades.
In the summer, there is no time to play. We are positively swarmed with visitors. People come here from all over, although most of them don’t know why. Their free-market noses are trained to follow the scent of wealth across oceans and deserts. It is the real story of humanity. They smile at us and sniff the air curiously. They look around at the tangled trees and spur-filled sands and try to come up with convincing explanations for their visits.
“We just had to come see your charming island,” they say.
Or, “We felt some draw to explore this part of the world.”
They can feel the ground wealth-trembling, even though we tell them that it is just the shifting of tectonic plates and the rumblings of a resident live volcano.
Jezebel and I take great care to appear slow and backwards. We can wear as many crowns and tiaras as we want in our wintry solitude, but when there are visitors on the island, Pop likes us to seem dim-witted. Jezebel paints her lips in uneven red circles and kinks her orange hair with boxes of out-of-date home perms. She talks with a slow southern drawl that has no place on a windswept northern island, but no one ever notices it’s farcical. Jezebel likes to experiment with new guises. She’s a few years older than I am.
I keep a standard profile. I spin an old yoyo from one finger and blow giant circles of bubble gum that burst on my cheeks. I never wash my hands or comb my hair. Pop grins at them from the docks, big holes in his teeth where he yanked them out with a socket wrench. He’s got a set of whale-bone pirate falsies, chipped from chewing on gold coins, that he wears when we go into town to trade.
Pop isn’t our real Pop, and Jezebel isn’t my real sister, but we feel like a family just the same. Pop stole us from a mainland orphanage and raised us up to be his pretend children. He plans to leave this island’s legacy to us one day and retire to the Caribbean. Somewhere that isn’t quite so hard to keep a secret all the time, and somewhere he can hear the whales sing while he sleeps. Of course, all that changes the day that the summer winds blow a hot air balloon our way.
I first see it while I am up in the lookout tower. Summer winds are never any good here. They always seem to blow things straight towards us. The winter winds blow things away.
The balloon is a big one, a fancy one. It is shaped like a medieval castle, with elaborate, brightly colored turrets and banners flapping about in the sky. Whoever is inside it clearly does not know how to fly. I watch it swoop and bump across the breeze in crazy circles for a while, until eventually it trumpets in defeat and wedges itself into the spiky branches of one of our bramble trees, a good twenty feet up from the ground. The nylon shell of the balloon shreds into cheerful confetti, while the thick gushing flame singes the leaves and sends the island’s wombat sized, golden-eyed sea gulls flying up into the air with loud caws.
It has happened before. That is half the reason the bramble trees are there in the first place. We don’t like folks getting too good of an aerial view of our island.
I watch the man inside try to work out a way down for a while before I get bored and wander off. There is a boatload of people arriving at Dead Man’s Cove and I scamper over there to make sure that everything looks just the way it should: inhospitable and ugly. We arrange bleached whale bones in the sand and throw laxative-laced fish guts on the rocks every day, so that our ravenous monster birds will shit all over them while swooping and dive bombing their picnic lunches of wine and marmalade sandwiches.
After a few minutes of deflecting curious questions with a surly scowl, and refusing to carry anyone’s bags or help high-heeled ladies across the sand, I forget all about the treed man inside his castle of a hot air balloon. There are plenty of greedy ground people around to discourage and dismay.
“Charlie,” Jezebel whispers to me from behind a thorn bush. She is dressed like a pygmy today. Her orange hair is coated in mud and she has war paint drawn on her face. “Did you see the balloon in the trees?”
I nod. “He’s stuck good. No getting out for a while.”
“The colors,” Jezebel says. “I’ve never seen anything like them.”
She looks slightly bedazzled. I draw her attention to a couple of backpackers sharing a bag of granola and looking hardy and determined.
“There’s no zip lining here,” I call out to them. “No waterfall jumping. No rock climbing. No hang gliding, No swimming with dolphins. Just hungry bears and giant seagulls. If you get back in your kayaks and head south you’ll find an island with rainforests and elephants.”
They eye me up suspiciously, wander around a little until their waterproofed boots are caked in excrement and fish guts, and then rinse themselves off and head back out to sea. One of our polar bears ambles out of the trees and sends the remaining tourists screaming for their vessels.
“That’s an easy day’s work,” I say to Jezebel, tossing the bear some silver herring from my backpack. But when I turn around the bushes are empty and my sister has disappeared.
Jezebel is breathless over dinner. She is humming with excitement, some secret girl-ness that I cannot understand. Pop doesn’t notice. He sucks the meat out of crab legs, crushing the hard shells with his jaws. Butter and boiled seawater drip down his chin. Every now and again he breaks the silence to mutter something about bloody tourists, or the plummeting price of jewel encrusted crowns. Jezebel sighs into her dinner plate. It looks like she is sculpting balloon castles out of her potatoes.
That night she has a headache so I am on treasure duty on my own.
“Sorry, Charlie,” she says, scrunching lines into her forehead. I can tell she’s faking. I have spent my entire life reading her expressions. “I don’t feel very well. I won’t be any good trying to cave climb or check traps tonight.”
It is the first of many solitary wanderings.
The man stays up in his basket all summer. He makes a rope ladder he can crawl down from to go fishing and swim in the ocean. At night he seems perfectly content to sit in the wicker basket, cook fish and grill star fruit over the open flame, and count stars through the wispy tatters of his balloon. He has no sense of urgency. He doesn’t seem to be trying to get anywhere. Pop doesn’t like him too much.
“Simpleton,” he says, watching him from a pair of binoculars. But he doesn’t pay him much more attention than that, though one night he does have me make a honey trail to the tree to try to attract the bears. Sometimes we have to do this sort of thing.
It’s mostly the other people that are the problem. They consume our entire summers. They arrive in ocean liners and jet planes, sometimes helicopters that drop parachuting squirrel gliders out over our private land. Once an entire family beached themselves on our island, sun-swollen and half-starved, on a log raft they built themselves. They kissed our cold shores like they had finally come home. They seemed surprised to find it was just sticks and sand. The look in their eyes was heartbreaking. I wanted to drop some jewels in their pockets as they pushed back off to sea, but Pop said no.
“All we need is for one of these vultures to catch onto what we got here and we’ll lose everything,” he said. His eyes get a little gold crazy when he talks like this. When he really gets going they turn into spinning 14-karat gold wheels.
We do everything that we can think of to throw them off track. Pop plants fields of ragweed, sour grapes, wild garlic, and saw grass. He threads the trees with bramble vines and poisoned thorns. His Pop let loose a plague of jumping spiders, giant rats, and polar bears upon our island. Until the rats ate the jumping spiders and the polar bears ate the giant rats. We tried to train the polar bears to guard the treasure caves, but animals have no interest in cold, glittering inanimate hordes. We keep them around anyway since they hypnotize the tourists with their moony pelts and silver fangs. They gobble them up from time to time, but it still doesn’t stop the people from coming.
Ever since the hot air ballooner caught Jezebel’s eye something is different with her. I am not a trained treasure hunter for nothing. I tap the walls and floorboards of her room until I find the hollow spot that contains their secret correspondence. It is in a peeling cigar box, buried under a heap of tiaras and jewels. It is full of perfumed letters and declaratives. Lots of “I love you’s” and “I want be with you forever’s”. I try to tell Pop but he can hardly hear anymore after taking so much booby-trap shrapnel in his ears.
“Don’t bother me about yer sister’s lady problems,” he says. He is busy planning out how to rig a decoy island across the bay with fake treasure to distract the gold hunters for a while. This last summer was particularly stressful. One couple with eye-patches and peg-legs put their tent up right across the grass patch that covers the mouth of our underground tunnels. We had to pepper spray the garlicky breeze while they were sleeping to send them coughing and sputtering away.
“Times are getting tough, Charlie,” he says. “We gotta buckle down. Reinforce our perimeters. Tell that ducky to quit mooning over hot air balloons, perm her hair up, and help us keep this treasure hidden. That’s what family is for.”
That isn’t what Jezebel thinks anymore. She sits at the desk in her room making kaleidoscopes of gemstone chips and gold dust. In her journal she wrote about plans to sell them in fancy galleries on the mainland. She wants to leave our island.
“Charlie!” she jumps when she sees me standing in the doorway. I have cat-burglar feet. One of her cheeks is shimmering iridescent where she must have touched her face. I scowl at her.
“Jezebel,” I say. “You have to forget the man in the balloon.”
“What man in the balloon?” she asks, her face turning an unattractive shade of plum. This is the trouble with girls. You can’t trust them worth a dime.
“You’re leaving us,” I say. “Or you want to anyway. What has he said to make you want to abandon me and Pop?”
“Oh, Charlie,” she says, and her whole body shudders. “I’m not a kid anymore. I can’t stay here forever. This is no kind of life for a woman to have.”
With her frizzled hair and muddy clothes, Jezebel looks nothing like a woman to me. I tell her as much and she throws me out of her room with all of the strength of a born-and-bred treasure hider.
“I’m warning you, Charlie!” she yells through the door. I hear the slide of locks and clicks of latches. “Try infiltrating my personal space again and you’ll be impaled by an eleventh-century Viking sword!”
This is enough to make me cautious. Jezebel is a booby-trapping master. She loves restoring ancient Scandinavian weapons. I give up on her. Instead I decide to go to the source of the problem: the Lotharian rake in the hot air balloon.
Pop is frying gull eggs in the dark in the kitchen. He’s drunk on pirate rum and wearing a long pajama shirt and night vision goggles. Singing a shanty about adventure on the high seas. He doesn’t even notice as I slip out the front door, exiting from a concealed fort cover made of sewn up thorn branches and poison berry leaves.
There is a path through the brush to the man’s tree. I suspect my sister has carved it out. I tread in her footsteps quietly, so as not to spook any bats or bears or other nocturnal predators. I am almost to the site of their aerial love trysts when I make an amateur’s error. I step into a trip-line ankle snare and immediately find myself swinging back and forth upside down, spiky brush snarling in my hair. This is Jezebel’s handiwork. No doubt about it. It never occurred to me that she would booby trap the hot-air-balloon man from me and Pop. This thought sends a piercing pain through me even as the blood rushes downwards towards my head.
A treasure hider is never unprepared. I cut myself free with a dagger from my belt and tumble into a pile of thorn bushes, the ensuing howls giving me away completely. The man in the balloon is alerted. By the time I’ve righted myself he has climbed down his rope ladder and is standing before me.
“Charlie,” he says. I have been imagining different versions of the devil himself trying to steal my Jezebel away. This man doesn’t look anything like that. He is pretty plain, in fact. He smiles at me and his slightly crooked teeth glow white in the moonlight.
“Sorry about the trap.” He holds out a hand to me. “Your sister insisted. She was worried your Pop would try to slit my throat while I slept if he thought I was trying to steal anything.”
I shake his hand cautiously. It is calloused from climbing and fishing.
“Pop would slit your throat while you were sleeping if he knew what you were trying to steal,” I tell him.
The man looks at the dagger in my hand and nods. “I’m Nigel,” he says. His expression remains friendly. He gestures to the rope ladder. “Want to come up? We can pull out some of those thorns.”
I don’t like the implication that I need his help for anything. He is a thieving, good-for-nothing hot-air ballooner as far as I’m concerned. I do want to see what he’s got in his basket though, so I follow him up, climbing one-handed, pulling thorns with my teeth and spitting them into the night.
Nigel’s balloon basket looks pretty ordinary. There are some blankets, disrupted from sleep, a pile of books that have seen better days, a string of dried fish hanging from a rack, smaller baskets, woven out of vines and containing fruit and other foraged foods like garlic bulbs and wild onions. There is a row of old moonshine jugs filled with water and reflecting the sky. From the top of his tree the stars look extra bright. Nigel lights his lantern and motions for me to have a seat.
“So,” he says.
“So,” I say.
“About your sister,” he says.
“You can’t have her,” I tell him.
This leaves us in silence for a few minutes. I eye him up good and continue to spit thorns, so he knows I mean business. Somewhere in the forest the trees shake with tussling polar bears rummaging for dinner. A colony of bats is dislodged and they skitter off over our heads. Nigel doesn’t flinch. I suppose he’s become used to this sort of thing.
“Charlie, you can’t keep her here forever.”
He sounds suspiciously like Jezebel herself. “Is that what you’ve been telling her?” I ask him, trying to keep the anger out of my voice. “No one is keeping her here. This is our island. It’s where we belong!”
“People belong where they want to be,” Nigel says softly. Like he’s afraid my world will come crashing down around me with his words.
I could kill him. Well, maim him at least. He has the nerve that only an infiltrator that does not belong can have. “Go land on your own island and say that,” I say, grabbing his jugs of water and throwing them off the side of the basket, so that they shatter on the ground below. “These are our jugs and you are drinking them.” I toss the fruit overboard as well. “This is our food you have taken.”
He still doesn’t look particularly guilty. “I’m an explorer,” he says. “The world is mine.”
I see a pile of cloth folded up to one side with sewing needles and thread. I can guess at the colors. He is repairing his turrets. Soon he will be airborne again. The thought of Jezebel sailing away with him strikes real panic in me.
“Alright,” I say. “You can have some treasure. Gold, silver, diamonds. I will bring you whatever you want. Just leave my sister behind.”
He shakes his head at me. “You can’t blame a girl for wanting to see the world,” he says. “And you can’t blame a guy for falling in love with your sister.”
I should shank him. I know I should. Pop would be disgusted by what happens next. Tears, hot and fat, well up in my eyes. I think of things that make me angry. Things to make the tears go away. Things that will make me ready to slit Nigel’s throat. Nothing comes. All I can think about is summers without Jezebel. Winters without her. Nighttime ramblings and booby trapping without her. My face is wet.
I hop out of the balloon basket and scale the ladder before Nigel has time to react. I race through the forest, oblivious to traps and tripwires, wandering polar bears, or particularly persistent tourist encampments.
I’m going to tell Pop. I’ll let him do what I can’t.
But when I reach the house, Pop is passed out across the kitchen table over a string of pearls, his night vision goggles slipped to one side. He is snoring enough to bring the walls down. I knock on Jezebel’s door but she doesn’t answer. I do the most shameful thing I have ever done, and cry myself to sleep with my favorite crown on.
In the morning, it is Pop who shakes me awake. “Come see, Charlie. That pickle-brained dope has finally left the island.”
I shake doubloons off me and take off my crown.
“Wake up your sister so she can see,” he says. He grins, swigs leftovers from a mug of last night’s rum, and heads out into the clear morning.
I don’t knock on Jezebel’s door. I don’t bother. Instead I go after Pop and we walk down to the beach where tourists are lined up along the water’s edge for a good look.
The castle has been patched up and the turrets are erected into the chilly morning air. It is a cold wind that meets me. The first wind of winter. It makes the crowd shiver and gives speed to the monstrous balloon.
Pop’s eyes aren’t too good but I know he can see the shock of orange hair that is Jezebel. She is waving goodbye to us from above the ocean.
For a moment Pop is rendered speechless, and then he breaks into such a terrible fit of obscenities and vulgar threats that the crowd on the shore dissipates. The last of the summer treasure hunters pack up their belongings and make for the sea.
Pop is inconsolable. He rants. He raves. He fights a polar bear. He breaks everything in the house. He tears trees straight out of their sockets. He goes on a rum bender for at least a week. I do my best to avoid him for most of this time.
Then one day he simply disappears. He takes the good boat that we hide in a cave at the southern tip of the island. I don’t know where he’s gone. To sell treasure, or maybe to rescue Jezebel. I find myself staring at the wintry sky a lot, and looking for colored banners and streamers on the horizon with a spyglass. I don’t find any. I try to keep to my usual routine. Checking traps, exploring caves, counting treasure.
When Pop reappears he is not alone. He pulls the boat right up onto the sand at Dead Man’s Cove and jumps ashore proudly, his chest thrown out like he’s staking a claim.
“Charlie!” he calls and I rush down to greet him. He spits out his pirate falsies and puts them in his pocket. “Get us some rum. We are having a celebration!”
A girl climbs out of the boat from behind him. She is smaller than Jezebel and younger too. Her eyes are huge. In her hands are gems, tons of them, glittering different colors in the pale sunlight.
“Meet your new sister, Calliope. Calliope, this here’s Charlie. He’s going to teach you all about wolf traps, and squirrel snares, and hangman’s nooses.”
Calliope smiles at me. “Hello.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say back.
“Is it true this island is full of treasure?”
I nod and Pop looks pleased. He belches and smiles a big, gappy grin.
KIMBERLY LOJEWSKI is currently an MFA fiction candidate at UMass Amherst. She received her MA in English from Florida Gulf Coast University. Her works have been published (or are forthcoming in) Aesthetica Creative Works, PANK, Gargoyle, BloodLotus, Toad, and Mangrove Review. She is the founder and Editor in Chief of Belletrist Coterie, a new magazine that spotlights storytelling through different artistic mediums. She is also unnaturally obsessed with whales. To this end, she works on a whale tour boat, logging Captain’s hours and waiting for the day when she can fully abscond to the sea.