Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Unexpected

I have been intrigued by many things in my life---but I can't recall ever giving manhole covers a second thought. Still, it seemed a reasonable starting point for one with no practical mining experience and after looking at photographs from different countries and the artistic quilts and sculptures the covers had inspired I felt my enthusiasm begin to bubble.

The cover I found was a filthy black metal circle in the center of a dead end street, it held no fascination for me only distaste, but wandering around town dodging traffic to find another one to complete a writing assignment was out of the question. It would have to do.

As I squatted down to get a better look, I tried not to think of my ultimate goal, which was to remove the cover and descend into a cramped, dark space. Dried yellow stems and stalks from the previous summer had rooted themselves in every crack and crevice and I began to tug and pull at them. The pain was instantaneous but only after blood began oozing from my fingers and palms did I realize I was dealing with thistles and stinging nettle. I kicked them aside and cursed my stupidity for not bringing heavy gloves.

Blotting my hands with a tissue, I wondered what in the world I had hoped to accomplish. I was dirty and bleeding, my back was already beginning to ache, and this was the easy part!

I heard the sound of purring and then felt something nudge my leg. Oreo had decided to join me. "Aren't you supposed to be a big dog,?" I asked, alluding to the simple prompt I might have tried. My handsome tuxedo cat ignored the implied slur against his species and continued to rub against me.

There's no shame in quitting something you're unfit for," I muttered.

Oreo's motor stopped abruptly and he began to pace the circumference of the manhole as if he'd scented a mouse. In an instant he was digging furiously, kicking up a cloud of dust and pebbles until the taste of it was so thick in my nose and mouth I began to choke.

As quickly as the frenzy began it ended and, shaking the dust from his usually immaculate black and white fur, he sat down and stared at the manhole. He'd removed enough accumulated dirt and grime so that I could see hand holds for lifting the cover and a pattern in the metal that looked vaguely familiar: a circle surrounded with eight points, four large and four short.

Forgetting my injuries, I picked at the dirt in the circle with the only tools I had, my fingernails. Wavy hatch lines appeared near the bottom and what might have been a cloud near the top. My appreciation grew as I saw the care with which an unknown artist had etched the minor elements of the picture and I nearly prayed the center would show what I was now convinced must be there.

Brushing away the debris, I stopped for a rest. My nails were broken and ragged, dried blood stained my filthy hands, which continued to sting from the scratches and punctures I'd received from the vicious thorns. I sat back and took a swallow from a bottle of water and rubbed my aching knees. Oreo came and butted my chin with his head and began to purr again.

"It is there, isn't it?" I asked, almost expecting him to answer. Slowly and meticulously I worked on the center portion of the circle until the bow of a ship was visible and then the stern, sails came next and lastly, faint and exquisite, the rigging lines of a treasure ship.

It was the last image one would expect from a manhole assignment that was itself a preliminary to alluvial mining, but not all gold seekers had traveled to California overland and gold had been transported from Australia and Alaska and California by ship.

The design represented a compass rose, a ship's wheel that provides direction in the middle of an endless sea, a map that would show me first how to navigate beneath the manhole cover and then how to find my way in the depths of the alluvial mine.

Under an inch of dirt, I had unearthed the unexpected and it was as precious to me as gold dust. I grasped the hand-holds and tugged with all my might. Slowly, the cover shifted until I could see a ladder leading down. Light was coming in from above and there also seemed to be a source of light from below. Oreo watched, as I took my first few tentative steps, then climbed confidently onto my shoulder and curled around my neck. We both knew we were ready for whatever adventure lay ahead of us.


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