Hunching over the inside of a burned out boxcar, I sift through my finds. I pull my heavy woolen blanket over my shoulders to guard against the night air and the inevitable desert winds carrying dust from across the arid landscape. Handfuls of glass, in all colors – purples, blues, and amber – all shards, fill a small canvas bag. I unwrap the day’s major excavation – an aqua medicine vial – and examine it for cracks. Relieved at its excellent condition, I take a swig of whiskey and return the tiny antique bottle to its protected state.
Finding solace in today’s acquisitions, I take another swig of whiskey and reach for my personal treasure box. Every night, I burrow though my small metal container, dented yet solid, that holds cherished tokens collected during my journey through this wasteland.
A rock, clear as glass, faceted by not a gemsmith but by the natural elements reminds me that diamonds can be found in the rough. Pushing aside a brass button from some soldier long-dead and a feather from a red-tail hawk, I retrieve my most valued possession: a worn photograph from a time long-gone of a woman dressed in her Sunday finest.
Shoulders back, head held high, she softly stares, not into the camera but past it in a longing gaze. I imagine her eyes hold fast to a faraway thought – perhaps to a man who had entered her life but who was either temporarily or permanently absent. One corner appears burnt as if some lover stopped himself from destroying his only memento of their relationship. On the back, in beautiful script, is written, “With Love, Natalie.”
Her story entwined with mine when I discovered the photograph in the ruins of an old homestead. I was looking for old glass bottles, rare and valuable. That day I only managed to find a few sun-purpled shards of glass and a few blue pieces of early Mason jars, nothing in great shape or of any consequence. Shuffling through the rubble, I heard the distinct sound of glass tinkling.
Fearful I had done some great damage, I froze. Bending down, I carefully lifted a crushed frame from the litter and brushed away the broken glass. Standing there dusty and sweaty amidst a rotting bed frame and crumbling walls, I stared at the photograph, suddenly forgetting my mission and the time. My eyes caressed her pure skin, her fallen curls and her lips parted just so. I saw her in full color even though the image reflected only sepia tones. I knew Natalie, in that moment, as more than just an image captured in time.
Rousing from my distant dreams, I pocketed her securely to my chest, her beauty burned in my thoughts. I continued through the property, digging here and there as clues emerged in my hunt. Ruffians had ransacked the place over the years leaving little of worth, but I kept on. I had Natalie.
I took a probe to areas surrounding the foundation remnants. After dozens of attempts, my probe was only met with solid, rock-hard ground. I sat on a large boulder in defeat and leaned against the 6-foot probe to rest. In that moment, the probe sunk. The ground gave way like a knife through warm butter.
My hunt renewed with the discovery of this old privy and my heart leapt with excitement. I gave Natalie a quick kiss and began to dig. Slowly, I turned over each shovelful, careful with every movement I made. Several feet into the earth, my shovel knocked into something hard. A clink! I acted quickly, but methodically, to unearth a deep violet bitters bottle embossed with an eagle. Cleaning it off the best I could, I held it up to the sun. The regal bird glimmered as a tear mixed with salty sweat dripped down my cheek.
Looking out of the boxcar through the rusted out door to the stained ground with streaks of iron from years of sporadic rain, I watch the campfire light ripple across the earth, highlighting every stone yet to be unturned. Holding Natalie’s portrait in one hand and a half empty bottle of whiskey in the other, I give thanks in turn. I give Natalie a kiss and give another long kiss to the bottle of whiskey, draining it of its contents. I fall asleep with her in my arms.
In the morning, I depart from my temporary shelter with my Natalie, leaving the empty whiskey bottle behind for future hunters to find.