The Maltese Marble
It didn't seem like a special marble when I first looked it over, at old Mr. Warner's place. True, it was larger than the other cats' eyes and steelies in my collection. And the smoky green eye in the middle of the glass orb did seem to pulse and glow when you looked at it for a while. But, when you are eight years old, everything seems special and by logical extension, nothing is ever too extraordinary. It was just another piece of glass, or so I thought at the time.
Mr. Warner saw me looking at the marble, as it nestled quietly in the red velvet box, on his big oaken desk. He told me that it had been given to him a long time ago, in a dusty village on the Island of Malta. He had been excavating the ruins of an old crusader fortress there. He had saved the life of an old man, in a cave-in at the dig. The grateful native had given him the marble and told him to use the three wishes wisely. Mr. Warner said that he had never found out what the old mystic meant by three wishes, but had kept the marble as a souvenir of the expedition.
The allure of so exotic a bauble was immensely attractive to an eight year old with an imagination that was always alive and on fire. I greatly admired the glass stone and said so to Mr. Warner, on several occasions. He smiled each time and nodded his head in agreement the way adults do when they want to be mysterious.
I was doing yard work for him that summer. Mr. Warner had suffered a fall and couldn't get around too well. We were neighbors, across the street, and Mom said I should go over and help Mr. Warner with the yard work until he recovered. Like most kids my age, I didn't like the idea too much. I would rather be playing baseball with my friends or off exploring on a score of imaginary expeditions. Mr. Warner proved to be a nice enough old man though. After I got to know him better and had finished my chores for the day, we would often sit and talk. Over a tall glass of lemonade, he told me of his archeological expeditions to many far off places. Even the names of the places had a special magic to them. Anghor Wat, Massada, Harare', Tierra Del Fuego, Easter Island. After every session, I would run home and look up the pictures of the places he had been to in our world atlas. It was a special summer for me.
At summer's end, Mr. Warner presented me with a small, wrapped package. He said that he was appreciative of my help and company and wanted to give me a small token. He asked only that I wait until I reached home to open it. He had that far away look in his eyes that adults get when they are thinking of something long ago or far away. He smiled and said, “Use it wisely Billy.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I thanked him for the gift, like Mom had taught me. He was a nice old man and I was glad that I had helped him out. I put the present in my old yard jacket and promptly forgot about it.
In the weeks ahead, the excitement of a new school year claimed my attention. New teachers and old friends crowded out the memories of the summer past. One day, as I walked home from school, I saw an ambulance across the street, at Mr. Warner's House. When I asked Mom what had happened, she told me in hushed tones that Mr. Warner had “passed on.” I think I knew what it meant, that he wouldn't be around anymore. I felt sad and remembered, for a time, the many conversations we had had over the summer. He was a nice old man and I would miss him.
After dinner that night, and my own chores, Mom told me to get cracking on my homework. I was already behind in some subjects. Mrs. Ryan, my Teacher, had sent a note home to Mom & Dad. Things weren't going too well for me this year. It was while I sat staring at my geography book and the many places that Mr. Warner had been, that I remembered his present. I had forgotten about it. It lay unopened, in my old yard-jacket pocket, hanging in the closet.
I found the small package quickly and stared at it for a moment, thinking of Mr. Warner and the fun I had had over at his house. Then, I opened the wrappings and looked excitedly at the small red velvet box. I knew what was inside! It was the Maltese marble that I had admired so much! He had remembered. I opened the box and looked at its shiny glowing presence and then gingerly, picked it up. I could feel its smooth surface. But, it was the way that the marble felt, when you held it tightly, that made it so different. It felt warm in your hand and it gave off that tingly feeling that you get when your feet brush across a carpet and your hands touch metal. Static electricity I think they call it. I could feel the charge radiating up my arm and into my head.
Then, things got a little fuzzy and I didn't know where I was anymore. It seemed like I was soaring, at a very great height, and staring down onto a large group of mountains, all covered with snow and ice. They looked like the mountain peaks in my book. I had been looking at them, while doing my earth science homework, just before touching Mr. Warner's special Maltese Marble.
I seemed like I was flying over and around the craggy hills, like an eagle in quiet flight. I saw how the hills were shaped and watched the wind swirl around them and the snow cascade down their sides. Somehow, I understood how they were made, by volcanoes so long ago, and how they were being worn down by wind and erosion. It was like I felt them growing older and they told me their story. It was dreamlike and fuzzy.
Then, with a jolt, my eyes opened and I was back in my room, with that special Maltese Marble in my hand. The chill of the wind and snow were on my clothes. I thought it all normal then. I wrote up my homework assignment on the mountain range with the fervor of one who had recently just scaled their Olympian summits. I wrote it all down, just like the mountains had told me.
The next day, when I handed in my report, Mrs. Ryan pulled me aside and asked me if I had written the report all by myself. I was both angry and embarrassed that she would think I had copied the report from someone else. The tears in my eyes must have convinced her, because she softened and looked at me kind of funny. Then, she smiled and said that it seemed as if I had actually been to the mountains and talked to them. The report was that good. I got a big red “A” and a note scribbled in red that said, “Excellent report Billy” on the top right corner. I felt very special.
I didn't think about the marble again for a few days, until I was struggling with a history assignment one night. Mrs. Ryan had asked us to read up on the Battle of Gettysburg, during the Civil War. She wanted us to understand the causes of the war and the reason so many men died. At eight years old, death is a blessed abstraction. So too, are wars and principles and causes. I was becoming a little confused by it all. Absently, I reached for Mr. Warner's special marble and rolled in between my fingers. It started to get warmer and the little electric tingles got stronger.
Then, I was standing in a farmer's hay field on a hot summer day. Men were running by me and hollering “Hoorah! Hoorah for Dixie!” Some of them were hit by rifle bullets and they screamed in agony as they spun around and fell to the ground. The smoke and the smell of burnt powder mixed with the noise and the confusion all around me. I was very frightened. But, then I seemed to rise above it all. I saw the ill-fated glory of Pickett's charge to the center of the Union lines. Men from the South were mowed down like summer wheat before a sharp scythe. I heard and felt the emotion of those involved. They were desperate men sweating, fighting and dying for many reasons. Patriotism, desperation, economic freedom and something called self-determination. It was a muddied swirl of feelings woven through the valor of thousands of Americans who lay dead and dying. The tears ran down my face and I hurt for them like they were my own family. So much sorrow, so much death. I didn't like it very much at all, but I understood what brought all of these men here on a hot July day. They had told me their many stories in a single flash of powder and smoke. I would never forget them, or why they were here.
My eyes blinked open with a start and I was sitting peacefully at my desk, tears running down my face and feeling very sad. I wrote my history report on the Battle of Gettysburg, with the youthful fervor of one who wants to prevent a great harm. Death and dying were still great mysteries to me then and I wrote that men shouldn't have to die like that, so far from their families and friends. There must have been a better way to resolve the differences between the North and the South.
The following day, my report drew the same reaction from Mrs. Ryan as the previous one. She was very pleased with my work, yet still a little surprised that it was I, Billy Bannerman, who had produced the reports. Although she believed me, she seemed a little concerned. There were bags under my eyes and I hadn't slept very well. I was still very upset from what I had seen, the night before. The report got another “A” and an even nicer comment from Mrs. Ryan, but something had changed in me from seeing what I had the night before. I felt older and sadly wiser.
I put the marble away for a time. I didn't know how it was connected to everything I had been feeling lately, but I just had the feeling that I wanted to be careful with it. Growing up wasn't all that easy and many different thoughts were racing through my head.
It was late November and the cold winds of autumn had come. In our house, that meant that it was time for Dad and his friends to head north into Canada, for their annual fishing trip. Dad looked forward to it each year and Mom, though she didn't understand the whole business, knew that it made Dad happy. She made allowances for his yearly trip.
One night during the week, I was rummaging through my desk and I came upon the Maltese marble in its red velvet box. I had been thinking of Dad so far away, when I picked up the shiny marble. I saw it start to glow and felt the familiar tingle.
In a mental blink, I was high over a dark green forest. The wind was swaying through the tree tops and it looked very cold. As I got closer to the ground, I could see a small river, speckled with the white caps of some pretty difficult rapids. Then, I saw them! Three men were hanging onto a small ledge in the middle of the rapids. Parts of their smashed canoe were racing down the frothy spillway of the river. As I looked closer, my heart raced and tears came to my eyes. One of them was my Dad! I tried to be calm in an emergency like he had taught me. I concentrated on the river and the forest. I was going to make them tell me where they were, just like the other times with the marble. It was like reading a page in a book.
With a nod of my head, I was back in my room. I ran downstairs and told Mom, in breathless terms, that Dad was in trouble. She saw how upset I was and wanted to believe me, but asked, “How could you know that? Dad is hundreds of miles away in Canada.” I babbled excitedly the story of Mr. Warner's gift, the Maltese Marble, and all that I had seen and done.
I don't think that she really believed me, but to quiet me down, she agreed to call the lodge where Dad was staying and tell him we were worried about him. I made her promise to tell the lodge the location of the river and the rapids that I thought Dad and his friends were stranded on.
Mom didn't like it, but she called the lodge and told them of our concern and the directions I had given her. The man at the lodge said that Dad and his friends were out fishing, but that he would send someone around to find them and tell him that we had called and were concerned about him.
Mom then made me go to bed. She promised that she would let me know as soon as Dad called. She was very concerned that I had upset myself with all of this. And the story about the marble was a little too much for her. She thought that I must have a fever or something.
I heard the phone ring about an hour later. Mom was talking to someone in animated tones. Then, her footsteps on the stairs brought her to my room. She hugged me so hard it scared me. She said Dad had called. He and his friends had overturned their canoe and been stranded on a ledge in the river. Just when things had started to look pretty bleak for them, a man from the lodge had come by and was able to call in help. They were cold, tired and a little scared from their ordeal, but happy to be back at the lodge in front of a warm fire. They also were leaving for home in the morning and would see us tomorrow night.
Mom didn't ask me any more about the marble. I saw her looking at it on my desk for a few seconds. Then, she turned out the lights and told me to go to sleep. It had been a long day, and I had school tomorrow.
I don't really know what happened with the marble. I just knew that Dad was safe and we had Mr. Warner to thank for it. Mom and Dad looked for other explanations, but I knew it was Mr. Warner's magic, Maltese marble that was responsible.
I tried to use the marble on several other occasions, but it never worked for me again. Maybe that's what the old man who gave it to Mr. Warner, had meant by “three wishes.” I didn't care, I was just happy that it worked when I needed it and Dad was safe.
Someday, when I grow older, I will find another Billy Bannerman and give him the marble. Maybe he will find the magic in it like I did.