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Parting Gift

I was eight years old in 1954, and I didn’t want to move.


Dad and Gramps had built our home on the outskirts of Ketchum, Idaho, using part of an old shed as the nucleus. The building lot was small, but the house was located at the base of my favorite place, the Fourhills, four rocky hills where I played every day, even in deep snow in the dead of winter.


Dad had moved us to southern California for nine months, and I had hated it. Even then, I was not a suburban girl. Landscaped yards, tidy streets, new stores with shining windows, beaches thronged with people? No. I needed the wild. I was beside myself with joy when we came back to Ketchum. I came home. However, our familiar little house had been sold. I was devastated, even though the new owner had been kind, and had allowed us to live in the house until our new home, just across the dirt street, could be built.


“You will love the new house,” Mom said to me, often. “You and Vicki can have new bedspreads, and you girls can decide what color to paint the walls in your new bedroom. We’ll paint the kitchen walls yellow, the same color as the walls in the kitchen of the old house. It will be lots of fun to plant new trees and flowers.” I didn’t say much. I knew I would still have the Fourhills, Eve’s Gulch, Trail Creek, and the tiny spring in the hills above Sun Valley. But still . . .


The new house took shape rapidly. Building has to be rapid in Ketchum, Idaho. At 6,300 feet, the snow melts late in the spring, and winter comes early.


Often, I played in the bones of the new house after the carpenters had gone home for the day. I scavenged scraps of wood and built tiny huts and boats from them. I loved the fresh smell of the clean wood, and it was fun to imagine how the new rooms would look once we had moved in. But still . . .


There was something kindly and warm about the old house. I felt that it held a secret, and I was always poking around the foundation, in the backs of cupboards, behind the water heater—into any neglected or hard-to-get-into corner. There had to be a secret in that house, and time was running out. I had to find it before we moved.


Then came the late-summer days when we were actually packing up to move. Dad brought home boxes from Sun Valley, boxes that had held cake flour and motor oil and ski wax. We packed up our clothing and dishes. All we had to do was carry our things across the street, but I hated the packing.


The old house began to look empty as we began carrying things to the new place.


The new house was bright and cheerful. I loved the yellow kitchen, with its built-in plant shelves and glass-fronted display cupboard for Mom’s fancy glassware. I loved the window over the sink that looked straight up to Skyhigh, my name for the tallest of the Fourhills. And the old house now looked—just old. Moving our things out had uncovered its scars and imperfections.


I had not found its secret.


On the last morning, the very last morning before Dad would hand the key back to the new owner, Mom was clearing out what little was left in the attic of the old house. She came down the ladder with a roll of something in her arms and said, “Danny, would you like to go up into the attic for a while? You have to promise not to come down the ladder until I get back. I’m going to take this little rag rug over to the new house. I think this is the only thing of ours left here. When I come to get you, we will lock the door for the last time, together. All right?”


I nodded, and Mom held the ladder while I climbed slowly up to the attic. I’m sure she knew I needed a little time alone to say goodbye to the house. I had never been in the attic. We little girls had not been allowed up there; I didn’t know why.


I pulled myself onto the dusty floorboards and stood for a long moment looking around. Nothing. Nothing at all was left here, not a thing that had been ours, and surely not a secret.


To the south, there was a small window at floor level, flooding sunshine everywhere. The attic felt warm and cozy, as if it were getting ready for a long, long sleep.


I sat myself near the window and looked out. Above the tops of our trees rose the familiar dark arrowhead that was Bald Mountain. Below, I saw our yard, the birdhouse on its tall pole, the rows of iris and poppies that my grandmother had planted, the pines and firs Dad had dug from the wild, and Mom’s precious columbine growing in clumps in the patchy shade under the trees. These would stay. I could see them every day. Mom had collected seed from the columbine to plant at the new house.


A little glint, a spark of light, caught my attention in a crack where the floor met the window frame. I dug at the crack with my fingers, and the wood of the floor, rotten there, came up in splinters. I dug some more.


A heap of metallic colors, bright as coins and glittering, spilled across the floor. I gasped. Here at last, was the secret of our old house. But what were these things? Were they jewels? Beads? I lifted one and examined it.


The thing was light and hollow, metallic emerald green with touches of gold and red. A creature had lived inside this shell, a beetle—but the legs and antennae had fallen away and the inside was empty. I had seen one or two of these beetles, alive. “They bore into wood,” Dad had told me. So the wood of the floor was rotten because the beetles had come in through the crack below the window and had bored into the wood of the floor. The beetles must have found it a fine place to be, because there were so many.


Indeed, there were hundreds of beetle shells in the rotten pocket of flooring beside the window. I held handfuls up to the light. To me, they were a king’s ransom of emeralds and topaz, rubies and garnets and gold. As a biologist, I now know the name: Buprestis aurulenta, the golden jewel beetle.


The old house had kept its secret until the very last hour of the very last day, a parting gift to make sure I would never forget.


BIO

Dana Stewart Quinney grew up in Ketchum, Idaho. I’m an outdoor biologist, in love with the wild places of the world. My memoir Wildflower Girl (Hidden Shelf Publishers), was Idaho Book of the Year in 2019 (Idaho Library Association). I live in Idaho with my husband and Shelties.








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