Squinting in the bright sunlight, a small boy scanned the yard. He watched the chickens doing their left/right kick-kick, kick-kick dance, sending up little puffs of fine dust as they scratched for edibles.
He liked watching them, and he also knew that their antics occasionally turned up interesting swag. Once, a long time ago - when he was four - he’d picked up a tiny soldier. Grandma took it away because she was afraid it could poison him, which he didn’t understand. Later, she gave it back to him all shiny and told him it was safe now, but never to put it in his mouth.
Another time, not too long ago, the busy birds had uncovered a set of keys. Auntie Lou had almost cried when she saw them, and said they were Henry’s keys that he’d dropped and never could find. Henry had been her husband. She took the keys and put them in her pocket. Later, the boy saw them hanging on the rack by the back door, on the peg marked “Henry”, as if the owner might come in the door and want to use them. Grandma remarked that it was just sentimentality, not senility - and of course he asked her what those words meant. He added them to his ever growing arsenal of words, and fired them at unsuspecting adults.
Right now, Grandma was in the house with Auntie Lou - who was about a hundred and fifty years old and was Grandma’s sister. She was mostly deaf, entirely stubborn, and didn’t understand why Grandma insisted on stopping by twice a week to check on her. Grandma often brought the boys along; there were plenty of things to amuse them for an hour or so. This time Stuart was not with them. He was a third grader and had a longer school day than his kindergartner brother. They would pick him up later.
The chickens vigorously scratched the earth, a few of them peering one-eyed at something they’d discovered. They took turns pecking at it to test its edibility, murmuring softly, “Hrrr-hrrr-hrrr-hrrrr…”
Apparently disappointed, they moved along to another promising spot, allowing the small treasure hunter to move in and inspect the find.
It was rounded, very hard, kind of grayish silver, and quite stuck in the ground. He ran back to the porch, where the yard tools were kept, and picked out a rusty trowel with tape wrapped around its wooden handle. Trotting back to the buried treasure, he squatted and carefully scraped around the object. It appeared to be made of some sort of metal. Poking the tip of the trowel down as deep as he could, just like Grandma did when she was gardening, he pushed down on the handle and lifted a clod of dirt encasing the object.
After thumping the clod against the ground to release some of the dirt, he stood up and picked away most of the remaining clumps until the round thing was just thinly coated with earth. He rubbed it against his pant leg, gently at first, then briskly to get the surface clean. Grandma always made him wear an old pair of overalls when they went to Aunt Lou’s, because “You’re bound to get dirty!” Afterward, she would take the overalls from him and give him a clean pair of jeans to put on before they went anywhere else. That’s just the way Grandma was. So it didn’t matter if he had dirt streaked on the pant leg; she expected it.
The boy inspected the object to see if it was worth cleaning some more. Its diameter was roughly the size of his palm, and it was just about as thick through as his hand. Maybe it was a pocket watch. He knew about those; Grandpa had one that he kept in his dresser drawer. It had belonged to Grandpa’s father, and it still ran just fine, but Grandpa didn’t use it.
There was a fine line that looked like it could be a place to open the maybe-pocket-watch. He slid his dirt-crusted little fingernail in and rotated the piece, loosening particles of ingrained soil until he could see the point of separation. Prizing the cover open slowly, he stared at the exposed face in puzzlement. It wasn’t a watch, after all. It had letters instead of numbers, and only one hand - which quivered when he moved. He was a beginning reader who could sight read quite a few words, but he didn’t think these letters could make words.
“Sound it out,” Mrs. Finch always suggested.
“Nneeses swwnw -” he tried, but the letters seemed unpronounceable. Maybe there were some tricks he hadn’t yet learned, or… maybe it was a different language. Then more letters caught his eye, and he sucked his breath in sharply. They made a word he could read. Stamped into the inside of the cover, near the hinges, was his own name!
“STERLING”, he read.
“Sterling!” Grandma’s voice echoed the name. “Time to go, boyo!” He dropped the trophy into the slightly baggy side pocket of the overalls - which had once been Stuart’s, and were still somewhat big for Sterling - and scampered across the yard.
“What did you find today?” Grandma inquired, from the top step. Sterling was always picking something up and adding it to his collection of oddities. Things dug up by the chickens were particularly enchanting to her youngest grandchild.
“I”, he answered, jumping onto the bottom step with both feet.
“Don’t”, he continued, as he reached the next one.”
“Know!” he finished, triumphantly landing on the porch. “Whew!”
“You did find something, but don’t know what it is?”
“Yep! I’ll show you it.”
They went inside, momentarily blinded by the comparative dimness of the room after being in the bright sunlight.
“Let’s go and say goodbye to Lou before she falls asleep,” Grandma told Sterling with a wink. “You can show both of us what you found. LOO-uuu-UUU!” she called, raising her voice several decibels as she realized that her sister was not in the room.
“I’m back here, Nancy - quit warbling! You don’t have to yell. I’m not deaf,” Auntie Lou grumbled, thumping her cane a bit harder than necessary on the wood floor of the hallway as she advanced.
Rounding the corner into the kitchen, she announced, “I have something for you, young man.” She always called both Sterling and Stuart “young man”, and she never failed to have something to give the brothers when they came to visit. Sometimes the gift was just some candy, or what she called a “gewgaw”. Grandma said that was just an old-fashioned word for a knickknack or a doodad.
“Come here,” Auntie Lou instructed, leaning on her cane with one hand and fishing around in her smock pocket with the other. She invariably wore the same style of snap-front smock with big pockets. This one was a paisley print, so faded that the colors were indeterminate.
“Hold out your hand.” She placed a small, tissue-wrapped packet in Sterling’s hand.
“That’s for your brother. Put it in your pocket.” Sterling complied, placing the bundle in the pocket not occupied by the mysterious device.
“Now, this is for you.”
The gruff old lady squinted at him, commanding, “Close your eyes.”
She placed her closed fist over her great-nephew’s hand, then opened it to let something small and hard land on his palm. Taking her hand away, she allowed him to look.
“Do you know what it is?”
Sterling pulled at his upper lip in thought, gazing at Auntie Lou’s gift. It looked like the same type of metal as the round thing the chickens had uncovered, but this was long and narrow, with rounded ends, and had a delicate, swirly design on it. He rolled it with his thumb, and took a guess.
Auntie Lou chuckled and patted his shoulder with a gnarled, age-spotted hand.
“You’re a smart boy! Yes, it’s a knife. It’s very old - belonged to your great grandfather. Our father,” she added, nodding toward Grandma.
“Lou, I don’t know if you should be giving him that!” Grandma exclaimed. “It’s got to be valuable!”
“He’ll take good care of it.” Auntie Lou spoke firmly, while kind of glaring at Sterling as if to dare him to prove her wrong. “Besides, it’s meant for him. Look.” She picked it up from his still outspread palm and showed them the round emblem on one side. Letters curving around the inside of the circle spelled out “STERLING”.
“Wow!” The little boy’s eyes were round in astonishment. Twice in one day!
“I gotta show you this.” He dug the chickens’ curio out of his pocket and held it out to Auntie Lou.
“The chickens uncovered it.”
Grandma moved next to Auntie Lou, where she could see the object.
“Do you recognize it? Do you know what it is?”
“No,” Auntie Lou declared, “It wasn’t Henry’s, and Johnny never had anything like that.” She held it closer to her face, her untidy gray eyebrows drawing down as she studied the round thing.
“It opens,” Sterling informed them, pointing to the crevice. Auntie Lou tried to pry at it and tottered dangerously.
“Lou!” exclaimed Grandma. “Give me that. Sit down before you fall and break a hip!”
“Bossy!” retorted Auntie Lou, pushing her lips out in a pout and scowling at her younger sister - but she sat. As she lowered herself onto the worn velveteen couch, a cloud of dust rose up. Sterling watched the dust motes floating through a sunbeam.
“Now, let me see -” Grandma grasped the silvery case and stuck her fingernail in the slot. The lid came up a little more easily this time.
“Oh!” Grandma gasped. “It’s a compass!”
Grandma didn’t think Sterling should take the compass. It appeared to be an antique, and could be worth quite a bit. Besides, Lou had already given him that pocket knife.
“Oh, don’t be such an old woman about it!” Lou scolded. “The boy found it. Let him have it.”
“No, I didn’t!” Sterling protested. “The chickens did. But it does have my name on it.”
“That’s right. Your parents can keep both of those safe until you’re older. Now, go on, you two. I’m tired, and I need a nap!”
“Yes?” She turned slightly to glance at him in his car seat, behind her on the right.
“Auntie Lou is a curmudgeon, isn’t she?”
Grandma burst out laughing.
“She is, indeed. She’s cranky and grumpy, but she has a soft heart underneath all that.”
“Well, Grandma, old people can be that way sometimes. You know what?”
“I’m gonna have some adventures with that compass, and that knife - and maybe someday I’ll have a pocket watch like Grandpa’s, and when I’m an old man, I’m gonna be a curmudgeon and find a little boy to give ’em to.”