“For his grandson, Eric, I will translate,” said the white-haired lawyer.
Eric felt embarrassed. Why was this old guy rubbing his face in it? Was it his fault that his mother died when he was a baby, so he had never learned to speak Chinese?
Mr. Po settled his spectacles on his nose and looked at the document in his hand. “Chen Wang provides to Ling-Yu, his eldest daughter, the jade horse.” Everyone clapped as an assistant handed a statuette of a galloping green horse to the lady sitting across from Eric. Then another aunt received an ivory necklace. Mr. Po, who had been a good friend of Eric’s grandfather, then explained. “Two of Mr. Chen’s daughters predeceased him. Under California law their portions shall be assigned to and divided equally between their children.” He smiled at the two nearly identical teenage girls sitting next to Eric as a tray containing exquisite carvings of animals was presented to them. “These have been appraised by an expert in antique Asian artifacts at $25,000.00. This is approximately the same value as the jade and the jewelry.” The older girl wiped a tear from her eye.
All around the room people were smiling. Even Eric grinned. Would his inheritance be worth $25,000? With that much money he could buy everything he ever dreamed of! Even a motorcycle! This was great!
Eric leaned toward his youngest female cousin and whispered, “Good going.”
She only looked at him and blinked.
Mr. Po continued, “And finally, Chen Wang’s bequest to his only male heir, Eric Smith Lung Bao!”
The old man's assistant brought a camphor-wood chest the size of a shoe box and decorated with a dragon motif. Eric stared at it. Could this really be worth tens of thousands of dollars? It had no inlaid jade or jewels. He reached out to it and tried to open it, but he couldn't find the lid latch.
His young cousin whispered, “It’s a puzzle!”
Eric nodded. He knew about Chinese puzzle boxes. His friend Chris had one, and he had showed Eric the trick. You had to press a secret panel on the side while you slid off the top. Eric turned the box in his hands, but he couldn’t see any obvious trigger points. He shook it, but no sound came from it. It didn’t seem to weigh any more than the wood it was made of.
“It’s empty,” he muttered.
His young cousin put her hand up to her mouth and giggled.
“What?” he demanded.
“Of course, it’s not empty!” she said.
Eric looked at her. What did she know about it? She wore thick glasses, and her black hair was braided. “What’s your name again?” he asked.
“Li Meng,” she said.
“I meant, what’s your American name?”
She blinked. “I don’t have any other name.”
Her answer made Eric feel like an outsider once again. He wondered if he had grown up here in Chinatown rather than in rural Kansas, would he have played football with Lam and Huang and Fong instead of Chris and Billy and Mark? Do Chinese guys even play football? There was a lot he didn’t know about his heritage. All Eric was sure of was that if the kids at his school ever found out his mother had named him Lung Bao, they would never stop laughing.
Eric shook his head and returned to his study of the box until Mr. Po had completed presenting small bequests to various other relatives. Finally, Mr. Po said, “I invite you all to join me for lunch in half an hour, at the Lucky Dynasty restaurant!”
Eric’s relations began to gather their belongings and to crowd out the door. Each of them stopped to bow and shake Mr. Po’s hand. Eric was the last. When Mr. Po took his hand, he said, “Lung Bao, I sense you wish to speak with me, privately.” Mr. Po closed the door and gestured for Eric to take a seat. “I believe you have questions about your inheritance?”
Eric said, “It’s a puzzle box. I know I’ve gotta push on something, or slide something, right?”
“Will you show me how to open it?"
“No. I cannot,” said Mr. Po. “There are triggers hidden amid the carvings that must be pressed in a certain sequence, but the sequence changes with every attempt. Not every owner of the puzzle has been able to master it. Your grandfather opened it once, but I don’t believe his father ever did.”
“Mr. Po, did the Asian artifact guy put a price on it?”
Mr. Po’s eyes seemed to compress into tiny black dots. “You must never think of selling it!”
“I need to buy a motorcycle,” Eric explained.
“Lung Bao! In your entire life you will never own anything as valuable as this! It is a legacy of unimaginable worth! You must promise me that you will protect the dragon box! It is imperative that you pass it on to your own son or grandson!”
“OK, OK!” said Eric, surprised at the old man’s emotion. “I promise!”
The lawyer tented his long fingers and brought them to his chin. “Do you have plans to attend university?”
“My dad wants me to go.”
Mr. Po continued to scrutinize Eric. Finally, he said, “This is my advice. Gradate from your university before you try to open the box. If you don’t succeed, then wait an additional five years before you attempt it again.”
“Why wait?” Eric asked.
“Because the patient man is paid tenfold.”
Eric stifled his irritation. He wasn’t going to get a straight answer out of Mr. Po—only hokey ancient-Chinese riddles. Eric ran his finger over the outstretched claws of the carved dragon. “Mr. Po, do you know what’s inside the box?”
Mr. Po only smiled. He leaned across the table toward Eric. “Do you know what your Chinese name means?”
“It means ‘dragon gate.’ In Chinese culture, the dragon is the powerful and terrible protector of great treasure. Do you see?”
“Of course,” said Eric. But of course, he didn't see.
When Mr. Po looked at him again it seemed to Eric as if he were being X-rayed, as if the old man was searching for something inside him. Finally, Mr. Po took a brush and ink from his desk, quickly painted Chinese characters on a card, then wrote words in English under that. “This is your name.” He fanned his hand over the ink to dry it before he handed the card to Eric. “When you get home, put this somewhere where you can look at it every day.”
The note read:
LUNG BAO, HE WHO PROTECTS A GREAT TREASURE
Eric stowed the card and the puzzle box into his backpack and followed Mr. Po downstairs to join the others in the restaurant. During the meal people babbled in Chinese, but now and then, someone would tell Eric in English how much they missed his mother and wished she had not died when he was so young. Truly, Eric didn’t remember her. His stepmother, Kathy, was the only mother he had ever known.
At home, Eric dutifully tacked Mr. Po’s calligraphy on the bulletin board in his room and put the puzzle box on a shelf above his bed where he could look at it. Even though Mr. Po had told him to wait to attempt to open it, Eric worked on it every night, trying different combinations of moves. In addition to the dragon there were deeply carved clouds and birds and flowers on its sides and bottom, and he assumed that any of these projections might be a secret button. All that stuff about having to be mature enough to understand its secret? Surely you didn’t have to be an ancient Chinese sage to figure out how to open a stupid wooden box! Once, Eric tried to pry the lid off with his Swiss army knife but realized he couldn’t even find a join in the wood anywhere. He couldn’t see how the top could possibly slide off, anyway. The dragon’s tufted tail draped over the side prevented it. Funny. He hadn’t noticed that before.
Weeks passed, and Eric thought more often about motorcycles. He longed to be able to jump on his bike and zoom off down dusty farm roads, and maybe even to zoom off to a new life away from his dad nagging him about college and his stepmother telling him to clean his room. But even though he had saved every penny he could from his job as well as his graduation gift money, he was months or maybe even years away from being able to buy a motorcycle. He looked up at the dragon box. Why had Mr. Po been so cagey about its value? It had to be worth something on eBay, and if he did sell it, how could anybody back in San Francisco ever find out?
The more he thought about the ridiculous restrictions Mr. Po had put on what he could do with his inheritance, the more indignant Eric became. His cousins and his aunts were free to sell their heirlooms for big bucks right now, but Eric was supposed to pass his down to his male heir. What if he never had a male heir? Why did the girls in the family get special privileges that were denied to him? Was this some stupid way of getting back at his mom because she had left her closed community in San Francisco to marry a Kansas farmer?
He glared up at the puzzle box and noticed something. It appeared to be bigger than before. In fact, it no longer fit and was sticking out over the edge of the bookshelf by about an inch.
Eric took the box down. It was definitely bigger! Heavier, too. He shook it and felt something slide around inside. That had never happened before! Spooked, Eric quickly put it on his desk, sat down, and stared at it.
Now he was sure he had not been imagining changes or misremembering things about the box! Sometimes the dragon’s mouth had been open and sometimes closed! Sometimes, the legs and tail had been in different positions. And Mr. Po had told him that the combination to open the box would be different every time. Perhaps the box was trying to tell him something?
Eric pulled on his bathrobe and shoved his feet into his slippers. He took the box and tip-toed past his parents’ room, then grabbed a lantern from the back porch before he made his way out the back door to the toolshed. Eric put the puzzle box on the workbench and took a saw from the wall. He went to work, smiling as he wondered why none of his honorable ancestors had been smart enough to think of this?
The ancient camphorwood box was easier to saw than he expected. When he broke through, fragrant smoke escaped from it. When Eric had cut part way through, the saw snagged on something, but he was able to break the box in half. Inside he found a bundle wrapped in gray silk. The light was too dim to see very well, so he carried the pieces back to his bedroom.
The bundle was the size and shape of a hoagie sandwich. The saw had torn through the nearly colorless, dust-scented fabric. He unwrapped the roll to find something within that appeared to be a coil of tarred rope. Eric held up to the light the part of it that he had accidentally cut off with the saw.
It was the furled claw of some animal. He examined the rest of the bundle, then chuckled. He knew what this was! It was like those jackalopes they sell at truck stops—a stuffed rabbit with antelope antlers stuck to its head! Or like that thing he’d seen at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum at Niagara Falls. That had been nothing more than halves of a dried-up monkey and a codfish sewn together, but when P.T. Barnum exhibited it, he made fools of thousands of people who believed it was an actual mummified mermaid from Figi.
Eric’s good humor quickly faded. Had he really flown all the way to California for this? To be the butt of some Chinese joke? Had it been one of those corny “what-have-you-learned-from-this-my-Grasshopper” life lessons? Did they really expect him to wait and wait until he was too old to even care about motorcycles, to realize with great appreciation, that the gift his grandfather had given him was actually some Confucius crap like—Patience? Could that really be the treasure that Mr. Po insisted he should guard with the ferociousness of a dragon?
Eric felt like flinging the whole thing into the waste basket. He’d been cheated! But the more he looked at it the more he had to marvel at its strange beauty and amazing workmanship. He couldn’t see any stitches at all! And it was old. Really old.
He held it under the bright light of his desk lamp. The four legs and feet had most likely come from baby chicks. Bat wings, of course, and the body was covered with reptilian skin. Probably snake, because the tail was definitely a snake. Eric ran his finger down the tail and saw the tiny tuft of fur glued to the end, just like the carved dragon carved on the lid. He touched the tuft.
Eric drew back. The thing that had been so lightweight and stiff, suddenly felt as if it were filling with warm water in his hands! It twitched, and he dropped it on the desktop to watch in amazement as the dried-up thing creaked into life. The creature’s dusty black form took on a metallic-blue sheen and the now-open eyes looked like red glass beads. The creature struggled to drag itself around the desktop. It rolled its spade-shaped head to sniff at the thin ribbon of red trailing from the stump of its severed hind leg.
“Cool!” yelled Eric. “A fricking baby dragon! This is great! Where’s my camera?”
He plunged under his bed to find the camcorder he kept there. If the batteries were run down, he’d never forgive himself! As he pushed aside shoe boxes and dirty socks, he wondered how much he might charge for the video. Thousands? Millions? He realized that he owed his grandfather a huge apology. Eric could sell his tiny dragon for hundreds of times the value of what his poor relations had inherited!
Eric found what he was looking for and hauled it out into the room. He unzipped the case, pulled out his camera, and turned around to find that his dragon was now—the size of a pony! He barely had time to ask himself how it could possibly have grown so big, so fast, or to read the pain and fear that registered in the creature’s red eyes.
His stepmother Kathy woke up when she heard the crash of glass.
“Eric?” she called. “Eric, are you OK?”
She had a hard time pushing his bedroom door open because Eric’s leg was in the way. But it was only his leg. The rest of him was gone. The shredded curtain flapped at the broken, open window, and a bit of paper drifted down from the ceiling.
LUNG BAO, HE WHO PROTECTS A GREAT TREASURE
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Such a cool story! A moral lesson to be learned. I also think that the author is brilliant whe. Ahe plays with the idea of cultural Assimilation.
Fascinating story! You kept up the pace really well. With the horror tag I was sure it would end badly for Eric, but you kept it a surprise. Very well done.