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In the Vault

Dreamed 1983/4/6 by Chris Wayan


My name is Mary Jane Austen; I am fifteen. Mother is dead and Father is difficult. He has turned Prussian, living here between Hamburg and Berlin. I was born in California, though raised here. I do not like Prussians: they are conservative, they enjoy beating children so as to raise more Prussians, and they do not think much of girls. My father, though he loves me, sees me as a weak child. It's possible Prussian girls are indeed weak; I wonder if anyone alternately coddled and beaten can be quite sane. Most of them, when they become mothers, allow their children to be raised as Prussian as they were, suggesting they are not. Sane, I mean, not Prussian. They are certainly that.

So I have few friends but books, and I cling to being American, a person of tolerance and progress and democracy. Here it is all Junkers and Barons and Kings. One king in particular; my great-uncle, who is King of this land the size of a California county. I won't tell you its name, not out of secrecy, but simplicity: for beyond six hyphens my brain will not go, and next week when another duchy the size of my left shoe is annexed, the name will grow again to reflect this grand alliance.

My father came here to advise the king, but it seems to me that all the influence goes the other way; papa grows more frustrated, domineering and restrictive. Just as the territory gets bigger, but the kingdom weaker.

Indeed the political situation is dire. My father may have become corrupted by Junkerism but he spares me no detail of politics, for it's his life-blood. In short, I know in more detail than many royal counselors how close we are to war, due to the king's enthusiasm for carving up and eating his neighbors like underdone beef. My father's mission, to civilize his Old World relatives, has failed. He does not tell me this, but his actions say it; for he has begun to distance himself from the royal family, and emphasize his position as a professor in the local academy. He has given up hope. Yet he will not leave.

I believe it's time to open the Vault.

From our arrival here, when I was a child, my father trained me how to pass the safety devices and enter the Family Vault, deep in a hidden mountain. Though Father's never entered himself, indeed never seen our ancestral home. Nor have I; but I know precisely how to enter the Vault, and have always known that one day I should. My father never will; he is, despite his recent distancing from the throne, still seen as a political power, if one in eclipse. Should he journey to our ancestral mountain, questions would be raised. The vault might even be breached. But these folk cannot take young girls seriously, and so I argue with Father. He speaks much of kidnappers, but I point out they have had plenty of opportunities here in town when he had the King's ear; and a child going on a rural holiday is less noticed than the journeying of a royal counselor.

My father calls me a child and a girl, those Prussian insults, he pretends he doubts my ability, but I notice he tests me only once on the procedures, and must concede I'm letter-perfect. I know the real root of his doubts; he fears that once I enter the Vault, I'll be lost to him. It may be so. But it is time for me to face my heritage.

I go alone, as the Prussians would say. But I am American, and believe in equality, so I tell the truth, that Sophie, our maidservant, accompanies me. She is older than I, and sensible for a Prussian girl; her father was a farmer, and she entered our service precisely because we stood for progress, and so we get along well. She remembered the candles.

I say nothing of our journey, for one railway and carriage is like another, and I should like to keep private the location of our family's vault, for the sake of my future children, if I have any. Presently doubtful, but one never knows.

Instead, picture a crag: pine-clad, with fearsome cliffs, grand yet somber in that inimitable German manner. Their height, texture and color your imagination must choose: for readers with a bent for geology might deduce the region, indeed narrow its location down to the duchy, which in the Germanies is as good as a street-address and a spare key.

Sophie and I let rooms at an inn, went on day-hikes like the innumerable English tourists, which (my name being fortunate in this regard) we pretended to be, asking foolish questions of our hosts about schnitzel and geography. And on the third day, having become dull, known people, we loudly proposed a hike down the river, and managed to lose our way up the mountain. With candles.

Behind a thick patch of brush is a small boulder to be pried loose. The opening is so small we must crawl in. Behind is a long black hall. And the conveyer belt. I lie on it. Sophie, though I intended to leave her here in the foyer, insists on accompanying me; not only from loyalty (for she knows the risk) but curiosity. Though it should be my father, or my lost mother, beside me, I cannot gainsay her this. And I would not be utterly alone, facing the safeguards. Though in truth she can be no help here; it's up to me. "Lie flat!" I warn Sophie, who keeps squirming and half-rising to gawk at the machinery, which is intricate and mysterious. But deadly: we must lie low, flat, and face up, letting the belt carry us through a low, close tunnel, where I must answer with the correct pass-words, or, papa warned, we shall fry. As is indeed true, for the belt drops us, as he warned, on a pile of bones and cinders, presumably those of thieves, but possibly foolish children of previous generations. Forewarned, we do not scream or carry on, though I confess to a tightening in my throat, and Sophie's hand is not steady on her candle. A metal track, as in a coal-mine, bears a small, antique trolley-car. We climb on, but again, we may not sit; certain attitudes and poses must be struck as we roll through the dark, challenged by creaking, gramophone voices.

Dream: I'm a girl exploring our family's treasure-vault. Find a room full of bones of unsuccessful burglars. Illustration based on a very old photo clipping--I'm unsure where it's from. National Geographic?
My account is true in spirit, but I shall lie about the details of our terrible passage. Perhaps the true procedure is to dance naked upon the conveyor-belt, squat and sing on my ancestors' bones, and sit demurely as ladies' maids on the trolley.

I would not advise treasure-hunters to rely on either of my versions.

At last we reach the heart of the mountain, and my heritage. Dim light enters from translucent skylights cunningly set high in the cliffs, tinted to match the rock. I expected a small crypt, with family records and gold or silver coins or bullion. I was quite wrong.

The room is vast, a natural cavern smoothed in patches; and a different hoard in every nook! First we pass through a mechanic's workshop: benches crammed with wondrous, intricate tools. I long to master them. My father expects me to copy certain information; but now I know I will be doing far more than that. I want my whole heritage: to be independent, not my father's pocket-knife.

Sad though it is that Papa's guarded a treasure he'll never see, I'm glad he's never entered, for much of what's here would shock him. Great, subversive, splendid, wicked books, in the authors' own hands. Paintings from lands I've never heard of, in the strangest styles, depicting ways of Life that seem mad to me, yet to the artists, clearly as ordinary and comfortable as old slippers. Beasts, or perhaps not, with lion bodies and eagle wings, yet with faces and breasts much like my own. Nude statues of great beauty, which Sophie and I find fascinating, for they are anatomically more accurate than reality, at least the Prussian reality. I am not the ignorant child my father thinks me; indeed, I suspect some of the art we find, such as the two women in a curious embrace, would not shock my father because it strays so far beyond his narrow rules that he would not recognize its meaning! I entered for information, but instead I am gaining a deeper thing: experience. I am stretched and broadened. Hungers awake that I sent to sleep, till I should come of age, and freedom.

And then, a rustle at the far end of the Vault.

A man steps into the light--a brown and burly sailor with strange, swollen forearms.

My first thought is not the outrage due a thief, but sheer wonder (even respect) for a man who could enter here and live.

He is wary of us at first, but he reads me well and senses my respect. He tells us he entered through a skylight. A man obsessed with exploring, he was climbing a high rock face when he came to a slightly sunken patch that rang hollow. It was thick glass, marbled and streaked and textured to match the rock. It took him weeks of climbing a cliff at night to loosen it without breakage; he wanted no rumors and no scar to lead others in.

He knew what he'd found, from the beginning.

That was years ago. He's been visiting for years! And it shows. Such an odd, complex, convoluted man. His speech is crude, yet studded with bold ideas, subtly reasoned. Comes of being, as he frankly says, "A proletarian who wants to broaden, not to climb." That word broaden resonates in me as if I were a bell. My father wanted me high-class, high and narrow. The vault has shown me breadth, and no longer will I settle for my father's life.

The old me would have fought this sailor, this thief, I think. But in him, I can see the benefits of the vault come to a fruition strange and sweet; he proves these seeds planted in me are not idle hopes. I cannot begrudge him what my family reserved for itself, as the righteous child might have. For that I no longer am.

He freely confesses theft: he is a poor man, and removes and sells manuscripts and first editions. But he conscientiously returns a cheaper copy of each book to the vault. I ask him only to replace the knowledge he takes and preserve the Vault for the next generation. Though my heart wants these wondrous things in the village square for all to learn from, I know, as he does, that war is brewing. The bulk of them must stay here, safe, until a time of peace.

And in the German darkness, that may be long.

I shall leave my father, and travel. I shall settle, I think, in California, a crude land, but my birthplace, a democratic land at peace. There I shall live a scandalous life, and create scandalous art, and place it in the village squares.

What Sophie will do I do not know, save that it will be sensible. But even Sophie's "sense" is touched with wonder now, I think, by the treasures of the Vault. I think she will find Prussia too cramped a cage now for her new wings. If she wishes to fly alongside me, I will welcome her; but she may wish to try her wings alone.

But fly together or fly alone... fly we will.



LISTS AND LINKS: I'm Just Not Myself Today - cross-gender dreams - fathers - quests - chthonic dreams - heritage - buried treasures - museums - art as a catalyst of change - buried memories - another Jane Austen dream: Surrender Darcy! - more dreams of Popeye the Sailor (yes, it was definitely Popeye) - another vault opens - Germany -

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