To kick off the New Year, I asked my Patreon subscribers to vote for their favorite story of 2018, and then asked my Facebook followers to help break the tie, based on their favorite first line.
The result? “The Gold Bug Tree,” a short story inspired by everyone’s favorite creepy crytographer, Edgar Allen Poe, and his story “The Gold Bug.”
I hope you enjoy it! And if you’re not already, I hope you’ll consider joining my patrons–unlike many writers, I don’t have a “day job,” which means that your support really does help me carve out the time, each and every month, to write.
The Gold Bug Tree
Secret writing is as old as writing. I remember Craig telling me that when we were kids—that writing itself was a secret from most people for a long time. He was smart like that. Brilliant, really. Knew three languages in third grade. Obsessed with cryptography. Pretty much a total nerd, which was why he’d had nothing better to do at thirteen than to hang out with me, a neighborhood kid three years his junior. I hadn’t seen him since—what? freshman year?—and now here he stood on my parents’ front porch in the haze of New Year’s Day. Eight a.m., maybe. Early.
“Hey, Craig,” I said, feeling awkward, “long time no see.” I knew he wasn’t back home for Christmas, the way I was. Craig was home because his dad had died.
“Hey, man,” he said, but that was pretty much all I could make out, as what followed was a slurred string of syllables that bore little resemblance to any language at all. His breath could have dropped flies in midair; apparently, he’d been mourning the old man’s passage the night before at Dunleavy’s.
I cleared my throat. “Sorry to hear about your dad.”
He shook his head. “Thadswhaddagetformeenafuckinshiheadformalife, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said, “totally. So, I hear you’ve been traveling.”
From what my mom had told me, Craig hadn’t been back in North America since his high school graduation, and for the past few years he’d been living on the beach in Costa Rica.
“Ohyear,” he said, and proceeded to launch into an explanation, or anecdote, or a tirade. Really, it could have been anything.
Those golden brown curls my mother had loved had gone frizzy and wild, and male pattern baldness had claimed new territory for his forehead. He was sweating profusely, though it couldn’t have been more than sixty-five degrees out, and his eyes were bloodshot. I found myself wondering if Craig had been bit by some sort of bug down there in the tropics—wondering if, even as he spoke, some spirochete was making Swiss cheese of his brain.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “You don’t say.”
He shook his head. “Degumbochi,” he said. “Member?”
“Yeah, you always did like my mom’s gumbo,” I said. My friends from New York would have told Craig he wasn’t making any sense, and moreover, he looked like shit. Me, I just smiled, hoping whatever he had was not contagious.
“No,” he said emphatically, “degumbochi.” He rubbed his eyes. “Cheezuschristcomin.”
Hell, I thought, did Craig get religion? It seemed unlikely, considering the way he had delighted in torturing Bethany Baker (“And on the seventh day, God buried fossilized dinosaur bones to test our faith”). But I knew Craig had done a lot of drugs in high school, and maybe, if he’d been trying to get clean?
“Kay,” he said, apparently trying a different tactic. “Member…” and then shot off a long string of gobbledygook. I leaned closer, trying to find a foothold in this mountain of nonsense, nearly lightheaded from holding my breath.
“Decassacookout,” he said. “Wheredecassacookout?”
I cleared my throat. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess we did go to a cook out that one time, with the fire department.”
“No!” Craig’s eyes were fairly bugging out of his head. “Wheredessaplaceweedacaddacassacookout?”
I studied him. “Where is the place?”
“Called the castle lookout?”
“Oh,” I said, “I think that’s what we used to call the top of Fort Moultrie.”
He slapped his big sweaty forehead and stepped foot down the steps. “Comin,” he said, lifting a hand. And then, from the gate: “Cominman!”
It’s not as if I wanted to follow him, but my old friend was clearly in a bad way. Plus, he was only twenty-five, and his dad had just died.
Growing up on Sullivan’s Island, none of us had ever felt the need to build forts—we had a real one, right here at the end of the block, which had figured in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Many were the days we’d spent exploring its passages and powder magazines, our voices echoing through the concrete bunkers like the echoes of dead soldiers under siege.
Craig climbed the battlement up to spot beside the flagpole at the highest point of the fort and pulled a pair of binoculars out of a pocket of his baggy cargo shorts. I watched as he sighted the horizon and then slowly turned right, counting under his breath, toward the tangle of green that composed the north end of the island.
“There!” he said. “Degumbochi!” He grinned. Pulled a piece of paper out of another pocket and handed it over.
I recognized the paper as I unfolded it, from a notebook Craig had in junior high—the ragged edge of a spiral ring on the left side, and the screened-back image of Optimus Prime behind blue college-ruled lines. On it were eight lines of nonsense, written in what I recognized as one of Craig’s secret scripts, all alien curlicues and circles and dots; the writing appeared in white against an uneven brown background, as if he’d passed the paper just close enough to a candle’s flame to keep it from catching fire. Below those lines were eight lines in regular ballpoint blue—all familiar letters of the alphabet, though nonsensical; below those were eight lines in French. Though the paper itself was twelve years old, the sections in blue looked new.
“You wrote this?” I asked. “When we were kids? You wrote something in code, and then decoded it? Like, today?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but my French isn’t all that hot.” My French, in fact, was pretty much limited to Voulez vouz couchet avec moi.
He took the paper back and laid it on the railing. Underneath the French, with that same ballpoint pen, he wrote the following:
From the lookout
fifteen right by the nocs
proceed at low
seventh trunk, seventh branch, right side
drop the gold bug through the left eye
fifty degrees east and back to the trunk
X marks half the hypotenuse
All this I recognized, but it did not put my mind at ease about my old friend. Because all this was from of a story by Edgar Allan Poe that Craig had been obsessed with when we were kids. A story set here on Sullivan’s, where Poe was briefly stationed as a soldier at Fort Moultrie.
In Poe’s story “The Gold Bug,” an eccentric naturalist who lives on this island, in the course of cataloguing a new species of beetle, discovers an old piece of parchment paper, half hidden in the sand, and accidentally exposes it to heat, revealing a hidden script. That hidden script is written in code, which the man proceeds to decipher, first guessing which language the script is written in and then hazarding a guess at individual characters, based on the statistical frequencies of letters in that language. From there he works out the larger message, in a manner akin to a contestant on Wheel of Fortune. I remember Craig explaining all this to me when we were kids—the principles of cryptography.
In the story, that secret script, decrypted, leads the man and his friends to a very large tree, and buried beneath this tree is the long-lost treasure of Captain Kidd.
The Gold Bug Tree. I said the words out loud, and Craig nodded, handing the binoculars over. There I could see, was a very large tree jutting out of the hillside to the north, and high in a branch of that tree, from just the angle we were looking, was something that shone white in the sun.
Once again, Craig set off, and once again, I followed. This time he took me to his car—or, more precisely, his mom’s car, which was parked in front of her house, two blocks away. He indicated that I should get in, then we drove to the north end of the island, where the behemoth houses that had been built up in the wake of the last big hurricane gave way to this part of the island as we remembered it—marshland and pluff mud and snow-white egrets standing still in the shallows, as if listening for some far-off sound.
Craig stepped out of his mom’s Civic and pulled something else from yet another pocket of those cargo shorts. He offered me this object, still concealed in his hand. Something heavy.
I recognized it as a paperweight I’d seen at his house—a large beetle made of cast iron and gilded in gold. Fake, of course. His mom had found it, I remembered, at a flea market. She’d gotten it for him because of his obsession with “The Gold Bug.”
“Craig,” I said, “you know there’s not actually any treasure buried under this tree, right? That this tree isn’t actually the tree from the story?”
Craig laughed at that, in a way that anyone who did not know him would find alarming. (Really, it was alarming even if you did.) He tied a length of baker’s twine around the thorax of the beetle, wrapped it up in tight, and shoved it back in his pocket. Then he grabbed two shovels from the back of the car, and together we set off across the mud.
It was a good thing I hadn’t worn shoes any better than the ancient flip-flops I’d left at home when I left for college, because even at low tide, that pluff mud was as thick as molasses. As we walked across it, it released the sulfurous smell of home. Or maybe Craig’s bowels had yet to recover from Dunleavy’s.
“Craig,” I said, “you understand the difference between fiction and reality, right? The tree in the story wasn’t even a live oak. It was a magnolia.”
Craid cast me an amused glance. And I found myself wondering—I mean, it wasn’t like Craig hadn’t always been strange. But had he, in fact, lost his damn mind? Like, invisible ink and codes and fifty paces to the north? Was I going to have to call his mom, my mom? Stage an intervention? Was there a syndrome, maybe? Poe fixation? People who were chronically convinced they were in possession of a pirate map?
Clearly, Craig had taken his dad’s death hard; which seemed strange, as he had always sort of hated the guy. High finance, as I recalled, and high maintenance. Always used to bother Craig’s mom about losing weight. Used to throw stuff around when he got mad—including, sometimes, Craig.
Craig had rebelled against his dad, first by following Phish and then, after college, where he’d earned a degree in something arcane (linguistics, maybe? Latin American language poets?), he’d settled into the life of an itinerate couch surfer, an international backpacker, and, eventually, apparently, a wild-eyed white boy with a notably receding hairline living on the beach in Costa Rica.
Now here he was, leading me through the underbrush on the point to the north of the island, to an enormous live oak. It reared out from the hillside, the largest tree I have ever seen. How could I have forgotten about it?
Though of course I knew. Proceed at low. The path we’d just traversed was only passable at low tide.
“Craig,” I said, “I’m sorry about your dad, but—”
I looked at him. “Climb?”
“Year!” he said. “Clyde!”
I pulled out that page from Craig’s eighth grade notebook: seventh trunk, seventh branch, right side. The immense old tree had ten main trunks. I approached the seventh trunk from the right side. Found an angle between it and the sixth trunk, and hoisted myself up.
And really, now that I was here, all of this seemed familiar. We’d spent a lot of time out here as kids, playing pirates—Craig at an age when his peers were probably obtaining an encyclopedic knowledge of bikini styles on the beach at Isle of Palms.
There, on the seventh branch of the seventh trunk of the tree, was a white plastic skull, the kind people set out on the front porch for Halloween—that spot of white in this tree we’d spied through the binoculars. The skull was screwed to the branch through its upper row of white plastic teeth; its lower jaw was missing. As I inched my way out toward it, the skull regarded me, grinning.
Craig tossed up the gold bug, that heavy paperweight. I unrolled the baker’s twine from around it, found the left eye of the skull, and dropped gold bug through it, careful to keep hold of the end of the string.
Craig noted where the paperweight hit the ground below and marked the spot with a stake, then marked out a point fifty degrees to the east of that. Finally, he drew a tape measure from that point to the base of the trunk, and then from there back to his original stake. Halfway across that final line, the hypotenuse of the triangle, he dragged an X through the dirt with the heel of his shoot. “Aaight,” he said. “Nowedig.”
That part I understood.
We worked those shovels for quite a while, me and Craig. Long enough to excavate a four-by-four section of dirt and sand three feet deep. Long enough for Craig to sober up, apparently, from the combination of jet lag, culture shock, and an unspecified number of Irish car bombs the night before. And as he did, the story he was telling actually began to make sense.
Still, I was amazed when we actually hit it—a slim metal case, of the type that might have housed a set of wrenches. Inside that box was another, and inside that one was a gold watch. Craig brushed his hands off and held it up to the sun. It glittered obscenely in the sun, studded with diamonds.
Apparently, when Craig’s dad had left his mom, he’d moved into a bigger place on Kiawah with his new girlfriend. It had been an acrimonious divorce—pretty much the only thing Craig’s dad had left them was the house on Sullivan’s. Craig had been in eighth grade at the time, and he’d visited his dad just once at the new place; in the course of that visit, he’d relieved his dad of his Rolex.
His dad had accused him of taking the watch, but the man could never prove it, because Craig had buried the evidence out here beneath this tree, too deep even for a metal detector to find it, and left only that riddle, encrypted three layers deep and written in invisible ink, on a folded-up piece of notebook paper, to remind him of its location. That riddle had been waiting patiently for him all these years beneath that heavy paperweight, a reminder, atop a bookshelf in Craig’s childhood room.
Still, his dad must have suspected what he’d done, because when he died, he hadn’t left Craig a red cent.
I coughed a bit. Wondering what the right thing to say was in such circumstances. “Well,” I said, “at least now you have something to remember him by?”
Craig snorted. “My dad was a douche, and this watch is worth fifty grand. I’ve got a fiancée and a kid on the way in Nicaragua. After I sell this, we should be able to live down there without having to work for”—he cocked his head, doing the math—“twenty years, give or take.”
Seeing my dumbfounded expression, Craig clapped me on the back. “What?” he said. “You thought I’d gone off the deep end? Couldn’t you smell the Jameson seeping out of my pores? I haven’t slept in three days, and I was still drunk this morning from the night before.”
He laughed that honking laugh. Checked his phone, and then wound the Rolex to set the time. It was ten on New Year’s Day exactly.
“Come on,” he said, “Dunleavy’s just opened. I’ll buy you an Irish car bomb.”