The Agate

We had rules about finding agates back then.  One of the rules was that you left the tiny ones so they would grow bigger.  Another was that if you were walking with someone, you couldn’t take any agates from their side of the road.  It was better if you didn’t even look over there, so you wouldn’t be tempted.  If it was hot outside, you put a small agate in your mouth so you didn’t feel thirsty.


We didn’t see much of the countryside back then, because we were always scanning the gravel roads for agates.  As for wildlife, since we were always looking downward, the only thing we saw was road kill.  Even now, when we are out walking, my brothers and sisters and I instinctively look at the road in front of our feet.


One day, my brother and I decided to go out searching for agates. I was about nine years old and he was ten. It was early fall, but still warm enough to be barefooted. We wandered down a backroad, talking as we went. I remember stopping mid-track and mid-sentence and hearing a small gasp come unbidden from my mouth. Tucked along the edge of my side of the road, I spied the biggest and most beautiful agate I had ever seen. I ran over to pick it up, and just as my hand was about an inch from my beautiful prize, my brother slid across the road on his belly, jamming his hand under mine, claiming the agate for himself. The way he did that slide, I could imagine him sliding in to home plate in a baseball game.  At that moment, I wished he were indeed playing baseball, instead of walking with me.


Right there on the road, Greg turned over on his back, and squealed with delight. I tried to take it back, but he got up and with a big grin, jammed it down into his pocket. I argued the agate rules and the fact that I had seen it first. I shouted, tried grappling for it and I cried. Nothing worked.  Greg never let me see it again.  He hid it deep somewhere so I would never never be able to get it back.


When I was in my twenties, I read a story by John Steinbeck called “The Pearl.”  Keno was a pearl diver, who lived with his wife and ailing son in a small, impoverished village by the ocean.  On one of his dives, he found “the pearl of the world.”  It was magnificent and would have done for him what a winning lottery ticket would do for us. Unfortunately, others wanted it as much as he did. Keno and his family fled into the mountains, but returned back to their life of poverty; the baby dead at the hand of their attackers. The story ends dramatically with Keno throwing the great pearl back into the ocean. He felt it was the pearl that had brought them bad luck and sorrow.


I was struck by the similarities between my agate and the pearl. They were both prized possessions, coveted by those who had seen them. It wouldn’t have mattered what the object was, as long as it was considered valuable. There would always be those who would take, if they thought they could. Betrayal, greed and dishonesty were words that described those who would take what did not belong to them.


Many years had gone by and we were all adults, all home for the holidays.  I wandered around the house, looking at different things that still remained from our childhood days. Here was a coffee table that my brother had made in shop class. Over here were the remnants of my miniature collection, and on a shelf was my sister’s old stuffed animal.  I saw a bowl of rocks out on the porch and began looking through them.  It was a culmination of whatever hadn’t gotten lost through the years.


It was then that I saw my agate. I looked around to see if anyone was watching, and acting nonchalant, I picked it up.  No one could see my hands shake or feel the adrenalene glee that ran through my veins at this discovery.  I turned it over and was amazed that after all these years and having only one good look at it, I remembered its detail. I licked it so the bands of color would show a little brighter.  Yep that was it.  I looked around again and determined that I was still not being observed.


“Hah!” I thought. “It is mine now, dear brother, and you will never see it again!” The hard stone stayed snug in my jeans pocket for the rest of the holiday. I couldn’t wait to get home to really examine it.


More years have gone by, and since that long ago holiday, it has rested in my own agate bowl. Yet whenever I examine it, I am always torn with a mix of emotions.  Yes, it was mine now, but every time I looked at it, I always remembered my brother’s indiscretion.


“Let it go,” I thought.  “It’s not worth the memories.”


Funny thing, I had mentioned it to Greg and he didn’t even remember the incident.  So the truth was, it was just me that continued to hold on to these feelings. I thought about the freedom of getting rid of it and thus getting rid of my grudge.


In Steinbeck’s book, Keno threw the pearl back into the ocean. My agate was called a Lake Superior Agate, but Lake Superior was a three hour drive north from where I lived.  I figured any body of water would do, and Minnesota had plenty. Giving it back to the water would be a fitting end to my conflict.  I didn’t throw it into the water; instead I let it gently fall from my open hand. It sure looks pretty now in my fish tank.

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