The Treasure Hunt of August Dias

By KATHERINE VAZ

 

The apricot tree in my childhood yard would sieve the night. Pouring through the openwork of the leaves, the moonlight littered the ground with patches shaped like bats. Because we lived in the Sunset District of San Francisco, sea drafts kept ruffling the leaves, so the bats were always fluttering their wings. Sometimes I would lie down and let the light-bats tap all over me. We lived in the bottom flat of a spindly three-story house, and there was a fig tree too, and blackberries on brambles thick as the Lord’s crown of thorns, right in the heart of the city. We had picnics with the queijadas my father made—the coconut tarts that were a specialty of his family’s bakery on the island of Terceira in the Azores. His job while raising me, his only child, was fulfilling dessert orders for restaurants, and he rented a tiny industrial kitchen in Chinatown from three to nine in the morning. Once, a triumph, the Tadich Grill requested his alfenim to decorate their pastry cart—the white sugar confection molded into doves or miniature baskets.

My mother had been an illustrator, in special demand for her watercolors of plants, and I lost her on the razor’s edge of memory, when I was four and a drunk driver hit her car as she was leaving a begonia farm. There is a photograph of me in a sunsuit with an appliqué of smiling oranges, holding her hand outside Oakland’s Fairyland. Her Italian and Welsh features swim on my face, a palimpsest over a likeness of my father’s Portuguese mother, making me a carrier of those he and I loved best. My father and I didn’t chatter, no fuss and gossip; we liked being quiet together, reading or watching a show, and I’d finish my homework before an early good night, since he had to rise at two. I have yet to meet anyone who understands so well as my father how affection longs to travel far into a silence so deep it hums. And I would close my eyes when the foghorns blew, adding to my sense that real joy sounds like mournfulness, which he would explain as a hallowed mark of being Azorean. The sweetness of sadness! 

In 1983, when I was twenty-eight and he was fifty-seven, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and I escaped back home from a marriage to a caterer—a catastrophe, a tule fog that had me at a standstill and made me wonder with horror if my father figured he needed to die in order to rescue me. “Daddy?” I said, setting down my suitcase, interrupting his reading of the Chronicle. “Don’t do this.”

We sat holding hands. “Well, Lucy,” he said, “I didn’t ask to get born, but I sure as hell didn’t ask to leave.” We laughed. When I started to cry, he said, “Hey, oh, now, querida.” He lifted my hand in his and kissed it, and we could not look at one another, and we ate a whole rhubarb pie for dinner, and he tucked me in as if I were the ill one.

His name was August Dias, and my name is Lucia—Lucy—Dias. I was shy about being a writer, and along with sending him to his grave in anguish at my being alone, and with no child wearing my face on top of my mother’s and grandmother’s, I had achieved nothing to repay his venturing from Portugal to California; I had not waved to him from the stars when he glanced up from his dawns in the kitchen in Chinatown. I was a ghostwriter doing articles for doctors and lawyers, and coiled springs of useless words bounced around our flat while my father’s blood fizzed and a nurse named Lorenzo came in to care for him. My father worried about spending money, that he would not leave enough for me, and I hated myself for this too.

I would read to him until he fell asleep, and we revisited a favorite book, published a few years before, called Masquerade, by the British artist Kit Williams. We had been obsessed with it, same as everyone in our known world. The author welded and then buried a jeweled rabbit worth five thousand pounds, and his art book held clues to finding it. Words framed each picture. A swimming girl pointed to G and A in the margins, so we checked our atlas for towns in England that began with those letters. We drew a line from a fish through a puppet to land on a marginal H and concocted a theory about the treasure hiding in a seaside theater starting with H… and then, the year before my father’s diagnosis, someone solved the puzzle: The golden hare was in Ampthill Park. It didn’t fully occur to us that a person in England was in the best position to win—and how innocent we were about the complexity of the solution! But what impressed me unalterably was how Kit Williams invented a hunt that actively connected pages and readers to the living landscape—a new form of storytelling.

One morning my father vanished when I went to the bodega for milk, and after a frantic search, I called every hospital. At nightfall, he traipsed in, collapsed onto our worn sofa, and told me he’d hidden his mother’s swan brooch, filigree gold with emeralds and lapis lazuli, worth over twice Kit Williams’ hare. A Portuguese duke had given it to her before running off with someone else, and she claimed to have gotten the better end of that deal. It had been my wedding present, but I returned it to my dad’s safekeeping when my husband demanded I sell it to prop up his catering business. It was not buried, but I would need to follow clues to locate its final resting place.

“Daddy,” I said, “tell me you didn’t.”

He was short of breath but very pleased with himself. “I did. I hate seeing you cooped up here, Lucia.”

An envelope addressed to me was soon propped against our excellent statuette of Our Lady of Fátima, whose fuzzy cape turned pink when rain threatened but otherwise stayed blue. The first clue read:

Where invention met with history’s sad confinement—

Where sweetness became patently brittle—

Look to the Golden East out West, and ask at the counter.

 

Lorenzo showed up to take my father to his radiation treatment, and over coffee they enjoyed their merry argument about whether honey should be said as the Spanish miel or Portuguese mel. I visited the Ghirardelli chocolate factory, our favorite point of “sweetness,” but the woman at the counter thought I was insane. Pursuing “confinement,” I took the ferry to Alcatraz, and when I asked the manager of the gift shop if she had a note for a Lucy Dias, she produced a paper that said, PATENTLY, Lucy! Think! Keep going! The spore of a variety of black rose tended by Al Capone was said to lurk here, a detail that thrilled me, and I took the tour. 

My father was delighted that I got the first piece of the puzzle wrong. When my father was a boy, villagers had conspired to shout that whales were passing by, and he would race to the shore and find none. Months went by before he discovered this was a ruse to get him out of the house so his paralytic aunt could have her contorted body bathed without frightening him.

“Just tell me where it is,” I said. “I don’t need to keep going out.”

“Nope. No.” His smile—I still had it and was already missing it. Jet hair gone white, now falling out. 

I sat up in bed two nights later and said out loud: “The Japanese Tea Garden.”

He’d taught me that Makoto Hagiwara had tended the Garden before he and his family got confined to an internment camp, and he’d invented the fortune cookie—the brittle sweetness—without getting a patent. The Tea Garden is toward the east end of Golden Gate Park, which is on the city’s west side. A waitress in a kimono brought me an envelope along with my jasmine tea. My father was correct that strangers will robustly aid a treasure hunt, especially with an incentive of cash. “I walked over the drum bridge,” I told him when I returned. The planks are magically smoothed into a semicircle, and it is a challenge to balance at the rounded height and gaze at the water. 

“Were there cherry blossoms?” he asked, easing toward sleep. He had been washed, teeth brushed, Lorenzo’s tasks complete.

“I’m afraid not,” I said. “But I visited the red pagoda, and a mother there told her little boy that what he was hearing was a mourning dove.” I’d found their song unnerving too, the first time I’d heard it as a child.

The second clue was easy—about a spot that was “lit up” and “near operatic.” City Lights Bookstore was across from Tosca Café, with its jukebox of opera tunes, where a bookseller smiled as he handed me an envelope. Already the game was making me antsy, impatient—and my father had fallen and bruised his face in my absence. I snapped a little at him and said, “Is the swan with someone? I can just go and get it, right? Just tell me the end point. Please.” 

“Humor me, Lucia.” 

Bring vigor into the house while I can still breathe it in. He had gone to the trouble of designing a slipstream where I could troop the anxiety out of myself, and for discrete moments of reprieve I forgot that the worst thing I could imagine was happening. The clues would not likely make sense to everyone, and he was generous with coaching when I was at a loss. I went where the hunt carried me and returned with that day’s drama. A restaurateur who was fond of my father’s rose-flavored crème caramel and who lived on Telegraph Hill—where wild parrots swoop near a welcoming nest—invited me in for an avocado salad, presented me with Clue #7, and told me how sad he was; my father was so young. Funny how this jarred me, since a lot of my stamina went into decoding, and figuring out bus lines, and meandering when memory struck hard, as it did in the cable-car barn at Washington and Mason, where thinning cables got spliced back up to full strength so they could surge again like arteries in the skin of the streets—what on earth was I doing here, instead of with him? The worst dread came at Laffing Sal, the mechanized doll in the Musée Mécanique, queen of the nightmares of half the children who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Feed her a coin, and the large-bosomed giantess bends cackling toward your head. I raced home to find my father taking his blood pressure—frighteningly low. “Daddy,” I said, slumping down next to him, “Laffing Sal is as awful as when I was a kid.”

The blood-pressure cuff had a tiny red heart on it. He recorded his number in a notebook while saying, grinning, “Remember how I told you that Sal was stuck in one spot doing one thing, and you could escape and do whatever you wanted?”

And I did recall this, but only because he reminded me of it.

When he asked if I was writing down my adventures, I said, “Yes, everything.” Always my head liked to tilt into the space between his clavicle and ear, and I did that now, and we stared at the lowering of the evening as if it were a gripping film.

I followed a clue to the Palace of Fine Arts, with its swans, to goad me toward the golden one, and an envelope waited at the theater’s box office that directed me to the museum on Green Street where Philo Farnsworth projected an early image in the race to invent television. His signal had been a dollar sign, and I suspected my father was hinting that he had sold the swan, possibly to pay his medical expenses. I could not bring myself to ask, and I hit a dead end at the Wave Organ on the Marina (a congress of manmade sounds and liquid bounty—?), where the ocean circulates through pipes and concrete hollows for a concert never-ending and always new. No counter, box office, or desk. No person existed to ask if anything had been left in my name. I leaned against the magnificent manmade shell that arced over the water, which sloshed before it funneled home to the tides. 

My father was taken to the medical center of the University of California at Parnassus Heights, near the clanging N Judah streetcar. Instead of revealing where the heirloom was, even when I begged him to tell me, he said my venturing out had inspired him to write a treasure-hunt book set in the Azores—if only my mother were alive to illustrate it! He regretted that it was too late to embrace the relatives who had for years begged him to visit. I could print it out from his computer and get it published, a Kit-Williams-style spree to bring tourists with money to his homeland, and after this stunning debut, I would flourish as a writer. This all seemed like fantasy, but I promised to do my best. That night I fed him dinner, cauliflower gratin and blueberry purée, and it took him forty minutes to consume it.

The tapering-down days, the diminishment. We have flashes of shame for wanting death to come fast when it looms, because the hand-holding and jagged mosaic flecks of conversation and the dulling cataracts over eyes that don’t know where to look are unbearable—and yet these chapters await most of us, the rhythm of the codas of our lives. And then we stop ourselves, in order to hold out our arms and catch the person falling only a breath before we’ll end too. 

It helped that we loved our silence, and we loved each other. Now he was bald and yellowing, and I told myself to gaze right at him, into his eyes, and never to release his hand, and to kiss him when I arrived and when I left, and I was not unacquainted with seeing my father cry, so his tears did not scare me, though when he sobbed, “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to die, Lucy,” I got through it by telling myself this was the worst thing that could happen during the worst thing that could happen.

Papa, I said. Usually that was all I said, and all I wanted to do was say it—his name as only I alone had a right to utter it. His brain flipped into Portuguese occasionally, and I had to explain to a nurse taking him to the restroom that he had not requested a ladder; he was saying “ao lado,” “to the side,” seeking help with his balance. And he fussed at me, he did; he had that Azorean condition I inherited, called “wearing one’s nerves on the top of the skin”—about money, and where I would live, and when my divorce would be final, and one day I would write well, and if I solved the puzzle he’d left for me, no matter how long it took, a golden swan could support me however I wished.

“Yes, all right. Rest,” I said. 

“I’ll have plenty of time to rest soon enough.” 

Embrace melancholy! It sweetly consents to being life too.

One evening, rather than return to our flat with the fig and apricot trees and the sheddings of the moon jittering in pieces on the ground, I attended the Audium on Bush Street, where the audience is bathed in sounds—the fire engines roaring to conjure the Great Earthquake, the bells of Grace Cathedral chiming, the Rice-A-Roni jingle mixing with the ringing of a cable car, the squabbling of prisoners on Alcatraz, and of course the crescendoing of foghorns, which radar rendered useless but which the city perpetually honors because their music splices us onto how body-engulfing, and pretty, a moan can sound. The Audium was not in the official Treasure Hunt of August Dias, but it was our temple to what was sonorous, a place of dwelling beyond words. I was in a fugue state at the end, when a woman about my age shook my shoulder and asked if I was all right. She introduced herself as Deanna Rios, and she had a warm directness and a neck as long as a swan’s, and our dinner at Tommy’s Joynt, with its riot of décor, launched a friendship I treasure to this day.

The morning I planned to request a cot in my father’s room, I was eating a thawed Bolo Rei from the freezer—a chef had rejected a batch when Papa admitted burying the traditional prizes in them despite the health laws, because what was the point of a King’s Cake if it didn’t predict your year’s fate? A block of light, as if all the yard’s bleached bats had calmed down and melted into the shape of a box, permeated the windowpane and floated through our kitchen and into the living room, where it evaporated. That was how he chose to call me to him.

He was past speech, so I said, “Sonhos cor-de-rosa,” and he caught my eye and sailed away on a stream of poppies, the morphine administered by the nurse. Pink dreams, the Portuguese version of wishing children sweet dreams—who is permitted a picture-perfect goodbye? To be there when life hesitates, then goes away, with a body that is alive and then dead while you stare first at him, then at it. Rest in the shade of peonies, camellias, the sunset color layering a striation upon close of day, and the pink tint that you greeted alone each dawn, your work almost done while others slept. Many years later, I shocked myself by weeping unexpectedly at a total eclipse, stricken at how unstoppable it was, the slow rolling toward the full covering of the sun that I could do nothing but watch. 

In my year of grief, of divorce, I retraced my steps on the treasure hunt and came to the same roadblock at the Wave Organ, and I gave up, even more convinced that my father hadn’t wanted to admit selling the brooch, with its emeralds and lapis lazuli. I found no papers with the answer, no jewel secured at the bank—and, equally maddening, I was locked out of his computer, because a paper in a file revealed his passcode merely as AUGUSTXXXX. I tried every variation about him to fill in those Xs—Dias, and 1926 (the year of his birth), and BAKE and bake, and HUNT and hunt

Deanna Rios got me a job alongside her at Arion Press, where the art books were on thick, handmade cream paper, and she was agile with the letterpress. A tome on the Gold Rush had a frontispiece with a map of San Francisco, and she insisted that I dot out on a copy the spots where the clues had accurately led me—and I saw my error, graphic and glaring. While the steps had not progressed in a linear way, upon the surface of the city where he learned a new language—and married my mother and made geranium jam for strangers in restaurants, where he had taken me as a motherless child to see a zoetrope—my father had drawn for me the contours of a heart.

“He made the streets into a Valentine for you,” said Deanna.

The Wave Organ was way out of alignment with the heart sketch. Manmade sounds, liquid bounty. The remaining gap meant finding something to converge with where I’d started, our home. I had a good guess, but first I undertook the full circuit, carrying the envelopes with an elation that had me bounding; his point had been to cure my paralysis of grief, to get me out into the world to collect chapters of time and place. To walk because he could not, to see for him. He died without confessing the swan’s fate or whereabouts because I would need a diversion to keep my limbs moving even more in this time of being without him. 

Peet’s Coffee was steps from our door, a boisterous, crowded old café  where we spent many glorious, ordinary hours, maybe celebrating something with a meringue cake sent over from Ellen Field, the owner with standing orders for my father’s Portuguese custard tarts; the place where, with a timidity that still makes me cringe, I told him I wanted to be a writer, and he beamed and said, “Begin.”

Ellen, in her oversized red glasses, hooted at how long it had taken me to find her, after I stood at the counter where she displayed the napoleons and did nothing more than roll my eyes at her. The golden swan of my family’s legacy, its brush with dukedom, was waiting for me in her safety deposit box at Wells Fargo.

 

Deanna’s brother had a friend who married me—Carlos Bettencourt, who worked for an educational toy company, and we moved into a duplex in Ashbury Heights with a vista of the University of San Francisco. In a blur of sleeplessness after our daughter Charlotte was born, while covering her hands with those staggeringly tiny, precious mittens so a newborn will not scratch her face, I got so dizzy I needed to sit and gather myself, because—as my father well knew—I tend to freeze when life strips itself bare, when I realize something I should have known or seen coming from a mile away. At my baby shower, Deanna gave me a wall clock in the form of a rabbit, its whiskers ticking the hours and minutes, and now I let its rhinestone nose hypnotize me before I stumbled toward the closet with my father’s computer. For his passcode of AUGUSTXXXX, I typed AUGUST1955—the month in which his life changed, because I arrived, and he baked a cake with blue frosting roses.

Arion Press bought Hunt for the Crowns, by August Dias, with a modest contract and hired an illustrator. Would I have landed this job, and found my friends there, had he not charged me with bringing back tales of the city? I would go on to write books, but I first needed to infuse my bloodstream with the active, teeming world. The prize for my father’s treasure hunt in the Azores was the pair of filigree earrings shaped like Holy Ghost Festival crowns he’d given my mother, worth markedly less than the swan. I could foresee that the press and illustrator and I might only break even, maybe with a little something extra to show for our pains. But I also envisioned the trip I would take with my husband and infant girl, viewing the blue and green lakes and hiking the realm where my father grew up but never returned, eating the stews made by the fishermen hauling in their nets, admiring the tea roses threaded through a bounty of hydrangeas. Pirate ships already ring the Azores, at the bottom of the sea. We might encounter a small tribe of the hunters of treasure, along with my relatives and other inhabitants. Many of them would be masquerading with my father’s face, or some genetic nearness to it, an illusion of him as a multitude walking free. Salted air, the lowing of cows, the brilliance of the flowers fed on the fire of volcanoes; look, Papa—I’ve carried you home.

 

[Purchase Issue 20 here.]

 

Katherine Vaz a Briggs-Copeland Fellow at Harvard and Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute, is the author of the novels Saudade and Mariana, the latter in six languages. Fado & Other Stories won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and Our Lady of the Artichokes won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. She is the first Portuguese American to have her work recorded for the archives of the Library of Congress, and she served on the six-person Presidential Delegation to the World’s Fair in Lisbon in 1998. She is a teacher of “Writing the Luso Experience” at the DISQUIET conference each summer in Lisbon.

The Treasure Hunt of August Dias

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