Episode Twenty-five ♦ Trade Beads

“Thank you,” Anita said to the money changer and scurried down the street – five twenty-credit coins in hand. The sun neared the horizon. She turned the corner, entered the store, nodded to George, and went upstairs. Alone in their room she removed her bonnet grabbing for the sunglasses hidden underneath. After removing her belt, she undid the bottom hooks on the dress, slid her hand just inside the skirt, and slipped the coins into a belted pouch she had sewn. Hearing George ascend the stairs, she turned.

“Shop’s empty. How much do we have?” he asked.

Reaching inside the pouch she removed the wooden coins and started to count. “One, two, three…”

George advanced and held out his right hand. “There’s a quicker way.”

After giving him a handful, she watched him make piles of five wooden disks. Each natural wooden coin was four centimeters across and stamped with a picture of Sojourner Truth. After three handfuls she said, “That’s it.”

George continued making piles and counted them. “Twelve stacks of five twenty-credit coins. So that’s twelve hundred.”

“Will that be enough?”

George shook his head and lifted his shoulders to his ears. “Wish they had something bigger,” he said snatching up two stacks of coins. Ting-ting. “Put the others back. I’ll buy more beads.” He bolted down the stairs.

Returning the hundred coins to the pouch, Anita pulled the strings shut, redid the hooks on her dress, and smoothed the fabric. Neither the pouch nor her belly showed. She wondered when it’d be obvious she was pregnant, but it had only been a month and a half. Hartfield felt years, a decade, away. She was homesick and missed her family.

The stairs rumbled and George tossed strings of beads on the table. “Here.”

“What should I do with all of these?”

George shrugged. Ting-ting. “Customers.” He thundered down the stairs.

Anita counted the strings of pea-sized glass beads. “Five. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty.” Each strand had twenty beads and cost ten credits. They were a variety of colors – some with simple geometric designs – blue, red, green, yellow, purple, and white. She shook her head and sighed, wondering what to do with thousands of glass beads.

She sat in the chair and picked up needle and thread. Lifting her skirt, she drew the thread through her cotton petticoat. With a strand of beads in her free hand, she poked the needle through the hole of the end bead, looped the thread around, reentered the fabric, and knotted it.

She repeated the process with another strand. The bell on the street door to the shop rang again. She sighed. Knotted and started the next chain. Finishing the final string she shook her head and forced her breath out through her nose, knowing it wouldn’t work. Thinking of places inside George’s clothing where she could attach the bead strands, she shook her head, rejecting that option. No, this was another load she’d have to bear.

His approach was quieter. “Shop’s closed. Ready for dinner?”

Holding up her skirt, she stood and turned so George could see the forty strands attached to her petticoat. “This just isn’t going to work. See how it weighs down the front of the petticoat? It’s already pulling down on my hips.”

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George helped Anita out of the large handicart at the stop underneath the town square. “Thank you,” he said to the driver as she accelerated past a staircase that took workers inside the library. The low whir disappeared into concrete silence. He felt alone in Hannibal’s tunnels.

Together, they walked towards the red door of the shop. He worried over trade beads and the Tabeau and York clue. Like at dinner, Anita was not talkative. Her mood was growing sullen, smiles were rare, and it made him uncomfortable that she spent so much time alone. She was not making other friends, even temporary ones, on this trip. He was desperate to pry from her the reasons for the melancholy, but knew it was better to wait for her to tell him. When she was ready.

He opened the red door, allowed her to enter first, then closed it behind him. He wished it was lockable, but they were only able to secure the street door. The company trusted employees more than visitors, but George was uncomfortable trusting anyone if beads function as currency beyond Hannibal. Thus why sewing the beads to Anita’s petticoat seemed a good idea. He wanted to keep coins in his pockets at least, but she had shaken her head and said, “They don’t weigh all that much.”

She started up the stairs and he said, “I’ll be up shortly. They delivered more inventory. Let me see what.”

She did not reply. Yes, something was definitely wrong. He looked through the crates of trade beads, coonskin caps, and cornhusk dolls, but a small brown box caught his attention. Unlike the others, it was the size of a melon though cubic in form, the sides extending five millimeters above the top. Box in hand, he bolted up both flights of stairs after Anita. She was undressing in the darkest corner of their shared room. He turned away and set the box on the table. Under the light he could see black, hand-painted letters.

“Look here,” he said. “This box is different. On top it says, ‘T-O-L-A-A-J heart me’.” He traced the heart shape with his forefinger.

Anita walked over wearing only her shift which she used as a nightgown on those warm nights. A soft breeze moved humid air through open windows of the second story room.

He held crossed forefingers to his lips, traced the L and A before pointing to himself, then the A and J and pointed to her. “Someone knows.”

She looked at him, eyes wide, brow pinched, her lips formed a circle. He heard a puff of air. A silent question. Who?

He shrugged his shoulders, stumped, his head quivering.

Anita turned the box so the letters faced correctly for her. With her right hand she lifted and slid the lid out of the box. One by one she removed strands of gold beads and laid them on the table. Each had a tag: one hundred credits per strand. In the bottom of the box was a piece of cardboard. On it was written, “My pioneers. West. Find me under a red cloud.”

George counted the beads on a strand. Ten. Then counted the strands. Twenty. He picked up a strand and took it to the chair over which Anita hung her beaded petticoat. The gold beads were much smaller. He lifted a strand of the glass beads with his free hand and compared the weight to his other hand. Nodding he said, “Much lighter.  Looks like someone has solved one of our problems.”

♦ ♦ ♦

“Thank you,” George said holding the door for two women and a small child as they exited the shop. He watched as the small one held a toy keelboat in one hand, sailing on an imaginary river, and stumbled. A mommy grabbed the child around the chest and said with kindness, “Are you okay? You have to watch where you are going.”

George turned from the scene, smiling, and approached the large man who wandered the shop with his back to George. It was odd that on such a warm summer day, when most guests were in shorts and light shirts, this man wore heavy boots, a long dusty canvas coat – the vent reaching up to the man’s waist – and a forest green, sweat-stained, felt hat with a wide, flat brim.

Taking a step towards the customer, George said, “May I help you sir?”

The man turned to face him. George was awed by his size – the stranger’s chin cleared George’s head. “It’s th’other way around. I leave from the western stables, an hour after sundown, in three days.” The stranger’s voice carried the robust weight of percussion in the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. A couple strides, the stranger opened the door and left.

George locked the door behind him as Anita stepped through the curtain, a box of cornhusk dolls in her hands. She asked, “Who was that?”

“Dunno. His skin was so dark. Did you hear him?”

Anita nodded. “Yea. Three days. Are you sure it’s him? Is he safe?”

George shrugged, passed Anita, and climbed the stairs. He grabbed his copy of Lewis and Clark among the Indians. Anita had followed him. “I should have done this sooner,” he said as he flipped pages in the index, comparing numbers under the topic headings for York and Tabeau. “Yes, this is the cipher. ‘And, of course, there was York. As Tabeau wrote, “The most marvelous was, though, a large fine man, black as a bear who spoke and acted as one”.’ I read this last week. I just didn’t understand.” George shook his head.

♦ ♦ ♦

Three days later Anita stood fidgeting with thirty strands of glass beads on the counter as George used a pencil to fit small numbers in tiny boxes. She asked, “Does it really matter? We’re leaving.”

“It matters to me,” he said. “We leave it like we found it. In order. The books will balance.” He repositioned the strings of beads in the rectangle, removed the last fifteen twenty-credit coins from his pocket, stacked them next to the beads, and pressed the button to read the nano-circuitry embedded in each coin and price tag. When the light turned green, he fed the coins into a slot under the counter, handed ten strands to Anita, and distributed the rest between the pockets of his vest and trousers.

Closing the book and straightening the counter, he asked, “What about a necklace of glass beads? They’re not worth much.”

“Maybe. I’m just not sure it’s a good idea. We might need them out there. They should be easy to get at but I don’t want to be wearing money where people can see it.” She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. It bulged with the added clothing she’d acquired in Hannibal.

George picked up his valise and held open the curtain. “You’re sure we’ve got everything?”

Annoyed, Anita said, “Yes, I’m sure. I’ve checked five times. All three floors. We better go. Sundown was fifteen minutes ago.”

“Shush. Don’t call attention to it.”

She rolled her eyes before following him down the stairs, passing the store room, and leaving the shop. Having set their bags on the floor of the handicart, George carried two closed but empty boxes inside, returned, and shut the door for a final time.

Sitting, he leaned towards her, his left hand on his right knee; the intensity of his gaze made her uncomfortable, but she didn’t look away. He said, “You’re sure you can make this trip.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” she snapped. “Let’s go.” She wanted out of Hannibal.

“It’s just, you’ve been…” He looked down the concrete corridor.

“I’m fine. It’s just the hormones.” She let that be her reason for every crazy thing she felt or did of late.

“Okay.” George depressed the joystick button and the handicart accelerated forward. Gently. Automatically.

She didn’t understand why, but she turned and watched the red door disappear into the endless white walls. Sadness gripped her soul.

♦ ♦ ♦