I felt drawn to this beautiful, evocative photograph as soon as I saw it – the letters could contain so many secrets! The story that resulted ended up a little darker than I expected, though.
The effort of moving the massive oak desk leaves me winded, with a dew of sweat on my forehead. Even with its drawers emptied, it wasn’t easy to drag its bulk sideways. It’s easy to imagine that the ancient desk was here before the house, that the walls of this study were propped up around it. It’s at least as old as the house; the soaring bird silhouette of the vineyard’s logo, designed by my great-grandfather, is scratched onto one corner.
I turn my attention to the loose floor board, the reason I’d needed to move the desk aside. It creaks as I prod it with my finger, but seems simple enough to hammer back into place. Small maintenance for century-old house. The board resists the claw of the hammer, until I use both hands to lift and straighten it. An entire foot-square section of floor lifts up instead, hinging like a jaw over a gaping mouth. In shock, I nearly drop the hammer.
The small wooden box fills up the hollow space under the hidden trap door. I carry it carefully to the desk, and my fingers fumble over the latch. The papery smell of old books ghosts through the air, carrying a whiff of dust and a tinge of almonds. It isn’t books inside, though. Not exactly. Gently, I spread the contents out on the desk. An old diary, photographs of the vineyard in its first years, back when the California wineries were all new, and a packet of letters bound with crumbling black thread.
Fascinated, I pour a glass of wine and sit down at that sprawling desk, first examining the photographs. The binding of the diary threatens to dissolve under the lightest touch, and I must turn the pages very slowly. The string fastening the letters snaps under the barest pressure of my fingertips, and the letters themselves turn out to be the most illuminating of all, once I manage to decipher the twirls of faded brown ink.
My neck aches, and the clock chimes an echo of hours passed. One sip of ruby wine remains in my glass, which seems fitting. I swirl the glass idly, watching the crimson droplets scatter in the golden lamplight. One last taste – if I share the contents of the hidden packet, it would be the last vintage I bottled, the last produced by the vineyard under my name. The details of these papers would transfer everything to the overlooked but true heirs of the vineyard’s legacy.
I drink that mouthful. Against my dry tongue, it tastes bitter as old family secrets.
Replacing the floorboard cubbyhole is easy. I hammer it all the way down, so it can’t be lifted again, its hollow space, now empty, hidden forever. My head throbs when I lug the desk back into place. As I shove the packet of sepia-toned papers into the fireplace, the old book smell sweetens to vanilla, mingling with smoke and the sour emergence of a chemical odour, probably from the photographs. That bittersweet perfume lingers in my nostrils even when the ashes break to dust under the fire poker.